§ 11.22 a.m.
§ Brought from the Commons yesterday and printed pursuant to Standing Order No. 45; read 1a.
§ Then, Standing Order No. 41 having been suspended (pursuant to the Resoluof August 1):
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. On August 3 we had a full debate on all aspects of prices and incomes, and we were able to take into account the various White Papers, and also the main details of the Bill which is now before the House. I think it was generally agreed that we should take the Second Reading today very shortly, leaving discussion of all the main aspects of the Bill to the Committee stage. The number and character of the Amendments indicate that full opportunities will arise.
Perhaps, without causing embarrassment, I may be allowed to express appreciation of noble Lords having tabled their Amendments so promptly. This will enable us, I hope and believe, to have an adequate Committee stage. We in the Government are always anxious, as I think the House is aware, to provide full opportunities for discussion, and we all, on this side of the House and I think elsewhere, are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, for the tribute he paid to my noble friend 1766 Lord Shepherd the other day, which was most gracefully delivered and gratefully received. I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Shepherd would wish to share that tribute with other sections of that mysterious body known as "the usual channels".
The House will also be very greatly indebted for the skill and devotion of the printers, who have achieved a print of a Bill which only passed the House of Commons at 10 p.m. last night, together with a Marshalled List of Amendments. Without their skill and energy, which we are rather apt perhaps to take for granted, we should not be in a position to consider the Bill today. I should like also to pay tribute to the great ingenuity of our own Public Bill Office, for working out and putting into effect the mechanics of an operation which has permitted us to take the Committee stage, with a long Marshalled List, on the morning after the Commons finished with the Bill.
I shall not spend more than a moment or two on the great questions of policy before us. We are all aware—or, at any rate, all who think, in any part of the country, are aware—that for some time now incomes have outrun production, and we are all aware that if this continues disaster is bound to overtake us. We hope by a great effort on the part of all concerned to bring about a balance. Clearly, we should all prefer a wholly voluntary effort, but if we are to succeed the ability to deal with any selfish minority must be there in the background, and it is provided for in the present Bill. It is my sincere hope, and the hope of the Government, that Part IV of this Bill need never be brought into force, but let us be clear that, if it is necessary, it certainly will be operated.
I would hope that the nation is now becoming aware of the meaning of a prices and incomes policy and of the possible alternatives, if any. If the great debates which have been taking place in both Houses of Parliament have assisted this illumination, then they have been well worth all the effort. Let us be careful in all our words and deeds that we give no comfort to those who for selfish reasons would act against the national interest. I am sure that that will be the general spirit. Let us, on the other hand, give every encouragement to those on 1767 both sides of industry, in high places and in low, who during the next twelve months are going to increase productivity with every exertion in their power. Moreover, let us also encourage all those—and this, I believe, means the nation as a whole—whose restraint is going to pull us through all these difficulties. Certainly it is upon that self-restraint that our whole economic future depends. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Longford.)
§ 11.27 a.m.
§ LORD HARLECH
My Lords, naturally I am happy to join in the tributes which have already been paid by the noble Earl the Leader of the House to my noble friend Lord Conesford, to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, to the printers, and to others connected with this Bill. But I am afraid that in the few words which I shall have to say—and I do not intend to make a Second Reading speech—I shall not have many tributes to pay to Her Majesty's Government.
I think I must say something about the Parliamentary institutions of this country, and what we believe is the violence which has been done to them by Her Majesty's Government in the conduct of this particular piece of legislation. Here is a Bill, the Prices and Incomes Bill, which was originally introduced in another place as long ago as last February. A General Election then intervened. It was reintroduced, not with great despatch, in July of this year and it received a Second Reading in another place on July 14. Of course, at that time it contained no Part IV. Then we had the Prime Minister's very serious statement of July 20, in which he said:It is not our intention to introduce elaborate statutory controls over incomes and prices."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons. Vol. 731 (No. 58), col. 636; 20/7/66.]But one week later the Bill was amended by the addition of sweeping, compulsory powers contained in what is now Part IV of the Bill.
It was then claimed that it was essential to pass the Bill through both Houses of Parliament before the Summer Recess: and this despite the fact that Parliament was faced with a Bill which the Prime 1768 Minister himself claimed at a Press Conference in Washington was unprecedented in peace time, as regards the stringency of controls to be imposed on incomes and prices in this country. I do not think it would be right for me to comment upon how the Government dealt with these matters in another place; in any case it is well known to the world. But I do recognise the difficult position into which this hasty and indeed panicky, action put the members of the Government Front Bench opposite. I do not expect them to admit it, but they must have been as distressed as we were at the scant attention which was paid to the convenience and rights of your Lordships' House.
Noble Lords opposite—the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in particular—certainly did their best to right this situation, and a number of chiefly disagreeable alternatives were placed before my noble friend Lord Carrington with regard to the procedure we should adopt in dealing with this Bill. My noble friend agreed to what he thought was the least disagreeable of these procedures, and we had that peculiar debate last week on the "White Bill", which I recognise was to be regarded as the Second Reading of this Bill. Now we are to have all the further stages of the genuine Bill in one day, and only hours after it has received a Third Reading in another place. This has led to another rather curious innovation, in that we have had to table Amendments to a Bill that we had not actually received. In fact, the Bill that we have now received has certain changes from the one which was included in the White Paper which we debated last week. I think it would be of convenience to your Lordships if we could have some indication of where any significant changes have been made in this Bill compared with the White Paper we discussed last week.
In all these circumstances, I think I must give noble Lords some indication of the attitude that I and my noble friends have to today's proceedings. First of all, we feel that the House has been treated with great discourtesy by Her Majesty's Government. Secondly, from the timetable that has been set for us it is blindingly clear that Her Majesty's Government have not the slightest intention of paying any attention to the 1769 views expressed by your Lordships. In spite of this, we have thought it right to table a number of Amendments which will enable us to point out some of the most undesirable features of the Bill, and to suggest ways in which it might have been improved. We do not intend to press these Amendments to a Division, because we are all too well aware that, even if we carried our Amendments, we should within hours receive the Bill back with all our Amendments deleted. I do not think it could help the reputation of this House to prolong the farce in this way.
We have, of course, a constitutional right to vote against either the Second Reading or the Third Reading of this Bill, and thus delay it for a period of one year, but I am sure that this would be an improper way for the Conservative majority in this House to use its power at this juncture of our affairs. As my noble friend Lord Carrington said in this House on Monday, we intend to behave ourselves responsibly and, however much we regret the fact, we cannot deny that the Party opposite were returned at a General Election only four months ago with a majority of a hundred in another place. Contrary to the prospectus held out to the electorate at that time, they have now landed the country in a serious economic crisis, and for the time being they, as the Government, have the sole responsibility for getting us out of it. Therefore, whatever doubts my noble friends may have about the Government's policies—and they are sincerely held—we do not think it would be right, in these circumstances, to try to bring into operation the constitutional delaying powers of your Lordships' House. We do not intend to obstruct the Government just for the sake of obstruction. Nor, I am bound to say, do we find this particular Bill before us very amenable to amendment, unless we were to move to take out the whole of Part IV of the Bill and large slices of Part II.
