HL Deb 22 March 1934 vol 91 cc398-403

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Viscount Gage.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF ONSLOW in the Chair.]

Clause 1:

Government contributions towards expenses of local authorities for rural water supply.

(4) The Minister may withhold, or reduce the amount of, a contribution which he has undertaken to make towards the expenses to be incurred by a local authority in respect of any works or transaction, if it appears to him either— (a) that any of the works have been executed in an unsatisfactory manner; or

LORD MOUNT TEMPLE moved, in paragraph (a) of subsection (4), after "executed," to insert "by direct labour." The noble Lord said: The Amendment which I move is not intended in any way to challenge the principle of the Bill, which was affirmed the other day on Second Reading, but my object is simply to ask for some information from the Government as to the position of local authorities under this measure. The Bill proposes that the Government, that is to say, the Minister of Health, should be empowered to spend up to £1,000,000 in improving water supplies in rural areas. I am sure we all welcome such a measure, as the drought of the last six months has abundantly proved that in many localities the inhabitants are miserably served with water, and in some cases have to go without water at all unless it is carried from a very long way off.

I think, however, that if you will look at the text of the Bill your Lordships will see that it is extremely doubtful, if the Minister of Health interprets his powers at all strictly, whether more than a small proportion of the £1,000,000 will be spent, because, quite properly, it is a permissive Bill. The Minister of Health "may," when the district council and the country council come together, give a grant in aid, or so much a year, towards the expenses of a scheme. Then, if he has made up his mind that he will try and do something, he is faced with Treasury Regulations and, as your Lordships all know, Treasury Regulations are not easy to get round. They generally safeguard the taxpayer in the most rigorous way, and put a strong limit upon any excessive expenditure or extravagance. I do not challenge those two principles, but I would ask your Lordships to turn to page 2 of the Bill, paragraph (a) of subsection (4), where you will see that: The Minister may withhold, or reduce the amount of, a contribution which he has undertaken to make towards the expenses to be incurred by a local authority in respect of any works or transaction, if it appears to him either— (a) that any of the works have been executed in an unsatisfactory manner….

He may withhold all or part of the money which he has promised to give if any of the works have been executed—that is to say, under the auspices of the local authorities—in an unsatisfactory manner.

I have put down an Amendment to insert, after the word "executed", the words "by direct labour." I will explain my reason for doing so. If a local authority chooses, and many will no doubt choose, to carry out their new works to improve the supply of water by direct labour, and they bungle the work, or in any way do not carry out the work in the most efficient and economical way, then I concede that the Minister of Health would be quite justified in withholding either all or part of his contribution. He would say: "You have not carried out the work as you said you would carry it out." I think it is very different, however, where the work is carried out under contract, and I suppose there is no doubt that the majority of such works will be so carried out. What will have happened? The local authorities, the county council and the district council, will have approached the Minister of Health, and the Minister of Health will, of course, have asked for particulars. He will have gone very carefully into the scheme, and, what is more, unless he did not carry out his duties properly, will have satisfied himself generally that the contractor whom the local authorities proposed to employ was a man of experience and financial stability, and a man who, owing to his past good work or because of his references, would be expected to carry out the works in an efficient and expeditious manner. Therefore I submit to your Lordships that the Minister of Health in those cases is a partner, practically, with the local authorities, because if he is not a partner with the local authorities he ought not to promise to advance the money, and he must be a partner if he has carried out his duties by assuring himself, as far as he can, that the contractor is a reliable man.

Yet under the Bill, if things go wrong, it is the local authority who is to shoulder the whole of the burden, and the Minister is free to say: "The bargain is off and I will not contribute anything." It is a matter of importance from two aspects. If that idea gets into the heads of the local authorities, is it likely to help them in carrying out the work of improving our water supplies in rural areas? And is it consistent with the plighted word of a Government Department to local authorities, that such a thing should be possible? I await with interest what the noble Viscount in charge of the Bill may say. He may say we do not intend to use this power; that it is only a useful weapon in case of unforeseen occurrences. If he says that, I should reply that it is better not to put anything in the Bill which you are not prepared and are not likely to use. It would be much more fair to say that having gone into partnership with the local authorities you are going to share the burden, and not to leave lurking in their minds the idea that if, for instance, a contractor has gone bankrupt the local authorities will be left to shoulder the whole burden while the taxpayer gets off lightly. I hope that the noble Viscount will be able to state on behalf of the Minister of Health that he is most anxious to work in cordial co-operation with the local authorities, and that this particular power given him in the Bill will only be used in the most extreme and unforeseen circumstances.

Amendment, moved— Page 2, line 14, after ("executed") insert ("by direct labour").—(Lord Mount Temple.)


My right honourable friend has considered this suggestion very carefully—


Do you mean the Minister?


Yes; and I think he fully appreciates the motives which have led the noble Lord to put down this Amendment. We can assure the noble Lord that it is not with the slightest intention of exercising this power otherwise than in a perfectly sympathetic spirit that the clause was drawn as it is. The noble Lord says, and I think quite rightly, that the work will usually be done by contract. It will be to the advantage of the local authority in most cases that it should be done by contract, and the Ministry will do what it reasonably can to make sure that contracts are made with persons who are likely satisfactorily to carry out the work. But I do not think it is practicable, as the noble Lord himself may well realise, for the Ministry in every case to have a, detailed knowledge of each contractor. And even when all care has been taken about the contractor himself, I do not think it can be expected that the responsibility of the local authority will stop there. It is obviously their duty to take reasonable care that the work is executed properly. They should do this through competent officials—surveyors, or possibly even special clerks of the works.

I may also add that, as the noble Lord knows much better than I do, it is quite a common thing, as I understand, to put into contracts a penalty clause whereby the contractor is compelled, if there is any default in the actual execution of the works, to put that right. I agree, of course, that if a contractor goes bankrupt there is not much help for the local authority there, but it is nevertheless quite a common clause, as I think the noble Lord will agree. Surely the Ministry must have some protection to meet the case where the local authority seriously neglects its duty, and I think that the noble Lord himself will agree that if there had been serious neglect, with the result that the work was very unsatisfactory, it would not be right for the local authority to get off without any penalty.


If I may interrupt the noble Viscount, surely Clause 1, subsection (4) (b), would meet that particular case of neglect, would it not? However, I will not press it.


I do not think the noble Lord made that point in his speech.


No, I did not.


I have not considered the matter. It may be as the noble Lord said, but my instructions are, as I understand, that it does not. I do not think it is practicable for the Ministry to make sure in the hundreds of cases all up and down the country with which they will have to deal that the work is being satisfactorily carried out, because it would mean a very large number of additional inspectors, the nature of the work being such that it can be properly examined only while in progress. But I can assure the noble Lord that it is the aim of the Ministry to deal with any difficulties or questions which may come before them with the fullest appreciation of their position and in the most sympathetic spirit. After all, it is the hope and intention of my right honourable friend to move forward with this question of rural water supplies, and it will surely be the most efficient way of doing that if a proper co-operative spirit develops between the local authorities and himself. I hope the noble Lord will he satisfied with what I have said.


I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment.