HC Deb 21 July 1961 vol 644 cc1615-22

Lords Amendment: In page 12, line 6, after "reduce" insert "so far as is practicable."

11.5 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

I think that it would be convenient for the House to consider, with this Amendment, the next Amendment, in line 8, after "increasing" insert "so far as is practicable," because the words are the same and it reflects exactly the same point. This is not really a very substantial Amendment.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This puts me in some difficulty. If these two Amendments are discussed together it will make it impossible, as I understand the position, for one to accept the first Amendment and not the second, or vice versa.

Mr. Speaker

The proposal is that they should be discussed together. They have to be put as separate Questions.

Mr. Vane

As I was saying, this is not a very substantial point. The words were selected by the Select Committee of another place to meet a point which was raised in the City of London petition. We do not consider that it amounts to any very substantial change. In fact, it really reflects the intention of the Clause and the duties of the Authority as set out in Clause 17. What it amounts to is to give the Authority rather more discretion which, we think, is advantageous. I therefore hope that the House will agree to this Amendment.

Mr. John Hall

I am in a little difficulty about this, because, although I understand the purpose behind the Amendment, I am not at all sure that it does not weaken the subsection to a point when it is unacceptable. I have looked up the definition of the word "practicable" in Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary and it is given as: That may be practised, used or followed; passable, as a road. I am wondering whether this is really what we want to insert in this subsection. I would have thought that "possible" might have been better if we are to accept the Amendment at all.

The insertion of this Amendment changes the very definite nature of this subsection, which lays a duty on the Authority to reduce the amount of produce being brought in bulk to Covent Garden and, at the same time, to increase the business to be done there. This Amendment, however, reduces the definite nature of that duty to a permissive power, which is something very indefinite. For example, it might be said that the Government shall accept Amendments to the Bill that are passed in the other place, as against the effect of an Amendment such as this, which would alter this to that the Government shall, so far as practicable, accept Amendments passed in the other place, and which might be passed with the approval of both Houses.

Similarly, under this Amendment—as I understand it—the Authority may now be able to decide, perhaps under pressure from the traders and those using the market, that it is not practicable to reduce the bulk going to the market although it may be practicable to increase the business. It may decide, perhaps under pressure of the traffic commissioners and those who use the area of Covent Garden, that, although it is practicable to reduce the bulk and put it somewhere else, it is not practicable to increase the business. Or it may decide that it is not practicable to do either.

In any case, what was a definite duty on the Authority will become an indefinite and permissive duty. It might be acceptable to say that the Authority, if practicable, may increase the amount of business because that is, to some extent, outside the power of the Authority to decide. It would be difficult for it to increase the business in the Covent Garden area and, for that reason, it is probably sound to put some such words into the Clause which gives it this loophole.

I do not agree that it is necessarily sound to give the Authority this loophole in the case of the power laid on it now to reduce the amount of bulk going into that area. If we accept this Amendment, the Authority may well, at a later stage, plead that because of circumstances outside its control, because of the need to continue to bring bulk into the Market, if it is to increase the business of the Market, it has to continue allowing an increased amount of bulk going into the same area, with all the consequent repercussions of the traffic problem. If this Amendment were accepted, the Authority would be able to make that plea successfully.

If that were to happen, it would show, above all, the folly of agreeing to allow, or to insist upon, the Authority rebuilding Covent Garden Market on its present site or adjacent to its present site. It pinpoints some of the reasons for the objections in this House, and particularly in another place. When this matter was first discussed in another place an Amendment was passed which would allow the Covent Garden Market Authority to decide for itself where to put the new market. For these reasons, I suggest that it is unsound to give the Authority the permissive power to reduce bulk if it possibly can, and that we ought to retain in the Clause the definite power whereby it shall reduce the bulk coming into the market.

I would not have the same objections to the Amendment in so far as it affects the amount of business to be done, for the reasons that I have already stated, but I hope that the House will think seriously about accepting the first Amendment, because if we do accept it we may well find this market in the centre of this vast area subject to the same kind of traffic chaos—indeed, possibly an increased amount—to which many have objected both in this House and in another place.

Mr. Colin Turner (Woolwich, West)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall). I feel that the Amendment would weaken the whole Bill. Indeed, it would go a long way towards destroying one of the main purposes of the Bill, which is to try to cut down the amount of bulk produce going into the market.

I wish to register my protest, as one who for many years has had to suffer from the traffic congestion in this area, having had my offices either in the area or immediately outside. It is undesirable to give any loophole at all to the Authority and to whittle away its responsibility to reduce the amount of bulk produce going into the market, and thus the amount of traffic.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

We on this side of the House do not share the objections to these Amendments which have been expressed by the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) and Woolwich, West (Mr. Turner). They will know that I favour the Bill and that I think it right that Covent Garden Market should remain where it is.

Hon. Members will see that the words which appear in these Amendments appear also in the previous paragraph of the subsection. They constitute a well-known Parliamentary expression. The intention is to qualify the statutory duties, and I am in favour of that qualification when it is felt that a statutory authority would have grave difficulty in complying with the law.

We shall not lose sight of the Bill when it becomes an Act and leaves this House. It will come back to us in the sense that we shall have reports from the Covent Garden Market Authority. If we feel that the Authority is not carrying out the wishes of the House we shall be able to question its activities. Far be it from me to defend the Government, but we on these benches support the inclusion of these words because we feel that it is the right thing to do.

