HC Deb 17 June 1965 vol 714 cc978-91
Mr. Speaker

The next Amendment selected is No. 22, and I think that it might be for the convenience of the Committee—I do not know—to discuss with it Amendment No. 23, in page 5, line 2, at the end to insert: Provided always that any financial assistance by way of grant or loan, or partly in one way and partly in the other, in respect of any one enterprise in excess of £50,000 shall be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State and of the Treasury; and that their approvals of the grants and loans made under this subsection in any year shall not exceed £2 million except with the approval of the Secretary of State and the Treasury.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the previous Clause, I had the impression that the Minister of State did not answer the point which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) had raised because he had not understood it, and I wanted to explain it. In the circumstances—

Mr. Speaker

I understand the hon. Gentleman's desire to explain it, but, in the context, supposed inadequacy of the answer does not give rise to a point of order.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble), who is about to move his Amendment, but, Mr. Speaker, I wish to raise a point of order. It arises on a matter of procedure and it is, therefore, appropriate as a point of order to put to you.

We have been informed—unofficially, it is true—that it is the Prime Minister's intention to make to the House a statement of extreme importance and, I understand, of urgency because, unless the statement is made in the House, there will be the likelihood—I do not put it too high—or the possibility that the statement may appear in the Press. You are aware, Mr. Speaker, that the House always regards a statement made outside instead of in the House as being inopportune and inadvisable.

In the circumstances, I wonder whether you would make clear that, at some appropriate moment, without interrupting the proceedings unduly, it will be permissible for such a statement to be made.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have been considering this with the greatest anxiety because it could not be supposed that I had any wish to prevent the House hearing the Prime Minister at the earliest possible moment. I do not find in our procedure any power to interrupt business during the currency of an Order of the Day, so the earliest moment at which I can arrange it is when this particular Order of the Day comes to an end.

Perhaps I may remind the right hon. Gentleman how closely I am bound. There was an occasion on 30th October, 1956, when the then Government were anxious to tell the House that hostilities had broken out between Israel and Egypt. It so happens that the Member who objected to that procedure then being adopted was the right hon. Gentleman himself, and my predecessor was obliged to accede to his submission, expressing great regret that there was no machinery for getting out of the difficulty. I do the same, but I am left as firmly fixed.

Mr. Shinwell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect, circumstances have changed since then. Perhaps the situation is more urgent. But would it not be possible for one of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to move the Adjournment of the House?

Mr. Speaker

No, only between Orders of the Day. That is the trouble, and that is how the difficulty arises. It is open to the Government of the day to move the Adjournment between Orders of the Day, but not during one. I regret the difficulty, but I cannot help.

The Minister without Portfolio (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not possible at any time for a Minister of the Crown to move, "That further consideration of the Bill be now adjourned"?

Mr. Speaker

That gives rise to a dilatory Motion and the subject matter which can then be discussed is restricted by the rules relating to a dilatory Motion. I do not know what the statement is about, but I do not suppose it to be about Highland development. [Laughter.] I am not trying to be funny. That is what creates the difficulty here. I should be extremely glad to help the House if I possibly could, but I cannot find any way of doing it.

Mr. Noble

I beg to move Amendment No. 22, in page 4, line 39, to leave out from the beginning to the second "the" in line 40.

I agree, Mr. Speaker, that it would be for the convenience of the House to take Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 together. At the end of his last speech, the Minister of State said that any little thing we can do or power we can give to the Board to create the conditions we want in the Highlands should be done or given. I regard these two Amendments as of great importance if we are really to give to the—

Mr. Shinwell

May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman? I wonder whether, in view of what has been said on the point of order, the Opposition would cooperate, as this is a most important matter. Perhaps the points which they are raising are of minor importance and might be dealt with very expeditiously.

Mr. Noble

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for suggesting that the points which we are dealing with are of minor importance. Of course, in the great world context they may well be. However, to myself and many of my colleagues who have an interest in the Highlands, they are fairly important. If, through the usual channels, a message can be given to us about the import of the Prime Minister's statement, we will certainly try to co-operate.

As the Secretary of State for Scotland has been kind enough to say once or twice, we have done our very best throughout the passage of the Bill to speed up its consideration. However, I hope that the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) will forgive me if, on this rather important point, as I regard it, I continue with my speech, because it is difficult for me to obtain advice while I am on my feet.

The purpose behind these Amendments is perfectly clear. It is to give to the Highland Development Board the initiative to spend a certain amount of money in any year on any individual enterprise in pursuance of the objects which I think all hon. Members hope it will be able to carry out.

I am not wedded to the words of the Amendment or to the actual amount, though I should not regard it as very satisfactory if the Government were to say that they accepted the principle behind the Amendment but wanted to limit the sums concerned to a trifling amount. [Interruption.] It is a little difficult to carry on this debate with general conversation going on in the House. I wonder whether you can help us, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

I hope that hon. Members will carry on their conversations quietly, and, perhaps, outside the Chamber.

