House Of Commons
Wednesday, 27th April, 1949
The House met at Half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
City Of London (Various Powers) Bill
Read the third time, and passed.
Bolton Corporation Bill (By Order)
Consideration, as amended, deferred till Tomorrow.
Oral Answers To Questions
Royal Air Force
asked the Secretary of State for Air what rents are
|Rank and appropriate quarter||Standard charge per annum||Abated Charge per annum|
|Group III Quarter||Junior Officer's Quarter||Sub Standard Quarter|
|Air Vice-Marshal and above Group I or special design||£175*||£160||£135||£75|
|Air Commodore: Group 11||£160||£160||£135||£75|
|Group Captain: Group II||£135||£135||£135||£75|
|Wing Commander: Group III||£135||£135||£135||£75|
|Squadron Leader and below: Junior Officer's Quarters||£100||£100||£100||£75|
* Applies also when occupying a Group II Quarter.
asked the Secretary of State for Air what steps are taken by the Royal Air Force in Malaya to prevent injury to the unarmed civilian population during raids on bandit areas.
No bandit-infested area is attacked from the air unless the civil authorities are satisfied that there is no risk to the civilian population. The Royal Air Force take every precaution to ensure accuracy in the attacks.
Could the Minister tell us how it is possible to bomb any area without endangering the population; and paid for married quarters by Royal Air Force officers whose rank is senior to those for whom their accommodation was primarily intended.
As the answer contains a number of figures I will, with permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
is the right hon. and learned Gentleman still satisfied that the allocation of these quarters to officers who start their service as officers is satisfactory?
Yes, Sir. In relation to the position in civilian life the treatment of these officers and the rents they are asked to pay are, from their point of view, very satisfactory.
Following is the answer
does he not think that this is more likely to create anti-British feeling in Malaya than anything else?
I think my hon. Friend is under a misapprehension. These bombing attacks take place not on urban areas, towns or villages, but on the bandit camps and hide-outs.
Is it not the fact that nearly all these bombs are dropped actually on the jungle, on the bandit columns when they are there, without endangering any population other than animal life?
Is it not also the case that in some places the bandits are rather dependent upon those who live around them, and would it not be wise for those people to keep away from the bandits?
asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he will make a statement about the proposal to introduce a seven-day week in Germany, in the light of the practice of trade unionism; and, in view of the interference with Sunday observance, which would be caused.
Working arrangements of this nature are a matter for determination by employers and trade unions, subject to any restrictions imposed by German law. No proposal has been made to introduce a seven-day week generally in German industry. The possibility has been examined of introducing seven-day operation in selected plants in the iron and steel industry with the object of obtaining increased and more balanced production but it has been decided that the time is not opportune for such a measure.
asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what sum the population of Western Germany are expected to contribute towards the Army of Occupation in 1949.
This information is not yet available. The estimates for Occupation costs and other requirements of the Forces of Occupation in Western Germany for the financial year which began on 1st April, 1949, are still under consideration by the Military Governors.
Spain, British Protestant Chapels
asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs how many British Protestant churches have been ordered to be closed in Spain since 1st January, 1947; how many are now closed; and what action he is taking in the matter.
Seven British Protestant chapels in Spain have been closed by order of the Spanish authorities since 1st January, 1947, and are still closed. His Majesty's Embassy in Madrid drew the attention of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to this matter on 21st January, 1948. In the meantime, repeated petitions were made by the pastors of the British chapels for permission to reopen, but these had no effect. The Embassy accordingly addressed a further note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 31st, December, 1948, referring to the assurance given by the Spanish Ambassador in London on behalf of General Franco in 1937 that full religious liberty would be granted to all classes and creeds in Spain; and demanding that the properties should be restored without delay and that those chapels which had fulfilled all requirements of the law should be allowed to reopen. A reply was received to the effect that the matter would be investigated. On 24th March, 1949, His Majesty's Embassy addressed a third note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which they reminded them that they were still awaiting a final reply to their previous representations. The hon. Member may be assured that I shall continue to pursue this matter.
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us if it is a fact that the majority of these chapels have been closed down by the local authorities rather than by the central Government and can he press on the central Government to exercise greater control over the activities of the local authorities?
From my point of view the central Government are responsible. I do not believe anyone can do anything in Spain without the authority of the central Government.
Has my right hon. Friend taken the opportunity of reminding the British delegation to the United Nations of the continuance of religious persecution and other objectionable features of the present Spanish Government?
I think that is constantly coming up.
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken specifically of chapels; does he mean that any Anglican churches are left uninterfered with and does he know what denominations the chapels represent?
I cannot give the denominations at the moment, but I think they are mainly Baptist chapels.
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us on what pretext these chapels were closed down; whether they did not comply with some local law, or whether it was some religious intolerance?
I should say it was religious intolerance.
Northern Rhodesia (Development Plan)
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make a statement on the results of the policy adopted in 1947 of overhauling the 10-year development plan in Northern Rhodesia and making the country self-supporting in foodstuffs.
As the answer is necessarily long, I will, with my hon. Friend's permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
In view of the fact that the population of this territory has doubled in the last 36 years, is there any hope that they will be able to carry on without outside aid?
That is another question.
Following is the answer
The revision of this plan with the object of helping to secure increased food production in Northern Rhodesia was approved by the Legislative Council last June and it is too early yet to make any detailed statement on the results of the policy thus adopted. The following is a list of the measures so far taken to stimulate food production:
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies why the town plan for Aden has still not been implemented, in view of his announcement on 9th July, 1947, that steps had been taken to speed up the matter; and whether he is aware of the lack of waterborne drainage and the insanitary conditions of much of the town.
In accordance with the provisional town plans, development on a considerable scale is proceeding both in residential areas and also in light industrial zones. I cannot agree that much of the town of Aden is in an insanitary condition. The general health of the population is good.
Has my hon. Friend any knowledge about conditions in the tuberculosis hospital where, according to my last information, 40 men were lying on the floor?
I will look into that; I have no information.
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is aware that Jews are arriving into Aden from the Yemen at the rate of 100 a month; and, in view of the overcrowding, what steps he proposes to take to relieve pressure on accommodation in the town of Aden.
The answer to the first part of the Question is in the negative; as to the second part, overcrowding in the town of Aden has been considerably relieved by emigration to Palestine.
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he will consider establishing a labour department in Aden, in view of the fact that the coolie lines are overcrowded and insanitary.
Nigeria (Producers' Profits)
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies what are the accumulated profits held at present by the Nigerian Government on behalf of Nigerian producers of groundnuts, benniseed, palm oil and palm kernels; and when this sum will be distributed to Nigerian producers.
I would refer the hon. Member to my speech on Supplementary Estimates on 24th February last.
Malaya And Singapore
Shooting (Police Warnings)
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies what fresh instructions he has now given to the police in Malaya with regard to the shooting of women.
The regulations authorising the use of firearms in effecting arrests or preventing escapes already require clear warnings to be given before fire is opened. It is not practicable to discriminate in this matter between men and women. To do so might facilitate the escape of women who are themselves bandits, or are suspected of assisting the bandits in their murderous activities. One of the women killed on 23rd February was in uniform and armed. On 20th April the hands of another woman were blown off by a grenade which she was in the act of throwing at a police patrol.
In view of the previous statement that these two women were unarmed, will my hon. Friend consider giving an instruction that unarmed people should not be shot?
I do not remember that a statement was made to the effect that the women were unarmed. One of the women was armed and it is quite impossible to know whether a person is armed or not before fire is opened.
Is it not well established that both in the case of the bandits and of the squatters who helped them there have been many cases of women who were armed attacking members of His Majesty's Forces?
Yes, that is so.
Is it not the case that one of the two women shot was described in the official statement as running away and being chased for half a mile before she was shot? Was she armed?
One of the women was armed and one was not. I must point out to my hon. Friend that the country is very enclosed, the ground is rough and it is largely jungle. Half a mile in Malaya under those conditions is not like half a mile along Parliament Street. As to the other question, it is quite impossible to give orders to the police that they are not to fire unless they first search the people to find whether they are armed. That would destroy the whole point of the regulations.
Is not this a case in which the principle of "equal pay for equal work" should apply between the sexes?
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies how many advisory committees there are in Malaya and Singapore; how many persons are on each committee; and what are their qualifications.
I am obtaining the information required and will write to the hon. Member when it is received.
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the authorities have evidence of illegal acts against the 3,964 persons under detention in Malaya and Singapore who have made objections to the advisory committees, but have not been released; and whether it is the intention of the authorities to charge them with alleged offences.
It is not in the public interest to indicate on what grounds these persons were detained. No charge need be brought against them and the second part of the Question, therefore, does not arise.
Is it not clear that if only 100 have been released out of 4,000 people who objected to being detained, the other 3,900 are entitled to be tried or released, and that if the authorities have definite charges against them, they should subject them to the usual court procedure? Will the hon. Gentleman look into the matter?
We have looked into the matter very carefully, but, in the conditions in Malaya, one may be suspicious of persons against whom it is quite impossible to bring a charge. Either there is not sufficient evidence, or the witnesses are liable to be murdered while the case is proceeding. In those circumstances, it is necessary to have the measures we have taken. Every person who is detained has the right of going before a committee of review, which investigates the case and sees if there is evidence of some suspicious activity.
asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies why the weekly periodical, "World News and Views," has been confiscated on being posted to a British citizen in Malta.
Responsible government was restored to Malta under the Constitution of 1947, and it would not, therefore, be proper to answer this Question, which relates to a matter falling within the competence of Maltese Ministers.
Could the Minister discuss this matter privately with the authorities in Malta, in view of the fact that they are preventing a periodical entering the country which has quite a wide salt' in this country and therefore ought to be welcomed there?
I could not undertake to interfere with the way in which Maltese Ministers carry out responsibilities imposed on them by Parliament.
On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. How is it that a Question is allowed to be put to a Minister and he is able to say that he is not responsible for it? It seems an important point, because other Questions have been refused. If the Question has been allowed, surely the Minister has a responsibility and should answer?
This is not a self-governing Dominion. It is a Colony and the Minister is responsible for the Colonies.
If the Minister is responsible for the Colonies—which, of course, is the reason why the Table accepted the Question—surely he has some responsibility, however indirectly, for looking into the matter?
That is for the Minister. He can refuse, or not, as he thinks fit.
The Minister's answer was that he had no power. If he refused to answer, I should accept that, but I submit that he has responsibility, although he said he had no power.
If it is a matter concerning a court of law and is sub judice, of course the Minister has no power.
Since Parliament gave self-government for internal affairs to Malta, is it not true that the Minister has no responsibility for internal affairs in Malta?
May I ask the Minister what progress is being made in reviewing Press ordinances in the Island of Malta arising out of the suppression of newspaper bulletins?
That is another question altogether.
asked the Postmaster-General if, before sending out broadcasts to foreign countries, Dominions or British dependencies, the British Broadcasting Corporation arrange in each case to have the broadcast relayed where it is possible to do so in these territories so that persons without long distance receiving sets can hear them; and if, in the case of dependencies, the broadcasts are relayed by loud speakers in public places so as to reach the majority of people who have not receiving sets.
The B.B.C. has no control over broadcasting organisations overseas, but the Corporation arranges whenever possible for its programmes to be rebroadcast by stations overseas, and also supplies them with recorded programmes through the Transcription Service. I understand that listening to public address systems or community wireless receivers takes place in many dependencies and is being extended.
Does my right hon. Friend think that British taxpayers should be called upon to pay for an unessential service, particularly in Dominions and dependencies which already have their own broadcasting service, and will he say why this duplication is necessary?
I should like to see that Question on the Order Paper.
Will the Postmaster-General take every step he can to ensure that broadcasting to foreign nationals is of a character less Left-wing than it is at present?
Sub-Postmasters (Territorial Camps)
asked the Postmaster-General what arrangements have been made to contribute to the cost of the sub-postmasters providing a substitute during the period they attend Territorial Army camps.
This matter is still under consideration. I will write to the hon. Member as soon as it is settled.
Telephone Service, Bridgend
asked the Postmaster-General whether he is aware that there is a grave shortage of telephones in Bridgend, Glamorganshire; and for what reason Mr. Jack Powell, bookmaker, of 12, Dunraven Place, Bridgend, was recently granted three new lines.
I regret that it is not possible at present to provide telephones for all applicants in Bridgend; some are held up through lack of line plant and others owing to the heavy pressure of essential work now on hand. No lines have been provided for Mr. Powell, but I understand that he has arranged with certain subscribers to use their lines.
Is there an official list of priorities arranged in occupations which applies equally to all exchanges?
There is a list of priorities which goes to all exchanges throughout the Kingdom.
Could the House be informed of the details of this list?
I will look into that but I think that the House has been informed.
Court Martial Sentences, Palestine
asked the Minister of Defence if he will consider granting an amnesty in all cases arising out of operations in Palestine.
I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to men sentenced by courts-martial. If so, the answer is "No, Sir."
Does not the Minister of Defence think that in view of all the circumstances this would be an appropriate time for a generous gesture, and that it would receive great support from the party which is supporting him?
In most of the cases in connection with Palestine the sentences have already run out. If we were to adopt this principle in respect of the remaining cases the same question would surely be raised in regard to other theatres as well as Palestine, and there would be no end to it.
Can my right hon. Friend say how many persons now remain in detention and in what proportion of these cases the offences for which the persons were sentenced were offences against regulations involving no act of violence of any kind and regulations outside the ordinary realm of law?
I answer only about cases which are tried by court martial. I could give figures if my hon. Friend put down a Question.
Requisitioned Goods, Malaya (Compensation)
asked the Minister of Defence why Service Departments in Malaya are refusing to pay compensation for certain goods requisitioned in 1941–42, on the ground that they were requisitioned for purposes of denial; what right of appeal there is against such decisions; and whether he will make a statement.
The Service Departments do not accept liability for the payment of compensation in respect of goods requisitioned for denial from the enemy which are regarded as falling within the category of ordinary war damage losses. Claims in respect of such cases would be dealt with by the civil Government, and in this connection I would refer the hon. and gallant Member to the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies on 23rd March last. Any decision of a Service Department, if regarded as unacceptable, can be tested in the courts.
asked the Minister of Food why there are better supplies of food in the North, especially of butter, bacon, eggs and cheese, in accordance with the particulars which have been sent to him; and what steps is he taking to ensure a better distribution of the food available.
No preference is shown to any particular area in the distribution of rationed foods. Butter, bacon, eggs and cheese are distributed to retailers throughout the country on a basis of the number of customers registered with them. Inquiries which have been made in the area about which the hon. Member has sent me particulars, have revealed no evidence of preferential distribution.
Will the right hon. Lady ask her right hon. Friend when he will realise that there is no food shortage, and that the shortages and queues are due to bulk purchasing and maldistribution owing to State control? The right hon. Lady cannot answer that one.
Fats And Sugar (Farm Workers)
asked the Minister of Food whether he will grant an increase of the fats and sugar ration to farm workers in the period 1st May to 30th September to offset in some part the effects of the cut in the meat ration in the period when they will be doing heavy work over long hours.
No, Sir. I think that the reduction must be borne by all sections of the community.
Does the right hon. Lady appreciate that the cut in the meat ration will fall most heavily on the very people who have to produce the meat?
The hon. Member must also realise that if we gave extra fats and sugar to agricultural workers the same concession would be demanded by workers in the heavy industries.
Would the right hon. Lady consider adopting towards agricultural workers the same system which applies to coal miners—that they should be permitted to retain a certain proportion of the food they produce?
Is the right hon. Lady aware that there is growing feeling on this matter, and that the farm-workers themselves feel that as they produce so high a proportion of the nation's food, they should have some further preference to enable them to do their work to their own and the nation's satisfaction?
The hon. and gallant Member must remember that farm workers get extra allowances during certain seasonal operations which other workers do not get.
If the additional fats and sugar to farm workers would give rise to a similar demand from the miners, would not the right hon. Lady give to the farm workers a meat ration similar to that which the miners get?
Is the hon. Member prepared to ask the agricultural workers to sacrifice their 12 oz. of cheese?
Nigerian Oils And Oilseeds
asked the Minister of Food what profit was made by His Majesty's Government from the sale of Nigerian oils and oilseeds in the year ended 31st January, 1947.
No separate figures of profits or losses are maintained on imports of oils and fats from particular sources of supply. During the financial year ended 31st March, 1947, the Ministry of Food made a profit of £670,353, or just under 1 per cent. of total sales, on all its transactions in oils and fats.
Is the Minister aware that the profits for the succeeding year amounted to £14 million, and that they have been separately calculated? Will she inquire into this bulk selling and see what were the actual profits in the previous year?
The hon. Member must realise that when we are engaged in transactions on this large scale we cannot always break even., It is quite possible that next year there will be a loss which will offset the profits which have been earned.
Have the profits from these transactions gone to the West African producers or are they retained by the Ministry of Food?
Certainly they are retained by the Ministry of Food. I have just said that they amount to under 1 per cent.
asked the Minister of Food what steps he is taking to increase the supply of oranges.
The present shortage is seasonal and will, I hope, disappear as soon as the summer season begins.
asked the Minister of Food the average weight of Tasmanian apples imported into this country in the three full years 1936, 1937, 1938, and the average weight in the years 1946, 1947. 1948.
Official import returns do not show the quantities of apples received from the individual Australian States. The average annual import of apples from Australia for the three years 1936 to 1938 was 77,057 tons and for the three years 1946 to 1948 was 26,203 tons.
Can the right hon. Lady give an assurance that she is doing all she can to stimulate this very valuable import at the present time?
Yes, I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that point, but our difficulty is that there is a shortage of refrigerated tonnage. The available tonnage is being used for meat.
asked the Minister of Food whether, in view of the fact that production of carrots is sufficient to meet demand, he will terminate control.
My right hon. Friend will shortly be discussing with growers and traders whether the time has now come to relax control.
Can my right hon. Friend give us any idea of when an announcement on this subject is likely to be made?
As soon as possible, but I cannot give my hon. Friend the date.
asked the Minister of Food the total tonnage of the 1948 crop of carrots found surplus to human requirements which is being sold by his Department for stock feeding; how many tons now remain on offer; and why these surplus carrots were not cleared in February and March when they would have been of more value to farmers than at the present time when the grass is growing.
Sixty-four thousand tons of the 125,000 tons of carrots not needed for human consumption are still available for stockfeeding. These carrots have been on offer since 1st January, but farmers apparently preferred to buy potatoes for their animals.
Surely, if the Minister knew of this very heavy tonnage of surplus carrots he should have pushed their disposal much earlier, at Christmas time or before, so that they could have been some use for stock feeding.
We did circularise all merchants in the first week in January.
But the Ministry have only started advertising them now.