11.15 a.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)

I follow the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) and Woolwich, West (Mr. Turner), although I do not agree with them. The same arguments could be adduced in respect of the Clause as if stood unamended in another place. If we say: as to reduce, on the one hand, the amount of produce brought in in bulk to the Covent Garden Area one cannot specify the extent to which it will be reduced. The Authority would be fulfilling the letter of the law if a fewer number of crates of apples were brought in than had been brought in hitherto.

We must act on the supposition that this is to be a responsible Authority which will appreciate the duties laid upon it by the Bill and will do its best to carry them out. The proposed words "so far as is practicable" were suggested by a Select Committee in another place, which thought it reasonable to add them. Whichever way we take it, whether we take the amended version or the version as it stood, I do not think that we can say that it is more or less likely to make the Authority bring into the market less produce in bulk than is at present occurring.

I see the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, but I do not accept that the words: as to reduce so far as is practicable, on the one hand, the amount of produce brought in in bulk are anything but reasonable and I hope the House will feel able to accept the Amendment.

Mr. John Hall

By leave of the House, I should like to comment briefly on my right hon. Friend's remarks. I find it difficult to follow his argument, because Clause 17, as it now stands, states that … the Authority shall … so exercise and perform their functions "— and then, in paragraph (g): as to reduce, on the one hand, the amount of produce brought in in bulk. … That is a very definite duty. Although it may be true that the Authority could reduce the amount by a small percentage and still say that it had met the requirements of the Clause, nevertheless it is called upon to reduce. As the Amendment now stands, there could be a large amount of produce coming into the market and the Authority could plead that it was able to increase the amount in view of the provisions of the amended Clause. I do not think that possibility was in the minds of their Lordships when they proposed this Amendment.

Mr. Mellish

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that when we are making laws of this kind we should ensure that it is possible for them to be complied with? If we put into an Act of Parliament a provision which it is impossible to carry out or which people have good reason for not complying with, it makes the whole thing ridiculous. In my opinion, these proposed words provide the sort of margin to which the Authority is entitled.

Mr. Hall

I agree that we should not put into legislation any provisions which cannot be carried out, but this duty can be carried out. There may be differences of opinion as to whether there should be a bulk storage depot, or whether the whole market should be moved somewhere else, but this provision can be carried out. I agree that it is by no means sure that the Authority can carry out the duty laid on it to increase the business, and in that respect I would be prepared to accept the Amendment. There is no doubt that the Authority could carry out the duty which is now imposed on it of reducing the amount of bulk produce brought in, but under the proposed Amendment it would be able to slide out of that duty if it was under pressure from traders or the Transport and General Workers' Union to increase the amount of bulk going into the market.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I apologise for not being here during the first two or three minutes of the discussion of the Amendment.

This is an unfortunate Amendment, for this reason. It is obvious from looking at lines 6 to 10 of the subsection that the object of the subsection is that the Authority shall alter the method of trading in the market by reducing the amount going in in bulk, and that there shall be other methods of trading, which clearly means sale by sample.

That may be a little difficult to impose upon people who have been brought up to this form of trading in bulk for the whole of their working life. The insertion of the words: so far as is practicable would give a loophole to the Authority, which might have difficulty in enforcing this new method of trading on traders, and make it possible for it to say, "We cannot do it. People will not have it. It is not practicable".

In my view, we take all the power out of the subsection by adding these words, and I regard the suggestion as most unfortunate.

Sir John Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)

One is entitled to cavil at the extraordinary argument advanced by the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish). Naturally, the whole purpose of the House is to pass legislation which is practicable, and, accordingly, we seek in our Committees so to define the provisions of Bills as to express the purposes which we seek to attain.

The insertion of the words so far As is practicable has the consequence that we give a loophole, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) said, by which, in this case, the Authority can entirely nullify the whole purpose which the Minister told us was the purpose when first bringing the Bill before the House.

A newly appointed Authority, under another Minister, might be able to drive a coach and horses through the whole intention which we accepted—very reluctantly in some cases—on the Second Reading of the Bill. The suggestion which the hon. Gentleman advances is really not suitable at this stage for inclusion in an Act of Parliament. It is something which ought to be incorporated in an Interpretation Act with a special Clause providing that anything in any Bill may be read only as binding provided that it is practicable. I can imagine the trouble that that would lead to.

We cannot rest content with the other argument of the hon. Gentleman, when he says that we shall have plenty of time to study the annual reports of the Authority. If he really believes that the House will, in the years to come, be able to spend many days discussing the activities of the Covent Garden Market Authority, he must have a very strange idea of the kind of priority which we give to such matters.

Many of us have misgivings about the Bill and have had them from the start. We fear that Parliament is being asked to give its blessing to a body which will make a complete mess, or continue to make a complete mess, of traffic control and circulation in this part of London. Unfortunately, it has been accepted by the Minister of Transport, who ought really to have gone round with a placard saying, "No greens in the Pink Zone."

Mr. Speaker

Order. Discussion on these Lords Amendments is restricted to that which arises on each specific Amendment. We must not travel round London with the Minister.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

I think that I have made by point, Mr. Speaker.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendment agreed to.