HC Deb 04 March 1964 vol 690 cc1378-86

Amendments made: In page 8, line 13, leave out "such" and insert "proposed".

In page 8, line 15, after "the", insert "proposed''.—[Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett.]

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I beg to move, in page 8, to leave out lines 22 and 23 and to insert: (6) An order under subsection (1) above shall not so define a case by reference to cost as to prohibit a person from undertaking, or securing the undertaking of, a project without the authorisation of the Minister in a case where the project complies with the following conditions, that is to say, its cost does not exceed the sum of £500,000 and it does not form part of a larger project the cost of which exceeds the sum, or of a series of projects the cost of which, in the aggregate exceeds that sum; and a person shall not, in a case other than one defiled in an order made under subsection (1) above by reference to cost, be prohibited, by virtue of the order, from undertaking, or securing the undertaking of, a project with out the authorisation of the Minister in a case where the project complies with the condition: aforesaid. (7) An order under subsection (1) above shall be so framed as, in the opinion of the Minister, to secure that there is exempted from any prohibition thereby imposed the undertaking, and the securing of the undertaking, of works of the nature of routine maintenance and works of the nature of routine repair. (8) An order under subsection (1) above may, for the purpose of subsection (6) above or any pro on contained in the order defining a case by reference to the cost of a project". I think that it would be for the convenience of the House to discuss, at the same time, the second Amendment in page 8, line 41, at the end to insert a new subsection (8).

Mr. Speaker

Yes, if the House pleases.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

The purpose of the Amendment I have moved is twofold. First, it specifies a minimum figure below which the control of capital development provided for by the Clause may not operate. Secondly, excludes routine maintenance and repair from the control. This, again, is in fulfilment of undertakings given in Committee.

These Amendments together make one of the key Amendments which we undertook in Committee to introduce on Report. I repeat for the record what I said in Committee, that the Government realised that this Clause would need a major Amendment before the Bill went on the Statute Book. We had a number of suggestions from conflicting interests as to how it might be amended, and we came to the conclusion that the best plan was to put nothing down until we had heard the matter fully debated. We felt sure that there would be an hon. Member briefed to speak on behalf of almost every interest involved in this Measure. I think that this proved to be true. Hon. Members will recall that we had a very long debate about it. The minimum figure below which the control will not operate has been set at £500,000, so that it will enable the great bulk of the medium and minor capital projects to escape control. But provision is made in the second Amendment for the Minister to vary this figure by order subject to affirmative Resolution in both Houses.

The reference in the Amendment to a project which forms part of a larger project or is one of a series of projects is designed to ensure that the control cannot be circumvented by the splitting up of the major scheme into component parts each of which may cost a little less than £500,000. This is a problem familiar to the Treasury, which endeavours to exercise financial control by means of project control, and anybody who has been connected with the expenditure of public money will know how easy it is to evade. But there is this safeguard of public money, namely, that the Treasury can step in at any time. Here, we must try to write in to the statute a safeguard that will be lasting.

That is the object of the form of words which has been chosen. A series of projects could, for example, include the construction of a new dock, the provision of berths, the acquisition of cranes, the provision of new railway lines and rolling stock, and so on. It would be possible, although admittedly very unlikely, that an authority might try to circumvent the control by going forward with one project at a time notwithstanding the fact that any given project would be useless unless something costing much the same was done immediately afterwards. As I say, it is extremely unlikely that any responsible port authority would wish to evade control in this way. Nevertheless, the Amendment will ensure that the necessary control can be maintained.

The essential purpose of the Amendment is to relieve the apprehensions of the medium and small ports about their ability to carry on with harbour development projects without having to refer to my right hon. Friend in each case for his approval. A very real fear was expressed which we felt had substance. In marginal cases, if a harbour authority is in any doubt about what constitutes a large project or series of projects, it can always seek advice from the Ministry. There would be no excuse for a harbour authority to embark on a project and then afterwards pretend that it did not know that the project was subject to control.

The proposed subsection (7) in the first Amendment fulfils the Government's undertaking to remove from control maintenance or repair works of a purely routine nature. Its object is to meet the apprehensions of the larger ports that they would be hamstrung in their normal work and would have to seek authorisation and approval for purely maintenance work in each case.

