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Clause 11

Volume 933: debated on Friday 24 June 1977

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Overseas Activities

1.30 p.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 8, line 44, at end insert—

'(5) The Secretary of State's authority to give consents under subsection (4) above shall be exercisable by statutory instrument which shall be laid before Parliament after being made'.
The purpose of the amendment is to give Parliament some control over the powers being given to the National Coal Board to extend its activities overseas before they are exercised. As we argued at length in Committee, this clause gives the Board powers to extend overseas all the activities that it is being given under Clauses 9 and 10 to extract not only coal but sand, gravel, all minerals, and oil.

Although we object in principle to that wide extension of powers without any limitation overseas, the amendment does not attempt to prevent that power from being exercised. We ask that before the Secretary of State gives his consent to the Board to do whatever it wishes to do overseas. Parliament should have the opportunity to approve it, by Statutory Instrument.

We regard the amendment as seeking a reasonable measure of control that is quite within the context of the Government's declaration of open government, especially bearing in mind the strongly voiced opinions on both sides of the Committee about the desirability or otherwise of the Board's being allowed to extend its activities overseas.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who has just entered the Chamber, was one who expressed opposition to the Board's being given powers without control to extend its activities overseas. Therefore, we submit the amendment, which in no way restricts the power of the Board to go ahead to do something that it wishes overseas provided that the Secretary of State approves. However, it insists that Parliament should have the opportunity to express its view by Statutory Instrument before that activity is allowed to go ahead.

If the amendment is not accepted by the Government, we could have an undesirable situation in which the Board will be given virtually unlimited powers, by statute, to do what it likes abroad in all spheres of activity, without any parliamentary scrutiny. Certain Labour Members have agreed that that would be undesirable. We regard it as unsatisfactory and outside the spirit of parliamentary accountability. We contend that the amendment is perfectly reasonable, bearing in mind the anxieties that were expressed on both sides of the Committee about these powers requiring some sort of parliamentary scrutiny.

The Labour Members who expressed anxiety about these powers being extended abroad voiced, as we did, the argument that the Board has enough problems at home without indulging in widespread activities abroad. Moreover, there are the disadvantages that might accrue to the British coal industry to the detriment of miners in this country if the Board were able to exploit abroad without parliamentary scrutiny-for example, to seek and import relatively less expensive coal from abroad. There are hon. Members on both sides of the House who would be extremely anxious if these powers were granted without the amendment being accepted.

Without parliamentary scrutiny we face the prospect that at some time in future, perhaps the not-too-distant future, the Board will take the opportunity of mining coal in Australia, South Africa or somewhere else, importing it at cut price and putting at risk the standard of living of miners in this country. It will be no use Labour Members complaining, because it will be too late. Indeed, it will be much too late. This is the time when hon. Members should seriously consider the reasonableness of the amendment, which insists that any extension overseas should be after a statutory instrument has been approved by the House.

We must bear in mind that the powers granted under the clause do not relate only to coal activities; they give the Board the power, without parliamentary approval, to acquire petroleum, to work minerals of all descriptions, to go upstream and downstream, and to operate, if they so wish, petrol stations in Timbuktu. All that can be done without parliamentary scrutiny. This is nonsense, and something that I do not find acceptable.

My right hon. and hon. Friends feel that the Board should be subjected to some modest control. We take the view that the amendment is constructive and in no way limits the board's power. It in no way inhibits the Minister from giving his approval to an application from the Board to engage in activities overseas. The amendment merely asks that Parliament should have some say in the normal way by means of a Statutory Instrument. We regard that as a healthy discipline, to which nobody should object. It is a safeguard that we believe to be in the interests of the coal industry and the mners as well as in the interests of the Coal Board. We believe that it will be in the national interest that Parliament, the supreme body, should have the final say in the usual way before the wide extension under the clause is granted.

I rise briefly to explain my remarks in Committee, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) has suggested that their implications are that I am in favour of the amendment. I must make it clear that my views on the subject are somewhat different, as well he knows.

