HL Deb 23 October 1968 vol 296 cc1476-84

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons Amendments to the Lords Amendments, the Commons Reasons, and the Commons consequential and other Amendments be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons Amendments to the Lords Amendments, the Commons Reasons, and the Commons consequential and other Amendments be now considered.—(Lord Winterbottom.)


My Lords, on this Motion we have before us the schedule of Commons Amendments and Commons Reasons, and the Bill returns to us in this form from another place where the Government have used their majority to restore a number of the points which your Lordships had removed from the Bill. We now have to decide whether we should again amend the Bill or whether we should accept it in its present form. This is a decision of great difficulty and magnitude for us on these Benches, and my noble friends and I have given long and earnest consideration to it. This, I should say, has not been assisted by the Government's attempt to influence our decision.

Last week the Government "leaked" to the Press a minatory warning. We have been told that if we decide to insist on our earlier Amendments the Government will retaliate by dropping the agreed version of the Lords Reform and introducing a stiffer version. Your Lordships may agree with me that this is a curious threat to make. In so far as it has any significance, it implies that noble Lords on these Benches have a greater sense of responsibility on Parliamentary reform than noble Lords on the Government Benches. This may well be right, and it is a compliment that we are willing to accept. But as a threat it really is as empty as the threat made by poor old mad King Lear, in threatening his daughters, when he said: I will have such revenges on you both, That all the world shall—I will do such things,— What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be The terrors of the earth. Well, no one was much frightened by the old man's rantings. Nor, I think, will noble Lords here be by this ill-judged threat. Those who live in political life live too close to the woods to be frightened by the hooting of owls.

The reform of this House is of such major constitutional importance that surely it can be successfully and lastingly achieved only with the agreement of all three Parties; and I would suggest that in view of the complexities of the reform, the scope for choice of action is so limited that it is difficult to see how it could be used as a bargaining counter in the concluding stages of this Bill. Could we, for instance, bargain quantity licensing against the retention of some of the hereditary Peerage—perhaps on a ton-mile basis of vehicles against the ton mile basis of Peers? My noble friends from Scotland would, of course, count most! Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, will tell us how he thinks this might be done.

May I just add in passing that I believe that public opinion has high expectations from this reform. No longer do our people wish to see this House swept away as an effete bastion of worn-out privilege. To-day they wish to see this House retained and strengthened as a safeguard for the national interest. This may seem a dramatic transformation, my Lords, but it is a very small thing compared with the Prime Minister's achievement in transforming the "Gnomes of Zurich" into the "Cherubs of Basle", now our chubby friends. In short, I think we can dismiss the reform of the House of Lords from our minds as something which requires such precise handling that it really cannot come into this, and consider the Bill on its merits.


Hear, hear!


My Lords, I can understand the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, feeling a certain sense of relief as my discussion on this matter comes to an end.

There are two major questions to be considered. First, is there a major issue of principle still at stake? And in this context, of course, to what extent have the Government modified the Bill in response to our Amendments? Secondly, what is the limit of our powers with regard to the Bill now? On the first point. on Third Reading the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, was good enough to say that we "have given responsible attention o the task of improving this Bill". In the light of our debates the Government have wholly or partly met 30 important points which we have pressed. A substantial job of revision has been done hertz, if I may say so, with credit to the Government as well as to noble Lords in all parts of the House. The Bill is to-day in a very different shape from what t was twelve months ago.

My Lords, I believe that the Government have agreed to the amendment of the Bill on this scale for two reasons: first, because they have had time for second thoughts—it is nearly 12 months now since the Bill first appeared—and, secondly, because we have been able to present reasoned Amendments based on the majority of informed opinion in the country, and argue them constructively with the great weight of authority of noble Lords in all parts of this House. No doubt our ultimate power to delay was a factor also weighed in the balance. But we have to recognise here—and noble Lords with far longer experience than mine will know this better than I do—that this House cannot be the source of power; its strength is that it can be and is the source of reason, which will have its influence on the course of government. There is an ultimate truth somewhere which we all of us know we shall ignore at our peril.