Does not the right hon. Lady realise that one of the difficulties in this matter has been movement, and tint the Ministry have concentrated on moving potatoes and left the carrots to rot?
Is the right hon. Lady aware that in many parts of the country it is completely unknown that carrots are still available, and that in answer to requests, merchants say that they cannot get them.
I can only repeat that we circularised merchants in the first week in January; and we advertised in the farming papers in March.
But we are now in April, and people have forgotten what the Ministry advertised in January.
I cannot help it if they cannot read.
If these carrots cannot be used for stock feeding purposes at once, will my right hon. Friend see that they are dried and thus preserved for future use as animal feedingstuffs?
Yes, we are preserving them as far as possible.
asked the Minister of Food what is the cost involved in disposing of his Department's stocks of surplus carrots at 40s. a ton; and what is the tonnage and value of carrots imported during the 1948–49 season.
The net cost to the Ministry of disposing of surplus carrots bought under the guarantee to growers is on average about £9 per ton. According to the Trade and Navigation Accounts 168 tons of carrots to the value of £12,373 were imported between 1st October, 1948. and 31st March, 1949.
Does that mean that the taxpayer is to expend about half a million pounds on dealing with this surplus of carrots, while at the same time we are finding foreign exchange to buy imported carrots?
No, Sir. In answer to the first part of the supplementary question, I do not recall that the hon. Gentleman ever objected to this Government guarantee to the farmers. In fact, he has always accepted it willingly. If that is so, the first part of the supplementary question does not arise—
Certainly not. Hawing given this guarantee to the farmers we must, of course, honour it, and that will cost money. So far as the second part of the supplementary question is concerned, that is something which cannot be said to compete with this particular commodity. This is the new carrot which is now retailing at something like 10d. to 1s. per lb., whereas the old carrot is retailing at a maximum price of 2d.
Why did not the Minister offer these carrots earlier in the season when he could have got more than £2 per ton instead of charging the taxpayer for them?
I have already said that we have done so.
Sugar (Bulk Importation)
asked the Minister of Food whether it is the intention of the Government in future to encourage the importation of sugar loose in bulk instead of in bags so as to secure a saving in cost by the use of mechanical grabs and an additional saving in the cost of jute bags.
The report on the first experimental bulk shipment of sugar has not yet been completed. Until we know the results of this experiment, we are not able to assess the advantages of bulk importation.
Do the Government fully understand the enormous saving in shipping, apart from the advantages which have been pointed out in the Question; and will they make quite sure that they are not put off by any people who are not so well informed as are the people in this House?
I am never put off.
Can the right hon. Lady say what is the attitude of the trade unions concerned to this form of discharging ships carrying sugar?
No Sir, I certainly could not without consulting the trade unions. There will be a report on the question, and no doubt the workers will be asked to give any information they can on the matter.
Stored Feedingstuffs, Kimbolton
asked the Minister of Food what quantities of grain, cattle cake and other feedingstuffs have been stored at Kimbolton Aerodrome, Huntingdonshire, for longer than four months; and whether he will make a statement as to his policy for disposing of the commodities placed in that store.
On 23rd April the quantities were 492 tons of maize; 554 tons of barley; 182 tons of oats, and 141 tons of cattle cake. These will be issued from store in the normal course of releases for consumption.
Is the right hon. Lady aware that this practice of holding foodstuffs in store is a very wasteful one, that at a time when local farmers and others are badly needing them they are being consumed to some extent by rats and mice and other vermin, and will she look into this matter further with a view to avoiding such waste?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should generalise in that way. If he cares to give detailed information I will look into it. He has already written about this aerodrome. He has put a Question down, and we have made inquiries and find no sign of deterioration at all.
Will the right hon. Lady agree to a representative of her Ministry accompanying representatives of the farming industry and myself on an inspection of this and other similar premises in the area?
Representatives of my Ministry are always inspecting these places.
Is it not necessary to retain in store sufficient feedingstuffs to meet the requirements of our rapidly increasing herds and flocks between now and harvest? Is it not a fact that the depredations of rats are far less in the stores than in the stacks on the farms?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If we had no stocks of feedingstuffs, we should be vulnerable to attack.
National Service (Students)
asked the Minister of Labour whether he is aware of the hardship caused to conscripted Service personnel who have been accepted for admission into teacher training colleges or universities in September next, but who are not due for release until a few weeks after the date due for admission; and whether he will consider release in suitable cases on the applicant undertaking to continue military training with the Territorial Army.
I would refer my hon. Friend to the answer given by my right hon. Friend on 25th January to the hon. Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard) which stated that
"intending students who were called up before the end of July, 1948, and who, but for the general slow-down in releases would have been released in time to start their studies this autumn, will be allowed early release if applied for by universities, technical colleges, or teachers' training colleges."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT. 25th January, 1949; Vol. 460, c. 112.]
Will the Parliamentary Secretary convey that to the Ministry of Education?
I understand that this information is very well known. It has been circulated to all the vice-chancellors, and all the university authorities are aware of it.
Questions To Ministers
On a point of Order. Mr. Speaker. Questions today have now occupied exactly half-an-hour. Would it not, therefore, be suitable to review the Standing Orders and bring back again the peace-time custom, so as to give a further opportunity to answer Questions that have been passed over owing to the temporary absence of the Members concerned?
The hon. and gallant Member will realise that on the second day after the Recess very few Questions are put down. I have no doubt that tomorrow we shall have our full complement. If the House wishes to change the ordinary custom about a second round that is a matter for the House. I cannot give directives on that matter although I believe that it is not part of our Standing Order. It was accepted by the House, but, of course, if it is wished to make a change through the usual channels, I shall comply with the wishes of the House.
Iron And Steel Bill
|As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.|
|[1ST ALLOTTED DAY]|
New Clause—(General Duty Of The Corporation)
|It shall be the general duty of the Corporation so to exercise their powers as—|
|(a)||to promote the efficient and economical supply of the products of the activities specified in the first column of the Second Schedule to this Act, and to secure that those products are available in such quantities, and are of such types, qualities and sizes, and are available at such prices, as may seem to the Corporation best calculated to satisfy the reasonable demands of the persons who use those products for manufacturing purposes and to further the public interest in all respects: and|
|(b)||to avoid showing undue preference to, and exercising unfair discrimination against, any such persons or any class thereof in the supply and price of those products, but without prejudice to such variations in the terms and conditions on which those products are supplied as may arise from ordinary commercial considerations or from the public interest. [Mr. G. R. Strauss.]|
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."This first new Clause is in substitution for Clause 3 of the Bill as it now stands. As hon. and right hon. Members who were on the Committee will appreciate, the Government have throughout been most anxious to meet as far as possible all the points which were put forward by the Opposition, so long as the general framework of the Bill was preserved. We were also very anxious to meet the arguments put forward by representative bodies who approached the Government about various points which were worrying them. This new Clause is an attempt to meet the criticisms and suggestions made during the Second Reading Debate about this important Clause, which lays down the general duty of the Corporation. It meets to some extent the Amendments put down on the Order Paper by the Opposition during the Committee stage. It meets, I believe fully, the fears and worries which were disturbing the main bodies of consumers of iron and steel. The Clause as now drafted is sound, and sets out in a more precise way than did the original Clause what the general duty of the Corporation shall be. The major change is in paragraph (b), where it is specifically stated that the Corporation must avoid undue preference. During my Second Reading speech I stated that we did not anticipate—in fact we were confident—that the Corporation would not exercise undue preference between one consumer and another, and if by any chance they did so the Government have ample powers to stop them. Nevertheless, fears continued to be expressed by various people, including some of the main consuming industries that such undue preference might be shown. To make abundantly clear what Parliament intends we have inserted this provision in paragraph (b) in words which are sound and practicable and acceptable to the representatives of the main bodies of consumers. I therefore commend this new Clause to the House, and shall subsequently move the deletion of the present Clause 3.
Let me acknowledge straight away that we regard this new Clause as a considerable improvement on the original words used. I do not think that I need detain the House about paragraph (a). But under paragraph (b) the Minister has added words which are not, for example, in the similar Section of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act. I refer to the words:
So far I am with him, but then it goes on:"…without prejudice to such variations in the terms and conditions on which those products are supplied as may arise from ordinary commercial considerations…"
Those words enable the Minister to do almost anything. One of the most naive contentions which the Minister has put upon these matters is that the Corporation are to be the sole judge of the public interest. As a matter of fact, legis- lation about almost anything would be very simple if one could always be sure where the public interest lay. These words:"…or from the public interest."
would enable the Minister to ride very wide on the matter of preferences. The Minister no doubt will correct me if I am wrong, but I think the words are there because some undue preference may be required for the export trade. In trying to cover that point, I consider that he has unnecessarily widened the Clause. We on this side of the House will not divide against the Second Reading of this Clause which we regard as an improvement on the original, but at the same time I think that the words:"…or from the public interest"
are too wide. When we come to discuss the Amendments, if they are called, the point will arise again. Perhaps I had better confine my remarks to saying that this is an improvement and that we shall not divide the House. The points about which I have given notice will arise on the Amendments."…or from the public interest"
I wish to ask the Minister if he will throw a little light upon the various mental processes that have been gone through before this Clause reached its present form. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that we had no opportunity in Standing Committee of discussing Clause 3 owing to the falling of the Guillotine. At a later stage, when considering a new Clause put forward by the Opposition, the Minister gave an undertaking that he would endeavour to incorporate that portion which is comprised in paragraph (b). In the notice given on 28th March of the new Clause which the right hon. Gentleman proposed to move, paragraph (a) was in the same form as it is now. But paragraph (b) which he then proposed to put before the House read:
At that stage he was not including the further sentence which appears in the present new Clause, but there was this proviso:"to avoid showing undue preference to, and exercising undue discrimination against, any consumer or class of consumers in the supply and price of those products."