The second Amendment enables the Minister to vary the figure of £500,000 by order. Its primary purpose is to give the Minister a reasonable degree of flexibility in varying the figure below which the control of capital development will not operate. That is obvious. I frankly admit that the figure of £500,000 is, to some extent, a guess. It may be that when the scheme is in full operation we shall find that it is not necessary to exercise control over schemes costing perhaps £700,000 or even £1 million; it remains to be seen. The figure of £500,000 is the best guess that we have been able to make in consultation with the National Ports Council.

On the other hand—and I want to make this clear—in case somebody asks me for an undertaking that we shall lower the figure, I must say that I am not prepared to give it. If we find harbour authorities are trying to evade the control by splitting up their projects, in an ingenious way which escapes detection until it is too late, into parts each of which might cost less than £500,000, the Minister, at some future date, might find himself forced to come to Parliament with a Resolution to reduce the figure of £500.000.

I think that the specific authority of Parliament by way of affirmative Resolution in both Houses would ensure that any action taken by a Minister to vary the figure up or down would be subject to the fullest scrutiny.

Mr. Hoy

We are grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for explaining the Amendment. It is true that part of it assures us that the routine work and ordinary routine repairs in the docks will be excluded. We are grateful for that, because trouble could have been caused to any harbour authority if in wishing to undertake ordinary routine work it was compelled to apply to the National Ports Council for the necessary authority.

It was suggested on Second Reading and in Committee that we might be able to write a sum into the Bill. It was difficult—and every hon. Member in Committee admitted it—to find a sum which would be just in its application to every port in the country. What might be quite reasonable to the Port of London Authority might appear to be ridiculous to a smaller authority. On the other hand, a sum which might be generous for a small authority might be ridiculous for the Port of London Authority. We therefore understood the Minister's difficulty. It was suggested earlier that the sum of £500,000 might be written into the Bill. It is true that we on this side thought that that was reasonable. It is also true that, having given the matter consideration, we wonder whether this is the right figure. Obviously, £500,000 might suit the Port of London very well. But one can think of harbours which one can buy for £500,000. Therefore, £500,000 for repairs would be preposterous.

It all depends on what words mean. I had a little altercation with the Minister of Transport this afternoon about the buying back of his business. He protested most vehemently about my interpretation of what he said. I said that he had arranged to buy his business back. He said that he had done nothing of the sort. I now find that the right hon. Gentleman said: …I think that I should tell the House that the prospective purchasers have required me to undertake to buy the shares back from them at the price they are to pay if they ask me to do so after I have ceased to hold office."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 381.] That is whet I thought I said. I think that it will be proved that I did not do the right ho n. Gentleman any justice.

The Parliamentary Secretary, having put in £500,000, then takes power to vary it up or down. We are, therefore, back to where we were. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that eventually he may want to raise the £500,000 to £700,000, or £1 million. He was in his most adamant mood when he said, "Anyone who asks me to reduce this sum will get a refusal". Although we have written £500,000 into the Bill, the Minister still takes power, by affirmative Resolution, I admit, even to vary the £500,000. Therefore, having thought of all the difficulties involved, and having put in the sum of £500,000, which can be varied by order, he has just about reached the right decision.

7.0 p.m.

Dr. King

Probably one of the most important things that we have done in Committee is to destroy a lot of the suspicions when the Bill began its progress through the Committee. I sincerely congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on grasping this nettle. The suspicion that the harbour authorities had over and over again expressed to us was that there would be interference by the Ports Council, or the Minister in day-to-day work, in ordinary forward planning, in the detailed work of the port, in maintenance and in repairs.

The Minister said right at the beginning, 12 months ago, that if we could devise a formula which would ensure that the control would be major control without the niggling detailed control that the docks and harbour authorities feared, he would be happy to accept it. Let us confess frankly that every formula that we devised in Committee had its difficulties. What we now have before us the very best attempt we have had so far. I congratulate the Minister and his advisers upon it.

First, this formula names a sum. Even that sum, however, presents a problem. The £½ million may not be sufficient to prevent the Port of London from a certain amount of interference by the Minister in what it regards almost as the normal working of the ports. But £ ½million will lift out all the little ports—indeed, practically every port except a few major ones—from any financial control by the Bill. That is why I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy). I think that the Minister must have this reserve power. He may find that the£ ½ million is an entirely wrong figure. He may find that he should have two figures in mind, one for the big ports and one for the smaller ones. On the other hand, there was weight in the view of the Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association that £ ½ million gave an operation of some conceivable magnitude with bills in which they certainly did not want national interference.

