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Clause 18—(Additional Functions Of The Authority)

Volume 640: debated on Tuesday 9 May 1961

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I beg to move, in page 13, line 25, to leave out subsection (2).

If words continue to have any meaning, it seems to me that subsection (2) provides the Authority with powers which cannot be justified. That is why I seek to have the subsection deleted from the Clause. The subsection states:
"The Authority shall have power to do any thing and to enter into any transaction…which in their opinion is calculated to facilitate the proper discharge of their duties"—
and the Authority's duties are referred to earlier in the Clause—
"or to facilitate the exercise of any of their powers under the foregoing provisions of this section, or is incidental or conducive thereto."
I should like to remind the Committee of the powers which the Clause provides to the Authority under subsection (1). Paragraph (a) gives the Authority power to provide vehicles, plant and machinery for transport purposes; paragraph (b)
"to provide plant and machinery for accelerating or retarding the ripening of horticultural produce",
and so on; paragraph (c)
"to provide plant and machinery for washing or cleansing";
paragraph (d)
"to provide, or secure that there is provided,…rest rooms, canteens, washing facilities"
and so on; paragraph (e)
"to provide…facilities for enabling persons to carry on, at the place where the Authority are providing market facilities, business consisting of",
etc. Then comes paragraph (f), which might be called the "etc. paragraph" which provides the Authority with power
"to carry on all such other activities as it may appear to the Authority to be requisite, advantageous or convenient for them to carry on for or in connection with the discharge of their duties or with a view to making the best use of any of their assets."
I suggest that this is a very all-embracing subsection. It gives power to the Authority to do virtually anything that it might feel it its duty to do. Even subsection (1) might be too broadly drawn, but the purpose of the Amendment is to delete subsection (2), which I believe is wholly unnecessary and undesirable.

This is a nationalisation Measure on a small scale. We are setting up an Authority and providing it with certain obligations and powers, such as the power to borrow money. It will be able to enjoy advances from my right hon. Friend up to a limit of £8 million, as is specified in Clause 40. Parliament ought to define much more precisely than the Clause defines the limits of the Authority's powers. I believe that it is undesirable as a matter of principle that we should draft a Bill in these terms. Unless words have ceased to have any meaning, subsection (2) is either unnecessary or undesirable. I suggest that probably it is both. As subsection (1, f) empowers the Authority
"to carry on all such activities as it may appear to the Authority to be requisite",
I cannot understand the necessity for subsection (2).

This is essentially a point of principle which I think deserves my right hon. Friend's attention. Surely we are concerned with defining what the Authority is empowered to do with public money in the public interest. Surely we should not give it a blank cheque and carte blanche as these provisions do. If one subsection is necessary, then I submit that the other is unnecessary. I hope that I carry hon. Members with me by saying that if we want to write Parliament's intention into Bills then we should attempt to define much more closely what these powers should be and not to divest ourselves of responsibility, which we are bound to do by giving powers which are as wide and ill-defined as the provisions of subsection (1, f) and the unnecessary subsection (2).

I urge my right hon. Friend not to brush my Amendment aside. I regret that a Conservative Government have permitted a subsection such as subsection (2) to appear in a Bill. I am not seeking to be partisan. This has not been that sort of debate. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept the Amendment in view of his earlier attitude when he said that it was undesirable that the duties and, presumably, the powers of the Authority should be unduly extended. I bow to any hon. and learned Member who can read something into these words which a layman cannot appreciate. I hope that hon. Members appreciate the point that I am trying to make, namely, that subsection (2) will permit the Authority to do virtually anything that it pleases. I cannot imagine how any provision could give it greater powers. I urge my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to take the point that I am making, which is essentially different from the constituency points which have been made earlier. In saying that I make no criticism of those points.

We are certainly not talking about nationalised concerns. The Minister has reminded us that the Authority is very much akin to the Port of London Authority. This is a public authority to run Covent Garden. It has the support of those employed in the market and also of the employers. Unfortunately—as I would say—there is nothing in the Bill which will take away from the rights of those who trade there. They will have much the same facilities as they have enjoyed in the past.

The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) should get his facts right. This is a genuine attempt to get the market organised in a better way. I am always surprised that when Conservative Members are dealing with a public body of any kind they are inclined to hurt that body and not give it a chance and then are the first to attack it for not doing its job.

The words of the subsection are:
"…or in connection with the discharge of their duties or with a view to making the best use of any of their assets."
Into these words are read the most terrifying and appalling things. This is a public body trying to do its job, and now we are told that we must delete these words and not give the Authority the opportunity to do it.