I should not want to think that anything in the Bill will create difficulties for the British miner at home. After a lengthy discussion in Committee we came to the sensible conclusion that the National Coal Board was well aware of the need to avoid creating such difficulties and the need to ensure that anything that it does under the clause will not endanger the security of those who work in British pits.

I well understand the reasons for the Opposition raising the matter. They have every right to do so. If there were Australian coal or any other coal that could be exploited by a private undertaking, the chances are that it would exploit it even more effectively, even more ruthlessly, than the Board. It would probably pay wages that would not be the equivalent of those paid to miners in British pits. The result would be that for a relatively short time the coal would be cheaper. That would be the position if it were mined by a private firm.

If the Board indulged in such exploitation-I must enter the caveat that I can see no likelihood of it taking place on a grand scale-I cannot conceive that it would do so, bearing in mind all the difficulties that it will have set against it in the next few years, in such a way that its activities would not be of benefit to the British miner.

If the hon. Gentleman is correct in his assumption that the NCB will not do anything adverse to the United Kingdom miner, surely there is no objection to accepting the amendment, because any Statutory Instrument under it would be simply a formality and be approved automatically.

There is a safeguard which I think is more attractive than a Statutory Instrument. If the Board tried to engage in activities of a kind that would result in the benefits or security of our miners being put at stake, the appropriate action would be taken without the long process of a Statutory Instrument. I have already made my position clear to the National Union of Mine workers today- one of the reasons for my absence earlier was that I was in touch with the people concerned in the union. There is no doubt that if the Board, in exploiting coal overseas, put at risk the jobs of our miners, the unions would take the appropriate action.

However, if there is to be exploitation of coal abroad by British operators, it is far better done by the public sector. But if that exploitation were to result in jobs of British miners being put at risk, the situation could safely be left in the hands of the NUM and the other unions concerned. I do not think that there is need for the amendment, therefore. I understand the concern, and share it to some extent, but I am happy in the knowledge that any problem arising out of it could be resolved by ourselves, in the industry.

It seems that the hon. Gentleman is arguing that Parliament does not need any control, because the miners can, in their own interests, take the situation into their own hands and decide what the NCB should be granted and what it should not be granted. Is he suggesting that there is now no purpose or functions for Parliament?

I was making the rather conservative point that we should not be over-burdened with legislation. I mean that seriously. I take the same view about the direct elections Bill. That represents another way in which we are going to become overburdened. There are large areas of life which should be dealt with by those in the middle of the argument. Too often we bring matters before Parliament which have no need to be brought before it. There are further amendments for discussion which are really matters for negotiation between the unions and the NCB. I do not think that we should enter into this aspect. I am certain that most conservative voters -whether with a small "c" or a large "C"-would take the view that we should not immediately move into legislation when it can be avoided.

What is wrong with the negotiating procedure between the NCB and the NUM and the other unions over this activity, and in the miners saying to the Board "We understand that activities are taking place in coalfields in the old British Empire which we think could have an adverse effect on our jobs, and we are concerned about it because we have a vested interest in the problem"? What is wrong with that? They have every right to negotiate about the matter. I see nothing wrong in that. Nor do I see anything wrong in suggesting that Parliament should not stick its snout into every trough laid before it. If Parliament can keep out, let us keep out.

This has been a strange week in Parliament. Some useful things have been placed on record. Earlier in the week we considered the Price Commission Bill, and after a long discussion of Amendment No. 1 it seemed likely that the Government would give a concession to the Conservatives. But then we heard that Mr. Len Murray did not like the idea of a concession, so we did not get it.

Now, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) says that this amendment is unnecessary because, if there were any danger of the NCB investing money overseas to the detriment of the British miners, the British miners and not the Government would decide what was to happen. Who is running the country? Is it the Government, Mr. Len Murray or the miners and the hon. Gentleman?

1.45 p.m.

