HC Deb 11 February 1959 vol 599 cc1186-98
The Joint Under-Secretary of State (Mr. J. Nixon Browne)

I beg to move, in page 19, line 7, to leave out from "building" to the end of line 8 and to insert: Provided that the buildings authority, on application made to them, may if they think fit direct that the expense of carrying out any such test as aforesaid, or such part of that expense as may be specified in the direction, shall be met by the local authority. Under the Bill as it stands the owner must pay the cost of tests unless the buildings authority, on application made to them, otherwise direct. The Association of County Councils considered that the words Unless the buildings authority, on application made to them, otherwise direct were imprecise and we agreed with them that the responsibility as between master of works and owner as to payment of tests should be made more clear. Normally, the owner pays for testing. Normally, there are few, if any, tests except drain tests. The owner may, however, use any usual materials or adopt special features used in other parts of the country or used in other countries, but new to the master of works in the area.

The master of works may wish to carry out much more elaborate tests for his own satisfaction or which may be a guide to other authorities and he would rather do that than rely on reports from owners or their representatives or on technical publications. In such cases it is quite proper to ask that the owner should be able to share the cost of the tests or, in extreme cases, the local authorities, if they thought fit, should be able to bear the whole cost themselves.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn

The Joint Under-Secretary, in moving this Amendment, has illustrated the very point that I was trying to raise on the Motion for the recommittal of the Bill, that only now has he got the views of the principal corporations in Scotland so that he can make the Bill accurate and workable. I should like the Secretary of State to tell us why the usual procedure in this case was not followed. Many of the Amendments that we have to discuss today are on points which could have been, and are normally, cleared up with the chief corporations in Scotland before a Bill comes before the House. We ought to know why the Bill was rushed in this way and why its terms are not even set out in proper order.

The Chairman

That would be grossly out of order. We are considering one Amendment at the moment.

Mr. Woodburn

This one Amendment, we are told, has been drafted as a result of this consultation and if I must limit my remarks to the Amendment then I must ask why the Amendment, as well as all the others, was not properly considered and drafted before the Bill came to the House.

Mr. Rankin

This is where we land between the devil and the deep sea—I am not saying which is the devil and which is the deep sea—because Mr. Speaker, if I am in order in referring to him, has just ruled my right hon. Friend and myself out of order for seeking to raise this matter on recommittal. Sir Charles, with all respect to you, Mr. Speaker said that we could raise it later. Now we are told that we can deal only with what is in the Bill. The Secretary of State must know more than he is pretending he does. Now, when we seek to follow Mr. Speaker's advice, you, Sir Charles, very properly perhaps, rule it out of order on this score. Therefore, I will keep in order by just referring to the Amendment before us.

The Chairman

I am utterly in agreement with every word of Mr. Speaker and am just following out in Committee what he said.

Mr. Rankin

As my right hon. Friend was saying, this is one of the 70 or 80 little proofs which all add up to a terrible indictment against the Government. Due to the speed which governed the action of the Secretary of State we shall need hours and hours to deal with the Report stage alone.

The Amendment under discussion is proof that the Government have had to have second thoughts because of representations made to them, and even those second thoughts are not very good ones. Let us see what will happen. The Amendment says: Provided that the buildings authority, on application made to them, may if they think fit direct that the expense … shall be met by the local authority. Hon Members on this side of the Committee are not against the buildings authority being safeguarded in getting its money, but in Glasgow the directive will come from the dean of guild court, which is the building authority. That is a completely selected and non-elected body. So we have the professors of a belief in democracy bringing about an absurd situation in which the non-elected person directs the person who is elected by popular vote.

We cannot subscribe to that situation. There may be some people on the dean of guild court who are there by popular desire, but most of its members are there because they have money. That is the first thing that they must have. A person cannot get on to a dean of guild court if he is drawing National Assistance.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

Why not?

Mr. Rankin

I do not know, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. J. Henderson) can add a few illuminating words to what I am saying, if he so chooses. He will be able to give us some idea of what it costs to become a member of one of these ancient guilds.

Mr. Willis

What does it cost?

Mr. Rankin

I do not want to quote figures, but I think that to become a member of one of these guilds a person must put down at least £100. He cannot pay by instalments of 1s. a week. The hon. Member for Cathcart will be able to tell me whether I am right or wrong and, if I am wrong, how far I am wrong. He should be able to give me the proper figure, because he is an authority on the matter and can speak with greater knowledge than I have.

Mr. Willis

Is he a member?

