HC Deb 02 November 1959 vol 612 cc812-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

10.16 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

In the early days of the General Election there was, in Scotland, one of the worst mining disasters that Britain has ever known. At the Auchengeich Colliery, in Lanarkshire 47 miners lost their lives, and as a result 41 women became widows and 76 children lost their breadwinners.

As usual in circumstances of this nature, there was a tremendous upsurge of emotional feeling, based, I think, upon the most worthy humanitarianism. Nowhere was that feeling more apparent and more heart-warming than in the mining communities. We in the mining areas know the real price of coal, and this was it being paid by the mining community. As is normal and, I think, inevitable in circumstances of this character, a disaster fund was opened, and I understand that it now stands at about £140,000.

There were local authorities which desired to contribute to the fund. The Fife County Council decided that it would like to contribute £1,000. Fife is, by and large, a mining community, and it felt a strong community of interest with the people who had suffered this great disaster. Many Fife county councillors are miners and many are ex-miners, and most of them are my personal friends. One can, therefore, imagine their fury and disgust when the Secretary of State for Scotland refused to sanction the payment of the £1,000 into the disaster fund.

The reasons for the refusal were given in a letter from the Scottish Home Office dated 30th September. The letter quoted Section 339(1) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947. The subsection says: A county council or a town council may with the approval of the Secretary of State make any payment for any purpose which in the opinion of the council … I stress those words— … is in the interest of the council or of the area of the council or any part thereof or of the inhabitants thereof … My interpretation, and the Fife County Council's interpretation, of that subsection is that the discretion as to whether there is a community of interest lies solely and entirely with the county council. That alone, I think, can be the explanation of the insertion of the words: … in the opinion of the council … Otherwise, those words would have been omitted from the Act.

The Secretary of State could have exercised his discretion without stating his reasons for so exercising it and for so refusing the Fife County Council permission to make the grant; but he did not choose to do so. He made it quite specific that he was acting under the terms of the subsection which I have quoted and saying in so many words that the Fife County Council was improperly exercising the discretion given it by Statute.

Why did the Secretary of State make what I think was a heartless and absurd decision? Was it made by him, or by a dry-boned, heartless civil servant in the Department who has no knowledge of the mining communities and cares less about them? I think that the Department knows that it is on a bad wicket. I should like to ask further questions.

How was the decision reached? On what, basis is a local authority allowed to contribute to funds the beneficiaries of which are outside the area of the local authority? Does the Secretary of State refuse permission to all local authorities who want to contribute to the Scottish National Orchestra, for instance? Does he refuse that on the grounds that the local area will not benefit directly from whatever the activities of the Scottish National Orchestra may be? When the Lord Mayor of London opens a disaster fund, are local authorities up and down the country not allowed to contribute? Has the Secretary of State ever disallowed a contribution of that kind?

In his letter of 30th September, the Secretary of State says that he is unable to approve a contribution to the Auchengeich Colliery Disaster Fund from a local authority not in or adjacent to the area of the disaster". What exactly does that mean? Which areas are adjacent and which are not? Clearly, a wide discretion is available to the Secretary of State in that sense. He should have exercised that discretion in a much more humanitarian way than he did.

I understand the view that some safeguards must be put into statutory form to ensure that a local authority does not misuse funds from ratepayers. There must be safeguards against the abuse of ratepayers' money, but the Act was never intended to be used in this way where there is clearly not the slightest tittle of evidence of any abuse. Indeed, I go so far as to say that not a single ratepayer in Fife would argue against this grant of £1,000 to the Auchengeich Colliery Disaster Fund.

I believe that where the law is blatantly against all humanitarian sentiment, particularly where the law can be interpreted differently by different people, then humanitarianism ought to prevail. If the Secretary of State had been worthy of his salt he would have said to his leader that he was taking responsibility for allowing Fife to make the contribution. Because the Secretary of State has not had the guts to do that, I hope that one of the local authorities will have the guts—I was about to use a word that I should not use—to make a contribution despite the Secretary of State and let the right hon. Gentleman do what he likes.