I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman considers most carefully before he puts a new Clause upon the Paper. I should like to know why upon the first consideration it appeared in the form to which I have just referred, and why he has added this extra proviso and deleted that with regard to the duty of the Corporation not being enforceable by proceedings before any court or tribunal. We are endeavouring to deal with something which I presume is the considered opinion of the Minister. I have no doubt that the form of words tabled on 28th March was the considered opinion of the Minister also. It would be interesting to know why there is such disparity between the new Clause now before us and the one suggested earlier."Provided that the duty of the Corporation under this section shall not be enforceable by proceedings before any court or tribunal."
Could the Minister give a little more explanation about the words in the second line:
These words first appeared in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill, and at that time a great deal of discussion took place upon what the Minister thought was meant by the term, "efficient and economical." The Secretary of State for War, who was then the Minister of Fuel and Power, said on 12th February, 1946:"to promote the efficient and economical supply of the products."
Since then we have had some examples of how these boards of nationalised industries consider that they are dealing with waste. I can give instances where the moisture content of coal has gone up by 4 or 5 per cent. compared with previous allocations. I do not think that that is being economical or efficient, yet that is taking place under these very same words in a previous nationalisation statute. I would also refer the Minister to the Electricity Act where the same words appear. Yet we find that the cost of electricity has gone up considerably in a great number of cases. In Sheffield it has increased by nearly 60 per cent. Does the Minister consider that the words, "efficient and economical" cover those large increases in prices and the great deterioration in quality? If he is satisfied that that is the best practice, I certainly am not. We should tighten up this wording. Up to now, these words have not proved efficient in making the Boards carry out their duties. I am not satisfied that the explanation given by other Ministers of the meaning of the term, "efficient and economical" is satisfactory. We should not pass this Clause until we have an explanation from the Minister of what he means by the term."I am bound to say that if the Board are able and are competent, they are bound to be prudent and they are bound to safeguard the community against waste."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C. 12th February, 1946; c. 994.]
Will the powers given to the Corporation under this new Clause supersede the powers the Minister now has of allocating steel to certain industries? I put that question because of the attitude of the Ministry towards the supply of steel for steel houses. In the Report of the Department of Health for Scotland this year we are told that the supply of steel for this purpose has completely ceased. We in Scotland have a grave grievance. We believe that the supply should be continued. In this new Clause there are the words:
I should like to know whether the Corporation will have power to secure a more reasonable allocation of steel for the places where it is most needed."to further the public interest in all respects."
The Minister made a very bland speech—one which we always get on nationalisation Measures—in which he said that he was confident that he had settled the worries of the consumers. If he is really confident of that, he is confident of something which is most remarkable. If you will look at these words, Mr. Speaker, you will see why people are so extremely worried. This Clause lays a duty on the Corporation to supply steel at such prices and qualities
We have examples of what is happening under nationalisation. For instance, there is the example given by the Chairman of the Cunard Company last week in which he pointed out that bunker coal in New York is 61s. 3d. a ton and in London it is 98s. a ton. I should like to know from the Minister whether the Corporation would think that they had carried out this Clause if there was in their prices such a disparity as is now evident in the prices of coal produced in this country compared with world prices. If he is satisfied about that, all I can say is that no consumers of steel will be satisfied. If he thinks that history is going to repeat itself, we may as well pack up world trade altogether."as may seem to the Corporation best calculated to satisfy the reasonable demands of the persons who use those products…"
May 1, by leave of the House, answer one or two of the points which have been raised? The hon. Member for Ecclesall (Mr. P. Roberts) dislikes the words "efficient and economical supply," and suggests that they should be tightened up. I do not think he can have read very carefully or followed fully the proceedings during the Committee Stage, because those words were not in the original Clause put down by the Government, but they were in the Amendment put down by the Opposition, and it was in order to meet the views of the Opposition on this point that I incorporated the words of their Amendment into this new Clause. It is strange for them now to complain of words which I have only incorporated because the Opposition wanted me to do so.
I was not complaining of the words. I wanted to know what interpretation the Minister put upon them. These words have been in other nationalisation statutes of which we know, and what I wanted to know was what the Minister understands by these words now that he has incorporated them in is own new Clause.
I think that is a point which should be further pursued on Third Reading, and perhaps hon. Members of the Opposition, who suggested these words, will say why they wanted them incorporated in the Bill. That duty rests firmly upon them.I can assure the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) that this Clause will in no way interfere with any steel allocation scheme operated by the Government. The allocations under the present scheme are the Government's responsibility, and that responsibility will not pass from the Government. The third point raised was on the question of a possible disparity of prices which it is suggested might arise, and which worried the hon. Member for Flint (Mr. Birch). One cannot say what disparity of prices may or may not arise, but the duty is put upon the Corporation to see that prices are as reasonable and fair as can be. The hon. Member will realise that if the prices did appear to be out of line with world prices, there is ample machinery through the Consumers' Council and through Parliament, because the Minister has a responsibility here to see that those prices are not allowed to go too high. I do not think that we need worry about that matter under this new Clause.
The Minister has still left the interpretation of these words very vague. I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to pay some attention to the fact that, in regard to other nationalised industries and particularly coal, the quality has got worse and the price has gone up. Is that his interpretation of the economical running of the industry, because, if so, it is not mine? If we take the case of electricity prices, the same thing exists, and I do not think there is an hon. Member in the House who has not had complaints of the fact that electricity charges have risen very steeply. Only this morning I received a letter from the chairman of an Area Gas Board telling me that he is willing to answer any questions I should like to put, and informing me that it may be that, in some cases and some parts of the country, gas charges are likely to go up. If this is what the Minister understands by nationalisation, let him say so openly and tell the House that prices are likely to go up.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me? I received a similar letter, and I wonder if his said, as did mine, that that rise in prices would have happened nationalisation or no nationalisation?
I am used to that phrase, because when the product of any nationalised industry goes up in price, it is always stated that it would have gone up under private enterprise.
Is it not a fact that the Liberal National Party have said that the price had gone up even before the product was nationalised?
The hon. Member must not blame me for what the Liberal National Party says. I am speaking for myself alone, and I say without hesitation that, if the nationalisation of industry which we have experienced up to now is any criterion of what is going to happen to iron and steel, the consumers of iron and steel can now look forward to increased prices, poorer quality and less quantity, and if that is what is understood by the economical running of the industry, then it is up to the Minister to say so. Since the Minister has accepted the words suggested by the Opposition, he must have some idea of his own interpretation of them, and I want him to tell the House what he understands by them. It may be a very different thing from the interpretation that we put upon those words. If the industry is not economically run in the true sense and in the best interests of trade and industry, I say that the nationalised industry is already doomed to destruction.
I was delighted to hear that the Minister had accepted the inclusion of the words "efficient and economical supply," and I am glad that he has had the courage to allow some of the ideas of the Opposition to percolate into this Bill. I was not in the least surprised that he was quite unable to explain them to the House at this point, which would seem to be the only point at which he could do it properly, or that he could not say what is the meaning of those words. If he had been able to do so, he would have been much better briefed than usual, because every one of us, and particularly hon. Members on the other side, know that, in the running of the nationalised industries so far, the last thing which the Ministers have ever done has been to run them either economically or efficiently. I thank the Minister for the bland way in which he explained his ignorance and lack of knowledge of the meaning of these words. This is merely another illustration of the way in which this Government are plunging into these difficult matters and trying to run one of the most efficient and economical industries of this country into complete inefficiency and complete incompetence.
I was surprised to hear the Minister say that the new Clause would dispose of the fears of consumers. I do not know any consumers who are satisfied with this Clause which allows such power in the hands of the Steel Corporation, and I think we should try to seek a more desirable form of words. What are these words in paragraph (a) but pious hopes? What sanction is there behind any of these aspirations? What is going to happen after a year or so? This Board will go exactly the same way as any other nationalised industry under a State monopoly. It does not matter a tinker's cuss what motto is stuck on the wall of the State monopoly; it is going to go exactly the same way, whatever the motto. While we seek to do what we can to tie the Corporation up, we fully realise that there are inherent evils in State monopolies, and we should be very mindful of such aspirations as are contained in the wording of this new Clause.
The right hon. Gentleman has suggested that the sanction behind this new Clause was the sanction of Parliamentary control through the Minister. I should like to ask him a simple though I think not very easy question. Is it his expectation that questions put on this point would be in order in the normal and ordinary way, or would such questions be written off as being attempts to inquire into day-to-day administration, and therefore a matter for the Corporation and not the Minister? It was the Minister who advanced the argument in favour of the new Clause that there would be the sanction of Parliamentary inquiry, and I think he owes it to the House to tell us whether he expects that such questions would ordinarily be in order.
should like to put one or two points to the Opposition. Is it not the case that in pre-war days the big steel firms of this country showed undue discrimination in regard to prices and supplies? That is one of the points which has been dealt with in paragraph (b). With regard to the words in paragraph (a), the Opposition have accused the Minister of displaying his ignorance and lack of knowledge of the subject; but when hon. Members opposite continue to say that they do not understand what is meant by the words:
they display their ignorance and lack of knowledge of the subject. Is it not obvious that so long as this industry was left in the hands of private people and this House or any public body had no control over it, or any say in it—"to promote the efficient and economical supply of the products…"
I wish to intervene only for a moment to correct the hon. Member on this point. Since the Import Duties Advisory Committee, which was set up in 1934, regulated all the prices to the steel industry and the Ministry of Supply, through the Iron and Steel Board, have done it since that Committee ceased to exist, I think the hon. Member is stretching his imagination rather more than usual when he says that there is no public control over the privately-owned steel industry.
