§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
I beg to move,That there should be a review of the status and working of nationalised industries so as to provide for more effective scrutiny of the working of government-appointed bodies and nationalised industries.By sheer coincidence, it is almost nine years to the day since I had a similar good fortune in winning the ballot. On that occasion, because of the special significance in my constituency, I drew attention to the need to review international navigation regulations. Last month, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales opened on the white cliffs of Dover the most up-to-date coastguard monitoring system in the British Isles, which is designed to minimise accidents in that congested part of the English Channel. I resist the temptation to suggest to the House that it was the debate that I then initiated that led to that structure being built and traffic lanes being obligatory in the English Channel. It has taken several giant tanker disasters and the pollution of our beaches to prove the need for such elementary precautions.
Today, my motion has wider implications, and, like the dangers at sea, the problems are well known but the solutions are not easy to quantify. Our democratic system depends on a realistic relationship between hon. Members and the Executive, and we need to review our position as well as that of the civil servants. That matter was brought home to me recently when I asked a newly elected hon. Member what his first reactions were following his introduction to the House. His comment that there was too much politics in the House gave me as much surprise as that experienced by the Verger of St. Paul's when an American tourist asked him whether the cathedral was open on Sundays.
Earlier in this century, Parliament controlled expediture by insisting that details of public expenditure be debated on the Floor of this House on Supply days. In recent years, these Supply days have become the instrument of the Opposition in order to raise political matters, the debate of which is more likely to affect the results of the next by-election than effectively 921 control Government expenditure, and that applies equally to all political parties.
Like many hon. Members, my earlier adult years were in industry, and I had the honour to be elected to the House at what is now classically called "middle age". Not unnaturally, therefore, I am inclined to relate this motion to the situation in industry.
The responsibilities of Secretaries of State, supported by their Ministers, are similar to those of the chairman of a public company. Bearing in mind that the number of staff in a Government Department can vary from over 250,000 in the Ministry of Defence to 1,300 in the Department of Industry, there is as wide a diversity in Government as we find in private industry. The Department of the Environment has a staff of 50,000, and only 31 United Kingdom firms and 11 nationalised industries have a larger labour force.
Let us compare these responsibilities. After a general election, a Minister is appointed to head a Department that is administered by a permanent secretary who the day before could have been faithfully carrying out the policy decisions of the previous Minister, whose policies may well be diametrically opposed to those of the new Minister.
The industrial comparison would probably be a liquidator taking over control of a company. When one compares the duties of the chairman of an international company with those of a Secretary of State of the Crown, it is not too difficult to appreciate the difference. A Minister is expected, within a week of his appointment, to be able to answer in the House of Commons the most searching questions on the work of his Department. If a questioner is not satisfied with the answer, the Minister can be compelled to reply to an Adjournment debate that might take place well after midnight.
It would be fascinating to see the reaction of the newly appointed chairman of a large industrial group if told that a shareholder was coming to see him at midnight to seek an explanation of the mistakes of his predecessor. We recently had an example of the Secretary of State for the Environment being obliged to give priority over all his responsibilities to explain that the House had been mis- 922 led because some folders were, in accordance with normal custom, tied together.
I maintain to the utmost that if a Minister misleads the House it should be obligatory on him to apologise to the House and correct the error. But there is, surely, a difference between a Minister's deliberately misleading the House on a major issue and giving an incorrect answer to a parliamentary question as a result of a clerical error. On the other hand, if the chairman of a hypothetical company had received 11 letters from the same shareholder and two replies had been inadvertently placed in the wrong envelope, is it likely that he would waste his time by attending a shareholders' meeting to explain the error? A Minister is expected to read and personally sign letters received by his Department from over 600 Members of Parliament who submit complaints and problems put to them by their constituents. He is expected to remember those replies when hon. Members meet him in the Lobby and wish to discuss problems with him. The chairman of a public company would delegate his responsibility in that regard to his public relations department.
It should also be remembered that a Minister, during the long Committee stage of any Bill that he is promoting, depends on the notes that his parliamentary draftsmen pass to him when he is replying to the Committee's criticism on clauses. These Committees can take two mornings a week over a considerable period. The equivalent in industry would be the chairman of a public company in industry wishing to alter the memorandum and articles of association. He would not contemplate doing so personally, but would delegate the matter to his legal department.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree, though, that it is the very fact that a Minister has to take responsibility at the Dispatch Box for matters that have gone wrong, not as a result of his own failures but of those of his subordinates, that causes a Department to try to avoid similar mistakes happening again and to correct them when they do occur? Do we not receive many letters, as Members of Parliament, about bodies including, sometimes, private companies, in which this chain of responsibility does not exist?
§ Mr. Costain
I agree. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall quote one Liberal Minister who was up against the same problem in 1869. That was Mr. Ayrton, one of Mr. Gladstone's Ministers.
Is it any wonder, in view of these responsibilities, that the, day-to-day operation of a Government Department must, of necessity, be controlled by the Permanent Secretary? He is responsible for carrying out his Minister's policies. By tradition, a permanent secretary can argue against the policies. But once the Minister has laid down those policies, the permanent secretary is honour bound to implement them regardless of personal conviction. There is one safeguard. The permanent secretary can advise the Minister, in writing, of his disagreement with the policies. In that event, the Minister can order the permanent secretary, also in writing, to carry out his instructions in spite of any personal conviction.
In due course, these facts will be disclosed to the House of Commons and will be investigated by the Public Accounts Committee on a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. I am glad to say that in the many years that I have been a member of the PAC this has never happened. Equally, the PAC, as far as I am aware, has always taken a bipartisan view on any matters brought before it.
The industrial equivalent would be for the chief executive of a company to resign or be dismissed. In industrial terms, the public sector lacks the discipline which the market place provides elsewhere. Yet the public and nationalised industries spend more money and deploy more staff than ever before.
I have therefore asked for this debate so that the House can assess its ability to monitor the workings of the various Departments. The House will recall that the Procedure Committee has spent a great deal of time on proposals to re-design our Select Committee structure. The House has agreed to those proposals in principle. Unless these Committees are detached from party politics, their deliberations could follow the pattern of our Supply day debates and deteriorate into electioneering party politics.
Now that these new Committees are tied to Departments, an excellent opportunity occurs for them to study the effects 924 of political decisions on the cost of the Departments and also the cost of capital projects that they have in mind. For example, if they were to study in detail the various reports of the PAC, they would observe that millions, almost hundreds of millions, of pounds have been wasted because Parliament has insisted upon the commencement of new projects before the plans have been properly completed.
There is a great temptation in times of financial stringency to disband architectural and engineering teams only to find, when the economic climate improves, that the blueprints are not ready for the capital works to start. For political expediency, the practical engineers' objections are often overruled. Examples that come readily to mind are the Liverpool teaching hospital, and roads and bridges, not forgetting the Humber bridge. Independent Committees should influence Cabinet decisions.
The powers that Parliament has conferred on these Committees are such that they will have to be used with the utmost discretion. I accept the decision that they should sit in public. However, it this is abused by hon. Members who seek to score political points, the whole system could be brought into contempt. One should reflect, for example, on the temptation before an Opposition Member with a marginal seat to put questions to a witness giving evidence to the Committee, in front of the press, in such a form that the most tentative proposal could appear to the press to be positive future Government policy.
I remind the House of the confusion that arose when tentative proposals were being considered by the EEC to standardise the quality of beer throughout the Community. The scare of Euro-beer was used by opponents of the Common Market.
The first report of the Selection Committee in appendix D on page 38, sets out a memorandum of guidance for officials appearing before Select Committees. It is not clear whether the memorandum is binding only on officials or is considered to be a guideline for the Committee's procedure as a whole. If the House could be given a decision on that matter today, it would be extremely—
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
We can answer that clearly. We asked the Departments concerned to produce this memorandum. They did. It was printed as evidence to the Select Committee. It is not binding on the Procedure Committee or anyone in this Parliament. As far as I know, it has no legal force. It may be regarded as an instruction by one person in a hierarchy to his inferiors. That is its strength.
§ Mr. Costain
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know the amount of work he has put into this matter. He emphasises my point. Now is the time for decision. That decision should not be taken when there is a problem about whether Ministers should appear or whether certain Cabinet papers should be produced. I am submitting—the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) makes the point better—that the House at this early stage should get a decision. I am asking that the Government and the Cabinet should come to a decision. I do not, however, believe that the decision is in the giving of the Cabinet. It is this House that has the ultimate authority. It is much better to make a decision before trouble occurs, because bad cases make bad law.
One of the main reasons why I asked for this debate was that I hoped that we could settle these matters at an early stage, when we do not have prejudice. As far as I can see, only Mr. Speaker's prayers are answered.
It should be laid down that if a Minister refuses to produce papers and records the Committee should be empowered to take precedence over public business of the House. But the Opposition could use such a power wrongly to stop the business. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West, who remembers the case so well, has said that if a Minister does not produce the papers that are asked for, the business of the House should immediately be stopped. But that could be a wonderful arrangement for Opposition Members. Like me, the hon. Gentleman is a Chairman of Committees, and he knows the tactics that are being used now to delay Government business. The Committees should not be a method by which to do that.
As we now appoint Select Committees related to Government Departments, we should investigate the cost to each 926 Department of serving Parliament in general and the Committees in particular. Once we asked that certain data be produced, there is a tendency for the Department to continue to produce the information, whether or not it is of real value.
I am delighted to see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) is present. I had the privilege of being his Parliamentary Private Secretary for a number of years, and I remember how he used to go through the Department finding out whether information was needed.
To my amazement, when I carried out some research on this matter I found an interesting passage in a Hansard of 2 March 1869, 110 years ago. That was the time of the Gladstone Government. Mr. Ayrton, who was Mr. Gladstone's Secretary to the Treasury, admitted in replying to a Supply day debate that the charge for printing was very heavy. The report went on—the reference is col. 537:but he must, at the same time, remind hon. Members that the expense…was one which they themselves…created…constantly asking for information which had to be printed and circulated. The only way to diminish the expenditure for printing was by a little forbearance on the part of the Members themselves. There was always an indisposition on the part of the Government to refuse Returns, because it looked as if there existed a desire to conceal something. The mere preparation of the Returns cost a good deal, and when they were laid upon the table hon. Members might with advantage consider whether any urgent necessity existed for printing and distributing them. His own conviction was that a great many hon. Members did not pass their time in reading these Returns.I remember a Liberal hon. Member once saying that he read Hansard every day, but he has gone to the House of Lords now.
The report went on:That day, for instance, they had received nearly 500 clearly printed pages of evidence relating to two Election Petitions. He should be curious to know by this day week whether any hon. Members had read these through.I tried to find out today how many pages we had had last week, but one does not count the pages these days; one weighs them.
