HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2104-10
The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert W. Bowden)

The House will recollect that, following the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works yesterday about the Building Control Bill, I was asked to make a statement about the Government's proposals and the constitutional propriety of what my right hon. Friend announced.

There is, of course, no question of the provisions of any Bill having the force of law until the Bill has received the Royal Assent. This was made clear yesterday by my right hon. Friend. It is, however, the Government's intention, in the event of their being re-elected, and the Bill being approved by Parliament, to give effect to the controls provided for in the Bill.

The House will be aware that under the provisions which it was proposed to incorporate in the Bill, work carried out in the construction or alteration of a building or civil engineering project costing more than £100,000 would be unlawful unless it were exempt or licensed by the Minister. The Minister has, since 1st November, 1965, been indicating cases in which building would be permitted and the arrangements he has made have been broadly accepted by the construction industry.

The purpose of my right hon. Friend's statement, which was made at the request of the Opposition, was to give further guidance to the industry. In the view of the Government, it would be regrettable that possibly urgent and essential projects might be held up because those proposing to carry them out were uncertain whether they would be granted a licence. Accordingly, my right hon. Friend felt it helpful and prudent to indicate that existing arrangements will continue for the time being.

The Government consider that to do less than my right hon. Friend proposed would create confusion and uncertainty in the industry.

Mr. Heath

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that statement. Is he aware that this precipitates a grave situation and that his statement is entirely unsatisfactory? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] He said in his statement that in the event of the Government being re-elected, and the Bill being reintroduced, this will become retrospective "to 28th July, 1965. The Government are, therefore, taking powers or claiming to take powers across the dissolution of Parliament right back to July, 1965.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, following the question I asked him yesterday, that he has given no precedent whatever in our constitution for action of this kind? He is, therefore, putting to the House unprecedented and unconstitutional action by a member of the Government. While, yesterday, the Minister of Public Building and Works tried to maintain Government by intimidation, the Leader of the House has today imposed government by decree.

Mr. Bowden

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are many precedents for retrospective legislation. Whether there are precedents for retrospective legislation across the dissolution of Parliament is a different matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I do no know. I have no information on that.

What is being made clear—and I hope that it is now clear to the House—is that what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works has been doing is, at the request of the building industry, giving guidance as to what would be his view, when the Bill receives the Royal Assent, as to whether a particular project exceeding £100,000, possibly to build a bingo hall or something of that sort, would be likely to receive his approval and licensing when he has the authority of the House.

Mr. Grimond

Is not the Leader of the House aware that the whole point at issue is not whether there are precedents for announcing that a Bill will take effect on the date of announcement, but the carrying of this procedure from one Parliament to another? Does he not agree that that is what the whole argument is about? If there is no precedent for this, surely he is unable to answer the main question being put to him by the House. What is to happen to projects which are started? Are they, as was said yesterday by the Minister of Public Building and Works, to be liable to be refused licences when they are perhaps half way completed, therefore involving very heavy financial losses, for which there is no statutory authority whatever?

Mr. Bowden

I know that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party is in favour of this control. He said so yesterday. I appreciate the point that he is making, but he must also accept that the building industry, as a result of the dissolution of Parliament, would be in this position; that prior to the notice of dissolution people would be seeking the guidance of the Ministry about what would happen in the event of them applying for licences.

We think it reasonable that those who now wish to begin projects—that is, after the dissolution, or within the remaining three or five weeks before the new Parliament meets—should have the same right to apply to the Minister and to say, "In the event of your Government being returned, and the Bill getting the Royal Assent, what would be our position?"

Mr. Shinwell

Has it not been customary for many years to issue White Papers preceding legislation? These White Papers are submitted to the House for the purpose of debate by hon. Members and also for the purpose of giving guidance to people who might be concerned when the legislation is introduced and passed. Is he also aware that it has frequently happened—and I am satisfied that precedents of this could be furnished to the House—that White Papers have been issued immediately before dissolution, but that the legislation was not introduced when the new Parliament was elected? Surely, in those circumstances, there was really nothing constitutionally wrong in what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works said yesterday.

Mr. Bowden

The information was designed to give guidance to building contractors to prevent them from being unduly affected as the result of legislation which is likely to be passed by this House. If I were a building contractor I would be glad to know whether or not I would be likely to receive a licence in certain circumstances.

Mr. Heath

Is the Leader of the House aware that that is not what his right hon. Friend said yesterday, but that the Minister used the specific words: I now propose to operate the control…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1966; Vol. 725, c. 1917.] This was a claim to exercise powers which the right hon. Gentleman has not got and has never had. Does the Leader of the House realise that after the consultations which he has carried out during the past 24 hours he has been unable to produce any precedents? Is it not apparent that there is no precedent?

Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware, and I repeat the point, that his right hon. Friend is claiming the right in any future Bill to have retrospective action to 28th July, 1965, with powers of criminal prosecution against the people for which there is not only no precedent but no constitutional justification of any kind?

Mr. Bowden

That is not the position. The position is purely the one which I have described; that in the interests of the industry, building contractors can be guided, prior to or following dissolution, by the Ministry as to whether or not they should proceed with certain projects, and whether or not, when the Bill gets the Royal Assent, they would receive licences to continue the building. This, in my view, is helpful to the industry.

Mr. Paget

Would my right hon. Friend say what is retrospective about saying to the building industry, "We propose to give priority to house building and if you have started on less important constructions you may find that you cannot finish them"?

Mr. Bowden

This is the real purpose of the Bill, which is to give priority to essential building.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Is not the Leader of the House aware that this is what Parliament fought against in the seventeenth century, and that having abolished the divine right of the Crown we do not now intend to establish the divine right of Ministers of the Crown?

Mr. Bowden

The hon. and learned Member must excuse me—I was not here in the seventeenth century. But if he is looking for precedents for retrospective legislation, I could give the House many examples of precedents.

Mr. Weitzman

While I appreciate the criticism that may be made from the point of view of retrospective legislation, would not my right hon. Friend agree that no responsible lawyer would characterise the criticism that there has been a constitutional breach or government by intimidation as other than complete nonsense? Would he not further agree that what the Government have sought here has been to assist builders in what they propose to do?

Mr. Bowden

My information is that, whatever the House may feel on this, the building industry really regards the position as helpful.

Sir D. Renton

Is the Leader of the House aware that the policy announced yesterday by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works is quite ineffective unless there is Parliamentary sanction behind it, and that nobody can be prosecuted in support of the Minister's policy until a Bill—presumably in the same terms as the Building Control Bill is now—has passed through all its stages at some time in the next Parliament? Is he aware that that Bill contained very stringent sanctions—a fine of unlimited amount or two years' imprisonment, or both?

As his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is present, perhaps we could be told whether anybody will in fact be prosecuted retrospectively, bearing in mind that there is now no sanction whatever to support the Minister's policies?

Mr. Bowden

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's recital of the provisions of the Bill is correct. The effect of law does not apply until the Bill has received the Royal Assent. In that respect, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely correct.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House regard what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works said yesterday, and what my right hon. Friend himself has said today, as dictated by the plain common sense of the situation; and that we do not ourselves regard any precedent as necessary when this Government do an act of common sense? If there were an act of common sense on the part of the Opposition, we might very well demand whether there was precedent for that.

Mr. Gower

May I ask the Leader of the House a short question? Whatever the merits of building control—and it is conceded that they may be considerable— does he not attach some importance to the maintenance of those constitutional principles which have been deemed important by our predecessors in this House?

Mr. Bowden

I attach every importance to the constitutional position. I have made it clear, I think, that the constitutional position in my view, and in the views of my advisers, is not infringed in any way here. I also attach considerable importance to the building of houses, and to essential building.

Mr. Heath

But if the right hon. Gentleman wishes only to give guidance to the building industry for the future, will he now make absolutely plain that as there is no precedent and no constitutional propriety about it, no future Bill will in any circumstances be backdated or have penalties back to 28th July, 1965, and that no Bill of this kind can stretch back over the dissolution of Parliament?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman heed the very powerful leader in The Times today, which says that if the Government have made a mess of legislation in their building control policy it is the authority of Parliament in this country which ultimately matters?

Mr. Bowden

The right hon. Gentleman can have the firm assurance that there will be no retrospective penal action.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Mulley. Statement.