HC Deb 12 May 1969 vol 783 cc1056-9
Mr. Peyton

I beg to move Amendment No. 75, in page 23, line 2, leave out 'difficulties or'.

Speaking of difficulties, I hardly know what to say since I am addressing a member of a Government who are notorious as the architects of their own difficulties, but I will not expand upon that.

I would just ask why, if the difficulties have been created by the previous Clause, they should be ironed out by this one. If the difficulties and uncertainties were created by the previous Clause, I can understand the draftsmen, in the circumstances, wishing to iron out the uncertainties created by the previous Clause, but I cannot understand why the difficulties should be here as well. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would be good enough to explain this.

I think that we would be going quite far enough in agreeing that subsection (1) should read: If it appears to the Minister expedient so to do for the purpose of removing any uncertainties arising out of the operation of the last foregoing section …. I look forward to hearing what the right hon. Gentleman has to say.

Mr. Hay

I rise to support my hon. Friend, because, so far as I can recollect, this is a form of words which is unprecedented in the technical sense. It very frequently happens that a Statute contains phrases of a character equivalent to this, enabling the Minister, exceptionally, to override the specific provisions of a Statute and for the purpose of avoiding doubt or uncertainty, but, to my knowledge, this is the first time—certainly, it is the first time I have ever seen it—that such a power has been granted to a Minister for the purpose of removing "difficulties". Therefore, I think my hon. Friend is on a perfectly good point. The House, and Parliament as a whole, of course, should be very chary indeed of giving power to the Executive to override the provisions of a Statute.

Of course, it is a highly convenient power for a Minister to have in his hands, but it is one we need to be extremely careful about granting, and we should grant it only if we are satisfied that the matter to which the power relates is so complicated and so difficult and so uncertain or liable to the risk of so much uncertainty that such a power could properly be given, without the Minister being obliged to come back to the House to ask for fresh legislation. No one wants to encumber Parliament with a mass of legislation—any more than it is at the moment, when, heaven knows, it is bad enough already. Therefore, a provision of this kind is not, in my personal opinion, quite so bad as it may seem to look.

Nevertheless, I urge the Postmaster-General to look carefully at this, because I have a feeling that this is a new precedent, that the words "difficulties or" have not been used before as here. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman wants to be careful, because somebody—it may be in another Government—one day may come along and quote Section 17 of the Post Office Act, 1969, as being a perfect precedent for introducing power enabling him to override difficulties in Statute.

Mr. Tom Boardman

I wish to add, only briefly, that this Clause does enable the Minister to direct that property already vested can be divested if "difficulties" arise. This adds weight to the point my hon. Friend was making, about the uncertainty which could arise, because if property, and property of all sorts, has been vested in the Post Office or the Minister, individuals might be acutely embarrassed by legal consequences by the fact that an order, made under Clause 16 for vesting the property, was subsequently to be divested because the Minister found difficulty or inconvenience.

Mr. Stonehouse

Clause 16 vests in the Post Office property of the Crown which immediately before the appointed day was used for or in connection with the activities of the Postmaster-General except property described in subsection (2) of that Clause, which will remain vested in the Crown, and the excepted property includes property, other than land, which was used or appropriated for use exclusively for Savings Bank functions of the Postmaster-General. Clause 16(2)(a) refers to this. This clear-cut division will achieve a sensible distribution of property in all foreseeable cases, but it would be unwise to assume that no marginal exceptions will come to light when the Clause takes effect, and this is why we need Clause 17 and we need it to cover difficulties as well as uncertainties.

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), who reminded us earlier of his former responsibilities as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, said that he had no recollection of any precedent for this form of words. His memory has slightly deserted him on this occasion, because the Transport Act 1962 includes this form of words. I quote from Schedule 6, paragraph 4(1): The Minister shall have power— (a) for the purpose of removing any difficulties or uncertainties in the application of sections thirty-one and thirty-two of this Act, or of reconciling the operation of those sections … I hope, with that admirable precedent of the Transport Act, passed in 1962, the House will agree that this form of words can be accepted.

Mr. Peyton

What an incubator of evil the Transport Act, 1962, is in providing the present Government with more alibis than any other organisation known to man. The Minister may need to have the power to expunge any difficulties, since Clause 16 should prove, according to the hopes of its parents, to be the most fertile field in producing difficulties.

On second thoughts, as the Minister will probably need these powers, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Speaker

The next Amendment is No. 76.

Mr. Peyton

Bearing in mind the limpid tones in which this subsection is expressed in contrast with some others, I had it in mind not to move the Amendment.

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