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Mid-Northamptonshire Water Board Order Confirmation (Special Procedure) Bill

Volume 465: debated on Thursday 26 May 1949

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Lords Amendments considered.


Lords Amendment: In page 4, line 5, leave out "June" and insert "July."

10.8 p.m.

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

This Amendment is merely to provide that the starting date for the operation of the Board shall be July and not June, as had been hoped would be the date for the commencement of their work.

Much time might have been saved had the Opposition's views been attended to on this occasion. We pointed out to the Parliamentary Secretary that the date suggested by the Government was, of course, ridiculous. The Parliamentary Secretary, the orphan of the storm on that occasion, abandoned by his Minister, was, of course, unable to manœuvre in any direction so as to accept any Amendment, however slight. Consequently the time of the Committee was wasted. The Committee was kept sitting. [Interruption.] The other junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department rushes to the assistance of his colleague—I think, unnecessarily. He himself might take a lesson by this and consider, when commonsense Amendments are put forward by the Opposition, that it would save time if they were accepted there and then, instead of having to be negatived here, go to another place, be inserted there, brought back here, and recommended to the House by the same Minister who rejected them on the previous occasion.

Of course we on this side agree to the Amendment, because it is our Amendment. However, I think that the Minister has not moved it very well, and, indeed, as a deputy for the Opposition we regard him as not having at all succeeded in the task which he has belatedly taken upon himself. We naturally offer no opposition to the Amendment, since it is the Amendment we put before the House, and which the Minister rejected, but we ask the Government Party to take account of the obvious fact that the Government have let them down, and led them into supporting a course which subsequently they have had to abandon.

I hope that those in the House will observe that once again an Amendment has been put forward by the Government without a single word of explanation of any sort at all.

Or apology. At an earlier stage we took exception to the fact that the Minister himself was not present. If he had been present he might himself have dealt with the points—of which this Amendment is one—that we put forward. He did not. The whole burden was borne by the Parliamentary Secretary. As the arguments went on, I could see that the Parliamentary Secretary, with his native intelligence and understanding, was agreeing with our arguments and with every word that we said. His instructions, however, were to talk in the contrary way, which he did. He did not talk much, but just said that the Government refused the Amendments put forward by us, which have now been brought forward, as has already been said by my right hon. and gallant Friend, to this House tonight.

I wish the House generally would realise the way in which it is being treated on this occasion. This Amendment defers the date, and we think we should have some explanation from the Minister himself or the Parliamentary Secretary about it. Before the Minister knows where he is he will have to alter the Bill again and alter the date by another month. The net result of it is that Mid-Northamptonshire will not be getting the services to which it is entitled, and which the House wishes it to have, because of the dictatorial and dilatory methods of the Minister of Health.

I rise merely to contradict the last sentence of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. It is wholly untrue to state that this alteration of date will affect the provision of water in mid-Northamptonshire.

In view of what the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has said, I should be interested to know whether or not the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm that. I received assurances that the alteration from April to June, on which we spent some time in discussion when the Bill was last before this House, would not mean any delay — and would not, in fact, involve any risk of delay—in the provision of water under this scheme. Now the hon. Gentleman has moved that June should be taken out and that July should be put in, and we have had no assurance from him—and I would rather have it from him than from the hon. and learned Member for Kettering—that this further postponement of a month will not delay the supply of water.

10.15 p.m.

I would also point out that when the Amendment was before the House for the alteration from April to June the Home Secretary came to the rescue of the Parliamentary Secretary and said:
"It is necessary to put 'June' instead of 'April' because April has now passed. I do not intend to be drawn any more on that point.—[OFFICIAL REPORT; 4th May, 1949; Vol. 464, c. 1056.]
The Parliamentary Secretary cannot really raise that reason now. We have not actually got to June and we have not actually got to July. I think that it would be right that he should give some explanation why, when July was suggested to him before, he refused it, and why he now seeks to put it into the Bill. We ought to get an assurance from him that this postponement of the operation of this scheme, which is entirely due to the action of the Minister of Health, will not in fact delay the supply of water.

