HC Deb 12 June 1952 vol 502 cc558-71
Mr. Hale

I beg to move, in page 8, line 25, leave out from "Act," to "is." in line 29.

The Amendment is to leave out the words in parenthesis—— being action for the taking of which by an authority eligible to participate provision could be made, with the authorisation of the Minister under subsection (1) of the last preceding section if needed, by an agreement to which the council of a receiving district were parties. This is a rather technical matter and is one of some complexity. I had put down certain Amendments to the preceding Clause which, coupled with this one, would have produced even greater clarity, but they have not been selected. It is not for me to comment on that, but it makes it more difficult for me to explain the purpose which I and my hon. and learned Friend had in mind.

Clause 9 says: If it appears to the Minister that any action required for the purposes of town development within the meaning of this Act…is prevented or hampered by inability or unwillingness of the council of the receiving district to take that action or to concur in providing by agreement for its being taken… Then it gives the Minister power to make certain orders enabling action to be taken in accordance with the somewhat detailed provisions in Clause 8.

Clause 8 catalogues a whole number of limited spheres of activity in respect of which powers are given. I am bound to say that I do not know why all this catalogue of extraordinary powers is put into this Bill. I do not understand why there is such a lot of extraordinary verbiage and why the whole thing has not been done in a couple of sentences. I do not think the House would have objected to a general authorisation of the Minister to take such steps as he thought reasonably necessary to enable local authorities to agree on a scheme of housing development. Why it is limited, cross-limited, counter-limited and referred to Clause by Clause, I just do not know.

The first action which is authorised by Clause 8 is this: The kinds of action for which provision may be so made are— (a) a party's acting on behalf of another party in doing any thing which apart from this subsection that other party could lawfully employ an independent contractor to do, with or without power to the party so acting to employ another person or authority to do it; I defy anybody to tell me what that means. What the words "apart from this subsection" mean I really do not know, because I can find nothing in the subsection which precludes anybody doing anything. I put down an Amendment on that point, but it has not been called.

One can spend a lot of time on this, but I do not think the Amendment is sufficiently important for me to waste the time of the Committee on it. It is really a drafting Amendment, and all it says is this: There is no point in putting in this elaborate limitation upon the Minister's powers as regards the words in parenthesis in Clause 9. It says that all that can be done is this limited number of things which are specifically authorised in Clause 8. What is the use of the limitation? What is the sense of it? What is its result?

It will cause a vast amount of departmental work in the consideration of these limitations, a vast amount of research and legal advice every time the Minister wants to do anything, additional complication and delay, and all to no purpose. I do not know why the Minister could not have risen five minutes ago and said that he was going to accept this Amendment. It adds to his powers—or it does so by implication in stopping the limitation of his powers. It does not detract from them by one iota. It merely takes out a foolish limitation which adds to the complexity of the Bill and adds to the difficulty of understanding it.

It may well be that the right hon. Gentleman has made up his mind that in no circumstances whatever will he accept an Amendment. We on these benches have put down a number of very reasonable and modest Amendments, and I think we have moved them as quickly as we can, and I do not believe that there is anybody who does not realise that if they had been accepted the Bill would have been a better Bill. But there it is. I am moving this formally and briefly in the hope that we shall get some cooperative reply from the Minister.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Paget

I beg to second the Amendment.

This does seem to me to be a simple and helpful Amendment. The Clause reads: If it appears to the Minister that any action required for the purposes of town development within the meaning of this Act… is prevented or hampered by unwillingness on the part of the council of the receiving district to take action… then he may take action. If he is satisfied that this very desirable object is being impeded, does he not want to take action? Does he wish to have a whole series of highly technical limitations placed on his right to take action which he deems to be desirable in these most desirable circumstances? I really would urge him to free his hands, which by this Amendment we seek to do.

Mr. H. Macmillan

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Oldham West (Mr. Hale) urged me to accept this Amendment, and then rather ungenerously said that I had not accepted any Amendments during these proceedings. The last hour and a quarter arose out of my generosity in accepting an Amendment by the hon. Member for Acton.

Mr. Hale

The right hon. Gentleman must forgive his Parliamentary Secretary, who said that he had not been able to meet the wishes of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks), but that the Amendment would go a little way towards doing so.

