HC Deb 18 December 1975 vol 902 cc1656-62
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

On 27th November the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Mr. Stanley) raised a point of order about the extent to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry should be accountable to the House for the affairs of the National Enterprise Board. I undertook to look into the issues that were raised in the subsequent exchanges.

The hon. Member said that he raised this point because, when he sought information in a Written Question on the numbers and grades of staff, he was advised that this was a matter for the Board. He considered this to be a reduction of ministerial accountability to the House, and contrasted the reply he had received with that to a recent Question about the staffing of the Manpower Services Commission.

I have looked at the point raised by the hon. Member in some detail. I find that the written reply given by my right hon. Friend was fully in accordance with the long-standing practice of the House, followed by successive Administrations, with regard to Questions relating to the activities of nationalised industries and other public corporations.

Whilst Ministers are answerable to Parliament in respect of all matters for which they have a statutory responsibility, it is an accepted practice of the House that Ministers do not answer Questions relating to the day-to-day administration of such bodies. The information which the hon. Member sought regarding the staffing of the National Enterprise Board is, in the Government's view, clearly of this character, and I can see no reason why the established practice of the House should not apply in this case. It would be appropriate, therefore, for this information to be sought from the Chairman of the Board.

The comparison which the hon. Member drew with regard to ministerial answers regarding the staffing of the Manpower Services Commission is invalid, since in that case the consent of the Secretary of State is required by statute for the numbers, pay and conditions of service of the staff of that Commission. There is no comparable provision in the case of the National Enterprise Board.

The statutory provisions governing the nationalised industries and public corporations vary. The National Enterprise Board differs from most public corporations in that the Secretary of State has, under Section 7 of the Industry Act 1975, the power to give the Board not only general directions but also specific directions on the exercise of its functions. It is open to hon. Members to seek information by means of Questions in the House about the use of these powers by the Secretary of State.

Furthermore, the Board will be subject to guidelines, which themselves will be given force by a specific direction. These guidelines will be available to the House in draft form.

My right hon. Friend will also, within the well-understood limits imposed by the need to maintain necessary commercial confidentiality, be answerable to the House on aspects of the Board's day-to-day management that raise issues of urgent public importance or concern national statistics. He will also be answerable, as appropriate, for the activities of the Board in its capacity as a holding company, particularly in the case of wholly-owned or controlled companies, and he will also be answerable in the case of any directions to the Board in accordance with his powers to grant selective financial assistance under the Industry Act 1972.

Mr. Peyton

I think that the House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for having made that statement and attempted to clear up the position. However, does he not agree that, on the whole, the National Enterprise Board is in no way directly comparable with a nationalised industry? As I understand it, the NEB is to carry out nationalising functions itself. It is very important that, in acordance with the assurances given by the then Secretary of State for Industry, Parliament should be able to secure answers from Ministers on the activities of this very new Board and its Chairman, whose functions in the industrial world are looked at somewhat askance—to put it as courteously as possible. Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that we shall want to return to this matter and engage in a very close review of the NEB and its activities, in order to assure ourselves that Ministers are indeed responsible and answerable for the activities of their creature?

Mr. Short

Perhaps the best course of action would be to see how it goes. If difficulties arise, we can look at the matter again.

Mr. Palmer

My right hon. Friend's statement is of very great interest. Since he has drawn a comparison with the nationalised industries, will he say whether the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries will be able to inquire into the affairs of the NEB?

Mr. Short

I am afraid that I cannot answer that question without looking into it. I was not asked about this. I shall look into it and let my hon. Friend know.

Mr. Stanley

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and for examining the matters that I raised. I support the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) that the existing procedures governing parliamentary accountability in respect of the nationalised industries are not an adequate bench mark for assessing the parliamentary accountability of the NEB. The key feature of the NEB is that it can take companies into public ownership without any parliamentary reference whatever. Does the right hon. Gentleman also agree that the key to the future parliamentary accountability of the NEB will lie clearly in the guidelines that are to be issued by the Secretary of State, and that the Government have handicapped hon. Members on both sides of the House by setting the Board in motion without any guidelines and without giving us clear ground rules for parliamentary accountability?

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge, finally, that this House has authorised the expenditure of £700 million through the NEB and that there is no certainty to be derived from his statement that any hon. Member will be able to feel sure of his ability to monitor the way in which that very substantial sum of public money is being spent, even though it may have a substantial bearing on his own constituents?

Mr. Short

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will study my statement carefully, especially the last paragraph, which goes a long way to meet him. As I said to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), let us see how we get on. If specific difficulties arise, I shall be very happy to consider the matter again.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Liberal Members have consistently deplored interference in the management of well-established nationalised concerns, whether by the Government or by Parliament, but in relation to this new creature—the NEB—will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that its pattern of management is only now being established and that the guidelines have not been submitted to this House for debate? Is there not a case, therefore, for an open season for a time in which Questions will be admitted, before the pattern has been settled?

Mr. Short

No, Sir. Obviously the House is concerned to see the guidelines, and I shall see to it that they are made available as soon as possible. Dealing with the hon. Gentleman's other point, perhaps I may repeat one sentence of my statement: My right hon. Friend will also, within the well-understood limits imposed by the need to maintain necessary commercial confidentiality, he answerable to the House on aspects of the Board's day-to-day management that raise issues of urgent public importance. …". That covers a great deal. However, I suggest that we see how it goes.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a difference between interference and information, and that the purpose of asking Questions is to elicit information? Many hon. Members, including those who, like me, have the privilege to serve on the Select Committee for Nationalised Industries, are unhappy about the quality and quantity of information that we can ascertain through Questions to Ministers, not least because that information is often presented in the form and manner and with the omissions and additions that the industries decide, with the Minister concerned often unable to add any gloss or factual content of his own. This applies to all the nationalised industries and not just to the NEB.

Mr. Short

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. However, if he studies my statement he will discover that a great deal more information will be obtainable about the NEB. I say that not only because of the passage from my statement that I have just repeated, but because of the very much wider powers of direction given to the Minister—both general and specific powers—on the exercise of his functions, and it is always open to any hon. Member to put down a Question about this.

Sir J. Eden

I wish to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that in view of the widespread ramifications of the NEB and the very large sums of public money over which it presides, his statement could well influence Select Committees in the choice of subjects for their own study? Would it not be desirable, in that case, that Select Committee Reports should be given much greater and more urgent attention in this House than is normal, to ensure that the exchange of information on these important matters is aired fully in this Chamber?

Mr. Short

Without attempting to comment on the last part of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I seem to remember that he had similar problems about the Post Office Corporation.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the matter of Questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland about the Scottish Development Agency? If so, do the same restrictions apply to them as in the case of the National Enterprise Board? If they do, will the right hon. Gentleman also agree to consider the matter again, as he has done in relation to the NEB?

Mr. Short

Without committing myself specifically, I imagine that the same considerations apply to the Scottish Development Agency, but if the hon. Gentleman will table a Question to me about it I shall see that he gets a detailed reply.

Mr. Gow

Since the Secretary of State for Industry is ultimately responsible for the National Enterprise Board, will the Leader of the House accept that Back-Bench Members will take unkindly his attempt to restrict the area of questioning to the Secretary of State? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what instructions, if any, have been given to the Table Office about the tabling of Questions?

Mr. Short

No instructions have been given by the Government to the Table Office. This is a matter for the Table Office itself. I reject entirely the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question.