Was the hon. Gentleman consulted about the proposals for the Lib-Lab pact? Is the pact between the Government, the Liberals, the hon. Gentleman and the Tribune Group? Or is the Tribune Group excluded from the pact? It seems strange that the hon. Gentleman is prepared, despite his strong convictions, to accept the ruling of the Liberal Party rather than the ruling of the Tribune Group. It is an amazing situation. It is highlighted on this Bill by the fact that the hon. Gentleman believes that there are sources outside this House which are more able to take care of any situation that may arise.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to me in the context of the so-called Lib-Lab pact and of the Liberals generally. The Liberals are absent from the House today, as on so many occasions. They never turn up to do a job of work. Today is just another example of their indolence and of the way in which they operate successfully the absentee system in the House. The hon. Gentleman asked about my relationship with them. They have about as much backbone as a box of jellied eels.

Order. The House has listened to a very interesting exchange of views on varied subjects, but I recommend that it should now come back to the amendment.

I shall not be tempted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to follow the hon. Member for Bolsover along the line.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I point out that in fact the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) was not following my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) but that, in leading for the Opposition today, he started the argument which digresses from the Bill?

I was not castigating any particular hon. Member. That was not my intention. I simply wish the House to come to order on the amendment.

In any event, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am sure that we have some very interesting reading on the record.

I support the amendment. I agree that in the interests of open government the Minister might well be prepared to accept it. What could be more realistic than to have accountability to Parliament when considerable investment is to be made overseas by a nationalised body? My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) made the point extremely ably, and there is little that I could add. It is worth pointing out, however, that Clauses 9 and 10 give the NCB considerable extensions of power, and when we take Clause 11 into account as well the extension of powers of the NCB is compounded.

I am not trying to rouse the hon. Member for Bolsover. I agree entirely with what he said in Committee and what he has suggested today-that the miners at home might well be concerned if they felt that their future was in any way to be at jeopardy because of investment overseas by the NCB. I revert to what I said earlier. Surely the first priority for the Board at this time-and at all times -should be to ensure the availability of the supply of coal in the 1980s, the 1990s and through to the next century. Anything likely to distract it from that objective should be considered very carefully. I cannot think of a better way of considering it than placing the matter before Parliament.

Parliamentary accountability has often been recommended by the present Secretary of State for Energy. This is an opportunity for him to implement his own ideas in a major way, and I hope that the Minister will accept this helpful amendment.

I sympathise with the motive of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost). I should say that the National Union of Mine-workers is perfectly happy with the clause, so we can remove immediately the fiction about any threat to the miners.

Parliament should know what is going on, and it would be our intention that the House should be fully informed, but we have to appreciate that we are treading new ground here. In the main, it would be possible to cover the activities which the Board will be authorised to undertake in a general way, as is done in the current order concerning overseas activities. However, we do not wish to provide too wide a blanket of cover, which might mean that specific projects that the Board wished to undertake were not included.

The Board may be operating in a fiercely competitive context. The competition for exploration and exploitation contracts in the world's new and developing coalfields is severe, and commercial confidence, at least initially, may be essential. If the Board is to compete on equal terms, it is not customary to announce publicly the submission of tenders.

If an activity were one for which a specific consent had to be given, to do it publicly would give the whole game away. There is also the question of speed. The consent may have to be given quickly. The existing statutory procedure simply is not flexible enough, nor is it geared to cope with the commercial activities in this detailed way. That is why the Bill provides for the Secretary of State's consent to be given in writing, as is provided for the British National Oil Corporation under the Petroleum and Submarine Pipe-lines Act 1975.

We would certainly intend to cover the general run of Coal Board activities in a similar way to the present arrangements, and when that consent is given it will be published. Beyond that, if more specific consents are necessary to meet certain cases, and the circumstances are such that immediate publication would be unwise, they would be made public as soon as the need for confidentiality was over-for example, as and when a contract was won.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East indulged in some flights of fancy in Committee. This provision is not a device for secretly authorising the

Division No. 184]


[1.56 p.m.

