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Clause 5—(The Disciplinary Committee)

Volume 463: debated on Monday 4 April 1949

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I beg to move, in page 7, line 3, at the end, to insert:

"(c) Wherever it is reasonably possible the place of hearing shall be reasonably near to the place of business or residence of the said producer."
The object of this Amendment is to ensure that meetings of the disciplinary committee, wherever it is reasonably possible, shall take place near to the place of business or residence of the producer. The House will, perhaps, realise that we are now dealing with the pains and penalties that may be imposed by the board on members who have broken some of the regulations, and for this purpose disciplinary committees are being set up. It is rather hard in certain instances if all these committees invariably meet in London, and we have had in the past in our experience of the marketing boards instances of some very difficult situations.

The Milk Marketing Board was very bad indeed, and produced a host of reasons for never meeting anywhere but in London. Producers concerned had to suffer great inconvenience in coming to London when they had to attend the meetings of the Board. The Bacon Board was pretty bad, but nothing like as bad as the Milk Marketing Board. The only good board was the Potato Board, which in the year up to its last report contrived to have some 15 or 16 out of 40-odd meetings outside London, some in Scotland and some in other parts of the country. Now we are dealing with the disciplinary committees before which offenders may be summoned, and we think it is desirable that, wherever it is reasonably possible, these inquiries should take place in the localities concerned.

We have taken the words of our Amendment from the Falmouth Report, which is constantly called in aid by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and the fact that we are using words which appear in that Report, for which no praise can be too high, will I hope commend the Amendment to the right hon. Gentleman. On the Committee stage, we sought to make it mandatory, but we have now included the words, as used in the Falmouth Report, "wherever reasonably possible." It is particularly hard in the case of people running one-man businesses when a defaulter has to come to London to answer certain charges, when he has to leave his agricultural or horticultural interests with no one to look after them. It is additionally hard upon the defaulter because he may not know the exact details of what he has done wrong until he comes to London, and the board's complaints against him are put to him fully for the first time. It might be that, in his answer to the complaints, his friends and neighbours in his locality might be able to assist him, or he might wish to have with him documents or papers which he has not brought to London, but which, in the circumstances proposed by our Amendment, would be available to him.

There is one further argument. In the old days, even the High Court of Parliament used to travel around, though for different reasons, and it did not confine itself to meetings in London. It sometimes met in York and sometimes in Oxford. Now that the High Court of Parliament has stripped itself of so much power and given it to various boards, it seems reasonable that the boards should also have to do a little travelling. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary, if he answers me—and, if he is to answer me, it is desirable that he should listen to me—will not use the argument that was used in Committee upstairs. On that occasion he said that if somebody had had a penalty imposed upon them at a meeting of the board in London, and it had been suggested that the meeting should take place near his place of residence, then the man might be able to upset the decision. I do not think a fine argument of that kind will commend itself to the whole House. It did not have a very good reception in a small Committee upstairs and I am sure that in the fuller light of day, and on the Floor of this House, it will not be found to hold water. If the right hon. Gentleman or his Parliamentary Secretary do not intend to accept our Amendment, I hope they will apply their ingenious minds to a slightly better excuse than the one given on the Committee stage.

7.30 p.m.

I am afraid I intend to embark upon this slightly fine argument which the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) finds rather disconcerting, probably because, despite its fineness, it is too strong for him on this Amendment. We are in complete sympathy with the idea that these disciplinary cases should not be run in such a way that the small business man has to be brought from all parts of the country to London. Indeed, one of the things for which we hope from the appoint- ment of these smaller disciplinary committees is that it will be possible to take the committees to centres in the country rather than make everybody come to London or wherever it might be.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedford made some point of the fact that his Amendment now includes words which are in the Falmouth Report, but with great respect to him—and he has held Office similar to that which I now hold—it must be appreciated that there is a difference between including words like "reasonably possible" in the Report of a body and including the same words in the law on which legal decisions are to be tested in a court of law. The interpretation of the words:
"reasonably near to the place of business"
would almost certainly, it seems to us and to our advisers, form the basis of an attempt to upset decisions of the disciplinary committee. That is our opinion, despite the fact that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford does not like that argument. Decisions on the facts might well be absolutely justifiable, but if a man could say that "near to the place of business" means the next village and not this one, that could easily lead to interminable arguments.

I resist the Amendment, first, on the ground that it is not sufficiently precise. Indeed, it is beyond our power, or the power of those on the other side, to devise an Amendment which will, in fact, be sufficiently precise. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedford quoted from the Falmouth Report, but one of his sins, which lies so heavily or so lightly on the Opposition generally, was that he quoted only that part of the Report which suited his purpose. Had he read other parts of the Report he would have known, as indeed he does know, that the Committee itself pointed out that local hearings would not always be possible. Once that is accepted we are faced with the difficulty of framing the law in such a way as to do any more than we are doing now—that is, to make the disciplinary committee sufficiently small and mobile that it can go out into the country. Everybody knows that is the intention and I think it is unnecessary to go any further.

There is another point. If a producer involved in a case of this kind, with charges brought against him, thinks that the place of hearing to which he has been asked to go is farther away than he ought to go, he can refuse to go before the disciplinary committee and can ask that the matter shall go for arbitration. The Amendment is unnecessary in any case, because if the action of the disciplinary committee is unreasonable it can be challenged by the producers either individually or collectively. I am sorry that we are unable to accept the Amendment. We certainly want these hearings to be local and it is our intention that they should be local, but we feel that it is impossible to draft the law any better than we have drafted it without running great risk of decisions being upset on mere technicalities. For those reasons we ask the House not to accept the Amendment.

I am not sure that the Parliamentary Secretary has convinced himself of his own case. I rise only to say that there are further stages before this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament and to ask the Government, in that time, to think again. The Parliamentary Secretary started by saying that he accepted the principle of the Amendment and he ended by saying the same thing. The only difficulty seems to be the legal interpretation of the words "if reasonably possible." My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) is not in the least tied to those words. They were put in at this stage, following the invitation by the Government during the Committee stage, because they happen to be words used in the Falmouth Report. We had discussions on this point and on another point at the beginning of our business today; it was mentioned when we were dealing with a new Clause.

All we want to make certain is that the people who have to go before a disciplinary committee should be able to go in the most reasonably convenient way and should not be dragged up and down the country over long distances, at great inconvenience to themselves and to everybody else. That is the purpose behind these words. We are not tied to them. This Measure will have further consideration before it returns to this House and I very much hope that the Government will think again and try to find words to meet the point which we both have in mind.

Amendment negatived.

I beg to move, in page 7 to leave out lines 37 to 42, and to insert:

"(3) Every hearing by the disciplinary committee of a board shall be held in public unless the chairman of the committee for special reasons directs that the whole or part thereof shall not be so held.
(4) The chairman of the disciplinary committee of a board may direct that any evidence given at a hearing by the committee shall be given on oath and may for that purpose administer oaths."
This Amendment is intended to meet two points made by the Opposition in the Committee stage. The first dealt with the question of the disciplinary committee conducting its business in public. The second was the question of allowing the chairman to take evidence on oath. We have conceded both points and, therefore, I feel there is no need for me to waste the time of the House by enlarging upon them.

Amendment agreed to.