It is perfectly true that the consumers of the products of this industry did have to come to this House and lobby hon. Members in order to get a particular Measure passed by Parliament to give them some protection against the people who are now squealing about nationalisation. That is perfectly true; I admit that, and I am not stretching my imagination. The reason they came and asked successive Tory and Liberal Governments for that protection was because of the rapacity and the unconcealed greed of the steelmakers of Great Britain. In the first place, therefore, we must not forget that this was only a section of an international cartel which agreed on prices and on the markets to be divided among them. They agreed that if people wanted certain commodities produced by the steel industry they would have to go to particular makers to get them. Consequently, the consumers had to compel Tory and Liberal Governments to give them some protection against the steel manufacturers of their own country. Now the Opposition say that they do not understand the meaning of the words:
As a matter of fact, if the steelmakers of Great Britain had had the welfare of the nation at heart and had entered into competition with other countries, we should have had our 14 million tons of steel in 1935 instead of in 1949. That could have been done quite easily, but they did not do it. Why? The answer is that the only things about which they were concerned were the international cartels, their monopoly, and their own greed. Therefore, to say now that they do not understand what this Clause means shows that they are either too stupid or too naïve."to promote the efficient and economical supply of the products…"
In my short membership of this House, I have many times been grateful for the fact that I am not a Minister, but never more markedly than this afternoon because, in considering the comparatively simple new Clause in the course of this very short Debate, my right hon. Friend has been asked by the Opposition to do four quite different things. Some hon. Members opposite have merely asked for a definition of certain terms used in the Clause. The hon. Member for Ecclesall (Mr. P. Roberts), unsatisfied with the definition, wants these terms to be got rid of and replaced by something else. The hon. Member for Bucklow (Mr. Shepherd) wants no more than to tie up the Corporation, to use his own words, which is apparently his method of setting the people free. Finally, the hon. Gentleman the senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) asked the Minister to give a Ruling on a point of Order which, I understand, Mr. Speaker, only you would be competent to rule upon. I repeat that I am more than ever grateful for the fact that I am not the Minister in charge of this Bill, and that I have not to deal with such a disorganised and disparate Opposition.
Question put, and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time.
beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Clause, in line 1, after "powers," to insert:
After that little preliminary canter, perhaps we may now get back to an endeavour to improve this very indifferent Bill. The new Clause proposed by the Minister purports to do two things; it purports, in paragraph (a), to replace Clause 3 as it at present stands in the Bill, and in paragraph (b) to deal with the suggestion made by the Opposition in the Committee stage regarding undue preference. But the opening words of the Clause are:"and of each subsidiary of the Corporation so to act."
to produce these two objects; first,"It shall be the general duty of the Corporation so to exercise their powers as"—
etc., and, secondly,"to promote the efficient and economical supply of the products,"
In order to make this Clause effective, we propose to insert after the word "powers" in the first line, the words:"to avoid showing undue preference to, and exercising unfair discrimination against…"
The opening words would then read:"and of each subsidiary of the Corporation so to act."
that is, of course, the 106 companies whose names are set out in the Third Schedule to the Bill—"It shall be the general duty of the Corporation so to exercise their powers and of each subsidiary of the Corporation"—
as to carry out the objects described in the Clause. Hon. Members will, of course, want to know what are the powers of the Corporation which it is"so to act"
as to produce these results. But hon. Members who have not been with us throughout the Committee stage might, in their simplicity, imagine that the powers of the Corporation were those set out in Clause 2 of the Bill, which bears the title "Powers of the Corporation." However, they would he mistaken, because the Minister has now decided virtually to scrap Clause 2 of the Bill as well as Clause 3, and, in order to find out what are now to be the powers of the Corporation, hon. Members will have to turn to pages 1668 and 1669 of the Amendment Paper and look at the marshalled list of Amendments set out thereon to find what are the words which the Minister now proposes to introduce in place of the two first subsections of Clause 2 as printed for the Report stage. The Minister's new Clause makes a complete revolution in the proposed powers of the Corporation. To put the matter in a single sentence, it now appears that the main, if not the only, power of the Corporation is to act as a holding company. During the Committee stage, we had a great deal of discussion upon the question whether the Corporation were themselves to become producers of iron and steel, and so forth, or whether they were merely to act in the capacity of an investment trust company. It now appears from a study of the proposed new Clause on page 1668, and a comparison of that Clause with Clause 2 as it at present stands in the Bill, that the Minister has now finally come round to the view that the main, and probably only, object of the Corporation should be to act as an investment trust company, to hold the shares of the 106 companies whose names are set out in the Third Schedule, to exercise pressure upon those companies only by virtue of being the sole shareholder in them, and to leave those companies to carry on their operations in the normal way, subject only to any guidance they may obtain on questions of policy from the sole shareholder, which will be the Iron and Steel Corporation. In order to carry hon. Members with me and to show the immense change made in the powers of the Corporation by the Minister's new proposal, I would ask them, first, to look at Clause 2 as it now stands and to read the opening words, which are:"the general duty of the Corporation so to exercise"
and those, broadly speaking, are the production of iron ore and steel—"…the Corporation shall have power to carry on any of the activities specified in the first column of the Second Schedule to this Act"—
All lawyers know that in drafting a memorandum of association one makes it cover every conceivable possibility and that a modern memorandum of association contains powers to do absolutely anything. The original proposal in the Bill was that the Corporation should enjoy the same powers as those which each of its 106 subsidiaries enjoyed by virtue of their memoranda of association. If hon. Members will now look at the proposals of the Minister, which are to be substituted for the first subsection of Clause 2, they will see that they are as follow:"and any other activities which any publicly-owned company…is for the time being authorised by its memorandum of association…to carry on:"
can carry on—"The Corporation shall have power—
(a) to hold such interests in companies as vest in them under Part II of this Act… (b) to form, or take part in forming, any company for the sole or main purpose of the carrying on by the company of any activities which any publicly-owned company"
—that is to say, to exercise what is the ordinary power of the shareholder. Under subsection (2) of the Minister's proposed new Clause:"(c) to exercise all rights conferred by the holding of interests in companies"—
"The Corporation shall have power—
and(a) to conduct research…"
The second power of the Corporation, as now proposed, is to conduct research upon a joint basis and to furnish common services if it is Convenient so to do, and it is only under subsection (3) of the proposed new Clause that"to provide for the publicly-owned companies…services which…can conveniently be provided as common services…"
Let hon. Members note that the Corporation can go outside the powers laid down for holding shares and for conducting research and providing common services only with the consent in writing of the Minister. Only as an exceptional matter and with express Ministerial consent can the Corporation enter into any direct trading operation of any sort or kind. It is for that reason that we seek, in order to make the new Clause now before the House effective, to make it binding not only upon the Corporation but upon the 106 companies whose names appear in the Third Schedule and the many others, hundreds I think, of subsidiaries of this Third Schedule number, because it is obvious, for example, that it is no good laying down a general duty upon the Corporation to exercise its powers so as to avoid "undue preference to" any class of consumer if all the Corporation is to do, in effect, is to be an investment trust company and to hold shares in these 106 companies. Clearly, the obligation as regards "showing undue preference" or "exercising unfair discrimination" should and must be laid upon the 106 companies which will actually be conducting the trade and supplying the products."The Corporation shall have power…to carry on any other activities which…any publicly-owned company is authorised…to carry on."
I want to be clear on this point. We quite understand the change to be made by the Corporation becoming a holding investment company, but I cannot understand how the Amendment would affect subsidiary companies. We cannot make them holding companies within themselves.
I am sorry. The hon. Member has not quite followed the argument. Under the Bill we have the Iron and Steel Corporation. The 106 companies whose names appear in the Third Schedule—diminished, I think, from 106 by about half a dozen exclusions made by the Minister in recent months—will become 100 per cent. subsidiaries of the Iron and Steel Corporation, and our Amendment now before the House seeks to impose upon them these obligations in regard to promoting
and securing—"the efficient and economical supply of the products"—
"that those products are available in such quantities, and are of such types, qualities and sizes…as may seem to the Corporation best calculated…to further the public interest."
I take it that the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) is not using the word "subsidiary" as it is used in industrial circles, because a subsidiary of a company is a company in which the holding or parent company has a majority of the shareholding, whereas in this case the same set-up does not exist.