Mr. Macmillan

But the hon. Member for Acton, in contradistinction to his hon. Friends, supported the Amendment. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Oldham West said that I ought to have risen five minutes ago and said that I would accept the Amendment. It is the usual procedure for a Minister to wait until an Amendment is moved before saying whether he will accept it or not. The hon. Gentleman must be getting exhausted by his non-stop performances, for these are two unusual mistakes considering his great skill in the particular tasks he sets himself on these evenings. He went on to ask why I did not take the simple words to empower the Minister to facilitate the work of the local authorities who agree. But Clause 9 deals with the cases where local authorities do not agree. That is why it is differently drawn from the cases where they do agree.

This is a Clause which I hope will be rarely used. It is a power which is kept because it is necessary to have some reserve power to prevent what I hope will never happen—some recalcitrant and foolish authority being unwilling to play a part in the arrangements. If there is a reserve power to be used it is right to be hedged about by limitations. What is the difference between what the Amendment would do and what the Clause would do? The Amendment would go wider.

The Clause empowers the Minister in these circumstances to make an order contrary to the wishes of the receiving authority, and it limits the power to take action to the conditions laid down in paragraphs (a) to (g) of subsection (1). The Amendment would open it up so that the Minister could have power to do all kinds of other things. It is only reasonable that the power taken should be limited to those main purposes and functions which would fall on the receiving district—housing, water, sewerage and site development.

There are all kinds of other things which the councils of receiving districts will have to provide as time passes in connection with new development, but I do not think it would be right that the Minister should have the power under this Clause to direct them to do things which are not strictly for the purpose of town development. There are such things as community centres and open spaces, secondary things, which will come along later, as the community develops, but this Clause is not intended to give the Minister those powers at that stage, but simply to have this power in reserve in order that they should be able to do these things as laid down in paragraphs (a) to (g)of Clause 8, which are the main items of development.

Mr. Bing

I do not wish to take up much time, as there are other important Amendments which will probably need a more prolonged discussion. I appreciate the spirit in which the Minister dealt with the matter, but the Parliamentary Secretary, in dealing with the previous Clause, produced a reason which he thought would guide us in regard to all the Amendments. The Parliamentary Secretary said that this had been discussed at great length in the Committee and that we could not go on discussing the Bill much longer because the local authorities needed it very urgently. I am glad the Minister did not reproduce that argument. We should look very carefully at these Clauses, and particularly at the wording of this one.

I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that this is a Bill which he said himself he had inherited, and therefore there is no reason why we should not have taken a few days off the long Recess at Christmas to deal with this Measure, if it was so urgently needed by the local authorities. As for the long discussion upstairs, in that particular case it was less than a quarter of an hour, so that that argument does not commend itself to the House. I think we should address ourselves to the merits of all the Amendments and not to extraneous circumstances in regard to the Bill.

This is one of the Clauses in which the Minister has to use his discretion. The decision is to be the Minister's, so that the inclusion of limiting words is of no particular value in the sense that, once it appears so to the Minister, he decides and it will not be subject to outside decision. It is for him to make the decision, and he has discretion in the matter. In these circumstances, as a gesture to the House and in an attempt to get on more quickly, I should have thought he would have agreed to the removal of the limiting words.

If he really does want to safeguard the local authorities, perhaps I may suggest, without anticipating the next Amendment on the Order Paper, that he should have a look at it, because it really does safe guard them far more adequately than these words which he has in mind. I hope that, if he has to eject one of the Amendments, he will, at least, give the local authorities the other one. If he has to make the thing so wide as it is as the Clause now stands, and if he is to be able to act when the local authority is unable, but not unwilling, to act, there is no reason why he should be so pernickety about——

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Gentleman is now dealing with the next Amendment and not the one before the House.

Mr. Bing

I appreciate that, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry that I have allowed myself to be diverted.

I hope that, in these circumstances, the right hon. Gentleman will for a moment reconsider his point of view on this matter and see if he cannot meet us. I do not think this Amendment is of very great importance, but it is one of the things upon which he might well give way, and, as a result, considerably improve the Bill.

Mr. Mikardo

I have had an enormous struggle since this Bill came out of the Standing Committee and was published to try to understand precisely what subsection (1) means. I am not a lawyer, and it seems to me that if a subsection is intelligible only to lawyers there must be something wrong. We chaps who are reasonably competent in understanding what words mean ought to be able to make some sense out of the wording of a Bill. If we cannot do so, it seems to me to be a reflection on the Bill.

