HC Deb 02 March 1960 vol 618 cc1366-80

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Leburn

I beg to move, in page 2, line 9, to leave out from the beginning to "regular" in line 11 and to insert "provides".

During the Committee stage I undertook to reconsider the drafting of this subsection, and, in particular, to consider whether there was any dubiety about the meaning of the words in the same undertaking or otherwise. I now propose to simplify the subsection by deleting the group of words referred to in the Amendment. A number of hon. Members thought that the subsection as drafted was somewhat complicated. Its intention was, and remains, to exclude from the benefit of the Bill persons who operate regular transport services outwith the Highlands in addition to services serving the Highlands.

The reason for this has frequently been explained. To repeat what I said during the Committee stage discussions: … we do not intend to assist services which are essentially services to places outside the Highlands. This subsection ensures that the management and the accounting arrangements of any company which we assist shall be entirely self-contained."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 16th February, 1960; c. 125.] We do this in a clear-cut way. In effect, we say, "Form a separate company either for your Highland operations, or for your operations outside the Highlands." I do not think that this is asking too much. It is not a difficult or unreasonable requirement, and it has the advantage of being absolutely clear.

I hope that hon. Members will agree that the Amendment meets the wishes expressed in Committee.

Mr. T. Fraser

My hon. Friends and I do not like the way in which the Joint Under-Secretary has managed to amend subsection (2). I understand that Amendments which I had tabled will not be called, but I think I can say what I wish to say in the discussion on this Amendment, because all the words which appear in the Amendments I put down are also contained in the Government Amendment. I think that the words proposed to be taken out serve a useful purpose in the subsection as it is drafted. As amended, the subsection would read The Secretary of State shall not under this section undertake to make, or make, any advance to, or enter into any contract with, any person of a description specified in the foregoing section who provides regular public transport services serving places outwith the Highlands and Islands otherwise than incidentally to the service of places within the Highlands and Islands. I think that the hon. Gentleman was anxious to make clear in the Bill that he did not mind supporting a person who provided a service to the Highlands and Islands provided that it was done in a separate undertaking. Why not provide for the subsection to read: … any person of a description specified in the foregoing section who provides in the same undertaking regular public transport services serving places outwith the Highlands and Islands"? That is what the hon. Gentleman was at pains to tell us was the intention of the Secretary of State, and the purpose of the subsection. We think he has made the intention a little less clear by taking out so many words.

Before we pass from the Amendment, I wonder whether the Joint Under-Secretary or the Lord Advocate would consider whether it would not be more clear if the words "in the same undertaking" were left in so that assistance could be given to the person who had separate undertakings.

Mr. Leburn

I have to confess that when I looked at the three Amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) and his hon. Friends I found it difficult to come to a decision, because I saw little difference between the Government Amendment and the Opposition Amendments. There seemed to be a marginal advantage in the Government Amendment in that it made for clarity and simplicity.

I gladly say to the hon. Member that if he feels that the Bill will be improved by putting in these words I shall consider whether they might be included when the Bill goes to another place. I am being quite honest about this. I discussed the Amendments for a long time yesterday and today and there seemed to be an absolutely even balance. It was purely on the grounds of simplicity and clarity and the fact—I hope that I shall not be out of order in saying this—that the Amendments in the hon. Member's name, from the point of view of grammar, were a little difficult to understand and to link.

But I do not want to go into that. It was really on grounds of simplicity and clarity that, on balance—and it was a delicate balance—I decided that we should keep to the Government Amendment. If the hon. Member would like me to reconsider this, I shall be happy to do so and, if there is any advantage in adopting his words, or words like them, I shall so arrange.

Mr. Willis

As one who took part in the lengthy discussion in Committee, I should say that it centred around the words "or otherwise" and not "in the same undertaking" Because of that, we tabled our Amendments.

Subsection (2), as amended by the Government Amendment, would not make it clear that anyone already running a service outside the Highlands, by setting up a subsidiary company, could set up an organisation which would qualify for assistance under the Bill. I had to read the provision several times before I saw that that was what it included. If we put in the words we suggest it would be made crystal clear that a separate undertaking can be set up to do what, in Committee, the Joint Under-Secretary said we should do. I hope that he will look at the matter again. So far as we can understand, our proposal would meet the position more clearly. I do not know about the grammatical error he suggested there was in our Amendment. I thought at first there was one, but, on reading it again, I do not think that there is.