I am much obliged to the hon. Member. In point of fact, the only companies whose shares will be held by the Iron and Steel Corporation are the companies whose names appear in the Third Schedule to the Bill and in point of fact, also, the Iron and Steel Corporation will hold 100 per cent. of all the shares of those companies. It is quite clear, therefore, that the word "subsidiary" in our Amendment will apply to the companies whose names appear in the Third Schedule to the Bill.I submit with confidence to the reason of the House that it is not much use putting obligations upon the Corporation
of those products and to put obligations upon the Corporation"to promote the efficient and economical supply"
when the Corporation itself is now to be merely an investment trust company holding the shares for these various 100 or more producing companies. I submit with confidence that these obligations which the Minister clearly considers desirable and necessary—since he has promoted the Clause—should be laid upon those who will be in a position to carry them out and not merely upon the Iron and Steel Corporation, whose only effective power will have to be exercised by virtue of its holding the shares and holding all the voting power at the annual general meetings of these 106 companies."to avoid…undue preference and…unfair discrimination…"
I suggest that this Amendment is quite illogical. We are, under this Bill, setting up a new body, the Corporation, and in doing so Parliament must, of course, say what its powers and duties are to be. We are not interfering with the companies which are to come under public ownership; they remain ordinary public companies with normal obligations and the normal duties laid upon them by their articles and memoranda of association. There is no direct relationship between Parliament and these publicly-owned companies—none whatsoever. If we placed duties upon these companies, therefore, we should have no direct method of seeing that those duties were carried out. What we are doing is setting up a new body and imposing certain duties upon this new body.By far the most important of the duties which we impose upon the Corporation are those derived from the power which it will possess, as sole shareholder in these companies, to order, broadly speaking, their affairs—to see that there is reorganisation and rationalisation, and to carry out those economy measures we have talked about on previous occasions. In that responsibility the Corporation will have full powers over these companies—not in matters of detail, of course, in which it will not want to interfere—but in all matters of general importance. We can, surely, logically give these duties only to this new body which we are setting up under this Bill and not to the various subsidiary and sub-subsidiary bodies with their continuing directorships, whose shares the Corporation are to hold. We must tell the big holding body what Parliament expects it to do, and, therefore, we give it powers under Clause 2 to do certain things, and under the new Clause general duties and instructions which we want it to carry out. It will be the Corporation's responsibility; and it, and not the publicly-owned companies, will be responsible to the Minister and Parliament. This Corporation will be responsible for carrying out the duties which are imposed upon it, and it will have to see that the various companies whose shares it holds carry out the general duties which Parliament imposes—though these will be implemented, of course, through the companies whose shares it holds. Therefore, it is wholly right to put the responsibility on the Corporation, and it would be wholly wrong to put the responsibility on the many subsidiaries. I am not quite sure what the word "subsidiary" covers here. I think it would cover much more than the 100 or so companies in the Third Schedule. Even if it were only these companies, it would be quite wrong to put the duty on their boards of directors, with some of them, it may be, interpreting the directions laid down by Parliament in different ways, with, perhaps, considerable dislocation and difficulty as the result. There might be chaos. That is not the way to proceed here. The duty must be put on the body we are setting up to run the steel industry in the public interest. We are putting that duty on the Corporation. I think the wording, "general duty," is wise. As I say, it has been agreed by the representatives of the consumers. It would be wholly wrong, I suggest therefore, to try to put this duty doubly on the Corporation and on those various different companies, with whom we shall have no relationship whatsoever, over whom we shall have no direct control, and over whose behaviour neither the Minister nor Parliament will be able to exercise supervision, except through the Corporation. The Corporation must have the power, and alone must have the duty, of carrying out Parliament's intentions. I suggest, therefore, that we should reject this Amendment, and that, indeed: it is wholly illogical and unnecessary.
I have seldom heard a more extraordinary amalgam of arguments than this to which we have just listened. I pick out the first—"Quite impossible for the boards of 100 companies to interpret the obligations laid upon them by this Amendment." Of course, it is perfectly easy, in the Minister's opinion, for the boards of 100 companies to understand those general duties if they are told them by the Corporation. That argument does not hold water for a minute.
I am sorry if I did not make the point quite clear. The Corporation will be able by direction and discussion to elaborate and set out in detail what it expects these various companies to do. It will be in relationship with these publicly owned companies. Parliament will not. The Minister will not.
That is the second tier to the argument, to which I am now coming. The first part of the argument, to which I have just referred, has no validity at all. Of course, if a general duty is laid down by Parliament for the 100 companies, it will require, no doubt, some interpretation, and the companies may require some help from the Corporation; but to argue that because the duty is laid upon the actually operating companies that smelt iron ore and produce steel to carry out these provisions with no discrimination, they will not understand the duty unless it is laid upon them by the Corporation—to argue that they will have no understanding of a duty unless it is a general duty laid upon them by the Corporation—is to ask us to accept an argument of so tenuous a nature that I think that it is hardly worth discussion. I concede the Minister this, that it is quite clear that the 106 companies, in this relationship to one another which the Bill will cause, will have to have help from the Corporation, in the matter of exercising this duty. So much I give to him, but his main argument, to my mind, entirely falls to the ground.The next contention that the Minister made was one of the most extraordinary I think I have heard—that Parliament has no relationship with the companies.
No direct relationship.
No direct relationship. Very good. There might well be solace for us on this side of the House if we had the least idea of what Parliamentary control is to be exercised over the Corporation through the Minister. We met on all sides of the Committee acceptance of the fact that, whatever one may think about it, it is quite clear that the relations of this House of Commons with these nationalised corporations is still—shall I say as politely as possible for the benefit of the hon. Member for Western Renfrew (Mr. Scollan)?—at least in a high state of fluidity. Nobody knows how far it will be possible to say to the Minister that on 15th July the prices of angles or of fluxes are too high. Nobody knows. I personally am optimistic enough—or foolish enough, if hon. Members prefer the term—to believe that one day we shall have to have that duty, but it certainly has not been worked out yet.What the Minister says is, "We shall see that one day Parliament will exercise sore control through me of this Corporation, and that some day that Corporation, having been supervised in an uncertain manner by the House of Commons, will work in another way, which I do not propose to specify because the House of Commons is not concerned with its investments; and the Corporation will then be able to secure that the general duty that the Clause tries to lay down is in fact carried out." But everybody knows that this kind of cantilever system of responsibility will certainly not work, and the only control which Parliament, under the Minister's proposal, will one day get over these matters will be that of looking into all the various things that will have happened—perhaps, as much as six months after they have occurred. We are to be put into that position of locking a very uncertain stable door long after the horse has gone. I really honestly think the Minister has made a great mistake in not accepting this Amendment. Agreed, that the exercise of these non-discriminatory powers is a matter of some delicacy when there are 106 companies concerned. However, why not lay upon them the duty directly? Thus we should get nearer to the centre of events than we are allowed to under the Minister's proposals.
Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him a question? He wants to amend the new Clause by bringing in "each subsidiary of the Corporation." Would he not extend his proposal by including in the Amendment, after the word "Corporation," the words "and all the managements and employees thereof," and so include all, right down to the fellows chucking the coal into the furnace or chucking the steel into the furnace? Obviously, the thing is ridiculous.
I always listen very carefully to the right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) because, although I disagree with his political views, I think it is generally accepted on both sides of the House that he knows something about industrial organisation. What I think is most annoying about his remarks today is that they involve the conclusion that no one on this side knows anything at all about industrial organisation. Therefore, he has put forward an argument which he knows in his own sphere of operations is quite without foundation. As he said, when asking my right hon. Friend to do certain things, private monopolists, such as Imperial Chemical Industries and Unilever, have very large shareholdings dispersed throughout the country. These private monopolies from time to time have purchased interests in other companies. They have literally hundreds of subsidiaries spread throughout the country.4.0 p.m. The general policy of these subsidiaries is laid down by the parent company—by Imperial Chemical Industries—but no one is going to suggest that shareholders in I.C.I. have any direct relationship whatsoever with the shareholders of the subsidiary companies. In fact, the policy of the subsidiary companies is guided directly by the parent company, and exactly the same position obtains in the circumstances which we are now discussing. The Iron and Steel Corporation is the parent company and owns the shares in the subsidiary companies, and upon the Iron and Steel Corporation must be imposed those duties which it is expected that the subsidiary companies should carry out. This does not work in any other way in private enterprise, and I do not see why the right hon. Gentleman should expect it to work in any other way in the case we are now discussing.
When listening to the Minister's remarks, I wondered whether he had recently read his own Bill. He appears to assume that Parliament has no power over publicly-owned companies, and that the only relationship that exists is between the Minister and Parliament and Parliament and the Corporation, and that, somehow, these publicly-owned companies are all in the blue. I would draw attention to the Clause in the Bill where there is directly laid down ministerial direction over public companies, and where actual legislation is foreshadowed by which Parliament directly intervenes with respect to these public companies.Clause 18 states:
to various people, the Minister is given powers to intervene. Clause 21 states:"Where any company specified in the Third Schedule to this Act…has without the approval of the Minister made…payments of interest or dividend on any of its securities…"
that is one of the publicly-owned companies—"Where it appears to the Minister that any company specified in the Third Schedule"—
then certain consequences result. The Third Schedule itself lays down the various public companies which are to be nationalised and incorporates them into an Act of Parliament. It puts Parliaments in direct touch with these companies and instructs them to prepare themselves for nationalisation. Finally, in Clause 51, we have the very words which my right hon. Friend has tried to incorporate into this new Clause, and to which the Minister objects, where it says that it shall be the duty of every company specified in the Third Schedule to this Act to furnish information to Parliament. That is a duty. Why does the Minister say that Parliament has no direct relationship with these publicly-owned companies? It is here set out in his own Bill, and all that we are seeking to do is to repeat the same principle in the Amendment."does not fulfil the following condition…"
I am very much alarmed by what the Minister has said. To turn round here, with millions of public funds to be put into the companies of a Corporation who are buying out the controlling interest in those companies, and to tell the House bluntly, as he has done this afternoon, that we have no direct touch with these publicly-owned concerns is, in my opinion, not treating public funds with the care with which they should be treated. If we have not some direct connection between Parliament and these publicly-owned companies, I think that, as Members of this House of Commons, we ought to see that we have, and that we have the same right to see what is being done with regard to the instructions to be carried out under this Bill.It is an alarming situation when the Minister can say what the Corporation can do, but cannot express a view as to what these publicly-owned companies do, and when there is no direct touch with them so far as Parliament is concerned. I think that is a very alarming statement for a responsible Minister to make on a question in which nationalisation figures so often.
