HL Deb 23 October 1984 vol 456 cc134-45

2.58 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 2 [Extension of functions and control of Agency]:

Baroness Nicol moved the amendment: Page 2, line 44, at end insert— ("(2) The Agency's Annual Report shall include details of all such directions and of the Agency's replies thereon to the Secretary of State.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the amendment which stands in my name on the Marshalled List. This amendment is similar to one which we discussed at the Committee stage but which was in fact not moved. At the Report stage the Minister was reassuring about the life of the agency, but the direction of its activities was not discussed. Some of us have doubts about the Government's objectives for the agency in the long term, and it would be reassuring to know that the information asked for in this amendment would be available annually.

The Minster's reply at the Committee stage on 30th July, at col. 565, was as follows: The Secretary of State can be questioned on the use of the power"—

a question which I had particularly asked— either in Parliament or through the department".

However, questions on specific points which may have come to light are no substitute for complete information which will give us the drift of the Secretary of State's control. On several occasions the noble Lord the Minister mentioned that these were reserve powers which might not be much used. If that is so, then our amendment should not add significantly to anyone's workload. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, very briefly, I rise to support the very reasonable amendment which has been moved by my noble friend Lady Nicol. More than once during the passage of this Bill the Minister has told the House that he has some difficulty in giving illustrations as to why certain powers are being sought, but nevertheless he said that it is better to have them than not to have them.

The Minister has sought powers to wind up the agency, but last week he had difficulty in giving us illustrations of the kind of circumstances in which the winding up was likely to be merited. Again, the Minister and his colleagues have gratuitously introduced this power to give directions to the agency and yet have failed to convince me—and incidentally his colleagues failed to convince my colleagues in another place—that there was a need for it. After all, this is the Government that do not believe in intervention. They believe in electing or appointing people and letting them get on with the job. However, the Minister takes the view that there will be occasions when the Minister concerned will think that the CDA needs to be directed as to the kind of activities and the kind of behaviour that it should adopt.

My noble friend has quite simply said that there may very well be a happy resolution of a problem between the Minister and the CDA, where they are satisfied and he is satisfied. The amendment does not seek a cosy relationship; it wants the taxpayers as well as the parliamentary scrutineers to be made aware of what it was that caused the intervention. If the Minister would accept this most reasonable amendment, I think he would be giving aid and comfort to those of us who believe that so far as possible the Government's books should be open. I cannot conceive of any direction which is given by the Minister which would not be proper to be made public. If the Minister is in a reasonable mood I believe that he can do something that he has failed to do during the passage of this Bill—that is, accept a reasonable amendment.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I should like briefly to oppose this amendment. The amendment falls into two parts. The first part states: The Agency's Annual Report shall include details of all such directions". Speaking personally, I can see no objection to that. This is done in many other agencies, Monopolies Commission reports and so forth. But it is the second part to which I object. It reads: and of the Agency's replies thereon to the Secretary of State". With the greatest respect to those who have moved this amendment, if under Clause 2(4) the agency has to comply with the directions of the Secretary of State (and this is no longer in question), what on earth, one may ask, is the object of publishing the agency's replies? There is no precedent for this type of situation. Perhaps consideration might be given by Her Majesty's Government as to whether the agency's annual report should include details of directions. As I say, I can see no objection to that. But with the greatest respect I suggest that the second part of the amendment is misconceived.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining the purpose of her amendment, but I believe that both she and her noble colleague are showing something of an unnecessary concern over what is, after all, a reserve power. I emphasise again that this is a reserve power. I thought I made it quite clear during earlier stages of the Bill that the power of direction has been introduced as a counterpart to the extension of the agency's functions and in particular the removal of the restriction on commercial activities. The Government have thought it proper to take account of the possibility, however remote it may be, that the agency might misuse its new powers at some stage. When I say "might misuse" I do not necessarily mean wittingly; it could, in fact, misuse the powers unwittingly, and I shall explain how I see that in a moment.