The hon. Member is under a misapprehension. He is referring to Clause 18 (1, f), whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) was drawing attention to subsection (2) which is rather different.

The trouble with the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield) is that he has made up his mind so much that he was not even listening to his hon. Friend. Of course I know what Amendment is being moved. The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton wants to delete subsection (2) because of what is contained in subsection (1, f). He made that point emphatically and said that if subsection (2) is removed it makes that power ineffective. He said that the subsection would give the Authority money and power to do all sorts of things to which he objected. I know exactly what the hon. Member said, and I know his intentions exactly.

In setting up a public authority of this kind, we must give it a chance to do its job reasonably well. We ought to have the opportunity at least once a year of discussing not only this authority but all public authorities, including the nationalised industries about which the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton gets so worked up. If I had my way, we would discuss them more and more. There is no question of state ownership here. This is a public authority which is given a job to do, and I hope that the Minister does not in any way indicate that he will restrict its authority to do these things. If he does, then we shall have the first Division of the debate on this Amendment.

I support the Amendment. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) that this is nationalisation. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) would agree that it would be better to refer to this as on a par with new town development. I object to the Clause because it gives more power to this Authority than the New Towns Act, introduced by hon. and right hon. Members opposite gave. They were satisfied with the powers given under that Act. Why should the hon. Member for Bermondsey be surprised that we are surprised that a Conservative Government should be bringing in a much more Socialist Measure?

The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) is a famous business man. Can he imagine any effort in the business world being restricted in the way that he wants to restrict this Authority?

Most certainly I would restrict a firm from carrying out activities which its own directors or experienced people were not capable of carrying out. Under this Clause the Authority could do anything. It could set up orange groves in Spain or decide that a groundnut scheme was good for Covent Garden. All I am concerned with is that the Authority should have powers commensurate with its experience and with the abilities of its technical staff. No indication was given to the Select Committee that these experts would have these powers. Why will the Minister not agree to restrict these powers in the same way as they were restricted under the New Towns Act, 1946, by hon. and right hon. Members opposite?

7.15 p.m.

The Committee should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) for raising this point and giving us a further opportunity to consider the very wide powers that the Authority is to be given under the Bill. On Second Reading I drew attention to the fact that these wide powers were being given. I support what has been said from this side of the Committee about them. I do not see why they should be given to the Authority. Surely the Authority ought to be able to carry out its duties and discharge all functions that may be necessary and make the best use of its assets without having these extremely wide powers.

The Authority is required to run a market and that is something which many local authorities do. Yet here it is proposed to give the Authority far wider powers than are ever granted to any local authority. When a local authority is granted powers they are defined and restricted. It is surely only right that an authority of this nature, whose job is strictly limited, should have its powers likewise strictly limited.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) said that the powers were so wide that the Authority might be able to set up orange groves in Spain. He is not far wrong. Covent Garden markets produce from all over the world, and under the Clause there is nothing whatever to prevent the Authority doing what my hon. Friend suggests. There is no reason why it should not run a Hovercraft to carry bananas from the West Indies, because it could be said that that facilitated the carrying out of its functions.

There is no need to do that, in view of the Clause which gives the widest power to the Authority to carry out any transaction

"…calculated to facilitate the proper discharge of their duties…"
which is to market produce which comes from all over the world. I suggest that the Government ought to take another look at this Clause in another place. They should see whether something cannot be done to restrict these wide powers.

The Preamble uses the simple words:

"…to make provision for the conduct…under the control of the Covent Garden Market Authority, of activities relating to the dealing in bulk in horticultural produce; and to make provision with respect to matters arising out of the matters aforesaid."
I do not think that under those terms one could bring in orange groves in Spain.

Why not? If by conducting a market in Covent Garden one could facilitate the selling of oranges or of other fruit grown in any part of the world, then, according to the Clause, it would be perfectly within the Authority's power to do these things. This is the point raised in the Amendment. The Clause is far too wide for the restricted requirements of the Covent Garden Market Authority.

There are two questions which I wish to put to my right hon. Friend. First, will he ensure that the consent of the Minister must be obtained before lands are acquired for purposes other than marketing and storage facilities? If the Authority finds itself with surplus funds, it may desire to invest in land or something of that kind. That should not be done without the Minister's consent.

Secondly, in view of the wide powers the Authority is to have, what authority will the Westminster City Council have over it?

I was trying to ascertain whether these wide powers for the new Authority mean that the authority of Westminster City Council is impaired. My question is related exactly to this subsection and the powers it confers upon the Authority.