Would the hon. Gentleman say what direct relationship there is between the shareholders of Unilevers and the companies which are subsidiaries of Unilevers?
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise that there is a vast difference between private enterprise shareholders and public funds which are fleeced from the public to put into these nationalised industries. The shareholders in any of these large concerns are at liberty to sell their shares and to get out if they are not satisfied. I am told that I have a share in some of these nationalised industries. My share is going very cheaply to any Member of the House, if he likes to buy it.The position is not apparently appreciated by the hon. Gentleman. Here we are dealing with public funds, and we have to get that into our heads. Private enterprise can do what it likes, provided that it complies with the Companies Acts and the shareholders are prepared to put up funds for subsidiary companies, but if the shareholders are not satisfied, they can get out and sell the shares. Here the general public are tied for life in these nationalised industries. It is an alarming statement for the Minister to say that he can control the Corporation or give these instructions to the Corporation but he has no power to give them to the publicly-owned concerns. I think that he ought to see that he does give these instructions, otherwise the proposed new Clause does not mean half what it is suggested to mean.
I wonder if the Opposition have read their own Amendment. I notice that one of the things that each company would have to do if the Amendment were accepted would be to secure that products were available in such quantities and of such types and at such prices as may seem to the Corporation best calculated to satisfy the reasonable demands of the consumers. I find it very difficult to see what the position is of the individual companies if each of them has to carry out this obligation, not according to their own views and not according to any abstract principle, but according to the views of the Corporation.Moreover, when I look at the rest of the Amendment I see that if these obligations were accepted, each one of the companies would have to promote the efficient and economic supply of the products of what I might call the Second Schedule activities. In fact, when one looks at these subsidiary companies some of them are carrying on a general business and others are carrying on specialised business. What is the point, and what is the sense, in putting on an iron ore mining company, such as some of these are, the obligation with regard to supplying finished or semi-finished steel. It seems to me to make complete nonsense of the proposed Clause. As regards the effect of it, surely it is clear to everyone that the Corporation controlling these subsidiaries has power to carry out this obligation and is, indeed, the only body that can carry it out, for it is a general obligation and not one appropriate to these particular companies. As regards the relations between this House and the subsidiaries, it is interesting to note that hon. Gentlemen opposite desire a degree of Parliamentary control and interference which surprises me. The hon. Member for Hallam (Mr. Jennings) has just asked, if I understood him rightly, that Parliament should have power to control and interfere with the ordinary day-to-day workings of these companies. If he did not say that, I really do not know what he meant.
I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is misstating our point of view. I went so far as to say that the relation with regard to day to day business, and so on, between this House and these companies remains still entirely undefined. I think that is an extremely difficult matter. I do not think for one moment that this House ought to surrender a power to look into day-to-day matters. On the other hand, too great an exercise of that power would make the workings of these Corporations impossible. These, however, are arguments against nationalisation, but not against the general proposition.
When making those remarks the right hon. Gentleman ought to have turned round and addressed them to the hon. Member for Hallam, who was sitting just behind him, and to whose speech I was referring. I am well aware that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have very different views of these matters, that some of them want one thing and some another but what I was saying was directed to the remarks we have just heard from the hon. Member for Hallam. I repeat, with respect to him, that I am surprised to hear from his lips this wish for Parliamentary interference, as I understood it, in the day-to-day activities of these companies.
The hon. and learned Member is misquoting me. I never, in any part of my speech, mentioned anything about day-to-day activities. I hope he will withdraw that remark.
I would not for worlds misquote the hon. Gentleman. All I can say is that if what he put forward did not mean and imply what I have said, I am afraid that I, for one, entirely failed to appreciate his point, and I think that feeling may well be shared by other hon. Members.Surely the sense of this business is that, under Clause 4 this House has, through the Minister, control over the workings of the Corporation. That must be the right way to do it. It is quite impossible for a body such as this House to supervise, by means of Parliamentary control, the operations of some 100 companies, some of them large and some of them small, carrying on every sort of activity connected with this technical and multifarious industry.
Before we proceed to a Division on this Amendment, I should like, as the mover of it, to say a few words in reply to one or two of the arguments advanced against it, particularly those advanced by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). The hon. and learned Gentleman always comes to the rescue of the Government when they are trying to defend an indefensible position, and he usually succeeds in making the position even more indefensible than it was before. In this case he completely answered his own first argument by producing his second argument. His first argument, as I understood it, was that it would be very unwise to lay upon one of these 106 companies in the Third Schedule—which he, for some reason or other, imagined would produce nothing but roadstone, or something of that sort—
Well, ironstone, if the hon. Member prefers it.
My hon. and learned Friend said ironstone.
Perhaps I might remind the right hon. Gentleman that iron is made out of ironstone, not roadstone.
I am obliged to the hon. and learned Member. Let us then take his example of ironstone. His argument apparently was that this Amendment would lay upon a company which produced only ironstone a duty for the efficient and economical supply of all the three or four activities listed in the first column of the Second Schedule; but he went on to point out that the quantities, types, sizes and prices have to be those as seem to the Corporation best calculated to further the public interest. Of course, if a company supply nothing but ironstone the Corporation would not be likely to deem it in the public interest that that company should supply finished steel in certain quantities, of certain sizes, and at certain prices. Therefore, the hon. and learned Gentleman's second argument completely abolished his first argument.The hon. and learned Gentleman does not seem to have noticed that this new Clause of the Minister's was put upon the Order Paper very late in the day, after there had been another new Clause in very similar terms on the Order Paper for something like a month. That new Clause which was on the Order Paper for so long, in providing that there should be no undue preference or discrimination exercised by the Corporation, went on to say in a proviso that these provisions against undue preference should not be enforceable in any court of law. It was a most surprising new Clause to put down, because the whole object of provisions about undue preference is so that they shall be enforceable in a court of law. 4.15 p.m. I ask the right hon. Gentleman: if somebody suffers from unfair discrimination, or if somebody is granted undue preference by one of these 106 companies in the Schedule, does he believe or think that under his new Clause as it is now drawn any effective legal action could be taken in the courts against the Corporation? I do not myself believe, where there is a complaint, as to either supply or price, and where the person who has supplied is one of the 106 companies listed in the Third Schedule, that any right of action could possibly exist against the Corporation under this new Clause, because it will not be the Corporation which has been responsible for either fixing the price or giving the supply. I believe that this new Clause has been drawn in this way, amongst other things, so as to give a pretence of protection against undue preference or unfair discrimination, and to avoid any possibility of there being a right of recourse to the courts by any injured party against the Corporation. One of the objects of our Amendment is to lay a duty in this matter upon the companies named in the Third Schedule, so that consumers may achieve some real protection by being able to take proceedings in the courts against those companies if they suffer at the hands of those companies. As we are quite dissatisfied, not only with the arguments of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering but also with those of his right hon. Friend the Minister, we propose to divide the House on this Amendment.
Those of us who did not have the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee must naturally, to a certain extent, be seekers after knowledge at this stage of the proceedings, and I wish to put to the Minister a matter which is puzzling me somewhat. Just now the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said—and I hope I am quoting him correctly—that Parliament, through the Minister, will be able to exercise control over the Corporation. Now, when the new Clause was under discussion a few moments ago, my hon. Friend the senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) asked the right hon. Gentleman—who I think overlooked the question in his reply—to what extent he envisages that control being exercised.As is known, we are now working under a new and experimental procedure as regards the questioning of Ministers on the subject of nationalised industries, and we have to conform to the general statement made by the Leader of the House. It would help if the Minister could give some indication of the scope of Questions which he proposes to accept—because, after all, that is the procedure. We have had some difficult problems in other Acts now operative, such as those dealing with coal, electricity and transport. Let me give an example which I think is relevant. A few months ago some unfortunate passengers travelling on the British Railways suffered from a severe attack of food poisoning after taking lunch on board a restaurant car. I endeavoured to find out the details about this lamentable incident by tabling a Question, only to be informed that it was a matter of day-to-day administration. Since then, whenever I have been travelling I have felt myself in grievous peril on entering a restaurant car. It would help a great deal in discussing this Amendment if the right hon. Gentleman would give some indication of the sort of Questions with which he expects to deal. It is no good the hon. and learned Member for Kettering comforting us with the thought that we have this Parliamentary protection—and there is no greater Parliamentary protection than Question Time—if we are to find that the large majority of Questions are to be refused on the grounds that they are matters of day-to-day administration. It is rather difficult if those of us who did not participate in the very lengthy, but not sufficiently lengthy, discussions upstairs, are not able to find out on Report stage the answer to so simple and important a matter as this. Before the steel industry companies come under public control, let Members be told what Questions can be asked in this House.
