HC Deb 11 March 1953 vol 512 cc1311-7

4.30 p.m.

The Minister of Supply (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

I beg to move, in page 15, line 8, after "year," to insert: and the report shall cover any particular matters on which the Minister has requested them to report. I do not think that this Amendment needs much introduction. It arises out of the debate which we had in Committee on an Opposition Amendment which asked that the Board's report should cover certain specific subjects, such as development and matters of that kind. In reply, I pointed out that there were certain disadvantages in putting into statutory form a rigid list of topics which were to be covered each year in the Board's report.

I said that I recognised that there was validity in the idea behind the Opposition Amendment—that is that we should have some control over the form of the Board's report—and that I would table an Amendment which would give the Minister the right to direct the Board to include in their report certain specific subjects in which Parliament or the public were taking particular interest at that time. I said, however, that there was no doubt that the Board, if they were a competent Board, would, in any case, see that those subjects were covered in the report, but that this was a case of making sure and I agreed to table an Amendment. I hope that, without need of much discussion, it will be approved.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Low

I beg to move, in page 15, line 9, at the end, to insert: (2) The Board shall from time to time and whenever the Minister so requests furnish to the Minister a special report relating to the future development over a period of years of the iron and steel industry, prepared in the light of their consultations under subsection (1) of section four of this Act, and the Minister shall lay before each House of Parliament a copy of any such special report furnished under this subsection. We discussed the substance of this Amendment very fully at an earlier stage. I would point out, however, that there are two improvements from the point of view of the Opposition. One is that it is quite clear that the Board have a duty to prepare this special report from time to time. The other is that this report will not now have to await the annual report before being given to the Minister and laid before the House. I hope that the Opposition will accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Sandys

I beg to move, in page 15, line 12, after "Board," to insert: in such form as the Minister may direct. This Amendment follows on an undertaking which I gave in the earlier debate that I would bring the provision governing the Board's accounts into conformity with the phraseology used in the 1949 Act. I hope that this form of the Amendment will be acceptable to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Low

I beg to move, in page 15, line 22, at the end, to insert: any other body of accountants established in the United Kingdom and for the time being recognised for the purposes of paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of section one hundred and sixty-one of the Companies Act, 1948, by the Board of Trade. The object of the Amendment as accepted by the House in Committee, was to ensure that the accounts of the Board and—according to a later Amendment—those of the Holding and Realisation Agency would be audited by accountants of the highest qualifications. But we were asked if we ought to close the door to other organisations in the future which might have the same high or even higher standards. The Companies Act does not close the door and we were asked, "Why should this Bill?"

There is obvious force in that argument. The only question on which we had to satisfy ourselves was whether the Board of Trade, under Section 161 of the Companies Act, would apply a lower standard than that required for statutory authorities. They do not do so now—the five named bodies are the only bodies recognised by the Board of Trade under Section 161 (1, a) of the Companies Act. I cannot see how they can do so in the future, since the standard in the Companies Act must be the standard required for auditing the accounts of banks, the insurance companies and the largest public companies.

Our new proposal to the House is, therefore, to leave the names of the five bodies in the Bill and to add a proviso in the form proposed, whereby any other body approved by the Board of Trade for the purposes of Section 161 (1, a) of the Companies Act may also be accepted for the Board or the Agency. We thus safeguard the standard of auditing and we do not close the door for ever to organisations which may qualify hereafter.

Mr. G. P. Stevens (Portsmouth, Langstone)

I regret that the Government have seen fit to add these words. I have four reasons, which, I think, are extremely powerful reasons, for regretting it. In the first place, it is perfectly plain, and, indeed, the Parliamentary Secretary has just said so, that the public interest requires that the highest possible standards should apply to these people who will audit these very important accounts.

No evidence has been adduced during the Committee stage or this afternoon that there are any other bodies with the same high standards as the bodies which are specified. If that be true, it must also be true that to open the door to other bodies must tend to lower the standards which we have in mind, and for that reason I deplore this opening of the door.

My second reason is this. The Parliamentary Secretary referred to the wording of the Companies Act. He did not tell the House, as I think he might have done, that the wording in the 1947 Act was temporary. In 1947, the various accountancy bodies were having a little domestic disagreement. They were endeavouring to obtain co-ordination in the profession as regards registration, and the Government of the day felt that they could not wait until the profession had settled their differences before agreeing on the wording of Section 161.

For that reason there was indefinite wording. That is no longer the case. We have not succeeded in settling our differences; we have not been able to co-ordinate the profession. The question is a dead one, and one sees no reason, therefore, for continuing these temporary words.

Mr. G. Darling

It is a temporary Bill.

Mr. Stevens

The Companies Act is not intended to be temporary; neither is the Iron and Steel Bill. Why not follow more recent precedents? Why go back to an earlier precedent? Not only the nationalisation Acts themselves but many Acts passed between 1948 and 1951 specified the particular bodies, and I should have thought it would have been wiser to use the more modern and better precedent.

In another place, a similar point was raised recently in connection with the Hospital Endowments (Scotland) Bill. That is a relatively small Measure. It is perfectly true that it does not specify any particular person to act as an auditor, but that point was raised in another place and the noble Lord who replied for the Government, though he did not propose in this case to specify in the Bill those persons who should be auditors for the purposes of the Bill, gave a categorical assurance that no one other than the members of these specified bodies would be so appointed. It seems to me that if the Government are prepared to give a categorical and unqualified assurance, they should not be frightened of translating that assurance into legislation. I regret this Amendment, and in the name of progress and the encouragement of ever higher standards of accountancy I hope that the Government will look at this matter again when the Bill is in its passage through another place.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

In view of the comparatively short time at our disposal, I do not want to enter into any debate on the issues raised by the hon. Member for Langstone (Mr. Stevens) other than to say that I disagree completely with his argument. The Minister, through the Parliamentary Secretary, in Committee, entered into an obligation to look at this matter and to bring forward an Amendment which would meet the consensus of opinion then expressed. To ensure that he did so, I tabled an Amendment in line 22, at the end, to insert: any other body of accountants approved for the purposes of this Act. To emphasise my disagreement with the hon. Gentleman, I shall not move my Amendment because I consider that the Minister has fulfilled completely the obligation which he entered into during the Committee stage. I want to thank him on behalf of some of the bodies to which the hon. Member for Langstone referred.

Mr. R. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Langstone (Mr. Stevens). This is not the first, the second or the third time that I have spoken on an Amendment of this nature. Never yet have the bodies concerned refused to accept the wording which now appears in the Bill. The same matter was raised in our discussions on the late Government's nationalisation Bills, including the Gas and Electricity Bills.

The form of wording which is used in this Bill was accepted by hon. Members opposite when their party were in power. Why should they seek to change the wording now? The Companies Act was a temporary Measure, and during the proceedings on that Measure the Lord Chancellor said that it was temporary. It was hoped that there would be coordination between the various accountancy bodies.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)

Surely the hon. Gentleman is aware that the various Companies Acts have been consolidated and that it is now called the Companies Act, 1948.

Mr. Jennings

That does not affect the statement of the Lord Chancellor that he hoped that this would be a temporary Measure. Some hon. Members say this is a closed shop. But what about the doctors, solicitors, barristers and dentists? Any one of us with a bad tooth would not go to a barrister to have it taken out. That is the simple point. I wish to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Langstone said, and I hope that the Minister, if he cannot do so now, will see that an Amendment is brought forward in another place so that the wording remains as it is in the Bill at present.

Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)

I want to make it clear that the views put forward by my two hon. Friends the Members for Langstone (Mr. Stevens) and Hallam (Mr. Jennings) do not necessarily represent the views of all hon. Members on this side of the House.

I thought my hon. Friend was stretching a point when he commended his views in the name of progress. I am not entirely satisfied that this system of registration through the back door is a good one, and I opposed it in Committee. If we are to establish standards of competence in accountancy, they ought to be established in a Bill specially provided for the purpose so that all the pros and cons could properly be discussed. I do not think this is a good method, although I agree that this Amendment is a great improvement.

Mr. Jennings

Would not my hon. Friend agree that the best qualification is examination?

Mr. Shepherd indicated assent.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Sandys

I beg to move, in page 15, line 23, to leave out "publish or," and to insert: make available to the public at a reasonable price copies of, and. This Amendment follows from our earlier debate when the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) said that as the Bill now stood it might be necessary for her or for her constituents to make a journey on foot to the offices of the Board to inspect the Board's accounts. I undertook to see what I could do at a later stage to spare the hon. Lady any trouble or inconvenience of that kind. I have received a note from the hon. Lady to say that she is sorry she is unable to be here to receive her prize in person. I hope that this Amendment will give her satisfaction.

Amendment agreed to.