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Clause 51—(Duty To Furnish Information)

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 3 May 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move, in page 52, line 20, to leave out from "rights," to the end of line 22.

The object of this Amendment is simple. It is to limit the classes of people who are under a statutory obligation to provide information under the Bill. The Minister, throughout the Bill, seems much more willing to obtain information than to give it. In this Clause he takes the right to demand from certain classes of people such information as he says is necessary to him. It may be remembered that in the Debates in Committee we moved a prior Amendment to this and the Minister declared that it was necessary in that case to have this right in order to retrieve some patent or licence from some third party which may have been granted, or to retrieve the control of some factory, or something of that kind which had passed out of possession. We accepted that and did not press the Amendment and have not placed that Amendment on the Order Paper again.

We then came to this Amendment, dealing with another class of person, but in Committee it was guillotined after a very short discussion, in which the Minister scarcely had time to make a reply. Between these various axes we oscillate with great difficulty. Sometimes they fall at one place and sometimes at another. This Amendment deals with the case in which the Minister declared he must have the power of obtaining all the returns necessary to show what quantities of products were being made by the licensed undertakers. He said he required this to assure himself that they were keeping within the limits laid down in the licence and that that was the sole reason for this provision.

On reconsideration, I do not think he will find that is quite accurate, unless I am misinformed. I think he has the power in any case to get all reasonable information he can want about licensed undertakers under Clause 30 (2). I wonder what additional power he wants. He can get the power to secure that the quantities and various conditions under the licences are observed under the licensing Clause; therefore, why is it necessary to do so under this separate power? The reasons he gave as overriding do not seem to be necessary, as Clause 30 subsection (2) is now drawn.

7.45 p.m.

I hope I can easily satisfy the right hon. Gentleman. This is necessary to ensure that everybody who ought to have a licence has in fact applied for a licence. Otherwise, there is no means of checking whether someone who is producing Second Schedule products in substantial quantities is or is not doing so and should or should not have a licence. We may want to know whether someone is producing 3,000 tons or 8,000 tons of a rolled product or alloy metal and, unless we can ask what is the output of a firm who, as we suspect or think, may be exceeding the limit of 5,000 tons, we have no means of checking it. It is true that under Clause 30 we have power to get information from anyone who has a licence, but that does not enable us to get information from anyone who has not a licence. The Minister must have power to seek information where necessary. I hope that explanation satisfies the right hon. Gentleman.

It does, and it does not. The right hon. Gentleman talks of a licence as though it were a dog licence, or a radio licence, and as if people produced 10,000 tons of steel in the dark, without anyone knowing. One cannot produce tons of steel in a hack room. The Minister talks of a licence as though it were something one can get at the post office for ten bob. The Minister can ask why they are operating at all, and all this information can be obtained. However, we have other points to raise and I will look at this matter again, as it can certainly be raised later on. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move, in page 52, line 30, to leave out "or the Corporation."

The curious part of this Clause is that not only can the Minister require the information, or that the information be given to any person authorised by the Minister, but the information is unlimited, and may not only be information reasonably required by the Minister, but also reasonably required by the Corporation. Why should those words be there? Why should this be extended to the Corporation? If the Corporation had occasion for making inquiries to obtain this information, I should have thought the right course would be for them to apply to the Minister. In Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) asked:
"Is it clear that under the Clause the Corporation will not have any power to demand information from the licensed firms?"
The Minister replied:
"I suppose it could do so if it showed that it needed it for its own purposes, but I do not think it will have any interest in it"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 10th March, 1949; c. 1563.]
If it will have no interest in it there can be no conceivable purpose for the retention of these words "or the Corporation" in line 30. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the language of this Bill would be much improved and the meaning would be much clearer if he accepted this Amendment.

There are certain conditions under which it may be very desirable for the Minister to be able to obtain information required by the Corporation. I would first point out that the information can only be obtained through the Minister; the Corporation cannot go along and ask for information. If the Corporation desires some information which it cannot get and which it ought to have, and can persuade the Minister that it should have it, the Minister can ask for the information. The circumstances which we have in mind are—I admit they are rather remote but they are possible—that it may well be that between the passage of this Bill and the vesting date, the Corporation having been established, it may become very desirable in the eyes of the Corporation that it should get certain information from the companies which it is to take over—financial information, production information, information about the personnel of their management, etc., to enable them to get down to their job quickly and properly after vesting day.

It is conceivable that there may be, among the companies which are to be taken over, some which dislike the idea of nationalisation, and which might be reluctant or definitely unwilling to give that information, which would be unreasonable. That might create a considerable nuisance for the Corporation. I hope that the hon. and learned Member will agree that in those circumstances it would be reasonable for the Minister, having being persuaded by the Corporation that the information is really required by it so that it can prepare its plans properly, to ask the firm concerned for that information, and then pass it on to the Corporation. I agree that it will probably not happen, but those are the only conditions.

If those were the conditions, would the Minister not say that that information was "reasonably…required by the Minister "?

The Minister would really not want it for any Ministerial purpose. We should not want to know details about the personnel of these companies, for example. It would be of no direct interest to us; it would be of interest and of value only to the Corporation. It would only be the Minister who would be able to seek this information if the Corporation made out a case. For those reasons, I hope that on reflection the hon. and learned Member will agree that there might be occasion when this power could be and would have to be used.

The right hon. Gentleman has, from what he has said, convinced me that the retention of these words "or the Corporation" is really unnecessary because the very instance which he gave would to my mind quite clearly establish a case coming within the earlier words "reasonably…required by the Minister." The Minister would have reasonable grounds for acquiring that information for the purpose of enabling the Corporation to do its job. On the other hand, I should have thought it was quite clear that the words which we seek by this Amendment to delete are entirely unnecessary. I should like to ask the Minister to give further consideration to the matter.

This borders upon the situation in which the Corporation is empowered to extract information from companies which are completely outside the Second Schedule, and to use that information to hamper their activities. Some of us said yesterday that we thought that the Government ought to be in the position of aiding the small man against the big concern. It is because I, for one, take that view that I wish to ensure that the right to extract this information from all these multifarious bodies, companies and organisations completely outside the Second Schedule, should vest in the Minister alone, and we would hope that he would act to some extent as a safeguard. I am not sure that I have much confidence in the right hon. Gentleman in that respect, because so far in our consideration of this Bill he has given every indication of wishing to put the Corporation into the position of an octopus which will swallow up all these small firms and render their opposition completely nugatory and completely ineffective. But one day we may have a Minister of Supply who may take a contrary view and say that these small companies ought to be aided in their work, and that, if anything, restrictions should be put upon the giant monopoly organisation.

In view of that possibility, the Corporation should be taken out of any context in which it would be possible for information to be extracted from all these small firms and furnished to the Corporation. I would say, let the Minister, if he so desires, for one reason or another—perhaps in the national interest, perhaps not—have access to that information. We failed just now to stop the Minister getting information about companies completely outside the Third Schedule. If he is to be given this information, let him and not the Corporation have it; let him be the sieve through which the knowledge goes to the Corporation.

The noble Lord cannot have read the Clause very carefully because that is exactly what happens under it.

Amendment negatived.