Mr. Ayrton was referring to the cost of £11,000 for the Irish Constabulary. The following passage shows that there is nothing new in the world:With regard to the Irish Constabulary, it was not surprising, in the state in which Ireland 927 had been for some time past, that the force should have been brought up to its full complement, and, having to maintain this armed force, everybody, he thought, must agree that the best thing was to arm them in the best manner, so as to impress people with the conviction that they were efficient and capable of putting down disturbances.It is an essential part of our democratic process that Members of Parliament should have the right to ask parliamentary questions. We have recently limited hon. Members to one oral question per Minister per day. The Committees might like to investigate what the saving would be if written questions were limited to, say, four per day on the same basis.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner) wants time to debate her own motion, so I shall not delay the House for much longer. However, before I conclude I should like to refer particularly to the position of the nationalised industries, because I think that they are the most serious and most difficult matter.
At present some of the nationalised industries are controlled by other nationalised bodies, such as the National Enterprise Board. As a result, some nationalised industries are controlled by a board which has on it directors who are probably competitors of other directors. The board has to report to a Department, which in turn must report to the Treasury. All that having been gone through, if the Treasury wants additional funds for the nationalised industries in question it has to go to a Cabinet committee. It is little wonder that the nationalised indusries are inefficient. The set-up is more like a modern Gilbert and Sullivan opera than an efficient business.
Only last month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment gave a talk to the British Institute of Management in which he said:When I talk of being involved in management, I do not for a moment mean by that that politicians would or should become like managers in the industrial sense of the word, but only that all the information tools of management should be available to politicians and to civil servants.The most important aspect of this approach is the relationship between Ministers and civil servants. We could do none of these things without them, and, indeed, one feels, I hope not over-optimistically, that what we are doing is as interesting to them as it is to us.I hope that the members of the Committees will bear that in mind when they investigate Departments.
§ 4.7 pm
§ Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on giving us this opportunity to examine the subject matter of his motion. It is important that the House should from time to time pay attention to the need for parliamentary control of the Executive and public bodies. The hon. Gentleman also brings in the nationalised industries. I want to deal with them later.
We should certainly think of parliamentary control of the Executive, because we have a Prime Minister who seems to be running the show. We wonder whether the Cabinet or the Prime Minister is in control. In order to try to restore parliamentary control over the Government and the Cabinet, we should perhaps begin to curb some of the Prime Minister's activities.
For scrutiny of Ministers and the Government we have created over a period of time nominated bodies, the so-called quangos. Hon. Members will agree that there needs to be better scrutiny, but at this very time the Government are doing away with the nominated bodies. I am not saying that the nominated bodies are perfect. There should be greater democratic accountability. One of their weaknesses is that they are appointed by the Ministers of the Departments to which they give advice. It has been a question of a Secretary of State's virtually appointing his advisers. There would be closer scrutiny and greater accountability if Parliament were to appoint the members of the nominated bodies who eventually advise the Government.
The Treasury, which is becoming economy mad, will find that the service given in the past by people who have served on nominated bodies for years will now be lost. Without the advice of these outside bodies Ministers will be increasingly dependent on their civil servants for advice. Judging by the way in which the Civil Service is under attack, it seems that in future there will be fewer civil servants to give advice. That creates problems of scrutiny.
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe rightly referred to the setting up of the 14 new Select Committees. This is an experiment, and we look forward to working with them. They represent a 929 further check on the work of Government Departments. It is a pity that the hon. Member, who was fortunate in the ballot, did not table his motion earlier in the Session. We certainly need machinery for the examination and effective scrutiny of the nationalised industries.
The hon. Gentleman, when he referred to prayers, said that we sought to forget our polical prejudices, but we now have a Government who are doctrinaire and dogmatic in their approach to public ownership. I have never known a Government who have been more prejudiced in their approach to political issues than the present Government. Had the hon. Gentleman been able to table his motion earlier we might have prevented the mad rush into legislation by the Government.
This country is still recovering from the reorganisation of local government by the previous Conservative Government, yet the present Government are now coming back with another Bill to deal with the issue again. We shall have a Second Reading of the Local Government Planning and Land Bill in about a week. The Conservatives made a botch of local government reorganisation by rushing into it.
The present Secretary of State for Industry, when he was Secretary of State for Social Services made an absolute botch of reorganising the National Health Service. The present Government say that they must now do something to undo the harm done by the right hon. Gentleman when he was at that Department. Anyone who knows the National Health Service knows that the right hon. Gentleman increased the bureaucracy and the cost of the National Health Service.
What have we heard so far from the Government about the public industries? We have had the British Aerospace Bill, which will set up a company nominated by the Secretary of State. That will be followed by the subsequent dissolution of British Aerospace. That will be a backward step. That Bill is already before the House. There is the Civil Aviation Bill, which will provide for the reduction of the public dividend capital of British Airways. The corporation as we now know it, will be dissolved. That Bill is before the House as well and we will live to regret it.
930 The Competition Bill is presently in Standing Committee. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe is the Chairman of that Committee. The Price Commission which has been abolished could have scrutinised the nationalised industries and looked at the prices being charged by public enterprises. The Government's belief in competition and market forces will, it is said, solve our inflation problem. Last year, inflation was in single figures. In the six months since this Government came to office inflation has almost doubled. Market forces are not working to bring down inflation.
The Industry Bill, which has had a Second Reading, provides for the transfer to private ownership of property held by the National Enterprise Board and by the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies. Lastly, there is the Transport Bill, which will transfer the National Freight Corporation to private hands. These anti-public ownership Bills have been rushed through by the Government. It seems strange that at a time when we should be examining the role of public ownership we have witnessed an onslaught on the concept of public ownership by the Government. Their approach to the issue is dogmatic and doctrinaire.
The 1945 Labour Government brought the basic industries of this country into public ownership. Since then we have had Labour and Conservative Governments. During that period there was a consensus and a recognition that those basic industries—whichfailed under private enterprise before the war—should remain in public ownership. Our nationalised industries are playing a significant role in the British economy. They account for more than one-tenth of the gross domestic product and for one-fifth of the total fixed investment. Apart from the Government, who are a major employer, the four largest employers are the nationalised industries. They occupy a dominant position in the energy, steel, transport and communications industries.
About one-third of all plant and equipment bought by British industry is consumed by the public sector. The nationalised industries are not merely important in themselves; they are vital to the private sector and constitute in some areas, the sole domestic customer for several sectors 931 of British industry. During Question Time today there was talk of the British steel industry. If the steel industry collapses many industries will be affected. We can therefore see that the nationalised sector of industry plays an important role in the success, or otherwise, of both large and small private businesses.
Recently British Leyland failed under private enterprise. We should remember that when Rolls-Royce failed under private enterprise a previous Conservative Government—quite rightly—were determined, despite the talk of lame ducks, to keep it alive. Eventually, Rolls-Royce was brought under the control of the NEB. The same can be said of British Leyland. The question is, what are we to do about British Leyland, which is a major part of the car industry and must succeed in future? Many hundreds of thousands of people are employed in the motor car industry. The effect of the failure of a company like British Leyland on the steel, coal, energy and car component industries would be dramatic. The collapse of British Leyland would have a serious effect on private industry.
British nationalised industries are large organisations, with a vital economic influence. They have a social role as well. If we make international comparisons—the only real criteria in evaluating the success of their combined economic and social achievement—we find, if we are objective, that our nationalised industries have an excellent record.
A great many myths are put about, to a large extent by newspapers, about the nationalised industries. The newspapers, which are of course part of the private sector, take a jaundiced view of them. Those myths should be exposed, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman's motion gives us an opportunity to expose them.
It is said that nationalised industries always lose money. This is a myth propagated by the Conservatives. They do not lose money. In 1976 coal, energy, gas, the Post Office and the telecommunications industry, and British Airways were highly successful. They were making surpluses that benefited our people.
The truth of that could be further demonstrated if we had more recent figures. In the Post Office, for example, the surplus would be shown to 932 be even greater. It has been making a profit of about £360 million a year.
§ Mr. Evans
I shall come to that. If the Post Office were in the private sector there could be 360 millionaires, but its being in public ownership means that the benefit comes back to the public. As for the pricing of products and services, international comparisons can be made. On both the postal and the telecommunications side our Post Office compares very favourably.
Although there is a wide range of public enterprises that have been highly successful, there are nevertheless one or two exceptions. British Railways, for example, have been losing money. Again, however, the international picture shows that, whether in public ownership or under private enterprise, railways find it almost impossible to make a profit. Moreover, whether privately or publicly owned, much the same picture emerges, and where railways are privately owned they tend to be heavily subsidised by the Government.
There are many reasons for that state of affairs on the railways. The road haulage industry, for example, provides just the vehicles and the public provide the roads, the police and all the necessary facilities to make the industry function. The railways, on the other hand, provide not just the rolling stock but the network and the wherewithal that goes with it. It is for these economic reasons that the railways are not showing as big a financial surplus as many other public industries do.
There has been much discussion recently about the steel industry—we had it at Question Time again today—and we know that it has made a huge loss. But, again, the steel industry throughout the world, whether privately or publicly owned, is operating in conditions of world recession and in such circumstances is bound to suffer. The problem for our steel industry today is that the Government have set a break-even financial target to be met in the early months of next year, and everyone knows that it is impossible to achieve. At the Dispatch Box today, the Secretary of State for Industry said that he had given the British Steel Corporation its terms of reference, 933 that he would not finance it at all, that it must break even, and, if it does not come into surplus, it must carry on closing steel plants.
There has been reference to a catalogue of various parts of the steel industry. The Secretary of State went so far as to try a gibe against us on the Opposition Benches because we had kept the industry going. He seems to forget that although we are now in are cession there will be an economic upturn and it will be against Britain's interests if our steel industry is cut back so far that when the upturn comes we do not have an industry to produce the steel that both the private and the public sectors will require. Yet that will be the consequence of the crazy economic policies pursued by this Government, and we shall have to import steel from abroad.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is discussing the merits or demerits of nationalised undertakings. The motion is directed to the question whether we should have a body to review these matters. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will direct his mind to that.
§ Mr. Evans
I was about to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there is need for scrutiny but that we ought nevertheless to scrutinise the important role of these public industries and the way in which they are working beneficially for the whole community. If we had a Scrutiny Committee directly related to the nationalised industries we could show that some of the myths being put about today were without foundation.
Another myth about public ownership is that what was done by the Labour Government in their extensive programme of public ownership in 1945 is unique to the United Kingdom, that the phenomenon of public industries is to be found here but nowhere else. In fact, most leading industrialised countries now have a publicly owned sector. For example, Germany and France do not have the problems that we have in the motor car industry, but they had public ownership in that industry long before we did. Hon. Members on the Conservative Benches talk about Renault and make comparisons with British Leyland, but they forget that Renault was put into public 934 ownership in France before we even thought of public ownership in the motor car industry in Britain. Each country has evolved its own form of public ownership, and public enterprise has played an effective part in creating and maintaining economic prosperity.
It is interesting to note a comparison that is not always remembered in our debates on economic affairs. Apart from Switzerland, the three countries with the highest living standards in Europe are Austria, which has a Social Democratic Government and believes in public ownership, as the Labour Government have done, Sweden, which had a Social Democratic Government for 40 years, although that party is now in opposition, and Germany. Those are the three countries in Europe with the highest living standards, yet the Conservatives try to equate Socialism with low living standards. The truth is that Socialism can and does bring prosperity for the people.