Atkins, Rt Han H. (Spelthorne)Buck, AntonyGow, Ian (Eastbourne)
Bell, RonaldClark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)Gray, Hamish
Berry, Hon AnthonyClark, William (Croydon S)Hannam, John
Biffen, JohnCope, JohnHayhoe, Barney
Body, RichardDykes, HughHordern, Peter
Boscawen, Hon RobertEmery, PeterHowell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Bottomley, PeterFinsberg, GeoffreyLe Marchant, Spencer
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)Fisher, Sir NigelMacfarlane, Neil
Braine, Sir BernardGardiner, George (Relgate)MacGregor, John
Brooke, PeterGorst, JohnMcNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)

building of cigar factories in Havana. Hon. Members will appreciate the commercial nature of the Board's potential overseas activities and the need to ensure that it is not unduly handicapped by misplaced enthusiasm for transparency. I hope that this explanation will be regarded as satisfactory and that the amendment will be withdrawn.

The Minister's only argument for resisting the amendment appeared to be commercial confidence- that it would be dangerous for the NCB to disclose to Parliament any proposals for extending its operations or investments overseas. I regard that as an inadequate and unsatisfactory excuse. It is another example of the Government's double standards. They quote commercial confidentiality when it suits them, yet in other legislation they force oil companies and other firms, through the planning agreements of the National Enterprise Board, to contravene what they regard as their safeguards of commercial confidentiality. There seems to be one law for what the Government want and another for what they do not want. It is unsatisfactory to reject a simple parliamentary safeguard on this false pretext.

If the NCB does not intend to do anything overseas that would hurt the mining industry or the miners, why is it afraid of the normal parliamentary scrutiny by means of Statutory Instruments? The present procedures of an annual report by the NCB are unsatisfactory, because the details of its overseas activities are scantily reported. The Minister's response shows a shameful and arrogant disdain for Parliament and its democratic rights and procedures. I urge my hon. Friends to support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 44, Noes 93.

Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)Tebbit, Norman
Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)Weatherill, Bernard
Moate, RogerShaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)Sims, Roger


Peyton, Rt Hon JohnSmith, Timothy John (Ashfield)Mr. Jim Lester and
Pink, R. BonnerSpicer, Michael (S Worcester)Sir George Young.


Archer, Rt Hon PeterHunter, AdamRodgers, George (Chorley)
Armstrong, ErnestJackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)
Ashton, JoeJeger, Mrs LenaRooker, J. W.
Atkinson, NormanJenkins, Hugh (Putney)Rose, Paul B.
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Judd, FrankSandelson, Neville
Bates, AlfKelley, RichardShaw, Arnold (llford South)
Bishop, Rt Hon EdwardLamond, JamesShore, Rt Hon Peter
Boothroyd, Miss BettyLatham, Arthur (Paddington)Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Canavan, DennisLipton, MarcusSillars, James
Cartwright, JohnLyon, Alexander (York)Silverman, Julius
Clemitson, IvorMabon, Rt Hon Dr J. DicksonSkinner, Dennis
Cocks, Rt Hon MichaelMcDonald, Dr OonaghSmith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)MacFarquhar, RoderickSnape, Peter
Crowther, Slan (Rotherham)Maclennan, RobertSpearing, Nigel
Davidson, ArthurMarks, KennethStallard, A. W.
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)Meacher, MichaelStrang, Gavin
Dell, Rt Hon EdmundMellish, Rt Hon RobertSummerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Dormand, J. D.Mendelson, JohnTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Dufly, A. E. P.Molloy, WilliamTinn, James
Dunwoody, Mrs GwynethMorris, Charles R. (Openshaw)Tomlinson, John
Eadle, AlexMoyle, RolandVarley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Ennals, DavidNewens, StanleyWard, Michael
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Ogden, EricWilliams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Fitch, Alan (Wigan)O'Halloran, MichaelWilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelOvenden, JohnWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Gilbert, Dr JohnPadley, WalterWise, Mrs Audrey
Grant, John (Islington C)Park. GeorgeWoodall, Alec
Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Harper, JosephRichardson, Miss Jo


Harrison, Rt Hon WalterRoberts, Gwilym (Cannock)Mr. Ted Graham and
Horam, JohnRobinson, GeoffreyMr. David Stoddart.
Hughes, Mark (Durham)

Amendment accordingly negatived.