My Lords, having made our position clear, I hope the fact that we do not intend to vote against the Government on this occasion will not be taken as meaning that we feel other than that the House has been disgracefully treated over this Bill, or that we feel anything but profoundly concerned about the con- 1770 tents of this Bill, which is intended to freeze a wholly unsatisfactory economic situation for twelve months, with little evidence that our economy will be any healthier at the end of that period. Indeed, there are good reasons for supposing that our industrial production will be down, that unemployment will be up, and that industrial investment will be declining. In addition, this Bill gives powers of compulsion to an individual Minister which ought not to be granted in peace time unless the critic is far more serious than has yet been disclosed by Her Majesty's Government. In this respect, it offends against principles which have until now been cherished and defended by all three major Parties in this country. Having, I hope, made clear our position on the Bill and our attitude to the procedures upon which we are now about to embark, I would urge my noble friends to give it a formal Second Reading.
§ 11.36 a.m.
§ LORD OGMORE
My Lords, I would support the noble Lord who has just spoken on behalf of the Conservative Party, and urge my noble friends to give this Bill a Second Reading. As I see it, there is no grave constitutional issue here at all. We deal with this Bill as we deal with all Bills that come before us. I do not propose to go into the chequered career of this Bill in another place; nor, indeed, into the way in which we have been treated. I agree with the noble Lord: I think that, as a House, we have been treated disgracefully. I do not recall, in all my fifteen or sixteen years here, any occasion on which the House has been so treated previously.
But the question remains: what is the duty of this House? We are a revising Chamber. It is our duty to revise legislation that comes to us, and, if possible, to improve it. We think this Bill is susceptible of a great deal of improvement. In fact, we think a great deal of it ought not to be there at all. But, even so, I put it to the House: is it wise, is it proper, is it our duty, simply to say to the Government, "Whatever happens, however strong our arguments, however weak your reply, we shall do nothing about it. We shall not go into the Lobby against you; it will go through as it stands"? I think that is an extraordinary attitude.
1771 After all, what is the hurry? Why is there any hurry in this case? I have just been looking at the Minute Paper for August 8. There are a number of Bills listed there which were amended in this House, which went back to the House of Commons and were dealt with in the House of Commons. They either agreed with the Amendments or they did not. In most cases they agreed with them; and they came back here. Why is there any difference in this case? Parliament is to break up for over two months. I must say that that is an extremely good lesson in productivity in these days! The Law Courts have risen for over two months—the High Court, not the lower courts. That also is a good lesson in productivity! Why do we give this bad lesson in productivity? Why all the rush? All the proceedings of this Bill have to be taken in one day. Why? Can we not meet on Monday? Can Parliament not meet on Monday? Why is some grave constitutional issue presented because everybody wants to rush away on Friday afternoon? Quite frankly, I think this is an extremely weak case.
I think myself—and I say it with all humility—it is the duty of this House to deal with this Bill as it does with all other Bills: that is to say, to go through it clause by clause; to put down Amendments; to consider the Amendments; if necessary, to divide on them; and if we win, to send it back to the Commons for them to reconsider the matter. We must remember that in this case a very important part of the Bill—that is, Part IV—was never considered in the Commons on Second Reading. It was never considered there. The Committee stage was taken upstairs, with 25 Members—of which, I may say, none was of the Liberal Party—and they have never had a Committee stage in the House of Commons itself. On the Third Reading in the House of Commons—and, as we know, in the Third Reading debate one cannot talk about anything that is not in the Bill—the House of Commons never had the opportunity of considering the matter as they should have done, and as they would have done in the case of 1772 a normal Bill. Here, surely, is the classic case for the House of Lords to step in and do its duty.
Therefore, I say to the Government and I say to the House that we on these Benches have taken a very great deal of trouble to put down Amendments—none of them wrecking—which, in our opinion, would improve the Bill considerably. We hope for the support of Members of all Parties, in all parts of the House, in examining these. We hope that, if they agree with these Amendments, they will support us, if necessary in the Division Lobby. At this stage I am not going to say that we are or that we are not going into the Division Lobbies; because I do not think that is the right attitude to take in this House. What I am saying, on behalf of my noble friends, is this. We shall put our Amendments, all of which we believe are important, and none of which is a wrecking Amendment, and debate them to the best of our ability. We shall then listen to the answers from the Government Benches. If we are satisfied with those answers we shall withdraw the Amendments; if not we shall, if necessary, go into the Division Lobbies—even if we go alone.
§ 11.42 a.m.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Harlech has so admirably expressed the views which I and others hold that I would supplement what he said only on one particular point. I think I may, perhaps, claim that I have spent as much time studying this Bill as have the Liberal Party. I would supplement what my noble friend said in this respect: I hope that the Government will not think that all the matters to be raised are indicated in the Amendments on the Marshalled List. Of course, every clause has to be put to the Committee, and I have some very important considerations to put forward that will certainly be relevant to the Question, "That the clause stand part of the Bill". In some cases where I knew I had a definite point to raise, I took the step of giving notice in writing to the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack; but there are other cases where I shall raise many important points. I should not like it to be thought that the absence of Amendments from the Marshalled List 1773 indicated that the points to be raised are not important.
§ 11.44 a.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, first of all may I thank the noble Lords, Lord Harlech, Lord Ogmore and Lord Cones-ford for what they have said. In view of the various expressions of opinion that have been made in the last two or three days, I hope I can say that the House will recognise that both my noble friend the Leader of the House and I myself have always been particularly careful to have full regard to the rights and privileges of this House. In saying that, I make no apology for the time which this Bill has taken to go through another place, or for the period of time between the announcement of policy and the actual introduction of that Bill there. We have always believed that a prices and incomes policy must depend upon voluntary action by all who are parties to it, and in fact, by all within the country. It would have been easy to introduce a Bill without having taken this full regard and without having given full opportunities for consultation. If we had done that, we should have been open to far greater criticism than any noble Lord or any Member of the other place has made during the last few days.
My Lords, we have consistently sought a voluntary agreement. It is regrettable that we now have to bring this Bill before this House very late in the Session; but it is because of the necessity that confronts both the Government and the nation. Therefore, I do not think that, in introducing this Bill to-day, and in asking your Lordships to pass it, any discourtesy has been shown to the House. We could have sat right through August. When I gave the information to the House by way of a Business Statement, some ten days ago, in which I invited the House to accept the arrangements that were then proposed and which are now coming into being, I said that all of us in this House, and no doubt those in the other place, would be agreeable to sit through August; but that we had to recognise that there are many hundreds of men and women who work within the Palace of Westminster, whose interests I, for one, do not write off. I know there are many who have already lost their holidays, who have already lost the sums of money they had paid in deposit for those holi- 1774 days. Anyone who is responsible for business management, who is responsible for seeing that Parliament operates smoothly, cannot possibly overlook them.
I well recognise the difficulties of the Opposition and of the Liberal Party. But I suggest that we have made available time which could have been taken up. When I moved the Motion on the White Paper—the "White Bill", as it was referred to; or, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, called it, the "Shepherd's Pie"—I offered, through the usual channels, time to discuss any particular aspect of this Bill. We could have had a further Committee stage, in advance of this Bill, when we could have discussed those major and fundamental clauses that the noble Lords, Lord Harlech, and Lord Ogmore, believe to be contrary to the public interest. The time was there; but we did not take it. We did not sit yesterday; we could have done so. I do not think the Government, in the present circumstances, could have done a great deal more. There is very little point in my carrying on—
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, may I intervene, before the noble Lord leaves this point? He has made a statement which is very disturbing. Would he give an assurance that if, in fact, there are servants of this House who have suffered loss, they will be recompensed? It is not their fault; it is our fault. We have kept them.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, this will have to be a matter for the authorities who run the House. I am making a point. The noble Lord knows that there are many of us here who would have been on holiday now had we not thought that our duty required us to be here. Having said that, and because there are obviously going to be continued clashes, I will not now go into the matters that the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, raised. We shall have plenty of opportunity to do so as we go through the major clauses of this Bill. I will cross swords with him then; some of the criticisms he has made I shall toss back straight on his lap. If he is prepared to debate them, I am willing to do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Harlech, rightly I thought, asked that the House should be made aware of what changes have 1775 been made in the Bill since the "White Bill" (or the "Shepherd's Pie") was introduced in this House. Perhaps I could tell the House what they are. May I refer to Clause 4, the little proviso to subsection (3)? The original proviso disapplied consultation requirements in paragraphs (a) and (b) for twelve months. This has been amended so that the requirement is disapplied only for six months. There is this minor adjustment from twelve months to six months in the first proviso.
In Clause 17 there is a drafting Amendment to line 30. The words, "is connected with" have been included instead of the words, "arising out of". It is a drafting Amendment of no major significance. In Clause 25(7), in line 33, after the word "order" the words "or direction" have been included. This again entails a drafting Amendment of no significance.
In Clause 28 the original drafting read as follows:The Secretary of State may by order apply this section to remuneration under contracts of employment for any kind of work".The Amendment continues the wording as follows:to be performed wholly or substantially within the United Kingdom or on British ships or aircraft.These words have been put in so as specifically to exclude overseas contracts. The last Amendment is in Clause 32, line 32, where nearly at the end of the line we have included the words:but so that an order under this subsection shall not affect provisions which have taken effect before the making of the order.This is in substitution for a provision empowering the Minister to change the operative date of orders which have already taken effect. Those are the only Amendments that were made during the Report stage. I think the House will agree that they do not in any way change the basic policy, the basic concept, of what we discussed on August 3. My Lords, with those very few words, I hope that the House will agree to give this Bill a Second Reading and that we can then move into Committee.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House forthwith.1776
§ 11.53 a.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on the Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Shepherd.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD GRENFELL in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 agreed to.
§ Clause 2:
§ References of questions to the Board
§ 2.—(1) The Secretary of State, or the Secretary of State and any other Minister acting jointly, may refer to the Board any question relating to wages, salaries or other forms of incomes, or to prices, charges or other sums payable under transactions of any description relating to any form of property or rights or to services of any description or to returns on capital invested in any form of property, including company dividends; and without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions of this subsection the Secretary of State, or the Secretary of State and any other Minister acting jointly, may refer to the Board any question—
§ LORD DRUMALBYN moved to add to subsection (1):
§ "() relating to any agreement or arrangement to restrict, whether by way of maximum or minimum, the number of persons to be employed in any industry or any industrial undertaking, process or other activity, except in so far as is necessary to comply with any health or safety requirement imposed by any Act of Parliament or any order or regulation made under any Act of Parliament."
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of this Amendment is to enable the Secretary of State, or the Secretary of State and any other Minister acting jointly, to refer to the Board any question relating to any agreement or arrangement restricting the number of persons to be engaged in any industry or any industrial undertaking, process or other activity, except in so far as it necessary to comply with health and safety requirements. The Amendment would apply, for instance, to any arrangement whereby the intake into an industry or undertaking is subject to a ceiling—whether in the docks, the printing industry or the like—or to where a minimum number is laid down for the manning of machines or for the carrying out of any process. These two situations obviously have a 1777 very considerable effect on incomes, on prices, or on both.
§ If the numbers admitted to an industry are limited to the point where there is a permanent shortage of skilled labour, plainly incomes in that industry will tend to be forced up. Again, if the number of employees to operate a machine or a process is kept artificially high, production costs, and therefore prices, will be forced up. It may be said that both these situations could be covered by references under paragraphs (a) or (b). But references under paragraphs (a) and (b) relate to proposals "to increase any prices" and to "any pay claims". The prices may be already far too high because of certain practices, and there might be a need to refer the matter although there had been no proposal to increase prices or to lodge a pay claim. It is true, as I understand the drafting of the clause, that the terms of the subsection are wide enough to permit such references as I have in mind; but these two situations, I submit, are common enough and important enough to warrant special mention. It seems to me particularly important that the Board should in appropriate circumstances be required to keep such situations under continuous review under the next clause. For these reasons I beg to move.
§ Amendment moved—
§ Page 3, line 4, at end insert the said paragraph.—(Lord Drumalbyn.)
§ LORD CHAMPION
This subsection (1), which is the meat of the clause, providing as it does for the reference of questions to the Board by the Secretary of State or Ministers acting jointly, may be very widely drawn. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has called attention to this fact, and paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) set out the scope of possible references. We feel that the clause is wide enough at present. The noble Lord has argued with his customary cogency that to the questions mentioned in this subsection there should be added a fourth for explicit reference, if Ministers so decided—
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
May I interrupt the noble Lord? He talks of a fourth, there are in fact only two paragraphs at the present time.
§ LORD CHAMPION
Well, I cannot count, apparently. In any case it does not affect what I was saying—I remember now, it is (a) and (b) and this Amendment would add (c). What the noble Lord seems to me to be doing is seeking to add to this clause restricted labour practices in an ingeniously devised proviso, on which I congratulate him. The Government have agreed, as was made clear in another place, that the Board could usefully examine restrictive labour practices; but Ministers in another place argued that the inclusion of a specific mention in this clause was quite unnecessary as the Board do consider restrictive practices in relation to questions referred to them. The reports of the Board No. 1 and No. 14 on road haulage charges, No. 16 on busmen and No. 17 on the baking industry, are all examples of the fact that when the Board has a reference to it, it then considers the background and any restrictive practices which may appear to be applied in the particular industry, and reports accordingly.
The Government feel that this Amendment is unnecessary because of the very fact that the Board does consider restrictive practices. But there is a better reason. The Government think that if we make any specific reference to the Board about restrictive practices, the wording of the reference itself would to some extent prejudge the case. We should have to word it in such a way that we should call attention to restrictive practices obtaining, for example, in the newspaper printing industry, to which the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, has referred. The Government feel that this would prejudge the case before the Board actually considers it. Also, restrictive practices which are already well enough known to be mentioned in a reference are not those which would most easily yield to the spotlight of a report by the Board, and the Board's powers in this connection would be just to spotlight the particular restrictive practices.
The Board is a busy one. It is not likely to be less busy in future, and although it can and does examine restrictive practices in relation to pay claims, and could also do that in relation to 1779 charges and prices, we feel that we ought not to embark upon something such as is contained in the Amendment and accept the possibility of specific reference to the Board of these particular restrictive practices. I hope the noble Lord will be prepared to withdraw this Amendment. although I agree with what lies behind it—namely, getting at the restrictive practices which are undoubtedly a drag on our economy at the present time.
§ LORD CONESFORD
I agree with the Minister in what he has just said, that the Board do consider these matters when they have a reference before them, but, of course, they cannot consider them unless there is a reference before them. As my noble friend, in moving this Amendment, pointed out, paragraph (a) refers only to cases where there is a proposal to increase prices. The restrictive practice may be of such a nature that there may be no increase of price, but a possibility of diminishing the price, if the restrictive practice were abandoned.
I must contest one of the arguments put up by the noble Lord, Lord Champion. He said that the mere wording of the reference would prejudge the issue. I do not take such a low view of the Board as to think that it would be prejudiced, even if the phrase "restrictive practice" were mentioned in the reference. But, of course, the reference could be made without mentioning restrictive practice. It could refer to the number of persons used to man a particular machine. I think that there is considerable merit in the Amendment. For the reasons he has given, my noble friend does not propose to force this to a Division, but I hope that the Committee will not assume that those concerned cannot frame a reference in a way that would not prejudge the issue and, even if it happened to do so, that that would really hamper the Board.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
Confirming what my noble friend has said, I do not intend to press this Amendment to a Division, but I hoped to get from the noble Lord an assurance that there could be a reference of this kind as the clause is drafted, without specifically introducing this Amendment. I should have thought it would have been perfectly easy to make a reference relating to prices with particular reference to 1780 manning or possible restrictive practices within the scope of the clause.
I thought it odd that the noble Lord should say that the Board was a busy one and might not have time to deal with this kind of reference. I am sure that that would not be the wish of your Lordships. The existence of restrictive practices is well known, and there is no doubt that they have an effect on costs. By moving this Amendment, all we are asking is that the Government will make it clear that, where they consider it necessary and desirable, and feel that restrictive practices have an effect on prices, they will make a reference. The clause as drafted says:…without reference to the generality … may refer to the Board any question (a) relating to a proposal to increase any prices … or (b) relating to any pay claims …".It is within that generality of the powers of reference that we are asking for an assurance from the Government that they will use the Board to look into questions of this character. If the noble Lord could give that assurance, I am sure that it would be welcomed by both sides.
§ LORD CHAMPION
In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, I may say that the Government can refer any question relative to pay, prices or other money incomes to the Board under Clause 2(1), whether or not there is a proposal for an increase. I am not sure that I can completely satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, but I think that within the clause as it now stands there is sufficient width to enable the Ministers concerned to consider carefully whether it would be possible within those terms to make the sort of reference which it is suggested should be embodied in the Bill itself. I cannot at this moment go beyond that. I cannot accept the Amendment. The noble Lord has indicated that he does not propose to press it, and that it is largely a probing Amendment. If I have not completely satisfied him, I am sorry, but we feel that we ought not to add this Amendment at this stage.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
The noble Lord has gone some way towards allaying our misgivings, and in view of what he has said, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.1781
§ On Question: Whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
I should like to raise a quite general point on this clause. We are in the part of the Bill which provides for permanent legislation. In this we are in some difficulty, because at the same time there are policies set out in White Papers which are subject to alteration from time to time. The policy set out in the White Paper on the early-warning system provides that (I think the phrase is) manufacturers will be expected not to raise their prices during a period in which a reference is before the Prices and Incomes Board. I should like to have an assurance from the Government that this is definitely part of the temporary policy, and that once the present difficulties are removed it will not necessarily be the permanent policy to impose this delay on increasing prices.
It is, of course, both proper and, indeed, popular for the Government to do all they can to hold down prices; but in our view the proper way to do this is through competition and proper management of the economy, and not by imposing delays on firms who may have to increase their prices whether or not the Minister agrees. Surely this should not permanently be a matter for the Government to decide. The present system being that when a notification of a proposed increase is given to the Minister, either he offers no objection, in which case the price may be increased after a month, or he refers it to the Board, in which case for up to three months (because the Board takes three months to report; certainly until the Board have reported) the price cannot be increased. I cannot believe that it is in the interests of the economy that this should be a permanent part of Government policy, and I should like an assurance to that effect before we leave this clause.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE ROYAL NAVY (LORD WINTERBOTTOM)
I think your Lordships will agree that Clause 2 is an integral part of the Bill; we are building it into the Bill, and for that reason it will be a permanent part 1782 of the Bill. Surely we must distinguish between our present discontents and the situation that we see in the future. If by general agreement, by consent, we find that our prices and incomes policy is being effective, and that productivity rises, then, in the first place it will not be necessary for the Minister to refer the matter to the Board. He would be informed of the intentions of companies individuals and unions but no action need be taken. Therefore, the delay is short. If, however, he should refer the rise to the Board, then again I imagine that as experience is gained, and the organisation or background of the Board is strengthened, the delays arising between a reference to the Board and the Board's report will fall. I do not think the Government will aggregate this particular power, but I hope that the powers will be used intelligently and with the utmost despatch.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
May I intervene to say that we are not talking here of a power? What I am asking about is not a power. What I am asking about is the voluntary side that is imposed without power. I am asking whether it is expected that that voluntary side is likely to be permanent, as the provisions of this particular clause are expected to be permanent. It does not follow that because you make a reference to the Board you must necessarily wait until the Board reports before prices are increased. After the references, people can do what they like, even under Part II. I hope that the noble Lord will not confuse the existence of the powers under Part II with Part I, which is going to be permanent and operative without further action on the part of the Government.