Another myth is that nationalised industry is always some sort of monopoly—and I note here what was said by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe about a committee to scrutinise nationalised industry. In fact, the nationalised industries are not pure monopolies. They themselves have competitors. For example, the coal industry has the public gas and electricity industries competing with it, as well as the private enterprise oil industry.
In other public industries—perhaps we could do with some scrutiny here—there is a pure monopoly. For example, on the Post Office—I revert here to the interjection by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch)—a note of warning should be sounded. The Post Office has a complete monopoly in postal and telecommunication services in this country. I believe that we shall soon see the Departent of Industry bringing forward a Bill to carve up the Post Office, keeping the low-profit or non-profitable side in public ownership and hiving off the highly profitable telecommunications side to private enterprise. If that is done, it will do great damage to the people of this country.
One is bound to have a monopoly in certain sectors, and a good deal of the talk from the Tory Party on this subject is absolutely crazy. They talk about competition and imagine that alongside a 935 public Post Office system we could have a number of small firms delivering mail in certain areas. In fact, what the Post Office is able to do on the postal side is a social service, especially in the rural areas. In a sense, people in the large conurbations are subsidising others in the rural areas.
Most hon. Members on the Conservative Benches represent rural areas, not the large conurbations, and they should take due warning here. If the Government go through with their mad scheme to hive off telecommunications, the Post Office, especially in the rural areas, will be put in great financial difficulty.
I have thought it important to take this opportunity to defend public ownership. I believe that the present Government are approaching this whole subject in a doctrinaire and dogmatic fashion, adopting an approach that we never saw from the Churchill, Macmillan, Home or Heath Governments.
When she came to Cardiff, the Prime Minister said "I am a reactionary." When someone calls himself a reactionary, we on the Labour Benches tend to think that it is someting of an admission or confession. But the right hon. Lady clearly said "I am a reactionary" and now we have a Government who are putting forward reactionary policies.
I make an appeal to right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches. One of the good features of this Parliament is that we have already seen Back Benchers offering a warning to their own Government. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) is in his place this afternoon, and he, for example, has given his Government a warning about the minimum lending rate. There have been other hon. Members who have realised that their Government are hell-bent towards the precipice and it is about time that someone said "Hold on; put on the brakes; think of what you are doing."
It is pleasing to find hon. Members asserting their rights as they should in this Chamber. Although when one's party is electetd to Government one expects to give it a great deal of support, when one sees that Government going completely off the rails it is not a friendly act to sit back and allow them just to 936 carry on without regard to the consequences.
Reverting to the specific terms of the motion, I agree that there should be greater scrutiny. I consider that the experiment with Select Committees offers one way, but I hope that the Government will not proceed with their plans to do away with the nominated bodies. Rather than abolish them the Government should make them more democratically accountable. Instead of Ministers nominating the members of such bodies, the membership should be appointed by Parliament. The bodies that operate in the regions might be appointed by a combination of the regional councillors and Members of Parliament.
These Committees have an important part to play in scrutinising the work of Government Departments. Nevertheless, the Government insist on abolishing nominated bodies as a means of securing petty economies. If the Government made a mistake over expenditure it could cost a great deal more than it costs to maintain and service the nominated bodies that are designed to keep an eye on public expenditure, many of the members of which accept no financial reward for the work.
The House of Commons must be vigilant. In their policies the Government are giving effect to their theories, which are that provided certain laws are passed all will again be well in Britain. However, in the six or seven months that the Government have been in power we have watched matters go from bad to worse to hopeless. In those circumstances it is essential for Members of Parliament to assert themselves. Many of us are profoundly disturbed at the Government's policies. We owe it to the country to tell the Government that enough is enough. I agree with the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe in this regard. We certainly need to scrutinise the work of the Executive and the Government far more, and I hope that Conservative Members will join us in pressing for that.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)
We should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) for raising this important issue. The House should be spending a great 937 deal more time considering how best it can control the Executive and public bodies. My hon. Friend is right—and this applies to all Governments. There is a tendency to devote Supply days to general debates and not to considering how the real power of this House, which is to control public expenditure, should be exercised.
Contrary to what the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) seemed to think, this debate is not for the purpose of discussing the merits or otherwise of nationalised industries. I understand my hon. Friend's objective to be that the House should be able to exercise some control over how the nationalised industries are run. It may or may not be right for the Post Office to make a profit of £360 million a year if that profit goes to pay for other public services. But surely it is a matter in which the House should be concerned in seeking to balance the various requirements between the urban and rural areas—the need for a competitive service or for a social service.
We in this House have no control over the budgets or policies of the nationalised industries. I think that the late Aneurin Bevan said that one of the great necessities was to bring the nationalised industries into public ownership. Now, although we receive very courteous replies from the chairmen of the nationalised industries when we raise matters with them, it is difficult to discuss those issues in the House or to question Ministers about them. It would be a very good thing, therefore, if the budgets of the nationalised industries were brought before the House for approval at some stage. Supply days ought to mean what they used to mean—an opportunity for Parliament to express views about general matters of policy and administration.
I see no reason why Ministers should not present their departmental Estimates in advance of the incorporation of those Estimates in the Chancellor's total Budget proposals. Ministers could appear before a Committee of the House with their permanent secretaries, who are, after all, the accounting officers, and such other officials as they need, to say what they propose to do. Members of Parliament could then indicate whether they thought that more or less money should be spent on roads or houses, or say how proposed 938 cuts should be apportionated regionally between, for example, the North-East and the South-West. At the moment, so much of what happens is done by Treasury Ministers right across the board with insufficient regard for the way in which particular proposals will affect particular areas.
The hon. Member for Aberdare spoke about the Post Office and about balancing the needs of the urban and rural communities. The same applies to other aspects of public expenditure where the House ought to have a view about how much should be spent on deprived urban areas and about the corresponding need to support increasingly deprived rural areas which need sub-post offices, communications, bus services and other items.
It is ironic that the European Parliament, which has very little power, nevertheless has much more influence over the content of the EEC budget than this Parliament has over the content of our domestic Budget. While the European Parliament has very little power, it has considerable influence. However, this House, which nominally has all the power, has increasingly little influence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Shaw), who was the rapporteur for the budget in the European Parliament, will confirm that in that Parliament by far the greatest proportion of the time was spent discussing practical problems for the immediate future—that is, how the money should be spent. We do not do that here. We have vast general debates about whether we should pay less or more to the European Community, but we do not discuss, as we should, the size and shape of that budget or its structure. We do not do it in respect of the European budget or in respect of our domestic Budget. It is high time that Parliament gave more time to considering this matter.
All Governments are the same. They have a vested interest in keeping Parliament busy but relatively harmless: as many Members as possible should be moving like demented ants from one Committee to another, as many Bills as possible should be in Standing Committees, and everyone should be kept occupied and, as far as possible, prevented from discussing the real issues in time to enable Parliament to have any direct influence upon them.
939 It is to that situation that my hon. Friend's motion is designed to call attention. It is necessary for Parliament to start talking much more about the realities of life as they affect our constituents. Why are not more hon. Members attending the debate? It is a subject which should be of concern to all Members of Parliament. The answer is that we have so many debates with so many votes—most of them hopelessly upgraded—that, when the opportunity comes to take a little time off, Members are away to some other activity.
When thinking about how we can control the nationalised industries and the Executive, we must first consider how we can exercise control over departmental budgets. We should spend more time worrying about departmental budgets and less time on the Finance Bill, where we operate ex post facto.
The other necessity is to control the volume and content of legislation. I welcome the new Select Committees. I hope that they will serve a useful purpose. However, I regret that we do not operate a system under which we can consider legislation in draft. I have always thought that there is a good case for a form of pre-legislation process involving a Grand Committee. The Minister could present his draft Bill to all those hon. Members who are interested and, with the help of his officials, explain what it means and listen to comments. That might take one or two days.
Such a system will lead to fewer difficulties. It was a happy accident that the measure to amend the Official Secrets Act fell by the wayside. If there had been pre-legislative discussion, we should not have had so much trouble with the Immigration Bill. When the Community Land Bill was introduced, it was said that had there been some discussion on a draft measure the incredible would at least have been turned into the unacceptable. Some of the absurdities would have been ironed out. The Local Governments Planning and Land Bill contains twice as many pages of legislation as Parliament dealt in 1912. Some of it is quite good and some definitely not so good. It is impossible for Parliament to do justice to a Bill of that size and complexity during a Second Reading debate lasting only one or two days.
940 What happens? Hon. Members make their Second Reading speeches and criticise the measure. They have to be careful in case they are put on the Standing Committee—a mammoth task on a Bill of that size and complexity. The Bill goes to Committee and the junior Minister sees it through. Few amendments are made. We scratch the surface, but major amendments have to be reconsidered by the Cabinet body which processes such amendments. Once a Bill has received its Second Reading, it is difficult to exercise control over it.
If a Minister has faith in his Bill, he will be pleased to allow it to be examined in draft. After all, the Minister will have discussed such a Bill with almost every interested body in the country except the House of Commons. A Bill should be prepared for its Second Reading only after preliminary discussion among hon. Members. Our problem is that we do not have the opportunity to present in time our views on the departmental budgets or on legislation. We have either to say that we are rebels against a measure or be regarded as carping critics. Perhaps Opposition Members have no objection to Government Members being in that position.
This situation exists under all Governments. Many Governments wish that they had discussed a measure with their parliamentary colleagues more fully before launching into a policy which proves disastrous. An enormous amount of time is wasted on legislation such as the Community Land Act. That Act was unintelligible. It served the purposes neither of a Conservative Government nor a Socialist Government. It is to be repealed, and for that I am grateful. If we do not succeed in the urgent task of reasserting our authority over the processes of Government, more and more people will regard our debates as being less and less relevant to the needs of our generation.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
It is important that Parliament should discuss the control of the Executive and public bodies. We are grateful to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) for raising this issue and giving 941 us the opportunity to discuss it on a Monday—when we are not exactly overcrowded with keen and eager hon. Members vying with each other to speak.
It is interesting that we should be talking about the control of the Executive on the day when my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) attempted to secure a debate under Standing Order No. 9 on the visit of the Secretary of State for Defence to NATO to discuss the threat to impose cruise missiles on this country without any debate whatsoever in Parliament. If that is not a case of the Executive riding roughshod over the elected assembly, I do not know what is. The Government would have a majority on that issue because Conservatives go berserk and are besotted with the idea of spending more and more on death-dealing weapons.
However, there is a large body of opinion in the country, represented by a substantial body in the House, which has had no opportunity to criticise the Executive on its decision. All credit to the Dutch Parliament for taking that opportunity and for deciding not to put the world further into peril by enlarging our capacity to exterminate. That capacity is above our capacity to feed, clothe and shelter people. A subject of enormous magnitude has not been brought before the House. The Government should be ashamed, because they control the agenda for the House.