I always listen with very great interest to the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). I have heard him make several speeches during his sojourn in the House, and I always wonder which speech is the most confusing in thought to Members of the House. When he makes a speech I always look at Members on the Government Front Bench to see the expression of wonder on their faces that anyone could possibly so misread their Bills. The hon. and learned Member apparently got extremely mixed up about what was wanted in devolving the powers under this Bill. As I understand it, the Government devolve the powers entirely on the Corporation and the Corporation have the power, because they are the only shareholder, to deal with the 100 companies.We do not wish to interfere unnecessarily with the affairs of the Corporation and with the working of these companies. The attitude the House should take in this respect is precisely the same attitude as is adopted in the case of local authorities. We give certain powers to local authorities and they all come to the central authority of Parliament. In other words, we have the powers of the purse, and, having granted them their authority, we help them in one way or another. Although we do not interfere with their ordinary administration, there are certain matters which must occasionally come before the House of Commons. That is the correct procedure to adopt in this case. I hope that the Government will think again, because it does not seem from the answer the right hon. Gentleman gave that the new Clause will work properly without this Amendment. Attention has already been drawn to Clause 51, and it is only right that the Government should tell us what is the guiding principle of that Clause in connection with this new Clause, and particularly in connection with the Amendment. When we look at the proviso, it seems as if it might completely upset the Minister's intentions. Those who have spoken from the other side have succeeded only in confusing the position. I am sorry to speak of them in this way in the presence of the Patronage Secretary, who is looking at me very severely. It is impossible for the Minister to ride off and say that we have no powers over these 101 companies, because he knows perfectly well that we have the full powers of finance over each one of them. The real difficulty is that the Corporation is the only shareholder, because otherwise there would be more freedom for the companies. This must be an exceedingly dangerous position, when we bear in mind that some of these companies have very limited powers and others vast powers. It would be a grave dereliction of duty if we did not make it perfectly clear that these powers should be limited, and that at the same time there should be limited powers of discretion for the House of Commons.
We come for the first time in this Clause to some very important words, which are becoming quite commonplace in our considerations nowadays and about which I should like to have some enlightenment from the Minister. The words are "the public interest." What is meant by those words? Not everybody will agree about what is, in fact, the public interest, and a great many people will wonder by what standard the public interest is to be measured. Almost everyone uses iron and steel or their products at some time, and no doubt all such users would feel very happy if all prices were reduced by half. Could that be regarded as being in the public interest, or is the public interest to be judged by the prosperity of the Corporation and their subsidiary companies? How will the public interest be decided?This question becomes all the more important by virtue of the words which felt from the Minister, who stated that there was no direct relationship between Parliament and the publicly-owned companies, so that presumably we would be precluded from asking Questions about the conduct of these publicly-owned companies and whether or not their conduct was in the public interest. Consequently, some form of definition as to what is the public interest becomes all the more necessary since we are muzzled in our attempts to discuss the matter in Parliament. Who judges the public interest? According to the Clause, it is the Corporation. Has the Minister power to intervene and to say that what the Corporation are doing is or is not in the public interest? I presume the right hon. Gentleman has that power, but suppose he himself is wrong; does the matter then go to the Cabinet? If the Cabinet are wrong there is no court of appeal, and I say there should be some court of appeal to decide whether the public interest is or is not being pursued as a result of a certain course of action. Otherwise, the public interest merely passes behind another iron curtain. The matter is decided unilaterally by the Minister, and the public have no chance to decide whether or not the public interest is being followed. The Amendment, although leaving the public interest undefined, does link up companies with the publicly-owned Corporation and make them subject to the same yardstick of measurement.
I want to address the Minister on a fairly narrow point. In Committee, we always found the right hon. Gentleman's answers both courteous and comprehensive. In the Debate on this Clause I asked the right hon. Gentleman why, in his first draft, he left out a proviso that its provisions should not be enforceable in a court of law. The right hon. Gentleman did not answer me—for good reasons, I suspect—and although I did not pursue the matter further then, I think we should come to it again now, in the Debate on this Amendment. If there is meant to be any meaning at all in paragraph (b), with regard to showing undue preference and exercising undue discrimination against certain persons, it must be enforceable in a court of law. I take it that the purpose of deleting the original proviso was to make it enforceable in a court of law. If the right hon. Gentleman agrees thus far against whom is it to be enforced, because it will be quite impossible or proof against the particular company which was selling the product?If it is simply left as a general duty of the Corporation the consumer will not be able to prove that the Corporation are exercising that duty. We do not know in what way the Corporation will deal with directors of boards it will therefore be impossible for any consumer to enforce these provisions, which are meant for his protection, against the Corporation. The only body against whom it will be possible to enforce the proviso will be the company which has sold the product, and which has shown undue preference or discrimination. That is the whole reason for inserting in the new Clause a provision which includes the subsidiaries of the Corporation. There may be some point as to whether it should be confined to wholly-owned subsidiaries, but I should have thought that so far as they were concerned it would be impossible for the right hon. Gentleman to dispute logically the validity of what I have said.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong. The Corporation are definitely responsible under the new Clause. If anyone wanted to proceed he would be able to proceed against the Corporation, who would be responsible for any undue preference which they might give and which was considered to be contrary to the public interest.
The right hon. Gentleman says "they might give."
Which might be given by the individual company.
Would that apply to partially-owned companies?
It is not just 100 companies who will be responsible; approximately 300 companies will be responsible for carrying out the duties which are imposed upon them.
I am interested in this matter as a not inconsiderable user of steel. Suppose, if the companies come under the ownership and control of the Corporation, that I place a contract for a supply of sheet steel with, say, Dorman Longs or Baldwins. That contract will be directed to them. Suppose I find out, subsequently, that someone else has been given preferential terms or better deliveries. Against whom have I got a remedy? The Minister has just said it will not be against the company with whom I have contracted, but that it will be against the Corporation. It is impossible for me to argue a point of law like that, but it seems absurd that if I make a contract with Baldwins, and they subsequently default, I should ignore them and go to the Corporation. If business is to be carried on in the ordinary way surely an Amendment of this kind, which puts the onus of responsibility on the public company concerned ought to be accepted.
Would it be necessary when a contract is being made with, say, Baldwins for it to be stated on the contract that they are acting as agents for the Corporation? If that does not appear there can be no cause of action against the Corporation, because there is no contract to be broken unless the subsidiary company acts as the Corporation's agent and that is stated on the contract.
Rather than that we should divide I would ask the Minister to look at this point again. No matter of principle is involved or, at least, no matter of great principle. I believe the right hon. Gentleman is after the same object as we are, but I do not think he will achieve it by what he has proposed so far. The argument that recourse is against the Corporation appears to me to rest on a legal supposition of the most extraordinary character. We would rather not divide the House if we can get a promise that the matter will be put right.
The remedy would lie against the Corporation, which could be proceeded against on this basis: that it was their duty not to show undue preference and in as much as they would be a governing factor in publicly-owned companies because they controlled, through their shareholdings in those companies, their activities. If the publicly-owned companies showed undue discrimination proceedings would lie against the Corporation, to prevent them from showing undue preference in causing the wholly-owned public company to show, or not stopping it from showing undue preference. Action would not lie against the company itself, but against the Corporation.
Suppose the Corporation exercises control, and has every intention of stopping the subsidiary company from taking certain action but the board of that company do enter into a discriminatory contract. Could it be said that the Corporation would then be liable in those circumstances?
It would have to, be established that the Corporation had not used the powers which it possessed as the sole shareholder in the publicly owend company to prevent the publicly owned company from exercising undue preference against a particular person. I can quite conceive that it would be impossible to deal with that in a particular contract, but it would depend on the circumstances. If it could be shown that the Corporation did not exercise its powers over a publicly owned company in such a way as to prevent that company showing undue preference in its supply of a particular commodity, then it would render itself liable to proceedings.
In Clause 10 it very definitely states:
Would that not exempt it from being sued by someone, who felt he was not getting the proper service that it had contracted for?"The Public Authorities Protection Act, 1893, and section twenty-one of the Limitation Act, 1939, shall not apply to any action, prosecution or proceeding against the Corporation, or for or in respect of any act, neglect or default done or committed by a servant or agent of the Corporation in his capacity as a servant or agent of theirs."
No, Sir, I do not think it does.
The Solicitor-General has demolished the Government's case and made the case for the Opposition, because now what the Government intend this Clause to do is this—the Corporation will give general instructions that there should not be any undue preference. We will assume that it issues the instructions in accordance with the Clause, but in a subsidiary there may be a group of men who decide to go against those instructions. They do so and injury is felt by a consumer because of an undue preference. The consumer has no remedy against the Corporation, because the Corporation can prove that it has taken every possible precaution. Nor will he have any right against the directors themselves. It may be that the Corporation will say to the directors that they have been proved wrong and they will be sacked, but that does not help the consumer who has been hurt. This seems to be a most clumsy way to deal with the thing. I would ask the Minister to reconsider the whole matter. The answer given by the Solicitor-General is no doubt a way by which it can work, but it is an unsatisfactory way. I am quite certain that after this Debate when the Corporation comes into existence it will be quite clear in its instructions to the wholly owned subsidiaries. What we are trying to get at is that someone in the wholly owned subsidiaries might act against those instructions, and if that is so, no action will lie.
I do not wish to add unnecessarily to the length of the discussion, but could we be told what are the objections to the words we are discussing? Would they do any harm? Why not insert them if they avoid doubt or ambiguity?
Would the Solicitor-General tell us if, in fact, a contract which is entered into with a subsidiary company may be regarded as a contract with the Corporation, or is the Corporation mentioned in the contract?
I should like to ask a question on a point of law. I always understood that under the present law it was a company which was sued and not the shareholders. The shareholders may be put into one person and be the Corporation, but it is still the company as I understand it. I am not a lawyer and we have not a lawyer of any distinction—
The hon. Gentleman has exhausted his right to speak, and in asking his question he is going rather wide.