It is a little invidious to give examples because the Government have confidence in the CDA board, which as I explained in our discussion last week has recently been reappointed with some new members, and they have confidence in the director. Nonetheless, as the noble Lord. Lord Graham, has asked for a specific example, I can only draw on a hypothetical one because I cannot see the need for this reserve power. So I have to use a hypothetical example. Let us suppose that with a different management structure perhaps in a few years' time the CDA developed a particularly lucrative commercial activity, which would be quite within the new functions which are contained in the Bill before us. Let us suppose that it then decided to ignore its other responsibilities in order to concentrate on that activity. It might well be a circumstance in which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State would believe it right to give some direction to turn the attention of the agency back to its main function.

That point is not totally academic because complaints about unfair competition have arisen in the past. In explaining his objection to the amendment, in dealing with the first part of it, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway drew attention to the fact that these powers were contained in a number of other Acts, and he enumerated some of them. In fact, there are a number of others.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked: why should I envisage a situation where the CDA needs to be given direction? I think that I have answered that question; I do not see the CDA as needing to be given a direction. The main objection to the amendment is that first we doubt whether it would be necessary to use the power of direction. But if it were used, there is certainly no intention to "gag" the agency in any way if it disagreed with the Secretary of State. We welcome free discussion, particularly in these areas, and during the passage of this Bill since the summer I have sought to illustrate that to your Lordships. In the event of the Secretary of State giving a direction, I should find it extremely difficult to keep this matter secret because the actions of the agency would demonstrate that something has happened and it would not take very long before the fact that a direction had been given would be elicited.

If the Secretary of State made a direction, it may very well not be in the interests of the agency itself that such a direction should be made public in the report. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway suggests, having given the direction, there can be no point in the agency's response being printed in an annual report. By that time it would have responded.

There may of course be another scenario in which the agency would not want a direction made public, and I say that because I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, shook his head at my earlier remark. For instance, the agency could be involved in negotiations over the acquisition or possibly the disposal of a property. Although it is unlikely, I suggest that it is not inconceivable that a direction might be given regarding such negotiations. If that fell at a time when the annual report were to be published and the amendment before us this afternoon were to be accepted, it would be incumbent upon the agency to report that such a direction had been given in that annual report. Such a report would have to disclose that negotiations were being undertaken. I would think that that could easily be to the detriment of the agency.

I have given only two examples because I find it difficult to think up others because it is a reserve power which we quite optimistically do not feel is likely to be used, but for the reasons I have given nevertheless we think it prudent in a matter of this kind that there should be that reserve power. I do not think that I can add anything more to what I have said. Perhaps with that explanation the noble Baroness may feel inclined to withdraw her amendment.

3.11 p.m.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I think the House will agree that the Minister has tried hard, but I cannot think that he has convinced many people that he has right on his side. One of the features of this Bill is that there has been a general feeling on all sides of the House that we are after the same objectives. There has been no amendment down that I know about that has not been put down in good faith, and where the spirit of it was not understood by noble Lords opposite. The argument has often been rather narrowly balanced. But with a little more generosity the noble Lord opposite could have accepted some of the amendments, and he really ought to be able to accept this one.

The noble Lord went to some lengths to show that they were not intending, and did not expect, to have to use their power of issuing directions very often. I think we accept that. The noble Lord also went to some length to suggest that if the agency went beyond their powers contained in the eventual Act it would probably be unwitting, and I think we accept that. But if there is a difference of opinion as to how the powers of this Bill should be interpreted, a difference between the Government on the one hand and the agency on the other, are we not now trying in this country of ours to get people to understand, to get the general public to understand, what is involved and what the facts are? We have too much misunderstanding. We have too many occasions when there are great arguments in the country, and often based on incomplete information.

