HC Deb 20 January 1965 vol 705 cc330-8

Again considered in Committee.

Mr. Graham Page

The purpose of Amendments No. 11 and No. 12, which refer to Clause 3(6), is that any Statutory Instrument or other directions made by the Minister by virtue of the subsection should come before the House. It is quite unthinkable and unprecedented that Ministerial functions should be transferred without the House having the opportunity of debating and if necessary annulling the Statutory Instrument.

The procedure of making Statutory Instruments without bringing them before the House of Commons applies to local matters—things to do with the village green or temporary one-way streets. It does not even apply to permanent one-way streets. To apply that procedure to this kind of Ministerial duty is quite unprecedented.

The principle that a Statutory Instrument transferring functions should be subject to annulment in the House is clearly recognised in an Amendment put on the Order Paper by the Secretary of State himself—Amendment No. 13, in page 4, line 18, at end insert: (7) On any such transfer of responsibility as is mentioned in subsection (6) above the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument provide, so far as appears to him necessary or expedient for giving full effect to the transfer, for the repeal or amendment of any provision in any enactment affecting a Research Council or government department concerned, and make transitional, supplemental or incidental provision in connection with any such repeal or amendment; but the statutory instrument shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament. If, therefore, a Statutory Instrument is made transferring functions the right hon. Gentleman himself recognises, by that Amendment, that it is only right and proper that it should be subject to annulment by the House. Our first two Amendments would support the same principle.

Our Amendment No. 15 is the most important of this group. Clause 4(1) gives the Atomic Energy Authority a right to take over, by direction of the Minister, matters not connected with atomic energy. Clause 4 refers to … such matters … as may … be required by the Minister. … But the Clause does not even say how the Minister shall make known his requirement. Certainly it is not to be by laying any direction or Statutory Instrument before Parliament.

By all means let the Authority widen the range of its work to meet, as the right hon. Gentleman expressed it on Second Reading, widening scientific knowledge, but Parliament should be informed of the Minister's intentions and not be left to find out as a result of some research work done by a single hon. Member. So far we have heard of only two fields into which the Authority might wish to roam—desalination and computers.

The significance of the provision lies in the application of Clause 4(1) to Section 2 of the Atomic Energy Authority Act, 1954. The Authority was created by that Act and its powers were limited and gave it certain special powers of compulsory purchase and so on, and certain special immunities, for example, from Income Tax. It gave the Authority the right to manufacture goods. Its objects, powers and immunities were very carefully described and circumscribed by the Act.

It ought not to be made possible for a Minister to enlarge those powers without asking Parliament whether he may do so. This is one of the cases in which a Bill seeks to give power to a Minister to alter and extend an Act of Parliament. That is quite clearly to be on some requirement, which, on the wording of the Clause, may be only oral, not even a requirement in writing for anybody to know that the Minister requires the Act to be vastly extended.

Precedent in such matters is quite clear and it is that delegated legislation should be by Statutory Instrument, subject to affirmative Resolution. In the Report of the Select Committee on Delegated Legislation in 1953, there is the evidence of Sir Alan Ellis, speaking with the authority and experience of senior Parliamentary counsel. Sir Alan Ellis described to the Committee the normal approach to the problem of choosing between the negative and the affirmative procedure. While unable to suggest a rigid principle which would govern the choice, he named three types of case in which it might be expected that the affirmative procedure would be preferred. The first of those types is the class of power which, when exercised, would substantially affect the provisions of an Act of Parliament, whether by altering its language, or increasing or limiting its extent, or duration, or otherwise.

Clause 4 states quite clearly that these directions are intended to extend the scope of the 1954 Act. This is clearly a case in which any extension should be by Statutory Instrument which should come before Parliament for an affirmative Resolution, the Statutory Instrument itself coming before the House of Commons, or being laid in draft, which is the most convenient way to get the affirmative Resolution of the House.

This is the form of procedure which we have suggested. If the Minister wants to increase the powers of the Authority, he should not be frightened to tell Parliament that he intends to do so and to get approval by laying a draft Order first and letting the House debate it to see exactly how he wishes to extend the Authority's powers.

In explaining the last Amendment of the four, may I refer back to Clause 1(1) where the research councils are established by Royal Charter. The Royal Charter is to fol0low an Order in Council under Clause 1(4). The Order in Council follows Parliament's approval of a draft Order. Having gone through all that procedure, we turn to Clause 6(2), which states that the Royal Charter can be altered or revoked notwithstanding anything in the Bill. The whole matter having been considered and debated by the House, it is embodied in the Royal Charter which can be changed without the knowledge of the House.