§ LORD WINTERBOTTOM
These are enabling powers which the Minister may use. But the noble Lord has stressed the results from voluntary action. Surely we have reasonable men dealing with a reasonable Government. If it is clear that voluntarily an individual is willing to do something, then surely this is a question of private agreement between the two persons. In an easier world, I am sure that this voluntary need will fall away.
§ Clause 2 agreed to.1783
§ Clause 3 [Instructions to Board to keep certain prices or incomes under continuous review]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
I wish to raise a quite minor question, though it is of some importance, on Clause 3. Subsection (6) says:An order or instruction under this section may be framed in any way whatsoever, and in particular may be concerned with a specified region or locality or with named undertakings or persons.We on this side are reluctant to allow powers of this kind in relation to a particular undertaking or a particular person. As a matter of interpretation, I know that the singular includes the plural. But does the plural include the singular; or, when it says plural, must it be plural?
§ LORD WINTERBOTTOM
That is a magnificent semantic exercise. As I understand the Bill, the Government have taken upon themselves the power to draft their terms of reference as widely as they wish, to cover whole industries, single industries, single undertakings or single regions. I know that my colleagues in the Government are very firm that we must have these powers to be specific and to direct our inquiries to the point where the knowledge is necessary. For this reason, the various points made in subsection (6) are an essential part of the Government's philosophy on this Bill.
§ Clause 3 agreed to.
§ Clause 4:
§ Principles to be applied by the Board
§ 4.—(1) In examining any question referred to the Board under section 2 above, and in complying with any instruction or requirement under section 3 above, the Board shall, subject to the following provisions of this section, have regard to the considerations set out in Schedule 2 to this Act (which reproduces Part I of a memorandum presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State by Command of Her Majesty in April 1965).
§ 12.18 p.m.
§ LORD BYERS moved to add to subsection (1):
§ "and where any question appears prima facie to conform with the requirements of paragraph 15(i) of Schedule 2 to this Act immediate consideration shall be given to the question by 1784 the Board to avoid delay in bringing about the benefits of any such direct contribution towards increasing productivity in accordance with the terms of the said paragraph 15(i)."
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of this Amendment, which stands in my name and that of my noble friends, is to try to improve the Bill by making it quite clear that the wage freeze or the standstill will not be allowed to apply to any arrangement which could result in an early or, better still, immediate increase in productivity and efficiency, and to ensure that the Board gives proper priority to any such arrangement and gives the most immediate consideration to it.
§ If we are to believe the Government, through the medium of their various spokesmen, they are opposed to the bringing into effect of any schemes which improve output per man or otherwise reduce costs through an upward adjustment of wages for a period of twelve months. In our view, it is impossible to have a viable incomes policy which consists solely of freezing everything. What we seek to do is to put a positive element into the policy. We support a voluntary standstill on incomes where there is no increase in efficiency or productivity. But our primary concern is to stimulate growth in the economy, and we cannot afford to do without that growth for a period of six or twelve months. We do not believe it is possible to get growth in the economy by a general standstill. It must be done through placing the main emphasis on improvements in efficiency. Hence this Amendment, which, as I have said, places on the Board the responsibility for sorting out pay agreements which look as though they are going to assist in getting the growth, considering them quickly and giving the go-ahead.
§ As I understand it, this is in flat contradiction to the extremely short-sighted policy of the Government, who believe that no pay increases must take place, even if such an increase might transform the economy. One has only to look at the various excellent reports which have emanated from the National Board for Prices and Incomes to see the strong recommendations which they make about linking up with productivity. Those recommendations are in practically all the reports. I have here the one on the conditions of service of British Railways staff, where increases in productivity are, 1785 as I understand it, meant to come into operation next month, when there will be adjustments in pay as a consequence. The same sort of thing was recommended in the Report on the printing industry, and we had the Geddes Report, too.
§ I believe that we cannot take up a position where we are going to tell these employees that the country is in such a mess that we cannot afford to enjoy the benefits of greater efficiency and we must therefore reluctantly defer these ideas for about a year. I am sorry that the Leader of the House is not here at the moment. Last week he protested vehemently that the Government were very productivity-minded—and I had always believed that they were, up until a week or so ago. But then he belied that, and I believe that much damage has already been caused by the statement by the Leader of the House when he said that productivity agreements would not cure our present ills or rectify the balance of payments in the next year. He added that one cannot argue that productivity agreements are going to tilt the balance one way or the other. This may be so, but they will contribute something if we can get them moving. He later added that he would not accept that there is a clash between standstill and productivity. He must be one of the very few people in the country who really believes that. He made the definite statement that productivity agreements which were not yet in force would have to be postponed for at least six months; and he cast serious doubts as to whether there was in fact much benefit at all in having productivity agreements in the next few months. I think it would be a tragedy if this went out as the declared policy of Her Majesty's Government.
§ In our view it is absolutely vital to get more and more of these agreements into operation as soon as possible, and a delay of six months would be completely intolerable. The argument that there can be no exceptions to the standstill or the freeze is, in my view and that of my noble friends, quite ludicrous. There must be certain exceptions which will prove the rule, and productivity agreements is one of them. Many of us on all sides of the House have been working for years to educate the public to believe in productivity agreements, and we say that no Government must be allowed 1786 to put back the impact of that programme, even for six or seven months. We believe that the Government have made a mistake, and we believe that it is the task of this House to help them to rectify it.
§ This is in no way a wrecking Amendment of any sort at all. If they, the Government, were in Opposition under the leadership of the Prime Minister, they would have seized on this point as reversing years of work done by the trade unions and leading managements to get people's minds away from the traditional attitude and steered into the new channels which we have been trying to pioneer. I would hope that the Government might accept this Amendment at this late stage, because in our view and, I believe, in the view of the House, it is basic to a positive incomes policy. It is clearly envisaged in Schedule 2 to the Bill that productivity will be a most important item of the criteria by which the Board is called upon to judge the various claims. One can only contrast that Schedule 2 criteria with what the Secretary of State said in Standing Committee last week. He make it clear that for the next six months there was no intention of using the criteria of Schedule 2. This is a terrible thing. Schedule 2 is based on the Declaration of Intent.
§ In passing, might I digress to ask the Government whether they are going to give us an explanation of the significance of the various changes which have been made in the Cabinet overnight? If the translation of the First Secretary to the Foreign Office means that we are to join the Common Market, we are all delighted. But if it means that we have in fact abandoned any prospect of getting more growth into the economy in the next twelve months, then this is a sad day indeed. I should like to say that we admire the tenacity and courage with which Mr. George Brown has tackled the job and tried to get growth and productivity into the economy. I think he must have been a very sad man indeed to have had to say in Committee—this is clearly one of the reasons why he has dashed off to the Foreign Office—that for the six months there was no intention at all of using the criteria of Schedule 2, which deals with productivity efficiency, and a lot of other things too, 1787 and that for the next six months of what he called the special period of twelve months, to which Part IV of the Bill is directed, there would have to be different criteria from those of the standstill, but still these criteria would not be as wide as the criteria of Schedule 2 which is based on the Declaration of Intent.
§ It was crystal clear from what he was made to say that productivity is going to be allowed to be stamped on for the next twelve months, and it is our purpose with this Amendment to see that this simply does not happen. We must give the right priority and the right emphasis. This I believe is a most responsible Amendment, and I ask the Government to respond in a similar way. I beg to move.
§ Amendment moved—
§ Page 4, line 16, at end insert the said words.—(Lord Byers.)
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
I should first like to say that I strongly support the general view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, that productivity agreements should be brought into effect with the least possible delay, even during the standstill period, and of course, one has to add, provided that they are genuine. I have an Amendment down in my name on the Order Paper on this subject, and therefore at this moment I will devote my remarks to only one particular aspect of this Amendment. We would hope that, where productivity agreements are referred to the Secretary of State, he will be able to give them his blessing right away, without referring to the Incomes and Prices Board.
I want to ask the noble Lord how far he envisages that the appropriate Minister will himself be able to sort out whether productivity agreements are genuine or not, and give his consent to any rise in wages, without having to incur the delay of referring them to the Prices and Incomes Board. It seems to me that this is very important, and it is what we should like to happen. I do not think that in dealing with this stage of Part I it would be right for me to follow up the more general argument as to what happens during the standstill period; I personally would rather reserve that for Part IV. But I think it is very 1788 important indeed that we should get some statement as to what the practice of the Minister will be in considering notifications, and whether or not he will refer them to the Prices and Incomes Board.
§ LORD CONESFORD
I hope that when the Minister replies he will tell us what he thinks would be the effect of this Amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, used the opportunity to attack—and to attack with some force, on grounds with which many of us can sympathise—certain provisions of the standstill arrangement. But, of course, we are not, on this permanent part of the Statute, dealing with the standstill arrangement at all, as I understand it. Therefore, whether we agree or disagree with what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has said, it does not seem to me prima facie very relevant to what is put in this clause. I should be very glad if the Government would give their view on the matter, because I cannot quite see what the effect would be if this Amendment were adopted.
§ LORD CHAMPION
As the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn and Lord Conesford, have said, this Amendment is a very limited one. We have had a wide-ranging speech by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, about the whole question of productivity which we shall have to consider in relation to an Amendment to Clause 28 by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, and an Amendment from the Liberal Party. When we come to that I shall, of course, have to take into consideration everything which is said upon these Amendments, including some of the things that have been said by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, at this stage.
The noble Lord indicated that this Amendment is linked to some extent with later Amendments, but this Amendment deals with the instructions to be given to the Board as to the urgency with which they are to consider certain matters. To include such an instruction in an Act of Parliament would appear to us to be wholly wrong. Decisions as to the urgency of the matters which are before the Board must be left to the judgment of the Board, perhaps advised by Ministers as to the industrial situation existing at a particular time. As will be well known, there are some questions 1789 involving productivity which might not be those which might, by any consideration, prevent a major industrial upheaval. There are some questions which can be considered by the Board with less urgency than some of those which have been, or would be, referred to the Board that might have in them certain elements likely to cause a national strike, possibly of devastating proportions. In the circumstances, it would be quite wrong for us here to-clay to include in this Bill wording which would prevent the Board from taking a decision as to which of these things have the greater merit on urgency, something that embodies productivity or some reference to the Board which is of major national importance. This must be left to the judgment of the Board acting on the knowledge of the industrial situation at the time and assisted, as I imagine they would be if they asked the question, by the responsible Minister.
All three parties to the development of the productivity, prices and incomes policy—Government, employers and unions—recognise the importance of productivity bargains. This is shown by the provision for exceptional pay increases in genuine productivity gains to which employees may make a direct contribution. We are not here discussing the freeze and the standstill. This discussion will come on later Amendments. The Board is the instrument of this policy to be developed by the three parties. These three parties also recognise the importance of the productivity bargains, and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has referred to the excellence of some of the reports which have been issued in this connection.
So far as urgency of report and the length of time taken by the Board to report is concerned, although in the early stages inevitably it had to set about the task of organisation and to make up initial staff shortages, it has a good record for producing reports, particularly, I would say, when they are urgent. The Board has reported on six references within about two months or less; on another five references within three months, and on seven references within four to eight months. So I do not think that this Board has been at all tardy or dilatory in its work, moreover it has 1790 produced reports of the sort which have earned the just praise of the noble Lord, Lord Byers.
The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, asked me a question. The whole question of what the Minister refers to the Board is, of course, a matter for him to consider within the clauses which cover this, and all the clauses, as I understand them, in which the Minister under this particular Part of the Bill may make references are permissive. They allow him to do this. And the Minister will naturally consider all the relevant factors at the time. I do not think this is a good Amendment, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, will be prepared to withdraw it, and that we can have the major discussion upon this matter when we get to the Amendments which I have mentioned to Clause 28.
§ LORD BYERS
Before the Minister sits down, may I ask him whether he envisages that there will be productivity agreements in the six months of the standstill?
§ LORD CHAMPION
There will be productivity agreements within the period of the standstill, but not their implementation in the form of wages. I imagine that the noble Lord will be returning later to this point.
§ LORD BYERS
I must say I am totally dissatisfied with the Minister's reply, but I think we have elicited a fact that most of us have suspected; namely, that although productivity agreements will be made during this period they will not be implemented, and we shall not be able to get the immediate benefit of them, as is envisaged in paragraph 15 of Schedule 2. All I can say is that I think this is extremely short-sighted. We will do battle with the Government when we come to Clause 28, but I think it will be the intention of my noble friends to divide the House, particularly in the light of the Government's statement.
May I also say that this Amendment is in no way a criticism of the Prices and Incomes Board, which has done an extremely good job. But the Amendment seemed to give the Board a push in the right direction; namely, to give priority to anything which would help us out of our immediate economic difficulties. However, in the light of the discussion we 1791 are to have later, I beg to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question: Whether Clause 4 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
May I make one point? This is a very important clause, because it relates to the considerations, at present set out in Schedule 2, which the Board must take into account in reaching its conclusions. Then subsection (2) gives the Government power to vary the considerations, and the proviso to subsection (3) says that in the period of six months immediately following the passing of the Act the Government need not consult with the organisations they are required to consult with in the earlier part of subsection (3).