This subsection consists of one sentence. It chances that today my younger daughter, being in the middle of her School Certificate examination, has had a paper on English language and has had to do some parsing and analysis. I pray to whatever powers there may be that the sentence she was given to parse and analyse was not like the sentence which constitutes subsection (1), because this one sentence contains 285 words.

The sentence has in it 14 finite verbs, including one in ellipsis, which means that it has got a main clause and 13 subordinate clauses. In addition to these 14 finite verbs it has 24 others parts of verbs, such as infinitives, participles and gerunds—and in all conscience that does not make it easy to understand. What I want to know is, what would be the difference in meaning if the section in parenthesis were, as is suggested by the Amendment, taken out?

I listened very carefully to my three hon. and learned Friends and to the Minister, and in so far as I was able to get some glimmer of understanding into my lay mind on the matter, that glimmer came from the words of the right hon. Gentleman opposite—perhaps because he is a layman like myself. As I understood it, the effect of retaining the section in parenthesis would be that he would have to construe the term "purposes of town development within the meaning of this Act" rather more narrowly than he would otherwise if the section in parenthesis were taken out. If I am wrong in this interpretation I am quite sure I shall be forgiven; but if I am right in my interpretation I think it would be a pity that a limit should be placed upon this definition.

I thought that we were moving away from the jerry-building conception that all we had to do was to see to it that houses were shoved up. The Minister referred to community centres. They are one of the things which go to making up the full life. I thought we had got away from the bad old conditions and that it was the business of those who create towns not merely to make buildings where people may live and where people may work but where people may live a full life, and that involves including in the word "town and country planning" in this or any other Act the provision of things other than houses and industrial establishments.

If my understanding of what the right hon. Gentleman said is correct, it appears to me that the Clause will be better without this section in parenthesis, quite apart from the fact that it will be better through getting rid of six of the 14 verbs. That will make it easier to parse, easier to analyse and easier to understand. On those grounds, and on the ground of the charity which the right hon. Gentleman may wish to show to colleagues not so learned in the law, I would have thought that he could take the view that he would lose nothing by accepting the Amendment.

12 midnight.

Mr. Hale

I feel that our patience and good temper are being imposed on by the Minister. I moved this Amendment in a few words. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member wishes to make an observation, I will give way; but until he wishes to rise and do so, would he mind shutting up and letting me get on.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

I never interrupted the hon. Member.

Mr. Hale

If the hon. Member does not wish to make an observation, perhaps he will behave himself. I moved this Amendment in a few words and made it clear that we were seeking to clarify, to widen, the powers of the Minister a little, and to free him from limitation which seemed to add difficulty to construction, and so on. The Minister replied. I challenge anyone who refers to his speech tomorrow with the fact that 95 per cent, of his observations had nothing to do with the matter. He made, at the end, a few pert observations in the form of misrepresentation of what I said, but he made it clear that he does not understand Clause 9. Apparently he is not even now familiar with the wording of it. The limitation is there, and it will not be affected by leaving out the words in parenthesis.

First, it has to appear to the Minister that the action required for the purpose of town development within the meaning of this Act is being frustrated by the unwillingness of a council. The matter is completely limited there. He seeks to add another limitation. We have dealt with this briefly. We have not had much courtesy or assistance.

This matter was raised tonight without any notice between the parties and, so far as I know, no intimation through the usual channels. It is said that the matter was put on the Order Paper to get discussion by some subterfuge. It is tragic that the Minister who puts the matter down makes a speech in which it is clear that he has not had time to prepare an answer to the Amendment. We have tried to help. So far as I am concerned, unless any of my hon. Friends wish to speak, this is merely an attempt to help the Minister; but he refuses help. Therefore, I do not propose to press the matter further.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that this is an important Bill. I agree. It is rather a pity that it was kept on the stocks for six or seven months, and was then brought in at this stage. It will not make any difference to the Bill whether it passes through this particular stage at seven or eight o'clock in the morning. If we can discuss this matter with good temper, it cannot be suggested that the consumption of a minute or two here or there is of great importance. I have tried to help and the Minister will not have it, and in those circumstances I am prepared to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Benn

I beg to move, in page 8, line 30, to leave out "inability or."