With the leave of the House I gladly give the assurance for which the hon. and learned Gentleman asks. It is perfectly true that this alteration, as in the previous alteration which we had to make, does not make any difference in the preparations that are going forward for the setting up of this board, and I gladly give the assurance that it will not in any way delay the provision of water in this area. I can confirm what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has recently said about that. I would like to inquire when the right hon. and learned Gentleman put down the Amendment which he now claims to be his own. So far as I am aware he did not move any Amendment substituting July for June in the earlier discussions which we had in the House on this matter.

I do not think that I personally referred to an Amendment. My right hon. Friend did say:

"when we come to 'June' it seems to me that it may well be already out of date."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1949; Vol. 464, c. 1042.]
I think July was subsequently suggested. It is quite true that there was not a specific Amendment, but the House refused to agree to that suggestion.

Question put, and agreed to.

Lords Amendment: In page 7, leave out lines 32 to 43, and insert:

"Provided that if, having regard to the state of the river the Catchment Board and the Corporation agree, or in case of dispute it is determined by the Minister and the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, that a smaller quantity than that specified in paragraph (a) of this subsection, being a quantity not less than sixteen million gallons, should be substituted for that specified in that paragraph, that smaller quatity shall be so substituted during such period as may be so agreed or in case of dispute so determined."

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

There was some discussion when this matter was before the House on a previous occasion as to whether it was clear that the two authorities, the catchment board and the new joint board, would have an opportunity of discussing the question of the withdrawal of water from the river below the level which is fixed in the order before an appeal was made to the Ministers for their arbitration. We felt at that time there was not a particular need for this provision, but in order that the matter should be perfectly clear, words have been inserted in another place to make it clear to everyone that before an appeal is made to the Ministers concerned there shall be an opportunity for the two boards to discuss the matter and come to an agreement between themselves.

This is the second white sheet in which the Minister appears. Again the House was unreasonably delayed because of the absence of the Minister of Health, who chose the opportunity of attending the inauguration of the Embassy of another Power, which indeed I should have been very willing to attend myself——

I do not think that reference is in the least relevant to the matter before the House. I must ask hon. Gentlemen, even at this time of the evening, to be good enough to confine themselves to the matter under discussion.

Having come to the House in very fine linen ourselves, we are perfectly willing at this time of the evening, or indeed at any other time, to address ourselves narrowly to the question before the House. We are investigating why it was necessary for the Parliamentary Secretary stubbornly to refuse any adjustment whatever in the terms of the Bill, which he has now come down——

We are not discussing that question at all. That does not arise. The question is whether this House will accept an Amendment put forward by another place. The question of who was or who was not present on a former occasion does not arise, and I must ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to confine himself to the matter before the House.

I am not at all considering the question of who was present and who was not present. I am considering the question why the time of the House is now being taken up in being asked to discuss an Amendment which was refused by the Parliamentary Secretary when the Bill was previously under discussion. At that time, of course, he was subject, if I may say so, to the rather sycophantic support of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), who always rushes in on those occasions——

Then may I rush in on this occasion and point out to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that this is not a question of any Amendment that was before the House at that time, and that I am concerned, unlike some hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, with the proper supply of water in this part of Northamptonshire, which happens to include my own constituency, and which has been badly neglected by previous Tory Governments?

The hon. and learned Gentleman never can get it into his head that he is not addressing a tutorial class in one of his previous incarnations. I may say that his deep and learned researches into these matters have never led him on any journey upon the River Nene itself, which is the matter we are discussing just now. I myself who have travelled the whole of the River Nene, and who have had a good deal of experience with catchment boards, am, of course, much more closely acquainted with the problem than he is. But we can leave the hon. and learned Member out of the question; his incursions into debate are never of a nature to forward the cause which he has at heart.

We are now discussing whether, in fact, the Government have done anything to meet the objections which were brought forward on that former occasion. I think that the Government have done a little but not very much. The Government have certainly been forced to realise that the catchment boards, and particularly the River Nene Catchment Board, are public-spirited bodies, which it is not to be supposed from their earlier proposals would enable the interests of the inhabitants of the boroughs——

I would ask the right hon. and gallant Member when I ever suggested that the River Nene Board was not a public-spirited body.

It would, of course, be easy for me to quote at some length from our previous Debates on the subject, but I fear, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you would rule me out of Order, and I will not attempt to trespass upon the courtesy of the Chair, particularly when I see the occupant of the Chair sitting upon the anterior edge of that piece of furniture.

Then the right hon. and gallant Member should withdraw so unjustified an accusation.

The hon. and learned Member, whose sitting-down speeches are neither any more intelligible nor any more reasonable than his standing-up speeches, might well reserve his remarks for an occasion when he will have exhausted his right to speak by having stood up, and when the House will be relieved from his irrelevant interruptions. I simply say that the Parliamentary Secretary is doing his best to justify the somewhat embarrassing position in which he has been left, for the second time, by the Minister of Health. The distrust which the Government showed on that occasion of two public bodies, one of them the River Nene Catchment Board, has been to some extent mitigated through their acceptance of this Amendment by another place. To that extent we welcome the Amendment before us, but it would have been better if they had gone the whole length and left the discretion to these public bodies, as it was inserted by the Joint Committee of both Houses in the original Bill.

The distrust of popularly-elected bodies is a feature of the policy of this Government and their preference for decisions taken by Ministers in camera is well known. All we shall do is take note of it. We ask the country, as well as the River Nene Catchment Board, to take note of it. [Interruption.] If others wish to join in the discussion, we shall be only too glad to hear them, but we consider it would be better for the dignity of the House of Commons if the discussion were carried on by Members who are standing instead of sitting. Secondly, if hon. Members opposite wish to join in, including the Chief Whip, who appears to be in a most affable mood, we shall be only too glad to hear them. Many other Ministers concerned in this should be here and we would be glad to hear them. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation is one of the Members who has been singularly absent from these discussions and who might also be present.

I do not believe that any argument is going to convince the Government. The Government, as we know, are impervious to criticism on these matters. They have decided that this matter is to be settled in a Cabinet committee rather than by the elected representatives of the people. Let it be so. They have gone a certain distance to meeting our demand. They have been shamed into a certain concession to public opinion, and for that we congratulate them. We say that the distrust of a public body and the casting of a slur upon the great River Nene Catchment Board still remain, and that the arguments which the Minister brought forward on a former occasion, although traversed by his action in the present case, still remain. We do not consider this solution brought forward by the Government as going more than half way towards the solution which should be adopted, and which we hope will be adopted by a more enlightened Government on a future occasion.

The House may well reflect a little before it passes this Amendment from another place. I wonder if hon. Members realise the events that have led up to this Special Procedure Bill. I think this is the first time that any Measure has been brought before the House in this fashion. To discuss this matter we had a Joint Committee with peers from another place and Members of this House on it. We discussed these matters at great length. I cannot actually dissect the number of questions and the number of speeches that have been made on this particular aspect, but we had something like 2,339 questions. We had speeches from learned counsel and junior members of the Bar on afternoons for a greater part of a week. On that close examination we came to a certain decision.

Neither the Minister of Health nor the Parliamentary Secretary, who seems to think it all very funny, can have given the amount of attention to this question which the Joint Committee gave. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary did not. The Minister of Health decided that they would simply wipe out the conclusions arrived at. I cannot help thinking that this Special Procedure Bill is being badly used in being brought forward in the manner it is now. The Special Procedure Bill——

I am sorry but the hon. and gallant Member should apply his mind to the matter before the House. The question of the Special Procedure Bill does not arise. The simple question before the House is whether the Amendment shall be accepted on the merits or not.

10.30 p.m.

I am sorry, but that argument was more overwhelming than the other, which I will come to now. Do hon. Members really appreciate the position? This was adopted by the water board and the catchment board who arranged between themselves when and how the water would be pumped up from the river into the reservoir. Perhaps hon. Members do not realise that this is a water Bill and we are talking about the water to be pumped through to the reservoir. The Minister seemed to think that the catchment board and the water board were to be at loggerheads and could not agree whether there was enough water in the river to pump to the reservoir, and therefore the matter had to be referred to the Minister. This is a half-way step back towards what the Joint Committee decided. There are two Ministers involved, not only the Minister of Health but also the Minister of Agriculture. They have said now that if the two boards cannot agree, the matter can be referred to them. To a certain extent that is an improvement.

All this could have been avoided if a responsible Minister had been in the House to give a decision three weeks or so ago. This is something, but not very much. The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) does not think much of the intelligence or co-operativeness of the two water boards and the catchment board. We do. We think they would get on very well. They are local men who understand each other and know each other.

The hon. and gallant Member has not the foggiest idea of what I think or what I do not think on that subject.

I often wonder. I just said that to get the hon. and learned Member on his feet so that he could put his foot in it. This is a water Bill to provide water for Mid-Northamptonshire. That has been the first idea in our heads in all the discussions and conversations. We shall certainly not oppose this Amendment but only wish that it had gone the full length which the Joint Committee had recommended.

I had not intended to say anything, in view of the excellent speech made by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had it not been for the extraordinary intervention of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), who sought to represent that he was the only Member for any part of Northamptonshire in any way interested in the provision of water in that county. It is right to point out that not only is my constituency to some degree affected, but also the borough of Northampton, Wellingborough division and maybe Peterborough division. It is true the hon. and learned Member for Kettering only now——

The hon. and learned Member does not seem to have the foggiest idea of what I said or meant.

I did my utmost to attach some intelligent meaning to what the hon. and learned Member said. I am sorry if I failed. I distinctly thought he accused hon. Members on this side of lack of interest in this subject and sought to represent himself as the only representative of any part of the county in any way affected by the scheme. That is not so. The Amendment in my opinion does go some way to meet us, but I hope there will be no occasion when a matter has to be referred to arbitration by either Minister. The catchment and water boards under the Clause as amended, have to have regard to the state of the river, and if they have regard solely to the state of the river I should have thought the room for argument would be very narrow.

Question put, and agreed to.

Lords Amendment: In page 22, line 5, leave out "July" and insert "August."

I beg to move, "That the House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

This Amendment is consequential on the first Amendment.

As the hon. Gentleman truly says, merely part of the first sheet, and therefore less adequate to cover his nakedness, but enough to reasonably stretch over it. I am glad to see this evidence of repentance on his part. We are glad to see that he recognises the folly and obstinacy of the course upon which he previously embarked. It seems a pity that the Under-Secretary was not empowered by his chiefs to make these simple Amendments when they were brought to his notice on a previous occasion by the Opposition. Much time might have been saved and this House would not have been placed in the somewhat humiliating position in which it is now.

Had it not been for the assistance of the other place, we should have inserted in a piece of legislation a date which was found subsequently impossible to carry out. Those of us who are concerned with the drafting of legislation, not to mention the dignity of this Chamber, are put into a somewhat humiliating position by the Government's insistence on dates which cannot be adhered to and by proposals from which subsequently they have to withdraw, all at the bidding of the other place, whose powers they seek on every occasion to curtail. We welcome this Amendment, since it is in line with the course which on a previous occasion we suggested would have to be taken. We welcome the appearance of the Parliamentary Secretary in a white sheet, even if it is, as the hon. Gentleman says, only part of the sheet in which he appeared when he moved the previous Amendment. Naturally we shall not divide against this Amendment.

Question put, and agreed to.