It is always said by Mr. Speaker that what is on the Order Paper is not a matter for him. Of course it is not. It is a matter for the Government, with the exception of one or two tiny concessions to the Opposition in the form of Supply days. However, the Opposition are always in a difficulty because so many matters compete for that time.
The Government have taken an initiative. The Secretary of State for Defence is to commit this country to increasing the number of these murderous weapons without the prior approval of the House. It is also shameful because the Secretary of State, who has never initiated a debate on that subject, appears on radio and television and makes statement without any public scrutiny. It is a disgrace that the Executive should trample roughshod over democracy in 942 this way. That is one example of why the issue under discussion is so important.
It is interesting to reflect on the days of the Labour Government when we had a bare majority for some of the time and were in minority for the rest. The present Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, then talked about an elective dictatorship—not a phrase that comes often from his lips these days. If we were an elective dictatorship, working on a minority and calculating which of the minority parties would go into the Lobby with us, what are the present Government with a majority of 45? We now have a montrous dictatorship, but where is the Lord Chancellor's tender concern now?
The Secretary of State for Defence is rushing off and making commitments without our consent. When the Lord Chancellor made those remarks, the Government of the day were a different colour. That is why he is expressing no concern or criticism about public institutions today—and he should be the last person to do that, since he is a Member of the House of Lords.
Anxiety about control of the Executive is not expressed only when one is in Opposition. There is no doubt that when the Labour Party is in Government there is always a bubbling concern within the Labour Party to scrutinise the objectives, aims and aspirations of that Labour Government. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) will heartily agree with that. We do not simply become inert and supine supporters of every aspect of Labour Party policy because we are in office. There was genuine concern for democratic accountability during the period of Labour Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) and the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned nationalised industries, and Conservative hon. Members expressed continuing concern about them. One begins to suspect their motives—whether they are just attacking them, or whether they are genuinely concerned. Some Labour Party members are concerned because gigantic public corporations are not the ideal institutions that were envisaged when the Labour Party began talking about public ownership at the beginning of the century.
943 We accept that publicly owned bodies are often too bureaucratic and unfeeling, and that is felt particularly when, for example, the electricity board does not operate its code of practice and cuts off someone's supply. We care particularly when something goes wrong in a publicly owned industry, but it is the Opposition who have to accept the brickbats of criticism. We want to see more democratic accountability in those publicly owned bodies and greater sensitivity to present needs and issues by those bodies.
Although the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe has raised this issue, it is in direct contradistinction to the views of his Front Bench. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare has pointed out, the Government are busy reducing the level of accountability. They are producing one of the most bizarre and cumbersome methods of disposing of the aerospace industry that one could imagine. One suspects that the Government's aim is to avoid hybridity and nothing else, after their lengthy use of that instrument when Labour was in office. They will hand over an industry that directly employs 68,000 people to a shell company, and then to a company that will be sold off to private enterprise. That will only reduce public accountability.
It comes particularly ill for the Conservative Government to talk about accountability when the legislation passed by the Labour Government invoked democratic involvement of workers in that industry. Of course, the Government are selling off chunks of public assets in other industries that the Labour Government acquired through fierce battles fought on the Floor of the House. In selling off those assets, they are reducing public accountability.
There have been rumours that the Post Office will be split up and that the profitable sections will be sold. Today there were questions about the experiment in democratic control of the Post Office, in which the Post Office unions had elected representatives on the Post Office board. That was an important experiment, but the Secretary of State for Industry has given no assurance that it will continue. He talks only of agreement between the parties, yet that was reached when the Labour Government were in office. Why cannot the Secretary of State 944 use his influence to encourage and retain that experiment rather than simply shrug it off?
The Secretary of State does not care about democratic accountability or the involvement of workers. He believes, in a touching way, in private enterprise, and that belief is beginning to contribute to our industrial decline. Anything that improves democratic accountability is ignored. Democratic control involves scrutiny, as that is one of the most important elements of accountability. The Government's philosophy is therefore to reduce democratic scrutiny by pulling out of industry wherever they can. That is strange and is in marked contrast to their views on trade unions. The Government feel that they must meddle in trade union matters as much as they can; and the Employment Bill serves that aim. Their philosophy is hardly consistent.
Government philosophy is about power in society. They want to hand power over to their friends in big business and to diminish the power of working men and women to organise and so equate the power of employers through the trade union movement. The Government want to shift power away from those who work for a livelihood towards the owners of capital. Democratic accountability is not in the forefront of their minds.
Derek Robinson claimed that there was collusion between Michael Edwardes of British Leyland and the Secretary of State for Industry with the intention of sacking him. It will be interesting to see whether the Treasury Minister will formally deny that. That particular convener of shop stewards, together with four others, issued a pamphlet taking a different view from that of the management. It was issued at the earliest possible moment after the management of British Leyland had made a proposal to cut back staff yet again. An open discussion of a different view and the publication of that view within a nationalised industry is surely part of accountability. The trade unions may be wrong, but at least they should have the right to put forward that view. Michael Edwardes and the management of British Leyland may be wrong and, as successive managements have made alterations and changes in their plans and decisions concerning market share and so on, it is conceivable that shop floor representatives are right 945 on this occasion. After all, Lucas Aerospace combined shop stewards committee was right although the management told it that defence contracts would provide plenty of employment. Three or four years later, the management turned round and announced redundancies.
§ Mr. Cryer
The people on the shop floor were right at Lucas and they may be right at British Leyland as well. There was a ballot at British Leyland, but it was a hasty affair giving no opportunity for shop floor workers to express a contrary point of view. The management of British Leyland had a massive amount of media coverage. However, an opportunity should be given for a different point of view to be expressed, because that is what public accountability means. Where there is unanimity of view but no right for human aspirations to differ, or for human intelligence to produce a different view, one has the dead hand of conformity, and that rules out a clash that might lead to development.
§ Mr. Crouch
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) knows nothing about it. He has never worked on a shop floor.
§ Mr. Rippon
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a very good reason for not having a closed shop?
§ Mr. Cryer
I might point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the members of a closed shop are perfectly free to argue against the closed shop principle. Membership of a closed shop does not shut mouths. I do not want to be led too far down this road, although I am quite willing to argue about closed shops. I have never shrunk from such an argument. I believe that the 4 million people in closed shops derive enormous benefit from them. I know of no person in a closed shop who has been given a wage award and then told his manager that he did not like being in a closed shop and that he did not want the wage award. If a closed shop trade union organises improved working conditions, for example, 946 ventilation, I know of no employee who says "I do not want the ventilation. Give me back the dust and the asbestos as well, because I have not contributed to the trade union."
The suggestion that people inside a closed shop cannot argue against the idea is quite erroneous. They can argue, and they are free to persuade their fellow workers to break a closed shop if they so choose. However, the fact of the matter is—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman was led down this path by an intervention, and I let him go on, but it is outside the terms of the debate. We are discussing parliamentary control of nationalised undertakings.
§ Mr. Cryer
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for drawing my attention to that. However, I want to emphasise to you that I am quite willing to argue about closed shops at any time and at any length.
The closed shop issue is not directly relevant, but the issue of the trade unions scrutinising the industries in which they work, including the nationalised industries, provides an important element of accountability. This argument sprang from my contention that it is the right of workers, organised in trade unions or not, to produce differing points of view because that state of affairs in itself provides an element of accountability in a public body. To victimise workers who express points of view of that kind is to diminish the role of the trade unions and to exalt the rights of management. That is a recipe for industrial conflict and disaster.
One of the most important areas of democratic accountability is created by electing people who have some sort of electorate to whom to report and some sort of relationship with them. In my view, we should try to avoid appointees at all costs, because they exalt the power of patronage which I oppose. We have managed to have a number of elections this year. We had a general election and local government elections on the same day, which many people thought was quite beyond the wit of the people. We also managed to have a Euro election, though it did not meet with much enthusiasm. We managed to have three elections. Why cannot we have people 947 elected to public bodies on the same day and in the same polling booths as those used for local government elections? Why should we have people appointed uniformly to area health authorities, for example? Why cannot we have people elected to the local area bodies of nationalised industries such as the Yorkshire electricity board or the North-Eastern gas board? Wy do not we have people elected to such bodies at the same time as local government representatives?
If we introduced such a requirement, people would have to make a case and put forward what they considered to be their element of accountability. There is no reason why we should not extend democracy to include some of the public bodies which operate in a very remote way. I am not blaming those who work on these public bodies. Often they do so with the greatest of good will and the strongest integrity. But the fact remains that the people in public life who spring strongly to mind are not members of area health authorities, or of the gas or electricity consumers' council. By and large, they are pretty obscure, and I should have thought that electing at least a proportion of the members of these bodies—and in my view it should be the majority of them—would exalt their position in the public mind and make them more readily accessible and accountable.
No doubt you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that two or three years ago I introduced a Ten-Minute Bill with the shocking idea of electing the boards of the nationalised industries from amongst the employees of the industries, with provision for people to be elected by consumer organisations, local government and so on, in order to provide an outside element on those boards. At the time, I argued that the pressure of work on many appointees to the boards of nationalised industries seemed to be so great that they could not possibly carry out all their duties.
This is one of the wonders of the world. We have a group of people who are appointed by Ministers. Those people are listed in an office somewhere in Whitehall by civil servants. It is a list of the great and the good. No one knows how they get on to the list, but they are the people who are publicly accountable for the bodies to which they are appointed. 948 People who write in may or may not get on to the list. Civil servants produce the list and put it before the Minister, and the Minister makes the choice. It is hardly a very wide choice.
I suggested that the boards should be elected mainly from amongst the work-people in the industries, with an outside element to stop the narrowness of syndicalism. I regret to have to remind the House that my effort to introduce a greater degree of workers' involvement and participation, a sense of belonging to those industries and a greater degree of public accountability was rejected by the House. The opposition to it was led by Mr. Teddy Taylor, who said that it was a terrible idea to have people elected to public bodies. Presumably he wanted more appointees. We want generally to move away from appointees. The present system puts too much power into too few hands.
If Members of Parliament are concerned about the accountability of public bodies to this House, I endorse that concern. When we began nationalisation during the 1945–50 period, we actually reduced the amount of accountability of the nationalised industries to this House. The result was that we could not, for example, ask about the closure of Little Witterington station, but we could ask about the directions of general policy. I think that hon. Members should have the right to ask about the closure of a sub-post office, a railway station or a goods siding. That is an important element of accountability, and the publicly owned industries should be subject to accountability here in this House. I distinguish that need and that right of Members of Parliament from a simple device being used to attack the nationalised industries as a matter of principle. In my view, accountability in this House is extremely important.
One of the concerns that we all express occurs at that moment in the Table Office when we attempt to table questions only to be told "This is a matter for the internal working of the Government, and you cannot ask questions about that." I object to that. We need to push back the barriers so that we can ask more parliamentary questions and not fewer. The relationship of the Government to the nationalised industries needs to be made as open as possible.
949 I know that I must not discuss the deliberations of the Standing Committee which is considering the British Aerospace Bill, but I have asked what will be the position of hon. Members in the future. The Government are narrowing that area of questions and not widening it as the Opposition would wish.