I wonder what would happen if a local authority did that. No doubt there would be a test case. The auditor would come along and make his case, and then the matter would go to the courts. I urge some of the local authorities to take that course and to challenge the Secretary of State on this mean and despicable action, which has merited the anger, the distaste and the fury of every thinking, decent man and woman in Scotland.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Harry Gourlay (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

As a member of the authority concerned, namely, Fife County Council, I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. Hamilton). I wish to convey to the Minister the great depth of feeling aroused throughout the country, particularly in mining areas, by the refusal of the Secretary of State to approve Fife's contribution to the Auchengeich Colliery Disaster Fund.

One has often heard references to the cold, dead hand of the Treasury, but the advice given to the Minister by his legal advisers in this connection is of iceberg temperature by comparison. I quote Section 339 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947: … make … payment for any purpose which in the opinion of the council is in the interests of the council or of the area of the council or any part thereof … Clearly, it is in the reciprocal interests of mining areas in Fife to contribute to the fund, as those areas in the past have benefited from other authorities and may be in the unfortunate position of requiring assistance in future.

It seems farcical to refuse an authority permission to contribute to such a worthy cause while under another Act of Parliament an authority is allowed to rate up to 6d. for the purposes of entertainment. We could have the ridiculous position of an authority being refused permission to contribute to such a worthy cause as the Auchengeich Disaster Fund and then proceeding to subsidise to the same extent some frivolous form of entertainment, the Minister being powerless to prevent it.

I hope that tonight the Minister will give the representations made by my hon. Friend and myself the most sympathetic consideration and will allow Fife County Council and some of the neighbouring authorities to make a respectable contribution to the fund.

10.28 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

I am sure that we all admire the fortitude of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. Hamilton) in coming to the House to make this case on behalf of his constituents in spite of the injury which he unfortunately sustained last week. I am glad that that injury has not affected the punch with which he delivered his argument.

The subject which we are debating tonight is one on which there has been some misunderstanding and I very much welcome the opportunity of putting it into its proper perspective which is provided by this debate, thus enabling the local authorities concerned and, indeed, all the people of Scotland, to understand the legal position which has guided my right hon. Friend in reaching his decision.

Before I go into the technicalities of the case and examine the arguments, I should like to express on behalf of the Government our deep sense of sympathy with the relatives of the men who died in the Auchengeich pit disaster. I should also say that I understand the desire of local authorities—which has been expressed by the two hon. Members who have spoken—the hon. Member for Fife West and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs (Mr. Gourlay)—to contribute to this fund. A tragic disaster on the scale of the Auchengeich disaster arouses public distress and it is natural, indeed it is proper, that this feeling of distress should find expression in the wish to contribute voluntarily something over and above the compensation that may be available to relatives and dependants from other sources.

There are three ways in which local authorities can set about satisfying this natural desire to help those who have been bereaved. In the first place, they may give the public the opportunity to contribute to the fund by sponsoring collections in their areas. Many local authorities have in fact already done this. A second way of helping is by way of making a contribution from the Common Good or the Fee Fund where a local authority has got one and, again, that has been done in several areas. This method of helping is not subject to the restrictions of making a contribution from the rates, which is the third line of action open to local authorities which want to help in a disaster of this sort.

Several authorities, including the County Council of Fife, part of whose area the two hon. Members who have spoken represent, have wished to do this. It is here that the difficulty arises because a payment from the rates, as the hon. Member stated, can be only under Section 339 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947, which states—I repeat this because it will be part of my argument, as well as that of the hon. Member for Fife West: A county council or a town council may with the approval of the Secretary of State make any payment for any purpose which in the opinion of the council is in the interests of the council or of the area of the council or any part thereof or of the inhabitants therof. What I should like the House to note is that the opinion of the council alone as to what is in its interests is not sufficient. The Secretary of State must also direct his mind to the question. Otherwise, the requirement of his approval contained in the Act would be meaningless.