If there is a difference of opinion between the Government and the agency I, as a member of the public, should like to know what the gradations of opinion are. What are the differences? Why was it that the agency thought that they had powers when the Government decided that they had not powers? Even at this late stage I would hope that the Minister would try at the very last to see whether he could give way on this particular point. He is not giving anything very much away. He is only indicating that they really have faith both in the agency and in the future interpretation of the Act.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I do not wish to prolong the debate but I should like to say for the benefit of those many noble Lords present who were not present at the earlier stages of the Bill that a lot of the amendments arose because the Bill before us is an extension of the life of a body which has been in existence for some years, has been doing a good job which the Government have admitted on many occasions, and indeed they have praised it for the job it has done—and suddenly in this Bill extending its life we find a whole range of new powers given to the Minister. They include, although I do not want to dig it up again for too long, the powers to dissolve the agency itself. It seems to us on this side that there must be reasons for the new powers that are being taken. We have failed to find satisfactory reasons for any of them, though the Minister has done his best to reassure us.

We therefore can hardly be blamed if we are slightly suspicious of this particular new power. We see it not as a defence of the agency to keep these things secret but as a way of perhaps allowing the Minister to change the direction of the agency, which has been given new commercial powers and which is therefore capable of having its direction changed in ways in which it was never intended to function in the first place. We are therefore worried that these powers may be used to change the direction of the agency. Therefore we simply sought to have the Minister's directions published at the end of the year so that we could satisfy ourselves that these powers were not being misused. Does the Minister wish to intervene?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the noble Baroness, and indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick. I can only say again—and this must be the fifth or sixth time that I have sought to reassure your Lordships on the intention of the Government with regard to the Co-operative Development Agency—that we have provided funding for six years, we have recently appointed a new board, and we have sought to meet the requirements of the agency in opening its functions and its activities. Noble Lords have spoken about the other amendments. They are behind us. We have debated them. I would only remind your Lordships that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said last week that he was probing with certainly two of his amendments. He had asked the same question: "What are your intentions?" He had asked it many times, and I had given him the self-same answer to the self-same question. He thanked me for that and said, "Well, at least that message is getting home to some people".

There is no subterfuge on the Government's part with regard to the refusal of amendments. I have sought to explain logically our refusal to accept this amendment. I said earlier that perhaps I had nothing else to say. However, the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, sparked off something else. We do not in this Bill forbid the inclusion in the annual report of the CDA anything that the CDA wish to include. They can do what they like. If we accept the amendment that the noble Baroness and others seek to impose on the Bill, what we do is place an obligation upon the agency——

Lord Beswick

My Lords, the noble Lord has said something very important, and I just want to make it clear. Is he saying that the agency would be free in their annual report to give details of the direction and of their reply to it?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I know of nothing in the Bill that gives any kind of direction to the agency as to what they shall include in their report. If we accept" the amendment, then we impose upon them an obligation to do certain things. It is an obligation which they may not wish under certain circumstances. I have sought to describe one of them, the property deal. I think that the noble Baroness and her noble friends are being unduly sensitive about this matter.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I do not wish to prolong the debate. The Minister has done his best in a rather difficult situation. I am reassured to hear that the agency is free to publish what it will in its annual report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, before the Bill passes, may I say that I have had a lifelong association with the co-operative movement and the co-operative idea, and I wonder whether I may say a word of welcome and congratulation to the Government on the passing of this Bill. The Government are frequently charged with obsessive belief in the virtues of private enterprise. In passing this Bill and guaranteeing the continued existence of the Co-operative Development Agency they have recognised the relevance of the co-operative idea in the mixed economy of the United Kingdom.

I felt only one little twinge of embarrassment about it, because I am not too keen on organisations going to the Government for assistance. I read the balance sheet of the CWS and the CIS today, and noted their massive investments in private enterprise—quite rightly. Ordinary shares in the CIS are £1.2 billion. The CWS is the largest wholesale trader in this country—successfully, I am glad to say. I can only express, through the Minister, to my friends who represent co-operative interests in this House, that perhaps this encouragement from the Government will stimulate the existing co-operative movement to play its full part in developing co-operative activities within the Co-operative Development Agency.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, has dealt with the Co-operative Development Agency part of this Bill, but as some of your Lordships may have noticed the Bill also comprises, in Part II, an industrial development Bill. In the course of the Second Reading debate and in Committee I passed some observations as to the incongruity of this position of the Co-operative Development Agency (which deals, if I may say so with respect to my friends in the co-operative movement, with a comparatively small segment of the United Kingdom) forming Part I, whereas the industrial development Bill, which by its implications is of very considerable interest to the entire United Kingdom, comprises Part II. It is of interest particularly to those millions of unemployed who are currently within the development areas, whether they be assisted areas, development areas or special development areas, or whether they are in the West Midlands area, which now qualifies to be a development area but is not, so far, in it, and where there is considerable unemployment at this time.

I have protested before, and I renew my protest, that Part II of the Bill ought to have been a Bill on its own, discussed on its own merits within the wider context to which it relates. But this has not been done. It is almost as though the Budget resolutions in another place had been appended as Part II to a gaming Bill, which is a very incongruous position. It is my view and the view of my noble friends that this course of action, taken in haste, was so that the new powers granted to the Minister would pass virtually unnoticed without any regard to the nationwide repercussions that the decisions that he makes, and is empowered to make under the Bill, would have.

I do not want to repeat much, if indeed any, if I can help it, of what I have said at previous stages of this Bill. But it is necessary to remind your Lordships—at least, it may be necessary—that of the 25 identified poor areas in Europe no fewer than 10 are in the United Kingdom. Of the 12 worst poverty areas in Europe, no fewer than five are in the United Kingdom.

I have been hopeful, ever since this Bill started in this House, that the Government would be prepared to give a far greater indication of what they propose to do. The only powers that have been taken in this Bill have been to redefine the criteria on which aid is supposed to be granted. What they have not done, and what they could have done, is to tell the House how they propose to use these powers. They could have told the House, as indeed has been the practice before. what were the new classifications for assisted development and special development areas, and how, if at all, the new areas varied from those in the 1982 Act, which in its turn amended the 1972 Act. But they have done none of these things, and one wonders why. It is true enough that information has been leaking out, not from the Department of Industry but from the Department of Employment. There has been a gradual influx of information, available in the Library, of course, which gives some clues as to what would happen if, for example, the new aid were directed in regard to areas based on travel-to-work areas. But as the noble Lord knows quite well, in the Bill those are not the only criteria. Clause 4 mentions wards in addition, parliamentary constituencies and so on.

The Department of Employment Gazette for September this year now gives information on what would happen if these other classifications were brought into effect. For this we are very grateful. Why is it, then, that the Government have not been able to introduce this Bill after a proper explanation of what they propose to do? Is it possibly due to unresolved differences in the Cabinet itself because there are different philosophies, each one of which has some bearing on the decisions that have to be made?

Mr. Norman Tebbit, for example, speaking quite recently—I am referring to a report in The Times of 12th October—said this: The market system, allied with free enterprise, gives a better allocation of capital and human resources than any other yet devised". In view of the existence of 20 million unemployed in Europe as a whole and some four million here, one can beg to doubt that bold assertion, which indeed was doubted by his colleague, Mr. Walker, who ventured to qualify the whole matter by saying: The market economy idolises people as consumers and as long as the market mechanism is working it does give consumers a wide freedom of choice. But people are more than just consumers. They are workers, managers, householders and students. Consumer freedom for them is one aspect of a free society, an important aspect … Progressive Tories cannot rest easy if Government restricts their activities to just oiling the wheels of the market economy". Is there, therefore, a battle in the Cabinet which has produced the indecision which has in turn produced no further information as to how the Government propose to apply regional aid?

