HC Deb 11 May 1978 vol 949 cc1564-73
Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page I leave out lines 23 and 24 and insert— '(a) to promote co-operative principles.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss Government Amendments Nos. 5 to 12.

Mr. Rodgers

I contend that Clause 2 (a) is not capable of implementation. How on earth can a body which is appointed by the Secretary of State represent anything but the Government's view? Yet, according to the clause, the functions of the Agency will be to promote the principles and represent the interests or the co-operative movement. Clearly, the objective defined in the Bill cannot be attained and it would be more accurate and honest to debate the lines in question and to redefine the Agency's functions as being simply to promote co-operative principles.

11 p.m.

I have never been particularly enthusiastic about appointed bodies. There is sombre evidence of the folly of such bodies. Many of us would feel less resentful of the activities of the regional water authorities, for example, if they contained an elected element.

Our nation devotes a great deal of time to advocating democracy. We are inclined to make bellicose noises about those countries that have the audacity to operate a different political system. None the less, we are aften remarkably reluctant to apply the democratic process ourselves when the opportunity occurs.

The proposed Agency is entirely undemocratic. Every member of its is to be appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. No proportion of the total membership is to be elected. Plainly, it cannot represent the interests of the co-operative movement unless it freely emerges from that movement.

I await my hon. Friend's comments on the amendment. I should be prepared to withdraw the clause in the light of a commitment by him to meet this situation.

Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)

I support the amendment and the clause on the functions of the Co-operative Development Agency. I do so, first, because the Agency is particularly relevant and important to my constituents, secondly, because I represent here both the Co-operative Party and the Labour Party, and, thirdly, because, in view of the current parliamentary situation and the votes this week, I think it better to get a maiden speech in while I still have time.

In doing so I begin the difficult task of trying to fill the gap left by my predecessor, Marcus Lipton. He was one of those rare Members who managed to gain and keep for more than 30 years the respect and affection of the House and his constituents. He was in many ways a Front Bencher of the first rank, someone who regarded a seat in this Chamber not as a springboard to office but as a platform from which he was privileged to defend the interests of his constituents for the many years that he was here.

In my conversations with me he prided himself on being a House of Commons man. Sitting here during the last few weeks I have thought many times how much he would have wanted to join in some of the recent debates. As someone who fought to save the old English "tanner", he would have relished the fight to save the old English mile, even though it would mean crossing swords with the not so old English Secretary of State for Transport.

As the Member who in this Chamber named Kim Philby as the third man and then had to wait eight years before he was shown to have been right, he would have appreciated the point made in our debate last week about privilege—that very often the most effective and historic use of privilege is made when a great majority of other hon. Members feel that it is being misused.

But he was perhaps best known for his ability to espouse outlandish causes. The most famous of those was his idea that the backsides of the cows in Epping Forest should be painted with luminous paint to enable motorists to avoid them.

I think that the sacred cows of British officialdom would have needed a lot more than luminous paint to avoid frequent collisions with Marcus Lipton. He revelled in his skill as a debunker of pomposity and a fighter against red tape. Of course, bashing the bureaucrats is a fairly easy occupation in British public life, but Marcus Lipton's great gift was his ability to debunk himself, to laugh at himself if ever he showed any sign of too-great self-importance.

The best example of this was when the constituency's local paper, the South London Press, asked him a few months before he died why he was going to retire. He said that he had gone into a pub in Brixton and he had overheard two pensioners complaining about something and saying "If Marcus Lipton was alive they would not be able to get away with it." But it is very much my job to ensure that they still do not get away with it.

I represent a constituency that has many problems. It is no coincidence that when the last Government studied the problems of the inner cities they chose Lambeth for their major study in London and that when this Government announced their inner urban policy, the only borough in London to have an exclusive partnership arrangement was Lambeth. The statistics speak for themselves: 3,000 unemployed in the constituency; 18,000 on the housing list of the borough of which the constituency forms a part; an infant mortality rate 25 per cent. above the national average and 17 per cent. of families have only a single parent.

The people of Camberwell, Brixton, Clapham and Stockwell, which make up my constituency, are not demoralised by all these problems. They did not send men here to Westminster to organise a weep-in for the inner cities, with a handkerchief in one hand and a begging bowl in the other. It would be disastrous if the cities of Britain became yet another depressed region competing for a slice of the regional aid cake. We want some Government help, particularly with social problems. Our problems and the statistics I have just outlined justify that, but we want also to help ourselves. That is why the Bill and the Co-operative Development Agency are so important.

The inner cities of Britain desperately need a revival of their local economies, the creation of jobs, the creation of demand, and the creation of wage packets rather than giro cheques. Large private enterprise manufacturing firms which began their lives in the inner cities have been taken over, often by multinationals, and have moved out to green field sites at home or abroad leaving former employees jobless, without any alternative work.

We are not content to sit back and wait for a general economic upsurge to bring investment back to our areas. We look now to small firms with local roots to provide jobs. We want to help existing firms to be encouraged to expand. We want to start new ones.

The ideal form of small local firm with local roots, harnessing local knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment, is a co-operative created and owned by local working people. The problems that workers in many small firms face—unnecessarily low wages and poor working conditions—are automatically solved. The workers in a co-operative cannot be tempted away to a green field site, nor become asset strippers, because the only assets they have are their jobs and their determination to keep them. When times are bad and the ecenomy is in trouble, they have no alternative but to stay and fight to keep their firm in existence.

In rebuilding the economy of the inner cities we want to build something better than that which was there before: greater job security; local reinvestment of profits, with industrial democracy as well as commercial viability. We want a local economy in which there is much more social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

This Bill will enable us to use the one resource which has not yet been used by any Government in reviving the inner cities: the ingenuity and intelligence of the people who live there and want to work there and to be in control of their own working lives.

I have not so far mentioned the one aspect of the constituency which is the one which most commentators mention first: the fact that one quarter of my constituents are black. The multiracial society which we have in Lambeth is not a problem: it is a strength, because from that diversity will come many of the ingredients of the solutions to our own economic problems.

I give one example very relevant to this Bill. Many of my constituents who came long ago from the West Indies brought with them their knowledge and experience of membership of credit unions, which are a form of financial co-operative which I believe will have an important role in the Britain of the future, and in the inner cities in particular, to ensure that local financial resources are used locally and not drained away by the commercial banks.

There is a great interest in my constituency and in the neighbouring area in co-operatives in both production and housing. Some old-established ones are flourishing; some new ones are trying to get off the ground.

This Bill and the Co-operative Development Agency which it will set up will enable the co-operative movement to play its vital role in giving the working people of Britain's cities one means—and there must be many others—to fight their unemployment and to build, most importantly of all by their own efforts, a better and more equal society for themselves and for their children.

Mr. Cryer

The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) has given the whole House genuine pleasure. In saying this I am not simply using the form of parliamentary language for following a maiden speech. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of following a maiden speech and of expressing sincere congratulations on the force and vigour with which my hon. Friend presented his ideas.

It is convention of the House that maiden speeches be treated courteously by all hon. Members, but I am happy in the knowledge that my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central will not be treated with the same degree of courtesy by the Opposition in future, so strong are his views and ideas. That is really one of the important tests of whether one is effective in this House. It is a great pleasure to have the victor from the Lambeth, Central by-election here and for him to express his appreciation of an eccentric character whom we all regarded with great affection—Marcus Lipton.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central comes from a local authority—he led it for some time—which has set a distinguished example in co-operative endeavour. Not only has it assisted in forming co-operatives and getting them off the ground; it has also helped small businesses by constructing a flatted factory that was tenanted very quickly, and which, of itself, tended to encourage co-operation among groups of small firms in that area. That was an indication by that local authority that the Labour Party has been concerned with small firms for many years, both nationally and locally. It shows very clearly that often small firms have more to fear from big business gobbling them up than from the kindly assistance that the Labour Government have given them.

Government Amendment No. 5 seeks to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friends in Amendment No. 4. We have drafted this amendment in order to honour the undertaking given in Committee during a debate on an amendment which sought to give the Agency the function of disseminating more widely the understanding of co-operative principles. Amendment No. 5 will give the CDA the requirement to promote the adoption and better understanding of co-operative principles. This is a suitable addition to the Bill and will, I believe, satisfy my hon. Friends.

Amendment No. 6 arises from the proposal in Committee that the Agency should explore new areas and encourage new forms of co-operatives. I gave an assurance in Committee that we would seek to place this duty on the CDA.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 also arise from our Committee discussions. It became clear that the Bill as drafted could preclude an individual from seeking the Agency's advice unless he was specifically proposing to establish a co-operative. We considered this to be anomalous and have drafted this amendment to ensure that the Agency is able to give advice to anyone who seeks it.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 are consequential. Amendment No. 11 is again a consequence of our Committee discussions. We gave an undertaking to look at the possibility of emphasing education and training. We recognise that this is an important aspect of co-operative development and it is no bad thing to spell it out in the legislation. I hope also that this will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen), who raised this matter in Committee.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I wish to tell my hon. Friend that this Government amendment is broadly satisfactory. I hope that there will be more than simply a register of the available training courses.

Mr. Cryer

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, because in Committee we attempted to meet the various matters that were raised my my hon. Friend and others.