Mr. T. Fraser

I am grateful for what the Joint Under-Secretary said. We should all be grateful to him for his undertaking that he will have a look at this between now and the Bill being considered in another place.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Willis

I beg to move, in page 2, line 22, at the end to insert: (4) Where the Secretary of State proposes under this section to enter into a contract for the charter of ships to any person, he shall do so only in accordance with an undertaking a draft of which (including the terms and conditions upon which the undertaking is proposed to be made) has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of the Commons House thereof. This Amendment raises the question about which we had discussions in Committee. It then became fairly clear that it would be possible for the Secretary of State to provide a hidden subsidy to a person running such a service by chartering the boat to the operator at a figure much below an economic charge. During our discussions, the hon. Gentleman said that the kind of figure the Government had in mind for chartering was about 10 per cent. of the cost. That could run into £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000. It is obvious that the Secretary of State could, under the terms of the Bill, charter the vessel to an operator for a figure very much below that—it might be £10,000 below that, it might even be £20,000 below it—and no one would know anything about it.

Subsection (3) says: Where the Secretary of State proposes under this section to make to any person in any financial year any advances which, by itself or taken with any other advance made or to be made under this section to that person in hat financial year, exceeds in the aggregate thy- sum of ten thousand pounds … it has to come before Parliament.

It is possible that the person operating the service could be provided with a hidden subsidy much larger than £10,000 and for it not to come before the House of Commons at all. That should not be so. If there is to be a hidden subsidy to the operator, if there is to be this particular form of subsidy to the operator, the House of Commons should know something about it. It is because we felt that we should know something about it that we tabled the Amendment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look upon it with favour.

Mr. Leburn

I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) will not press the Amendment. I understand clearly the point he made, but the trouble is that, taken as it stands, the Amendment would mean that if the Secretary of State proposed to charter even a motor boat to an operator of a small service he would have to lay the contract before Parliament and the House of Commons. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has that sort of case particularly in mind.

There is a more serious difficulty, which was referred to by my right hon. Friend during the debate on the Money Resolution. He then referred to the problems of seafaring. Conditions can very well arise in which it is necessary to find and charter a ship at very short notice to carry out essential services. Moreover, a charter might conceivably be for a very short time, perhaps for a month or even for a single voyage. In those circumstances, it might not be possible or appropriate to seek parliamentary approval.

I appreciate the proper desire of the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the House is able to exercise a proper control over public funds, and, in particular, his desire to see that my right hon. Friend's undertaking not to give a hidden subsidy by chartering at less than an economic fee is observed. I do not think that there is very much fear on this point. In practice, the chartering of any sizeable vessel is likely to be associated with an undertaking under Clause 2 (1, a), which would he of sufficient importance, namely, over £10,000, to come before the House. I agree, however, that it is not absolutely essential. But if that happened, the Amendment might mean a double debate first on the undertaking and then on the charter.

11.15 p.m.

In addition to any particular charter, large or small, I think that the hon. Member might remember that the matter can be raised in various ways. I think that it can be brought out to the House that there will be no hidden subsidy, and my right hon. Friend has, in fact, given an undertaking that that is not his intention. It could be brought out by Question and Answer on the Floor of the House. It could be raised on the Estimates, and it could be inquired into by the Public Accounts Committee. I think overall there are sufficient safeguards, and I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member will not press the Amendment.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

Could it, in fact, be raised on the Floor of the House in the form of Questions to the Secretary of State? Our experience is that it is not permissible to ask questions about the operations, say, of MacBraynes, for which the Secretary of State has a certain responsibility.

Mr. Leburn

No doubt, that would be a matter for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, or for the Table, but I should have thought that it would be proper to put down a Question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asking how many ships, and at what cost, he had chartered over a specific period.

Mr. Ross

Would not such an item be shown in the Estimates, under appropriations in aid? Are there not limitations on Members discussing what are contained therein?

Mr. T. Fraser

I should have thought that Members of Parliament found it exceedingly difficult, under normal procedure, to get any information whatsoever about these charter arrangements. We would surely be met at once with the proposition that we must not inquire into the business of private companies, or individuals, which we would undoubtedly be doing. I very much doubt if we would be able to get an answer to such questions.

I wonder whether the Under-Secretary envisages the circumstances arising that would give any substance to that part of his opposition to this Amendment, when he said that ships might be put out on charter for a month or even for a single voyage. Does the Secretary of State envisage acquiring a large number of vessels that he will hold in readiness for the purpose of letting out on charter to individuals who might want them for special purposes, or is he concerned with the regular essential services to the Highlands and Islands? I thought that he was concerned with the essential shipping services to the Highlands and Islands.

I had understood that this Bill was required because the vessels running to the Orkneys and to Shetland were in need of replacement and that there was reason to believe that they would not be replaced by the present or any other private company, so that the Secretary of State needed the powers given to him in the Bill to enable him to let them out on charter to the company running that service.

If that is so, the vessels will surely be let out on charter for a rather long period, and it would be quite exceptional for the Secretary of State to have a little motor boat that he would let out on charter. We do not imagine that he is going in for paddle-boats at whatever holiday resorts there may be in the Highlands in order to extend the tourist attractions of the area. We do not quite visualise notices stating "Two shillings an hour" for little boats made available by the Secretary of State. We do not think that is the kind of ship that he is going to acquire by charter. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us in what circumstances he envisages that he will be the owner of ships that he will be letting out to persons for a single voyage?

Mr. Maclay

I hope that I can give a quick, simple and clear answer this time to that particular point. I have had a case where, if we had had these powers, we might have solved more quickly a very awkward problem. A small boat broke down, leaving an island in a difficult position. A quick way of acting under these powers would have been to charter another motor boat and recharter it out to the people operating the service, which might in this case have been a local authority.

Things happen very fast at sea. Ships that look good for a long time sometimes break down, and one has to take quick action. There may not be another ship available, and it may be necessary to charter a ship and recharter it out.

Mr. T. Fraser

It is an odd situation, that after all that is said about red tape and bureaucracy on the other side of the House we now have a position in which shipowner A, a private owner, has a ship that breaks down, and owner B has a ship that may be able to fill the gap, so the Secretary of State and the bureaucrats come into the picture and charter it in and out again to owner B to provide the service. I am touched by this high tribute now being paid to bureaucracy.

Mr. Maclay

This may not be relevant, but it is a nice point. I would like to arrange for the hon. Gentleman to see how the Baltic Exchange works, for there that kind of transaction is going on every day, dealing with ships all over the world being transferred with astonishing speed from one service to another by the methods I have described.

Amendment negatived.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Maclay

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I know how extremely useful and valuable the Committee stage has been, and I hesitate, to enter into the discussion on this Bill at this stage because I know how very ably my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary has handled what is undoubtedly, although not a complex Bill in itself, a Bill which can give rise to the most highly complex, often hypothetical, and certainly extremely difficult questions.

In a way, that is a tribute to the Bill itself. We have had to devise a Bill which will give the Secretary of State powers to deal with situations which may be clear-cut and long-term, or short-term of the kind we have been discussing. It is not easy to draft a Bill which gives proper Parliamentary control and at the same time the powers needed effectively to deal with the kind of problem which we hope this Bill will deal with.

I am certain that everyone supports the main purpose of the Bill, and at this late hour I do not think hon. Members would wish me to go through the details again. I will confine myself to saying that I hope that when the Bill becomes law we shall be able to do really valuable work of the kind which all of us who know these problems realise must be done.

That does not mean that everyone who asks for a shipping service is going to get one. That would be beyond belief and reason. It means that we can tackle some of the immediate problems which I myself have been working on extremely closely and—although I was not able to take part in the Committee—almost living with during my time as Secretary of State. This Bill is a great step forward, and I thoroughly recommend the House to give it a Third Reading.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. T. Fraser

In spite of the considerable displeasure which I expressed a little earlier during the Recommittal stage, I congratulate the Joint Under-Secretary of State on the skill with which he has handled the Bill throughout all its stages. He has been courteous and helpful throughout, and I think that he and the Secretary of State will agree that the Bill has been improved by the Amendments which have been made.

The Secretary of State said that he thought we would all approve the purposes of the Bill. Inasmuch as the Bill is designed to maintain and, we hope, improve the transport services available to the people who live and work in the remoter parts of our country, we, of course, support its purpose. But from this side of the House we have reason to support it from another point of view. We have for a very long time taken the view—a view which we have often expressed in debates in the House and in what we have written and said in the country—that the social and economic well-being of those who live and work in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland can be maintained and improved only by an extension of public enterprise.

It is no fault of the private entrepreneurs who have gone there and have failed, or who have declined to go there, that the great decay has continued for so long. We are convinced that it is only by an extension of public enterprise that this part of the country can be protected and the life of those who live there can be maintained and improved. When the Secretary of State introduced his Bill, we felt like saying "I told you so," for it is a Bill designed to provide further support from public funds to private enterprise in order to maintain sea transport services in the North of Scotland. It was recognised by the right hon. Gentleman that, without further public enterprise in the way of subsidy, those services could not be carried on.