The Parliamentary Secretary is quite right to insert a proviso. Without it, it would be possible that the £ ½ million must be the whole scheme and not a section of it. It would be possible for an unscrupulous authority—there may or may not be unscrupulous authorities—to put in an application for a scheme costing £499,999 19s. 11d. and regard that as not requiring any authority and a second, third and fourth schemes and, in the end, get £2 million worth of work done without the authority of the Minister or the Ports Council.

It was, I think, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) who made the practical suggestion in Committee that, if we excluded routine repairs and maintenance, that would cover a lot. The Minister has taken that suggestion from the Committee and is incorporating it in the Clause. He has done all that any human being can do at this stage in the early days of this great venture to secure what must, I am certain, satisfy all the ports and harbours: first, that the little ports will be out of it altogether; and, secondly, that the Government will not interfere except on really major matters. In those major matters, we all believe that the Government should interfere, otherwise we would not have had the Bill.

Having said that, the Minister must reserve to himself the right to come back to the House with an order and say, "I think that £500,000 was too high a figure. It should be less." What is much more likely is that in the case of some of the larger ports, he would come to the House and say that £½ million was too small a figure. He has gone on that as far as he can by saying that the order shall be an affirmative order. He has done all that the Committee asked him to do and I wholeheartedly congratulate him on this achievement.

Mr. Webster

I add my thanks to my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. This is practically the nub of the Bill. It is difficult to get a balance between undue interference in day-to-day work and, at the same time, to keep the express intention of the Rochdale Committee with an overall look. My hon. and gallant Friend has rightly decided to keep something up his sleeve. The exact figure is a difficult matter, as we all found in Committee. My hon. and gallant Friend has done this with considerable good judgment and I congratulate and thank him.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I thank the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) for their support. Also, I think, I have the support of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy). The hon. Member raised, however, a question of importance. He asked whether £500,000 was not too much for the small ports. In the sense that for practical purposes it frees many small ports from control, the answer would be "Yes", but we must not forget the object of this control. It is simply to ensure that port development throughout the country as a whole takes place within the framework of a national plan.

The national plan is not affected appreciably by the development of the very small ports—not until they grow and become medium ports. By the time they have grown and become medium ports, the £500,000 will have become chickenfeed. It is, therefore, probably about the right figure.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 8, line 24, leave out "that cost" and insert "the cost of a project".

In line 25, leave out "thereon" and insert "on the project".—[Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett.]

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I beg to move, in page 8, line 41, at the end, to insert: (8) Nothing in an order under this section shall be taken to prohibit an internal drainage board (within the meaning of the Land Drainage Act 1930) a river board, a river authority, a river purification authority, a district board, an improvement committee, the Conservators of the River Thames or the Lee Conservancy Catchment Board from undertaking any project in the exercise of river works powers or the performance of river works duties. This is not a drafting Amendment. It is one of the oversights and matters which come to light as the Bill is studied. The Amendment is designed to exclude certain projects, about which the Committee heard on numerous occasions in later stages of the Bill which are undertaken by certain drainage and river authorities from the scope of the Minister's control. These authorities have, under statutory provisions, drainage or conservancy functions in relation to waterways navigated by seagoing ships. These functions are conferred in terms which might cause the authorities to be regarded as falling within the description contained in subsection (2) of persons to whom the Clause applies.

This is because in the statutory provisions referred to in the definition in Clause 53, the expression "river works powers" vested functions in them which could be regarded as involving the improving or maintaining of the waterways in question.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: in page 8, line 41, at end insert: (8) The Minister may by order made under this subsection substitute for the sum of £500,000 mentioned in subsection (6) above such other sum as is specified in the order, but no order shall be made under this subsection unless a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and approved by a Resolution of each House of Parliament.—[Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett.]

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I beg to move, in page 8, line 46, to leave out "The" and to insert "Any".

This is a drafting Amendment, the reason for which may not be immediately apparent. It is simply because the Amendments that the House has just a accepted mean that there is an additional power which the Minister now has under the Clause instead of a single one, the additional power being the power to vary the figure of £500,000.

Amendment agreed to.