In assessing the value of the Government's concessions, I think there will be a disposition to give the Minister of Transport credit for trying to restore the shaken confidence of industry and to make the Bill a practical measure. Indeed, he has daily evidence of the depth of the feelings that still exist in the industrial world, but we here all under stand that the political commitment which the Minister has inherited from his predecessor cannot be openly dumped overboard where, in my judgment, it ought to be. The Party gods, and indeed goddesses, have to be treated with respect.

Within the limits of these political commitments the Minister has come a long way to meet the practical objections which we have advanced against the two main Party political features in the Bill. These are, my Lords, Clause 48, which gives unlimited powers of extension of State trading by the nationalised industries; and, secondly, quantity licensing. On the first, the Minister has restored Clause 48 to the Bill in this schedule of Amendments, but he has given us Clause 134 which requires that all subsidiaries of nationalised industries shall operate as a company engaged in commercial enterprise, instead of the Bill's original requirement only to break even. If this is fairly administered it will not only limit the development of such subsidiaries to a few exceptional cases, but will also eliminate industry's complaint of unfair competition.

Secondly, on quantity licensing, our Amendment to postpone the appointed day until the end of 1971 has been removed by the Commons, but the Minister stated last month that his timetable provided that the introduction of quantity licensing would come in later in 1970. As it must be odds on that there will be a General Election in the Autumn of 1970, the end of this Parliament's life being in the Spring of 1971, I would think this can be regarded as a gesture of some practical value.

I conclude that although these two major objectionable features remain in the Bill. Government action both within and without the Bill has modified the practical effect to the point where, in my judgment, they are no longer points of major principle. The remaining points on which the Commons have disagreed with your Lordships are of secondary importance, and seen in the context of the many points which the Government have conceded certainly do not add up to a major point of principle.

Let me now turn to the second major question, the powers of delay which this House has with regard to the Bill. We have, of course, at this minute the power to resist the Commons Amendments, if a majority of noble Lords wish to do so, either all or severally, or alternatively we can, if we wish, make further Amendments. However, I must add—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, will agree—that the Government have the last word in this, because they have the power to prorogue Parliament when they wish to, and in the new Session the Government can then reintroduce the Bill in the form they desire as soon as twelve months have elapsed from the date of the original Second Reading—which was on December 20 of last year. After the Commons have passed the Bill a second time—and presumably all stages could be taken in a day—the Parliament Act operates to enable the Bill to be presented for Royal Assent even if your Lordships continue to object.

My Lords, there are various combinations and permutations of procedure which may be followed, which I do not think I need trouble your Lordships with now. The practical result of them all is that the Government would have no difficulty in getting the Bill on the Statute Book by the beginning of February. This means that the limit of our powers at this stage of the game is only three months delay. No doubt this would be a nuisance to noble Lords opposite and to the Government generally, but I really could not say that it would be long enough to bring about any significant change of outlook, even if the Government do lose another couple of by elections in that period. A twelve months delay is altogether a different matter and this, of course, is what I think the outside world thinks we have. A twelve months delay is long enough for circumstances and personalities to change, and, indeed, policies to be substantially modified. If that is the scope of our power to-day, I might well feel myself that it is justified for us to invoke it, even if it imperilled my future in this noble House.

I therefore conclude that neither the measure of difference remaining between us nor, on the other hand, the measure of delay which we can impose, is sufficient to warrant us further opposing this Bill. Nor do I think that it would be in the perspective of what has been achieved, or the spirit in which it has been done, to invoke this mighty constitutional machinery for such a brief delay.

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, the House will have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, with great interest, a considerable appreciation of his constitutional common sense, some disbelief about his ideas of the merits of certain parts of the Bill, and, I must say, a little bewilderment at the excursion he made into Lords' reform. I am sure that we all found absolutely delightful the noble Lord's declamation from King Lear; and we shall all look forward to other occasions when he can give us the benefit of similar declamations from Shakespeare. But I wonder whether this is the right place for it, and I feel that he was mistaken in applying that quotation to the situation to-day. I assure him that we on this side are not responsible for what the Press may say, and if any warning had been necessary such a warning could have been made, and would have been made, quite straightforwardly in the proper place, which is in this House. I felt that the noble Lord's words were not quite in keeping with his general attitude on this Bill. Although the voice was the voice of Nugent, I wondered whether the words were the words of someone else. But I leave that part of his speech at that.

