HL Deb 04 March 1954 vol 186 cc149-55

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, this draft Order, for which I have to ask for an Affirmative Resolution, has a very simple object: it is to enable the gas industry to receive grants to help pay for certain steps to be taken against dislocation by enemy action. It also has a very complicated legislative parentage, and this I will deal with first. In 1939 we passed a Civil Defence Act, and this enabled the Minister to call for reports from and to give grants to public utilities for civil defence work. In 1945 we passed an Act suspending that Act. In 1948 the shadow was once more upon us, and we passed the Civil Defence Act, 1948. This Act of 1948 allowed the Minister to revive any provisions of the 1939 Act by regulation and amend them to fit in with modern conditions. In the regulations before us, the Minister revives powers given under Part V of the Act of 1939 to call for reports from gas boards and to give them instructions to ensure their due functioning in an emergency.

So much for the legislative origin. What of the objects? They are, briefly, to subsidise the carrying out of certain precautionary work falling into two broad categories: first, the installation of valves for the isolation of gas mains; and secondly, the purchase for stockpile of various engineering stores, such as pumps and the like. The financial arrangements are that the Minister may make grants up to 52¾ per cent. of the cost. In the 1939 Act, the grant was 50 per cent., and this rather peculiar new figure springs from a fairly simple calculation. If there were no grant and the gas boards spent money on these thing;, they would obtain relief ultimately by annual instalments as a depreciation allowance against their profits; and over the period of life of the asset the gas board would avoid being taxed on an amount of money equal to the cost of the asset. When the rate of grant was under discussion with the Treasury, the income tax rate plus the profits tax rate on undistributed profits represented. when combined, a rate of 52¾ per cent.—hence this rather peculiar figure. It seemed better, in principle, to make a once-for-all grant with the condition that future depreciation allowances could not be claimed, rather than let the industry finance its own work and get some reimbursement over the years for depreciation.

Having regard to the 50 per cent. grant in 1939, it would have been impossible to secure the co-operation of the industry in any other way; so one can see how the formula for the grant was based on the rate of taxation at the date of the discussions. Taxation is a little lower now, but we do not intend to alter the rate of grant through, of course, we cannot bind ourselves into the ultimate future. I must emphasise here that the balance of 47¼ per cent, falls on the ordinary surplus of the industry. Work has been proceeding in anticipation of reimbursement, and for that reason we are anxious to get these regulations approved before the end of this financial year. The regulations have been considered by the Special Orders Committee. who found that there was nothing exceptional in them, and I ask your Lordships to pass the Affirmative Resolution. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Civil Defence (Gas Undertakers) Regulations, 1954, reported from the Special Orders Committee on Wednesday, the 24th of February last, be approved.—(Lord Hawke.)


My Lords, I think it is quite clear that these regulations are necessary, but I suggest that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, ought to have admitted that these regulations and those we shall discuss afterwards have been brought in very largely as a result of a Report of the Select Committee on Estimates in another place, which expressed itself as being very perturbed by the neglect of the appropriate Departments to bring in regulations ensuring appropriate civil defence precautions. As I understand it, the Civil Defence Act, 1948, authorised various Government Departments to bring in regulations. That was five years ago, and there has been neglect or delay in bringing in the regulations until this present time. I think Lord Hawke might have made it clear that the Government Departments concerned have had to be encouraged or, if I may use a vulgarism, "gingered up" to do what they should have done a long time ago. I think both the last Government and the present Government are responsible, but it is a matter for comment that these steps have not been taken previously.

The particular Order before your Lordships is one which provides for the Minister of Fuel and Power to: serve a notice in writing … requiring … a report … stating what measures had been taken by gas undertakings to: secure the due functioning of their undertaking in the event of hostile attack, and, secondly, empowers the Minister of Fuel and Power to direct a gas undertaking: to take such measures as may be so specified to secure the due functioning of their undertaking in the event of hostile attack. I should have thought that the regulation might have been drawn in the reverse form; that is to say, that, first, the undertaking might have been directed to take certain measures, and secondly, to report as to what action had been taken on that direction. But, presumably for some reason, the regulation is drawn in the form now before your Lordships.

I notice that there are penalties apparently upon a board if the board within a reasonable period does not comply with the notice requiring it to make a report stating what measures have been taken. It is rather a curious position that the court should be enabled to impose a penalty upon public undertakings of this kind. I suppose it is only another way of saying that the taxpayer, in the last resort at any rate, is compelled to pay any penalty which may be imposed. Nothing is said about any penalty upon the officers of the appropriate undertaking. I recollect a case in my own part of Yorkshire whereby, under another provision. officers of a board (in that case it was the electricity board) were apparently made responsible for a breach of the regulations. It was provided that certain expenditure should not be incurred without the authority of the appropriate Department. I do not recollect that any penalty was imposed upon the authority in that case, but a very severe penalty, to which some of us took great exception, was imposed upon the officer concerned, the manager of the undertaking, who, if I remember rightly, was sentenced to six months' imprisonment. I am not suggesting for a moment that these regulations should contain a provision of that sort, but it is a matter of comment that in one regulation, apparently, penalties can be imposed upon the officers of these public undertakings which may have severe results so far as the individual is concerned. In this particular regulation, however, the penalty is apparently to be imposed upon the undertaking itself, presumably by way of a fine or something of that sort.

Quite clearly, these regulations are necessary in respect of both gas undertakings and the various other bodies which are to be dealt with this afternoon. We can only express satisfaction that the Government, at long last, are taking some steps to ensure the due functioning of the undertakings in the event of hostile attack. One may hope that the fact that they have done so may help towards the provision of whatever is necessary to enable that position to be achieved. It is clear why the gas undertakings have not taken these steps hitherto. The reason is that the Government Departments concerned have not made any provision for reimbursement. Now that the provision for reimbursement is made, it is up to the gas undertakings to take the necessary steps. One can only hope that they will take them quickly and that our various public undertakings may be put in a position to ensure their due functioning in the case of attack. My noble friends and I, of course, raise no objection to the regulations. We would only comment that it is regrettable that these steps have not been taken before to-day.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords. during the eight years that I have been a Member of this House, one thing I have noticed is the meticulous care with which

this House endeavours to protect the public by seeing that, in this case, the Queen's regulations or statutory regulations are observed, not only in the spirit but in the letter. I rise not to make any Party capital of this point, except to remark that, speaking from the Benches of the second largest Party in this House, I feel that the Liberal Benches should be crowded, because the Liberals make numberless speeches in the country to the effect that they are the true custodians of the liberties of the people. I join forces with the Party opposite in that we endeavour to do our humble best, notwithstanding the Liberals, to see that these regulations are examined meticulously in Committee.

My noble friend who has just spoken did not tell us where the money was coming from, but some of us can think hack to the time in 1948 when the Act was passed. We had rather sore hearts but not sore heads;. we should have had sore heads if we had taken it. in the proper spirit, because there were millions of pounds taken into the national "kitty." My own gas authority, and also, I have no doubt, that of the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, had rather a goodly sum which, with good Yorkshire thrift, they had put away, and this went in order to subsidise the people of the South who indulge in "squandermania" more than we do up North. But my real point is not to talk about "squandermania"; it is to congratulate even the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, on coming to the stool of repentance and frankly admitting that he has been remiss all the time he has been a Lord in Waiting. Now, we hope that other Orders will receive not only his scrutiny but also that of the collection of junior Ministers, of whom I am so proud, who try to carry out their duties effectually.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I rise not to express any opposition to this Motion but to suggest that we should have a different procedure with regard to considering these Civil Defence Motions which are on the Order Paper. In case of war, civil defence is the fourth arm of the Services—an important arm indeed, and in a future war it will be even more important than it has ever been before. I think that we ought to have something like a Second Reading debate on the question of civil defence. It is a very complicated matter. I was deeply immersed in it before and at the beginning of the last war, when I was one of the instructors in London and the areas around London, and I feel that a great many people do not pay sufficient attention to civil defence and its great importance. In the future there will be a greater divorce between civil defence and the fighting services, and I suggest to the. noble Lord, Lord Hawke, that the Government should give serious consideration to providing an opportunity for a Second Reading debate on the importance and significance of civil defence.

4.21 p.m.


My Lords, by leave of the House I should like to reply to the points that have been raised. First of all, if the noble Lord, Lord Haden-Guest, wishes to put down a Motion on the wider aspects of civil defence, I feel certain that it will receive a welcome from every part of the House. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Calverley, for the kind words he said about me. I did not wish to cause the Liberal Party any embarrassment by calling attention to their absence as he did. I feel certain that they must all be engaged on some important function at this moment. I agree with the noble Lord that one of the functions of this House is to scrutinise all aspects of legislation, and that we endeavour to do our duty in that respect. I will leave to the end of my remarks the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, regarding delay, as it is the longest point In connection with the penalties, I think that the noble Lord has overlooked a point. This Order revives Section 78 of the 1939 Act. which makes directors responsible. The purport of that section is that, where a director of an undertaking can be proved to have had knowledge of the fact that an offence was committed, then it can be brought home to him personally. With regard to the point about delay, I do not think the noble Lord is correct in saying that the production of these Orders is the result of the Report of the Select Committee. I should prefer to describe as a coincidence. Undoubtedly, the various activities that were going on before these Orders could be laid had been going on for some time, and they were bound to come to the House in due fruition. I would not accept the fact that the Report of the Select Committee did anything really to hasten them.

As the noble Lord has pointed out, there have been considerable legal and financial difficulties behind the placing of these regulations. Moreover, civil defence has not been of the top priority in our defence. I do not think the House would wish me to read it in full, but my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, in replying to the Select Committee, has made these particular points: that the first priority was means to strike the enemy, and that civil defence was not of quite the same order of priority. He then goes on to admit, however, that there has been delay in settling the financial arrangements. I am glad to say that that has not been appreciably instrumental in causing delay to the works to be carried out, because until the financial year 1953–54, which is just closing, it has not been possible to get in the supplies which were needed. The orders could be placed, but the engineering plant has been extremely difficult to get. Moreover, the resources of industry were, in most cases, required in order to secure stores for the normal day-to-day functioning of the industry. All these public utilities had arrears of maintenance to make up, and the mere making up of those arrears of maintenance was in itself a contribution towards civil defence.

Nevertheless, a certain amount of work has been done. I mentioned that, in anticipation of sanction, some works have been done. The estimated grant for 1953–54 for the gas industry was one of £250,000, and in actual works this year approximately £300,000 is expected to be spent. Of course, 52¾ per cent. of that is grant, and the reason that the full amount has not been spent has been that as regards the stockpiling part the material has just not come forward. Now that there has been more time for the flow to start, we anticipate that during the next financial year orders will be fulfilled more quickly. My Lords, I hope I have answered the specific points raised by your Lordships and that you will give this Order an Affirmative Resolution.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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