HC Deb 19 January 1967 vol 739 cc766-70 Notwithstanding anything in sections 2 and 34 of this Act, neither the Corporation nor a publicly-owned company shall, without the consent of the Minister, make any substantial alteration in the organisation of the activities that, in the case of the Corporation, have fallen to be carried on under their ultimate control or, in the case of a publicly-owned company, are being carried on by that company and its subsidiaries at the date of the passing of this Act, until the first report has been made by the Corporation under section 4(1) of this Act.—[Mr. van Straubenzee.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I shall try to explain so eminently reasonable a new Clause very shortly indeed. You will understand, Mr. Speaker, that to explain it I must make reference to Clause 4 of the Bill, an unhappy Clause for hon. Members opposite to discuss, I realise, a Clause which places upon the Corporation the duty to review its affairs and present a report to the Minister. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that that Clause places upon the Minister, or will place upon the Minister, in addition a duty to place that report before the House. That will be discussed later upon a later Amendment, which stems directly from an undertaking given by the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton)—and that was one of the many great services performed by my hon. Friend to the Standing Committee.

In brief, what the new Clause is now suggesting is that the Corporation should not carry out any substantial reorganisation based on that report till the first report has been made. I draw the attention of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary who, I fancy, is going to reply, to three facets of the wording which, of course, has been carefully chosen. Neither the Corporation nor a publicly-owned company shall act without the consent of the Minister". The Minister comes into this. It says that the alterations are limited to "substantial" alterations. The hon. Gentleman will notice the word "substantial". It says that this is limited to the organisation of the activities". All those words are important; they all have a purpose behind them; and the importance of them all has, I hope, been taken by the hon. Gentleman.

The argument which we put forward, briefly, is that if there were a reorganisation before the first report was received, it would make a mockery of the whole procedure. The first report, in particular, obviously will be of great importance in this context. To do that would be to make a complete mockery of the first report if substantial alterations in the organisation—all those words being important—were made before the report was received.

It is even more important because, later in the Order Paper, the Minister himself has tabled Amendments to bring that first report and others before the House. What is the purpose of bringing that report before the House if action has already been taken on the very matters with which the report deals? The strengthening of Clause 4, for which we owe so much to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil, would be of no point if substantial changes had been made already.

What are the possible objections which one can imagine the Parliamentary Secretary raising? I suppose that he could say that it would be intolerable that comparatively small matters should not be dealt with until the first report was received. I hope that I have dealt with that possible objection by pointing out that only substantial alterations are involved. That is the reason for the drafting of the Clause as it is.

I suppose that he might say that he cannot deal with comparatively detailed matters of shareholdings, and so on. That is dealt with, because the new Clause is concerned only with alterations in the organisation of the activities.

I suppose that he might say that it is intolerable for him to be bound hand and foot and that he must be given some latitude to make a judgment. The answer to that is that he can. Under the Clause, they cannot act without the consent of the Minister. In other words, the Minister is in a position to give his consent to such a substantial alteration even though the report has not been received.

I find it difficult to see a more reasonable Clause and one which flows more obviously and logically from the short discussion which we had on Clause 4 at an ungodly hour in the morning when the Parliamentary Secretary was lucky not to be in his present office, because he would have been worn down, as his predecessor was. It flows quite logically from the undertakings given by the Minister on that occasion. For that reason, in a spirit of compromise and good will, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will feel free to accept it.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

It is intended that the general reorganisation of the industry after nationalisation should be preceded by a report, required under Clause 4. In fact, excellent progress is now being made by the Organising Committee in the preparation of such a report. It is hoped and expected that it will be made to the Minister at an early date.

However, it is possible that the extended kind of consultations that might arise during the course of the preparation of such a report could cause unexpected delay which, as time went on, might result in the need for substantial changes in the industry, as has been referred to by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee). Therefore, there is the possibility that the kind of situation which he has sought to meet in the Clause will arise. It is possible that the consultations with trade unions and with the many other interests, including the managements of the nationalised companies, would take longer than we envisaged at present. It is possible that the completion of the first report will be unexpectedly delayed as a result. It is because of this that under Clause 4 there is a requirement that the report be submitted within a year of vesting date, and the Clause gives the Minister power to extend this period if necessary.

If, for some reason which we cannot foresee, the first report and the general reorganisation of the industry were delayed in that way, it might be necessary to undertake a substantial alteration in the organisation of the industry on an interim basis.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The hon. Gentleman said that the wording which I had used "sought to close the gap", as though there were something technically wrong with it. This may be so. If it is I hope that he will make it clear, because it seems that the proposed wording meets the situation which the hon. Gentleman has now outlined and which we, too, had thought of.

Mr. Freeson

I shall describe as I proceed, and it will not take very long, our reaction to the Clause. In the meantime, I must apologise if from time to time my wording is a little loose in a technical sense. I am not speaking as a drafter of Clauses.

Mr. A. G. F. Hall-Davis (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

I did not take part in the Committee debates, but I have not quite followed what the right hon. Gentleman said. Does he mean that when the report is made there will be consultations and long discussions before it is published? I imagined that the report would be published and then the discussions would take place. I got the impression that there would be delay while the discussions took place before the report was laid before the House.

Mr. Freeson

That might arise, but we do not expect it to. It could arise during the preparation of the report. During the preparation of the report there are bound to be ideas, schemes, and details to be worked out about the future reorganisation of the industry. This will involve consultations, during which queries might arise which could lead to extended discussions. I am not describing what is happening. I am not making a forecast of what we think will happen. I am simply stating what might happen. As I said at the beginning, excellent progress is being made, and we expect the report to be made fairly promptly, as required by the Bill.

The Corporation can, in practice, be expected and relied on to act in a way which will not prejudice the decisions of the Minister and the views and decisions of Parliament on the first report which is required under Clause 4. Indeed, we can expect the Corporation to consult the Minister before making any substantial changes in organisation. The Corporation will no doubt ensure that the publicly-owned companies do the same.

There are, however, advantages in formalising the matter, as is sought in the new Clause, and in imposing on the Corporation a statutory requirement to obtain the Minister's consent for the issue or reissue of which the Minister would be answerable to Parliament in the case of any substantial reorganisation which might arise before there were any general reorganisation acceptable by way of the report.

The proposed Clause is, therefore, acceptable in principle, but the drafting is capable of some improvement, and some detailed changes are desirable. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be happy about this. On this basis the Government will, in another place, introduce provisions to give effect to the intention of the Clause, and I am sure that we can be united in accepting this as a happy situation.

Mr. van Straubenzee

For once I am almost speechless, and the hon. Gentleman knows that that is rather rare for me. I am very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I am very pleased with him at the moment, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.