There has been a certain amount of "brinkmanship" in the way the Opposition have considered their attitude towards this Bill, but all will agree that they have come down on the right side. As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, said, this is a better Bill in many respects because of the consideration given to it in this House. I am glad that the noble Lord emphasised this point again to-day. The Bill has been substantially amended as a result of discussions both here and in the Commons. It is not for me to talk about the work of Members of the Commons, but I think that Members on both sides of this House have done, and done well, the job which a Second Chamber in a democratic system is expected to do.

The noble Lord had some further words to say about certain clauses which have aroused particular controversy. I accept his comments on Clause 48, and possibly we might say another word about it when we reach that Amendment later this afternoon. Possibly I could answer now something of what he said on Clause 71, because the way in which the clause has been considered is typical of the general attitude of both sides in their consideration of the Bill. The noble Lord himself said that my right honourable friend had made a gesture of practical value, but I hope that the noble Lord, who is very fair minded, will agree that the Minister, and indeed the Government, have been practical throughout in the way they have deals with Clause 71.

As I said before we sent the Bill back to the Commons, and as my right honourable friend has stated specifically and emphatically since, it is not intended to rush prematurely into widespread licensing. The White Paper itself made clear that: The Government intend to be satisfied that the new freight liner service has proved itself in practice before quantity licensing is introduced. If these conditions are met before the date which the noble Lord and his friends have put into their Amendment, which the Commons have rejected, then clearly there will be no point in postponing the introduction of this revised system of quantity licensing. Let us be clear about this, my Lords. It is only a revised system. The "A" and "B" licensing arrangements now in force, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, would agree, are a system of quantity licensing. In many respects the old arrangements are out of date, and the new system will be appropriate to modern conditions.

Despite all the furore stirred up in the country by the expert publicity campaigns, the truth still remains that the new quantity licensing proposals in this Bill are in fact a substantial simplification of the existing system. They will apply to only some 40,000 public haulage vehicles, as compared with the 220,000 to which quantity controls now apply. And, out of the 400,000 vehicles over 30 cwt. under the old "C" licence system. only some 60,000 vehicles of over 16 tons will be concerned. This therefore is not a matter on which in any professional examination of the situation we should get unduly excited. We have simplified a procedure which has now been accepted in principle over the past years, and we should keep this matter in proper perspective.

When we come to look at the effect of the new system of licensing, again there is a rational and moderate advance only. The White Paper, Transport of Freight, estimated that by the early 1970's there will be some 4,500 million ton-miles of traffic moving by road which would be suitable for carriage by freight-liner. This traffic, though representing only 10 per cent. of road freight movement, represents 30 per cent. of total rail movement. Certainly it is true that much, if not most, of this traffic would be attracted across to the freight-liner service sooner or later. The function of the licensing system introduced by this Bill is to help transfer the traffic sooner, rather than later, so that the nation as a whole can get the benefit of a proper return from the investment of national resources which is being and will be made in this new and efficient rail capacity.

The noble Lord made a great point about flexibility. I agree with him that both technical and commercial considerations call for proper flexibility. I do not propose to go into detail, but it is a fact that the new legislation provides for flexibility, and, moreover, the consignor's interest will be paramount. I do not propose to go more into detail about this at this stage, and if it is so wished we can go into this matter in greater detail when we come to particular Amendments. But I hope that when one looks at this most controversial of all the clauses—the one on which the noble Lord has said he thought it was essential to accept his Amendment—outside of the propaganda campaigns, the publicity exercises, and so on, I feel that the overall attitude of the noble Lord in his approach to this Bill justifies the decision which he and his friends have come to in their attitude to the Bill this afternoon.

I agree with the noble Lord that we have improved the Bill. I am pleased to think that it will not be unduly impeded. Quite apart from the constitutional issues, it would have been absolutely intolerable if this wide-ranging Bill, warmly welcomed for the greater part, had been held up for reasons which commend themselves to a minority in the democratically elected House of Commons. I hope that we can now go on to consider the remainder of the Commons Reasons.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


My Lords, for convenience of reference, the Marshalled List contains not only the Commons Amendments which this House has now to consider, but also the original Lords Amendments to which the Commons Amendments relate. I shall call the Commons Amendments only. As there are several noble Lords dealing with this Bill from the Government Front Bench, I shall not call any names after the Amendments.