The motion suggests a review body. I am not quite sure what would be achieved by it. Parliament is a continuing review body with an element of accountability. If there is more power to Parliament's elbow, so much the better. But I must point out that, if the desire is simply to attack the nationalised indutries, the Opposition can counter by saying that we should have a review body for private industry. There have not been any of the scandals in the nationalised sector such as those which have occurred in Lonrho, Peachey, Hilton Haulage, London and Counties and all the rest, resulting in massive reports following investigations by the Department of Trade which have been debated only as the result of the initiative of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself.
On previous occasions I have referred in the House to magistrates and their selection. I believe that they should be publicly accountable. They are accountable through the Lord Chancellor, but one of the problems of being in this place is that the Lord Chancellor does not stand before us and is not directly accountable. I have pleaded for the abolition of the secrecy surrounding the selection of magistrates by secret committees. I have asked the Attorney-General to publish the lists and the criteria by which magistrates are selected.
I accept that that is not the main thrust of the motion, but it refers to public bodies, and the committees that select magistrates are public. That selection system illustrates one feature of our public life that is too universal and too powerful—namely, the secrecy of the British system of government. It is unnecessary. Secrecy is too often used by the frightened as a means of stalling the genuine inquirer. It discourages confidence in government.
The Airedale trunk road inquiry, which will affect my constituency, is soon to be started. The original inquiry was stop- 950 ped by a large, organised protest led by Mr. John Tyme. The protect was given substance because the protestors thought that the machinery of government was a conspiracy to extend motorway building without public accountability. One of their arguments was that Parliament had not sufficiently scrutinised the motorway building programme over the years. I disagreed with that argument, but the result of bringing the inquiry to a halt is that new and improved methods of inquiry procedure have been instituted. As a result of the actions of the Labour Government, more information is provided for motorway inquiry procedures generally, and for objectors especially. There is now a better balance. Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Acacia Avenue who want to challenge the might of a Government Department, which is often a daunting task, are now in a better position to do so.
That sort of challenge of the workings of the Department of the Environment would not have been necessary if the workings and the machinery of government had been more open. We are fed with a series of leaks from the Department of the Environment. For example, there was the leak that a civil servant was preparing to produce an inquiry that would manipulate evidence about the damage to our roads caused by juggernauts so that new juggernauts would become acceptable. Leaks of that sort sap public confidence in our public bodies, in the operation of the Executive, and in the operation of the Government.
Why cannot we move to a more open system of government? I recognise that there are some areas of the work of the Home Office, of the work of the Ministry of Defence, and in some areas of commercial confidence in the Department of Industry, where revelation would restult in great damage being done. For example, the Department of Industry may have information that a firm is heading for a collapse. However, there is a vast area of Government activity that could and should be open to public scrutiny. Position papers are thrust so eagerly before Ministers by civil servants. They could be published to enable us to have a continuing dialogue.
In the Labour Party there is a dialogue. There is a bubbling of ideas. We put forward ideas that we think will improve the system of government and halt the 951 reckless indifference shown by the present Government to Britain's economic performance. However, when the Labour Party takes office the barrier of the Official Secrets Act comes down. There is felt immediately a sense of isolation and a feeling of suspicion. There is even a barrier between the minority in the majority party and the majority of the majority party. We know that about 100 Members are chosen to become Ministers. They have the gilded touch of patronage on their shoulder. No doubt the Financial Secretary was waiting by the telephone after the result of the general election had been announced. No doubt his telephone rang, he picked up the receiver, and he heard his leader say "You are chosen." Immediately he has access to confidential documents.
What is the position of the rest of the Conservative Party? Are they concerned about discussing issues with the Financial Secretary, or do they remain in isolation? In the Labour Party we want to maintain and improve the dialogue between Labour Governments and Labour Back Benchers so that secrecy is pushed to one side in all the areas where that is possible. That is an important element of accountability.
§ Mr. Costain
In the Conservative Party there is always access to Ministers. Ministers attend committee meetings and we question them. They listen to us and often they alter their opinion having listened to the views of Conservative Back Benchers. The hon. Gentleman is on the wrong tack if he is suggesting that secrecy prevails in the Conservative Party when a Conservative Government are in office.
§ Mr. Cryer
That is not quite true. About three years ago the Conservatives produced a document in which it was argued that there should be more open government and more participation by Back Benchers. Although the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe may not be subject to that strand of opinion, I judge that there is such a strand within the Conseravtive Party that argues for more openness in government. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has a Ten-Minute Bill the purpose of which is to obtain more information. It has been given support by Labour and Conservative Members. I 952 contend that in both parties it is argued that there should be more openness in government.
It is relevant to consider the power of the Civil Service. The majority of civil servants work diligently and carry out important public services. When I talk about civil servants, I am talking not about those who are in Department of Health and Social Security offices dealing with supplementary benefit payments, who exercise great tact and skill in so doing, nor of those who are in charge of employment offices who have to argue about unemployment benefit. I direct my remarks to a group that is mostly Oxbridge and mostly public school educated. I refer to senior civil servants who have access to Ministers. Many of them work along strict and narrow lines laid down by the general rules of conduct in the Civil Service. However, because it is all secret we cannot know with certainty whether they are exercising their tact and discretion neutrally or partially in a political sense.
Will we ever know, for example, what the weekly meeting of permanent secretaries is about? Is it an inner government who are not publicly accountable and who are manipulating the elected Government? Will we ever know the machinery of official meetings that parallel the machinery of the Cabinet committees? That, again, we are not supposed to know about. That is one of the many absurdities. We do not know about the machinery of government that leads to decisions being made.
Against that background of secrecy, it is not surprising that there is a degree of cynicism and that criticism is made of the operation of public bodies. I have already mentioned the ways in which appointments are made. When I was a Minister I called in certain civil servants to discuss where the names came from of those who were selected for various appointments. The discussion continued for almost two hours. I was not able to get from them how the lists were compiled. It is felt outside this place that there is an inner government that is not always working in the interests of the public as a whole. We shall not have full accountability until we have more open government. It is the Labour Party's policy to place the justification for secrecy on the institutions so that they 953 have to argue against the right to know and to provide reasons why information should not be revealed.
The Swedish constitution has existed since the eighteenth century, yet civilisation in Sweden has not come to a grinding halt because there is open government.
Hon. Members on both sides speak about this Chamber constituting an element of accountability. However, the difficulty about secrecy in government, when the leader of the governing party is able to choose the whole Government, is the power of patronage. This is a real, important and persuasive element. I refer to the word in the ear of a Member who is particularly vigilant—"Do not forget, old chap", it could be argued "that your career will come to a halt. There will be no ministerial post for you if you keep raising these awkward questions." That is a real element within Parliament. We must move on to open government. That will happen only in the Labour Party because the Conservative accept hierarchy. They accept one ayatollah on their side who makes all the appointments without challenge.
The Opposition are more democratic. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is absolutely right. The arguments going on among members of the Labour Party are about accountability. We want to elect the Cabinet so that the elected Government of the day have an element of accountability to the rank and file of the Parliamentary Labour Party, so that the power of patronage, which is deeply felt and resented, may in some cases diminish and the search for information in Parliament may continue.
No constituency Labour Party or trade union would be run in the way that the Government are run. When the Labour Party takes office, its members follow the Tory rules. It is the Tory system to have a leader who makes all the appointments. However, that is not the system of a democratic Labour Party.
I have covered a number of items. I do not want to prolong unduly the points about the scrutiny of public bodies. However, this is an important matter.
I do not think that we shall be able to exercise the proper degree of choice in government, in the regulation of public 954 bodies or in the decision-making of public bodies as long as we remain inside the Common Market. We must develop alternatives to the membership of the Common Market. The power of Brussels is real. We have seen the power of Parliament shifted, not entirely but to a marked degree, over to Brussels. The Government cannot introduce new regional aids, for instance, to help a publicly owned industry, without obtaining consent from the Common Market. We cannot change our legislation, in many aspects, without obtaining approval from the Common Market. Nor can we regulate the trade of a publicly owned body such as the British Steel Corporation, which is suffering at the moment. We cannot make decisions about regulating steel imports without going to the Common Market. British Leyland cannot regulate the position of the flow of imports of cars into this country without, of course, going to the Government and without the Government going to the Common Market Commission. Our accountability and our system are limited by our membership of the Common Market.
The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) mentioned the European Parliament as being influential. In fact, the European Parliament is not influential. It is an empty talking shop. That was very much recognised by the electorate.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I thought of intervening once or twice. He is now outside the subject of the debate. He was all right until a few moments ago. We do not want a general debate on the Common Market.
§ Mr. Cryer
The subject of the working of the nationalised industries is contained in the motion. Themore effective scrutiny…of government-appointed bodies and nationalised industriesis blurred by our membership of the Common Market. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham raised the question of the European Parliament as a parallel. He said that the European Parliament exercised scrutiny of the EEC. In my view, it does not. That indifference by the British people and their poor understanding of the realities were reflected in the low European Parliament poll.
955 To sum up, we need more open government, less secrecy, more democratic accountability and more elections to provide properly accountable scrutiny.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) is like the curate's egg. He is good in parts, but I must say to him that in parts he is very poor indeed and that in other parts he is rank bad. I had some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman before he digressed to Europe and the Common Market. He is not insignificant. He is worthy of sitting on the Front Bench below the Gangway. At least he was a Minister and was nominated by the Prime Minister of the day to take office, which he held with responsibility. Allhon. Members were surprised that he held his office with such responsibility—as he is such a person. However, he is not just such a person who sits below the Gangway and never takes responsibility. He did take responsibility. He still speaks with some responsibility. That is what I am concerned about. It concerns all of us.
§ Mr. Cryer rose—
§ Mr. Crouch I know that the hon. Gentleman will return.
§ Mr. Crouch
The hon. Gentleman speaks with responsibility for this House. He is very much concerned with the House. Like all Members of Parliament, myself included, he exaggerates his position and his concern. However, he is concerned. For that reason, I listen to him without overdue interruption and am involved with his concern.
Today the hon. Gentleman is concerned with the motion that we in the House should have control of the processes or progress, or lack of progress, of the nationalised industries and the control of other bodies which are not called nationalised industries but for which the House has ultimate responsibility.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on having had the luck to draw first place in the ballot and bringing this problem before the House today, and on having chosen this problem to bring to our attention. It is terribly important.
956 I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) is present today. He, too, played an important part in ensuring the accountability of the nationalised industries to this House. He was Chairman of the Select Committee on nationalised industries, as it was. I am sorry that that Committee lost its place and position; it lost its name; it disappeared; it was taken over by other Select Committees. I was a member of that Select Committee for eight years. I served with the hon. Gentleman with much enjoyment, in the widest sense of the term, across the Floor of the House. These are truly parliamentary Committees. I enjoyed serving with him and others in the parliamentary scrutiny of public bodies, nationalised industries and others. We are seriously concerned as parliamentarians, and not just as party fighters, to ensure that the House keeps an eye on Whitehall, Ministers, civil servants, the nationalised industries and all the delegated people in Whitehall. It is the only way by which the House, on behalf of the electorate, can keep an eye on the way in which those people behave and carry out their duties.