This is such an obvious Amendment that I feel certain the Minister will not accept it. I do not want to do him an injustice but, like my hon. Friend, I would not dream of pressing this beyond putting the point briefly. I hope we do not hear too much about the wastage of time because, as has been perfectly plain this evening, the amount of time which has been consumed in the interpretation of this Bill would far exceed the time of this House in trying to improve it. This seems to me a very clear Amendment. No doubt learned counsel will disagree about it. Some hon. Gentlemen have suggested it would be a good thing if we could have a Law Officer present. I am glad we have not got two Law Officers present, as it seems unlikely they would agree.

The Clause states: If it appears to the Minister that any action… is prevented or hampered by inability or unwillingness of the council of the receiving district they can do certain things. What on earth does "inability of the receiving district" mean? It could mean a variety of things. It could mean that they were unable to do it constitutionally and that under the statute which gave them their authority they had no power. That is not likely for obvious reasons. First of all this alludes to a local council that is having difficulty in implementing an agreement, and if they could not do it constitutionally it would be apparent at the time of the agreement.

It certainly could not refer to them for another good reason, for if it did one would expect the Minister to have the right to give them the powers to do it. But from paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) we see that the Minister has powers to force them to do so. So constitutionally it cannot have anything to do with the inability of the receiving district council. It eventually has nothing to do with their financial powers, because if the council had not got the money one would expect the Minister to provide some grant, but from the remaining sections he is not intended to make a grant but an order.

This Clause and the phrase "prevented or hampered by inability or unwillingness" simply refers to the possible unwillingness of a council to take action. Why should it be extended to include "inability?" The whole basis of our discussions, and the Minister's reasoned speeches on the working of this Bill, is that there should be the very warmest good feeling between all the parties. I think the word "unwillingness" is a very generous word to use. It might be something far stronger. It might be fractious-ness, or stubborness. It might be the general desire of the receiving council to delay the thing.

It is really no use when a man is drowning, and has an inability or unwillingness to save himself, for the captain of a ship to be allowed to make an order that he has to save himself. That is not the normal method of life-saving, and I do not see that there is any object in having those two words in this Bill. Like my hon. Friend who has just spoken. I do not intend to press this Amendment, and I do not suppose there is any other hon. Member who wants to speak on it except possibly formally to second it.

Mr. Mikardo

I beg to second the Amendment.

I shall say very little in support of this Amendment because my hon. Friend has covered the ground very well indeed. It seems to me that the basic thing is one to which reference was made earlier in this debate, namely, that where it is at all possible, one wants to get joint action between the exporting and receiving autho- rities on what the Parliamentary Secretary called the "old boy" basis. I take it he meant by cordial agreement between the two authorities without anybody laying down the law.

Wherever that is possible it is clearly desirable, though it seems to me that in the case of a receiving authority which was willing to do the job but, for reasons beyond its control, was unable to do it—perhaps it did not have adequate technical staff or perhaps it was short in its steel allocation or perhaps there was some other physical reason for which, with the best will in the world, it was willing but just could not do the job—I should not have thought it would have required an order by the Minister to get it to agree to take help from the exporting authority. Broadly, that is what this complex Clause amounts to, now that I have had another look at its 285 words. It says that the Minister may direct the receiving authority to take assistance from or even be replaced in totofor the specific purpose by the exporting authority.

Here these words "inability or unwillingness" in one part postulate the existence of a receiving authority which has entered into an arrangement and is anxious to honour the commitments into which it has entered. Supposing it comes along and says "We are anxious to do this but we have not got the steel" and the exporting authority says, "We have some spare steel, we will let you have it." Or suppose the receiving authority says, "We would like to do this but we are terribly understaffed in our surveyor's department" and the exporting authority says, "We are a bit tight too but we will lend you a couple of surveyors for a few weeks." Is it seriously envisaged that the receiving authority, wanting to do the job, will say, "We will not take your staff or your steel. The Minister will have to make an order to compel us to do a job which we are willing to do"? The plain fact of the matter is that the receiving authority is either willing or unwilling, and the question of ability does not enter into the matter at all.

The Minister has to decide. The Minister has to make difficult decisions under this Bill. It is comparatively easy to make a subjective judgment about willingness because it is not difficult to see where a chap is obstructing, but here the Minister has to make a subjective judgment about competency. I should have thought that was a task from which the Minister would have been delighted to free himself. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) that the Minister ought to be glad to accept this Amendment and, if he is not, he does not deserve that we should try to shed the light of our knowledge upon him any further.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Macmillan

Throughout the Bill the majority of the Amendments moved have tried to increase the power of the Minister. This one is rather different from the others; in fact, its purpose is to decrease the Minister's power. The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) very courteously asked me the real reason for having these additional words. I think the reason is a simple one, and it is very much connected with what the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo) spoke about. Clause 9, I repeat, is the power held in reserve. It is a Clause which it is necessary to have —though I hope it will not often be necessary to use it—because if we did not have these powers a purely obstructive or mistaken attitude adopted by a council might lead to great delay.

It is not, therefore, a power which we shall use a great deal, but one which we shall have in reserve. If one could conceive the scale of some of these agreements and the degree of technical knowledge, the staff and the power necessary to deal with a very large undertaking in the way of water, sewerage, roads and the rest, it might well be that a county district or a district inside a county, a receiving authority, might have perhaps a rather undue sense of its capacity to take on a fairly large-scale job which really in the opinion of the Minister, as advised by his officials, was quite beyond them.

Therefore, the purpose of having these additional words is to see that this reserve power should relate not only to the willingness of the receiving authority to undertake the task, but that there should be some power to see that the work is done by the county or exporting authority in the case of it being really clear that the character of the development was beyond the power of organisation which the receiving authority had at its command. Therefore, I think these words will give a little wider power and will be useful in carrying out the schemes.

Mr. Paget

What the Minister has said seems to me to be a most reasonable explanation as to the necessity of these words. We are most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I think he will find that when we get a reasonable explanation and get our questions answered we will agree with him.

Mr. Benn

In view of the very courteous and very full explanation given by the right hon. Gentleman, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Macmillan

I beg to move, in page 9, to leave out lines 24 to 38, and to insert: (4) An order shall not be made under or by virtue of this section unless—

  1. (a) a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament, or
  2. (b) in the case of an order under subsection (1) of this section, assent to the making of the order has been given by the council of the receiving district, or
  3. (c) in the case of a varying or revoking order under subsection (2) of this section, assent to the making of the order has been given by the council of the receiving district and by the authority on whose application the original order was made.
This is really a drafting Amendment. During the Committee stage of the Bill I accepted an Amendment which altered Clause 9 and made it subject to affirmative resolution instead of the negative resolution. That had the effect of making the Clause read: An order made under or by virtue of this section… shall not be made unless a draft thereof has been laid. Therefore, there was a contradiction in the drafting. The opportunity has been taken to get rid of that mistake and of the existing paragraph (c) of subsection (4) which provides that an order under subsection (3) is subject to affirmative resolution unless both the council of the receiving district and of the participating authority assent.

It was not necessary to repeat that because that does not operate unless the council of the receiving district is a dissenting party. This merely redrafts in, I hope, rather clearer and more simple language a mistake which resulted from accepting an Amendment without altering some of the words at the beginning of the Clause.

Mr. Paget

I should like to congratulate the Minister on this Amendment and to say how much I wish that similar drafting Amendments could have been applied to the rest of this Bill. Here, the right hon. Gentleman has had the task of adding something, and he has used about half the number of words of the previous drafting, and he has got those words in a simple and comprehensible order. The contrast between this simple, easy, direct Amendment, and, not only that which it replaces, but almost every other part of this Bill, is really striking. One cannot fail to notice it, and I would hope that the gentleman who drafted this Amendment might be allowed to go through this Bill and reduce its terrible jargon into intelligible form.

Mr. Desmond Donnelly (Pembroke)

I only rise to say, in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Lindgren), who apologises for having left the Chamber to get some food, that we on this side are grateful to the Minister for bringing this Amendment forward. It is in line with the wishes expressed by my hon. Friend during the Committee stage. The Minister has shown great courtesy and, I think, great wisdom in accepting our suggestion, and, in these circumstances, with this very good, clarifying Amendment, he has more than kept his promise and we thank him sincerely.

Amendment agreed to.