HC Deb 21 November 1952 vol 507 cc2225-35

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

11.4 a.m.

Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)

Are we not to have any speech from the Treasury Bench on this Bill? It is a very important Bill. It enables the National Debt Commissioners to advance some £1,050 million, and I think that we should have from the Government Front Bench some indication before we part with the Bill of what the Government propose about the use of this money in the year ahead. I realise that we have had prolonged debates on the various Clauses of the Bill, although most of the discussion centred round the rates of interest.

So far as my recollection goes, we have had no explanation from the Government as to what Clause 6 means, and it will be useful if the House could be informed what is involved, and whether the authorities in Northern Ireland are satisfied with the arrangement that has been come to; and what amounts are involved in this particular Clause.

11.7 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

I gladly respond to the request of the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, the desire to hear remarks from me throughout this Bill has been flattering. I will gladly recapitulate them. On Second Reading I gave a full and, indeed, what one might call a prolix account of the provisions of Clause 6. The right hon. Gentleman will perhaps observe that that begins at the bottom of column 955 of HANSARD of the 12th November and continues throughout most of the following columns.

The substance of the matter is that under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, provision was made in respect of loans from the funds to local authorities in Northern Ireland on dates prior to the coming into effect of the Government of Ireland Act. A somewhat complicated procedure was laid down for the collection of those repayments. As I said on Second Reading, the procedure was that the loans are first collected by the Government of Northern Ireland and the Local Loans Fund is credited by the U.K. Exchequer with a similar sum to that which Northern Ireland has collected, and then the U.K. Exchequer deducts that sum from the amount of the Northern Ireland share of the reserved taxes which are paid over to the Government of Northern Ireland.

That is a cumbersome and triangular procedure, and all Clause 6 does is to bring it to an end by a once-for-all operation which does not affect the relevant financial position of either the Fund or the Government of Northern Ireland. What the operation does is this. It takes a figure of the order of £170,000, which represents the future value of these repayments, and makes a once-for-all deduction of that amount from the Northern Ireland share of the reserved taxes in the current year.

The effect will be, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, that a certain number of quite unnecessary clerical and administrative operations by the Board, the Government of Northern Ireland and the Treasury will be eliminated. I am informed that they would otherwise have to deal with small sums up to the year 1995. Without prejudice to anyone's financial position, a certain amount of administrative work will be saved. There will thus be some saving in administration costs under Clause 6.

The major part of the Bill has been very fully discussed, as the House will be aware. In substance, the arrangement is made for the issue during the period between the coming into force of this Bill as an Act of Parliament and the coming into force of any subsequent Bill, of a sum of £500 million to local authorities. The Clause provides that issues plus commitments shall be at the figures of £1,050 million, as compared with £950 million in the current Act. The remaining Clauses, Clauses 3, 4 and 5, deal with the sad business of writing off bad debts.

The Bill will, we hope, help local authorities by making provision for this substantial sum for the carrying out of their great programmes of housing and other works, which they are undertaking in the closest co-operation with the Departments of State concerned. I should like to indicate how much Her Majesty's Government value the work they are doing and how much co-operation we are receiving from them, and to wish them success in their many tasks which this money will facilitate; above all, in the task of providing houses for Her Majesty's subjects.

11.11 a.m.

Mr. Norman Smith (Nottingham, South)

I do not think the House of Commons will take at its face value the assurance we have just had from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who became, metaphorically, almost lachrymose about the good work that the local authorities will be able to do with the aid of another Public Works Loan Statute.

These things do not work out in practice like that. In my constituency, our local authority are refused aid because their ceiling is too high. It would have been very easy for them to have arranged a lower ceiling, but we want a bridge to help the large and ever-increasing number of people who have to go miles out of their way in travelling to and from their homes to their work. Therefore, what is the use of talking about the good work that local authorities will be doing with the aid of the Bill?

It is my belief that this Bill will one day be a classic, textbook example used by professors of Semantics in the universities 50 years from now, when I shall have passed from the terrestrial scene with most other hon. Members now in this House. Those professors will read out from Clause 1 (1): There may be issued by the National Debt Commissioners for the purpose of local loans by the Public Works Loan Commissioners, any sum … Those future professors of Semantics in the universities will carefully analyse the word "debt" and the word "loan" and they will be able to demonstrate the truth of the view expressed now from this side of the House. The other day the Colonial Secretary deplored the proneness of the indigenous population of Africa to call for incantations. The future professors of Semantics will be able to demonstrate the rightness of our view that the incantations by which the English people are deceived are almost incredible. Behind the word "loan" and the word "debt" there is the assumption that somebody has parted with some money. It would be very difficult for hon. Members opposite or for the Financial Secretary to demonstrate that anybody has parted with something to the value of the totality of the sum mentioned in the subsection to which I have called attention.

We live in an age of superstition and incantation. I venture to suggest that what I am now saying will also be quoted by those future professors of Semantics in the next generation.

11.13 a.m.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has explained that the Bill is needed in order to provide money for housing and other works by the local authorities. If the purpose of the Bill were as innocent as all that, none of us would have any objection to it, but during the course of the discussion which has taken place certain apprehensions were expressed which I will try to summarise.

If new restrictions are to be placed upon local authorities in their relations with the Public Works Loan Board, without any reference to the price of money, and if the local authorities have to look elsewhere to finance some of their services, the result will inevitably be disadvantageous to the local authorities and to the community generally. If it is intended that there shall be more flexibility and if, as has been said, some local authorities have asked for other arrangements to be made available to them, there might be little complaint, if there were nothing beyond all that.

The Bill means however that some of the poorer authorities with a small rateable value will have difficulty because of their limited resources, and we should be very sorry indeed if we had been a party to such a matter. The Minister has been at pains to assure us that the Government is all innocence in this matter, and that there is great need to make the maximum amount of money readily available to local authorities, and that it is in deference to the point of view of the local authorities that other means have been considered.

From evidence in Stoke-on-Trent among the poorer authorities—in terms of local rating—I must tell the Financial Secretary of the apprehensions that a departure from the facilities that they have enjoyed in the post-war period will lead to serious repercussions in the areas where those services are most valued, and that we shall not fail to remind him in the future of what is in our minds. I am sure that we can look to him to give us all the assistance he can in that direction.

11.17 a.m.

Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson (Ilford, North)

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies) is creating difficulties which do not exist. The small local authorities have always had recourse to the Public Works Loan Board for their requirements, and there is nothing in the Bill and in the intentions of the Government, as declared by the Financial Secretary, which will prevent them from continuing to take that course in the future. What the Bill will make possible is that some of the larger authorities who are able to obtain their requirements in the money market will be at liberty to do so. That will certainly be a good thing for the local authorities.

Mr. Speaker

There is nothing about that in the Bill. The hon. and learned Gentleman is referring to another Bill.

Sir G. Hutchinson

I cannot forecast what future professors of Semantics will say about the Bill; nor can I tell what they will say about the argument which was advanced by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Norman Smith). I think they will be more puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's argument than they will be by the Bill.

So far as I was able to follow his prognostications, they were not unlike those advanced by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North. It is always easy to criticise by suggesting that dreadful things might be done under a Bill if some Government at some time decided to work it in a different way from the way in which the Government of the day has declared they are going to proceed. No doubt if that happened, the gloomy forebodings of the hon. Gentleman might be realised.

At the moment, and so far as we can foresee, there is no possibility of these dreadful things happening. I hope that the future professors of Semantics—if that is the right expression. I am not quite sure whether it is—

Mr. Norman Smith

The hon. and learned Gentleman does not know what it means.

Sir G. Hutchinson

I hope the House will not be unduly disturbed by the reflections of future professors in relation to the Bill, because such forebodings are not likely to be realised.

The Government are to be congratulated on this Bill. It is a pity that what is being done now was not done some time ago, and I am quite sure that I am speaking for the local authorities when I say that they will be grateful for the additional liberty which this Bill will give them.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Before this Bill passes, someone should say a few words about the manner in which it is drawn and presented to the House. I do not doubt that similar Bills have been presented to the House before, but there was a time for five years when no one used to fulminate more against delegated legislation or concealed legislation or legislation which did not give the facts than the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It was almost his favourite topic, and on many occasions I supported him in saying that this House ought to have control of its expenditure, ought to know how the money is to be spent, on what it is to be spent and on what terms it is to be spent.

There was a time in the history of this House when Hulme would keep the House going over half a crown that had been mis-spent or not accounted for. Now we have reached the stage in this melancholy week in which many of our liberties have been frittered away and in which the procedure is being devised for the control of discussion which will be a precedent for all time. We have reached the stage when we are now asked to spend £500 million without knowing on what it is to be spent, on what terms it is to be spent, and what interest will be charged or by what machinery it will be fixed.

It is amazing that in the course of the Committee discussions we were told that an Amendment discussing the question of interest was out of order, although it was in order last year, because halfway through the discussion last year it had been found out what no one appeared to know before, that the National Debt Fund does not charge interest to the Public Works Loan Board and that therefore the question of interest could not be raised in that way. One cannot have a more striking comment on the laxity of cur financial proceedings, or on the lack of control we now have over matters of great importance, than the fact that no one seems to know that no interest was charged to the Public Works Loan Commissioners until it came out in the course of debate.

We are entitled to ask whether this Bill should pass in this form. We are entitled to say that there has been very little explanation. We are asked to write off a sum of £39,000 without any discussion. There are some really glaring examples in the Schedule which call for careful inquiry before the Bill is passed. There is one case of a loan of £4,000 on which no less than £2,000 arrears of interest have been allowed to accumulate. This, at the rate of 10 per cent., means that there were apparently 10 years arrears of interest before anyone took any steps to deal with the matter. We are entitled to know how the Commissioners permit that kind of thing to happen. What control have they over local loans made in this way? What reports do they get, what reviews do they make, and does the blame rest on the local authority concerned or upon the Commissioners?

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury is behaving a little ungenerously to the House in this discussion.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

And the Minister of State for Economic Affairs.

Mr. Hale

Well, we understand the right hon. Gentleman will be leaving us soon anyhow. But the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was for five years a libertarian. He was an advocate of fullest information to the House. He appealed time after time in the early hours of the morning for control over delegated legislation. Time after time he talked in cogent and impressive terms and with that command of language which has been replaced now by some reticence. We had a discussion on the Committee stage of this Bill in which speaker after speaker pressed for information, but none was forthcoming from the hon. Gentleman. Surely he must have it? Surely he has some idea of the terms on which this money will be loaned? Surely he could have told the House what were the general purposes?

Surely he could have said, "This is the method we intend, even if we are bound by the terms of the Act of 1887. Even if it is laid down there, we can tell the House here and now that this is our intention with regard to this expenditure." Yet, in the course of the Committee stage he sheltered behind the eminently proper rulings of the Chair, which I do not challenge, which made it lamentably clear that the House had no right to be told what was the interest rate.

It was the Financial Secretary himself who said that it was dealt with by Treasury Minutes and that they can be raised in the ordinary way. It is right that we should remember how Treasury Minutes can be raised. They cannot be Prayed against, they cannot be the subject of the ordinary procedure in regard to delegated legislation. What the hon. Gentleman meant was that we can deal with Treasury Minutes in this House only by putting down a Motion on the Order Paper, hoping to get time for discussion but without getting it. That is what this apostle of liberty was saying about an expenditure of £500 million.

I suggest that when we are spending £500 million, on however good a purpose, this House is entitled to have some information, and I want to make my protest about the form in which this Bill is drawn. We are told in the Financial Memorandum that under Section 15 of the National Debt and Local Loans Act, 1887, there is power to write off the principal of local loans, and so on, and that Clause 3 proposes to write off this money. So far as that is concerned, the fullest information is given. But, if we refer to the Bill, it says that it is a Bill to: Grant money for the purpose of certain local loans out of the Local Loans Fund, and for other purposes relating to local loans. Clause 1 says merely: There may be issued by the National Debt Commissioners for the purpose of local loans by the Public Works Loan Commissioners any sum or sums not exceeding in the whole the sum of five hundred million pounds. I know it is a time-honoured formula. I know we share the blame for this. I know that when we were the Government this went on, as it had done for many years. But has not the time come when this House should reassert its liberties? Has not the time come when this House should make a protest from both sides against the introduction of Measures which are deliberately drawn in such a way as to stifle discussion; against the use of short titles—I have read many this week—which are clearly drawn on instructions to make it impossible to amend the Bill; against the use of vague formulae which take from this House its financial control of important expenditure?

I rise to make that protest. I give the Financial Secretary the credit for being ashamed of the events of the last 24 hours, ashamed of this determination to infringe upon the liberties of the House, ashamed of this determination to suppress freedom of speech, and ashamed of the determination to try to stifle criticism of every kind. I suggest that even now he might have the courtesy to get up at this late stage and say what he wants the money for, what he is going to do with it, how it is going to be spent and what checks and balances are available. We know all too little about the Public Works Loan Commissioners—

Mr. Norman Smith

And who is to be refused the money?

Mr. Hale

Yes, and who determines that and what are the rights of appeal against a refusal and what representations can be made? We know little about the operation of the Public Works Loan Commissioners, although we know they have a large staff, that they have swollen to a substantial Department, that they have little more than what one might call the usual channels between the National Debt Commissioners and the local authorities, that they are a buffer or auditing body, and we know very little about their powers.

If the Financial Secretary would care to intervene, I would willingly give way, but if he does not reply he must stand condemned as one who for years has advocated a certain course and then repudiated it the moment he arrived on the Front Bench. He must stand condemned as one who is treating the House with a considerable measure of contempt, is declining to give the House information it should have, is skulking behind the draftsmanship of the Bill and the rulings on it which have precluded our putting down the searching Amendments which we wished to put down, and is preventing a complete discussion of this important matter.

I ask the Financial Secretary to say whether it is his wish that this Bill should go from this House in the circumstances in which it is now before them—where no information has been given, no one knows how the money is to be spent, and no provision for check and counter check has been announced—or whether the Financial Secretary is prepared at this last moment to give us some information about it.

11.31 a.m.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

If the Financial Secretary is not going to reply, I feel bound, in agreement with my hon. Friend, to record our protest against the manner of dealing with this legislation. Here we are asked to sanction this issue of £1,050 million of public funds. We are not opposed to that; we believe that the local authorities ought to be supplied with the money. But we have two major anxieties which have in no way been allayed in these discussions.

First, we are concerned about the rate of interest, which it has not been possible to discuss this year. We regret the fact that we are put in a position of not being able to voice our major anxiety on that subject before agreeing to the issue of this money. Secondly, we have strong grounds for concern, which has been in no way diminished as these debates have gone on—particularly when we read about it almost daily in the Press—as to the possibility that local authorities will be refused the facilities for these loans which they have had in the past in order to divert them to the mercies of the open market in the City of London.

The Financial Secretary has uttered several vague generalities and indistinct assurances on that subject, but they have far from reassured us and a number of local authorities. I therefore record this brief protest. We cannot vote against the Bill because we wish the authorities to have the money, but we think that insufficient assurances have been given, and that the method of dealing with this legislation this year has been highly unsatisfactory.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.