HC Deb 15 July 1966 vol 731 cc1921-8
Sir T. Beamish

I beg to move Amendment No. 14, in page 13, line 32, to leave out from "shall" to the end of line 33 and to insert: not be made unless a draft of the order or regulation; has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament". Under subsection (2), the Secretary of State is taking power by Order to make such changes in the provisions of Schedule I of the Auxiliary Forces Act, 1953, as he considers appropriate. This is a straightforward Amendment designed to provide a safeguard against arbitrary changes in the pattern of associations without an opportunity for any consideration by Parliament.

There is no doubt that the Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Associations in the main have been doing an excellent job over a long time. That is common ground between both sides of the House. The flourishing state of the Territorial Army a year ago—and it was flourishing—bears tribute to their success. The same can be said for the period since 1945 and the period between the wars, when the associations did a remarkable job which we can all praise. This success was undoubtedly due in some measure to the balance of membership of the associations. Whether by experience or good luck, the balance of representation between military and Air Force on the one side and civilian on the other, between representatives of local authorities, employers and trade unions on the one hand and members with useful experience and good will on the other, seems to have been just about right. I think that we can also all agree about that.

The Secretary of State has so widened his powers under subsection (2)—and in general we think it right not to oppose the widening of those powers—that he will surely not cavil at our suggesting that he inserts this safeguard into the Bill. This is especially necessary because the shaping of tile new framework of administra- tion will present new and various problems. We would like to be sure that the men on the spot, who have local knowledge, carry full weight in any decisions which are made and that the long arm of Whitehall is not encouraged to dictate a tidy answer which may not necessarily be the best.

The main difficulties, springing from the far larger areas to be covered by the new associations, will concern how to keep the all-important local element interested and able to contribute to the future of the Volunteer Reserves and how to maintain a proper balance of representation between military and civilian members. As we know to our cost in the House, an over-large committee is not at all an efficient instrument and some formula will therefore have to be found, no doubt varying from area to area—because there is no rule of thumb which can be applied—which answers these two main problems, the size of the associations and their composition or balance.

The local character of the associations must to some extent be lost as a result of amalgamations, but if local advisory committees are to be set up to replace each of the former associations and each is to be represented on the new associations, which we hope is in the Minister's mind, some of the most important features of the territorial aspect of the Volunteer Reserves can be preserved.

We feel that the House of Commons, which has so many close and regular contacts with the Teritorial Army, as it has had in the past and will continue to have in the future, must have a contribution to make in these respects. I myself have belonged for 20 years or so to my own county association and I am only one of dozens of hon. Members on both sides of the House with such experience and who have always taken an interest in the Territorial Army. Hon. Members in this position feel that their advice is worth asking for if radical changes in the composition of the associations are contemplated. That is the first main reason why we suggest the Amendment, so that such changes can be made the subject of an affirmative Resolution.

The other difficulty, which I will mention only briefly, is harder to solve. It is maintaining a proper balance of representation on the new associations. In some of the new areas there will often be few T. & A.V.R. units and many local authorities, because the areas are to be so much larger and the Volunteer Reserves are being cut roughly in half. It is good sense to lay down that a military organisation like this should be administered locally by a body of which at least half have military knowledge and experience of things military. At present, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the composition of the associations is very carefully laid down and based on very long experience. In the past, when radical changes have been made in the composition of the associations, almost invariably, ever since the early days in 1907, there has been an opportunity for Parliament to express its view about the changes. There have been many changes from 1907 to 1949. There were changes in 1924 and in 1950 and, of course, Schedule 1 of the 1953 Act is mentioned in this Clause.

The present position in Sussex, for instance, which is a fairly typical county, is that we have a president and 74 ordinary members, of whom 32 are military, seven Air Force, eight to deal with pre-Service questions and connected with education and so on, 20 are civilian representatives and seven are co-opted. This sort of balance, based on years of experience, has shown itself to work very well.