At times we exaggerate our own importance. I would always defend that right. It is important that we should spot deficiencies in management and see deviations and failures in administration either by civil servants or by those appointed to nationalised bodies of all kinds. I would not argue against this important function of the House of Commons.
We are concerned about the so-called progress or otherwise of nationalised industries and other bodies. Some are in a doubtful position. I do not think that anyone is against progress in the coal industry. We are concerned to get more out of the coal industry. We want to get more out of the efforts of those who work in the industry, whether it is scientific or management effort or the sweat of the brow of those who work at the coal face, and, as fair parliamentarians, we are determined that they should be properly rewarded. The industry should deliver the goods and get a fair return.
Much the same can be said about the steel industry. I am proud to have spoken recently from these Benches of my concern about what is happening in the steel industry. I am very concerned about the 957 decline of the steel industry, not only in this country, but in the world. I am concerned at the prospect of 25,000 men being put out of work in that industry. These are not crocodile tears about men being put out of work and put on the scrap-heap before their time. When economic change is taking place, it is all very well grandly to say "It has to happen", but it is tragic not only for 25,000 people but for 25,000 multiplied by four or five. I am thinking of the families of those men. The bell tolls for all of us when we talk of a change in an industry such as the steel industry.
It is not Brussels, Whitehall or the British Steel Corporation that should tell us what should happen; it is we in this House who should be concerned about what should happen in industries which are undergoing not only dramatic but traumatic change.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I express myself strongly on this matter. I have seen the decline in the coal industry. A coal mine in my constituency was closed in 1968. I have never forgotten my discussions not only with Lord Robens but with members of the National Union of Mineworkers in my constituency. I was concerned about what the men had to tell me. Men aged 50 told me what it was like to be retired early and put on the scrap-heap. I am concerned not only about economic plans, the Treasury, the Department of Industry and those who speak in Brussels on this matter but about what happens to people. We should be concerned about people.
Other industries for which we must seek accountability in the House are also in a doubtful position. The progress of British Rail and of our road transport industry, for both passengers and freight, is in question all the time. The Post Office has been mentioned. It was suggested that, as the telecommunications side was successful, we need not worry about it; but we worry continually about the delivery of our mail—the less successful side of the Post Office. We are all worried about these matters. It is right that we should be worried and that we should take any necessary steps to put them right.
We in the House, on behalf of the nation, have advanced into the private 958 sector. For example, we have voted hundreds of millions of pounds into Rolls-Royce and British Leyland. Therefore, we cannot stand back and be disinterested. We are interested in the investment of public money voted by the House, not by either Labour or Conservative Governments.
The hon. Member for Keighley referred to the phrase "the elective dictatorship" used by my noble Friend Lord Hailsham in his book. We should reflect where dictatorship resides in our society today. It resides not here, not in the other place, but in society. I do not think that the Opposition should tell us to beware of an elective dictatorship. Dictatorships exist in both major parties. They can exist in government through the power of the Front Bench with its patronage. We know that dictatorship can exist in the Opposition from the way in which the Labour Party is currently organised. Labour Members need to consider whether they are satisfied with the elective dictatorship within what they claim is the alternative Government for Great Britain. They owe it to the nation and to Parliament. I am not attacking the Labour Party. I am attacking something that has grown up within the Labour Party that falls within the description of an elective dictatorship. My noble Friend Lord Hailsham has spoken to me of this dangerous trend in our society. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was right to raise the general question of control in that context as well.
We are concerned to have more effective control over our nationalised industries and other elected public bodies. I served for eight years on the Select Committee on nationalised industries. I had a more interesting or different time when I served for five years on the Public Accounts Committee. In both those areas I learnt more than the ordinary Back Bencher about the working of our society in the management of a great deal of public money voted by Parliament either through the great State Departments, at which the Public Accounts Committee looks, or through the nationalised industries, at which the Select Committee on nationalised industries, as it was, used to look.
For all the sound and fury expressed by the Select Committee on nationalised 959 industries and the Public Accounts Committee on the two or three occasions each year on which their reports are debated, their criticisms are listened to by only a few hon. Members. Look at the Chamber now, on this important occasion. I happen to be a rather sad Member of a previous incarnation of this House who believes in the House of Commons. I believe that this is the centre, the fulcrum of the reported democracy, as does the hon. Member for Keighley. He is always here on these occasions. Good luck to him. So is the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot). So am I. We are all alone, but—
§ Mr. Crouch
Not quite, no. We have our supporters. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am wrong. One always exaggerates such things.
§ Mr. Crouch
Of course. A good democrat is always wrong, and I like to think that I am continually wrong in these matters. I am wrong today. But there are some hon. Members who are not here—only some—and I am sorry about that. But I am not complaining, because we live in different times.
My point this afternoon is that when we live in different times we must adjust ourselves to those times. I want to see more effective parliamentary control. I cannot take us back to Gladstone's days, when he formed the Select Committee on public accounts in 1861, and when he spoke for six hours and Disraeli spoke for only four hours—because we are limited. I know that the hon. Member for Keighley would almost deny, in his performance, that we are limited, and as we go on I might do so, although I do not want to do that.
I want to see more effective parliamentary control and not parliamentary management. What offends me most is when I hear hon. Members telling us how to run British Leyland, the British Steel Corporation or British Rail. How can they know, even though they may have worked for 20 years on the shop floor of British Leyland or have dug coal for 28 years? Unless they are actually working in those industries now, how can 960 those hon. Members tell us how best to run those industries? We must certainly have different points of view about control from the House, but not about management.
Greater consideration should be given to parliamentary investigation in Select Committees and on the Floor of the House, but I have some doubts about the 12 new Select Committees that have been appointed. I have always had doubts about the role and real intentions of the Front Benches. It is very easy to speak from these Back Benches, because one can speak one's mind. However, one can ask the two Front Benches "What are you trying to do? Are you just trying to absorb the energy of disgruntled Back Benchers and consume about 150 of them, through these new Select Committees, so that they can examine what goes on behind the scenes?" Is it the intention to shut those hon. Members upstairs in Committee rooms and leave them contained there, out of this place and off our backs? That is a question I ask.
The secret—it is an answer, not a secret, because nothing should be secret here—the answer lies in the hands of Members of Parliament. It lies with them to tell the Treasury Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench what they want to know, what they must know and what those Benches must deliver. That is what could happen. Arising out of this motion is the important question of the way in which Parliament will go over the next two decades, until the end of the century.
The public are a little tired of the two Front Benches. Six months ago I would not have said what I am about to say. It is much easier after six months to say this, and I say it not out of any antagonism for my Front Bench or for the Opposition Front Bench but because I believe that the feeling in the country at the moment is that Britain should succeed.
Much of Britain is in the hands of the Government, through State Departments, delegated authority, nationalised industries and all sorts of other bodies, such as the National Health Service. But that control emanates from the Government Front Bench, and that Front Bench is dependent upon the Opposition Front Bench to keep it up to scratch. We all 961 try to do this, but it is principally the function of the two Front Benches.
The rest of the House has a part to play. We must scrutinise and question and satisfy the electorate not about the minutiae of things but that democracy as a whole is succeeding. We must show that we as Back Benchers stand for democracy. We must continue to fight and find out, on behalf of the electorate, what is going on, sustain what is good, and attack and destroy what is bad, indifferent and incompetent. I am sure that the hon. Member for Keighley would agree with me on that.
We are out to destroy incompetence—to search it out and eradicate it. We are out to put the Government Front Bench on the mat all the time. When that happens, this place lives again. It will not live again in the back rooms on the second floor of the House of Commons. Democracy has to be brought back into the House. What may have been discovered upstairs must be brought back on to the Floor of the House. The House must be crowded, with hon. Members standing at the Bar and sitting on the Floor, determined to hear the truth because a Back Bencher, or group of Back Benchers, has been determined to find out what is wrong.
I was interested in two things that happened over recent weeks. I dared to express my opinion on one of those matters and I will express my opinion on the other this afternoon. The first matter that I was interested in is something that, together with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, I have seen develop from its birth. I refer to what is known as the National Enterprise Board. Before that organisation was introduced into this country, I think it was called the Statforestag. I am not supposed to use a Swedish name, but that is what it is; it is the name for the equivalent of our National Enterprise Board in Sweden and Finland. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston went to study that organisation at work.
Strange though it may seem to this House, I thought that the NEB was not a bad idea. It was not a bad idea to have a body appointed by the Government, agreed by Parliament, which was below the Minister, the various Secretaries of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I thought that it was a good idea to have 962 someone with devolved responsibility to see that things were carried out efficiently, effectively and profitably, or, if the enterprises concerned did not make a profit, at least they should be conducted according to their terms of reference.
There has to be realism, when a Government take over industrial enterprises, about whether they can make a profit or will have to be sustained through a difficult period. The ideal of the National Enterprise Board was a good one. I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee when Parliament first interviewed two chairmen of that body. We had our criticism that they did not give us all that we wanted to know. Their argument was that they saw the NEB as a State merchant bank, unable to tell us everything until the accounts appeared at the end of the year, because it had some confidences, some secrets.
As a Tory and a capitalist, I understood that approach. I may be wrong, and some of my hon. Friends would disagree with me, but I saw advantage in this detached, devolved body having those responsibilities and reporting to Parliament at the end of the year—rather than the chairman breathing down the neck of every company in which the NEB had invested on Parliament's behalf.
A business cannot be run with someone breathing down its neck—least of all Parliament. We are the people least equipped to manage industry. We are cloistered monks. We are able in certain degrees, but we are not in the hurly-burly of day-to-day management of industry or unions. We have other abilities. We represent people. We should operate in that way and devolve some things to others.
The other matter that concerned me was something said by the Secretary of State for Trade in the previous Government, Mr. Edmund Dell. This will produce exclamations of disgust from the Opposition Front Bench—
§ Mr. Michael Foot(Ebbw Vale) indicated assent.
§ Mr. Crouch
Mr. Dell pointed to a change. I am not so conservative as the 963 right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. We have set up 12 new Select Committees to give this place more power, but they will be any good only if we make them effective.
I began to think the other day that Mr. Dell had a point when he said that perhaps we should recruit a Cabinet of all the talents, from the widest area.
§ Mr. Rippon indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Crouch
My right hon. and learned Friend does not agree with me. Solid Members of this House do not. I do not think of myself as a solid Member, but rather as a wandering minstrel. I thought that Mr. Dell had a point. After all, societies and nations bigger than ours find the solution to the management of their affairs by not recruiting all their Ministers from their elected Parliament.
§ Mr. Crouch
No, I am not thinking of Mr. Cousins. I am thinking of the United States, for example, where the Executive is formed from outside and where Congress—Parliament—suddently comes into its own in criticising and representing the people against the Executive. Today, those on the Benches behind the Government are emasculated in their criticism, whichever party is in power, because one never knows when one might be called to that Front Bench.
