HC Deb 15 March 1978 vol 946 cc497-501

'(1) The Secretary of State shall not, after 30th June 1978—

  1. (a) set up any new scheme whose expected cost exceeds £10 million a year; or
  2. (b) alter or extend any existing scheme, set up after that date and not so far costing more than £10 million a year, in such a way that the expected cost of the scheme as altered or extended exceeds that amount,
unless he has previously been authorised to do so by a resolution of the House of Commons.

(2) If the expected cost of a new scheme proposed to be set up, or of an existing scheme as proposed to be altered or extended, exceeds those limits, the Secretary of State shall, with a view to obtaining such a resolution, lay before the House of Commons a statement explaining the proposal.

(3) Subsections (1) and (2) above do not apply where the Secretary of State is satisfied that compliance would involve unacceptable delay in the taking of urgent essential measures against unemployment; but if he proceeds without a resolution of the House he shall lay before the House a statement of the action he has taken and his reasons for so proceeding.'—[Mr. Golding.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Golding)

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

This is an important new clause. My hon. Friends and the Opposition pressed on the Government very strongly in Committee that a Bill which gives the Government such great powers should be subject to control by the House of Commons. We were unable to accept the Opposition amendment in Committee because it would have introduced elements of delay and an inability to change the details of the schemes in the light of parliamentary pressure. I am glad to say that, thanks to the co-operation of my hon. Friends and the Opposition, we have produced a clause that satisfies the needs of the House.

Mr. Barney Hayhoe (Brentford and Isleworth)

I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the clause. It arises from a clear assurance that he gave in Committee. He will recall that on Second Reading I expressed very strongly from the Opposition Benches the view that it was wrong for the immense enabling powers conferred on the Secretary of State by the Bill to be exercised without parliamentary control.

It is something of a paradox that we should be discussing now a matter of considerable importance to Parliament. We are discussing the clause in a Chamber which is as empty as circumstances would normally permit, given that there is other business to follow. The emptiness of the Chamber, however, should not be taken as in any way detracting from the important principle that the Government are acknowledging with the clause, which is that there should be an element of parliamentary control over the expenditure of large sums of public money.

Perhaps the Minister will consider one small detail and reflect on whether something should be done to correct the matter in another place. The formulation of the clause follows very closely that adopted in the Industry Act 1972. That Act provides that where urgency prevails the Secretary of State can act and then lay before both Houses of Parliament a statement of what he has done. This clause provides only that he should lay that statement before the House of Commons. Is there some significance in that?

On Second Reading I promised that the Bill would get a fair wind and I think the Minister will acknowledge that that has happened. In no small part that has been due to the positive and constructive response of the Minister in Committee to the various amendments. That seemed to be a model way of proceeding. Points were made and accepted, and pledges were given. Now we are seeing them brought to fruition.

That whole performance is in stark contrast to the attempts by some Labour Members earlier today in discussion of the statement by the Secretary of State for Employment on jobs measures to try to make petty party propaganda points about obstruction by the Opposition of the various job subsidy programmes. It was clear from this afternoon's statement that this Bill is crucial to those measures and that it must be got through Parliament quickly. This is being done because of the co-operation of the Opposition. In view of that those Labour Members, only one of whom is now here, might want to withdraw the comments that they made. They should bear in mind the experience that the Government have had with this Bill.

Mr. Mike Noble (Rossendale)

Like the hon. Member for Brentford and Isle-worth (Mr. Hayhoe), I welcome the clause. It is important that the House should have an opportunity to discuss the schemes, and the hon. Gentleman has shown why. He said that Labour Members were unduly critical of the Opposition's attitude this afternoon when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his statement. One reason why we should have the opportunity to discuss the schemes is that it is very difficult for hon. Members and people outside the House to understand the Opposition's attitude. For example, comments are made by the hon. Gentleman and by his right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), and it would appear that never the twain shall meet.

My constituens are particularly interested not only in the Government's observations but in the Opposition's attitude on these matters. Therefore, it is important that we have the opportunity to debate such things.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

A few minutes ago the hon. Gentleman approached me and asked whether he could take part in the Third Reading debate. I told him that there would be no Third Reading debate. I hope that he will not try now to do what he proposed to do on Third Reading. I ask him to stay in order by sticking to the new clause.

Mr. Noble

I intend to stick to the clause, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend made a statement today about the continuation of the temporary employment subsidy and other measures, including the job release scheme and the subsidy for small firms. Hon. Members were given a great deal of information, which had to be digested fairly quickly. In the two hours or so since my right hon. Friend made his statement I have been inundated with telephone calls from people in North-West Lancashire in general and my constituency in particular who are interested in the scheme. It is remarkable that that kind of interest has been shown already. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) last night made in my constituency what was advertised as a major policy statement on the industries in which we are interested, but could attract only 20 people to his meeting. What has happened since my right hon. Friend's statement is a comment on the importance that people in my constituency attach to the statement and to my right hon. Friend's other remarks.

It is true that a considerable amount of money is at stake in the schemes. It is equally true that at the and of 12 months or two years we shall be in a position to study their full effects and perhaps modify them and improve them if necessary. Therefore, I am pleased to support the clause and I am glad that my right hon. Friend is including it in the Bill.

Mr. Golding

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend will support the clause.

I say in response to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) that we would prefer the statement to be to this House because we think that that is on all fours with our undertaking that the House had the authority to debate these matters. I believe that this House is of extreme importance when discussing matters of this sort, which relate to the spending of money, and therefore I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any hope.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

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