It must be sensible for local authorities, between whom and the Territorial Army there has been and must continue to be so much give and take, to be represented. The home defence role of the T. & A.V.R. III makes it essential that the authority responsible for civil defence should also be fully represented. The education authorities are closely involved, especially with the pre-Service and the junior branches and it is right that they should have a share in the local administration of the Volunteer Reserves. With the increases in training and call-out liabilities, it is more important than ever that employers and trade unions should be fully represented.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot on this Amendment discuss proposed changes, or what ought not to be changed. What we are discussing is whether they should come before Parliament by affirmative procedure.

Sir T. Beamish

I merely wanted to discuss the present position as an illustration of the present balance by way of leading into my argument that it is important that if changes are made in future, Parliament should have the opportunity to consider them. However, I will not pursue that further. I meant it only as an illustration. All of these people who contribute in so many different ways to the Associations have been able to make or mar the success of the Volunteer Reserves. This will apply just as much in the future as in the past. No doubt the Minister will have discussed this question and the suggestions that we are making here with the interested parties, particularly the Territorial Army Council. We do not know what the Minister has in mind about the composition of this or how his mind may change in the light of experience with the new and enlarged associations.

This is the main reason why we feel that the considerable amount of experience which can be found in the House of Commons should be taken advantage of when future changes are contemplated.

12.30 p.m.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what is in his mind if he cannot accept this Amendment. As Members of Parliament we have a right to ask for the reasons for these wide and quite exceptional powers being taken and to ask that they should be subject to the affirmative Procedure, so that Parliament may have the opportunity to keep closely in touch with this important question.

Mr. Ennals

I am afraid that we cannot accept the Amendment. I was a little surprised that it had been put forward because it was not tabled at any stage in Committee. Nevertheless I will deal with it seriously. As I understand it the Opposition are not in any way challenging the powers given to the Secretary of State, but the Parliamentary procedure which is to apply. It seems to show a certain lack of faith in the Negative Resolution Procedure. Let us look at what the Orders we are talking about are likely to be concerned with.

They will deal with changes in boundaries of T.A. Associations and in some cases they will deal with the winding-up of certain associations. There may be a need to change the constitution and to vary the proportion of representatives of universities, employers, trade unions, civic authorities, education authorities and so on. Under paragraph 5 provision is made for redundancy payments to Territorial Army servants whose posts may disappear or compensation for those who will be receiving reduced emoluments. In the case of major changes in the constitution of a local association, I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that there will be the fullest consultation with the Territorial Army Council, and in any changes introduced by means of an Order we shall take the views of the Council very fully into consideration. This applies not only geographically but to the composition of local associations.

The First Schedule of the 1953 Act provides for the presidency of associations, membership of associations, and the supplementary administrative details connected with them. The powers and duties of associations are unaffected. Changes in the First Schedule are most likely to affect membership and one must have representatives of employers, trade unions, universities and local authorities. However, we must also maintain the balance of those with military experience and we are fully aware of the importance, in any changes made, of retaining a proper balance in order to draw on the experience of those involved in this work.

We would submit that variations in the proportion of members on these associations are not a reason for an affirmative Resolution Procedure. As for compensation, provisions will be made for this to be paid. This will be done under the system agreed for the Greater London Council reorganisation. We cannot and will not make any significant departure from this procedure. There have been and will continue to be consultations with the Trade Union Council and that with the staff side. Not only is the Amendment unnecessary but it could have unfortunate delaying effects. In the Bill the Regulations could take effect soon after they are made, whether Parliament has adjourned or not and would be sub- ject to annulment without retrospective effect for 40 days outside the Adjournment that is, till November or December. Under the Amendment they could not take effect until they had been laid and adopted, which would almost certainly be not until after the Adjournment, thus delaying the commencement of the reorganisation.

