HC Deb 04 February 1954 vol 523 cc561-6
Mr. P. Thorneycroft

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on a matter raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) in a Private Notice Question on Tuesday last concerning the payment of compensation to redundant employeesof the Raw Cotton Commission. I have now had an opportunity of looking into this matter and find that the Raw Cotton Commission has paid sums by way of compensation for loss of office to members of its staff who have been discharged on redundancy, and that such sums have been paid by the Commission in advance of the receipt of proper authority.

While it would no doubt be the wish of everybody concerned, and not least of the hon. Lady who raised the question, that these former members of the Commission's staff should be properly compensated for loss of office, nothing could excuse payment in advance of authority.

Certain arrangements had been proposed for meeting the case of members of the staff who had been dismissed some months ago, and to whom no compensation had yet been paid. These arrangements, which had been notified to the Raw Cotton Commission and had been announced by me, after consultation with my noble Friend the Minister of Materials, and with the approval of the Treasury, in Standing Committee upstairs, would have involved the making of an advance from the Civil Contingencies Fund. The Commission was informed that payments could not be made until proper authority had been given. I regret that the Commission did not wait to receive this authority.

In the circumstances, I have considered what should now be done. I am advised that the proper course is to move a suitable Amendment to the Bill to give retrospective authority for the payments which have been made. This I propose to do and the Amendment will, of course, be debatable.

Mrs. Braddock

I thank the President for the statement he has made. May I ask him three questions. First, how did it come about that he had no knowledge of the fact that money had been paid without authority; secondly, will he tell the House the amount of money that has been paid in such a manner; and, thirdly, in what way does he intend to have this Amendment debated, in view of the fact that the Committee stage of the Cotton Bill is now finished? Does he intend to remit it back to Standing Committee A? If not, what method does he intend to use to have the Amendment debated?

Mr. Thorneycroft

With regard to the first question, I had no knowledge because I have given no authority. As to the second, the sum involved is approximately £14,000, and, as to the third, an Amendment will be sought to be put down for the next stage of the Bill.

Mr. H. Wilson

Has the right hon. Gentleman not been in touch with the Raw Cotton Commission all this time? After all, Liverpoolis on the telephone. Must the right hon. Gentleman rely on my hon. Friend, other Liverpool Members and myself to tell him what is happening in his own statutory board? Furthermore, this is not the first but the second case in which the decision of Parliament has been anticipated in connection with the Cotton Bill. I shall be out of order if I go into details, because I cannot say what has happened in a Standing Committee, but, since this is the second occasion during the past few months on which the Raw Cotton Commission has anticipated consideration by Parliament, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate what hon. Members can do to make certain that they can debate their rights under the Bill? Will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House whether it is nota fact that when we come to the Report stage any hon. Member wishing to move Amendments to alter the basis of compensation will find that the situation has been utterly prejudiced by the payments which have been made?

Mr. Thorneycroft

The payments which have been made will not prejudice any decision as to the eventual scheme that is drawn up. The question of debate is not entirely for me but, as I said, the proper course here, clearly, is to put down an Amendment, which will be debatable, and upon which these matters can be raised. As to my knowledge of this matter, I have already assured the House that I had no knowledge of it, because it was done without my authority, and the Raw Cotton Commission has expressed its regret to me.

Mr. H. Morrison

It is clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) is to be congratulated on having brought this irregularity to light in the House. Does not this situation reveal that there is not particularly bright administration under the righthon. Gentleman's Presidency of the Board of Trade? Should not this matter have been treated rather more seriously than it has been by the right hon. Gentleman? Is he proposing—as is usual in cases of irregularity—not to bring in an Amendment to the Bill which has been going through the Committee upstairs, but to bring in an indemnity Bill and, in bringing it in, to make proper apologies to the House?—which he has not done.

I ask him seriously to consider whether he ought not to bring in an indemnity Bill, instead of a retrospective provision on the Report stage, to deal with illegal expenditure which, admittedly, has already been incurred. If this is done by means of the Bill, to which I object because I think there ought to be an indemnity Bill, will the right hon. Gentleman not have to recommit the Bill and get another Money Resolution? I ask him, however, to bring in an indemnity Bill.

Mr. Thorneycroft

I thought I had made it perfectly plain that I do regard this as a serious matter. It is always a serious matter if public funds are paid out without the proper authority of the House of Commons. The Raw Cotton Commission has frankly stated to me that it was in error in this matter. It is a matter for regret that it has occurred. Iam advised, for I have taken advice on this point, that the proper course in these circumstances is to move an Amendment at the next stage of the Bill. As to the suggestions which the right hon. Gentleman has made, I shall, of course, give them proper consideration.

Mr. S. Silverman

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about his proposed remedy, but, first of all, would he tell the House out of what moneys the Raw Cotton Commission made these payments? So far as his proposal for putting the matter right is concerned, how can we, without amending the Money Resolution or having a new Money Resolution, do it? May I remind him, without being too long about it, that under the Bill, if it ever becomes law, there are three contingencies which have to be satisfied before any money can be paid at all? One is that the proper authority has to decide to dissolve the Commission; secondly, people have to prove they have lost their offices by reason of that; and thirdly, we can only compensate people who have lost theiroffices three months after the passing of the necessary affirmative Resolution in this House. How can

it be possible, in these circumstances, to justify retrospectively moneys which have already been paid, prior to the occurrence of any of these, which would make the money payable at all?

Mr. Thorneycroft

The moneys were paid by the Raw Cotton Commission out of its own revenues. With regard to the Amendment, it will, of course, not be for me to say what is in order or out of order. If the Amendment isout of order it will be impossible to table it, but I am informed that it would be possible to table an Amendment to the Bill upon the next stage. All these matters will be debatable, of course, when that Amendment is discussed.

Mr. Attlee

Has not the right hon. Gentleman inquired as to whether a new Money Resolution will be needed or not?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I understand that a new Money Resolution would not be necessary.

Sir W. Fletcher

In view of the fact that the average loss during the last two years of the activities of the Raw Cotton Commission was £25 million a year, is it not rather straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel to have all this high indignation about £14,000, which is to be put right—bearing in mind the two losses of £25 million a year?

Mr. Lee

On a point of order. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I asked the other day about this matter, and whether we should be prejudiced at a later stage in moving Amendments. I want to explain it so that you will understand my point. We are seeking to increase the payments to certain types of operatives working for the Raw Cotton Commission. The fact that some moneys have now been paid out to higher scale people will mean that we cannot now possibly move Amendments to increase the moneys as we should wish without going above the sum provided for by the Money Resolution. Could you advise us how, in these circumstances, it is possible for those who take that view to move Amendments to increase the amount for certain peopleworking for the Raw Cotton Commission and still keep within the Money Resolu- tion? Will it not be necessary, as my right hon. Friend has just pointed out, to have a new Money Resolution?

Mr. Speaker

That may well be so. Frankly, I do not know enoughabout this to be able to give an answer in advance, but, of course, any suggestion about the future stages of the Bill will receive my scrutiny to ensure that the correct procedure and the rights of the House are maintained. Such a course will be adopted. I cannot at the moment say what it will be because I do not know enough.

Mr. H. Morrison

The Prime Minister has heard these interchanges. He, as we hope and believe and, I think, know, would wish the House to be treated fairly in this matter. Will he be good enough, in consultation with the President of the Board of Trade, to consider whether or not there should be an indemnity Bill? I do not expect him to commit himself now, though if he had been prepared perhaps he could have done so, but would he not look into it with the President of the Board of Trade?

The amount of money involved is not of primary importance. It is the principle that is involved, in order that Parliament may be treated properly and in the customary fashion about this matter, instead of having retrospective legislation incidental to a Bill that has now passed through Committee. I am only asking that the Prime Minister should be good enough to look into it with the President of the Board of Trade.

The Prime Minister

I will certainly discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend.

Sir H. Williams rose

Mr. Speaker

I think there is to be further legislation. Whatever form it may take we can discuss the matter when it is before us.