Mr. Noble

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. It is not a question of my voice having gone, but some of us have been here rather a long time, as indeed you have, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I do not want to have to shout at the top of my voice to still the hubbub.

It is clear from the discussion which we had earlier today that it is the universal desire of the House—and I certainly include the Liberal Party in this—that we should get on the Board young men perhaps wanting to make their reputation out[...] of their work on the Board. It was suggested, although not too firmly, that the sort of people we wanted to get were "worth" between £8,000 and £12,000 a year. If that is so, the Government must very seriously consider whether it is possible—and I know that this is an unusual step—to give a board constituted of this type of person and with these sorts of powers the special discretion which would automatically follow if it were able to spend fairly considerable sums without having to go back each time to the Treasury or to the Secretary of State for approval.

One of the problems to which we have referred once or twice this afternoon is that we do not yet have any very clear ideas of what type of projects the Board will undertake. Earlier, the Minister of State talked about things like access roads. Then we heard about a water scheme. Today, we have had one or two new ideas about land reclamation, forestry and, perhaps, some information offices dotted about the country. But to those of us who live in the Highlands none of these things suggests that the Board has any very large and useful function to perform. I am sure that the Board and the Government can find many better things than these to do. If so, I hope that the Board will have power to spend its own money.

The Secretary of State may say—and I understand his point—that he cannot accept the Amendment because it is very difficult to get the Treasury to allow a comparatively independent board, although one of my complaints is that the Board is not independent enough to have the power to spend money without being tightly controlled by the State. [Interruption.] I wonder whether the conversation which is going on could be subdued, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. I have already asked hon. Members if they will carry on their conversation more quietly or outside the Chamber, so that we may hear the debate.

Mr. Noble

On a point of order. Do you not think, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that when the Patronage Secretary wants to carry on a conversation he might take his hon. Friends outside to do it? This sort of thing makes it very difficult for the House to conduct its business. I have already raised this point twice.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I made a request to all hon. Members—not only to the Patronage Secretary—that conversation should be carried on quietly so that the proceedings are not disturbed. Otherwise, conversations should take place outside the Chamber.

Mr. Noble

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I apologise to hon. Members who may well be buzzing with rumours which have not reached me because I am on my feet. However, as you have said, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, it would make it a great deal easier, in particular, if the senior members of the Government would not conduct their conversations in public.

Mr. Charles Grey (Durham)

Hurry up.

Mr. Noble

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to continue with my speech for three or four hours, I am prepared to do it. I have been extremely careful in speaking for a very short time. Because something is afoot of which I have no knowledge—and I suspect that the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Grey) has no knowledge of it—to make those sorts of remarks, particularly as the hon. Gentleman is a Whip, is entirely uncalled for. I am coming to the end of what I wanted to say. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I will not come to an end if hon. Members opposite do not even extend a little courtesy to the Member who has the Floor of the House.

The Secretary of State would, I know, have a certain amount of difficulty perhaps in accepting the Amendment if this were the first time that he had seen it. But this is a point which I made on Second Reading and which we have discussed quite often and at some length in Committee with fairly general approval. As has been said by the Minis- ter of State when it suited him, the setting up of this Board is itself an unusual step. It is perhaps a unique experiment. If we are to make a success of something which is a unique experiment we must be prepared to take some actions—this, I think, is one—which signify to the country that this is an unusual step and that we are prepared to give the Board unusual powers.

If we do that, we will take a considerable step forward in making it easier for the Secretary of State to get the right people to serve on the Board and to be able to use their intelligence, powers and initiative in the right way.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. George Y. Mackie

I rise to support the Amendment on much the same grounds as the right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble). I will be brief, but the essential point is that if we have a board, of high quality men who do this unusual, new and vitally important job which covers the revitalisation of an area which is the heart of Scotland, then these men must have responsibility put upon them and they certainly cannot get less than is put upon the Highland Fund at the moment, which has the ability to lend a certain amount of money without reference to the Secretary of State.

The figure proposed is reasonable. It is not a very large enterprise which absorbs £50,000. Any larger sum would need the approval of the Secretary of State and, I presume, the Treasury. But we have no doubt that, if the Board is to play a vital part, it cannot go running to the Secretary of State every time it wants to initiate a very small but viable enterprise.

Mr. Russell Johnston

I, too, support the Amendment. The matter was discussed at some length in Committee when I moved an Amendment to Clause 3. Hon. Members who were on that Committee will recollect that the Minister of State's argument against the Amendment was that the Board's freedom of action would be extended by a series of category sanctions. However, he did say that the idea behind the Amendment was attractive.

Quite apart from the argument about the degree of responsibility which any men of quality employed by the Board ought to have, this proposal would give the Board a degree of freedom of action that is necessary. Some of our fears about the Board are due to the fact that all proposals both general and specific have to be referred back to the Secretary of State and this must lead to delay in taking action in specific cases. This is a reasonable fear, because we in the Highlands have long experience of delay and postponement and we now want to create some sort of mechanism whereby the Board can have a certain freedom of action similar, although on a larger sale, to that already enjoyed by the Highland Fund.

For these reasons, I suggest to the Secretary of State that he would be pleasing the whole House if he not necessarily accepted the exact wording of the Amendment but agreed to something similar.

Finally, purely on a point of order, Sir Samuel—and I do not know if it is proper for me to do so—may I say that this present situation places us in some difficulty. We are dealing with a question which we all regard as important and it is wrong that we should be penalised by the procedural shortcomings of Parliament.

Mr. Ross

I, too, feel strongly about what the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) has so succinctly expressed as the shortcomings of Parliament in interfering with a very important Scottish debate. I can assure my hon. Friends and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite that we have not been wasting time with this Bill. We have been dealing with it in relation to its importance, and very quickly indeed.

These two Amendments are important. I fully appreciate the reason for them. It is to give a certain measure of freedom to the Board so that it will not have to go constantly to the Secretary of State in respect of the assistance it wishes to give to various firms.

It is not the words of the Amendment which worry me but the figures. Once figures are put into a Bill it takes another Bill to change them. That is a serious point. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has already given an assurance that it is our intention with the Board to work out a scheme that will give it latitude—a greater latitude than is at present enjoyed by the Highland Fund, which gives loans up to £7,500 without reference back.

The Amendment would also put a ceiling on the aggregate in any one year. The figure—£2 million—looks all very well, but it is a maximum. I think that we do far better to bear in mind that we want the Board to flourish, to exercise its powers for a considerable number of years and to spend very much larger sums than that. It is dangerous, if a little pessimistic, to put in a figure.

Mr. Noble

I appreciate his point, and, indeed, in an Amendment we moved in Committee we included a much more optimistic figure—about £10 million. But that was greeted with so much apprehension over the question of whether it was realistic that, on this occasion, we thought we should come down to something which would perhaps be thought more realistic. I am not keen on the figures in the Amendment, and if the right hon. Gentleman can find some way of meeting the real problem of being able to tell the Board that it can spend so much money without consulting him, then I will support him. We are at one on this.

Mr. Ross

I agree that we are one on this. But the danger is in tying oneself to figures which look all right today but in a few years' time may look nonsensical. That is why we have deliberately not put figures in. However, it is our intention to give the Board freedom in respect of particular projects instead of having it run backwards and forwards to Edinburgh with frantic messages to the Secretary of State. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not resisting his Amendment in any petty spirit of pure opposition.

Mr. G. Campbell

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that the Amendments are important. I am sorry that his main objection is to the figures. We included them as a result of discussion in Committee as being what we think at the moment to be within the bounds of possibility and as a reasonable match against the kind of project which the Board would be likely to be dealing with and which it could then have discretion to approve.

As my right hon. Friend said, if the Government would like to put in their own figures we would have no objection at all. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the situation is likely to change and circumstances are likely to be different in the future. It would therefore be a great help if we included a provision whereby these figures could be changed from time to time. The total limit could be increased or diminished if the financial situation because very straitened.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman ought to reject the Amendment simply on the ground that the figures are not acceptable and that he cannot find any others to put in their place. Once the new Board comes into existence, people in Scotland, and certainly in the Highland areas, will be looking at the amount of money which is to be made available, and they will be disappointed when they find that the Secretary is worried by limits of the kind that we have suggested here. If the Board is going to be able to do anything at all worth while, it ought to be permitted to sanction a project to the amount of the limit that we have mentioned here.

The right hon. Gentleman has not put forward any real objections to the Amendment. As my right hon. Friend explained, we think it is important that the Board itself should be given much more discretion in the area for which it is responsible, though we recognise that for major projects the Government, and particularly the Secretary of State and the Treasury should have the final say, and we have made provision for that.

To sum up, we are not wedded to these figures, but we think that the principle is extremely important, and we are disappointed that the Government do not seem able to come any way towards meeting us. The comments made by the Minister of State during the Committee stage were not sufficient to meet us, and we would have liked to have had something along the lines of our proposal written into the Bill.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

I apologise if I have to inconvenience my hon. Friends, but this happens to be Government business of considerable importance. We have before us what may be the only real Socialist Measure of this Parliamen- tary Session and I hope that my hon. Friends will consider it for another hour or so with the same attention and respect as that with which we considered it for seventeen mornings in Committee upstairs when we laboured to try to improve the Bill and to make it as nearly perfect a pattern and model as possible for other areas of the United Kingdom.

The intention has been to get the Bill through tonight at a reasonable hour. We have no responsibility for the rules of the House and the difficulties created by them. If hon. Members cannot control the procedure of our own House, I can only say that it is time that something was done about it.

This is an extremely important Measure, based as it is to quite an extent on a sound Socialist pattern, and I would regret it very much if this Bill were now to become victim of a sort of electoral auction here. I do not want to think that that is the fundamental purpose of the Amendment or of the speeches which have been made in support of it by either speaker opposite. Surely nobody wants to start with an auctioneering bid of, say, £25,000. Somebody else is certain then to bid £50,000. I could come in and bid £100,000. But, surely, that is not the way in which the Measure of such importance ought to be considered. No Government or party has ever before attempted to introduce a Measure of this kind and scope. It was left to this Government to bring in these proposals although hon. Gentlemen opposite had plenty of opportunities for doing what we are trying to do. Now they are trying to claim the credit by proxy which they signally failed to earn.

We must bring a sense of responsibility to bear even amid this uproar on the matters under discussion. It would be very easy for me to go to my constituency and say that the Labour Government have brought in a Bill which the Liberal Party in its days of power and the Tory Party in recent years did not attempt to introduce. I could say that without anybody being able to contradict it. It would be easier for me than for any hon. Member to talk about figures of £100,000 and upward. But to do so would be highly irresponsible, and would mean that one was seeking cheap publicity at the expense of getting through a Measure of great importance, and one which neither of the parties opposite ever had the guts to tackle when they had ample opportunity.

I have a lot of sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's declared aims. I should like to see the Board given a large global sum which it could spend without having to come back to the Treasury too often, but I am not going to specify figures. I remember that the Leader of the Liberal Party brought in a very useful little Measure with all-party backing to raise the ceiling below which a local authority could spend money for the provision of marine works without a Provisional Order. His proposal was to increase the ceiling from, I think, £5,000 to £25,000, and it was discussed by the Highland Panel of which I was chairman, and of which the right hon. Gentleman was also then a member. But what does £25,000 amount to today. In my constituency I have a scheme—till recently costing £80,000—which it is now estimated will cost £100,000, it is simply not realistic to talk in permanent legislation about a ceiling of £25,000, or sums to spend of £50,000 or what-have-it.

When talking about putting figures in the Bill, we are in fact talking about putting in figures which will almost certainly in practice become maxima. I should like a firm assurance from my right hon. Friend that as circumstances change he will treat this Board, which is the first of its kind to be charged with duties of this nature, with the greatest possible generosity. I hope that he will treat it in the spirit in which the Government have brought forward and sponsor this Measure. It represents the most determined attempt ever made by legislation to organise the development of the Highlands and Islands on a comprehensive basis, and I hope that it will not be damaged at this advanced stage or partly wrecked by Amendments which have no reality because they want to write in figures which will have no real meaning within about five years. I hope that as time goes by an increasingly generous portion of our national resources will be provided by way not of so-called doles, bur of investment in these areas which can in turn help to increase the wealth of the whole country, and help in their own measure to raise the standards of our people.

The Highlands and Islands have a great deal to offer the economy of the country. But the region has suffered from a lack of accumulated capital. Nevertheless, I do not think that we can tackle the problem by bidding on these Amendments in terms of £5,000 or £25,000, or £50,000; I do not think that the Amendment as a reality in a few years' time is worth the paper on which it is written. Hon. Gentlemen opposite in the Tory Government had thirteen years during which they could have brought in a Measure of this kind and many opportunities in the past. Had they done so, they would have had all the support they wanted, both from this side of the House and indeed, from the Liberal Party.

Mr. Brewis

Why does the hon. Gentleman keep on saying that in five years' time money may mean nothing?

Mr. MacMillan

I said that these figures will be valueless in real terms in a few years' time. The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do. That is why I used the illustration of the well-meaning Measure introduced by the Leader of the Liberal Party. The figure of £25,000 was an ambitious one at that time, but in the context of modern marine or other engineering works such a sum has a fraction of that value now. I give that illustration because it is typical of the sort even of minor local problems that we have to face in the Highlands and Islands.

I want to see as generous a global sum as possible made annually available—or provided over some years—for free spending by the Board, without the necessity for too much or too frequent reference back to the Secretary of State or to the Treasury. But the Government have the responsibility for getting the Bill on a sound basis on to the Statute Book, and they have then the great responsibility for getting the best possible Board appointed. I am against putting figures in the Bill because they tend to become unreal and also maxima. I end as I began by saying I hope that this will not turn into a kind of electoral auction, with parties trying to outbid each other with money figures and mere propaganda.

Mr. George Y. Mackie rose

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member will need the leave of the House to speak again.

Amendment negatived.