I feel sure that hon. Gentlemen opposite do not want to see this happen. It is most important that we should be able to proceed with the task of reorganisation if we are to get the new, reorganised force off to a good start. There are many precedents for the procedure contained in the Bill which is now challenged by the Opposition. The rights of Parliament are fully protected by the Negative Resolution Procedure. The precedents for amending Acts of Parliament by instrument include the London Government Act, 1963, Section 84, the Defence (Transfer of Functions) Act, 1964, Section 3 and the regulations providing for compensation to redundant harbour officers, under the Harbours Act, 1964, Section 54(2). There are a number of honourable precedents. The procedure contained in the Bill provides ample opportunity for the House to express its views if it is dissatisfied with any decision taken or any Order made. I would further assure hon. Members opposite that before making an order the Secretary of State will enter into the fullest consultation with those experienced in this sphere so that we are able to use such experience, and that of the Territorial Army Council, before rushing ahead with anything.

Mr. Powell

If I may venture to offer a word of counsel to the Under-Secretary it would be that he will get his business better in this House if, before he proceeds to read his brief out to the House he does not offer observations which appear to the Opposition to be patronising. It does not lie in the mouth of the Government, who have, quite rightly, had second thoughts on two successive stages of this Bill, to complain of a matter being raised on Report which has not previously been discussed in Committee. You in your wisdom, Mr. Speaker, and absolute discretion, have decided that the House should not on Report consider again a matter which you regarded as having been sufficiently discussed in Committee. It would be a poor thing if the Government are to tell us that we are not going to discuss matters on Report unless they have been raised in Committee.

Moreover in many instances, of which this is one, it is sensible and rational for an Opposition to hear in Committee how the Government intend to use the powers they are taking in a Bill before they suggest at a later stage how the use of those powers should be hedged round. The Under-Secretary would have done better if he had spared us the initial part of his argument.

It is true that under the negative Resolution procedure there is often the opportunity of having as large a debate as under the affirmative procedure upon the contents of orders or regulations. But it is by no means absolutely so, and, if the Government get deeper into the mess with their business which we have seen in recent days, we shall find more often that the 40 days opportunity for individual hon. Members and for the Opposition to use the negative procedure is out on grounds of time, especially since, in the last decade or so, we have had the limitation on hours for the moving of what we call Prayers. It is, therefore, by no means as absolutely true as it was a number of years ago that there is no practical difference between the opportunity for debate which is offered by the negative procedure and that offered by the affirmative procedure.

What we on this side are saying about the Amendment is that there are some things which can be done by orders under the Clause that are so important that the House ought to have an unconditional opportunity of debating them—that, in order to get them, the Government should have to come to Parliament, and consequently, raise debate.

I am prepared to accept from the hon. Gentleman that some of the matters—perhaps many of them—which might be dealt with by regulations under subsection (5) and some incidental matter which might be dealt with under subsection (2) do not in that sense call for the absolute right of opportunity of debate in the House. But I would seriously say that a major modification of Schedule 1, which is really the charter of the Territorial Army Associ- ations, is a matter which ought unconditionally to be debated in the House.

I ask the Government, since, happily for them, they have further opportunities to improve the Bill, to consider that argument and to consider whether they can distinguish between the kind of order under the Clause which is a major modification of the charter in Schedule 1 of the 1953 Act, and the other orders and regulations which might be made under it. In the former case, we on this side insist that there is good ground for an absolute right to have the opportunity to debate. Therefore, let the Government use their time to draw this distinction and, when the Bill comes back to us, I hope that the opportunity for which we are asking will have been provided.

Mr. Ennals

I thought that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) was a little ungenerous in his opening comments. If he will recall, the second thoughts which have led to the Amendments that have been presented by the Government today have been to meet the wishes of the Opposition; very reasonable assurances were given in Committee that we would look again at the representations that they made to us. It is a little churlish of the right hon. Gentleman to throw it in our faces when we have gone a very long way to meet the many points that were put forward by the Opposition in Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman said that as large a debate can be granted on the negative as on the affirmative procedure, and that there are opportunities for Prayers to be taken, though it is true that the Opposition must choose on which orders to pray. But we cannot make any change in the procedures which are before the House, and we cannot accept the Amendment which has been proposed, for the reasons which I gave earlier.

Amendment negatived.