This means that, before the Secretary of State can approve any payment under Section 339, he must consider whether it falls within its terms and this involves the Secretary of State considering what is meant by the expression: in the interests of the council and its inhabitants. As the hon. Member will be aware, and as the House is aware, this is not the first occasion on which the Secretary of State has had to consider the meaning of Section 339. There is a wide variety of payments for which local authorities have to apply to the Secretary of State for approval in terms of this Section. Examples of successful applications in the last three years include contributions by Highland authorities to the Highland Agricultural Society, expenditure on providing wayside seats, contributions to the Scottish Council (Developments and Industry), but up to 1956 the precise meaning of this Section in relation to payments to charitable funds had not been strictly determined. In that year it was necessary to consider the legal interpretation of Section 339 in relation to payments to charitable funds, because a number of local authorities at that time wanted to contribute to the Hungarian Relief Fund, to which I think the hon. Member indicated he was referring.

As a result of the inquiry which was instituted at that time, the Secretary of State was advised that the Section did not cover payments for the relief of distress in places either in the United Kingdom or abroad which were in no way connected with the authority concerned. In accordance with this advice, therefore, the Secretary of State refused his approval to these payments which local authorities wanted to make to the Hungarian Relief Fund.

More recently, several local authorities requested approval for contributions to the Karnes and Kelty pit disaster funds. Although the advice given in respect of the Hungarian disaster appeared to apply also to these cases, it was decided to seek legal advice again, with special reference to the particular case of a disaster taking place in Scotland. Again, the Secretary of State's advisers confirmed that Section 339 authorised payments only where the purpose is one in the interests of the authority or its citizens or some of them, and confirmed that no benefit accrued in this sense from the making of a donation to a fund for a disaster in some other area.

The Secretary of State, therefore, had to refuse applications by the county councils of Stirling, Midlothian, Lanark and Ross and Cromarty and the town councils of Kilsyth, Dundee and Glasgow, all of which wished to contribute to the Kelty fund. He approved payments to the Kelty fund by the adjacent local authorities of Clackmannan and Kilrenny. In the case of Karnes, it was the same story. The Secretary of State refused applications by Kilsyth and Dundee town councils but approved one by Ardrossan.

The history of these disasters and the funds associated with them shows that there are many precedents for the refusal of contributions in circumstances similar to those we are discussing tonight. As regards Auchengeich, when applications were received for approval of payments to the disaster fund, although this again was very closely parallel to the Kelty and Kames funds, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided to make perfectly certain that the advice previously given applied also to Auchengeich. Once more it was confirmed.

The position, therefore, is that a council may make a contribution towards a fund raised to relieve distress occasioned by a disaster of any sort in its own area or which has brought actual physical distress to its area. The reason is that such contributions would be in the interests of those of its citizens who have been affected by the disaster. But contributions by other local authorities are not within the terms of Section 339.

I appreciate entirely the force of the argument made, with great feeling, by the hon. Member for Fife, West, that mining areas in his constituency have a close community of interest with Lanarkshire where the disaster took place. I appreciate also the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs that all local authorities have a community of interest to help each other in distress: there is no knowing when disaster of one kind or another may fall on the area of a local authority. I regret, however, despite the sympathy and understanding I have for these points of view, that it is necessary to interpret the phrase the interests of the council or the area of the council or of the inhabitants thereof in a rather narrower sense.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Clackmannan. Exactly how did Clackmannan receive permission to help in the Kelty fund? Clackmannan has no more connection with Kelty than Lanarkshire, unless it is the same union of miners.

Mr. Galbraith

I cannot answer that without notice, but I imagine that the reason is the same as that which has allowed several areas which are remote from Auchengeich to contribute—the fact that one of the miners probably lived in that area or had a dependant living in Clackmannan, which would, therefore, give Clackmannan the necessary interest.

Mr. A. C. Manuel (Central Ayrshire) rose

Mr. Galbraith

I am sorry not to give way. There is not much time. I want to continue, because I think this is an important matter which has created a lot of interest in Scotland. I should like just to finish what I am saying.