If we are to give the Authority such wide powers—which may mean, for instance, that it will be exempted from the law of nuisance—then we should be told about them. I cannot feel satisfied that this Committee would wish the authority of Westminster City Council to be taken over by this new body, or that the Council should not be able to discharge its duties in the Covent Garden area. It is because of these various aspects, which are causing anxiety in some people's minds, that I hope that we can have the position clarified. Better still, in view of what has been said in this debate, the Government might in another place seek to restrict some of the very wide powers to be given to the new Authority.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), who has been busy placing things on record today, was determined to place on record his view of public authorities, and he did so with his usual eloquence and enthusiasm. He is doubtful that the new Authority will be entitled under this Bill to do practically everything it wants. If, however, he looks at Clause 16 (2) he will see that it is mandatory on the Authority to provide storage facilities outside the market area. There is no reason why it should not have a storage area for grapefruit in the West Indies, and sell them by sample in Covent Garden or, indeed, in Bermondsey.

As I understand Clause 18 (2) the Authority will have complete power outside the control of this House. It has been said earlier that we shall have no right to ask questions about its day-today operations. It will be in the same position as that of the boards of nationalised industries as far as Questions in this House are concerned. We shall not be able to get Questions past the Table except by using the expedients which some of us use from time to time.

The Minister expressed great concern lest, under the Amendment which I moved earlier, the Authority should be outside the control of the House in the selection of an alternative site for the market. This was a matter of grave personal concern to him. Yet apparently he is quite prepared to accept the powers under this subsection, which are outside the control of the House. They are the widest possible powers. As far as I can see, there is to be no restriction upon the Authority. There is a contradiction in the approach to this Clause as against the approach to my proposed Amendment to Clause 16.

My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) has, quite understandably, moved his Amendment so that we can examine the powers which it is proposed to give to the new Authority. The job of the Authority is to provide a market in a general area which we have been speaking about—

—and not in Spain. It is correct to say that the Select Committee examined a proposal on the same lines as the Amendment, and rejected it for good reason. I am sure hon. Members will agree with me when I explain.

The powers which it is proposed to give the Authority seem very wide when one reads this subsection, but they are not wide by commercial standards, and no wider than what is normal in the memoranda of association of public companies. My hon. Friends who have supported the Amendment probably have closer associations with the business world than I have, and I am sure they would not enjoy the prospect of being responsible for large scale businesses where some such powers did not exist.

Does my hon. Friend suggest that the actions of the directors of companies are outside the control of their shareholders?

They frequently seem to be in practice, whatever they may be in theory.

We have not broken new ground in drafting the powers of the Authority in this way but, broadly speaking, have followed precedent. This Authority will have the same sort of powers as this Committee has given to other bodies charged with comparable responsibilities. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield), who is a constituent of mine, exercised a constituent's licence to exaggerate when making representations to his Member when he spoke about overseas developments and other figments of his imagination.

It is absolutely right that we should check any proposal of this sort before it leaves the Committee. It is also right for us to see, when we set up an Authority of this kind, that it has the powers to do its job. One of the checks which my hon. Friends have not mentioned is that there is an annual report. Orange groves and other overseas ventures would be noticed in such a report. They could not be concealed. No doubt they would attract the attention not only of my hon. Friends who have spoken to this Amendment but of other hon. Members as well.

Later in the Bill there is a series of financial checks. My right hon. Friend will have a wide variety of powers, so that he will exercise a not insubstantial measure of control over the Authority's finances. These powers may seem wide if one reads them as they were read out here this afternoon but—

They may seem wide as they appear in the Bill, but what is the point of a set of sentences unless they mean what they say? Although the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has misunderstood my purpose a little, if we have in Clause 18 (1, f) the words

"to carry on all such other activities.…"
et cetera, et cetera, it seems unnecessary to add subsection (2) which virtually is the et cetera, et cetera. Is it wise to quote precedent? Is not this the moment not to follow precedent?

7.30 p.m.

I follow the argument of my hon. Friend about whether it is always worth checking that it is wise to follow a precedent, but I do not think he has understood the purpose of his Amendment. If subsection (2) were taken out of the Bill, the Authority's powers to acquire or dispose of property would be hampered. There are specific proposals in it, and it is intended that the words shall mean what they say. I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will agree that this is not an outrageous proposal but the right thing to do. When we set up an Authority of this type, we have to bear in mind its commercial responsibilities and give it comparable powers; otherwise the whole purpose of the Bill would be frustrated.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.