This is our trouble. We do not live in the days of Fox and Pitt. We live in different days, when to sit on the Government Front Bench is financially an advantage. It was not a financial advantage in those days. They were the days of contest, when politics really meant something. Who can say that the nation is best managed today? We face enormous crises. Mr. Dell had a point. He did not say, as I might say, that we should fill the Government Front Bench completely from outside and form a United States-style Administration, with Parliament entirely as the critics of the Cabinet and the Cabinet, formed entirely from without, to be be criticised by Parliament from within.
The late Sir Winston Churchill used to say these things. He used to bring such people in, either to the House of Lords or to this House, by using parliamentary devices. He would bring in a few men 964 of talent because Parliament demanded them there to be accountable to Parliament.
This is a useful time to have had this debate. We should consider whether there is not some merit in a Ministry of all the talents. It would not diminish Parliament; it would increase Parliament's capacity and capability, and would give the opportunity to question what is done by the Government and by their nominated bodies and the nationalised industries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has done the House a service by bringing this subject before us so that we can range a little widely in considering how to improve this country's management, to its future success.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
The hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner), who has the next motion on the Order Paper, is hanging on our words, even if no one else is. I therefore assure her that I shall be happy to keep my remarks brief, to ensure that she may introduce her motion. I hope that I shall set the Financial Secretary a good example in that respect—as I hope I do, retrospectively, to those who have already spoken. I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to discuss the important matter that she wishes to raise.
So many subjects have been prompted by the motion moved by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) that it would be possible for me, and, I am sure, the Financial Secretary, to make lengthy speeches. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) has provoked us even more.
If I were to give my views in extenso on what I think of that speech of my old comrade Edmund Dell, I should detain the House for a long time. However, I can think of nothing more absurd, particularly when confronted by such a Ministry of all the talents as we have at the moment, than to think of displacing them to shove in some third-rate business men. Come to think of it, most of the third-rate business men are in the Government already, so far as I know, so we do not need any more.
As for bringing in these people from outside to solve all our problems, that was tried by Sir Winston Churchill but the 965 experiment was not altogether a success. Some of us thought at the time that the list of names of those great pillars of industry read, as someone said like a satire on all government.
Very soon it was proved that, despite all its demerits, this House of Commons has a virtue in being able to choose the elected Government. Certainly the course suggested would be a grave departure from that elected spirit. I therefore hope that the suggestion will be rejected—not merely because it has been recommended by the hon. Member for Canterbury but for other sufficient reasons as well.
The hon. Member also said that he was not a 100 per cent. enthusiast for the Select Committees that have been appointed. I cannot disguise the fact that my enthusiasm for them has been restrained over a considerable period. The House, however, has taken the decision, and I do not wish to say anything further that might prejudice the successful operation of those Committees.
However, I believe that it was right for the hon. Member for Canterbury to remind the House once again that it is access to this Chamber that is the central feature of this Parliament. It is access to this Chamber that is the essential democratic ingredient that makes it fuction. It is access to this Chamber that can be injured by the establishment of some of these forms of Committee, and it is that access that we wish to protect. I believe that the House has made a mistake in that direction, but the magnetic power and strength of that central feature of the House of Commons should be sufficient to overcome even the recent mistakes that were made, against my advice.
I wish to refer to another aspect of the matter, which was not directly touched on by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe. It is true that his motion referred especially to the control of public bodies—I fully understand that—but it also refers to the control of the Executive as a whole. There are more dangerous ways in which the Executive can arrogate to itself excessive powers than by dispensing them to public bodies like nationalised industries or by providing insufficient or improper control over nationalised bodies, and there is a more direct way.
966 When I saw the hon. Gentleman's motion on the Order Paper, I thought for one moment that he was referring to the most recent and palpable example of the attempt by this Executive to try to interfere with the rights of this House and its control over the Executive. The matter was referred to in The Times today by its excellent reporter Mr. George Clark, who reports on what happened in the Cabinet the other day. He said:In the end Lord Soames and Lord Carrington found themselves in what is described as 'a large minority', and the change of plan was announced. But ministers in the Lords are insisting that the Cabinet must take a tougher line on this issue.The headline over the story isAnger at lack of work in the Lords".I am sure that we are all touched by that spectacle. John Milton described the scene asThe hungry sheep look up and are not fed".We wish to ensure that they get a square meal, but later on in the Session and not immediately. If the question of giving a square meal to Members of the House of Lords had been the primary consideration, it would have gravely interfered with the rights of this House of Commons, and I am glad to say that on this occasion the House of Commons asserted itself and we established an important principle.
The question whether Bills are introduced here or in another place directly affects control over the Executive in many different ways, and I should like to indicate them briefly. I promise the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham that I shall be brief.
If the practice of introducing large numbers of Bills, particularly controversial Bills, into another place were to grow, the balance between the two Chambers would be seriously altered—and I am glad to have the support of the Treasury here. I am sure that the Chief Secretary speaks for the entire Treasury in these matters. It would also seriously alter the way in which the other place operates as between the two parties. The opportunity of first introducing controversial legislation into the other place does not arise in the case of a Labour Government. If a Labour Government sought to introduce a highly controversial Bill, such as on trade union reform, into another place, it would be 967 mangled before it got here, because the Tory Party have a permanent majority there.
§ The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Biffen)
Why does the right hon. Gentleman spoil a good case? Surely, he will recollect that the Scottish Development Agency Bill, which was far from being uncontroversial, was introduced by the Labour Government in the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Foot
The principle of the matter had already been dealt with in the establishment of the National Enterprise Board. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman can in any sense compare that with the monster measure referred to by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). On one occasion I think that he said that it was five Bills in one. On the next it was 10 Bills in one, and perhaps it is 18 Bills in one.
§ Mr. Foot
Five is good enough to be going on with. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has already told us that he likes it in parts, but we shall have to wait a little longer to see which parts he likes. He has told us a few parts that he intends to deal with when the opportunity arises.
Returning to the point that seems to anger the Chief Secretary, if a Bill of that controversial scale had been introduced by a Labour Government, it would have been mangled, mutilated or transformed—whatever one calls it—before it reached this House. Therefore, that method of legislation for a controversial Bills is not open to a Labour Government. However, if that method of legislation were invoked by this Government it would alter the arrangements and understanding of what measures should be introduced in another place. There again, I am glad to say that this is not a controversial question, and I put the right hon. Gentleman's mind at rest at once.
When we strongly urged that the Government should not proceed to arrogate fresh powers to the Executive by introducing such measures into the House of Lords, we took account of the recommendations made to this House by the 968 Procedure Committee which had been set up to look at the matter and which sat in 1970. The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who sometimes seeks to enlighten the House on these matters, suggested at Question Time the other day that there was a good foundation for proceeding in the way that the Government originally proposed. I am sure that he will find that he is mistaken when he looks at the facts. The Procedure Committee looked at the matter in 1970–71 and made recommendations to the House, which were discussed.
Sir Robin Turton—Lord Tranmire as he now is—a highly respected Member of the House, was Chairman of that Committee. He made it clearthat minor Bills, even if they have a financial aspect, could be introduced into the House of Lords in November and December in order to ease the work throughout the Session."—[Official Report, 16 November 1971: Vol. 826, c. 372.]He was talking of minor Bills. He never dreamt of doing it to any other kind of Bills.
On the evidence of the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham, no one can possibly describe that Local Government, Planning and Land Bill as a minor Bill. It is not even a minor single Bill. On the figure given by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, it is five major Bills.
To take the matter further, in the same discussion of the Procedure Committee there was a remarkable speech by the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Home Secretary and who was at that time the Leader of the House, dealing with exactly that question. It was a very good speech. I have it almost by heart, but I shall read it to the House because I do not want to make any mistake.My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West referred to privilege and the House of Lords.—the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) was his right hon. Friend in those days—My personal experience has led me to believe that this could be a helpful proposal, without in any way detracting from the privileges of the House—that is this House.
He went on:I am absolutely firm969 —when the Home Secretary says that he is absolutely firm about something, we know he is really giving his mind to it—in my view that there are many Bills, the vast majority, which by their very nature, political or, of course, financial, must start in this House. There can be no question of that.That disposes of any suggestion that there was any quarrel or argument in the Cabinet, particularly of a Government of all the talens, in which its members were seeking to look at these matters fairly.
He went on:They must start in this House and they do. No Government would ever suggest that they should not."—[Official Report, 16 November 1971; Vol. 826, c. 375.]The idea that such a Bill should ever have been introduced in another place was pure fantasy in the minds of the Opposition. No such proposition had ever been put before such a far-seeing Cabinet as we now have. It was a clerical error, or perhaps the printers in the House made a mistake, put on a wrong name and and sent it to the House of Lords in error. At any rate, we are glad that the minor clerical error has been discovered. We are glad that we are able to keep the Home Secretary to his word. We are glad that the Cabinet, as I am sure the Financial Secretary will confirm, did not spend a single second discussing this matter. It is as determined as the Home Secretary was in 1971 that we should not have this fundamental contravention of the spirit of our constitution, which would be the case if highly controversial measures were ever introduced into another place first. If that were to happen, it would be a real threat to the control of this House over the Executive. I hope, therefore, that the Government are not dreaming of returning to any such proposition.
I end where I began, by thanking the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe for raising this matter and enabling me to introduce this highly topical aspect of the subject that he raised.
§ The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Nigel Lawson)
I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it will not be out of order if I address myself to the motion. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) 970 on having moved the motion. My hon. Friend has given sterling service to the House as a member of the Public Accounts Committee over a long period. It is correct to say, I believe, that he is the longest serving member of the Committee and that he has not missed a single meeting, which is a remarkable record. His assiduity and record of attendance at the Public Accounts Committee and at debates is a lesson to many hon. Members on both sides, including many who are not present for this debate.
The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) made an interesting excursion. We all recall—indeed, no one will ever forget—how he demonstrated his belief in the importance of parliamentary scrutiny by becoming the first Leader of the House to introduce five guillotine motions in a single day.
I was sorry, in one way, that the right hon. Gentleman curtailed his speech. Had he not curtailed his remarks, he might have been able to inform the House—the House was agog to hear—whether he agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer). I heard the right hon. Gentleman, in a sedentary intervention, commend his hon. Friend for his speech after his hon. Friend sat down. We would have liked to hear whether he agreed with his hon. Friend that members of the Cabinet, if there should be a Labour Cabinet at any future date, should be elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party. I was surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not address himself to that important constitutional point. There is still time for him to tell the House where he stands. Evidently he is unusually reticent and shy about expressing his view on what is, constitutionally, a matter of the first importance.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this system, suitably modified, has been operating successfully in Australia for many years? The actual allocation of portfolios is the job of the Prime Minister, but the question who will constitute the Cabinet is a matter of election. It has proved very successful.
§ Mr. Lawson
I have a great respect for the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), but on this occasion I was rather more interested in the 971 opinion of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale.
