HC Deb 04 March 1964 vol 690 cc1397-402

Amendments made: In page 13, line 42, leave out "other than" and insert "not being".

In line 42, after "or", insert "a".

In line 45, after "or", insert "a".

In page 14, line 5, at end insert "and".—[Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett.]

Mr. Mellish

I beg to move, in page 14, line 16, to leave out from powers "to "as" in line 17.

It may be convenient with this to take the Amendment in page 14, line 18, at the end Ito insert: provided that where the power sought is the power to acquire land compulsorily the application shall be for an order conferring such power on the Council", This point was raised in Committee by my hat Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy). It is concerned with the powers of the compulsory purchase of land. As it stands, the Clause says: …may make a written application to the Minister for the making by him of an order conferring on the applicant, some other designated person or a body to be constituted for the purpose by the Order (according a, may be spec field in the application) all such powers (including, in particular, power to acquire land compulsorily) as are requisite for enabling that object to be achieved. We recognise the need for land to be so compulsorily acquired, but it is unique that in theory and in practice we are to confer that right on a harbour authority or other designated person or body. We thought that it was always an accepted principle that this important power was not to be given to anyone lightly, and was to be given only to local authorities and statutory bodies. We have moved the Amendment not with any intention of dividing the House but in order to have a chance of a further discussion of the point. We should like the Minister further to explain how he envisages the Clause working in its present form. We should like to hear what he has to say, because in Committee the Parliamentary Secretary told us that he was anxious to allay any fears which we might express.

Mr. Marples

I am grateful to the hon. Member for moving the Amendments and so giving me the opportunity to explain how this provision works. The two Amendments would mean that if, in any I arbour empowerment order made under the Clause, it was desired to include a provision authorising the compulsory acquisition of land required for the improvement of an existing harbour or the construction of a new artificial harbour, the land would have to be acquired by the National Ports Council, who would hold it and presumably act as its owners.

The fear in the hon. Member's mind is that a private commercial undertaking may persuade the Minister of Transport of the day, and Parliament, to give it powers of compulsory acquisition in order to develop a new harbour, and may then defeat the original purpose of the order either by reselling all or part of the land which it had acquired compulsorily, or by disposing of the whole harbour undertaking to another commercial concern, pocketing the profits in the process. I have some sympathy with what I believe is in the hon. Member's mind, but I hope to be able to satisfy the House that the hon. Member's apprehensions are largely groundless, and that the proposal for dealing with the problem in the way that he suggests is not well-founded.

I can put forward three reasons why the Amendments should be resisted. First, a sufficient degree of control in respect of the sale or disposal of a harbour development undertaking as a whole can be achieved by making suitable provision in the empowerment order. As for the disposal of surplus land which may have been compulsorily acquired, this situation should not arise if the Minister does his job properly in making the harbour empowerment order. If it were felt that safeguards were required to prevent surplus land from being disposed of improperly, this could be provided for in the order. Thirdly, in respect of the sale or disposal of a harbour development undertaking as a whole by a commercial concern authorised to construct the works by a harbour empowerment order, I agree that appropriate control is necessary. The question is: what should the proper control be, and how can it be enforced?

In harbour enactments it is common form to provide that the authority shall exercise its power to sell or lease its undertaking only with the previous consent of the Minister. That has been done in the last seven or eight years in almost every case—at least in those that I have been able to discover. Such a concern could dispose of its undertaking by sale or lease only on such terms and conditions as the Minister of the day approved. Therefore, it is clear that the Minister, quite rightly, has tight control.

I can give a number of examples. There was the Esso Petroleum Company Act, 1957, the B.P. Trading Company Act of the same year and the Killingholme Jetty Act, 1963. The House will agree that it is reasonable to assume that any Minister would include such a condition in a harbour empowerment order which gave a commercial concern power to acquire land compulsorily. In this respect the empowerment orders will follow what has become practically standard form in recent Acts of Parliament of this kind, by providing the same safeguards as have been included in previous Acts.

It would be improper to allow a private concern to have the right compulsorily to acquire land and then to sell either the whole undertaking, or that part which was surplus to its requirements, for another purpose—to build a cinema, or a block of offices, for example. The proper place to provide for this is in the empowerment order.

In the past it has been a powerful deterrent to any developer who thought that he might get something for nothing by way of a compulsory purchase order. The Bill provides that the Minister "may" include provisions of this kind. He is not forced to do so, but he does so in fact. But because every empowerment order covers a wide variety of circumstances, it would be difficult to provide in the Bill precisely what he should do.

I believe that the Minister of the day should be allowed some discretion. I can give the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) an undertaking that I certainly would not agree to an empowerment order which gave a private firm the right compulsorily to acquire property to develop a harbour and then to sell off a nice piece of surplus land at a fat profit. I should certainly provide in the order that the firm could not do such a thing without the consent of the Minister.

Harbour empowerment orders do not rest only with the Minister. There are other safeguards. They are subject to a very elaborate procedure. They have to be publicly advertised, made subject to objections, vetted at a public inquiry, and so on, before they reach Parliament, and then, when they get to Parliament, they have to go through the full rigours of special Parliamentary procedure. It is not a matter which is left solely to the Minister's discretion. Outside bodies and Members of this House are able to make their views known, and to object. Even if a Minister were so misguided as not to have proper safeguards in the order, hon. Members would be able to make their views known.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Bermondsey has in mind, but I believe that the position is adequately covered by the existing procedure, first, because I do not think that any Minister, of any party, would leave a harbour empowerment order wide open to be exploited in this way and, secondly, because even if he did the procedure which has to be gone through—the public inquiry and the special Parliamentary procedure—would be of a sufficiently searching character to make certain that the power was not abused. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member will agree to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Mellish

I willingly agree. The Minister has gone out of his way to explain this matter in detail and to assure us that there are so many safeguards that the fears that I have expressed are not realistic. In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.0 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I beg to move, in page 14, line 20, to leave out "any" and insert "either or both".

With some trepidation, I venture to suggest that this Amendment links up as a drafting Amendment with the next three or the Notice Order Paper. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) would agree that they should be taken together.

Dr. King

I have no objection.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

They are all drafting Amendments.

Dr. King

I am not criticising the drafting. I am defending the draftsmen against themselves. This Amendment proposes to substitute the words "either or both" for the word "any". This subsection tells a person that he can apply to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to do one or more of a number of things. In all there are seven things that he can do, although they are grouped under two headings.

There are three under the first heading, (a). He can seek the improvement, maintenance or management of a fishery harbour. The next heading—(b)—contains four things: the construction, improvement, maintenance or management of a dock at a fishery harbour or a wharf at such a harbour Because there are seven things which he can do, the draftsmen, rightly I think, wrote originally: …where a person is desirous of securing the achievement of any of the following objects, namely,— then follows the seven things under two groups.

The word "any" makes perfect sense. The Committee and the Minister accepted it. The draftsman wrote it and now he is proposing, for reasons which I know, but which I think are wrong, to substitute the words, "either or both" or "any". That is, three words for one without affecting at all the sense, or, indeed, not improving it. I suggest that the Amendment should not be made

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I confess that I always experience some difficulty when arguing with the hon. Member for Itchen (Dr. King) on the subject of the English language. But without pretending to be able to see into the mind of the Parliamentary draftsman I should have thought that the reason he wanted to put "either or both" is it is followed by (a) or (b).

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 14, line 22, at end insert "and".

In page 14, line 24, after "or", insert "of".

In line 44, leave out "or wharf at a marine work" and insert at a marine work or a wharf at such a work."—[Vice Admiral Hughes Hallett.]