Government Amendment No. 12 is consequential. Government Amendment No. 6 spells out the Agency's function in facilitating the evolution of co-operatives, and Amendment No. 12 requires the Agency to keep that evolution under review.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

I wish briefly to refer to Government Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 12. Before I do so, I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) on a most compelling maiden speech. He made it quite clear that he has already inherited a substantial part of the mantle of Marcus Lipton. I look forward to hearing him again at a much more civilised hour.

Government Amendment No. 5 fully implements the undertaking given to me by the Minister in Committee about stressing the educative functions and duties of the Agency. Government Amendments Nos. 6 and 12 faithfully fufil the undertaking given to me in Committee that the evolution of co-operative principles, which implies stress on the producer co-operative side, is fully embodied in the Bill. I am glad that the Minister has met the commitments he gave in Committee.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

I wish to comment briefly on Government Amendment No. 8, but before I do so I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley). I am a former member of Wandsworth Borough Council, and I am sure he will make a valuable contribution to our proceedings, not least on housing and co-operative matters.

The provision to which Amendment No. 8 relates refers to advice from the Agency to co-operatives and persons proposing to establish co-operatives". The amendment wishes to add the words and other persons seeking its advice". Presumably, an important part of the clause deals with existing co-operatives and we all know that the history of some of those co-operatives is not as happy as it might have been. Others have a remarkable record, not least the Kirkby co-operative in Liverpool. Will the Minister in reply make clear to the House that the Kirkby co-operative continues to enjoy support from the Government, and will he say whether we can expect an early statement on the relationship of the Government to that co-operative? There is concern about its future and a statement would be most welcome.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I wish briefly to thank the Minister for these amendments, because they are in response to the proposals in Committee. They are a generous response and cover most of the points raised by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) and others.

I should like to take this opportunity to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) on his maiden speech. Although he is a new Member, he is obviously experienced in politics and realises that convention demands that I should have to struggle to find something polite to say even if he had made a very poor speech. He need not feel remotely worried, because I do not feel the slightest bit embarrassed by the convention. He made an extremely competent, confident and outstanding maiden speech.

The Minister said that the hon. Gentleman will probably not be treated with quite the same courtesy by the Opposition in future. Judging by the position he has chosen to occupy on the Labour Benches, surrounded as he is by some of the bêtes noirs of the Conservative Party, I imagine that that will be the case. We were most impressed by his contribution to this debate and we shall treat him with respect.

Mr. Clemitson

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) on his maiden speech, which was outstanding—certainly one of the best I have heard in my rather short time in the House. He made an impassioned appeal for the co- operative principle to be extended and developed, and we look forward to hearing much more from him, not only on that subject but on many others.

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister has quite dealt with the amendment. We all agree with the first part of Clause 2(a), to promote the principle … of the co-operative movement", or, as it will be amended, to promote the adoption and the better understanding of co-operative principles". But the point at issue is what is done by the words represent the interests of the co-operative movement". What do they add to the Bill? How can a body appointed by the Government perform that function? Surely, in all logic only a body which itself arises from the co-operative movement, which is in some way elected or appointed by it, can perform that function. We all agree that the Agency should "promote the principles", but what do the words about representing the interests of the movement add to the Bill?

Mr. Cryer

That part of the Bill represents the view of the majority report. Paragraph 16 of the White Paper suggested that the Agency should represent the interests of the movement. The Bill certainly does not intend that it should be in any way in conflict with the existing well-organised and democratically elected organisations of the co-operative movement. That would be entirely wrong.

There are various functions attached to the Agency in representing specific areas to public bodies, including the Government. This is the area involved in this part of the clause. It simply represents a view expressed by the majority report which we are carrying into action.

Mr. George Rodgers

I had hoped—I had almost assumed—that in the glow of good will generated by the splendidly vigorous speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) the amendment had been accepted and had slipped through almost unobserved. Apparently, that is not so.

But I can assure my hon. Friend the Minister that we shall be monitoring the position. I accept his assurances, but we do not intend to leave the matter there. We intend to watch the situation very carefully. We expect that it will develop on a more democratic basis, but if our hopes are frustrated, my hon. Friend will hear from us again.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 5 in page 1, line 23 leave out "principles and" and insert adoption and the better understanding of co-operative principles and to".

No. 6, in line 2 leave out "and development" and insert "development and evolution".

No. 7, in line 8 leave out "and".

No. 8, in line 9, at end insert and other persons seeking its advice".

No. 9, in line 12 leave out "advise" and insert "make recommendations to".

No. 10, in page 2, leave out lines 14 and 15 and insert "and public authorities".

No. 11, in line 17, at end insert— (gg) to keep under review and make recommendations concerning the training courses available to members and prospective members of co-operatives;".

No. 12, in line 18, leave out "and development" and insert "development and evolution".—[Mr. Cryer.]

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