The point here is this: I think your Lordships are entitled to expect that at the time when this Bill is laid before you the criteria to be applied (the considerations to which the Board must have regard) should be clearly set out, so that we know what the Board will have to do. Instead of that, the position now is that we know that some of the considerations set out in Schedule 2 will have to be altered. The Government plainly appreciate the urgency of altering it, because they weigh the need for the consultations with such organisations and bodies as the Minister thinks fit in the first six months.
I think we cannot part from this clause without asking the noble Lord when the order to be made under subsection (2) will be made, because quite obviously the Board is going to be seriously hampered in its activities unless it knows the up-to-date considerations which it must take into account and the criteria to apply.
§ 12.40 p.m.
§ LORD REDMAYNE
May I pursue the point made by my noble friend with reference to something that I said in the previous debate, on which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, gave an undertaking, though I think he will agree that it is more proper that the undertaking should be repeated on the actual Committee stage, rather than in what was in Parliamentary terms a general debate. 1792 The point I made was that the criteria for price behaviour contained in Clause 2, referred to in this clause, do not include in respect of prices the criterion of any increases arising from Governmental action, notably increases in taxation. I should like an absolute assurance from the noble Lord who replies that when the Secretary of State makes an order, as referred to by my noble friend, that order will specifically contain, as one of the criteria to be taken into account by the Prices and Incomes Board, the point in regard to Government action in increasing taxation.
§ LORD WINTERBOTTOM
I think it is generally agreed that the Schedule 2 which appears in the Bill is obsolescent. As the noble Lord has pointed out, subsection (2) gives the Government power to alter the general terms of reference given to the Board, and it is, I think, general knowledge that new terms of reference will be given to the Board in the near future. If I understood the noble Lord aright, he said that these particular terms of reference should be given to the Board at the time the order is laid, instructing the Board to start work in accordance with Clause 2. Am I right?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
I was saying that the whole of the Board's work in implementing current Government policy will be hampered unless the Government state what the policy is.
§ LORD WINTERBOTTOM
There is going to be a revision of the terms laid out in Schedule 2. No firm date has been set for laying the order mentioned in Clause 2, but before laying the order the Government will give the Prices and Incomes Board a clear instruction on the lines along which it must work.
§ LORD REDMAYNE
That would include, I take it, an instruction in respect of increase in taxation; because if it does not include that, the Government are not being consistent with the policy laid down by the Prime Minister in the last three or four weeks.
§ LORD WINTERBOTTOM
We are not talking about taxation; that is outside this specific Bill. We are dealing with prices and incomes.
§ LORD REDMAYNE
Of course we are dealing with taxation. This Clause 4 1793 refers forward to Schedule 2 which, as I have said, sets out the criteria which should be taken into account by the Prices and Incomes Board when discussing any increase in price, and the Prime Minister himself, on a previous occasion, has said that the Board must take into account any increases or threat of increases arising from Government action; and Government action, in this connection, is taxation. Therefore, clearly, since it is not now contained in the Bill and not contained in the Schedule, we must have an undertaking from the Minister that this will be one of the criteria the Board has to take into account.
§ LORD WINTERBOTTOM
I apologise to the noble Lord; I had not grasped the point. Of course the Government, when laying down the criteria, will take into account all relevant factors; and taxation is one.
§ LORD CITRINE
May I say that when I read this Amendment I felt very strong sympathy with it, and I think that many trade unionists in the country would have sympathy with it. But I found this difficulty, which made me feel I could not support the Amendment. I am saying this in order that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, will not have any feeling that people like myself just ignored what he said. The Amendment surely means this, does it not? If a matter is to be referred to the Board, it must be referred by a Minister; and therefore if it is referred by a Minister this Amendment implies that a conclusion had been reached by the Minister that there was a prima facie case for the agreement's conforming. That would mean the Minister had declared a view of something the Board had not yet examined. Supposing the Board subsequently decided against the agreement's conforming, we should have a situation in which the Minister had said "Yes, I think it conforms", and the Board would say, "No, we do not think it would conform". I am sure most trade unionists would take the view that the Board was refusing to do something which was manifestly right, and the Board's authority would tend to be destroyed by that sort of difference between it and the Minister. Although I think the Amendment was clearly intended to have a good effect, the real 1794 effect, in the long run, might be very difficult and dangerous.
§ Clause 4 agreed to.
§ Clause 5 [The Board's reports]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 5 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ LORD CONESFORD
I wish to raise one point on Clause 5, and I am a little distressed that the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, is not in his place at the moment, because this might be thought to be of a legal nature.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
I am rather responsible for the absence of the noble and learned Lord. Perhaps I might make this suggestion to the noble Lord, Lord Conesford. I was watching the time, and was not anticipating anything arising on this clause. I thought that we should come to Clause 6, with the Amendment in the name of the Liberal Peers, which I imagined was going to be pretty wide-ranging. I thought it would not be suitable for the House that we should have one quick speech and adjourn for lunch. Therefore, I suggested to my noble and learned friend that he might like to absent himself from the Chamber. If the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, has a point for my noble and learned friend to answer specifically, particularly if it is a legal point, I should like him to be here to deal with it. I am happy to suggest that we adjourn now until two o'clock, when the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, can make his point on Clause 5 and my noble and learned friend will be here to deal with it.
§ LORD CONESFORD
I am most willing to agree. In case it helps at all, I was going to ask about subsection (6) about the law of defamation. I imagine that it may also be of some interest to the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and I dare say that he would prefer that it should be dealt with by the Lord Chancellor. I am happy to accept the noble Lord's suggestion.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
If we are going to get into the question of the law on defamation, certainly it will be the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who will deal with it. I hope it is convenient for the House if we adjourn until two 1795 o'clock. I beg to move that the Committee stage be adjourned until two o'clock.
§ Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ [The Sitting was suspended at ten minutes before one o'clock and resumed at two o'clock.]
§ LORD CONESFORD
I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor whether he would say something about subsection (6). May I remind the Committee that that subsection says this:For the purposes of the law relating to defamation absolute privilege shall attach to any report of the Board.Those, I think, are quite exceptional words. In fact, I cannot at the moment recall any other Board having been given this absolute privilege, but I must admit at once that I have not fully examined this matter. In fact, I did not notice this provision until my last reading of this Bill, and rather astonishingly, the matter does not appear to have been raised in another place.