Mr. Rankin

I would not like to say whether or not he is a member. He can tell us that if he chooses. The point is that this non-elected body can now direct the Corporation of Glasgow what to do. That is completely undemocratic.

I am surprised that enlightened Tories like the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. George) and the hon. Member for Cathcart —[Laughter.]—I do not know why that remark should provoke hilarity. I am certain that they will not sit quiet under the indignity which is being handed out by the Tory Front Bench to the great corporation of which they were former members. The old corporation tie will almost compel them to get to their feet in defence of the right of Glasgow Corporation not to be subjected to the direction of any group of people who live not in the city but in salubrious places in the west of Scotland.

Those are very strong reasons why the Government should put up a far better case for our accepting the Amendment.

Mr. J. N. Browne

The reason why the Amendment was not put forward in Committee was that the local authorities themselves had second thoughts about it. As we are trying to make the best job we can of the Bill, in a completely non- party spirit, I think that we are entitled to bring forward at any time any Amendment which we think will improve the Bill.

As to the question of the master of works and the position in Glasgow, I do not think that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) really suggests that the master of works, who is the person who has to be satisfied, would treat the position differently if he were in Glasgow than if he were in any other part of Scotland.

As for the dean of guild court, my right hon. Friend will be referring to it in connection with a later Amendment, and I think that I should leave the matter to him.

Mr. Willis

I am surprised at the Joint Under-Secretary's telling us that local authorities have a right to have second thoughts about this matter. The question he was asked was whether they had had an opportunity to have first thoughts about it.

Mr. Browne

The answer is, "Yes".

Mr. Willis

Would the hon. Member then tell us when local authorities had an opportunity to have first thoughts about it? The general complaint, certainly from Edinburgh, is that authorities had no opportunity to give full consideration to the Bill before its introduction. Edinburgh Corporation, with whom frequently disagree, is, nevertheless, a fairly efficient body, and it examines these matters fairly thoroughly as soon as the opportunity occurs. I am sure that if Edinburgh Corporation did not have an opportunity to do so many other local authorities did not. We should have a more satisfactory answer from the hon. Member.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Will the Joint Under-Secretary go a little further and give us the real reasons for the introduction of the Amendment? The Notice Paper contains seven Amendments to the Clause on Report, and the Committee is, therefore, handicapped, because it cannot properly consider the present Amendment unless it takes into account the other Amendments which we shall be considering later.

This is not good enough. Local authorities were not given sufficient notice. The Bill was introduced in one week, and had its Second Reading in the following week, with the Committee stage following on very quickly after that. Not only are local authorities being placed in a difficulty but, as members of the Committee, we cannot perform our function properly if we have Amendments introduced in piecemeal fashion.

Under the Bill as it stands the main emphasis is laid upon the owner in respect of the payment of these expenses. The Amendment will shift the emphasis from the owner—or the responsible person, under a later Amendment—to the local authority. I shall be happy if the Joint Under-Secretary can dissuade me from that view. Only by considering the Amendments which are to be put forward on Report, together with the one that we are now discussing, can the full significance of the provision be seen. That is why we are handicapped.

4.0 p.m.

Here the buildings authority can direct a local authority to pay the expenses. This reveals one of the other weaknesses to which we referred in Committee, that an unelected body outside the local authority can direct the local authority to pay either all or part of the expenses. If the Government had taken our advice at an earlier stage and recast the Bill—not in the sense of the principle, we agreed with the principle of a national building code—but in the way in which they were performing that duty, the Bill would have gone through its various stages much more quickly. Unfortunately, the longer this Bill is debated the more pitfalls can be discovered.

Will the Joint Under-Secretary address himself to the point which I have made about the full significance of this shifting of the onus from the owner—or, as we propose to alter it at a later stage, to the responsible person—to the local authority in paying these expenses? Unless the hon. Gentleman can assure us about that, we shall have to consider further action.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

One of the tribulations of the Secretary of State and the Joint Under-Secretary arises from having the Bill recommitted, which means that they must face hon. Members who have not seen the Bill before or had the advantage of serving on the Standing Committee which considered it. I may be one who will be harder to convince about the merits of this Amendment than other hon. Members who are au fait with the proceedings.

Mr. Rankin

I can assure my hon. Friend that some hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee were very hard to convince in fact, we were not convinced. It is becoming harder and harder to convince us and I hope that it will prove harder and harder to convince my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ross

It would be unfair for me to say now on which side I shall come down. I am prepared to be persuaded by the eloquence of the Minister that what the Government are doing is right.

I wish to examine the Amendment in the light of the Clause which we are seeking to amend. As I understand, Clause 16 (10) deals with the case where the master of works or any person authorised by him may require the owner of any building in respect of which an application for a direction under section four, or a warrant under section six, of this Act has been made to cause to be carried out"— some tests. That takes us back to the question of the application for a direction.

I am interested, because in the Amendment it states: provided that the buildings authority, on application made to them"— I presume that means an application made by the owner— may if they think fit direct that the expense of carrying out any such test as aforesaid, or such part of that expense as may be specified in the direction … This is rather curious. According to Clause 4, the direction is made by the Secretary of State, I think I am right in saying. So we find that all sorts of people are now involved. We have the Secretary of State who has been asked, so far as I can understand Clause 4, to waive certain building standards. The right hon. Gentleman makes a direction, which covers the buildings authority, the builders and the rest of it. Seemingly, in this direction the Secretary of State is to say what part of the expense, if any, has to be borne by the local authority.

What does that mean? The right hon. Gentleman told us that the building authority might, if it thought fit, direct payment of the expense of carrying out something or other—and here we have a harking back to the original direction bringing the whole thing into being, in which the Secretary of State specified "such part of that expense" in the direction.

Frankly, I do not understand the administration of this thing. Who is to decide? Is it to be the building authority on application after the test has been made, or before it has been made; or the Secretary of State when he issues a direction that certain standards shall not apply? If it is any one—apart from the owner, who is the person who originally seeks to set aside certain building standards—who has to pay for the test considered necessary by the local authority, it should not be the local authority, but the Secretary of State. I do not understand the logic of applying an expense to the local authority when the man who makes the test necessary, and who makes a ruling about the test, is the Secretary of State.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to tell us how this is to work and to try to give us more reason for justifying what has been done here. The right hon. Gentleman is being unfair to the local authorities in what he is deciding, quite apart from what has been said about whether he consulted the local authorities or sought their advice.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

I am completely unpersuaded by any argument, or so-called argument, advanced by the Minister. He told us that his justification for seeking our approval of the Amendment was that in certain cases—perhaps in the case of the use of new and strange materials—it was reasonable, a master of works having wanted the test carried out, that the expense should be met by the local authority. There may be a case on that, but as it is drafted subsection (10) reads in this way: …the expense of carrying out any test to he carried out under this section shall be met by the owner of the building unless the buildings authority, on application made to them, otherwise direct. So that there is provision for the expense to be met, in certain circumstances, by some other than the owner.

I should have thought that where the responsibility for doing the test was wholly that of a local authority, the local authority could have been presented with the bill. What interests me, if this is so, is why the Government have gone through all the embarrassing procedure of bringing in this Amendment, and drawn attention to the way in which they rode this matter through the Committee without having adequate consultation with the local authorities.

What is the difference between the Amendment proposed by the Government and the text of the Bill as it is now drafted which makes this Amendment worth while? I am bound to regard this matter somewhat suspiciously in view of the nature of the building authority which, in certain cases, will be specifying that expenses shall be met by the local authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) told the Committee about the kind of building authority which will exist in Glasgow under the provisions of the Bill. It will be the dean of guild court, which does not contain a single elected representative.

No one would wish to cast any aspersions on the present members of the dean of guild court in Glasgow. I could not do so in any case, because I do not know who they are. But they are unelected representatives and need not even be citizens of Glasgow. In certain circumstances, there may well be a suspicion that they may prefer to send the bill to the local authority rather than to their friends, the property owners. If that be the background to this Amendment, we should wish to vote against it. But we want to hear much clearer arguments from the Minister before we can accept the Amendment. It is scandalous that an Amendment of this kind should be put forward in such circumstances and at this stage of our proceedings.

By referring to the OFFICIAL REPORT of the proceedings in Committee the Minister will discover that on Tuesday, 9th December, we dealt with Clauses 9 to 17 which were agreed—some with Amendments, but not many. We went through Clause after Clause very quickly on that occasion. Now we come back here this afternoon and have this kind of Notice Paper.

One of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) gave when he was Secretary of State for Scotland for greatly extending the work of the Scottish Grand Committee was that it would relieve congestion on the Floor of the House. Well, we have wasted our time in the Scottish Standing Committee on this Bill, and now we come back to find the Floor of the House taken up with these Amendments, which ought to have been with us before, if the local authorities had been given adequate time for consultation. Even at this stage, when the Amendments are brought forward, the Minister fails to tell us who has represented that this change should be incorporated in the Bill and has also failed to put forward any real argument for changing the present text in favour of the Amendments.

Mr. J. N. Browne

I will try to answer, if I can remember them, all the points that have been raised. This is only a drafting Amendment. [HoN. MEMBERS: "0h."] It does not alter the sense or the intention of the Bill. The Amendment is made at the request of the county councils, to make the intention a little clearer.

I would like to correct one impression I gave before, when I said that this was "second thoughts" on the part of the county councils. I realise now that I was wrong and that it was later thoughts and not second thoughts. The point was taken by the county councils in a letter of 20th November, 1958. The Amendment does not refer to the ordinary test. That will be carried out by the master of works, the applicant will pay the fee, and no special charge will be made. We are not, as the hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) suggested, shifting the onus from the owner to the local authority.

The local authority will pay only a portion, or the whole, of the charge if it thinks fit. That is to say, it is only when the building authority thinks fit that the charge is made. The Amendment is intended only to give "fair do's" where, as I pointed out in my opening speech, the master of works has asked for a test of something which is quite unusual. It might then be fair that the building authority should suggest to the local authority that it should pay some of the cost. Only in those cases will the Clause arise at all.

I have dealt with the question of fees, which will not be charged by the master of works for his ordinary duties. This Amendment relates simply to the case where special public interest is involved. I do not think that there is anything else I ought to answer. On the question of consultation with the County Councils' Association on this point before the Bill was drafted, there was a meeting on 14th May, 1958, with the Minister of State and there was a working party of officials later. Then there was a circular stating the Government's intentions. All this was done before the Committee stage.

Mr. Ross

Would the hon. Gentleman answer the question I raised about the actual context of the Amendment and explain what is meant by the words: …or such part of that expense as may be specified in the direction."?

Mr. Browne

That was one point I had forgotten. The words do not refer to the direction on top of page 19 of the Bill, but to the direction on the previous line of the Amendment.

Mr. Rankin

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, will he give me a reply to the point which I raised, that under the Amendment the dean of guild court for Glasgow will be given the right to direct the locally-elected authority as to what money it shall pay? Is that the case? If so, does the hon. Gentleman consider it right that money which is levied on the ratepayers of Glasgow should be subject to instructions by the dean of guild court?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Member may have his own views on that matter, but that is not the effect of the Amendment. It has, as I explained, merely a drafting effect. The Bill will have exactly the same effect as before.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn

I gather from what the Joint Under-Secretary of State has said that the local authorities accept what is in the subsection and have actually asked that it should be stated in the words proposed in the Amendment; and that this supplement to the Clause refers only to special features of the tests which may extend beyond the sphere of the particular item under discussion. Therefore, it should be borne more generally. The Joint Under-Secretary might have given us that detailed explanation at the beginning. Not being able to follow just what this meant has led to a lot of questions which might not otherwise have required to be put.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) has raised a serious point. While the dean of guild court is, of course, acting in a judicial capacity, it is unsatisfactory that an outside body should be able to pass over charges to a local authority. When the Secretary of State is dealing with the bigger questions I hope that he will keep this point in mind.

In view of the fuller explanation that we have had from the Joint Under-Secretary of State, we will not divide against the Clause.

Mr. Ross

I think that the Secretary of State has had a few thoughts about this matter. I raised the question of direction. This subsection states: The master of works or any person authorised by him may require the owner of any building in respect of which an application for a direction under section four,… The most important word there is "direction" and the subsection can come into operation only if there is in existence a direction given by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Why, therefore, did the Secretary of State not read the whole thing in that context, and realise that it was quite unnecessary to put the words "in the direction" into the proposed Amendment? The Amendment reads quite well without bringing in those words at all. The hon. Gentleman said that this was purely a drafting Amendment; would it not have been better if he had got the drafting right and had not put in this confusing phrase in the direction which, in the context of the Clause, takes us right back to the last mention of a direction? Now he tells us that it is a different direction altogether. Will he not put in a manuscript Amendment for the Report stage to wipe out this confusion?

Mr. Willis

Will the hon. Gentleman also tell us whether the expense to be borne by a local authority under the Clause will be included in expenditure for the calculation of the block grant?

Mr. Browne

Under the direction, yes. I am advised that the wording is correct and that we should not put down an Amendment for the Report stage, as suggested.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, with an Amendment; as amended (in the Standing Committee and on recommittal), considered.