What we have to do is to consider whether the fund in question will give any tangible and direct benefit to any of the people living in the area of the authority which makes the contribution. In the light of this situation it was possible to give approval to contributions from Lanarkshire—obviously, because that was where the disaster took place—Glasgow, Kilsyth, Hamilton, Motherwell and Wishaw, and Airdrie. All these local authorities were affected because either the dead or their dependants lived in these areas or in contiguous burghs, and it was this fact which created an interest in the sense of Section 339 of the Act.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, approval has been refused to the County Council of Fife and also to the County Councils of Midlothian, East Lothian and Clackmannan, and the Town Councils of Dundee, Lochgelly and Doune.[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) must listen to the argument. He may not agree with it, but he should listen to it.

Mr. Manuel

The hon. Gentleman has not got an argument.

Mr. Galbraith

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State realises that public feelings of distress and sympathy for the relatives of disaster victims are particularly strong in a mining area such as Fife. As I have tried to explain, however, this does not constitute an "interest" in terms of the Act.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

How, then, can the hon. Gentleman justify, in line with his own argument, giving permission to those who have contiguous contact with an area, because by his own argument they, too, have no interest?

Mr. Galbraith

I quite agree. I think that that is a very good point, but when I said "contiguous" what I meant was certain towns that go together, like Motherwell and Wishaw, Airdrie and Coatbridge, which are different, but which are rather like Siamese twins: they always go together.

Mr. Manuel

So do miners in Lanarkshire and Fife.

Mr. Ross

Whether the hon. Gentleman can talk of contiguous or otherwise, there is a separate local authority, and if he can justify it in the case of one he can justify it in the case of Fife.

Mr. Galbraith

I cannot.

Mr. Ross

Oh, yes.

Mr. Galbraith

One has to draw the line somewhere and the line has been drawn in accordance with the advice given to the Secretary of State and that allows in towns which are contiguous and which are rather like Siamese twins.

As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State realises that public feelings of distress and sympathy for the relatives of pit disaster victims are particularly strong in a mining area such as Fife. I have tried to explain, however, that this does not constitute an interest in terms of the Act. My right hon. Friend has, therefore, with very great regret, had to decide that he cannot approve contributions from areas which are not directly affected by this disaster. I should like to emphasise, however, that where a contribution from the rates is not allowable it is open to local authorities either to make a contribution from the Common Good or the Fee Fund, if they have one, or to encourage the ratepayers to make contributions by sponsoring voluntary collections in their areas.

I hope, therefore, that local authorities who feel strongly on this matter—and I understand how they do feel strongly on this matter—will not be put off by the legal impossibility of contributing from the rates under Section 339, but will give the public an opportunity to contribute in other ways which are open to them and thus give practical effect to the sympathy they feel for the victims of this tragic disaster.

10.45 p.m.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

I am sure that not only hon. Members on this side but hon. Members on the other side of the House will be extremely disappointed with the reply by the Joint Under-Secretary of State. The disaster took place in my constituency.

The basis for the refusal by the Secretary of State is that he had legal advice. From whom? We sometimes find that the advice which we receive from the legal advisers in the Scottish Grand and Standing Committees when we are dealing with the Bills is wrong. Was that the source from which the Secretary of State obtained the advice which made him give this most heartless decision to the Fife County Council?

We are told that it is not in the interests of the county council and the inhabitants of the county and that the county council has not been able to prove that it is in the interests of the inhabitants. Many mining families have moved from Lanarkshire to Fife. Many of the present inhabitants of Fife have very close family links with the families which suffered from the disaster. Some of these families are personal friends of mine.

Mr. Galbraith

I appreciate all this feeling of distress, but it does not create an interest.

Mr. Manuel

Why does it not?

Mr. Ross

Where is this defined in the Statute?

Mr. Galbraith

"Interest" in the Act means—hon. Members opposite may not accept it, but this is the Secretary of State's interpretation—that people in the local authority area are actually going to gain financially from—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.