Regional aid is of great significance in seeking to correct those manifest instances of where the free market economy does not work. If the free market economy worked to the benefit of all in the United Kingdom and all the differences between regions were self-adjusting by the working of the market, that would be one thing; but they are not. The magnitude of the Government's expenditure on the regions—expenditure necessary to bring new life and new hope into areas of Wales, the North of England and other areas—is based fundamentally on an admission that there, precisely because the free market mechanism has not worked, the state must take corrective and ameliorative action and must by some means inject sums into those localities in order not merely that life can be preserved there—and they are now covering a much larger area than they were in 1979—but also that those living there, and in particular the young people, are able to formulate purposes in life; are able, yes, my Lords, to have dreams of a future. And there is nothing wrong in having dreams.

Therefore, the Government's expenditure under this head and the extent of that expenditure are one measure by which the country as a whole can judge this Government's determination to encourage growth where growth is most sorely needed; to prevent dereliction where there is growing decay; to engender hope and purpose where there is now despair, disillusionment and cynicism. This is, or should be, the whole purpose of the regional development and the funds that are made available to it by the Treasury.

We have heard frequent homilies about Government expenditure, and we are told from time to time that the funds made available, coming as they do out of taxpayers' money, must be scrutinised with great care and kept to the absolute minimum. It is quite clear, from the context within which the debates in Committee, on Second Reading and on Report have taken place, that it is the intention of the Government drastically to cut down the money that they have hitherto spent in the regions themselves. A figure of as much as £200 million has been mentioned, although I fully understand that the noble Lord opposite cannot possibly confirm or deny that figure. However, I would remind the House when it comes to social priorities that the Government are quite willing to spend £200 million of taxpayers' money, if we believe the accuracy of the Financial Times article on the subject, on the promotion of the sales of shares in British Telecom—money paid out in commission to bankers, commission to accountants, underwriting fees, publicity, printing and all the rest of it. That apparently is good and desirable expenditure of taxpayers' money in order that British Telecom may be piratised by their rentier friends.

Are the Government going to take regional development seriously at all? The indications are that they are not. I do not want unduly to trespass on the content of the next debate on the Order Paper, which deals particularly and in very great detail with regional development affairs. It is very convenient, presumably, to have them on the same day—and I must commend the Government Chief Whip on this—because if I stray into the discussion on the report now I shall be told that I shall have a later opportunity of dealing with the matter, and if in the European Regional Development Fund debate that is going to take place next I omit something that relates to the United Kingdom, I shall then be told that I really ought to have raised it in the previous debate on the passing of the industrial development Bill. So the Government are in a very good position here.

The Government's attitude to regional development as a whole in the United Kingdom, particularly when one relates it to the other priorities upon which they are prepared to squander vast sums of taxpayers' money, is a public scandal and should be regarded as such. However, the asperities that I have seen fit to make do not prevent me from saying that we on this side of the House very much appreciate the manner in which the noble Lord. Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has dealt with this Bill. No matter how unpleasant and how inconsequential much of it has been to those of us on this side of the House, and despite the acerbities that have been hurled at him from time to time, and despite a certain degree of robustness with which the arguments have been addressed to him, he has maintained his unfailing courtesy and has certainly dealt as well as he possibly could with the various matters raised in the Bill. For this we thank him; but it does not prevent us from regarding the Bill itself as the most miserable bit of trivia that has ever been inflicted upon the House.

3.34 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, may I take a little of the time of the House by first expressing our appreciation, echoing the words of my noble friend Lord Bruce, of the unfailing courtesy of the Minister in piloting this Bill through the House. At all times he has tried to be helpful. Very often he was unable to be helpful, but at all times he tried. The fact that there have been proscriptions upon spelling out what we wanted him to spell out did not stop us from time to time trying to get him to do just that. I speak from these Benches not with the authority but with experience of the co-operative moment, primarily the consumer co-operative movement. I can certainly tell the Minister that the view that is held in the consumer co-operative movement is that we value the extension of the life of the CDA, recognising, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, has said, that there are many ways in which the co-operative idea can be applied.