Royal charters are made and amended in the Privy Council. They are dealt with on petition from those concerned, rather like an action without a hearing. Certainly, they are not known to the House of Commons unless one regularly reads the London Gazette. Yet, having gone through all the procedure of a draft order in council, the Order in Council and the Royal Charter based on that which the House has debated, it seems that under Clause 6 the Royal Charter may be changed. The Amendment would merely ensure that a royal charter which results from a draft Order in Council approved by the House shall not be nullified or enlarged without reference to Parliament.

Mr. Boyden

On the general point of Parliament's ability to discuss the scientific activities in the Bill, I should have thought that both Clause 2 and Amendment No. 13 gave adequate means of discussion in a better way than has been the case in the past. Clause 2 generally tidies up the arrangements for discussion in the sense that there will be one accounting officer for all the votes and a set procedure for dealing with matters.

It will be open to the Opposition to raise these issues on Supply Days. It will be possible to discuss them in the Estimates Committee, and the accounting procedure can be discussed in the Public Accounts Committee. I should have thought, therefore, that on almost every score there would be ample opportunity to discuss scientific developments within the scope of the Bill.

More specifically on Amendment No. 11, responsibility for research stations was, under the previous Administration, transferred to research councils and Government Departments without reference to Parliament. For example, in 1959, the Tropical Products Institute was transferred from the Colonial Office to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. This is a normal transaction between Departments by decision of the Government. It can, of course, take place only when the function conceived is covered by a statutory definition of the functions of the Department which is taking over the responsibility. There is, therefore, nothing improper or new about the procedure set out here.

The general effect of the Amendments would be to make parliamentary discussion take place on what are really administrative matters—for example, the transfer of property which, in the Bill, is simplified so that conveyancing, in the same way as with the transfer of contracts, can be done departmentally. There is no need to discuss this sort of thing in the House and I should have thought that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) would agree with that. The effect would be to burden the House of Commons unnecessarily. We are having rather longer sittings than we had fairly recently, and I should have thought that the House would not be particularly anxious to have opportunities to debate matters of this description when it could have much more formal opportunities for discussing general scientific policy and the policies of the Council. I hope, therefore, for the reasons I have suggested, that the hon. Member will not press the Amendment.

10.15 p.m.

When the hon. Member referred to Amendment No. 19—

Mr. Graham Page

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not leave subsection (6). There is another Amendment to it which is even more important than the one he has mentioned.

Mr. Boyden

I was coming to Amendment No. 12. On Amendment No. 19, however, the granting of a Royal Charter is a Royal Prerogative and amendment or revocation is likewise a prerogative matter. The proposal in Amendment No. 19 would infringe the Royal Prerogative. Behind this, as I think would be accepted on all sides of the Committee, the dealing with scientific councils and science on the basis of a charter is an arrangement which scientists very much prefer. Indeed, the proposition of the Government that there should be I.R.D.A. instead of the present arrangements was based upon this kind of attitude to it. It would, therefore, be out of keeping for the Opposition to try to infringe the Royal Prerogative in this way.

I should also have thought, on Amendment No. 12, that the proposition which is being advanced is very much against the stream of feeling which we have had in discussions in the House about parliamentary proceedings generally. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member will feel inclined to accept the assurance that there will be no attempt to limit discussion on this side.

As to the Atomic Energy Authority—

Mr. Graham Page

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but he has not dealt with Amendment No. 12, which relates to the latter part of subsection (6), which is not merely a transfer of administrative matters. Here it is a transfer of the responsibility for any activities in relation to scientific research.

Mr. Boyden

I thought I had dealt with that when dealing with Amendment No. 11. It has not been done in the past between research councils and Government Departments. I assure the hon. Member that there is no departure from practice in this way.

If I may conclude with reference to the Atomic Energy Authority, I can, perhaps, give an assurance that there is no subtle intention here of trying to get that Authority to enter into commercial activities or anything of that sort. The intention is merely to extend the area of scientific activity, subject to the safeguard that the Atomic Energy Authority will have opportunities for consultation with the Minister of Technology and not be put in a position of being coerced to do things that it does not think that it should.

Mr. Graham Page

I am willing to accept a certain amount of the hon. Gentleman's argument on Amendments Nos. 11 and 12. He has, I think, underrated the powers that can be exercised under the latter part of subsection (6) by the transfer of functions described as the responsibility for any activities in relation to scientific research. If it is intended to transfer any of the functions of a Government Department to a research council, or vice versa, the House of Commons should know about it and, by means of a Statutory Instrument laid before it in the normal way, subject to annulment, the House should have a chance of knowing what is happening.

I would not press to a Division the Amendment concerning the Royal Charter, but I regard Amendment No. 15, adding the subsection requiring a draft Order to come before the House so that the House may know what the Minister of Technology will do by way of expanding the powers of the Atomic Energy Authority, as essential. The Joint Under-Secretary has said that there is no intention to extend the commercial activities of the Authority, but this is exactly what subsection (1) of Clause 4 says.

I would accept that he has no such intention. Why, then, should not the Minister of Technology bring his intentions before the House and let the House see them? What is he afraid of? We can only suspect that he intends to extend the Atomic Energy Authority's powers to the manufacture, to the distribution, of goods which have no connection with atomic energy at all, because Section 2 of the 1954 Act gives all these powers to the Authority in relation to atomic matters, and now, under Clause 4(1) of this Bill, the Minister will have the power to grant the Authority the right to manufacture any article it chooses, any article the Minister chooses, without telling the House anything about it at all. If he does intend only to cope with the widening scientific knowledge, then let the House know about it; let him bring it by draft Order to the House.

Really, the hon. Gentleman has not dealt at all with precedent in this matter. The precedent is perfectly clear, and it was explained to the Select Committee on delegated legislation, and it was put into the Committee's Report, that it is normal, if a Bill is providing for a Minister by Statutory Instrument or by direction to alter legislation in an important matter, as this is, that it should be done only by an affirmative Resolution of the House. I think that this is such a serious matter that I must advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide on Amendment No. 15.

The Chairman

Do I take it that the hon. Member is withdrawing Amendment No. 11?

Mr. Page

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Boyden

I beg to move Amendment No. 13, in page 4, line 18, at the end to insert: (7) On any such transfer of responsibility as is mentioned in subsection (6) above the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument provide, so far as appears to him necessary or expedient for giving full effect to the transfer, for the repeal or amendment of any provision in any enactment affecting a Research Council or government department concerned, and make transitional, supplemental or incidental provision in connection with any such repeal or amendment; but the statutory instrument shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

The Chairman

I think that it would be convenient with this Amendment to take Amendments No. 14 and 16.

Mr. Boyden


The purpose of the Amendment, of the new subsection, is to provide for the repeal or amendment of the relevant enactments to be included among consequential steps which can be taken by statutory order when responsibility for particular scientific research activities is transferred between Departments or research councils. When activities are transferred in the circumstances envisaged in subsection (6) of this Clause some consequential amendment or repeal of enactments may be desirable, and the Amendments now proposed will enable such amendments or repeals to be made.

Where, for example, an enactment provides for a particular council to be consulted in relation to certain matters, if the relevant activities of that council were transferred to another council or Department, it would be relevant to substitute the other body for the research council mentioned in the enactment itself.

Provision will be made by way of the negative Resolution procedure. Again I invoke in aid the Second Reading speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), who wished that this procedure should be adopted. I would think that this Amendment would assist what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has been asking for, and I ask the Committee to accept it.

Mr. Graham Page

I think that, as the hon. Gentleman said, this will assist the points which I was making on the previous two Amendments, and it was because of this Amendment being on the Paper that I did not press those previous two Amendments, but I cannot resist the temptation to say that here, in this Amendment, the whole principle which I was advocating on the previous Amendments is recognised and accepted.

Here, where there is a transfer of functions, the Statutory Instrument carrying out that transfer is to be subject to annulment by the House.

Why the hon. Gentleman could not have accepted the previous Amendments and had a similar type of Statutory Instrument relating to this I do not know. I agree that in this case it does not need to be by affirmative Resolution because these are consequential Amendments to previous enactments. This is distinct from Amendment No. 15. On the whole, I agree with the hon. Gentleman in his Amendment here. It accepts the right principle, which I wish he would have applied to other sections of the Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 4, line 19, leave out "subsection (6)", and insert" subsections (6) and (7)".—[Mr. Boyden.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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