We were permitted a little chuckle, I think, when the Secretary of State, by his Bill, showed that he was not satisfied that even a subsidy to private enterprise would by itself be enough to maintain the services. He found that it was necessary for him to acquire vessels, to nationalise or take into State ownership the vessels which were to be used in those services. We congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having seen the light so shortly after the General Election.

Mr. Manuel

And after his election speeches.

Mr. Fraser

After his own election speeches and after a General Election which was fought in Scotland by hon. Members opposite on this Tory election manifesto.

Mr. Maclay

Jolly good.

Mr. Fraser

"Jolly good" says the Secretary of State. There is the paragraph which reads: We are utterly opposed to any extension of nationalisation by whatever means".

Mr. Manuel

Oh, dear.

Mr. Fraser

The first piece of legislation the right hon. Gentleman had drafted after he was returned to St. Andrew's House was a Bill in which he proposed an extension of nationalisation by giving himself power to acquire ships in order to make them available to the shipping companies operating transport services in the North of Scotland.

We discovered tonight that Clause 1 is not to be construed as widely as we had believed earlier. All members of the Committee upstairs believed that under the Bill the ancillary services could be supported by the Secretary of State. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, as the Bill leaves this House, to consider, when the Bill reaches another place, whether he will not so seek to amend it as to take the shackles off the Secretary of State and allow him to assist the local authorities who provide the land services ancillary to a shipping service, in the same way as he can assist the shipping company which owns exactly the same land services which are ancillary to the shipping services which it provides.

I hope that the Bill will not only cause the existing transport services in the North of Scotland to be maintained. I hope that it will enable the Secretary of State to secure that they are improved and that the provisions to enable the right hon. Gentleman to give a subsidy to the private companies will mean that the services will be available for the people of the Highlands and Islands at fares and freight charges that are reasonable having regard to the size of their incomes.

11.31 p.m.

Sir D. Robertson

I appreciate the views held by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) concerning public ownership and his genuine belief that public ownership must play a great part if we are to bring about the rehabilitation of the seven crofter counties, which are covered by the Bill. I take a different view to the hon. Member. For over ten years, I have been striving to have these things brought about by the old and tried methods of private enterprise, which are strongly supported on this side of the House.

The Bill is a form of public enterprise. It is the only thing that can be brought in at this time with any hope of success, due entirely to the depopulation of the area served and to the decay that has set in following the loss of the people. I am hopeful that it will bring about the shipping service which can, and must, play a great part in the revival of the Highlands and Islands. Once the main—in fact, the only—form of transportation, it has still an important part to play.

I must, however, warn the Government that unless industry is brought into our old towns—and it is just as easy to do that as it is to take it into the Northern Ireland towns, and much more so in most of the area—we shall not get the flow of produce outward steadily the year round that is essential to make any transport service pay. No one could challenge that.

The products that we produce in the North are seasonal products, but if we get an opportunity to earn our own living from Lerwick, Kirkwall, Wick, Thurso, Invergordon, Dingwall and Inverness, we are well capable of doing it. There is no light manufacturing industry that would be impossible for us to perform, particularly now, as we have abundant hydro-electric power in most of the area. I know that the Secretary of State has no direct responsibility for the location of industry—that lies with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade—but I urge him to confer with the Board of Trade. The magic that was performed in the six counties of Northern Ireland can be performed in the seven Highland counties of Scotland if the Government have the will to do it.

11.34 p.m.

Mr. Grimond

I thank the Joint Under-Secretary of State for his courtesy during the Committee stage. I am critical of the Bill. I have expressed various criticisms, and I maintain them, in regard to certain parts of it, but I do not intend to go into them again tonight. I also have certain hopes that the Bill may enable us to get better and cheaper transport in my constituency and other parts of the Highlands.

My last word about the Bill is that fairly soon it will, presumably, pass through another place and become law. Then, I press upon the Secretary of State a point of which he is all too well aware but which cannot be put to him too often, that he must get on and get it put into effect as soon as he possibly can.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

It is not with any reluctance to see the Bill become an Act and put into operation, since it will convey some benefits, that I speak last in this debate. I want to say, first, that I very much appreciate the courtesy and the competence of the Joint Under-Secretary of State, who has conducted the proceedings on the Bill, and I am very grateful to him for the way in which he has met the various Amendments moved and the points and questions put to him. At the same time, I hope that in the operation of this Measure we shall see, perhaps, a little more speed than we have seen in the past in dealing with applications for development projects in the Highlands and Islands. I am sure that that is the wish of everyone.

Many Measures go through this House with great expedition only, very often, to be afterwards forgotten or delayed in their operation. Some have so little effect that one feels they need not have been passed at all. The Acts are passed; then year after year we plead, argue and debate over every tiny little project in the Outer Isles or in the Orkneys. It is an endless task. I have myself exhausted six, seven or eight Secretaries of State in arguing for decades about unbelievably small projects in speeches in the House, by correspondence, by Questions and all the rest.

I hope that from now on we shall see a speeding up of the Scottish Office tempo. I hope, too, that the Secretary of State is going to take some initiative himself, that he will go to the local authorities and say, "Look, why do you not instal a ferry service? Here is a good idea to develop your tourist trade. You will get assistance under the Act." That would be a refreshing change.

Let the right hon. Gentleman go out and sell his ideas and show that the Scottish Office is really determined to put the Measure into early operation for all it is worth. If he would do that it would raise the prestige of the Scottish Office itself, of its excellent civil servants and of the Ministers and of this House. People would then believe that we meant business.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) said. Merely to put ships and ferries plying across the Minch and among the islands would be of little avail. We must see that there is sufficient economic development to justify this Measure. Otherwise, all that we shall be doing will be pumping public money in increasing amount into services from which the local people and the public will not derive the benefit which they ought to receive in an area in which there is great potential wealth that could be making a far greater contribution to the wealth of the nation as a whole.

Until we have development, industrial as well as agricultural, at a much greater rate we shall find it hard to justify, except on social grounds, the spending of the money which we are asking, and rightly asking, the nation to spend on the Highlands and Islands. This Bill is a further illustration of what has been called the infinite capacity of private enterprise to expand provided an indefinite amount of public money is pumped into it.

The Bill could have been called simply the "Orkney and Shetland Bill". Under it, private enterprise failure in Orkney will only be catching up the earlier failure of private transport enterprise in the Western Isles. Until we received a subvention in the form of public money to sustain sea transport in the Hebrides that area's shipping services were near collapse. Orkney is now to be treated in the same way. I hope, but I have great doubts about seeing it happen, that ferry services will be improved under the Bill and that grants and loans will be made available for this purpose.

I have great doubts, too, about one other thing under the Bill. I may be right or wrong—and perhaps more should have been said about this—but I think that we are creating a very strange picture of one State-aided enterprise being subsidised to compete with another. That is a departure from the usual system and hon. Members should have very careful regard to accountability in respect of the expenditure of this public money. It is not even invested in the ordinary sense, for there will be no return from it as there is from public investment in some private projects. It is vitally important that we should have at least annual scrutiny and occasionally detailed scrutiny in the House of the operation of the Bill and this extraordinary departure from previous practice, now that we are to subsidise different instruments, different agencies, in competition with one another, with money from the same public purse.

Neverthless, we hope that it will work out well, for all my grave doubts about it. We can only hope that it will work and give our blessing to that which is best in the Bill, But, as the representative here of one of the major consumers of these services, the Western Isles, I hope that we will see something better than we have experienced from the operation of the MacBrayne's services since 1928.

Those hon. Members who look forward to magnificent, regular and reasonably cheap services in the Orkney and Shetland areas have a great deal of disappointment ahead if they are so naive as to believe in those dreams. If these services are run in the way that the MacBrayne's services have been run all these years, there is great disappointment ahead.

That is why I ask the Secretary of State to take the initiative and not to wait until Tory-dominated local authorities in the Highlands and Islands at their own casual speed and tempo come to him from time to time and ask for a little grant for this sea transport or marine scheme, and a little loan for that, almost hoping that he will refuse in their fear that they will have to make their own rate contribution to the enterprise. If the right hon. Gentleman takes the initiative, he will give a boost to the prestige of his office, himself and Parliament.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Leburn

I need reply to the debate only shortly. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the very kind remarks which the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) and one or two other hon. Members have made about me. I know that they showed me a great deal of indulgence on Second Reading and in Standing Committee, and I am very grateful to them. I thank all hon. Members on both sides of the House who have given me and the Government assistance in making this a better Bill after its passage through Committee.

One main criticism has run throughout all our discussions. It is that the Bill is possibly too restricted in its scope. I believe that the Bill covers all the people who are likely to provide services and likely to need assistance, from the main companies to the humble ferryman. Special provision has been made for the local authorities. If we need new blood, we can attract it and get what we want.

Having said that, the most important thing about the Bill is that it is to maintain and improve shipping services in the Highlands and Islands, and it is most important that it should be realised that it will help the people of the Highlands and Islands and contribute to their welfare and their livelihood. With those remarks, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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