What we have seen—and to some extent this is thanks to the work of the CDA in the previous six years—has been a flowering of the co-operative idea in many ways which augurs well for the future. At one time the consumer co-operative movement was paramount. Now it has to recognise (and it welcomes) the presence of an extending worker/producer co-operative movement, a housing co-operative movement, a credit co-operative movement and the agricultural co-operative movement, which is not a recent phenomenon and has been well established over time.

The Minister is well aware of the two prime reservations that have been mentioned from this side as far as the CDA is concerned. One is the issue of the power to direct, and the other the power to wind up. The Minister has sought to assure us that these are almost benign. We fear that they may very well turn out to be malignant. The Minister has gone some way to assure us that as far as he is concerned he sees a full six years' life ahead for the CDA. As he has pointed out, the funds are there in order to ensure it. The co-operative movement will watch the next six years—and we wanted to have six years—with a great deal of pride in what we have been able to do so far in establishing the CDA. We recognise that the Minister has said as much as he possibly can to make sure that the CDA has firm directions in the changing of the functions, and also has the cash.

Reference was made by the noble Lord. Lord Taylor of Gryfe, to the value that the existing co-operative movement can be to the new co-operative movement. Certainly I can say with some authority that we have been very pleased to make available the expertise and the knowledge which repose inside the co-operative movement, to make sure that our sucessors are given a fair wind. I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for wanting to dispel any gloom which the co-operative movement may have felt. We do not intend to be gloomy. We are optimistic for the future and we certainly wish the CDA well.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I feel that I should respond very briefly. I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for his comments, particularly on Part I of the Bill. The Government firmly believe that the co-operative form of enterprise has a potential and will contribute quite significantly to the creation of new businesses and jobs. We recognise the important role of the CDA, and I can say no more about that.

I must confess I was somewhat amused by the noble Lord's remarks with regard to the co-operative movement as a whole; and when the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, said that the movement was pleased to support the agency's activities with their expertise and so on, I was rather hoping that perhaps he was going to add in parenthesis, "We might even put some cash alongside that".

I would not say that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, does not speak with authority. It was the authoritative way in which he conducted his arguments during the course of the Bill that I personally found most helpful. The whole House recognises that he is an authority on the Bill. When he says he hopes that the CDA will go for its full term of six years, I say to him, "Six plus what?—six plus six plus six?" The aim of the Government, in loosening the bonds of the agency, is that it should become more self-supporting and then go on perhaps to bigger and better things. He and I share that belief, I know.

Lastly, I should like to turn to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. First, let me thank him for the latter remarks in his contribution this afternoon. They followed much the same pattern as his remarks that were made that Friday afternoon in the summer. Today he is pleased that we have got two similar debates on the same day, but we had two that Friday in the summer, of course, but he did not like that and I wondered why.

Let me just answer two main points. He said, "This is a wretched little Bill" and he thought there should have been two Bills. He knows as well as I and the rest of your Lordships the pressures of legislation. He knows also—because we have discussed it—that both Houses of Parliament will have the opportunity of debating the detailed changes this Bill allows for—details which he keeps pressing me to give him but which I have told him I am unable to give at this time. I did say last week that most of this would be out by the end of this year. Then we shall have those orders put before Parliament, and both Houses will be able to debate them; so there is nothing hidden at all.

The other point he made some fairly heavy weather of, I thought, was when he talked about Cabinet decisions, our monetary policies and the like. I would just finish by saying that of course we recognise the social need for regional grant and regional help. I explained earlier that the Bill was to change the way this was done. We did not believe that the old way was either cost-effective or well targeted, and this Bill provides for changes in the method. For the first time, the White Paper upon which this Bill is based recognises the social significance of regional policy; and that is why the Bill, as we have explained on a number of occasions during its passage, targets that support on jobs. That, I believe, is a social priority and it is one which this Bill will support in its entirety. I beg to move.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with the amendments.

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