The ordinary effect of giving absolute privilege is that a person defamed has no remedy, even if there has been malice. No doubt it may be necessary sometimes to give an absolute privilege of this sort, but I think it is quite exceptional. I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor whether he will tell us what other cases there are of a Board being given this absolute privilege; why it is thought necessary, and perhaps go on to explain how far it would give any protection to other parties who may repeat what is said in one of these reports. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, is present. He has much more knowledge and experience than I have in this matter; but I think he, too, would like to hear what the Lord Chancellor has to say about it.
§ 2.3 p.m.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD GARDINER)
It has been my experience that the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, always notices everything, and I am sure he is quite right to raise this point before your Lordships. It was in fact raised 1796 in another place and an Amendment was moved. This is a point which has given the Government considerable concern, and it is not, I think, an easy point. Broadly speaking, absolute privilege has been confined to Parliament and to courts of law; and others, of course, are justified in publishing what Parliament or courts of law have said. Everybody would like to have absolute privilege for himself. As your Lordships will appreciate, the difference between absolute privilege and qualified privilege is that absolute privilege means what it says; qualified privilege is a privilege against any claim being made against you, provided that you say what you honestly think and do not act maliciously.
In considering most carefully whether the Board's reports should be made the subject of absolute or qualified privilege, one has to bear in mind that almost anything can amount to evidence of malice. Whether in the particular facts of the case it does amount to malice is a matter for the judge or the jury to decide. But this means that there is no real difficulty in starting an action for defamation on something which is the subject of qualified privilege because one can usually allege that something or other as evidence of malice. But, of course, the same may be said of administrative tribunals, for instance, whose reports are the subject of only qualified privilege.
What the Government took into account was, first, that this Board has, I think, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, indicated this morning, gained considerable public confidence. It is not a Board which is going to send anybody to prison, or have any direct effect. It is an advisory body. But it is most important that it should feel free to say what it thinks. Here, I do not think one can take subsection (6) by itself; it has, I suggest, to be read in conjunction with subsection (5):In framing any report the Board shall have regard to the need for excluding, so far as that is practicable, matter which relates to the private affairs of any person and the publication of which would or might in the opinion of the Board prejudicially affect the interests of that person.I believe this provision to be unique. I do not know of any other body upon whom has been placed that express duty, a duty which itself safeguards to a considerable extent the reputations of those 1797 forming the subject matter of the reports by the Board. In the end, the Government considered that the whole thing was a question of balance, and that if that positive and statutory duty was placed upon the Board, then it would be right that their reports should have absolute privilege.
§ LORD GOODMAN
In attending this debate to hear the melancholy discussions on this Bill, which must be regarded as melancholy on both sides of the House, I never for a moment expected the interesting matter of defamation to arise, or I should have attended with much greater enthusiasm. I am not sure that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has dealt with the points that have, I think as a matter of high public interest, been raised by the noble Lord opposite in this matter.
First, the subsection to which he refers as providing protection is a novelty in the Bill, in the sense that it enjoins the Board to exclude from their reports extraneous matter. But what is not clear from the Bill is what would be the effect of neglect of that subsection by the Board if in their report they in fact included matter which turned out to be defamatory of a private person. I think it is probably clear from this Bill that, notwithstanding any such neglect, although the Board need not comply with this statutory exhortation they would still retain their absolute privilege. I think it must be clear, because the words of subsection (5) are little more than, as we say in the Law, precatory. I do not think they impose a precise obligation. I do not think they would deprive the Board of the protection. So that although one would expect a responsible Board, as this indeed is—many of us know the members—to pay high regard to this admonition, it is nothing more than an admonition and it does not deal with the point of principle.
I feel that there is a high point of principle here. Quite recently this House made clear that it was not in favour of providing new defences in relation to the law of libel to newspapers and other powerful interests. It would be sad indeed that, if it expressed that view in relation to newspapers, it should be prepared to provide a new defence to a statutory Board and to give it a right to say what it likes about anybody, 1798 regardless. As the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, has said in validly raising this point, the effect of the absolute privilege is simply that the qualified privilege which already exists is extended to enable the Board to have protection from malice. It seems to me wrong that there should be a statutory provision enabling a board to be malicious. As a matter of principle this seems to me wrong.
We are speaking at this moment without any Amendment being before the Committee, so that in a sense nothing that is said can be directed to providing any change. But we might urge the Government in other cases to consider whether in these matters the interests of the private individual should not prevail; whether in fact one does not give too much regard to administrative convenience in these matters, to questions of how convenient it will be for a Board to say what it pleases about somebody and have a means of doing that easily without fear of a writ. I believe that it is wrong, as a matter of legal approach, to say that all citizens should be deprived of their rights because one citizen can lightly embark upon a capricious action. This seems to me to be a wrong approach, if I may say so, with respect, to a Lord Chancellor who is more jealous of the rights of citizens than any in the whole history of his office. But I do not think one should deprive people of their rights. The courts are there to deal with frivolous and baseless actions.
This raises a matter of high principle going far beyond the mere technicalities of the law of defamation. It is another case where, in order to advance the smooth working of the governmental machine, we have become increasingly, not indifferent but unconscious of the rights of private individuals. I made this point as forcibly as I could when the Motion about the law of libel and newspapers was before this House. I venture to make the same point in this regard. Nothing can be done now in this case, but in future cases I hope that sufficient consideration will be given to the matter. This is a right which at the moment is not even enjoyed by a tribunal of inquiry; it was not even enjoyed by the Vassall Inquiry; it is not enjoyed at the moment by a tribunal set up to inquire into matters of national importance. Therefore, to give it to a 1799 Board inquiring into prices and incomes seems to me to lack some sense of proportion.
§ LORD CONESFORD
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, for supporting me in raising what is a very important point. I would also thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for explaining what the Government have in mind. As I listened to his explanation, the same point that struck Lord Goodman struck me—namely, that if the admirable exhortation in subsection (5) were ignored, there would be no remedy available to the injured party. As the Committee knows, I have no intention of obstructing the passage of this measure. I raised what I believe to be an important point and I am grateful for the support I got.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
May I ask one question? At an earlier stage of this Bill there was some talk about the procedure adopted in considering it, and a very firm undertaking was given by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that this would not be treated as a precedent. May I, likewise, in regard to this provision ask whether the Lord Chancellor will give an undertaking that it will not be treated as a precedent?
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
Yes, I will, and I would say that it ought not to be so treated. I have considerable sympathy with the views which have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cones-ford, and by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, who has such wide experience in this field. It is, in the end, a question of opinion. As I said, the Government did not find it altogether an easy point; one has, at the end of the day, to come down on one side or the other. Frankly, I must say that I am not as enthusiastic about this subsection as I am about some of the others. But I will certainly say that this will not, I am sure, be treated as a precedent.
§ Clause 4 agreed to.
§ Clause 5 agreed to.
§ Clause 6: