§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Heath.]
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)
I am very happy that it was possible to arrange for the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) to be moved this afternoon in order to give the House an opportunity to turn its attention to a matter which is of great interest but not in any way of a party political nature.
I am sure that everybody realises—but I might as well say it—that the nationalised industries themselves are not our concern today; what we want to direct our attention to is the question how we, as a House, for our own information can best keep in touch with those industries. That is of some importance to ourselves and also, of course, it is in the interests and on behalf of those whom we represent.
This is an entirely new problem. When the Bills setting up the nationalised industries were passing through the House, the aspect of what is called accountability was left wide open. I should like to make it quite clear to anyone not aware of the language used that accountability does not mean financial accountability, but the general responsibility outside that as well as including it. What was decided, and in fact the only thing decided, by Parliament was that the industries were to be run by independent boards, about which the establishing Acts laid down the various details. The fundamental decision which Parliament made was that the industries were not to be run as Government Departments, such as the Post Office, but by independent boards. Therefore, their relationship to Parliament and to the nation inevitably and automatically was a different one—whether good, bad or indifferent is not the point—from that of a Department like the Post Office, which has a responsible Minister in Parliament to whom Questions on all kinds of detail can be addressed.
The main question to which the House then addresed itself was the relationship 834 of Ministers to the nationalised boards, which is not the same point as the more general one of accountability. It is true that, in deciding that question, the legislation did bring Parliament into the picture but only, so to speak, at one remove; in matters of the highest importance Parliament made provision that the Ministers could, in certain circumstances, give directions in the national interests. There was, therefore, that link through the Ministers with the boards, by the use or misuse of the directional powers; but it was made clear in the Acts that there was no intention at all of Parliament interfering with the detailed day-to-day control of administration. We never really considered then whether Parliament should come in beyond that tenuous link through Ministers and, if so, how it should come in.
At that time, if I may say so, I think that Parliament was right not to embark upon that matter. It would have been premature to do so. We had to see how we were going to get along. It may even now be premature—I do not know—but certainly we can look at the picture six or seven years later a little better than it could possibly have been looked at then. The problem is of much Parliamentary importance. I do not know how far it is right to inflate it by calling it a matter of constitutional importance, but it is certainly one of Parliamentary importance.
I was struck by one remark in the evidence by Sir Edward Bridges who, as head of the Treasury, has great knowledge of these things. In paragraph 809 of the Select Committee's proceedings, he suggested that these matters should be looked at:…because some of us have felt that there might come a time when there would be some danger of a collision between Parliament and the nationalised industries, and that is something we should all like to avoid.That is absolutely right. There may be some such danger, and it is just as well, if we can, to foresee the possibility and decide whether there are any steps which we can new take to avoid it. I do not want anybody to think that there is any likelihood of such a collision at the present time; this is purely theoretical, and in fact the whole of this discussion is purely theoretical, because there has not been any collision or any trouble.
835 In October, 1950, the House debated the matter for a whole day on a Motion, which was passed unanimously,That this House notes the steps which have been taken to give effect to the responsibility to the community (including consumers and workpeople) of the socialised industries,"—that was the pet name given to them by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) on that occasion—and will welcome any further measures to increase their public accountability, consistently with the duties of the Boards to manage the industries with maximum efficiency in the public interest."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th October, 1950; Vol. 478, c. 2795.]We noted the steps which had then been taken—there were not very many but, such as they were, they were noted—but we said, in 1950, that we would welcome any further measures to increase the public accountability.
The right hon. Gentleman then said—and I expect he will say it again today, because it will be consistent with the evidence which he gave to the Select Committee—that he thought some sort of public inquiry, which might be of a mixed character—that is to say, Members of Parliament and outside people—held about every seven years, on the analogy of the inquiry which is made into the affairs of the B.B.C. would suffice. The House did not take the matter very far that day. Indeed, everybody then agreed on one thing—and I stress the "then," because this was three years ago—which was that a case had yet to be made out for a Select Committee. Parliament was not then prepared to take that step.
In November, 1952, the House decided that it was time to consider the matter further, and a Select Committee was set up the terms of reference of which were:…to consider the present methods by which the House of Commons is informed of the affairs of the Nationalised Industries and to report what changes, having regard to the provisions laid down by Parliament in the relevant statutes, may be desirable.…That is to say, they were to bear in mind that there were already Acts of Parliament; it was not a question of legislation. The Select Committee has sat ever since the Order of 6th November, 1952, was made, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton).
836 I am sure the whole House would wish me to thank all our colleagues for the very hard work which they have put in on this very interesting problem. I dare say that the Select Committee was to them one of very great interest, but it also involved very considerable labours. It heard masses of evidence, and if any hon. Members want any interesting reading, I really do commend that evidence to them. I have read every single word of it and have been fascinated by the different points of view put forward and the arguments with which they were supported. It is the Report made as the result of that evidence, and the evidence itself, which are now before the House and form the subject of this debate.
As the Leader of the House, I hope to hear views from all quarters on this subject. There were 11 Members of Parliament on the Select Committee; three Members of this House gave evidence, and I hope that some of the other 600 may give us the benefit of their views—though not all of them; they are not all here on a Monday. Before I sit down, I shall turn to my other rôle, as Lord Privy Seal and give the tentative views of the Government with regard to this Report. I hope that as many views as possible will be expressed on non-Party lines, so that we may eventually get a united view of this subject.
This is a unanimous Report, and that fact alone must give it great weight to anybody who considers it. We find that, as a result of the strength of the evidence put before it, and as a result of its judgment of that evidence, the Committee recommended the setting up of a Select Committee, and suggested its terms of reference. If there is to be a Select Committee, it is very important that we should all be as clear as possible about its functions in this difficult sphere.
This matter has been canvassed in the public Press, both at the time when the Report came out and since, and I have read the evidence and some of the various comments upon it. Some people have said that a Select Committee of this House, in the form suggested, would be a constitutional innovation. With all respect, I think that is muddled thinking. We all know that some Parliaments—for example, that of the United States—have Congressional committees which work very closely with the Departments of State and with the Executive Government, 837 but those countries have systems which are quite different from ours. The United States does not have Ministers in its Congress, and all the safeguards which wehave—Parliamentary Questions, Supply Days, Public Accounts Committees, Estimates Committees, and the rest—are things which do not obtain there.
If we were to suggest having a Select Committee to investigate the affairs of public Departments, that would be suggesting a great constitutional and Parliamentary change; but I put it to the House that, having gone out of our way to make it as clear as we could, in the various nationalisation Acts, that the nationalised industries were not Departments of State, we could not say that a Select Committee working with those industries would amount to a breach of constitutional propriety. The two things are not akin.
§ Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
The Select Committee on National Expenditure during the war, and the ordinary Estimates Committees even now, did and do investigate Government Departments. Woolwich Arsenal, the Royal Ordnance Factories and other activities of the Government are investigated by Committees under our present system.
§ Mr. Crookshank
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not take us on to a sideline. It is quite true that many matters are investigated by existing Committees, but that is different from a permanent committee looking after a Department, as is done in other Parliaments. If that were suggested, it would be an innovation, but it is no breach of constitutional propriety to suggest it in respect of a nationalised industry which we have, ex hypothesi, gone out of our way not to make a Government Department. I am not going through all the different constitutions in the world, because it would not be relevant to do so. No one is suggesting that we should do this sort of thing in respect of Government Departments.
§ Mr. H. Morrison (Lewisham, South)
The right hon. Gentleman has given the case of the United States. I agree that in that case there are fundamental constitutional differences, because the Executive does not sit in Parliament. But France has a system of commissions and committees which go very far with Govern- 838 ment Departments, if not nationalised industries, with bad consequences for France. France has a Constitution which is similar to ours, and its Ministers sit in Parliament, so it is different from the American system.
§ Mr. Crookshank
That may be, but it does not affect the point which I am trying to make. It would be a constitutional innovation to set up a Select Committee working with existing Departments, but I cannot see that it is so in the case of nationalised industries, because we have gone out of our way not to consider them as State Departments. We have made them something different.
There is an argument, which the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt pose—because I believe he used the words—that the mere existence of such a Select Committee would tend to make members of the boards rather nervous and those who work under them rather red-tapish and bureaucratic, and that is not what we want in this sphere. Lord Reith, of all people—for such a purist of the English language—described anything of that kind as "an institutionalisation of Parliamentary Questions. "I think that is going a little too far.
I agree that we must not try to go too fast. We have to feel our way. Nobody yet knows the right answer, but many people think that we should start looking for one, and up to now accountability has been left too much in the air. I am not here to give prizes to the witnesses who appeared before the Select Committee, but one whose evidence must be considered very carefully, because he has had a dual experience, is Lord Hurcomb. Although he gave his evidence, naturally, in his personal capacity and not on behalf of his board, he was, at the time, the Chairman of the Transport Commission. He has had a very long and distinguished service, ending up as the permanent head of a great public Department. As a civil servant, he knows some of the problems with regard to the relationship of Departments with Parliament, and as Chairman of the Transport Commission he has had the opportunity of seeing the lack of relationship between public boards and Parliament. I should like to quote his reply to Question 510 He said:I am not sure whether I have said this to the Committee before"—839 he had given some evidence already—but I have said it very often. One of the very greatest handicaps under which anyone in my position suffers is that he gets no opportunity of stating his own case or of explaining what are his difficulties direct to Members of Parliament.He went on to say that he had the chance of meeting individuals or groups at various dinners, but that was not quite the same thing, and he went on:It has been borne on me, if I may say so, without causing offence in any quarter, in the last 18 months that a great many misapprehensions do exist, and perhaps decisions are taken on some supposition of fact which is not correct.He went on to discuss the kind of link which he thought would be useful in a Committee and said:It would not be merely trying to concentrate on the body's financial results, or its alleged efficiency or inefficiency, but it would really be on the policy and programme of the undertaking and the way it was being developed, and where it was leading to, and whether it was in conformity with general public policy.There is evidently some ground for thinking that some of the people most concerned are worried at not having a close enough contact with Parliament. The Select Committee argued the case in its Report, after having heard 993 questions asked and answered, and then came to the conclusion that a Select Committee was the right answer in present circumstances.
However, that is not quite the end of it, because if that basic question is agreed, that there should be a Select Committee, then there are some extremely important subsidiary questions that immediately arise. Let me put them like this. First, should it be a Select Committee merely of this House, or of both Houses? Should it be a large Select Committee with subcommittees, or should it be a small Committee and act as one, doing all its work as one? Should it deal with the past, the present or the future—or all three of them—with regard to plans and policies? Should it have an independent advisory officer as a guide, a servant of this House, like the Comptroller and Auditor-General, or should it start with some less formal method of doing its business?
Last, and this is an important question, too, should it in due time publish all the evidence before it, all the questions 840 and answers, 993 or 10,000 or whatever it may be, so that everybody can see what everybody said at any time, or should it merely take its own evidence, and from time to time make reports to this House, the House accepting a report from such an important and authoritative body without deeming it necessary to cross-examine it as to what was said before it at any particular moment during its sittings?
If the House agrees with the idea of a Select Committee I hope it will address itself to one or another of these questions during today's debate, because I hope we shall come to some view on the matter by the House as a whole. It may help the House if I show how the mind of the Government is working at present on this subject.
We agree that there should be some direct contact between the boards and Parliament, but with the big proviso, which I think is clearly understood by those of our colleagues who were on the Select Committee, that the position, duties and responsibilities of Ministers are properly safeguarded. We agree with what the Committee says in paragraph 8, though these are words of Lord Hurcomb. Paragraph 8 says there should bea group of members who took a special and continuing interest in a particular activity, not merely because it was nationalised, but more from the actual interest that the Committee has in the subject.We endorse the Select Committee's views given in paragraph 15 that, when appointed, the Committee shouldset up a tradition of conduct which will result in its being regarded by the Board not as an enemy, or a critic, but as a confidant, and a protection against irresponsible pressure, as well as a guardian of the public interest.To use the words of Sir Geoffrey Heyworth in part of his evidence:It is the atmosphere in which it is done which determines the value.I think that is right. If my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) will not mind my quoting what he said I shall do so, because the best summing up of the kind of committee I thought advisable is that described by him in his question to me, to which I assented. It is Question 989 in the Report, very nearly at the end of the chapter. He said:I would suggest it ought to be possible for the joint select committee"—841 we were talking about having a joint committee at that time—to establish close relations with the nationalised industries, if the heads of the nationalised industries realised those were the functions of the joint select committee, that they were not there to superintend, they were not there to give directions, they were not there to say to the Chairman, 'This is wrong, you must do something else,' but what they were really there for was to get information, lo make reports as they thought necessary, and to make recommendations to the House if they thought any necessary action was required?I think that is a very good summing up. At any rate, it was what I had in mind, because I said that I agreed to it, and I also said that I thought that some of these chairmen would welcome something of that kind. That was what I thought myself. I had no idea that Lord Hurcomb had said what he had said about that.
In principle, then, we accept the idea of a Select Committee, and we accept in principle the recommendations the Select Committee makes on that subject, though, of course, subject to modifications and also, naturally, to consideration of the views expressed in this House. We would prefer to keep open the possibility of there having to be a Joint Select Committee. It may be that the other House may decide it wants a committee to investigate these nationalised industries—I do not not know that it does; there are no signs of it; but I think we must leave the road open for that. If it does, the question of a Joint Select Committee would come up for consideration.
As to the terms of reference, of course the Government agree entirely that there should not be any question of entering into detailed administration. We do not agree with the proposal, as we see it at present in the suggested terms of reference, that the Committee should inquire into future plans and programmes, as is suggested in paragraph 20 of the Report. On the other hand, we certainly and emphatically do agree that there should be no question of any Select Committee going into problems of negotiating machinery for wages and conditions of service. That should be without the purview of this House in the view of the Government and, I think, of everybody else who has studied that problem.
As to the size of the Committee, on the whole the Government think that subcommittees would be undesirable, at any rate at the start, because if we were to 842 have too many sub-committees I am afraid that the very fact that they existed would create a tendency to go into far more detail than the Committee would otherwise do; and we want to keep away from details and excessive investigations. To start with there should be one Committee; not a large body of, say, 21 Members divided into sub-committees, but one body of, say, from 10 to 14.
On the question of a permanent officer, the Government's views are that we should be flexible and advance slowly in this field, and that it would be a mistake to set up a Select Committee with a permanent officer of the House, such as the Comptroller and Auditor-General, in which case there would have to be legislation. We prefer the alternative suggestion of beginning naturally with a clerk from the Committee Office, for all Committees have one, and with somebody in the nature of a Treasury liaison officer; then when any particular board was represented before the Committee, some officer from the Department having more intimate links with that board should also be in attendance. We think that would be the better way to start. If it were to be found that an independent officer was required, it would be a question then for Parliament to consider. If we started with one and legislated for one, and then found that that was not the right way, we should have to undo what we had done, and it would be a pity to go to all that trouble only to undo it.
On the final point that I raised amongst the subsidiary matters to be considered, the Government think that, on the whole, at present—I deliberately put all these views in that tentative form—it would be much wiser not to publish all the evidence, but that reports from time to time should satisfy the House. We do not envisage, and I do not think the Select Committee envisage, that every industry would come in some form or another before the Select Committee each year; but that probably the Select Committee, like the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Estimates, would not look at everything every year, but would from time to time choose one or another of the industries. What we envisage is that the Committee would, over the years, get conditioned, so to speak, to the business and the problems of the boards, and to the atmosphere of those undertakings, and would be in 843 touch with the different chairmen through its chairman, and would maintain a form of liaison at that level, without necessarily going into the affairs or the policies or the plans of any particular one each year.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
Is there any precedent for a Select Committee of this House not being required to publish the whole of the evidence it takes, other than in war-time? Is it not one of the normal functions of a Select Committee of this House that it takes evidence and publishes it so as to make it available to all hon. Members?
§ Mr. Crookshank
Broadly speaking, that is true, but a good deal of evidence which is given to Select Committees from time to time is not published. I imagine that a Select Committee's Report which will be before us shortly is one of those. Broadly speaking, Select Committees publish their evidence, but here we are in a new field. The whole business is new, and I am putting it to the House that this may be a case where it would be right to break with tradition for this purpose. That is all I am doing. If the House does not like the suggestion, then obviously the House will not have it.
There are precedents for not publishing all the evidence, quite outside war-time. In fact, those who have sat on these Committees will remember many occasions on which evidence has been taken but nothing has been heard of it publicly. This is a new field, and if there is to be a Select Committee at all, then I am quite sure we must be very careful, as a House, that we do not frighten off the boards and the people who work under the boards. The more chance there is of every detail being published, the more is the risk of their becoming red-tapish, as the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South said, which is one of the things we want to avoid.
Broadly speaking, those are the tentative views of the Government—a Select Committee, provided it is made clear that the existing rights of Ministers under the legislation are not touched in any way, provided the way is left open for a Joint Select Committee, if that should eventually be decided upon; that it should not be too large a Committee, should not publish its evidence, should start without a permanent official, and should not inquire into future plans and programmes 844 but into current affairs and, of course, the immediate past on all matters of finance, and so on.
I do not press those views, but I thought it was only fair to let the House know how the Government's mind was working on this matter at present. Essentially this is a House of Commons matter, which is why I welcome the opportunity of hearing, as I hope to hear, from all sides of the House what hon. and right hon. Gentlemen think not only of this Report and of the—
§ Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves this question of inquiry, could he answer a question in order that I may be a little clearer in my mind as to what may be behind this idea of a Select Committee? The Minister was careful to suggest that the Committee should not inquire into future programmes but should deal with the present. Would it be within the power of the Committee, in the Minister's mind, to inquire of the British Transport Commission, and also the Minister concerned, the reasons the Minister refused to allow the British Transport Commission to put into operation increased charges which the Transport Tribunal had already accepted and agreed? That is the sort of point I have in mind. Would it be within the power of the Committee to inquire into such things as that?
§ Mr. Crookshank
In a general statement I should not like to tie myself down one way or the other as to the kind of things which the Committee could discuss. There is a broad difference between past and current policies and what might be called future plans and programmes which any board might have for the next four or five years. That was the only distinction I was trying to draw.
I look forward to hearing views on this Report from all quarters of the House. If any right hon. or hon. Gentleman has any other suggestion to make which has not been canvassed in the Press, before the Select Committee or in any other way, this is the time and the opportunity for it to be made. We cannot promise many debates on this subject this Session, and I am quite certain the House will realise that this is a time and an opportunity for these suggestions to be brought forward. 845 We ought to have a useful and interesting debate, and I hope that it may turn out to be fruitful as well.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Herbert Morrison (Lewisham, South)
I think the House will agree that we are indebted to the Lord Privy Seal for the survey he has given us and for the non-provocative character of his speech. I will do my best to be non-provocative, too, although I have fairly clear convictions about this matter.
The right hon. Gentleman was able to give some tentative views of the Government. I am able to give some general views of the Labour Party. They are the general views of the Opposition. That, however, will not necessarily prevent some of my hon. Friends from expressing some other opinions. The views which I shall express also represent the view of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress—in general, that is to say—and the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. But, as I say, some of my hon. Friends will no doubt have varying opinions about this matter.
The right hon. Gentleman went very carefully. He said this had been a tricky business; opinions had varied and changed and possibly we had not had sufficient discussion on the subject or come to clear conclusions about it when this series of Bills went through the Parliament of 1945–50. As a matter of fact, there was some discussion about it. My recollection is that there was a conflict of view with the Opposition of that time as to whether it was what I might call political interference or whether it was not. That may be the same thing as saying, as the right hon. Gentleman did, that views were not sufficiently clear at that point—and I am not trying to make party capital out of it. I only know that when I introduced the London Passenger Transport Bill of 1931, where the amount of Ministerial intervention was very much less than was provided in the Bills passed from 1945 onwards, the present Lord Swinton charged me with having mentioned the Minister of Transport, with various functions, on every page, if not in every Clause.
In fact, he thoroughly and most strongly objected to these powers for the politicians, as was said, to play about with 846 a great commercial enterprise like London Transport. That was not a personal remark to me because, as always is the case when these points are mentioned, he said he was not necessarily referring to the then Minister. He may have added, "in whom I have the greatest confidence"—but I doubt that. He was, however, strongly in favour of keeping the Minister out, and the whole purpose of the amendment of that Bill, when the so-called National Government came into power, for the substitution of the appointment of trustees for the selection of the members of the board in place of the Minister, was, as I believe the Government said—I am not sure—to take the Socialism out of the Bill. That is to say, the philosophy was that the less Members of Parliament and the less Ministers had to do with the Measure, the better it would be.
This was the Conservative view, and undoubtedly the same was the case with the Central Electricity Board, where there was practically no power—in any case very little, and I am not sure there was any—of Ministerial interference with the Central Electricity Board. When the controversial issue arose whether pylons should be placed on Sussex Downs, as to which there was an awful row, the board could have done it without consulting the Minister and without any Ministerial order. The board, knowing that a row was to come, was wise enough to consult the Minister to know whether it was right to do so. I was the Minister, and we did it—but the powers in existence were extraordinarily thin.
It is the dilemma, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree, of how far we should have political intervention and how far we should not. If I may say so with great respect, it became apparent in the right hon. Gentleman's speech, as he went along, that he was seeking to argue in two directions. One was that a Committee should have a right to examine representatives of the board in order to extend the field of accountability, while the other direction was in the latter part of his speech, which was devoted to limiting the rights of the Select Committee very gravely and to such an extent that I began to wonder, even from the point of view of the supporters of the Select Committee, whether it was worth while appointing the Select Committee at all.
847 Question 989 of the Select Committee's Report which the right hon. Gentleman quoted was, I think, put by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South. (Sir P. Spens) and not by the Chairman of the Committee, but that is by the way. What the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, with which the Leader of the House now associates himself, was:Then subject to that, I would suggest it ought to be possible for the joint select committee to establish close relations with the nationalised industries, if the heads of the nationalised industries realised those were the functions of the joint select committee, that they were not there to superintend, they were not there to give directions, they were not there to say to the Chairman 'This is wrong, you must do something else…'Therefore, there were a series of things which the joint Select Committee must not do. There were others which were added by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, including wages and so on, and that the evidence should not be published.
I can see his motive for that, because it may be that questions and answers will be given involving commercial policy that may be embarrassing to people when a board buys things or sells things, or where they are in competition with someone else. But consider the Select Committee making, as the Select Committee would have the right to do, a critical report on the operations of a board, and the evidence on which the report was based not being available for hon. Members to judge whether the report was fair.
We all know that the Select Committee on Estimates or the P.A.C. make reports which enjoy a very considerable Press. One of the apprehensions of some of the members of the boards and the chairmen of the boards is that it is conceivable that they may make a mistake. I have great faith in the bona fides of a Select Committee, but sometimes, because we are all human, they do make a mistake. If there were a mistake and the board were lambasted in the newspapers throughout the length and breadth of the land—because this would be news; it is always news when a Government Department is knocked about in an Estimates Committee or in a report of a Select Committee—and justification of a report could only be tested by the evidence that was given, 848 it surely would be unfair for the evidence not to be available to hon. Members of the House and to the Press outside.
Therefore, I think the right hon. Gentleman is in a dilemma. I can understand that. He wants to go so far in order to further what he conceives to be a Parliamentary right, but he does not want to go so far that he becomes a commercial menace to the well-being of the undertaking. That is his real dilemma, and I do not wonder at the right hon. Gentleman being anxious about it; indeed, I think he was wise so to be.
There is one other point about his speech. He referred to the evidence of Sir Edward Bridges. I have a great respect and admiration for Sir Edward Bridges, who has served Governments of both parties very well indeed. I think, however, that in a matter of this kind it was not altogether right to call on the Civil Service at all. I do not think that was the right thing to do. Even if it were right, I doubt whether the permanent head of the Treasury was the right person to call in the circumstances.
I know the duties of the head of the Treasury, and I know the duties of the socialised industries, and the head of the Treasury, with all due respect, is not an expert on these matters; some of the men lower down are in closer touch. If we wanted to call in civil servants, I should have thought it would have been better to call in the Permanent Secretaries of the Ministry of Fuel and Power and of the Ministry of Transport. That would have been much more relevant instead of calling in the head of the Civil Service, even with a very able civil servant such as Sir Edward Bridges, and landing him in the position of being confronted with a political subject upon which evidence was being given. I should have thought that it would have been better to have called in the Departmental Ministers—the Minister of Fuel and Power, the Minister of Transport, the Minister of Supply. They would be able to give experience and guidance. These are the views that I take upon that point.
The right hon. Gentleman said, very rightly, that we had to consider in the early stages, in the legislative stages, and deliberately consider, whether these commercial undertakings should be run and 849 managed by a Government Department or whether they should be run and managed by public corporations. We were seeking the best of both worlds. That is what we are always seeking in this House; sometimes we find the best of both worlds, but quite often we do not. What we were seeking was public ownership, public appointments, a sense of accountability to the nation—John Bull—together with efficiency of day-to-day business management on commercial lines. That is what we were seeking. We ought not to run away from that.
We were seeking, in its day-to-day operations, whole detachment or partial detachment from one Department or another of a public corporation free from political interference, because we did not wish to upset the commercial success of the undertaking. I agree entirely that it is arguable whether these undertakings should be run by State Departments or by public corporations. It is a perfectly fair and open argument. I am not going to argue that the State cannot run a fish shop, as the saying is. I think that the Post Office, by and large, is run pretty well. There is a lot of trouble about the mail bags, and that seems to be a matter which is worth investigation. But the Post Office as a whole is run pretty well. The Royal Ordnance Factories are also run pretty well. The State liquor business in the north of England and in Scotland is run so admirably that there are hardly any Questions asked about it in this House.
Therefore, I do not argue that the State cannot do things. It is a perfectly arguable point whether gas and electricity cannot be run by State Departments instead of public corporations. I am not unsympathetic to the State Department idea. But when we come to transport, coal and iron and steel, then we are in a different field altogether. We are essentially in a commercial field where we have to be exceedingly careful day by day and where it is vitally important that the men in charge of the undertaking shall be animated by, one, public spirit, and, two, commercial enterprise and willingness to chance their arm.
These men have to take decisions day by day and they feel that they have to make the best decisions they can. I assure the House, and I quote Sir Geoffrey Heyworth, that some of the decisions are very risky decisions which they are liable 850 to be called upon to take and possibly be put through the mill afterwards by a body of us—and we are a pretty clever lot at putting questions.
§ Mr. Morrison
Yes, some are more clever than others, and I am including the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) who said during Committee proceedings that he wanted to go on fishing expeditions and when the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, after he had tried not to agree with him, ultimately landed himself and said that he approved of fishing expeditions.
If all this is going to happen, it means that the men who are running these commercial undertakings—and it is not the same thing as delivering letters and telegrams; these are highly commercialised undertakings—are inevitably going to be called upon day by day to take business decisions and they will say: "Will I go through the mill when I get called up before the Select Committee; will my commercial reputation be blemished when the report of the Select Committee comes out?" The inevitable consequence is that they will begin to play for safety.
It was for reasons such as this that Parliament—I admit it was advised by the Labour Government of the day, although not quite in such an extreme fashion as I was advised by the Conservative Opposition in 1931 on the London Transport Bill, because we took a more moderate line in the direction that some hon. Members now want, for which we are getting little thanks—deliberately took the line that this was a different outfit from a State Department and that we were giving this greater degree of managerial autonomy in order that we could get a higher degree of business efficiency and less red tape and bureaucracy, not that I am sneering about it in State Departments, because that is inevitable in a State Department as long as it is accountable for everything it does to the House of Commons; and, of course, it must be accountable for everything it does to the House of Commons.
And so the decision was deliberately made. I agree, however, that we also said that we would learn by experience—as I used to say when I sat on the other 851 side of the House, "Let us see how we go. We shall learn as we go." We are still learning, and still going. And so I cannot complain about the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to evolve. I am only complaining about the method of his evolution and where he is getting to.
It is true that Select Committees have served us well in Parliament. I have had the honour of appearing before a number of them. I have served as chairman of one, the Committee of Privileges, which is somewhat different in many ways from the rest. But we definitely rejected schemes of detailed Parliamentary control. For example, it is argued consistently throughout the proceedings in the Report that policy is a matter that the Committee ought to investigate—the policy of the undertakings, and what their general policy is. I rather gathered from the Lord Privy Seal that he wanted future policy and future developments left out. It is policy, policy, policy that keeps emerging in the columns of the Report.
But what do we do with the Public Accounts Committee and the Estimates Committee? We tell them that they can investigate Government accounts and Estimates. They investigate expenditure, but they must not question the policy of Her Majesty's Government. So neither of these Select Committees can question the policy of the Government. But the business of this other Select Committee is to be very largely for the purpose of questioning policy and examining it. Therefore, the analogy with the Select Committees on Public Accounts and on Estimates falls down.
Let not the House be light in considering the experience of the United States and France. I agree entirely that the United States Constitution is different. There can be no two democratic constitutions in the world more different than ours and that of the United States. That of France is much nearer, but the way she works it is another story; but as I want to maintain friendly relations with France, I shall not say anything about that.
What happens there? In both cases, government is in commission; finance is in commission; foreign policy is largely in commission, because of the emergence of committees which have considerable 852 power over governmental administration. I agree that the matter now before us is not governmental administration. The late Fred Jowett, a well respected Member of the House, with whom many disagreed, but for whom I had a high regard, had a great idea, in which he sincerely believed and which had some support, in favour of committees for each Government Department with a Minister in the chair. That was going somewhere. It did not commend itself to a majority in the Labour Party, although it had its supporters. It was debated and it was rejected, but it was an idea.
The United States and France have these commissions, and they tend to undermine departmental responsibility—to whom? To the nation and to Parliament as a whole. I prefer Governmental and public corporation responsibility to the Parliament as a whole than to a limited number of Members appointed to a Select Committee. I do not object at all to the Public Accounts Committee and the Estimate Committee, but I think it is a mistake in this field. The result is that in both France, whose Constitution is nearer to ours, and in the Congress of the United States, where it is very different, the weakness of the Parliaments on the floor is one of the outstanding characteristics of those Parliamentary institutions.
The strength of the British Parliament is here, on the Floor, and I do not want the strength of this Parliament on the Floor to be delegated upstairs to a Committee of Members. The late Mr. Lloyd George, after he had ceased to be a Minister, gave evidence in support in principle of the Fred Jowett scheme, but it was after he was a Minister. He did not do it while he was a Minister. I am dealing with all these matters at greater length in a book which I am about to publish—[An Hon. Member: "No advertising."] This is not the B.B.C.; this is the House of Commons—called "Government and Parliament as surveyed from the inside." I recommend hon. Members to read it.
§ Mr. Morrison
No. not for the hon. Member.
853 We have imposed responsibility upon the boards. We have thrust it down their throats, as I said in another book called "Socialism and Transport"—that is out of print, it went so well. We have thrust that responsibility upon the boards. It is a little unfair, when we have done that, then to say to them, "Now, we are going to examine you before a Select Committee, and they will report upon you afterwards." This question of Parliamentary accountability is, of course, of importance but, as "The Times" leader today says, Parliament must not only consider public accountability, but must consider the efficiency of the undertakings as well. That is of great importance to us all.
Let us see what Sir Geoffrey Heyworth said, at page 84 of the Report. I do not know what his politics are. I should be a little surprised if he voted Labour, but one never knows. He produced one of the most excellent reports that I know—the report on the gas industry—which was a perfect piece of logical reasoning without two-pennyworth of politics in it. It led, in his mind, to certain conclusions. Therefore, I should call him an impartial witness and a considerable business man.
This is what Sir Geoffrey Heyworth says, and this is the practical point:The point is that decisions have got to be taken. That is the thing which matters. It is dynamic. You have got to do something. As I always put it, I look upon myself as someone who is perpetually in a fog;"—this is from an honest man—you get used to being in a fog. Occasionally you think the fog has lifted while you have made a decision; and then it is obscure again. Being able to drive in a fog is your attribute.He is talking about the business man in large-scale industry.That may be an exaggeration, but it is not very far wrong. Therefore, if people came to looking at everything I did in a year, after the event, the shareholders would be horrified because they would see that some of those decisions were quite wrong in the light of after events. The mere fact therefore that I felt someone was looking over my shoulder all the time and was going to examine these things at any time later, the less I would be inclined to take a decision and the less decisive I would become—and pretty well certainly the less would be the results. You have this contradiction, that if you want to check up afterwards on an industrial operation to see whether it 854 was done rightly or wrongly, you tend to make a man so cautious that he will say, 'If I do not take a decision they cannot prove I was wrong.'This is a profoundly serious point in connection with this matter to which I beg the House to give attention.
I do not want the management to be so distracted one way and the other that it cannot get on with its job. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman says that he is not going to have sub-committees, which would have added to the trouble. On the other hand, that is going to limit the amount of work of the Committee, unless it is to sit all the year round. Yet we all complain that Parliament has too much to do. The right hon. Gentleman said that he does not intend to have the expert staff; again I think he is right. Some of his friends will say that he is weakening the Committee. Another point to remember is that there is nothing to prevent another place from appointing a committee if it wishes to, and indeed it is considering the matter this week.
A reference has been made to the evidence of Lord Hurcomb. I have great respect for him; he was the first Permanent Secretary who served me as a Minister, when I was Minister of Transport from 1929 to 1931. I repeat that I have great respect for him, but I thought that his evidence was very vague. I thought that he wanted a nice little body of M.P.s to whom he could come and tell his troubles now and again, and then he would be happy. I doubt if he wanted the formality of a Select Committee.
Lord Hurcomb was the only chairman who gave evidence of this aspect of the Committee's work. He said that he could not even speak for his colleagues on the British Transport Commission, and certainly not for the other chairmen of the other boards. But, like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, he thought that the Committee might be very useful in looking into the branch line problem on the railways. Neither of them said that if the Committee went into the problem of whether a particular branch line should be closed or not, it would have to hear the parties to the dispute—the local authorities and the passengers who would not want it closed as well as the people who wanted it closed. If the intention was that the inquiry was to be a general one into branch lines, there is not much in the idea.
855 I wish to quote as quickly as I can the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, who, to be fair, like the Lord Privy Seal, gave evidence on his own responsibility. Both did so and declared that they were not committing Her Majesty's Government. Do not under-estimate the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. I have had experience of him in these matters over many years. He is very persistent; he is very determined, and sometimes he has a way of getting his own way. He carries a fair amount of influence on the back benches opposite. Therefore, what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport says matters.
§ Mr. Morrison
There is one thing which the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), who possesses one of the loudest voices in the House, can always be relied upon to be—discourteous.
Let us see what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said, because in one paragraph of his evidence he summed up what he wanted—the scope and the field within which the Committee should operate. I admit that it does not quite fit in with the Lord Privy Seal's speech this afternoon, and there is no harm in that; they were both speaking for themselves. I am bound to say that I think that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will, in the end, get his own way far more than will the Lord Privy Seal. In saying that, I am relying on the hon. Gentleman's persistence.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport—I am quoting from page 38 of the Report—said:Perhaps I may give four examples of the kinds of matters which I think a Select Committee would want to consider. I am only giving these as examples of the kind of matter of policy.These are not the lot; they are only four examples.First, there is the question of closing uneconomic lines on the railways. As I see it one of the effects of nationalisation is that the accounts are now so large that they do not show the profitability or otherwise of particular units.I thought myself that they were much more informative than accounts were in the case of private companies. 856Secondly, it might well be thought that over a period of years, in the case of the coal mines, for example"—I want my hon. Friends from the mining industry to listen to this because this is where the trade union point begins to come in—an excessive amount has been devoted to welfare and various benefit schemes and so on of the miners as compared with lower paid workers in other industries. Thirdly, there is the competition of the electricity board and the gas board, and the possible desirability of encouraging the use of solid fuel. Fourthly, there is perhaps the productivity in the coal industry.Later, the hon. Gentleman said that costs were a very important point. When we get as far as productivity, costs, welfare schemes and prices, which the hon. Gentleman said later were relevant to the Select Committee, how can we keep off wages, which are a vital element in the cost of production? This Committee is either going to be so limited, so circumscribed, by its sphere of activities that it will become a farce, or its sphere will be sufficiently wide as to imperil the reasonable freedom of the commercial management of the undertakings.
There was a reference to "rambling and discursive" debates in the House and a suggestion that what was wanted was something more particular based on the reports of the Select Committee. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman nearly went so far as to suggest having a sort of Guillotine on these debates based on such reports. I do not want that. I do not like these rather contemptuous references to "rambling and discursive" debates. It reflects the same attitude as people outside who call us a "talking shop." Of course we are. That is what we are here for—"parler" to talk. To what does this reference to "rambling and discursive" debates relate? It is a debate in which every Member is free to say what he likes and to raise whatever grievance of constituents or consumers he wishes to ventilate. Therefore, I do not take that view.
The consequences of this proposal would be, in view of the fact that everything might be brought up before a Select Committee, that the over-centralisation which hon. Gentlemen have tried to avoid—with a great deal of sympathy from this side of the House, myself included—is bound to increase. There will be more references to central office because of the fear that somebody down below might 857 do something which will put them in a difficulty with a Select Committee of Parliament.
Also, we cannot be sure that there will be no party politics on the Committee. I hope that there will not be. I know that in most Select Committees there is not. But it would be a great pity if the Committee were divided into people trying to prove that nationalisation was wrong and others trying to prove that it was right. I believe it is better to have frank and free debate on the Floor of the House than to have this proposed procedure.
Nor should we under-estimate the degree of Parliamentary accountability that we have. In page iii, paragraph 2, of the Report is set out—I will not quote them—a list of the facilities available to Members of Parliament. They are considerable. There might be a bigger number of Parliamentary Questions than Members have yet realised. I did my best, when I was Leader of the House, to give help, and I am sure that more Parliamentary Questions could be put than are put. Your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, decided to widen their sphere and it may be that something further will have to be done about the widening of the scope of Parliamentary Questions.
I am perfectly sure, however, that there should be more debates on the Floor of the House. It was the Labour Government that introduced the three days, and we said we could consider later whether that was enough. I think that there should be at least five days for debates on public corporations.
§ Mr. Morrison
The hon. Member, who is bursting to make speeches on electricity, says that is not enough. I shall not quarrel with his assertion. If we can get more, well and good, but I know the difficulties of the Leader of the House. I do think there should be more debates.
I believe that the Government should make a start with the appointment of the B.B.C. type of inquiry—that is, a mixed body of M.P.s and capable people from outside. I should start with electricity. Such an inquiry should not be held more than once in seven years except for special reasons, and even that would give them a fairly rough journey. The B.B.C. has a fairly severe time with its inquiry, but 858 it is better to have it known that one is being held every seven years than to have a running inquiry by a Select Committee of the House of Commons, with the risk of another one from the House of Lords.
Therefore, although I understand the motives behind this, with regret I find myself out of agreement with the Report of the Select Committee. I also believe in a common efficiency unit which the boards themselves should appoint and be able to make use of in any part of all their undertakings, but not tied up with the current administration of the boards, so that it might be called in to help them. I urged on the Chairman of the Select Committee, though not with success, that the boards are agreeable to the idea of an inquiry every seven years.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)
Is the right hon. Gentleman speaking also on behalf of the trade unions and of the National Executive of the Labour Party?
§ Mr. Morrison
I would not say that in every word of my speech I am arguing on behalf of the National Executive of the Labour Party and of the Trades Union Congress. That would be going too far. However, I am arguing on their behalf, and in accordance with their view, on the general case against the appointment of a Select Committee. I was giving my own constructive view of what ought to happen. There ought to be that kind of body appointed and maintained by the boards which they could call in to deal with any problems and difficulties facing them.
I have been as brief as possible because I know that time is limited and that various hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. We are discussing a matter of great importance. In itself, I agree, it is one upon which it is quite competent for trade union organisations or the Conservative Party to have views, but I agree that it is not rigidly party political. I want our industries to succeed, whether they are nationalised or not. As a Socialist, I am particularly thoughtful about it when they are nationalised or, the word I prefer to use, socialised. It is a perfectly legitimate and respectable word too. The fact that it is not liked on the other side of the House rather endears it to me in some ways.
859 All the same, I agree that we are not dealing primarily with a party political matter but, in the interests of our country, I want these as well as other industries to succeed. I understand the motive, but it is my honest, deep and sincere conviction that this remedy is not calculated to advance the efficiency and progress and well-being of these great undertakings. I suggest that we should not proceed with it but should continue to reflect in order to see if we cannot find some other and better way to advance.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Ralph Assheton (Blackburn, West)
It has not surprised me to learn that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) is not much in favour of the recommendations of the Select Committee, because those of us who sat on that Committee, over which I had the honour to preside, had the opportunity of hearing the evidence of the right hon. Gentleman, which he gave in his usual admirable style on two occasions, and of learning his opinion.
I want to draw the attention of both sides of the House to the fact that there were on the Select Committee an almost equal number of representatives from both sides of the House—five from the opposite side, six from this side—and that the Report, which the right hon. Gentleman now condemns, was a unanimous one, subscribed to by the five representatives from his side of the House representing the Labour Party. I would add that throughout the course of the proceedings, as will be seen by reading the Report, no Division was taken on any occasion.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his courtesy to me in the Committee. I understand that compromises were reached, but would it be right for him to plead that, because it so happens that the Members from both sides of the House sitting on the Committee agreed with its Report, they bound their parties? I should not have thought so. If the right hon. Gentleman argues that it has any significance in respect of Labour Party policy in a conclusive sense, would not the conclusion be that 860 members of a Select Committee would go to their parties to consult them as to what report they would agree to? I am not sure the House would agree that this would be desirable. Therefore, it is undesirable for the Chairman of that Committee to quote its members as if they had some moral obligation to see that their parties agreed with the Report.
§ Mr. Assheton
I made no such suggestion. All I said, which was the fact, was that the Members from that side of the House as well as from this side unanimously subscribed to the Report. I did not claim that they bound their party any more than I claimed that we bound our party. I am glad to say that party did not enter into these discussions. We were setting out to do a job which arose in this way. Boards of the nationalised industries were set up during the last five years, and it was clear to everyone that Parliament had to find some way of learning whether the boards were working satisfactorily or not, and so the Select Committee was set up.
I was not one who favoured the nationalisation of these industries, but I also know that the art of politics is, as much as anything, making the best of the inevitable. We shall have these nationalised industries with us for many years, and what I want to do is just the same as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South—I want to make them work as well as possible. I know that there are all sorts of criticisms of the proposals we have put forward. For instance, there was an interesting article in this morning's "Times," the gist of which was that whereas the proposed machinery might be satisfactory from the point of view of accountability or information, it would not be satisfactory from the point of view of efficiency. I was sorry that "The Times" was so critical, because three years ago, in January, 1951, there was a leading article which took a more favourable view of such a Committee.
Nevertheless, it is only reasonable that I should put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the five Members of his party who listened to all these discussions, who heard all the evidence, came unanimously to the same view as that to which we 861 came. That ought to have some influence with their party, even if it does not in any sense bind them.
The conclusion we reached was that Parliament required more information because we set up the nationalised boards and therefore we, as Members of Parliament, have a responsibility to the public to see that they are being properly managed. We cannot get away from that. We represent the community of this Kingdom which now owns the nationalised industries and ownership cannot be divorced from responsibility. We own them and we are responsible for them and we, as Members of Parliament, have to make sure that they are being properly run. We cannot know whether they are being properly managed unless we have all the information that we require. I would remind my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, for whose encouraging support the Committee feels much indebted, that we started our work in 1951 and sat for two years. The first part of our Report dealt with the matter of Parliamentary Questions, and I will dispose of that shortly before coming to the more important matters.
As far as Parliamentary Questions are concerned, we made the point that, since the basic feature of a Parliamentary Question is that it is answered by the Minister responsible for the decision about which he is questioned, Questions on matters of detail were not proper. I am sure that that is right. We went on to say:On the other hand, Your Committee are convinced that the present method of placing the onus of determining in the first place whether a Question which is not obviously ruled out…should be placed on the Order Paper should not rest upon the Clerks at the Table. Where the identical Question, or the same Question in slightly different terms, has been previously asked, the Clerks at the Table are clearly obliged to refused it. But in the case of questions which are not obviously matters of repetition or matters of detailed administration the questions should be allowed to appear on the Order Paper and the Minister would have to answer or refuse to answer on the Floor of the House.That was the recommendation which we made in that first part, and we also suggested that this might be a convenient opportunity to reduce the number of Questions which an hon. Member might put down from three to two. That was no part of our terms of reference, and perhaps we had no right to make that suggestion, but I think that it is a good one.
862 The second Report dealt with the much wider points which we have been discussing this afternoon, and we came unanimously to the conclusion that a standing Select Committee, a new, permanent piece of machinery, should be set up, because we could not see any other way of doing the job. We did not think that in was necessarily ideal, but we came to the conclusion that such a Committee should be set up and—though there was by no means one view on the matter—we decided that it should be a Committee of this House. Some hon. Members rather favoured a Committee of both Houses.
During two Parliamentary Sessions we heard a great deal of evidence. I suggest that, after all the care and trouble which were taken by the Committee, hon. Members on both sides of the House might pay considerable attention to the recommendations, since they were unanimous. We heard evidence from a large number of people whom we thought—and we chose them—were well qualified to form a view. As well as having the advantage of hearing the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), we heard the Clerk of the House, the Second Clerk Assistant, and Mr. Farmer, who is Clerk to the Estimates Committee and was previously Clerk to the Committee of Public Accounts. We also heard a number of other distinguished people, including the chairman of all three big nationalised industries—transport, electricity, and coal—Lord Hurcomb, Lord Citrine and Sir Hubert Houldsworth.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
Did the Committee invite any representation from the trade union sides of these nationalised industries?
§ Mr. Assheton
We had the great advantage of having trade union Members on the Committee. We also had evidence from Sir Edward Bridges. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South criticised us for that. I thought that very unwise of him. The permanent head of the Treasury is the man concerned with the whole machinery of Government.
§ Mr. Assheton
Yes, Government, and nobody would be better qualified than Sir Edward Bridges to tell us how the work of such a Committee would impinge on Government or on any Government 863 Departments, and whether or not he was in favour of the proposal. It was very sensible to ask him and he gave his evidence very well. We also called the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and a good many others, whose evidence no doubt has been read by hon. Members with very great interest. My right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal said that he had read every word of the evidence. I do not know how many others could say that, but certainly a great deal of the evidence was well worth reading. One of those who gave evidence was my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson), whom the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South has been trying to turn into a rather sinister character.
§ Mr. Assheton
He is indeed very sincere, and he gave very interesting and valuable evidence. He said:In the past the House of Commons has always found it convenient, when confronted with a special problem, to appoint a committee. I think the reasons for that are threefold. First, in order that a few Members of Parliament may give intensive study to the problem;"—that is very important—secondly, that there may be interrogation of witnesses and investigation of papers and maps; thirdly, in order that in the seclusion of a committee room there may be comparative freedom from political prejudices.I am glad to say that in this Committee we were very free from political prejudices.
My hon. Friend went on to say:I believe that the committee which I am advocating should elucidate what I might call deep problems of policy. I am sure it is important to avoid day-to-day interference with detail, but there is I think a great need that from time to time Parliament should have an opportunity of taking stock…".The evidence of Lord Hurcomb has already been quoted by the Lord Privy Seal. Reading it again, one cannot form any other conclusion than that he would favour the formation of a Committee of this sort. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South suggested that he merely wanted a body of M.P.s to whom he might pour out his heart, but I thought 864 that Lord Hurcomb went a great deal further than that. He said:The sort of committee that it seems to me would do much to satisfy the very legitimate demand of Parliament for a greater knowledge than can be got in debates about the affairs of one of these great corporations, would be something in the nature of a Standing Committee so that there would be continuity of personnel—a group of members who took a special and continuing interest in a particular activity, not merely because it was nationalised, but more from the actual interest that the committee has in the subject.He went on to say:A committee of this sort would, or ought to mean, on that aspect, as these matters get further away from the highly controversial, that a large number of Members of Parliament would have an opportunity of satisfying themselves and conveying, not by way of attack and of public speech, but by way of suggestion to the organisation, the points where they thought something might be going wrong, or, at any rate, would be worth looking into.That would be of great value.
Afterconsidering all this evidence, and after hearing evidence to the contrary sense from the right hon. Member for Lewisham. South and Lord Reith, who took a different view, we came to the conclusion that the Committee should be set up. Lord Reith took the view that there should be a Royal Commission to inquire into the problems, instead of a Select Committee. He put that point with great persistence. We could not find any other means of forming a liaison between nationalised boards and Parliament than a committee, and I challenge any other hon. Member to put forward any better proposal.
The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South has been destructive, except for the proposal that there should be a seven-year inquiry. All those to whom I have spoken who have beenconcerned with these inquiries in the B.B.C. tell me that they are very disturbing to the organisation. A continuing process is much less disturbing. People know where they are, and they know what to expect from year to year. If one has an inquiry that takes place once every seven years there is a tremendous build-up before it takes place, an enormous amount of work and effort is put into it, and before the results of the inquiry have matured people are getting ready to go into the second inquiry.
§ Mr. Morrison
The right hon. Gentleman has quoted the B.B.C. as not liking 865 a seven-year inquiry, with the implication that it likes a continuing inquiry. Are we to understand that the B.B.C. would like a special Select Committee of Parliament conducting a continuing inquiry into the B.B.C?
§ Mr. Assheton
I am not qualified or entitled to speak for the B.B.C. I am saying that a continuing inquiry of this sort in the case of nationalised industries—and, by nationalised industries, I mean commercial industries and not the B.B.C.—would be very much better than a seven-year inquiry.
We have had some experience of the work of the Public Accounts Committee. For nearly 100 years that Committee, over which I and other hon. Members have had the honour to preside, has done very useful work and has carried out some of the duties which I want this new Committee to perform. Some of those duties it has carried out in connection with Government Departments. As the House knows, the Public Accounts Committee is already greatly overworked. Anyone associated with it knows that it has not the time to do all the work it is called upon to do. Although it has the right—and exercises it to some extent—to examine the nationalised industries, it has not the time to do so properly. Moreover, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, who is of such enormous value to the Public Accounts Committee, does not audit the accounts of the nationalised industries himself, and, therefore, cannot contribute to the promotion of discussion on the nationalised industries as he can in the case of Government Departments.
I rather regretted one point made by the Lord Privy Seal about the appointment of an officer to this Committee. Of course there must be one of the learned Clerks as clerk to the Committee, but we felt most strongly that there should be an officer like the Comptroller and Auditor-General appointed by Parliament. I quite understand the Executive not liking that. We want an officer appointed by Parliament, who cannot be dismissed except in the same way as judges and the Comptroller and Auditor-General may be dismissed—by Resolution of each House of Parliament. We think that is right. We think that only an officer in such a position would have the independence which is required to enable the Committee to do its job properly.
866 I appreciate the point made by the Lord Privy Seal about wanting to work up to the right machinery gradually, not to go too fast and so on. But I consider this an absolutely key point in the whole proposal. I do not think the Committee would be worth very much without such an officer. I can assure the House that the greater success of the Public Accounts Committee compared with the success of the Estimates Committee is due to the existence of the Comptroller and Auditor-General. I think that all who have had experience of both Committees would agree with me there.
The substance of our recommendations is known to hon. Members; I do not propose to go through the recommendations. We thought this Committee ought to be set up with power to examine the nationalised industries and to send for persons, papers and records and so on. We said:The object of the Committee should be that of informing Parliament about the aims, activities and problems of the Corporations and not of controlling their work.That is clearly set out as the object of the Committee. Apart from the main conclusions in the summary, which have been referred to, I should like to draw the attention of the House to two other recommendations contained in paragraphs 23 and 24. They were two recommendations which had very little publicity, but I think they deserve consideration. The first, in paragraph 23, recommended that the public Corporations should issue statements of their anticipated revenue and expenditure for the year. That would enable the Committee to satisfy itself that a corporation was at leasttrying to comply with its statutory requirements of breaking even, taking one year with another, and would give a means of comparing what had been expected … with the actual outturn.I commend that to the attention of the new Committee, if it is set up. The second suggestion was very valuable. It was thatfor the information of Parliament … having … regard to the duty of the House … to safeguard the interests of the consumers…In cross-examination the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South agreed with me that that was very necessary—each Corporation should publish annually … the best estimate it can make of the percentage increase or decrease since the date of its establishment in the average cost to the 867 consumer of its products or services, taken as a whole.That ought to accompany the annual accounts and reference to it should be included in the auditors' reports. That would enable the Committee to form some opinion of the efficiency of the industry as it could be compared with the general cost of living index.
If the House as a whole agrees with the views of the Select Committee, I hope that this standing Select Committee will be set up without very much delay. It will take some time before it can get into its swing. We pointed out in our Report how essential it is, as I am sure everyone in the House agrees, that that Committee shouldset up a tradition of conduct which will result in its being regarded by the Board not as an enemy, or a critic, but…as a guardian of the public interestand also a confidant and protection against irresponsible pressure.
I believe that in this imperfect world it is very desirable that every person and every body should be accountable for their actions. Complete freedom from accountability and criticism is not good for anyone. I honestly believe that, as time goes on, it will prove that this Committee will be greatly valued, not only by Parliament, but by the boards themselves. When the Public Accounts Committee was set up, it was not at all popular with the Government Departments, but I think we would find today that many permanent secretaries of Departments, who are accounting officers, very much welcome the discipline which the Public Accounts Committee enables them to enforce on their very large Departments. One day I think the boards would be equally grateful for such help and protection which a Committee such as this could give.
The main objection which has been put to these proposals in the leading article in "The Times" today, and by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South this afternoon and on one or two previous occasions, is that the men running these boards will be all the time looking over their shoulders and fearful of taking action or making decisions. The kind of men we want to be the heads of these great nationalised industries are not men of the calibre of those who would be looking over their shoulders and worrying too 868 much about what might be said hereafter. I just do not believe in that argument.
Every great business is under the management of men of high calibre—or certainly should be, and generally is. Those men are responsible to shareholders. In many cases the managing director has great power and responsibility. He is responsible to his board of directors who constantly cross-examine and cross-question him on his actions.
Is it to be suggested that the nationalised industries are to be run by second-rate men, fearful the whole time of criticism and afraid that in five or six years' time someone will say, "Why did you go in for that enterprise? It has proved a failure." That is not how things are done in business.
When a new proposition is put forward by the management of a great business for determination by the board of directors, all the pros and cons of the project are laid out; the possible advantages and disadvantages are considered. It may mean a very big decision in which a great deal of shareholders' money is risked and the decision is come to by the board of directors. In five, six or seven years that project, perhaps, proves a failure, am I to suppose that in such cases in a nationalised board the chairman and members of the board would not be prepared to say in any cross-examination, "Here are the reasons which guided us to go in for this enterprise. Here it is set down; these were the pros and cons of which we took account at that time. It so happens that on this occasion we made a mistake. "Is that likely to be something which one of these great men would be afraid to say to this proposed committee for the nationalised industries? I should have thought they would be ready and willing to make such a statement.
§ Mr. Popplewell
I am very interested in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. He was suggesting that boards of directors, managing directors and such like would do certain things, but is that not exactly what takes place within the nationalised industries? The regional officer runs his department and makes suggestions to the boards of the nationalised industries. But it is at that point that the right hon. Gentleman stops. He does not take us any further. He says there should be a Committee of the House to investigate further their ramifications. 869 Would not the right hon. Gentleman also agree that such large combines as Lever Brothers should also have a similar committee superimposed upon them to investigate their ramifications?
§ Mr. Assheton
The shareholders are the select committee investigating the affairs of public companies. The boards of directors are responsible to the shareholders. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] Oh yes, they are. It so happens that in the last few years things have been going more smoothly in industry, but if we were to look back to the times when things were difficult, we should see all sorts of rows going on at shareholders' meetings when the directors did not produce dividends.
§ Mr. Assheton
The point I am making is that the men who are at the head of these great boards, like Lord Hurcomb and Lord Citrine, are men of such calibre that they are not going to be frightened of subsequent criticism of their actions, provided those actions are taken conscientiously and after listening to the best advice that is available. But if we are going to appoint men to the nationalised boards who will be afraid of criticism, then very bad appointments are going to be made.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Horace E. Holmes (Hemsworth)
I am pleased that I have been able to follow the right hon. Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton). I had the pleasure of sitting under him when he was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and I had also the pleasure of taking his place as Chairman when he was away. I want to say straight away without any hesitation that I would not like to think that the Public Accounts 870 Committee or a similar committee was going to be the committee examining the nationalised industries.
The right hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I do not follow him all the way, but there are one or two points I should like to take up with him. He said that the Select Committee's Report was unanimous. I have great regard and respect for the views and the judgments of my colleagues who signed that Report, but each one of them, I am sure, would readily concede to me the opportunity of expressing my views, even if those views do not agree with theirs.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that we want to see how the nationalised industries are working. If I may digress at this moment, I want to pay my tribute to the nationalised industries for the magnificent annual reports which they have submitted, and which we in this House have neglected to examine. I believe the last time we examined a report from the National Coal Board we devoted half a day to the subject, and that was meant to cover two years' working. We must not complain at a later time that we have not given sufficient time to these matters.
The right hon. Gentleman said we wanted to see how the industries worked. What is going to be our basis of judgment for that? Are we going to accept as a basis of judgment whether they are a financial success, or whether we are concerned with an expanding and developing organisation? Are we going to express our judgment in terms of output or morale in the industry? Are we going to base our judgment on the part that the nationalised industries play in the national economy? All these points have to be borne in mind if we are going to pass judgment on these Boards.
The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not further follow him in what he said, but there are other points I want to make and there are other hon. Members who want to contribute to this debate. May I say this personally? I have had very close contact with the National Coal Board, at top level, at divisional level, at area level and at unit level since it came into operation on 1st January, 1947. I have had contacts with the gas, electricity and transport undertakings so I know a little of the nationalised industries.
871 I am not too happy about this Report. I am of the opinion that we are going to throw the nationalised industries straight into the cockpit of politics. I do not know if I am giving anything away when I say this, but I think on occasions the Public Accounts Committee has been more concerned to look for political points of view than to examine closely the particular matter put before it. I am more than satisfied that in the case of the groundnut scheme political capital was looked for before anything else. I do not want to see the nationalised industries thrown into the cockpit of politics.
I also think that this Report is an insult to the boards of the nationalised industries. Running through the various Acts of Parliament which have been put on the Statute Book to deal with the nationalised industries is the theme that the chairman and the other members of the board are to be appointed by the Minister from amongst persons appearing to him to be qualified as having had experience of, and having shown capacity in, industrial, commercial and financial matters, in administration and in organisation of workers. That has to be borne in mind when formulating a board.
It seems to me that this Select Committee is passing a vote of no confidence in the nationalised boards. Hon. Members opposite are not satisfied with the capable people who are running the boards but want them examined by politicians. From that angle I am not happy, nor am I happy from the point of view of what is going to be examined. I was rather perturbed when reading the Report to see that the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson), then the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works but now Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, when giving evidence said that an excessive amount of money had been spent on welfare. He is treading on dangerous ground there, for the workers are only coming into their own.
§ Mr. Holmes
He wants to be wary of what is happening now. I will just remind the House that what is coming to the 872 workers in the shape of welfare used, in years gone by, to be given as a bonus to shareholders. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn, West referred in his speech to the shareholders. I happened at one time to be branch secretary of what was the largest mine in this country. There were 4,700 members on my book. For 24 years I was branch secretary of that lodge and, from start to finish, I never met the board of directors or the chairman. [An Hon. Member: "The hon. Member was a bad secretary."] We could never get them. It was a case of a bad chairman and board who would not face up to matters.
What is the Committee going to inquire into? Is it going to inquire into capital investment, education, plans for the organisation, or is it going to cause a breach between Ministers and the boards? That is what it appears to me to be, and I want to be careful in what we are doing. I quite agree that within the industries there are problems and difficulties. In my spare time, or the bit of spare time that I have at weekends, I go up and down the country taking day schools on the nationalised industries. I gather from the discussions and questions that are put to me during these visits that things are not going well in some of these industries.
§ Mr. Holmes
Never mind "Hear, hear." In my opinion, some of them arise because, since coming to power, the Conservative Government have put a damper on the public relations side of the nationalised industries. I would repeat that—
§ Mr. Nabarro
Is the hon. Member aware that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power has done exactly the opposite by releasing from all restrictions the commercial advertising in the nationalised gas and electricity industries?
§ Mr. Holmes
It may be the opposite, but I am in possession of sufficient evidence to convince me that the Ministers or the Government have put a damper on the public relations side of the nationalised industries. I am anxious that not only this House but the country shall be fully conversant with what it taking place on our nationalised boards—
§ Mr. Holmes
I agree that there are problems within the industries, but what is the Committee to inquire into? Suppose there is a dispute, will that be inquired into? On whose preserves will the committee trespass? It may be that an inquiry is necessary, but I hope that any inquiry which may take place will not be made by a political committee or from a political bias, because that would be a step in the wrong direction.
I am not happy about the recommendation of a Select Committee. What is being proposed is that a greater authority shall be superimposed, that is, an authority greater than Members of Parliament. As was stated by the Leader of the House, their report would not necessarily be examined or published. Is such a Committee to be in a position where they may have access to any industry, and send for witnesses and papers and then keep private the result of any inquiry—while Members of Parliament are limited to putting down Questions or moving Motions? I consider that to be a dangerous procedure, and I hope that the House will consider very seriously before making such a move.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Sir Peter Macdonald (Isle of Wight)
In spite of what has been said by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Holmes) about the Report of the Select Committee, I welcome it and the opportunity it has given for this House to discuss the question of a Select Committee on nationalised industries. I was one of the first hon. Members in this House to advocate such a Committee. As far back as June, 1948, I wrote a letter to "The Times" advocating such a Committee. In spite of the views of the leader writer of "The Times" on the subject today, my letter was given great prominence then, and I understand that it was supported the next day by a leading article.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
"The Times" leading articles are not always consistent, 874 but it is a newspaper which I always read, and if I wish to express a point of view, it has always been good enough to publish it.
The reason I advocated a Select Committee at that time was that, in common with a number of hon. Members, I felt very dissatisfied at the way in which the House was treated regarding the obtaining of information about the nationalised industries. Due to the manner in which the nationalised boards were constituted, Parliament has given no opportunity—as is possible in the case of Government Departments and national expenditure—to inquire into the day-to-day working of the industries. The responsibility was left with the then Speaker to decide what was and what was not a Question dealing with day-to-day working. I thought that a very unfair burden to place upon him, and I said so at the time. When my letter appeared in "The Times," the then Speaker told me he thoroughly approved of it and thought it the only means of dealing with the situation. I do not know the opinion of Mr. Speaker now, but my view has not changed.
It should not be necessary for hon. Members to have to squabble with the Clerks at the Table every time they wish to put down a Question dealing with these monopolistic nationalised industries, and then, if they are told that the subject matter of their Question is not within the purview of the Minister, to be obliged to get a Ruling from Mr. Speaker. I do not consider that is the way to deal with matters relating to the nationalised industries, and that is why I advocate the setting up of a Select Committee of this House.
I have had some experience of working on a Select Committee. For over 20 years I have been a member of the Select Committee on Estimates and I am very conscious of the valuable work done by that Committee in relieving this House of the responsibility of looking after and examining the Estimates of Government Departments. That was the reason Select Committees were instituted—to relieve Parliament of detailed work.
It may be argued, "Why should not either the Select Committee on Estimates or the Public Accounts Committee assume the responsibility of inquiring into these nationalised industries?" The 875 answer is that the terms of reference of these Committees does not permit them to do so. Certainly that is so in regard to the Select Committee on Estimates, because, although it may examine estimates for expenditure which is a charge on public funds, it cannot deal with the nationalised industries which are allowed to run on borrowed capital.
The Public Accounts Committee, although I do not know its terms of reference, is over-worked already, and therefore I think a strong case is made out in this Report for a Select Committee to be set up. I was not invited to give evidence and I am glad that I was not, because the Select Committee has come to the same conclusion as I advocated in June, 1948, without any help from me.
The right bon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) asked what the House would consider to be the functions of such a Select Committee. He thought it a constitutional innovation, but I do not agree. This House is quite capable of setting up any kind of committee it likes. As has been mentioned before, it is constantly setting up committees to inquire into various subjects. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that he himself is a member of the Select Committee of this House which has sometimes to inquire into the conduct of hon. Members. I can understand why the right hon. Gentleman disapproves of a Select Committee on nationalised industries. He is the father and mother of these nationalisation Measures, and he does not want to have them interfered with. I discovered that when I served on the Select Committee on Estimates, when he sent a memorandum telling us how we should not conduct our Committee. The right hon. Gentleman had to withdraw that memorandum very quickly. The Committee would not accept it. Members of neither party would accept it. We did not intend to be dictated to and we made him withdraw it. That shows the value of a Select Committee of the House composed of Members of all parties.
During all the time I sat on a Select Committee, we were never actuated by party politics. Evidence was taken and when we came to the writing of the report, that was done entirely impartially on the merits. That is something we never see in the House when we discuss 876 any question of nationalisation or any other matter which has politics associated with it. We never have the impartial inquiry that we find in a Select Committee where we can send for persons and papers and take evidence on oath.
I do not think that Ministers disapprove of Select Committees; in fact, I know they do not. They have to give evidence very often and that is inconvenient for them when they are extremely busy, but I am convinced that they are glad to have the Select Committees at their elbows. It enables them to enforce stricter discipline within their Departments and to curtail expenditure in many respects. Ministers do not know everything that is going on. They are able to stamp out irregularities when they have the recommendations or the exposures of a Select Committee behind them.
The chairmen of the nationalised boards should welcome a Select Committee. I am not sure that they would not. I was interested to see the evidence of Lord Hurcomb, who was Chairman of the Transport Commission. He is a most able and distinguished son of a public servant. I am glad that he approved of a Select Committee. I am sure that his successor, Sir Brian Robertson, another man for whom I have a great respect, would welcome it also.
When I was a member of the Select Committee on Estimates, we had occasion to investigate the Services and the Control Commission on more than one occasion when he was High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief in Germany. We travelled to Germany twice as a sub-committee to report on the working of the Control Commission and the Services. We had wide terms of reference. No doubt at the beginning both the Services and the Control Commission thought that we were a confounded nuisance, but in the end we had it from Sir Brian himself and his subordinate officers that they were profoundly pleased that we were able to go to take evidence on oath and render a report which gave the authorities tremendous support in carrying out reforms which they were anxious to make. I am sure that Sir Brian would not be sorry if a Select Committee were set up.
That brings me to the question why I think that there should be a Select Committee. I will give one reason. Almost from the beginning of the working of 877 these nationalised industries we have heard profound dissatisfaction expressed at the way in which they render their accounts. We hear from commercial industries that if they rendered their accounts in the same manner as the nationalised industries, they would find themselves in gaol.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
That is what I want to inquire into. I have an instance from my own constituency of the threatened closure of certain branch lines of the nationalised railway. Naturally there was great opposition locally and we managed to get a public inquiry at a regional level into the statement by the railways that they had lost a certain amount of money on these lines over a period. At the inquiry evidence was taken. The local authorities and other bodies at great expense employed counsel, accountants and so on to go into the statements of the railway authorities that they were losing money at a certain rate.
They challenged them to substantiate their accounts. They proved, or purported to prove, that the accounts were not based on facts, that they would not stand accountancy on proper lines. This challenge was made more than once, and many people in my constituency still believe that it is true that if commercial enterprises were to render accounts without substantiating them, in the same manner as this nationalised industry, they would find themselves up against the Board of Trade and the Companies Act and probably find themselves in gaol. That is the opinion of many people.
§ Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)
Is it the burden of the hon. Member's argument that if a Committee such as has been suggested were set up, these stupid and irresponsible criticisms would be laid to rest?
§ Sir P. Macdonald
I hope so. The methods of accountancy employed by the nationalised industries would be one of the matters which such a Committee could examine. If they found that these charges which are made daily, not only against the railways but against other industries, were not substantiated, they could report to that effect and probably allay suspicion. But hon. Gentlemen 878 should not assume that the suspicion is not there, because it is. I have heard it expressed in other places. Independent airline operators make the same charge against the Airways Corporations. They say that if they had to render accounts in the same way as the nationalised Corporations they would soon find themselves either in the bankruptcy courts or in gaol. These are most serious charges which one hears every day.
Another charge is that there is no method whereby the general public, the people who have to bear the losses of the nationalised industries, can iquire into the efficient running of the Services. What redress has anybody if he finds himself up against the nationalised railways, for instance? People can complain to their heart's content, but they find that they get very little satisfaction. We cannot help them because we cannot put down Questions dealing with the day-to-day administration of the industry.
These matters are creating a great deal of disturbance in the public mind about the nationalised industries, the general public having seen reports of losses by these industries and of increased charges, and no redress whatsoever being open to them. If we had a Select Committee, the public would feel that someone was looking after their interests. At present they feel that there is no one to look after their interests and there is no possibility of their getting any redress from these industries.
I strongly support the recommendation that there should be a Select Committee. I commend the Committee for the time and energy which it has devoted to the matter and the admirable work it has done. I hope the Government will take cognizance of the fact that the Report is unanimous and take steps at a very early date to carry the Report into effect.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)
While one may not agree with the reasons which have been given by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald), he has, in effect, made an admirable case for the appointment of a Select Committee. In the latter part of his speech, he revealed such ignorance of the nationalised industries that we should set up a Select Committee in order to assist him to learn about them.
879 It is regrettable in some ways that so far in this debate the House has been divided as between the Government and Opposition benches and the argument has ranged between them and has not taken a more objective and universal line. There are strong arguments both for and against the appointment of a Select Committee. The arguments were carefully weighed in the Committee, on which I had the privilege to sit.
I admit that when I joined the Committee with my hon. Friends, we were all doubtful whether the solution to the difficult problem of public accountability was the appointment of a Select Committee. In fact, hon. Members will be able, if they desire, to quote statements which I have made or written opposing the appointment of such a committee. But after we had taken the evidence and deliberated upon it, we were unanimously in favour of the general recommendations of the Report. That is not to deny that some of us have qualifications on one aspect or another, but we were able to accept the general principle.
I was unable, when listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), to share his belief that the appointment of a Select Committee, particularly if it is emaciated in the way the Lord Privy Seal suggested that it should be, with some of its stronger aspects eliminated, would in any way undermine the principles of the public corporation which my right hon. Friend enunciated once more this afternoon. I do not believe that it would have those dire results.
The question of public accountability arises from the very size and nature of the public corporations and from the fact that so much public money is involved. The money is not borrowed in the sense suggested by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, and the losses of the public corporations are not of the order or made in the way he suggested. But the fact remains that, in the case of transport alone, there are assets worth more than £1,000 million which are national property and are guaranteed by the Treasury, and the mere existence of those assets and the Treasury guarantee entitles this House to have the correct measure of public accountability.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
I was making the point that the public corporations had borrowing powers and used them and yet made losses.
§ Mr. Davies
I do not want to be sidetracked into chasing after the red herring which the hon. Member has raised. His facts are wrong. Once the Committee is appointed and he reads its reports, perhaps he will be better informed.
This extension of public accountability, which many hon. Members wish, and the desire for which led to the appointment of the original Committee to examine the question, is not necessarily synonymous with an increase in interference in the affairs of the nationalised industries. It is the fear of interference, particularly fear of political interference, which causes strong opposition to the extension of public accountability from this side of the House. The national interest requires, above all, that there shall be public accountability and also that the nationalised industries shall be kept out of politics. There is the fear in the minds of many people that the appointment of a Select Committee would result in an increase of political interference in the nationalised industries. I do not share that point of view, because this House is responsible and is more likely to make mistakes about the nationalised industries through ignorance than to make deliberate mistakes as a matter of policy.
I would again refer in that connection to the quotation from the evidence which was given by the Leader of the House. It is the statement of Lord Hurcomb, who said:It has been borne on me, if I may say so, without causing offence in any quarter, in the last 18 months that a great many misapprehensions do exist, and perhaps decisions are taken on some supposition of fact which is not correct.In passing, I would remind the Leader of the House that it was clear that that statement was made by Lord Hurcomb because he had in the last 18 months experienced the speeches made in this House, which showed such appalling ignorance of what had been going on in the nationalised road transport industry. It was clearly because Lord Hurcomb had not been adequately consulted on Government policy on transport and because hon. Members were so poorly informed as a result of the procedure at that time that 881 he came to the conclusion that it was necessary that some machinery should be created to enable hon. Members to be more adequately informed about the aims, achievements, successes and failures of the nationalised industries.
It is beyond dispute that if Parliament is to be asked to make decisions about policy, through legislation or otherwise, which it is necessary to make in respect of these great public services, Parliament must be adequately informed. My right hon. Friend referred to the ways in which it is possible for hon. Members to take part in debates, to ask Questions and so on. Experience has shown that these methods are either not adequate or are not sufficiently used by hon. Members.
There are other ways than a Select Committee whereby contact between Members of this House and the nationalised industries could be substantially and usefully extended. It is incredible that the chairmen, either for political reasons or otherwise, are not ready to come to this House and to meet hon. Members of the respective party groups dealing with the relevant subjects.
§ Mr. Davies
Yes, but very much in the past. Perhaps my right hon. Friend is not aware that chairmen have been approached, in some cases during the last year or so, and, as I say, probably for political reasons they have decided that it would be inappropriate for them to come. Every encouragement should be given for Members of Parliament to meet the chairmen, members or even chief officers of the boards, as occasion arises.
Apart from this question of the necessity for adequately informing Parliament so that hon. Members can fulfil their responsibilities in this House in regard to the great national industries for which they are responsible to the community, there is a second reason for the appointment of a Select Committee of this nature. Ministers are responsible to Parliament. Ministers responsible for the respective nationalised industries are directly responsible to this House. If those Ministers influence the nationalised industries and have close contact, quite rightly, with the chairmen and members of the boards, and if they then do not 882 accept responsibility in this House, cannot answer questions on detail—with which we all agree—and do not inform this House of the influence, pressure, persuasion, or whatever it might be, that they exert on those Boards, there must be some other channel through which the House can be better informed.
Under the governing statutes creating each of the nationalised industries, the Minister has the right to give directives to the board on general matters concerning the national interest. So far, it has been the practice not to use these directives, except on one or two exceptional occasions, such as when there was interference with an increase of fares on London Transport and British Railways. Instead of using those directives, Ministers have had very close relations with the chairmen of the boards—and I repeat, quite rightly so—and have influenced them in the policies on which they have decided. Possibly with the change of Government there has been the exertion of persuasion, and one could almost call it pressure in some cases, for these chairmen to carry out a certain policy.
If the directives had been used, the Ministers would have had to answer in this House for the policies which they had persuaded the chairmen of the boards to carry out, but because this has been done by influence, pressure or persuasion, this House has no rights in the matter. The House is very often ignorant of what has been done, because the Minister has kept it quiet and has not brought information to this House about how he was acting in relation to a board.
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)
I am trying to follow the hon. Member's argument as best I can. I should like to be clear whether he intends that Ministers should be summoned before the Select Committee to account for their actions?
§ Mr. Davies
The Select Committee will be quite clear about the functions it is intended to carry out and who should appear on it, but my argument was not running on those lines. Parliament has the right to be informed what Ministers are doing, to question them and to insist upon their being answerable to this House. Because it has been found preferable not to use the directive power but to influence boards in other ways. Ministers are not answering in this House 883 for matters for which they are responsible.
It is regrettable that the directive power in the statutes has been looked upon as something of a sanction, to be used only as a last resort, and the use of which reflected somewhat upon members of the board and upon the nationalised industry. It is possible that recently, particularly, there has been the use of pressure upon a board, which is undesirable. If a Select Committee were in existence, it is quite probable that when members or chief officers of a board appeared before it the Committee would be informed of the policies being carried out and the action taken, and that the Minister would not be able to evade his responsibility to this House.
The chief fear in regard to the proposed Select Committee seems to be that there would be Parliamentary interference in the day-to-day management of the nationalised industries. I wonder whether the reverse might not be the case. Once this House was better informed about what the nationalised industries were doing and was in a better position to find out, through the Committee, what was going on, Parliament might be far less anxious to interfere. It would not harbour suspicions and doubts, but would realise that it would be more helpful to assist the nationalised industries in the ways suggested in our Report. Interference would be a lesser evil than the Ministerial intervention—I will not say "dictatorship"—which appears to be taking place today.
We foresaw these dangers when we were writing our Report, but I think they can be surmounted. They exist, but the Committee seriously attempted to overcome them. Consequently the terms of reference were most carefully drawn, and they should be seriously considered by hon. Members when arguing against the Select Committee. They limited its functions quite deliberately and they would be even more limited if the Lord Privy Seal's suggestions were taken into account. If the Committee functions in the spirit envisaged in the Report, if it is possible for this House to appoint a committee of Members who are interested to act as a committee of Members of the House of Commons and not as representing two sides of the House—in the way in which the Select Committee 884 on Estimates does act—and if there is a sincere attempt to look objectively at matters which are considered to be of interest to this House and to report to the House as objectively as possible, I think it will be found that such a committee would assist rather than hinder the boards in carrying out successfully the functions which it is their duty to perform in the national interest.
I suggest to hon. Members that whatever views they hold, if they are dissatisfied with the present degree of answerability of the nationalised industries to Ministers and to Parliament, then they should look at the proposal of this Committee and at least give the suggested Select Committee on Nationalised Industries a fair trial. I think it is an experiment worth carrying out. After all, Parliament is master of its own proceedings. This Committee would have to be appointed from Session to Session, and if after some experience it was found that it was not working in the way envisaged in the Report which we are now considering, it could be disbanded and some other attempt made. This is not a political issue. For my part, I regard this as a suggestion seriously put forward—and I believe that is true also of my colleagues on that Committee—with a view to assisting, and not hindering, nationalisation to be a success.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Mr. John Maclay (Renfrew, West)
The hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) has made an objective and most interesting speech. I was particularly interested in that part of it which dealt with the relationship between Ministers and nationalised boards, because I propose to deal with that question as my speech develops. I have had some little experience of some of the problem involved, and I would prefer to deal with the hon. Gentleman's remarks in the logical place in my own speech.
One thing is quite apparent from both reading the Report and listening to the debate so far, and that is that neither Parliament nor the public in general are satisfied with the present position. It is equally true that the boards themselves cannot be satisfied with it.
I have the greatest sympathy and understanding for the remarks which Lord Hurcomb made to the Committee, and I thought that the right hon. Member for 885 Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) treated him rather unkindly when he said that Lord Hurcomb wanted a Committee of this House in order that he could come and tell his sorrows to it. There is a very real difficulty before the boards in trying to make certain that people understand their problems. Up to now, no effective way has been found of helping them to do this, and I think that the proposal which the Committee have made would go some way towards it.
I am glad to see that there is a second point of agreement. Every responsible person agrees that Parliament must not interfere with the detailed daily working of the nationalised industries, although the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South made an interesting point when he said that at some later date a case might be made out for having a look at gas and electricity because they might be suitable for Departmental control. The others certainly are not.
The third point on which there is complete agreement is that the problem is a difficult one. Nobody seems to be happy about any of the solutions proposed so far. The best that can be said for them is that they might be a step forward, and that we must study how effective they are.
I freely confess that when I first read the Report I was heavily against setting up a Select Committee for the purpose recommended in the Report. But during the last three days I have studied the evidence much more carefully, and I realise that something new is needed in our Parliamentary procedure, if only to take over some of the responsibilities of the Public Accounts Committee.
If I understand the position correctly, at the moment the Public Accounts Committee has the right, in fact the duty, to inquire into the reports and accounts of certain of the nationalised industries. It seems obvious that the Public Accounts Committee already has so much on its plate that it certainly cannot exercise this right often enough or probably effectively enough without interfering with its other very important and more specific duties.
For that reason alone, I think there is a case for setting up some body other than the Public Accounts Committee to take a special interest in the nationalised industries. I also agree, after very careful thought and study of the Report, that 886 something more than Public Accounts Committee powers and procedures is required. I think that is admirably expressed in the suggested terms of reference of the Committee as set out in the Report, where it says:for obtaining further information as to the general practice of the Nationalised industries.With that, I agree, but I must say that, before I heard the speech of my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, I was thoroughly frightened of the proposal that the terms of reference of the Committee should also include power to obtain "further information on policy" as distinct from practice. To call for further information on policy, with the addition of the obvious powers which the Select Committee must have for calling for persons, papers and records, could be frightfully dangerous. I agree that the two, policy and practice, might overlap, but I do not think that need necessarily happen.
I suggest that it would do no harm at all if in studying the "practice" of a nationalised industry, a committee incidentally touched on policy. What I think would be really dangerous would be if a committee deliberately set about investigating the whole policy, past, present and future, of a nationalised industry, because one of several, or all of several, things might happen. One of them would be that they would begin inevitably to delve into the detailed running of the nationalised industry, but even more dangerous is the risk that the committee would become a body interposed between the Minister and the board of a nationalised industry.
I cannot see how a committee could possibly deal with policy, past, present or future, without getting thoroughly mixed up with the Minister's own responsibility to Parliament and to the chairmen of the nationalised industries. I visualise that there would be a great—
§ Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would give the House his view on whether or not the Minister should attend the Select Committee. I think that is a very important point.
§ Mr. Maclay
I can, of course, give my own view on it. I think it might be possible for the Committee to ask the Minister to attend, but I do not think that, in 887 principle, he should. There are dangers attaching to that. The Minister's responsibility is to Parliament and not to any special committee. I still think that such a committee could serve a useful purpose by dealing with the reports and accounts of a nationalised industry.
I confess that when I receive the Annual Report of the Transport Commission, even with some slight experience of that body, I study it with a good deal of gloom, because I know that I am not quickly going to spot the things which might best be raised on the Floor of this House. The same thing must apply to most hon. Members. There are small groups who make a very careful study of such reports, and they do a valuable work, but the ordinary hon. Member simply cannot tackle these big documents. Therefore, it would help if there were a body making a special study of them and reporting to the House from time to time that this or that aspect of the accounts required special attention.
I would certainly deprecate any suggestion that a Select Committee should "order" the debates which take place in the House of Commons. That is a dangerous idea. It is the inalienable right of hon. Members to be as irrelevant as the Chair may permit them to be.
Another advantage of such a committee is that it would provide a reasonable liaison between Parliament and the boards. From some little experience it does appear that members of nationalised boards, for their own protection, need to keep in touch with Parliamentary opinion and that there should be a two-way flow of information. I do not see why that should become a dangerous interference with the detailed running of a nationalised industry.
Here I wish to make a suggestion which I know may be shot at from both sides. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Enfield, East raised the very important point of the Minister's relationship with the boards of nationalised industries and the risk that the Minister might do things, by influence, for which he would not be accountable to Parliament. I have similar worries but for different reasons. With nationalised industries we now seem to get the worst of all possible worlds. The only representatives of the shareholders in nationalised industries are Members of 888 Parliament in general. Hon. Members cannot get the chairman of a nationalised board in front of them; they can only get the Minister. He comes along and, it does not matter what his political party is, he will almost inevitably find himself wanting to defend that industry. That attitude is probably a weakness of this nation, but it is so. A Minister is almost certainly going to defend something for which he has a certain responsibility, and it is highly unlikely that the Minister will stand up in the House and make a savage attack on a body with which he has to come in daily contact.
My cure may be considered too drastic, but it arises out of the remarks of the hon. Member for Enfield, East. It is that, instead of the Minister's powers being confined to his giving directions of a general character in relation to matters which are "in the national interest," those powers should be widened to give him authority to make a particular direction in the public interest.
At present it is very difficult to define what is a "general direction in the national interest," and the hon. Member for Enfield, East said that he rather wished that Ministers would use their powers more often, and that a commission or a nationalised board should not feel that by doing so the Ministers were reflecting on it. In the Transport Act—and I think in the other Acts also—there are powers only to give "general directions in the national interest" and that makes it very difficult for the Minister to decide when to use his powers.
Another difficulty is that it may be extremely difficult for a Board, particularly where there are big areas involved, to override some of the recommendations of its area officials. The Minister has the difficult job of trying to persuade the chairman of the board that an action is desirable, and the chairman may think, "This has come all the way up the line from responsible officials and I am bound to support them. "It would be very much easier were the Minister able to give a direction, and it would at once cure the problem of accountability to Parliament. The suggestion that a Minister, or an official of his Department, should be called before the Select Committee to account for any influence used on the board is completely out of the question. 889 I think that would be highly dangerous, and a direct intervention of the Committee between Parliament and the Minister.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
I am listening to the right hon. Member very carefully, and this is very interesting, but would it not immediately open the door for day-to-day interference by the Minister with the management, which both sides are agreed should be avoided? The gist of my argument was not that I wished to increase the Minister's powers, but that, where he used them, he should be subject to this House.
§ Mr. Shepherd
What would be the position of the chairman in respect of that? Am I right in assuming that the Minister could go direct to a section of a nationalised industry and put a view contrary to that of the chairman?
§ Mr. Maclay
No. The Minister has only the very general power to give a general direction, in the national interest, to a nationalised board and not to any section of that industry. I am only suggesting that the terms should be widened to include a "particular direction in the public interest." I suggest that the use of the words "public interest" give very full protection against interference with day-to-day management. There is no reason why acting in the public interest should open the door to ministerial or Parliamentary interference in day-to-day detail.
We are up against the question of what is a particular direction in the public interest, and railway branch lines can be used as a small example. No one could claim that the closing of one small branch line was a matter of public interest in the widest sense of the word, but the closing of a whole group of branch lines is at once a matter of public interest. I see hon. Members laughing, but we are already up against the difficulty that in this House we do not know what is day-to-day management and what is not. I am only suggesting something that might make it a little easier, because what is day-to-day management has to be found out by practice. I agree that a group of branch lines, or even a single branch line, could be of public interest, but to say that so also, is the question of the 5.15 running late, is something 890 which I do not think we need take very seriously.
I realise that this is a very controversial suggestion, but I do not see how otherwise we are going to get over the difficulty of keeping the Minister responsible to Parliament. I think it is deplorable, if we are to go on running nationalised industries, that the representatives of the public whom the nationalised industries are to serve are to be repeatedly frustrated by being told by the Minister, "I cannot take your question on the Floor of the House because it is a matter of day-to-day management of the industry concerned," even when matters of wide public interest are involved. There is no general rule as to what the public interest is but, by the slight widening of the powers which I have suggested, I think we could get nearer to a solution, particularly if coupled to a committee such as I have described.
§ 6.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not following his very interesting arguments, but there are certain aspects of perhaps equal importance—as he himself would be the first to concede—to which I must address myself.
In my view, it is absolutely impossible to come to a considered judgment on this highly technical and extremely complicated and difficult subject without considering a mass of evidence. That my colleagues and I have tried to do over a period of several months. Even when one has considered that mass of evidence available one is faced with an extremely complicated and difficult subject. Underlying the whole question is the relationship between public accountability, on the one hand, and managerial efficiency on the other.
If we say that we are going to extend the field of public accountability to such an extent that management is virtually answerable for everything that occurs, we quite obviously destroy managerial efficiency. We are not giving management the power to make mistakes and be judged by the overall picture at the end. There are limits, which are very difficult to define, but we must bear in mind that managerial efficiency and its encouragement is the paramount consideration. Accountability must be second.
891 When one has said that, there must still be a wide field of public accountability because, if that field is too small, one has irresponsible and not necessarily efficient management. It is a question of striking a balance between the two. One of the ways in which this House can be properly informed, and public accountability enlarged, is through the functioning of an information-gathering committee. I emphasise that it should be an information-gathering committee. There is no future for industrial McCarthyism here, and I am quite sure that nobody, on either side of the Select Committee, would give the slightest support to the idea that a committee such as is envisaged should be set up as an interfering and controlling body.
A few years ago I would have said it was absolutely impossible to set up such a committee—not for the reason which the Leader of the House gave this afternoon, that it would be premature, but because there were obvious reasons, which were staring us in the face at the time, which would have made it impossible for such a Select Committee to be set up. A Labour Government was in power. Those were happier days, politically. The Conservatives were in Opposition, and were then led for quite a time by the then right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Brendan Bracken). If we read the speeches of the right hon. Member at that time and consider the attitude of the Conservative Opposition towards nationalisation, we would see that had we set up such a Select Committee it would have been like a bear-garden, because those on the Conservative side would be concerned only to attack and discredit the boards for all they were worth whenever they had the opportunity, and those on the Government side would be concerned to defend them. A Select Committee could not attempt to function in such an atmosphere. Consequently, at that time it seemed to me that such a Select Committee was quite out of the question.
I shall not go so far as to say that the Conservative Party have since learned better manners, or have been politically educated, but some startling, dramatic and significant changes have occurred. As an example of some of the changes, 892 we can point to the position of the present Minister of Fuel and Power, for whom hon. Members on both sides of the House have high regard. Nobody, in these days, is a more powerful advocate of nationalisation than the right hon. Gentleman. It is now possible to approach this subject in a rather different frame of mind than was the case a few years ago. There is now a body of opinion in the Conservative Party which is really concerned about the question of making nationalised industries work well.
I do not put too much stress upon that. I only say that it is there, and that I have found a certain opinion, here and there in the Conservative Party, which is not unfavourable to the efficient development of the nationalised industries. Here we have a chance, if we care to seize it. It is now possible, for the first time, for a Select Committee to meet and to be concerned with the problems of the nationalised industries, and for it to receive information about those problems in a sympathetic helpful and businesslike way, without having to divide along party lines.
It is now possible for information to be obtained by such a body, and I should have thought that this was the right way to do it. Apart from that, I am supremely confident about the way things are going in the nationalised industries. During the years between, although they have been subjected to the most ridiculous, absurd, stupid and ill-informed criticisms from many quarters—chiefly from the Conservative ranks—they have been steadily vindicating themselves by the first-class job they are doing. I want the members of the boards to be able to come to the kind of Select Committee that we have in mind so that they can shout from the house-tops the fact that they are doing a good job, and so that the Conservative and Labour Members can join together and tell the public that this fine work is being done. There is no reason to look upon a Select Committee as a fault-finding body.
§ Mr. Williams
If it were to be a faultfinding body it would fail, because it would be concerned merely with underlining the defects and errors on the part of the boards.
§ Mr. Shepherd
Is the hon. Member now suggesting that this Committee should act as a propagandist and advertising agency? As one who has not yet made up his mind firmly upon this subject, it seems to me that what he is suggesting is not doing a great service to the idea.
§ Mr. Williams
If the nationalised industries are doing a good job, why should any member of the Conservative Party not be prepared to be a propagandist? Is not the hon. Member as interested as we are in improving the economic security of this country, and cannot that be done by making sure that the nationalised industries are working at peak efficiency? Why should the Select Committee be concerned with turning itself into a fault-finding and controlling body? That is not the organisation which the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries had in mind.
One's approach to this question will largely depend upon whether one has confidence in the future of the nationalised industries. If they are likely to do better and better, as I am convinced they are, the more this Committee works along with the various bodies the better it will be, and the more information will be given to this House. How many times have we heard statements made in this House which would never have been made were it not for the complete ignorance and, sometimes, politically doctrinaire attitude of the people making those statements?
If we had a responsible body of Parliamentarians, concerned with getting on with the job and ready to give the boards a pat on the back whenever they had the chance, they would be performing a function which would give the lie to those critics of Parliamentary democracy who say that we are becoming irrelevant in relation to these great industries. It is being said throughout the world that in our debates on these industries we are talking not about something which has just occurred but of events which have taken place sometimes as much as 18 months before. That state of affairs would not obtain if there were an efficient Select Committee which really did a job of work.
Having said that, I wish to make it perfectly clear that very severe limits are imposed upon the advance of public 894 accountability. For instance, if this Committee attempted to deal with trade union matters, or matters which are normally dealt with by conciliation machinery, it would make an appalling mess of the job, and it would be quite wrong for the Committee to attempt to do that. Those are some of the limitations that are placed upon it, and I see the Leader of the House nodding his head in agreement.
I am sure that if there is any doubt about what we said in the Report that these matters should be avoided by the Committee, the right hon. Gentleman would himself favourably consider excluding by the terms of reference that type of matter. That would be the answer to the hon. Gentleman the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson). Before the Committee he suggested that it would be appropriate for the Select Committee to go into such questions as the amount of money spent on welfare and so on. Those are matters definitely within the field with which the trade unions are concerned, and I would say should certainly be excluded.
Let the Committee once it starts functioning go carefully and very slowly, and build its own traditions of friendliness and liaison with the national boards, so that we may have in this country a friendly relationship between Parliament and the boards. The boards themselves will be helped by the great work such a Committee could perform.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)
I was very glad to hear the comments of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) on the Report of the Select Committee, of which he was a Member. I only hope that he will not lose sight of the fact that, in addition to ensuring that adequate information is available, and adequate opportunity given, perhaps, for pats on the back, there should be opportunity also to turn the searchlight of public opinion on weak places as well, if the full benefit of the Select Committee is to be brought out.
I do not think that the public will be satisfied with the approach of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) or the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Holmes), who, more or less, say, "We are appointing experts to take over vast sectors of the public economy and 895 are prepared to look at them every seven years, but in the meantime, leave them alone and trust them to get on with the job." That might have been all right at the beginning when the field in which the nationalised industries were operating was comparatively small. When it has grown to such a very large sector in the public economy I do not think it is good enough just to leave it at that.
The nationalised industries are monopolies. Their very size warrants special attention. Moreover, let it be remembered that this is a compulsory investment. If one does not like having one's money in a private enterprise, one can take it out and use it elsewhere, or can sell one's business to somebody else, but here the public, whether they like it or not, are compelled to have their resources invested in these ways, and there is no escape from that. That, I think, is an additional warrant for public accountability.
The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South differed from the Committee in how to set about protecting the public interest. He seems to think that there should be what I would call the alternative qualified opinion brought to bear on the problems of the nationalised industries, and that every so often experienced, wise and expert people should be gathered together and turned loose on this industry this year, and another industry next, to see if it is doing the job properly. I do not believe that that, in the long run, will ever produce the results that are wanted, for I assume that there is no conflict on the two sides of the House about our wanting the nationalised industries to be efficient.
I think that the check-up on what is happening by other experts from outside is not the right approach. That is why I, personally, welcome the approach of the Committee, who prefer to have cross-examination not by comparable experts but by a more lay mind, typical of the ordinary shareholder, asking not highly technical questions but the more everyday questions in which the public is interested. Therefore, I take the view that a very useful function would be performed by a Committee of this kind. I thought, for instance, that the distinction between the two sides was well brought out by one witness who said that the Committee should be one of watchdogs 896 and not bloodhounds. I think that that is a very succinct way of putting the difference.
I have spent some years on the Select Committee on Estimates. To start with, I wondered whether we were really competent to render any service to this House in tackling very highly technical subjects, knowing quite well that, technically, we were not qualified, and that the experts who answered the questions were far better qualified to answer than we were to ask them. I was very worried for quite a long time as to whether the Committee was not merely a façade, with no real content behind it. However, as time has gone on I have become convinced that the time is not wasted and that the very fact that we are not technical experts is the source of the benefit, if any, that that Select Committee, and other of our Select Committees, can render.
In particular, I well remember the case—last Session, I think it was—when, as a result of investigation into the Royal Ordnance Factories, the question was asked in the appropriate Committee, "What are you going to do about Woolwich Arsenal?" In the Department they had not asked themselves that question for a very long time. It was of the utmost possible value that somebody should have said, "What are you going to do about it?" The Committee asked the question. The Committee was not necessarily competent to give the answer as to what would happen to Woolwich Arsenal, but by the question the Committee induced people qualified to give the answer to apply themselves to it. The Ministry concerned took notice of the question, and began doing something about it.
So I think that, although such a Committee may not have great technical expert knowledge, it can fulfil an extremely valuable function, and that that should in itself reduce the fear which, it is said, the heads of the nationalised industries would have at the appointment of such a Committee. I think that the alleged fear of the heads of the nationalised industries is grossly exaggerated, and I thought that some of the comments of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South rather fogged the issue. He talked about industry being responsible to a Parliamentary Committee. 897 There was no such intention by the authors of this proposal. He drew some distinction, in which I could not follow him, between the Select Committee as recommended and this House. In fact, it would be a reinforcement of this House and not a distinction, affecting nationalised industries on the one hand and Parliament on the other, and I think that that distinction he drew was quite false and tended to increase the fear of these proposals, quite unjustifiably, by the nationalised industries.
Let us remember that if as a result of steady good will in the relations between the Select Committee and the nationalised industries it should be thought that some high-powered technical outside inquiry is needed, that is still open. Nothing in these proposals would preclude that.
I want to devote the remaining few minutes I propose to take to differing on some of the details recommended in the Select Committee's Report, although I am wholeheartedly in favour of the general principle of the establishment of such a Committee. I want to differ from the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton) when he advocates that it should be incumbent upon the nationalised industries to present annually to Parliament budgets of their financial prospects for the forthcoming year.
For one thing, there are so many uncertain factors which apply to such vast organisations as the nationalised industries that inevitably they would be misleading. Secondly, I think there would be great temptation, in building up the estimates of future results, to err on the side of safety so that a failure to fulfil the estimated performance could be avoided. As a result, we should get unreasonable distortion of the position.
If there is any truth at all in the suggestion that nationalised boards will be fearful of this Committee, it will only add to that fear if they are told, "We intend to make you forecast your activities of next year and we intend to set up a Committee to see how that forecast compares with the performance." I can see no way better calculated to put fear into the minds of a nationalised industry than to compel them to make budgets which hitherto they have not thought necessary 898 to make from the commercial considerations which normally apply.
§ Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)
Does not budgetary control normally presuppose the tabulation of the anticipated results of the period ahead, and is not that one of the ordinary, straightforward techniques of commercial management which we should like to see in such undertakings?
§ Mr. Summers
I can only say that my experience of industry differs from that of my hon. Friend. My experience is that directors of a company believe that to forecast financial results, with the uncertainty of wages, the uncertainty of the price of raw materials and the uncertainty of the demand from the consumer, is unwise, and that these difficulties are so real that it is nothing but an exercise in imagination, unrelated to reality, to produce a set of figures to show what a company will do next year and to show it to anybody else.
§ Mr. Summers
I cannot give way again. I do not think that this is a very important aspect. I merely hold the view I have outlined. Others may differ, but it will not lead to a great difference between us. My view is that it is not desirable to compel nationalised industries to produce budgets if we are anxious to prevent them from being frightened of the Select Committee which it is proposed to set up.
To go one step further and to make them produce one single figure, as has been suggested, of how much their goods or their services have increased in price in comparison with the cost of living, and to use that as a yard-stick by which to test their efficiency, is to go too far. If anything were over-simplifying the question, surely that is. The sooner the Committee forgets such a suggestion the better it will be for all concerned.
I imagine that the Lord Privy Seal put forward his various Amendments to the Committee's recommendations in an effort to allay the fears expressed. I hope he will not pursue the idea of denying to the House the benefit of the evidence upon which the Select Committee's Reports might hereafter be framed. However eminent may be the Members of this House who are appointed to the 899 Select Committee, I do not think that the House would have sufficient confidence in their judgment to accept their findings without on occasion wishing to test the vaildity of their conclusions by reading the evidence upon which they were based. In my opinion, it would enormously reduce the value of such a Committee if Members of the House were not given the benefit of reading the evidence upon which the Committee had reached its conclusions.
I think that the Chairman of the Committee is right in saying that the Committee would not be as effective if there were not appointed a permanent official additional to the ordinary clerk. Nevertheless, I think it would not be a bad thing to run for a year, or perhaps even two years, without such an appointment, even though it may be admitted that the Committee would not be quite as effective as would be the case if such an appointment were made.
It was suggested that if the scheme did not work very well, because of the Sessional appointment of the Committee it could be changed, but it would be rather hard on somebody of the calibre of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, who could not be removed except by the vote of both Houses of Parliament, to say to him, "We are trying this out; we are not at all sure that it will not need considerable amendment and if, at the end of a year or two, somebody does not like it, we can always wind it up by an Order." I think we ought to make certain that this technique has come to stay before we appoint such a high-powered person with such a long-term appointment as has been suggested.
If the Committee is to be set up it ought to be the best Committee Parliament can devise. I have noticed that all of those who dissented from the appointment of such Committee—and I think I am right here—said, "If you must have one, for goodness' sake make it a Committee of both Houses. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If I am incorrect, I withdraw that comment. I noticed that several witnesses who did not support the official recommendations of the Committee seemed to take the view that if there were to be such a Committee they would prefer it to be composed of Members of both Houses. That was my reading of the 900 evidence, and if I am wrong I am willing to be corrected.
I think there might be a tendency for the nationalised industries to pay more of the right kind of regard to, and to be less fearful of, a Committee of both Houses than would be the case if the Committee were composed of hon. Members of this House only. I do not think the argument that this Committee will be concerned to some extent with finance is an over-riding consideration which necessarily limits it to this House. First of all, finance will play no more than a modest part in the considerations with which the Committee will be actuated. Moreover, it is not a question of taxation. I understand from constitutional history that this House has kept to itself financial matters in respect of taxation. These are matters concerning such things as production charges and services, quite distinct from taxation, so that in this context the word "finance" seems to have a slightly different meaning from that which it has in the context of the relationship between the two Houses. For those reasons, I hope that eventually it may be considered wise for both Houses to be represented.
In conclusion, I want to draw attention to one point which has so far not been mentioned. The representatives of the professional auditors said, in evidence, that they saw no difficulty in expanding their normal responsibilities in the field of the nationalised industries so as to supply for the benefit of this Committee more information than would normally be required in the commercial world. That being so, it seems unnecessary to introduce a fresh army of accountants into the nationalised field. The opportunity to obtain the information is already provided and the willingness of the professional firms concerned seems quite evident.
I hope that the Government will pursue this policy, but I hope they will also take note of the variations which I and others have mentioned between the detailed recommendations of the Committee and the procedure which some of us think might be better.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)
I feel some trepidation in venturing into the field of experts who are addressing the House today, most of 901 them hon. Members who have served on the Select Committee, or who have been associated with industry, or who have made a special study of this problem. If, therefore, I intervene for a few minutes it is only to make a few points which will appear perhaps very simple and very obvious to most hon. Members, but I shall be trying to express a view which I think is shared by many ordinary people outside the House when they are thinking about the nationalised industries.
Let me say at once that in the years immediately after the war, when the Labour Government were carrying through these projects of taking into public ownership certain basic industries in this country, I was completely persuaded of the correctness of the attitude adopted by the Labour Government—an attitude expounded in particular by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) when he said that the people entrusted with the management of these industries would be crippled and hopelessly inhibited if their conduct of affairs were subject to the day-to-day scrutiny of the House of Commons. We were all persuaded of that.
I think that all of us—I include Members on both sides—have been increasingly worried, as the years have gone by, about this question of public accountability. To me, it seems obvious from the debate today that there is still a considerable degree of doubt about what should be done in the minds of those hon. Members who have devoted, in two Sessions, a great deal of their time to considering this problem.
What worries me is that the kind of problem which comes to me is one which may be typical of many. This is a constituency matter, but I think it exemplifies what I wish to say. A constituent of mine is a factor seeking to tender to the North-West Gas Board. He is unsuccessful, and he wrote to me, as his Member of Parliament, and informed me that the board had rejected his application to tender on the ground that he was not a member of a trade association. I wrote to the chairman of the gas board asking him why this was so. I should say first, that the constituent himself wrote to the supply officer of the North-West Gas Board asking on whose authority this limitation was imposed. The supply officer replied 902 rather curtly, and in words which amounted to "I do."
At that stage, the constituent referred the matter to me as his Member of Parliament. I wrote to the chairman of the board and the chairman replied to this effect, "It is our usual practice to invite members of this association to tender because we have found that they give after sales maintenance and the rest of it." That is a legitimate point, but he goes on to say, "We do not exclude people outside the association"—I must be careful because I do not want to do a disservice to the chairman or to be grossly unfair, but the general sense of the rest of the letter is to say, "But I refuse to submit to pressure put on me by constituents approaching their Members of Parliament."
This, presumably, is a day-to-day administration matter. What is an hon. Member receiving a letter like that to do? He cannot put down a Question to the Minister, and I presume that there is very little Parliamentary opportunity for ventilating the matter. I have already approached the chairman of the board concerned and received what I think, most hon. Members would agree is a somewhat dusty answer. This kind of thing is of concern to us as Members of the House of Commons representing our constituencies. When I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) quite rightly saying that people who are responsible for the nationalised industries could answer before the House—the people who, for one reason or another had been abusing their conduct of the nationalised industries in the past years—I thought what a pity it was that the Minister had not had the opportunity, in the past, of answering in the early days the charges so often made against them.
I think that Lord Hurcomb, quoted by the Leader of the House and others, showed how keenly he felt about the attacks made on his conduct of a nationalised industry and his inability, under the present procedure, to answer the charges. Most hon. Members who have spoken have agreed that day-to-day scrutiny of the nationalised industries is impossible. I wonder whether that is so. Is there such a great deal of difference between the day-to-day administration of 903 the National Health Service and that of a nationalised industry?
The National Health Service employs 300,000 people. The Minister of Health, every Thursday in the House, has to answer in detail, if so requested, for every aspect of the administration of the Service. The Service was introduced in an atmosphere of violent political controversy at least as violent as the nationalisation Measures, and perhaps not unrelated to the personality of the Minister who was in charge of the National Health Service at its inception.
Every week hon. Members have Questions on the Order Paper about matters concerning the Health Service, such as the number of beds in our hospitals. What happens? Six years after the opening of the Service, we do not find trivial Questions placed upon the Order Paper to the Minister of Health, I am not at all sure that Ministerial responsibility to the House of Commons for day-to-day administration in respect of the nationalised industries is so impossible as some hon. Members on both sides of the House seem to think. I think it is fair to compare the National Health Service with the nationalised industry, and many of the arguments which hon Members have put forward from both sides of the House for a Select Committee seem to me to apply with at least equal force to Ministerial responsibility weekly in the House of Commons for these industries.
That is all I have to say, except that, so far as I have been able to understand the Report, I believe it is a step forward so far as public accountability is concerned. Therefore, I welcome it, but I hope it will be extended, because I believe that the misconceptions which exist about the conduct of the nationalised industries and their success and failures should not be screened from the searchlight of public opinion.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)
I have listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths) because I, too, have had a precisely similar experience in regard to time switches which are manufactured in my constituency. I can believe that the decision of the board was right, but I certainly got a dusty answer which made it perfectly clear that 904 Parliament has nothing whatever to do with such matters and that the only judge on principle and justice on its own affairs was the area board concerned. I may add that the board in question was obviously a distant board and not the local one. Clearly such boards tend to buy their own customers' products.
With regard to the question of external supervision as compared with internal inspection, it seems to me it is very important to get these two points completely, utterly and clearly distinct. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) talked about his efficiency units. I like to call them organisation and methods sections, and others like to call the concept management research. In all cases the essence of their work is that they are responsible to the management and to the management alone. As a result, the management takes them into their full confidence and we get self-examination leading to a creative development of efficiency within that unit.
What we are talking about today has nothing to do with that. Nevertheless, I think that we are all agreed on both sides of the House that we hope that these nationalised industries will set up each their own units of that character within their own managements and that they will also set up a common central one which may serve, as it may be invited to do, one or other of the nationalised undertakings. The way in which Coventry has obtained for itself such an organisation and methods service and is now urging the Association of Municipal Corporations to set up central organisation and methods service for all local government is a fine recent development and speaks volumes. I think that we in the House would wish nationalised undertakings to follow the good example of the Civil Service and of local government in a direction in which they have made far too little progress.
When we come to the question of external supervision and criticism, there are two quite separate elements. There is the supervision qua proprietor and the supervision qua consumer. I think "The Times" is wrong in making the point that accountability, information and efficiency are the three separate issues. They blend right across one another, and in this connection I give 905 the example of depreciation. The amount of depreciation which is charged in a nationalised undertaking is a matter largely of accounting practice. The House and the country ought to know the rates of depreciation, because they enter into the prices which are charged, and the efficiency of the unit can be judged only in relation to a judgment of how high they have placed their depreciation rates in regard to what the final cost of the product will be and its likely volume of sales at that price, the whole being an issue of accountability which ought properly to lie to this House.
The real distinction is the distinction of the external supervision qua proprietor and the external supervision qua consumer. In that I think we are all agreed that there must be external supervision. All that the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South has said in arguing against my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal is that that external supervision should take place every seven years. He wants to "knock them about." That is his very word. On the other hand, the Select Committee in its recommendation wants a gradual and steady external supervision throughout the whole of those seven years.
It is important that we should realise the distinction between, say, Sir Geoffrey Heyworth, who has been quoted, and a nationalised industry. The external supervision for the executive management of Lever's is threefold. First, there are the shareholders, who, if things go right, do not butt in very much. The "Financial Times" will occasionally publish some useful and informative information which gives Sir Geoffrey Heyworth a bit of a kick as to whether he is doing as well as he ought to do, but otherwise, if things go reasonably right, shareholders do not exercise their potential supervision.
Then next are the customers. Sir Geoffrey Heyworth is constantly getting complaints from customers and is always looking over his shoulder to see what his customers are going not to do. He likes getting complaints when they complain about his products. What he does not like is when they do not complain and go off and buy from somebody else. Above all, he is looking over his shoulder to see what his competitors are doing and to see whether they are getting his customers away from him.
906 I can understand that he says he is in a fog. I should say that he must be the inventor of radar, because the way that he has conducted that fine organisation through the fog has been quite astonishing and admirable.
§ Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)
Did the right hon. Member read Sir Geoffrey Hey worth's evidence? In particular, I wonder whether he read the remarks that he had to make about competition in large-scale industry? I put Question No. 728 to him:So that from that point of view the situation in the nationalised industries is not so very different from what it is in some forms of non-nationalised industry?and his answer was:Right.
§ Mr. Pitman
I am quite happy about that. I am coming to a similar analysis of the situation in regard to the nationalised industries, and I recognise that some of them vary immensely in their degree of monopoly. For instance, I do not think any of us have tried our hand at breaking the monopoly for the printing of the million pound note which is the title of a current film whose advertisements are being displayed on the hoardings. That seems to be a highly monopolistic function of one of the nationalised industries.
§ Mr. Pitman
Aircraft is not.
I should say that Sir Geoffrey Heyworth is conducting his great undertaking through the fog extremely well, because he is always on his toes and is always kept on his toes. There is always a constant stream of things about which he has to look over his shoulder, and it is the very essence of that constant irritation of external events which keeps him fit and the business working properly. In other words, there is little danger of complacency and no possibility of a de facto tyranny.
On the other hand, in the nationalised industries the situation is somewhat different. The shareholders really are the nation and this body here their representatives. Customers are organised partly here, as Members of Parliament representing our constituents who are customers, and partly through the consumers' council, which some of us think is a duplication 907 which at the moment is not working very well. Competition varies enormously with the degree of monopoly right up and down the scale. Anyhow there is, I should say, a great danger of complacency.
After all, it is not only the present that we are considering. We are tonight looking a long time ahead and trying to plan a long way ahead, and we ought to recognise that there comes a gradual deterioration of standards if there is not something to keep one on one's toes—at any rate, that is my belief. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South said that what he wanted was men with public spirit and commercial sense. Do not let us forget that he will inevitably get also people with their dose of original sin. There is a tendency in a big unit which is not kept on its toes to let that original sin grow bigger and eventually submerge the public spirit, and to a certain extent the commercial sense; so that there is some danger of a de facto tyranny, because, except for the fear of the "sack," the powers of these chairmen are quite astonishing.
It would pay some of us every now and then to take a look at what powers under the price regulations a chairman has. He may through them even resist the Minister over some direction and say to him, "Right. Give me this direction. I will have to put up the price of electricity by 2d. a unit throughout the undertaking to recover the cost of what you now require." The Minister cannot give him a direction not to raise prices, because the positive duty of the board under the Act is to conduct the business so that it makes a profit taking one year with another and it is therefore open to the chairman to say, "In my judgment and in that of the board, if we were to do this it would so undermine the trading accounts that we would have to put it right with increases in price such as these." The Minister is virtually powerless against the really strong chairman. Remember that, on the whole, one of the better features of tyrants is that they are generally efficient; and the Minister is left in the position that the only reason available for getting rid of a chairman is some political or other reason not connected with efficiency, and the Minister 908 may well hesitate to use the sack in such circumstances.
At any rate, so far as external supervision is concerned, we all agree that there is a price to be paid. We have then to consider whether that price is worth paying having regard to the circumstances. Nobody likes external supervision, and if it is to be introduced we must know whether to do so will be worth it. I would say that in the case of the big undertakings like the Lever combine, there is a good case for saying that the external supervision which is automatically provided is quite sufficient, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South that, so far as the nationalised undertakings are concerned, there is every reason why there should be introduced such external supervision. The only question at issue is whether it shall be a seven-year supervision by outsiders or a continuing one by Members of this House.
§ Mr. Albu
Will the hon. Member explain this a little more closely? What is the difference between the external supervision of Lever Bros. and of, say, the British Electricity Authority? I have not understood the hon. Member's argument. He referred to three things—shareholders, publicity and public pressure, and competition—and I do not understand how he applies them.
§ Mr. Pitman
I would say that we, as representing the shareholders, have not the opportunity to ask questions about these industries, and there are very few opportunities for debate. In fact, we are in a worse position than shareholders, with the "Financial Times" and "Economist" behind them.
§ Mr. Pitman
The reports are far fuller, but the field is very big and detailed matters like depreciation are not mentioned, and one would have to delve into the detailed accounts to find the information.
§ Mr. Popplewell
That is a question of public accounts, which can be adjusted by a directive from the Ministry, if necessary.
§ Mr. Pitman
In Bath we do know what the take-over price was in the gas industry. We do not know what the retorts and gas holders were valued at, or what is 909 the depreciation on them because on the figure of any revaluation and the rate of depreciation upon it depends the total depreciation in that section. We are ignorant of what it is that makes the price of gas so high, and the control that we have today through Parliament is not good.
This lack of control through Parliament is even more absent in the case of the customers. The customers have not the control over the gas industry, the railway industry, or road transport which the consumers have over the big soap manufacturers, where there is such very strong competition and where there is no "Take it or leave it."
We are all agreed that we want external supervision of the nationalised industries. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South wants it for seven years. He made the point that Sir Geoffrey Heyworth would be looking over his shoulder and being worried by someone asking him what he did five years before. But if the supervision were on a seven-year basis, as the right hon. Gentleman desires, Sir Geoffrey could be asked the same disturbing—as the right hon. Gentleman described it—question any time from one, two, three years and up to seven, depending on how soon the seven-year supervision happened to fall.
I support the idea that we should have such a Select Committee set up. We are, whether we admit it or not, suggesting that it shall occupy something of the same sort of position as the Public Accounts Committee with the same field of operation—because it ought to have a service for getting out facts and data, just as the Public Accounts Committee does.
I have finally a few practical suggestions to make. I think it might be most effective if the consumers' councils representatives were able to attend such a Select Committee until we decide to abolish them. They are just as interested as we are in this matter, because they are under present Acts partners with this House in watching the interests of the consumer. Secondly, I think the secretariat which ought to be set up to serve the Select Committee might also serve the consumers' councils as well as the new Select Committee, because if there is one thing which is clear it is that the con- 910 sumers' councils lack, in carrying out their function of watching the consumers' interests, the facts and data upon which to base their work.
I think it would be a very good thing if the board or the area board chairmen, whoever is responsible, should be able to attend and speak in this House. I think some of those boxes outside the Bar might be placed at their disposal, where they could come and defend themselves over what is their responsibility to Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Maclay) drew a very illuminating picture of the impossible position in which the board chairman finds himself in relation to the Minister and this House. The chairman is prevented from making his own case except through the mouth of somebody else, who is not the person truly responsible. It would be a very good thing too, I suggest, if the Minister had the right of being present at such meetings of the Committee, because he is the head policeman of supervision in this House in any matter concerning the nationalised industries.
I greatly welcome the work that has been done by the Committee, but I think we should take very great care before our next step. I hope that a White Paper will be published on the views of the Government formed as a result of this debate. Such a White Paper ought to go even more deeply into the subject. We ought not, after consideration, however careful, of only a few of our Members and after no more than this short debate, to take quite such a big leap in the dark over so big and important a subject as we will otherwise be seeking to do tonight.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)
I wondered at one time during the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) whether he had read the evidence of Sir Geoffrey Heyworth, because the most interesting part of his evidence was what he had to say about this very question of monopoly and competition. I intend in the course of my remarks to make some reference to that.
One thing that the Select Committee has certainly done, and probably this debate has done, too, is to clear up the idea that a Select Committee, dealing with commercial undertakings, which our nationalised industries are, can in any 911 way control their efficiency. The hon. Member for Bath was perfectly right when he said that any type of efficiency audit, organisational research unit, organisation and methods department or whatever we might like to call it, can only operate in any large undertaking if it has the good will and co-operation of the executive management of the undertaking. That is a very well-known principle whether it is applied to the Armed Forces, Government establishments or any industrial undertaking. Therefore, the idea that a Committee of the House could control efficiency is, I believe, complete nonsense.
Comparisons have been made, I think wrongly, with the work carried out for the House by the Select Committee on Estimates and the Public Accounts Committee. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers) made an interesting speech on this when he said that he himself had had some doubt as to the effectiveness of these Committees, and, although he and I are members of the same sub-committee of the Estimates Committee, I am not entirely certain myself how effective we are. It depends on the composition of the Committee, and the willingness of the members to approach their task in a non-partisan manner, with no idea of witch-hunting, and certainly not with the idea that they are always going to pull out of the bag some absolute horror.
The attitude of hon. Members opposite has frequently been of that kind when investigating Government Departments or any of the nationalised industries. And it is that which has made Members on this side of the House anxious about setting up committees of that sort. There are a number of reasons why we cannot compare the sort of work that can be done in relation to the nationalised industries with what is done by the finance committees in relation to Government Departments. The form of their accounts is, of course, completely different. Government Departments work on an annual fixed cash appropriation. They have no other income, or very rarely have they any other, and Parliament is naturally anxious that there should be detailed examination of how this money is spent. It feels all the time, when there is no trading account or profit and loss account, that it must keep a tight control on expenditure.
912 But it does not really do so. What happens is that the Public Accounts Committee, a long time after the event, makes sure that the money was spent on that for which it was voted. It makes sure, through the Comptroller and Auditor-General, that there is no breaking of the rules about the placing of contracts, and so on, and to some extent fishes out an occasional instance of inefficiency or waste, but the Comptroller and Auditor-General himself, in evidence to the Committee, admitted that it cannot go very deeply into the question of efficiency.
The work of the Select Committee on Estimates has been growing in the last few years, and it is sometimes effective in discovering things and disclosing them to the House. But it is not dealing with a commercial undertaking which has freedom to fix its prices and which to some extent controls its own income and expenditure.
As the hon. Member for Bath said, the nationalised industries are commercial undertakings which, by statute, are supposed to balance their accounts and to make a slight profit. It is not true that their prices are under no kind of pressure, that they are absolutely free to expand, because there is a certain amount of competition in every one of the nationalised industries. It is the competition for people's money. To begin with, in the case of fuel one can spend one's money in buying three different forms of fuel. So there is competition, some people think too much, between heating by electricity, gas or coal. There is certainly competition in civil airlines; and there are other forms of competition arising out of the fact that people can spend more on one thing and less on another. It was to that type of competition that Sir Geoffrey Heyworth referred in his evidence.
§ Mr. Robson Brown (Esher)
The hon. Gentleman said that there is competition as regards fuel. How does he interpret the argument that because a person can choose electricity, gas or solid fuel, there is competition in the case of coal? I cannot see it.
§ Mr. Albu
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot see it, but I can assure him there is competition. There is also the competition of oil fuel. Sir Geoffrey Heyworth said:I think you can look at this question of competition too narrowly. With the develop- 913 ment of the larger units throughout the world—I am not talking of nationalisation; I am merely talking of the size of the unit—there is a tendency for the competition to change. In a small country one steel works will become a monopoly because there is simply not enough business for more than one….I am not so sure that the competition in a large unit is so much from other people who may be engaged in it, but from other different large units"—He means that it is not within an industry but from different industries—In my business we have to sell a number of products. The competition is just as much from the chap who is selling cheap trips to Brighton, so to speak, for the marginal money for which we have to compete, as from other people who are selling another kind of soap.That kind of competition applies in the case of the nationalised industries. Therefore, to say that there is no pressure on them to keep prices down or that there is very different pressure from that exerted to keep prices down in monopoly private industry, is nonsense.
§ Mr. Pitman
But in the case of soap there is the additional competition from the other makers of soap as well as from the attraction of trips to Brighton. The words of Sir Geoffrey Heyworth do not in any way imply that he was minimising the effect of that internal competition.
§ Mr. Albu
But we all know that in a large number of industries of the size of that of Lever Bros, the degree of competition is becoming less and is obviated in other ways.
The reason hon. Members on this side of the House who were members of the Select Committee supported its Report was that given by many of my hon. Friends. There is no doubt that for a number of years Parliament acted irresponsibly in handling the nationalised industries, that there was a serious need for an unprejudiced examination of the work of the industries and their achievements, and that there was need for an opportunity for the boards to explain what they were doing in order that hon. Members could obtain information.
It has been said that to ask for information on policy, or for the Select Committee to be able to inquire into policy, is going too far, but that begs the question as to where policy ends and administration begins. Certainly there is a case, as the right hon. Gentleman 914 the Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Maclay) pointed out, for trying to distinguish between the policy of the Minister and the subordinate policy of the board in carrying out that policy. I do not think there is a case for the Select Committee asking questions on the general broad policy for years ahead. On the smaller details, however, on what might be called policy at the lower level, that could be done.
There is no doubt that this must be an experiment, and I agree that there is a case for not proceeding at this stage with the appointment of special officers to assist the Select Committee. Perhaps we went a little far in that. We must be careful that the Select Committee acts in a responsible, not in a partisan, manner and that it does not try to extend its terms of reference by dealing with those matters which are dealt with by existing negotiating machinery or with matters of broad policy. Some of the evidence showed there was a danger that some members were thinking in terms of a Select Committee which would in some way take over the prerogative of the Minister to determine the general policy for the industries. It is essential to avoid that. The Select Committee must have exceedingly narrow terms of reference. Although this is not an idea that I would die for, it is certainly worth while as an experiment, provided it is carried out on these restricted lines.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Robson Brown (Esher)
There is no question but that the Report of the Select Committee envisages a tremendous departure from Parliamentary practice. It has enormous implications, and therefore we should proceed with great caution and consider the question with extreme care.
I followed closely the opening speech of the Leader of the House, and I thought it was extremely moderate, fair, non-political, and analysed the points in detail. There are two cogent questions we have to consider. The first is whether a proposal of this kind increases or diminishes the authority of Parliament. This point was raised cogently by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), and it is the first thing to which we should apply our minds. The right hon. Gentleman questioned whether it would 915 bring strength and authority back to the Floor of the House.
I have read carefully the Report of the Select Committee and have listened to much of this debate. I am definitely of the opinion that such a Select Committee, carefully devised, would strengthen the authority of Parliament. What experience I have comes from a commercial and industrial background, and in my first years in this House I was disappointed and dismayed at the poor quality of the annual debates on the nationalised industries. They made no contribution whatsoever to the industry itself or to the people engaged in it, and they did not give any satisfaction to the boards, the administrators, the chairmen, or anyone else.
In the early days there were bitter party battles, each side putting forward completely incorrect points which were of no value. Fortunately, in the last two years the debates have adopted a new and much more dignified tone, but even now a mass of statistics and information is presented to us as an annual report, most of which, by the time it is in our hands, is out of date. We try to absorb it, we study the comments of the informed Press, and yet every speaker seems to make the same points over and over again on the Floor of the House. With few exceptions, we have obtained nothing constructive as a result of our debates on the nationalised industries, and if, Sir, we increased the amount of time available for our debates, I doubt whether that would be any solution.
So the answer to the first question—would a Select Committee of this kind increase the dignity and strength of Parliament?—is "Yes." Secondly, would it work in practice, or would it be obstructive and work against the best interests of those industries which, I envisage, are here to stay? For I assume that there is no intention, on one side of the House or the other, to use this Select Committee as a Trojan horse to penetrate or to damage the nationalised industries. I believe I speak here with full support.
On the Committee one would have from both sides of the House men who would make themselves very well informed on these industries. They would be consultative and not inquiring in their attitude. I do not like this word 916 "inquiry." The Committee would not always be inquiring. Its members would be consulting those concerned and keeping themselves informed on the difficulties and successes of the industry and the various problems facing the different boards. This information, coming out in a non-party way and influenced by no pressure groups, would circulate into the general body of the House of Commons. People would be in the Smoking Room or elsewhere discussing these matters and a member of the Committee would say, "You have not got it quite right. This is the position." Also there would be on the Floor of the House men who could speak with definite knowledge and appreciation of the difficulties of the industries.
On the Floor of the House one cannot debate the international aspects of any one of the nationalised industries and, in particular, of the coal industry. There are sometimes certain special questions about the commercial aspect which are difficult to debate. Further, there is the value of a Committee upstairs examining the various nationalised industries and looking at the various forms of central and area administration and the different methods applied in running them.
All these industries have been tremendous experiments. First, we had the coal industry with one type of administrative structure, then the gas industry with another type, and again transport with still a third type of structure. Some of us have given time to studying the question of which has worked most successfully. It may be that an amalgam of the best of each of these structures would be of advantage to all. This proposed group of men and women could discuss and examine these questions dispassionately. They would have the time to do so and the information would be available to them. We never have the time or the information during the annual debate.
The National Coal Board, for instance, may arrive at tremendous decisions with regard to the Schuman Plan and the impact of that plan on our whole economy. Are we to leave that question purely and simply to the judgment of the National Coal Board, perhaps with consultation with the Minister? I think not. The matter is of such tremendous importance that there is a point where there should be consultation in a Committee upstairs, where the facts and information could 917 be given freely and where hon. Members could be taken into the confidence of the coal board, and the board benefit from the views of the Committee. All would be better for it.
A great deal depends upon the composition of the Committee and the way in which it works, and I should not like its remit to be too rigidly or narrowly defined. However, certain aspects which are not the business of the Committee, such as wages, should not be discussed. The nationalised industries themselves will receive great benefit from the knowledge and experience of Members of the House of Commons, which collectively are not inconsiderable on both sides of the House. It has been said very often that there is no aspect of national or international affairs on which there is not an expert, or more than one expert, among Members of this House. That fact is of great importance in relation to the international aspect of some of these industries.
I should like to see a Committee of both Houses, for the reason that there are men in the other place of long and wide experience in industry and commerce, whose presence on the Committee would be of great value. I should like to feel also that the Committee was of such a size that it would permit the setting up of sub-committees. I should like to see sub-committees on coal, transport and so on, reporting to the main Committee, which would deal with the major problems. The idea of a complicated secretariat is abhorent to me. There would be an element of real danger in this. It would be setting up yet another form of bureaucracy. Let us not have that. Let us, as has been suggested, have an officer or two from the House to take care of the clerical side, and let the nationalised industries themselves provide any assistance that we may require on technical matters from their own staff and resources.
In these matters we are moving into a new era. We are now in the second half of this century, and we in this House must not be too rigid or concentrate too much on tradition. Let us relate ourselves and Parliament to the realities of the day. The impact of these great industries on the economy of the nation is so powerful that I do not see how we could resist the suggestion that a Committee of the kind 918 that is proposed should be set up. It should have on it good men, and especially in its formative stages, an outstanding chairman, to ensure that it does not tread on dangerous ground. Such a Committee would strengthen and enhance the value and the authority and the dignity of this House and accountability would become a reality.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Robson Brown) has said, but I disagree with the conclusions he has reached. In listening to this debate, I have heard various reasons given for the setting up of this proposed Select Committee. Almost all of those who have supported the idea, including the hon. Member for Esher, whose ideas I so often respect, have placed limitations of one kind or another on the proposed Committee. Their suggestions have been surrounded with "ifs" and "buts," and I am certain that, in the minds of a great many of those who support the idea, there are fears that ultimately the setting up of the Committee would not be a good thing.
The hon. Member for Esher said that if it is a good Committee with a first-rate chairman it will strengthen the dignity and the authority of Parliament. All of us in this House want a greater degree of public accountability in our nationalised industries, but I am sure that that is not the desire only of hon. Members. It is the desire also of almost every worker in the nationalised industries. I realise that very well from my close contacts with constituents of mine who work in these industries. Believing that to be the case, I feel that we must examine still further what measures we could take to provide for that greater public accountability. As a result of my interest in the nationalised industries and my contact with the workers, I am convinced that the proposed Committee is certainly not the instrument that will give us that greater authority in Parliament and all that the men who work in the industry desire.
The nationalised industries do not exist merely to provide Members of Parliament with greater dignity and authority or to serve the needs of those who work in them. They are there to serve the needs of the whole nation. Indeed, I feel that, 919 for good or ill, the future of this nation is bound up very closely with what the nationalised industries will be able to achieve in the next few years. Because I feel that strongly I want to make a short case against the setting up of the proposed Select Committee. Some people have suggested that of course the Select Committee would not interfere with what rightly is the work of the Trades Union Congress and the unions which represent the workers; that is, that it will not interfere with wages and conditions of work and welfare. I accept that, but, even if the Committee did not interfere with those things, the result might be such that ultimately it would have an effect, not only against the national well-being, but against the wages, conditions and welfare of those workers.
I want to show why I say that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) said that if we had confidence in the nationalised industries we should not be afraid of a Select Committee. I am an hon. Member with great confidence in our nationalised industries; I believe these nationalised industries in the few years in which they have been nationalised have done a first-rate job for the nation. I hasten to add that I do not consider that every field of the activities of our nationalised industry is such as I would like it to be or as many others would like it to be; but in those cases where improvements can be carried out, I have such confidence in these industries that I am convinced that those improvements will take place.
These nationalised industries took over a very great task. The one I know best, the mining industry, in my area and in many other areas was almost a derelict industry when the National Coal Board took over. The Coal Board has had to plan reorganisation and co-ordination and has had to sink great amounts of capital at almost the most expensive time in the history of this nation. That industry in particular has been carrying out reorganisation and co-ordination in one of the most difficult times of our history. The coal industry, the railway industry, Civil Aviation and other industries are all important. Those in charge of them will have to take bold decisions in future. Sometimes they will have to take imaginative decisions. If 920 one is to take bold or imaginative decisions anyone who knows anything about business realises that one has to take risks. Those risks may lead to successes, but some of those risks may lead to failures.
§ Mr. Robson Brown
There is also the possibility that a nationalised board may not be prepared to take risks. It may become stagnant and unimaginative. This proposed Select Committee could enthuse it with just those elements which are thought lacking. One of the great dangers of any organisation which has no competitive element is that it does not tend to take risks and to be progressive.
§ Miss Herbison
I am proceeding from what has happened in the nationalised industries up to date and because of what has happened. The Board got down to the job and, from my knowledge of them, they have taken bold decisions and have been imaginative. I want them to continue to be so.
I want to get back to the elements of risk which lead to successes and the elements of risk which lead to failure. Because of the chance of some of their decisions leading to failure, I am certain that, with this Select Committee in the background, those in charge will be afraid of taking risks. They will be afraid of having to come before the Select Committee, be it as non-partisan as all of us interested in these industries would wish. I may say that I have my doubts about that, having listened to the debates on the nationalised industries when we were on the other side of the House. I wonder if hon. Members opposite can change so radically as to take a non-partisan position on a Select Committee. There would be a great fear among those in charge of the industries of having to come before the Committee and stand up to searching questions, whether they were partisan or not.
My great fear is that if the Select Committee were set up we would find time and again boards deciding on the status quo. If that were to come about, these nationalised industries, far from serving the needs of the whole nation, would be in danger of ensuring that the future for Britain would be a very poor future indeed. Although, like other hon. Members, I want a greater degree of public accountability, my great desire to ensure that these industries will indeed serve our 921 people makes me say quite clearly that I am against the idea of a Select Committee.
§ 7.46 p.m.
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)
Ihave listened to the greater part of this debate with more than usual interest because, I must confess, it has done what debates very seldom do—caused me to change my preconceived idea on this subject. When I came to the House, I was fairly convinced that I was against the appointment of the Select Committee, but since listening to the contributions to the debate—particularly the contribution of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison)—I have come to the conclusion that, on the whole, this suggestion of a Committee ought to be given a trial.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
Will the hon. Member explain how it is that, whilst there is a difference of opinion on this side of the House, there is no marked difference on the other side of the House? Something like a guided vote, is it?
§ Mr. Shepherd
I am making no complaints about this debate. I am sure that my right hon. Friend makes none. No one is making a complaint except the right hon. Member, who has less cause than anyone to do so, because he is complaining about the appointment of a Committee which would be very near to what he has suggested.
§ Mr. Shepherd
The Committee under review. If one looks at the proposal for this Committee and at the duties attaching to it, one understands that if it gets round to examining these industries once in five years, it will be doing a good job. I do not think it will do much more than examine them once in five years, and that is very like the suggestion which the right hon. Member has been putting forward for a very long time. I should say that, of all Members, the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South is least in the position of going against the idea of setting up this Committee.
I only say that the Committee is worth a trial; I do not think it is worth anything more than a trial. I do not think there is any exceptionally strong case for it and there are a great many arguments against; but, on balance, I think we 922 ought to give a trial to a Committee of this type.
What I feel doubtful about is the view expressed by some of my hon. Friends that this Committee would be informed. I very much doubt whether it would be informed if, with 10, 12, or 14 members, it is to cover the whole gamut of nationalised industries. To quote a personal example, I try to keep myself informed on two or three industries, but, by constant attention and in some cases participation, I find it very difficult to fee fully informed on those industries, although I am working at it the whole time. I doubt very much whether the Committee, which would examine the whole range of nationalised industries, would be as fully informed as some hon. Gentlemen have suggested. If it had to cover such a wide range of industries, it would by no means be fully informed.
Nor do I think that some of the suggestions which have been made have been really safe. We have very carefully to consider the danger of the Committee coming between the board and the Minister. Although I approve in general of the establishment of the Committee on a trial basis, I should resent its being allowed power to call the Minister before it. If the Committee could call the Minister before it and ask him to explain his relations with the board and ask him whether he had had discussions on certain matters, a very dangerous situation would arise. If the Committee is set up, I hope there will be no question at all of the Minister being compelled to come before it.
I foresee other difficulties. The first one will be to get suitable members for the Committee. I am a member of the Select Committee on Estimates, and with the work that I have to do in other directions, I find it an increasing burden, as other hon. Members do. I do not know where 14 people with the necessary capacity will be found. On the whole, those who are most suited to do the job are those with the least time to do it. There will be a real problem in getting people of the right kind to serve.
A second difficulty is that of keeping the right sort of balance. I have had some little experience on the Select Committee on Estimates. It is very difficult to avoid going into fields which are really 923 closed to such a Committee. Unless there is very careful selection of the individual members and very careful control by the chairman, the area of the investigation is likely to be widened progressively until some considerable disservice is done.
The dissemination of information is another matter on which I am not as happy as some of my hon. Friends and some hon. Members opposite. An hon. Member said that a Committee of this kind would act as an interpreter between the nationalised industry and the House and that information would be disseminated. I wish I were convinced that information would be disseminated. I wonder what sort of answers we should get if we sent a questionnaire to hon. Members and asked them how many of them read the Reports of the Select Committee on Estimates and Public Accounts Committee. The reply might be somewhat devastating to the case that the appointment of the Committee would result in the dissemination of information. We may get 10, 12 or 14 people who are interested in the matter and who may acquire some reasonable knowledge, but nevertheless I am doubtful whether it would result in the dissemination of information on the scale which some of my hon. Friends have in mind.
I now come to a most important point. All of us in the House, particularly hon. Members opposite, have put ourselves into a dilemma, having tried to simulate artificially the physical and mental conditions under which private enterprise operates, an attempt which has been, as it must be, a failure. Whether we like it or not, there is something magic about private enterprise, and it exists because of certain specific conditions, such as self-interest, direct competition, ownership and interest in the undertaking, and once those factors have been removed they cannot be re-established in an organisation which is bereft of them.
The dilemma facing hon. Members opposite, and it is now facing hon. Members on this side of the House, is what we are to do in a state of affairs in which we have set up an organisation which does not reproduce the benefits of private enterprise, such as vitality and drive, because it cannot; which is more or less not responsible to the House, and which is very inconvenient for Ministers because 924 of the duality of control, for that is very disconcerting to some Departments and by no means satisfactory to the chairmen and others who have to run the boards. On this issue we have got into a mess.
I do not share the feeling of the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) that the boards of the nationalised industries might be restrained by the Committee from taking an adventurous step. That is not a fear which ought to enter the minds of hon. Members. I remember that in 1947 I pressed the Railway Executive to go in for concessional fares to stimulate their revenue, by running full trains at a given rate of revenue instead of running empty trains at a given rate of revenue, but my suggestion was not accepted.
§ Miss Herbison
The hon. Member has given the one small example of concessional rates of fares and seems to desire to abolish any idea that there has been any bold and imaginative policy. Does he know anything about the national coal industry and the national electricity industry and what they have done during the last few years?
§ Mr. Shepherd
I do not want deliberately to go into those matters. I referred to a specific instance as an illustration. I do not want to discuss the merits or demerits of a particular nationalised industry. I am saying that we have got ourselves into a dilemma because we aimed at certain advantages which we were not realising and have acquired certain disadvantages that we did not expect, and I am concerned with what we are to do about it.
I will say something which will please the hon. Lady. We ought not to attempt to get the best of both worlds, for we end only by getting the worst of both worlds; but in those instances where we can see that no trouble would be caused to the Ministry concerned and no damage would be done to the industry, we should transfer control direct to the Government Department. There is a reasonable case for suggesting direct transfer. I specified the gas and electricity industries. We shall not get bright and breezy enterprise in existing circumstances. If we could get suitable Parliamentary control, it would be better to settle for that rather than try to carry on a very difficult arrangement which will never achieve the results we have 925 in mind. In this instance, as far as we can ascertain, we have industries where Departmental control would not be harmful and where it would not be overwhelmingly difficult for the Minister to exercise it. The time has come for us seriously to consider whether control ought not to be so vested.
I have said what I feel in general about this proposal. I hope right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite will not damn the proposal out of hand. I can see many snags in the arrangements which have been suggested. If we do not get the right type of people on the Committee, it will be frightful; it depends entirely on the class and type of person we obtain. However, we have by force of circumstances got ourselves into an extraordinarily difficult position from which there is no immediate exit. The proposal for a Committee, however imperfect it may be, will help us to grope our way along, and that is all we can hope to do. I hope that at the end of the debate tonight the House will indicate that it is prepared to accept the proposal as an interim measure.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
I do not propose to follow the line taken by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) in regard to the relative advantages of the nationalised industries and private enterprise. I should like to be able to challenge him on that subject, but I do not think this is the proper occasion to do so. I merely say that I think the country would agree that the nationalised industries are working extremely well. What we are concerned with today is the relationship between Parliament and the nationalised industries.
§ Mr. Shepherd
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think I was transgressing when I dealt with certain aspects of the performance of the nationalised industries. I did so only to illustrate my point of transferring some of the responsibility Departmentally.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I was explaining that, much as I should like to challenge some of the observations of the hon. Gentleman. I did not think that this was the proper opportunity for doing so. We are concerned today with the relationship between Parliament and the nationalised industries. The hon. Gentleman said that he hoped that on this side of the House 926 we would not damn the proposal for a Select Committee out of hand. There is no intention to damn it unconsidered. Indeed, I doubt whether we could have a more temperate or dispassionate debate than the one we are having this evening. This is a matter of very great Parliamentary importance. The whole House appreciated the tentative way in which the Leader of the House explained his ideas of a Committee generally, but not entirely, on the lines recommended by the Select Committee.
I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Cheadle was in favour of having a Committee or was against it. He seemed to stress a great many of the disadvantages of having a Committee on the lines proposed. He said he doubted whether it could carry out one of its main objects, which was to get information first for a limited number of Members and then for the whole House. The hon. Member said—and I thought this was a little dubious—that such a Committee, to be effective, would have to be handpicked and that its success would depend upon its personnel. I agree with him, but that is embarking on rather delicate and dangerous ground.
I do not agree with one of the assumptions made in the Report. I have listened to a great many of the speeches and have read most of the Report. This is a subject on which it is useful that as many back benchers as possible should express their views. On page v, the Report says:In the past the House of Commons has always found it convenient, when confronted with a special problem, to appoint a committee.I do not think that that is entirely true. Perhaps the Leader of the House would agree with me that if one looks at the kind of matters which Parliament has devolved to a committee one would find that, apart from the Standing Committees, Parliament has always been a little jealous of delegating too much of its legitimate functions to a committee.
Committees obviously serve good purposes, and they serve special purposes, but I very much agree with the hon. Member for Cheadle that, in a sense, it would be a disservice to Parliament to set up a permanent body of some 14 or so Members, carefully selected persons, with the intention that they should become specialists on the nationalised industries. It would appear to set them apart from the rest of the House.
927 The only justification for setting up a Committee would be, not that a few people should be particularly well-informed how the nationalised industries were working, but that all Members of the House should be better informed on that subject, and that is much more important. I grant the necessity of doing something to improve the relationships between Parliament and the nationalised industries, but I would not have thought that the appointment of the proposed Committee the best way to do it.
When I read the Report and the evidence, I was impressed most with the fact that a considerable preponderance of the evidence was against such an appointment. That stands out very clearly, and I do not think that the Leader of the House denied it. What impressed me in the speech made by the Leader of the House this afternoon was that he was cautious in his approach and anxious to hear what hon. Members in all quarters said before finally committing the Government. Sooner or later, however, he must face the question which I put to him towards the end of his speech: "Is it intended, or is it not, if a Committee of this kind is set up, that the whole of its evidence should be published?" It would be almost unprecedented if it were not published.
There are, I agree, some precedents for a committee not publishing its evidence, but they are all special cases, such as the Committee that sat in wartime, and the Committee on the Civil List which, by tradition, never publishes any evidence with its Report. There is also the Select Committee whose Report is now being daily awaited with considerable anxiety and expectation by many Members. It may well be that that Committee would not publish evidence that had been received under conditions of confidence and secrecy. But, broadly speaking, the tradition is that every committee of this House publishes its evidence and rightly so. Unless it does so, it does not serve the fundamental purposes for which it was set up.
It is begging the question to ask, as did the hon. Member for Cheadle: "How many Members read the evidence published by the Public Accounts Committee?" I do not think he denied that it would be very unsatisfactory for the Public Accounts Committee or the 928 Estimates Committee to make a Report without publishing the evidence. The virtue of having evidence given before a committee of this House is that the committee listens to the evidence, sifts it, makes a report and then publishes it, so that the House can say whether it agrees with the committee's conclusions or not. In this very instance we are discussing tonight the Report is a very good example of how the work of a Select Committee proceeds. Hon. Members who are interested in this subject attach far greater importance to the evidence which the Committee received than to the Report itself because, as independent Members of Parliament, we can form our own judgment on the evidence.
I come back to the question which I put to the Leader of the House. I am against having a Committee at all, but I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether it was intended that the proposed Committee should publish all the evidence it received or not. He will find himself in the dilemma: whether to publish or not to publish. If the Committee do not publish, Members of Parliament will not be informed how the nationalised industries were working. Since one of the objects of the proposed Committee is to spread information about the problems, difficulties and conditions of the nationalised industries, then unless the evidence before the Committee were eventually published in detail, the information would not be available to us as Members of Parliament. Nobody in this House—certainly not the Leader of the House with his great Parliamentary experience—would be very happy if it were left to the Committee itself to pick and choose what evidence it should or should not publish. Therefore, I should think there would be considerable pressure to have all the evidence published, in which case we should be faced with the danger that was referred to by so many witnesses who appeared before the Committee.
As Sir Geoffrey Heyworth said, there would be the real danger that chairmen of nationalised industries would look over their shoulders to see how they would be criticised, and this would be a fetter on their initiative and their efficiency. We are all anxious to preserve and increase the efficiency of all nationalised industries and to make that compatible 929 both with full accountability to Parliament and with a fully informed public.
Everything that I have read or heard leads me to the conclusion that a Select Committee of the sort proposed is not the best solution to this problem. I agree with the Leader of the House that there is a problem, and I think that we should try to find ways of overcoming it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South said, one of the things we should consider as a way of doing that is the possibility of extending the use of Parliamentary Questions about nationalised industries.
I know that this Committee made a report about that, and that Mr. Speaker considered it, but it seems to me that, even within the bounds laid down, there is very considerable scope for informing Members of Parliament and the public, and for considering making greater use than is done at present of Parliamentary Questions about nationalised industries. I hope that in that matter we would have the sympathy of the Leader of the House.
I suppose that the most analogous Department to the nationalised industries is the Post Office. The Questions which are addressed to the Assistant Postmaster-General once every five or six weeks are not very often about the day-to-day matters of the Post Office. Broadly speaking, they are about general matters of administration and policy. They serve a very useful purpose and keep the public informed. They serve to focus attention in matters causing concern at the moment, like mail-bag robberies. The interrogation directed to the Assistant Postmaster-General is a very good thing.
I should have thought that with a somewhat extended use of Parliamentary Questions it would have been possible to improve Parliamentary relations with the nationalised industries. I would also have hoped that if the other suggestions of my right hon. Friend ware adopted and if a Committee were appointed—as is done with the B.B.C.—every seven years, a Committee not limited to Members of this House, but containing experts from other fields, to review the working of each nationalised industry, that would also serve the purpose which we all have in mind, much better than the Committee proposed by the Lord Privy Seal.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)
I only wish to take up a very short time of the House at this late hour, but I want to answer one or two of the matters raised in the debate. The first is the suggestion regarding more Parliamentary Questions. The whole object of the appointment of this Committee by the House was because of the numerous complaints by hon. Members on both sides that they were unable to ask the Questions they wanted to ask. Therefore, the very first matter to which the Committee addressed itself was what could be done with Questions. We came unanimously to the conclusion that further Questions could not be allowed on these matters, because, otherwise, the Order Paper would be completely swamped.
That applies also to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Maclay) said about the possibility of legislation and about the Minister being entitled to give further directions than he does at present. That would inevitably give rise to further Questions, and would again get us back into the mess in which we were before this Committee was appointed.
Regarding the suggestion of this Committee, I would point out that this is not the first time in our history that this House has found itself embarrassed by not being able to keep itself informed of what is going on in big corporations and bodies which it has created. By pure chance, during the last few days I was reading the history of the debates of the 1780s concerning the East India Company. There exactly the same thing happened. A Select Committee was appointed and reported to the House, and then there was a division as to what should be done.
Fox brought in his Bill—and broke the Government—providing that a completely independent body of people should be appointed to look after the East India Company. Parliament quite rightly raised the constitutional objection that it was utterly wrong to appoint a body entirely independent of Parliament. In addition, of course, there was the underlying thought that a great deal of patronage would find its way elsewhere.
The result was that Pitt came in and introduced a Bill under which it was proposed to leave the East India Company as it was, and to appoint a board 931 of control. He selected a board of Privy Councillors, one of whom, the President, should sit in this House. Of course, ultimately, the President of that board became almost a Minister. The discussions at that time were very much the same as those which have been going on in this House this afternoon.
On the one hand, there are people who are saying that we should leave the nationalised industries alone and that we should possibly add a few opportunities for Questions. There are others who say that we should try something in the way of the Committee of the House. We did no consider that aspect on the Committee, but we did, of course, consider very fully everything that has been said this afternoon. Nothing has been said this afternoon, either for or against the Committee, which we did not consider in the Select Committee at very great length. Above all, we considered the point that the main objection to this Select Committee would be that some of those responsible for the management of nationalised industries would be for ever looking over their shoulders. That was the main objection.
The answer was given by the Chairman of the Select Committee and was acceptable to all of us. It was that if the people who are going to manage the nationalised industries are people who are going to look over their shoulders just because a Select Committee of this House may at some time ask them for an explanation of this or that, then they are not the right people to manage nationalised industries. It was thought that rather than have such people in control it would be better to get rid of the nationalised industries altogether, because under such management they could not possibly be a success. We therefore discarded that.
On the other hand, we felt there were two all-important matters. Firstly, the Select Committee was not authorised to make any suggestions with regard to the powers of Ministers; and secondly, we thought it absolutely essential that there should be no suggestion that this Select Committee was in any way to control the actions of the nationalised industries. For better or worse those actions have to be undertaken by the boards of the industries concerned. But there will be a Committee available at any time when any- 932 thing is questioned by large sections of the public, or when the nationalised industries themselves want an explanation of what they have done given to the House.
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) has gone, but we never suggested that the Committee should be sitting day in and day out informing itself of everything to do with the nationalised industries, but that it should sit to inform itself and to report to this House, as and when necessary, about any matter on which there was public anxiety and so forth. That is what we were there for. It was not to make 14 or 16 or seven men superior to the rest of the House in knowledge, but to have a body which would inquire into matters as and when necessary and report to the House. I think that my final question to my hon. Friend—No. 989 on pages 114 and 115 of the Report—sums up our view of what the value of the Committee would be.
As members of that Committee, we fell that none of us had an immense amount of time to do things in addition to our ordinary Parliamentary work, and we therefore realised that whoever was to sit on the Committee, if not helped by an efficient staff, would have to do a great deal of extra work. For that reason we said that, if this Committee were to be accepted by the House, it should have a permanent staff whose job it would be to keep itself informed, to be in close contact with the officials of the nationalised industries, and to draw attention to matters about which the Committee would then, if they thought right, make further inquiry or ask for further information. My right hon. Friend's suggestion that the Committee should be set up without a full-time staff of its own would put the Committee in a dilemma. It would mean that its members would have to do all the work themselves, which would make it far more difficult to find members to serve on the Committee, and I think the Committee would be inefficient. If it is to be set up, it must have a staff which can really help it from the very beginning.
With regard to publishing the evidence, I am bound to say that, normally, I accept the doctrine—which I think very important—that the Committees of this House should publish their evidence, except with the permission of the House. 933 It is for the House to decide whether to publish or not. There may well be occasions when a Committee takes evidence which it thinks undesirable to publish, in which case it has to get some sort of sanction that it should not be published; otherwise it must be published, or the story is not complete.
I want to say to those who are anxious that I do not believe that our present facilities are sufficient. There is a general public apprehension that this House is not in close enough touch with the nationalised industries and that they are slipping away from us. I was absent from the Committee on the one day when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) gave evidence, otherwise I should have liked to have asked him some questions when he said in evidence that infact the chairmen of those nationalised industries have met from time to time and have established a common secretariat.
We can surely see what a strong position, politically and economically, they are building up for themselves. During the next 30 years the Government—no matter what party is in power—will very largely come from the present Members of this House, but if we are going to get a body of men who will have that enormous economic power, which really could make abortive the plans of any Chancellor of the Exchequer or President of the Board of Trade, there is a very serious problem to be tackled.
Let us therefore try this Committee. At any rate, there will be then a direct liaison between this House and the nationalised industries which would give confidence to the public generally. I do not believe that the fears of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite will be realised, although I admit that the value of the Committee must very largely depend upon the personnel of the first Committee, in the first session when it is set up, and the way in which it acts. But, if it acts in the proper spirit, I believe that there will be a constitutional advance which will be of very great advantage to the nation.
§ 8.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
We have had the advantage, during this debate, of speeches from no fewer than five members of the Select Committee, including the Chairman, the right hon. 934 Gentleman the Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton). I suppose there is a danger that, when members of the Select Committee make speeches in the debate on their Report, they will reveal more of what is in their minds than appears in the Report itself. I certainly felt that about the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of the Select Committee, and I was surprised that my three hon. Friends who were on the Committee, and who spoke afterwards, were not more disturbed than they appeared to be at the general tenor of the right hon. Gentleman's contribution. It seemed to me that in both his speech and that of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers) one saw something of the real motives underlying the proposal for a standing Select Committee.
Although the debate has so far been very calm and pleasant, I am going to bring some politics into it. Surely we are deluding ourselves if we do not realise that nationalisation is politics. I remember seeing, during the last election, some of the intemperate posters of the Conservative Party telling the electorate what they thought of nationalisation. I seem to remember displayed, in very large figures, an addition sum telling the public how much the nationalised industries had lost of their money. I wonder what sort of posters we shall see at the next election in the autumn, or next year, or whenever it is? We are entitled to know from the benches opposite just where the Conservative Party stands on this question of the nationalised industries.
§ Mr. Houghton
"The Right Road for Britain "was the publication which prefaced all the flagrant posters that we saw at the last election. The right hon. Member for Blackburn, West came near to the matter when he said that the time had come to make the best of the inevitable, and that the party opposite wanted the nationalised industries to work. I judge from that remark that the existing nationalised industries have now gone out of politics.
§ Mr. Assheton
I said that the art of politics was to make the best of the inevitable. Accepting that we have these 935 nationalised industries, I wanted to make the best possible job of them, although I did not favour their being set up.
§ Mr. Houghton
We are not being frank with ourselves if we believe that the work and outcome of this Select Committee will not find its place in political propaganda, and that we shall not see the results of its investigations broadcast throughout the country at the time of an election.
Will the party opposite give us an undertaking that if this kind of machinery is set up to review or examine the workings of the nationalised industries they will henceforth be left out of election propaganda? Can we have an answer to that question? Unless we have an assurance to that effect, we are surely entitled to suspect the political motives of the party opposite, which, up till now, has declared that it does not believe in nationalisation, has said that nationalisation is a failure, has set its hands to the denationalisation of two nationalised industries, and swears on its political testament that it will have no more of it. What sort of people are they to sit upon a Select Committee to review dispassionately the management, organisation and prosperity of nationalised industries?
That is the crux of the whole issue. All the rest is merely begging this supremely important question. I must remind some of my hon. Friends who served on this Committee that those who sup with the devil must have a long spoon. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite are so bitterly opposed to the principle of nationalisation that they are not fit and proper persons to serve on a Select Committee or any other committee which will review the operation of these industries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) expressed the hope—I shall not call it a belief—that this Committee would be able to sing the praises of the nationalised industries and not merely look for trouble and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) said— "pull out the horrors from the bag." I would ask my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan to read the evidence—given to the Committee on which he sat in response to questions asked by himself—of the right hon. Gentleman the 936 Lord Privy Seal. It must be remembered that the Lord Privy Seal is the Leader of the House and an influential member of the Government. From questions asked and replied to on pages 112 and 113 of the Report of the Minutes of Evidence, it is obvious what was in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman when he was being asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan certain questions about the scope of this Committee. In Question 963 my hon. Friend asked:Would you consider that questions of managerial efficiency as distinct from general questions of policy should also be excluded from the terms of reference?The Lord Privy Seal replied:You mean whether the joint select committee should be in a position to say, 'We have looked at this industry and we really think the management is frightfully bad.' Or shall I say, not perhaps that the management is bad, but the general way it is run is poor. I think one certainly ought to be in a position to say that if that was found to be the case.In paragraph 965 there is a reply given in very similar terms. It shows that the Lord Privy Seal, who has commended to the House tonight certain provisional views in favour of setting up a Select Committee, was in favour of the kind of action that would do serious damage to nationalised industries, and my hon. Friend, if I may say so with great respect and affection for him, is politically naive if he thinks that hon. and right hon. Gentleman opposite who came to scoff will remain to pray. Is the intention of the Select Committee to do nationalised industries any good? I do not believe it is.
§ Mr. Houghton
The right hon. Gentleman interjects that it is, but I do not believe that that affirmation comes from a political sincerity which entitles it to respect. I asked the right hon. Gentleman in an interjection about the evidence given to the Select Committee, and I asked whether any evidence had been given by responsible trade union leaders. The right hon. Gentleman replied that there were members of the Committee who were connected with trade unions. That, of course, is quite true, but I did think that it was a great pity that the leaders of the great national trade unions connected with the nationalised industries or the General Council of the Trades Union Congress were not asked to give 937 evidence to the Select Committee. That, surely, is out of keeping with the position generally accorded to a responsible body of trade union opinion.
It is a greater pity still that the General Council of the Trades Union Congress is definitely convinced that this proposed Committee is not only unnecessary but may be definitely harmful to the nationalised industries and those who work in them. I know paragraph 21 of the Report says:Again, any matters which are normally decided by collective bargaining arrangements should be avoided.But that is not the whole story. What the Trades Union Congress is afraid of is that the shadow of this Select Committee will fall across wage negotiations in every nationalised industry, and do not I know from personal experience how easily and readily the Treasury itself forces one to arbitration because it will not take the responsibility for reaching a voluntary agreement.
The history of the adjustments of wages in the public service for the past two years, apart from one increase at the very outset of this present Parliament, is that negotiations have failed, the unions have gone to arbitration, and have gained advances which the Treasury knew they were going to get and that it would have been very ready to give, but for the fear that it would be quoted as an example by other employers, or that it would be the subject of awkward questioning either in this House or in Select Committees. An instance is given in the Report of the Trades Union Congress of some difficulties in wage negotiations in one industry because of the fear of the management of the reactions of the consumers' council. How much greater would be the influence on these matters of the existence of a Select Committee of the House.
§ Mr. Houghton
The investigation of a Government Department is usually not the investigation of public expenditure as a whole, and Civil Service wages and remuneration usually relate to the Civil Service as a whole. It is conceivable that when examining Treasury witnesses some 938 questions could be asked about the course of wage negotiations in the Civil Service. I do not know what has happened on Select Committees, but I am quite certain that none will contradict what I say about the Treasury's attitude towards voluntary agreements in dealing with large numbers of public servants. The view is, "If you can shift responsibility on to an arbitration tribunal, it gives you a let-out"; but it does not improve relations between the unions and the employers.
I am fully acquainted with the point of view of the General Council of the T.U.C., and they have decided, perhaps not unanimously but certainly almost unanimously, that they are not in favour of the setting up of this proposed Select Committee. That, I acknowledge, is not conclusive; the House is master of its own house. But at all events, if the proposal to set up the Select Committee is accepted, it will be against the view of responsible trade union opinion and will undoubtedly cause the trade unions some anxiety.
What is it suggested that this Select Committee should do? From all the speeches we have heard, I am certain that it is desired, at all events by some hon. Members, that it should do a great deal more than it possibly can do within the scope of the time and of the range of knowledge and ability of hon. Members. It is not made clear, for instance, whether the desire is to extend the responsibility of Parliament or merely the better to discharge existing responsibility. If we take a selection of the suggestions made in speeches, it will certainly cover a very wide range indeed.
We must realise that we are asked to consider not one Select Committee but a choice of two. We have one set of recommendations in the Report of the Select Committee and we have the provisional views of the Government, as outlined by the Lord Privy Seal, who suggested some quite important modifications of the Select Committee's recommendations.
I think there has been renewed evidence of the confusion in the minds of hon. Members about the great difference between the Committee on Public Accounts and any Select Committee which would be appointed to review or 939 to examine the work of the nationalised industries. The Committee on Public Accounts is scrutinising the expenditure of money which has been voted by the House. The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries would be doing something very different and covering a very much wider field. Questions of policy which have been decided by the House are excluded from the scrutiny of these Committees, but questions of policy in the nationalised industries are not decided by the House and may not have been decided by the Minister responsible for the oversight of any nationalised industry. There might therefore be no hindrance whatever to the closest examination of witnesses on the policy of the nationalised industry.
The leading article of "The Times" this morning referred to the triple requirements of the situation—accountability, information and efficiency. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) suggested that they were not entirely separate but tended to blend one into another. I think we can see the difference between accountability and information. We ask ourselves, accountability to whom and accountability for what?
I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Maclay) that we are the only representative shareholders in our nationalised industries. There is accountability to the public outside who use the services of the nationalised industries. They have a voice which speaks through the Press, through correspondence to the nationalised industries themselves, through consumer councils, and in many other directions. I think that it is a mistake to think that we are the sole or even the main custodians of the national interest in regard to the nationalised industries. They have a responsibility of their own, in their own right, and they have to account for it to the great British public who are the proprietors and who use the services.
Just as we find that our constituents are not slow to remind us in this House of their discontents and grievances and of their desires and hopes, so, I think, the public are not slow to express themselves through all the channels available for doing so. I think that we shall be making a mistake if we under-estimate 940 the value of the force of that impact of public opinion upon the work and the services of the nationalised industries. We may have, and undoubtedly have, a responsibility for such public money out of taxation as is either lent or granted to the nationalised industries, and there is, to that extent, probably a more direct responsibility resting on this House than would otherwise be the case, but I do not think that a standing Select Committee of the type proposed is necessary or desirable to discharge that function.
I believe myself that there are many ways in which we can still utilise the opportunity of coming into closer contact with the nationalised industries. I say, if I am asked for my constructive suggestion, that I believe that the best thing that this House can do is to leave the nationalised industries alone for a while longer to grapple with their problems of development and consolidation which undoubtedly are the biggest things which they have to tackle just now. The real problems of the nationalised industries are the problems of size as well as the problems of monopoly. Instead of allowing the industries to grow naturally and develop over the years, it was considered in this House necessary to bring the whole comprehensive organisation of each of these industries into existence on a single vesting day.
The problems flowing from that position are the ones which the nationalised industries still find the most formidable. I doubt whether anything that we can do in this House by means of a Select Committee or otherwise is going to assist them greatly to carry out their difficult tasks. In any case, for the very reasons that I mentioned at the outset of my speech, I think that this time in this Parliament is the wrong time to set up a Select Committee when the motives for which it is set up and the use to which it may be put are open to considerable doubt.
I think that it would be better to leave this matter until there is a new Parliament when further breathing space will have been available to the nationalised industries. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the nationalised industries; still less is there anything wrong with the nationalised industries that a few probing Members of a Select Committee can put right. I do not believe that is the way to approach this matter.
941 I grant that the right hon. Gentleman's suggestions took a good deal of the mischief out of the proposals of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. One of the things that the right hon. Gentleman apparently discredited was the proposal for a permanent official, but the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of the Select Committee, in his speech, said that this was the key to the whole thing. Here we have the great big bureaucrat, the new man, whose girth and height and whose duties are to cast a formidable shadow over the whole of the nationalised industries. The right hon. Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal also said that we must be careful to safeguard the duties and responsibilities of Ministers, which, of course, is important, because one can see how the wires can easily get crossed between the board and the Minister. A Select Committee might find itself involved in some very delicate questions where relations between the Minister and the nationalised board were involved.
For all those reasons, my advice to the House, for what it is worth, is to have nothing whatever to do with this Select Committee. Let us try something else first. Nobody has referred to the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Reith—who said, incidentally, that he was getting more and more frightened of the proposal the more he heard about it—in his evidence said that he was always ready, when Director-General of the B.B.C., to meet Members of the House of any party.
Have we really sought that contact with the nationalised industries that, I feel sure, is open to us? For my part, I have never yet had a dusty answer from any official of a nationalised industry. On the contrary, they have been most helpful and anxious to go into any matters with which it was proper for them to deal. It would be a mistake if the two examples that we have heard, from both sides of the House, were regarded as typical of the sort of treatment which Members of Parliament are getting from the nationalised industries. In my experience, that is not so.
There would be opportunities for contact if we could spare the time. If we can spare the time for a Select Committee, we can spare it for other means of establishing contact with the nationalised industries, by, for example, personal inspection of some of their work and installations, to get a little closer to some of the 942 problems of organisation. We should probably find many of our questions being answered if we did that. Are we just to sit here or upstairs and expect all the nationalised industries to bring their troubles and proposals, their accounts, their policy makers and all the rest to us? Cannot we spare some time and effort to go and see them?
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
Does my hon. Friend realise that the transport groups of both the Government side and the Opposition side jointly visit the installations of the British Transport Commission?
§ Mr. Houghton
That is a good example of what I am suggesting. I am sure it could be extended greatly if we had a wish to do so. I hope, therefore, that we shall hesitate long before we fall for this idea of the Select Committee. I am reminded somewhat of'Will you walk into my parlour?'Said a spider to a fly…because I do not believe that when hon. Members opposite have got my hon. Friends in their non-political company on a Select Committee, that is the last that will be heard of their proceedings. It would be surely more difficult for anybody if the reports of the proceedings were not to be published.
There are so many difficulties and snags and so little positive good to come out of the Select Committee that it is really not worth experimenting with at this stage. Later on, we shall probably have a better measure of what part the nationalised industries will play in our economy. We shall have had longer experience under the more favourable conditions of more recent times, when supplies and services are more freely available. We shall have had longer experience of their working, and it will be much better to await another Parliament before we decide whether we want this form of interrogation and examination of the nationalised industries.
In the event of a return of a Labour Government after the next Election, there will be more nationalised industries of which to take account. The scope of nationalisation will be extended, and probably in the light of experience we may be able to shape public ownership even more satisfactorily than we have done so far. But hon. and right hon. 943 Gentlemen opposite are really pagans in this philosophy. They have nothing whatever to do with it. They do not want it, and I suggest that they should keep their hands off the nationalised industries.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
I do not often find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) but I thought that this afternoon he made a most admirable contribution. I do not think that the appointment of a Select Committee to deal with the nationalised industries is the perfect instrument. But I myself find it extremely difficult to think of any other means of maintaining contact with the nationalised industries in view of the need for public accountability.
I only wanted to raise one or two points, which are slightly different from most of those made this afternoon. I should like to start by saying how much I regret that the Select Committee seemed to concentrate almost entirely on discussing how the nationalised industries and Parliament might be kept close together from the point of view of finance and general organisation. Practically no attention, so far as I could see—and I read the evidence with reasonable care—was paid to the point of view of the consumer.
The duty of Parliament is to redress grievances and to bring to the notice of Ministers and of Parliament points of view of the public as consumers. I certainly think that they have a very definite position in the discussions which have taken place this afternoon, and I am extremely sorry that in the examination of this problem the Select Committee did not take some evidence from some of the consumers' councils and users, national councils which were set up as part of a very elaborate machine by the Labour Government when they embarked on their nationalisation programme.
That consumers' machinery is closely linked with the whole problem of the nationalised industries. But I feel that the machine which was created, though there are many admirable people concerned with its running, has failed lamentably in that mostly the consumers have no knowledge of how to use the consumers' councils, and even when criticism finds its way up the line to the central council 944 and to the Transport Commission and the National Coal Board, there are no means of getting a definite decision on the recommendations put forward by the central users' council. That is a very important aspect of this problem which ought to be considered by Parliament when we are considering whether it would be wise to set up this Select Committee as a standing part of our Parliamentary machine.
That leads me to make one other observation. Supposing, for instance, as happens, Members of Parliament or members of the public make representations involving criticism of the running of the transport or coal industries to the central consumers' council, what they state, either in writing or orally does not carry with it the protection that Parliament affords to any statements made in the House of Commons. This means that if any consumers wish to make general allegations or to raise any wide criticism with consumers' councils, they are not protected, nor is the Press protected, from the law of libel or from the general criticism which may arise from making observations that perhaps are without foundation. So, from the point of view of the consumer as well as of the general business world, which has to carry on business with nationalised industry, it would be a much more satisfactory position if there were to be a Select Committee which could discuss these matters and whose reports could be debated in Parliament.
I want to give the House one general illustration of what could be helpfully considered by a Select Committee. Let us take the important decision made by the National Coal Board that if a coal merchant delivered to the public coal containing too high a proportion of dirt, the consumer should be advised to report this to the coal merchant. He could then replace the bad coal and himself get a replacement of the delivery of bad coal which he had received from the pithead. It is well known to everybody, however, that this machinery has operated unfairly so far as the small consumers of coal are concerned. We have all had problems presented to us by old age pensioners, small householders, small industrial consumers, all of whom have not found it easy to obtain any redress from the coal merchant. I am not exaggerating when 945 I say that the majority of the general public is unaware that such an instruction has gone from the National Coal Board to the coal merchants.
This is a practical illustration of the working of the National Coal Board machinery which could be examined profitably by a Select Committee. In other words, the Select Committee would be empowered to find out whether the suggested machinery was practical or not. That certainly does not arouse great political controversy since it is a question of administration and of whether the consumer is getting a fair deal within the framework of the Act.
So, on balance, I think it would be helpful to the general public, who are bewildered over the operation of the nationalised industries and who have not found much support of or redress for their grievances from the establishment of the consumers' councils which, I agree, were set up for the protection of the public by the Labour Government with the best possible intentions. But, in practice, quite often a matter of that kind falls to the ground.
In the course of discussing this problem today, very few hon. Members paid any attention to the consumer. After all, he or she is very much a party to this great new national experiment. I therefore want to put my plea on behalf of those millions of people in this country who, through the establishment of a standing Committee of this House, would have restored to them their traditional right to raise grievances and have them considered. I hope, therefore, that it will be possible for the House to set up this proposed Committee and, at any rate, find out experimentally whether it would be of benefit to the nation from the point of industry, from the point of view of the House retaining accountability, and from the point of view of consumers whose interests must and ought to be considered in this House.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr. F. Beswick (Uxbridge)
If there is one person in this nation who cannot complain of the lack of opportunities for criticism of the nationalised industries or for the redress of grievances when they are put forward, it is the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward), because, whether it is in the matter of 946 suitable accommodation for ladies on our railway trains or the matter of obtaining suitable redress of grievances about poor quality coal, the hon. Lady has certainly been in the forefront. If we took her as an example, I would say that there are indeed ample opportunities for dealing with any possible complaint with regard to our publicly-owned industries.
§ Miss Ward
The chairmen of the nationalised boards have always been most polite and helpful over questions I have raised, and I have had great service from them, but is it not the case that because I am a Member of Parliament they are bound to listen at least, even if they do not take any action on what I tell them? I have in fact the right of access.
§ Mr. Beswick
I think everyone is bound to listen to the hon. Lady, but I assure her that I intended what I said as a compliment.
The House wants to pass on to the other business, so I will speak only for a few moments to offer my support for the recommendations of the Select Committee. The one thing that I feel that is necessary at this stage of development is to look upon all the matters concerned with publicly-owned industry as being at a tentative or, to use the hon. Lady's expression, an experimental stage. Certainly we on this side of the House have never claimed that we have reached finality in these matters. We have always said that we were prepared to examine and improve as we went along, and that if it was possible to make these industries more efficient and able to give greater service to the community, every instrument designed to that end would be considered by my hon. and right hon. Friends.
It is quite significant that there served on the Select Committee five of my hon. Friends who had previously gone on record as being against this form of public accountability. Nevertheless, after consideration of the evidence, they unanimously came to the conclusion that this was an experiment worth trying. That very fact in itself not only reflects credit upon my hon. Friends but implies that there is some merit, in the suggestion that has been put forward.
One or two hon. Members have referred to the different attitude now shown by hon. Members opposite to this 947 idea of nationalisation. Indeed, one of the fascinating things about public ownership, or economic democracy, in this country is the way in which ideas which were at first discarded, criticised, and opposed by hon. Members opposite have become accepted as the years have gone by. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) said that it was quite impossible to expect a Conservative to come to praise and not expect him to stay to scoff, nevertheless the history of our country has been of the way in which Conservatives came to scoff at experiments in political democracy but ultimately stayed to claim the achievements as their own.
§ Mr. Beswick
The question is whether hon. Members opposite are still in the scoffing stage. I say quite sincerely that, having listened as I have done to most of the debate, I have come to the conclusion that, although there are certain profitable industries which hon. Members opposite wish to extract from the public sector, those which they consider to be unprofitable from their point of view they are prepared to leave in that sector, and they, like the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd), will endeavour to run them efficiently. I would be prepared to accept the claim of good faith of hon. Members who are prepared to serve on the kind of public committee we have in mind.
I should like to consider this question of looking over one's shoulder. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) quoted words from the evidence of Sir Geoffrey Heyworth, and on other occasions we have heard him say how essential it is for those put in charge of these business undertakings to be able to make decisions without feeling all the time that someone some day will criticise them. I do not think it is possible to get away from an arrangement which would bring even the most dictatorial business executive sooner or later up against criticism either from his board members or his shareholders.
I know nothing of the relationship of Sir Geoffrey Heyworth to his other board members, but on most companies 948 the chief executive, having made a decision, is certainly liable to be questioned the following week at the board meeting. I am bound to ask myself what is the position of Sir Geoffrey Heyworth on the National Coal Board? He is there as a part-time member. I have no doubt that he is a very capable part-time member. I am equally certain that from time to time he very cogently questions the actions of the chief executive, and rightly so. If not, he is not carrying out his functions as a part-time member of the National Coal Board. We can exaggerate this business of executives having to be constantly looking over their shoulders.
There is another question I should like to put before the House, although it may not be considered strictly relevant to the terms of our discussion. My view, when the remit was given to the Select Committee whose Report we are considering, was that the terms of reference were too narrow. It was a matter only of finding ways and means of getting more information. I, personally, do not think that that is the whole trouble of the admittedly as yet imperfect state of affairs in this public sector.
It is not simply a matter of getting information; it is the old question of how to devise a policy-making body which is not going to be continually criticising or hampering the executives of that policy, and yet which is still the ultimate authority. We find it on local authorities as between the democratically-elected councillors and the local authority officials. We find it in the co-operative societies as between the democratically-elected management committees and the full-time professional managers appointed by them. We find it again in certain public companies where the boards of directors, the policy-making bodies, if they are not full-time executives, may well hamper and criticise unduly the full-time executives whom they have appointed.
We have this problem, and I do not think we can say that we have solved it in the case of the nationally-owned industries, and I am prepared to experiment. I consider the Select Committee a hopeful instrument, and I should be prepared to accept the suggestion made in the Report. However, I hope that, having appointed such a Committee, we 949 shall not think that we have solved the problem. We must go further than that. We must find ways and means of appointing a more democratic policy-making body in charge of the committee. I should like a policy-making body with a direct relationship between the workers, on the one hand, and the consumers, on the other. Having extracted the interest which represents capital, we have to devise ways and means of finding expression for workers, on the one side, and consumers, on the other, to whom the business executives will be responsible.
If we can devise such a structure, not even a Select Committee will be necessary, but until such time as we can make greater steps forward towards the economic democracy that I have in mind, I certainly accept the suggestion of the Select Committee.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Crookshank
If, by leave of the House, I may say a word—I hasten to say, not a speech—it is that I announced other business for tonight, and, therefore, I hope the House will allow the Motion to be withdrawn.
I recognise that there are hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House who wish to speak. All I can say is that if we proceed to put a Motion on the Order Paper for a Select Committee, those who are against it will no doubt say so then, and those who are for it will be glad that we have, in anticipation of what they were going to say, done what they desire.
It has been a most interesting debate, as is so often the case when we deal with non-party matters in this House, and particularly when they are matters which concern ourselves. I am most grateful, as Leader of the House, to all those who have taken part, and I can assure them that, as such, I will very carefully consider what they have said and pass on the information to the Lord Privy Seal.
§ Mr. Edward Heath (Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ 9.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)
One appreciates what has just occurred, but the House is on the 950 Adjournment and the debate has gone on a tremendously long time, and surely the other business which we have to discuss is of an importance to justify discussion for more than just a few minutes, and there are many hon. Members who would still like to take part in the very important debate which we have been having.
We particularly took note of the suggestion of the Leader of the House when he opened the debate that the Government were prepared to accept the principle—or words to that effect—of the establishment of a Select Committee. The difficulty which most of us have in supporting the proposal for a Select Committee is in finding terms of reference for it. The Leader of the House mentioned certain matters which he thought ought not to come within the purview of the Select Committee. I have listened very attentively to the greater part of the debate, hoping to learn from those who have spoken exactly what should be discussed by the Select Committee. I have not yet heard a very clear line of policy defined. Consequently, I rather share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), and I feel that the motive behind the suggestion for a Select Committee is not that of seeking more efficient working of the nationalised industries.
I rather think there is a certain political motive behind this, and we as a House should face up to it. It is no use saying that we can keep politics out of this kind of thing. The nationalised industries are based on a political theory, and ever since we first introduced these Measures into the House we have seen the expression of very strong political feeling about them. What action has the House taken generally about these undertakings? Have we used to the best of our ability our facilities for discussing matters affecting the nationalised industries? The Report indicates various steps we can take. Before we ask for a Select Committee we should consider whether we have taken advantage of all the available opportunities and have used them to the best advantage to secure the most efficient way of running the national undertakings.
We have reports from the nationalised industries each year; how far have we discussed the details of those reports? It is suggested that even in the proposed 951 Select Committee we should not discuss the day-to-day administration, and the Leader of the House suggested that the Committee should not discuss the wages and conditions of employment of the nationalised industries. He suggested that we should not go too fast in the establishment of these committees of inquiry; yet the principle is accepted. Other hon. Members have suggested that the industries should be discussed in considerable detail.
One feels that there is an ulterior motive behind the proposal. I listened particularly to the right hon. Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton), and others, who said that the nationalised undertakings were running smoothly in their day-to-day administration. We have in the nationalised undertakings more approach by the public than in any other similar industry, outside a public undertaking. There are consumers' councils and consultative committees, to which complaints can go forward, to which the nationalised undertakings and the managers responsible for carrying out the day-to-day work can come. The directors are responsible for policy, and are comparable with the directors of, say, I.C.I., or Lever's. Now the suggestion is that that Committee will hamstring the work of the nationalised undertakings. I see the hon. Member for Blackburn, West shaking his head. I have given my opinion on this matter.
We had an expression of opinion by the T.U.C. on this matter, and from those who are really interested in making the nationalised industries a success. By their collaboration with the managements of nationalised undertakings they have proved that interest, and they have very firmly asked Parliament to refrain from further interference with these undertakings. They suggest that the yearly reports and the other ways open to Membesr of this House to acquire information are quite sufficient at this stage, and that the setting up of a Select Committee or any body of that description can only result in unsettling everyone in the industries, including the managements who will be afraid to plan ahead for fear of making a mistake for which they will be criticised by this House. That would destroy the whole chance of success.
952 This Government have paid lip-service to the success of nationalised industries, but they have also shown by their actions that they are determined to make it as difficult as possible for those industries to be a success. It is no good the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) laughing, because the way in which this Government have dealt with transport in this country is on record. When the Transport Commission put its case to the Transport Tribunal justifying an increase in fares, this Government took a political advantage and refused the Commission permission to do so. I have never heard of the Government doing something similar in the case of I.C.I. or any other undertaking like that.
It is also on record that when the nationalised Iron and Steel Corporation was showing a handsome profit, this Government instructed it to increase its prices, which had a very adverse effect on the industry. This shows a very distinct political bias in such matters, and it is my opinion that if a political committee, either of this House or of both Houses, is set up, it will be simply for the purpose of making the nationalised undertakings less successful.
As politicians, we should not concern ourselves with the day-to-day administration of these undertakings. We should use the power of this House through the Minister purely and simply to give directives to nationalised undertakings to adopt a certain line, and, having done that, we should let the chaps actually doing the job go ahead without such interference as is suggested in this recommendation.
§ 9.29 p.m.
§ Mr. G. Lindgren (Wellingborough)
I should not have intervened in this debate but for the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick). I do so from two points of view, firstly, as one who, as a Parliamentary Secretary, had four years association with a nationalised industry and Government Department, and, secondly, as a trade unionist.
First of all, I was associated with a Government Department in which the relationship between the Minister and the boards was perhaps much closer than that in any other of the socialised industries—it will be convenient perhaps if those 953 Members who want to hold a subcommittee would adjourn outside the Chamber.
Civil Aviation was the one industry with which the Minister, as a Minister, had a closer association—if not a degree of control—than was the case in any other of the socialised industries. That was understandable, because there we had an industry which required greater assistance from national funds than any other, and it was therefore quite right and proper that the Minister for the time being should have such a close association.
But let us now just look at how hon. Gentlemen opposite treated an industry of such national importance. They were not concerned whether aviation, as aviation, should be a national asset. What really worried them was whether or not that industry should be under private control with national assistance, or under public ownership and public control. I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge should be so—I was going to say simple, but I will withdraw that—so trusting regarding the hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite as to think that they are concerned that nationalised industries, as such, should be a success.
§ Mr. Beswick
My hon. Friend probably forgets that I prefaced my remarks in that connection by stating that they were first preparing to extract from the public sector those parts of public industries which were profitable.
§ Mr. Lindgren
I agree; and that is the basis of my case.
After all, in the Ministry in which I was Parliamentary Secretary, and in which my hon. Friend was such a distinguished follower, my hon. Friend will know that the activities of the present Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation are entirely different from those of the Ministers with whom my hon. Friend and I were associated. The present Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation is far more concerned that private enterprise should have greater opportunities of developing, even with Government contracts and Government support in civil aviation, than that the nationalised corporations associated with civil aviation should develop.
So far as concerns the industries affected—civil aviation, transport, railways—in which I earned my living before I entered 954 the House—coal, gas or electricity—I just do not trust the hon. Gentlemen opposite to have a Select Committee for the benefit of those industries. They would just use such a Committee for political purposes in order to undermine them. They do so in the House, and why should my hon. Friends on this side trust them more in private committee upstairs than in public on the Floor here?
§ Mr. Lindgren
But their deeds would not be reported in the Press either. It is not speeches only, but deeds, and their actions are such that I do not trust them.
Turning to the trade union side, I am a member of a trade union in order that, in my own industry, the measure of improvement in my wage or salary and in my working conditions shall be as high as possible. For many generations, in association with all industries, we have developed the principle of collective bargaining, where trade unions on one side and the employers, whether private or public, on the other, determine the conditions in those industries.
It may be that my hon. Friends think that hon. Members opposite, in a Select Committee, will be prepared to consider certain aspects of policy without going into the question of wages and conditions of employment. That is just impossible for hon. Members opposite, because, associated with the policy of an industry is the price for which the product of that industry is sold to the consumer, and that price very largely determines the wage or salary of the worker in the industry and the conditions under which he works.
Hon. Members opposite, in their speeches in the country, suggest that even the miner is getting a greater return for his labour than that labour is worth. Are my hon. Friends prepared not only to let hon. Members opposite make their sneers about nutty slack, dirty coal and the rest, and put up arguments on behalf of the merchants who buy the coal, but also to listen to their views on the wages of miners or railwaymen and the conditions under which they should work in return for their labour? They just will not be prepared merely to consider minor points of policy and not to deal with what to 955 them is the fundamental issue of wages and conditions in industry.
The fundamental point is that if nationalised industries, such as coal, gas, electricity, transport and civil aviation, are monopolies—and I cannot see any other method of developing them than as monopolies—so are many other industries. I represent Welwyn Garden City. One of the best employers there is I.C.I., but it is a far greater monopoly, with far greater ramifications, than civil aviation, the coal industry, or even the transport industry. Do hon. Members opposite suggest that a Select Committee should be set up to examine the affairs of I.C.I., Unilever Limited, or any other great monopoly, in order to judge their efficiency, their policies, and the arrangements as between employer and employee? Of course they do not. It is private enterprise, and they believe that private enterprise should go on in its sweet private way. It is only when we are dealing with a nationalised industry, which is a national asset—
§ Mr. Shepherd
Has the hon. Gentleman forgotten that the Monopolies Commission is not allowed to investigate State monopolies?
§ Mr. Lindgren
We are not discussing whether the Monopolies Commission is allowed to investigate State monopolies. When a Tory Government are in office very little is done when the Monopolies Commission makes a report. The Monopolies Commission took 18 months to report in connection with the match industry. Between the report itself and legislative action sections of the report were vetoed by Government decree because the Government thought they might be disadvantageous from the point of view of foreign trade.
We have industries meeting basic needs of the country and taken under public ownership, and having boards to run them, just as in private enterprise they have boards. Those men on the boards ought to have the opportunity to do their work. Speaking from my own association with them, that is, with those in civil aviation and in the British Transport Commission and, more particularly, concerned with the railways and the roads, I say they have done a first-class job, and 956 they ought to be left to do that job, just as any other business executives do their jobs.
I have heard one criticism of an executive in a nationalised industry during the debate, but in the main hon. Members on both sides of the House have paid tribute to the chairmen of the boards because they have been most willing and anxious to consider representations made to them by hon. Members; most anxious to facilitate inquiries that hon. Members put to them and even to enable hon. Members to undertake them by visits in person to see the boards' activities. I think these industries ought to have the opportunity of carrying on in the normal way.
As a former Parliamentary Secretary whose Minister was in another place, I had the responsibility of answering Questions in this House about civil aviation. Hon. Members were able to ask practically any Question they desired about civil aviation, not only about the public corporations, but also, in so far as safety and the rest were concerned, about private aviation enterprises. In my opinion, the best method of public accountability is to use the facilities we have already in this House, through Questions to Ministers and by debate on the Floor of the House, where we canventilate anything we suppose to be incorrect in the running of these nationalised industries. In addition to these means at our disposal we have our position as Members of Parliament, by which we can have direct contact with the chairmen of the corporations for personal inquiries.
While I have great respect for the business experience of many hon. Members on the other side of the House—for their experience in their particular industries—I do not see how Members of Parliament can claim in a private committee upstairs to criticise the policy and operations of industries with which, very rightly, they have had no association whatever. How can we make a greater contribution to those industries, without knowledge of them, than the men, or the women for that matter, who have spent a lifetime in them?
My immediate reaction to the Report of the Select Committee, from experience within the Government of 1945 to 1951, was against the proposal which was 957 made. My further reaction, as a trade unionist and a Member of the Opposition, is that I just do not trust right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite to be concerned about the future development of our nationalised industries. I therefore hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will at all times object to the Select Committee examining the general policy of the nationalised industries and interfering, as inevitably it must, in the day-today management by those people who have been chosen by the Minister of the day to carry out, on behalf of the public, the business activities of the industry to which they have been appointed.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Cole (Bedfordshire, South)
I listened with great attention to the speech of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Lindgren). I am sure he was not as confused as he would have us believe, and I am sure he understands why it is conceivable that a nationalised industry should be looked at by a Select Committee of the House and I.C.I, should not. There is a very cogent and fundamental difference between the two. As hon. Members opposite are always anxious to tell us, the nationalised industries are publicly owned; they have been bought with public money. I.C.I., however big it may be, is owned by private money, by the money of the shareholders, whose job it is to see that it is properly used.
§ Mr. Lindgren
Taking I.C.I, as a most efficient organisation—we are not in a critical mood tonight—may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he would say that I.C.I, has no public responsibility to the nation as a whole and for the welfare of the country?
§ Mr. Cole
Of course, I should be the last to deny that, nor would I.C.I, deny it. All I was trying to do was to bring the hon. Member back to the strait and narrow path by telling him why we are discussing the nationalised industries and not I.C.I. at this juncture.
In the course of the day, I and ray hon. Friends have been vastly entertained by, not the antics—that is not a polite word—but by the peregrinations of the party opposite. We have enjoyed the friendly differences of opinion which we have seen on the opposite benches. We have seen the slight embarrassment to members of 958 the Select Committee of listening to those who had nothing to do with the Select Committee and who disagree with the Report. At this stage they seem to have resolved their differences, and I am glad about that. I was particularly interested in the pantomime of the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton)—
§ Mr. Cole
For about 99/100ths of it. I admit that I myself would have been embarrassed had I been in the position of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu)—embarrassed to the slight extent he was—at recommending something in a Report with which some of his hon. Friends did not agree; but that embarrassment is the very salt of life in the House—
§ Mr. Cole
Of course not. The hon. Member was supporting a point of view in the Report which differed from the views held by some of his hon. Friends.
I was interested in the new pantomime writer, the hon. Member for Sowerby, who pictured the very wicked witches on the Conservative side of the House who would invite the starry-eyed and innocent fairies on his side of the House to join them in a Select Committee. Once the doors were closed and the spiders got to work, all the flies who went into the parlour would be speedily demolished.
§ Mr. Cole
I would point out to the hon. Member that some of the best pantomimes are founded on tragedy, and this is a case in point. I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's picture at all. I have far too great a respect for the Opposition to think that they will be innocently or otherwise led astray by my hon. Friends on this side.
My approach to this matter is one which, I believe, will have the commendation of the whole House, and I believe that, as we have these nationalised industries, we should do our utmost, with the 959 somewhat large powers which we have in this House, to make them as businesslike and as efficient as possible. I was glad to hear the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) make that point. I entirely agree with him, and I hope that it may be so. As we have these nationalised industries, we must make the best of them and do our best to try to make them work properly.
Reference has been made many times in this House, both today and in the past—I have already made it myself tonight—to the public ownership of these nationalised undertakings. That public ownership demands a lot of things. I am one of those who believe that the public, once they know what we mean by the formation of this Select Committee, will be very pleased to know that we have taken this step. Over the years, time and time again—and I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House have had the same experience—I have had it said to me "Why cannot you people in Parliament do something about the nationalised industries?"
These complaints about whether the industries were wrong or not were not always justified, but the general complaint has been that we in Parliament were powerless to do anything to show our commendation or dislike of what was being done by these industries. Therefore, I believe that something of this kind had to come. I disagree with the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) who feels that many members of the public will not want this new Select Committee. I believe that the public will feel more comfortable and happier and that those in the industries will be happier by feeling that there is a direct link between Parliament and the nationalised industries through a properly constituted Select Committee responsible to the House.
There is another point to which up to this late stage in the debate no one has thought of referring. It is quite an achievement at the end of a debate to find some point to which no one on either side has referred, and it is probably for that reason, as one of my hon. Friends says, not a very good point; but I am going to put it. I believe that as the years go on, we shall find in the nationalised industries a changing atmosphere. I say 960 that for this reason, and I think it is a good one. We have in the industry today, and I am very pleased to acknowledge it, many members who helped to run these industries when they were under private enterprise, and the businesslike effect of their activities and the long experience and wisdom which they bring to bear is now at the service of the nationalised industries.
That is the position at the moment and is likely to be for the next 10 or 20 years. But it will not ever be thus. There will grow up in time an atmosphere of nationalisation, socialisation, call it what we will, good or bad, I am not in a position to judge; but it will be different over the years, and the nationalised industries in 1975 will have a different atmosphere from those in 1954. I think, therefore, that it is important that we should over the years watch this changing trend and have a committee properly responsible to the representatives of the people in this House. For that reason, I think it is important that we should have this Select Committee.
We are here dealing, as many hon. Members have agreed, with a very important side of the economic existence of this country. We are dealing with the major industries; and I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) that they are nationalised industries and therefore are monopolies. Not only are they monopolies in fact but maintained monopolies by law. No one can set up a gas-producing industry or a new set of coal mines or an electricity undertaking. Therefore, for all these reasons, the monopolies which the last Parliament established should be carefully watched over by this and succeeding Parliaments to make sure that the child to which they have given birth is reared and trained properly to serve the public, which is its purpose.
Much has been said in this debate about looking over shoulders. I do not believe that people who are worth £7,000, £8,000 or £10,000 a year to run an enormous industry, involving hundreds of millions of pounds, will bother very much about what one Member of Parliament says in two or three years' time because something they tried to do did not come off.
§ Mr. Cole
I was waiting for that. I said "one Member." It is another matter if the Committee as a whole can point to a dereliction of duty over a period of time. Take the case of London Transport, with its new evening fares system. If in 18 months' time a Select Committee of the House were asked to give its views on why these fares failed or succeeded, as the case may be, I do not think London Transport Executive would be stopped from trying them again merely because one Member of the Committee might have been critical. But if there was a long history of things being done badly over the years, the members of a nationalised industry would have good cause to worry about what the Members of the Committee as a whole might think about them.
I believe that the nationalised industries and those in them who are worthy of the opinion of this House will welcome this link between the House of Commons and the industry. I do not believe that there will be all this so-called opposition by the industries to what we are proposing today. First, there are the ethical reasons. Nationalised industries will like to feel that this indeterminate period over the years has been brought to an end and that things are now on a proper basis. Moreover, the Select Committee representatives of this House can, when necessary, be a protection for the nationalised industries. Over the years, when there has been criticism by the public of an nationalised industry, there has not necessarily been anyone to protect the industry, except, perhaps, the chairman of its board; Parliament has not said "Yea" or "Nay" in any particular. Now, if the happenings in the nationalised industry are to be subject to the criticism of the Select Committee, there will be another added link either to condemn or to approve the viewpoint of the nationalised industry.
962 It has been evident all through this debate and from a study of the proceedings of the Select Committee that something was necessary in the way of a link between the industries and this House. The righthon. Member for Lewisham, South suggested a widening of the application of Questions. He also suggested a five or seven years' inquiry into the industries concerned, and other hon. Members have made various suggestions. I firmly believe that the concrete, constructive suggestion of a committee to forge this link between the industries and this House is the best possible one to have been made so far. We have heard nothing else suggested of an equal quality, and I hope sincerely that the House will adopt this suggestion.
In the final word of this debate, may I leave it on this note and recapitulate to the House—because we have gone some little way from it in the last few hours—what in my view is the most cogent part of the recommendations of the Committee? It is the function of the new Select Committee which is proposed. It is quite simple and raises none of the awful possibilities that hon. Members opposite have alleged. It says just this:The object of the Committee should be that of informing Parliament about the aims, activities and problems of the Corporations and not of controlling their work.
§ 9.59 p.m.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
We have heard a good deal from the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole), in introducing his remarks to us, about tragedy and pantomime. As I listened to the debate, I could not get it out of my head that we are really indulging—
§ It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.