A number of searching contributions were made to the debate from both sides of the House. In the interests of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner), I will skate over them briefly. I hope that those who spoke will not feel that this involves any discourtesy on my part, but my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham has been waiting patiently and should be given some time to deploy the arguments in favour of her motion.
I would only say that when the hon. Member for Keighley, who made, I think, the longest contribution to the debate, inveighed at length about the present constitution and about the elective dictatorship that he saw—the hon. Gentleman quoted the phrase of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor—I wondered what he proposed as a means of reducing and constraining the unfettered power of the parliamentary majority, for the time being, in the House of Commons. He proposed nothing at all. All that he is known to advocate is the abolition of the House of Lords. That would make the elective dictatorship more of a dictatorship. It is strange that the hon. Gentleman was a member of a Government who had an opportunity to grapple with this problem, if they so wished, but did absolutely nothing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) took a very different view. He thought that, far from members of the Cabinet being elected by Members of this House, its members should not even be appointed from members of this House but should be appointed exclusively from the good and the great outside the House. I thought that the analogy that my hon. Friend drew with the American constitution betrayed a slight misreading of the nature of that constitution. It is very different from ours. I would not draw any conclusions from that.
Other hon. Members, notably my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), spoke a great deal about the problem of the relationship between the House of Commons, Parliament and the trade unions. I would like to deal with this at a little length. It was a central theme running through 972 the remarks of the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) and others.
It was pointed out that Supply days were not devoted to debating Supply. I share some of those feelings. But this is a matter for the Opposition. The Opposition can choose what they wish to debate on a Supply day. They can choose to debate Supply if they so desire. An opportunity for some recovery of the loss to this House of proper debating of Supply, a loss I have always deplored, occurs now that Estimates have been put on a cash limits basis. Votes on Estimates, particularly Supplementary Estimates, will have a real meaning, which they have lacked for a long time in an inflationary age.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has provoked a most interesting debate. It is perhaps strange for a Treasury Minister to be replying to a debate covering so many wide subjects. The Treasury is, however, accustomed to covering a wide range of matters. There is not much that goes on in the Government in which the Treasury does not have some interest. My hon. Friend has presented me with a challenge. The subject relates essentially to the way we—Ministers, Members of Parliament and civil servants—should do our work. I cannot give my hon. Friend an authoritative reply. Every Minister and every hon. Member will have his own perspective on the issues he has raised.
As I understand my hon. Friend's themes, they are basically Ministers' difficulty in controlling the detailed operations of their Departments and in responding to parliamentary questions and the other activities of hon. Members, and the differences between the frameworks of supervision and accountability with which businesses on the one hand and Government on the other have to work. My hon. Friend also referred, more briefly, to the special position of businesses in the public sector, which are subject to layers of supervision by Government agencies, Departments, Ministers and Select Committees.
On my hon. Friend's broadest theme, I do not have much that is new to say. We all appreciate the difficulty facing Ministers in having to be willing to respond to questions about the minutiae of their Departments—minutiae about which 973 they may know very little until they brief themselves shortly before dealing with the question that they have to answer. But I think that we just have to live with this—with the fact that the Government are different from business. People expect the Government to be accountable and responsible in ways that businesses could not and should not match.
People elect Members to whom they look both to change the framework within which certain operations of government are carried out and to ensure that all those operations are run in a way that is properly responsive to the needs of individual citizens. Ministers, for their part, must be responsible to Parliament both for the general policies pursued by the Departments and for the detailed execution of those policies. It is inevitable that the task of government becomes more complex as industrial life becomes more complex. But this most definitely does not mean that we should not be constantly alert to the possibility of reducing the complexity of the task of government.
In general, there is far too much government, and people expect far too much from the Government. I think that we can say that this Government are doing far more than any Government since the war to cut down the extent of Government interference in areas where responsibilities are best discharged by the people directly involved. This should eventually mean—and this should satisfy my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham—less legislation rather than more.
§ Mr. Rippon
Can my hon. Friend give the assurance—because there may be some misunderstanding as a result of the speech of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot)—that the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill will be introduced into this House?
§ Mr. Lawson
Yes, Sir; I can give my right hon. and learned Friend that assurance.
Alongside the general theme of the importance of individual responsibility, clearly expressed in our economic policy, are the Government's own efforts to make their operations more efficient and less burdensome. I should like briefly to say something about that, particularly in the 974 context of improving the workings of the nationalised industries, which are mentioned in the motion and to which my hon. Friend devoted a fair amount of his contribution, and about which other hon. Members have also spoken. I should like also to say something about the contribution of the House through the long-established Public Accounts Committee and the new departmental Select Committees.
The Government's approach to the nationalised industries is based in general on the view that efficiency will be increased by provoking competition wherever possible, by moving industries into the private sector, by introducing private capital into them, and by reviewing the extent of monopoly powers. The House will be aware of the legislation that we are proposing concerning the introduction of private capital into British Airways, British Aerospace and the National Freight Corporation, and of the review announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry of the telecommunications monopoly.
Those measures, and others that may result from the current review that Ministers are making of policy, will reduce the extent of public sector monopolies. That itself diminishes to some extent the difficult and acute problem of accountability for those industries that remain in the public sector. Nevertheless, that problem remains, because industries remain, and will remain, in the public sector. Those industries have a privileged position in a number of respects. It is important that they should be seen to be exercising those privileges responsibly. That is why the Government have included in the Competition Bill provisions for scrutiny by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission of the efficiency and performance of the industries.
In addition, the House has recently set up the new structure of departmentally related Select Committees, to which my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have referred. Those Committees will examine the industries sponsored by the Departments with which they deal.
There is no doubt—here I agree with my hon. Friend—that the accountability of the nationalised industries is a complex and difficult matter. I do not think that since the nationalised industries came 975 into being any Government or Parliament have satisfactorily got this relationship on a sensible footing. It is extremely difficult. It may be a problem that can never be solved, which is another reason for having as few industries as possible in the nationalised sector.
I have outlined the objectives that must be reconciled. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the developments that I have described—briefly, because of the constraint of time—represent a useful step towards those objectives.
There are 12 departmentally related Select Committees—the new Committees that the House recently established—covering the work of all the principal Government Departments and associated bodies. This is the first time that this has happened. How the Committees will work out in practice remains to be seen. But there can be no doubt that potentially they represent a major extension of Parliament's power to create an effective system of scrutiny over the activities of the Executive. Certainly, that is what the House thought when it gave its approval to the setting up of the Committees.
I noted the scepticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, but, as he rightly pointed out, at the end of the day it is up to hon. Members themselves to make sure that the Committees work and do a good job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe referred in particular to the need for the Committees to avoid getting bogged down in electioneering politics. I agree. Certainly, it is one of the traditional strengths of Select Committees that they tend to develop a corporateethos of their own. The Public Accounts Committee is a classic example. I very much hope that the new Committees will follow this tradition and avoid the extremes to which my hon. Friend refers. Again, it remains to be seen; it is up to the hon. Members concerned.
It will be for the Select Committees themselves—that means the hon. Members who serve on them—to decide within their terms of reference what will be their subjects of inquiry. I have no doubt that they will want to consider a number of aspects of public administration, many of them aspects to which my hon. Friend refers in his motion, including the need for economy in administration.
976 I agree with my hon. Friend, too, that the Committees would do well to examine from time to time whether the collection of particular departmental data is really necessary and that they should not simply content themselves with asking for ever more data of a kind that does absolutely nothing to improve the quality of parliamentary scrutiny or parliamentary control but whose only effect is to add to the burden on Departments.
As for the specific question of the Select Committee structure in relation to the scrutiny of the nationalised industries, to which my hon. Friend referred—a change that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury lamented—the House will recall that the Procedure Committee recommended in its report that the work previously done by the Select Committee on nationalised industries should be undertaken in future by the appropriate departmental Committees. It further recommended, however, that a Joint Sub-Committee representing the Select Committees most concerned should be set up to consider common problems affecting the nationalised industries. The House agreed on 25 June provisions which would enable such a Sub-Committee to be established. The new Select Committee concerned will no doubt now wish to follow up this proposal and perhaps re-create to some extent the Select Committee on nationalised industries in that way.
I turn to the Public Accounts Committee, particularly because my hon. Friend has given such distinguished service to it. I suspect that a great deal of his concern, and a great deal of the concern that led him to choose this motion when he was so fortunate as to come first in the ballot, derived from his membership of that Committee, his experience there and what he had learnt from it.
The PAC is the opposite of the new Select Committees. It is the oldest of our Select Committees and is a monument to Mr. Gladstone. I say that even though no Liberal hon. Member has condescended to honour us with his presence during this debate.
It is sometimes suggested that a weakness of the PAC is that it exercises its control only once the money has been spent and that that is too late. The 977 horse has bolted before the stable door is locked. That is true in a literal sense, but to my mind it does not properly reflect the nature of the role of the PAC or of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Not only does it ignore the valuable work of the PAC in drawing conclusions from its examinations of Departments and establishing precedents and the guidelines that have a real bearing on, and contribute to, the quality of the whole of the Government's management of public expenditure. The accumulated wisdom of more than a century of such activity now fills two thick volumes, appropriately entitled "Epitome of PAC Reports". I have not read it but I am sure it is part of the bedside reading of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. It also overlooks the essential feature of the whole framework of parliamentary control, which is that the control must be based firmly on the principle of appropriation.
Ministerial accountability to Parliament for voted funds must be designed, first and foremost, to demonstrate that the systems of financial control operated by Departments are efficient, that financial transactions have been correctly authorised and accounted for, and that expenditure has been incurred on approved services and in accordance with the statutory and other regulations and authorities governing them—in other words, in accordance with what has been decided and determined by this House.
I have spoken at some length about the activities of the PAC and of the Comptroller and Auditor General in order to demonstrate the importance that this Government attach to this aspect of parliamentary control of the Executive. The House will also recall that in June my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced that the Government were continuing the review, initiated by 978 the previous Administration, of the Exchequer and Audit Acts which form the legislation that established the office of Comptroller and Auditor General and set up his Department.
The provisions of those Acts, which in their essentials are more than a century old, remain valid and, indeed, observed, but it is sometimes difficult to relate them and their underlying assumptions directly to the way in which the Government manage and account for public spending nowadays, or to the work of a modern national audit office. I do not wish to anticipate the conclusions of the review, either in general or in relation to particular aspects of the Comptroller and Auditor General. but I can tell the House that good progress is being made with it.
I do not suppose that I shall have satisfied my hon. Friend on every point. I have tried to address myself to most of the points that he raised in a very thoughtful speech. I hope that I have shown that the Government are aware of the problems to which he addressed himself. I hope, further, that he will agree—in the light of what I have been able to say today—that all is not lost and that there is no need for a further review, over and above what I have described, of arrangements for supervising the activities of the Executive, the nationalised industries and other public bodies. There may be a need for vigilance, but there is no need for a further review. In this spirit, I invite him to ask leave to withdraw his motion.
§ Mr. Costain
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. In deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner), who has been extremely patient, and because I know she has done a lot of work on the motion she has tabled, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.