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Provisions As To Regulations, Orders Etc

Volume 21: debated on Wednesday 31 March 1982

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

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 35, line 3, after 'section', insert '3(1) and '.

It is a dubious privilege to end up with the last amendment on Report. I recall that I ended up with the last amendment in Committee. Like that one, this amendment is significant. It is fitting that we come back almost to where we started—the whole question of parliamentary accountability for all actions and powers taken away under the Bill by the Secretary of State.

I feel that I could almost put on the record and disappear because we have in different ways debated this issue over and over again. I make no apology for returning to it. When we debated clause 31 in Committee we tried to change the procedure for responsibility to the House to be subject to an affirmative resolution rather than a negative resolution. During that debate we raised the issue of making the powers of the Secretary of State accountable to Parliament under clause 31, but we did not have an amendment down to that effect.

We decided to return to the issue because, as we have argued since the first time the Bill came before the House on Second Reading through almost every Committee debate and on the first two new clauses which we moved earlier today, we believe that the Secretary of State should be accountable to Parliament for the powers he is taking under the Bill.

I pointed out in Committee that clause 3(1) is one of the most important provisions in the whole of part I. It gives the Secretary of State power to direct the British National Oil Corporation to exercise its power of disposal, and all the rest of it. It is the trigger provision for the privatisation of the British National Oil Corporation, yet not a single provision in clause 3(1) is to be subject to any further parliamentary responsibility or accountability. As clause 31 is now drafted, none of those provisions will be subject to the affirmative resolution or even to the negative resolution.

We believe that, wherever we stand on privatisation, there is a powerful case in parliamentary terms for hon. Members on both sides of the House who are jealous of parliamentary rights, scrutiny and accountability to support the concept that the most important directions given under part I of the Bill should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

It is no use the Government arguing, as they did in Committee, that these directions are no different from those under the 1975 Act. They are extremely important substantive directions which trigger off the whole process of privatisation of BNOC's assets. We believe that those directions at least should be subject to parliamentary accountability if only through the negative procedure. We accept that in Committee we lost the case for all directions and orders under clause 31 to be subject to the affirmative resolution. We have not sought to return to that, but we believe that the directions under clause 3(1) should be subject to some form of parliamentary scrutiny under clause 31.

What is the case against this? We heard it at some length in Committee from the Secretary of State and from the Minister of State. The Government argued that the directions were no different from those under the 1975 Act, and that as those directions were not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, these should not be either. But these are directions of a very different kind. This is a matter of substantial and substantive power. These directions cannot be compared with those envisaged in the 1975 Act, because the directions under clause 3(1) trigger off the whole process of privatisation. We do not accept such a comparison, and we do not accept the "original precedent" argument used by the Secretary of State.

The other part of the Government's case against any form of parliamentary accountability for the Secretary of State's actions under clause 3(1) was that they had already told the House exactly what they intended to do. They said that they had already told us of their intention to sell off 51 per cent., the manner in which this would be done, and so forth, but that is not so. The Secretary of State's decision to direct BNOC to create subsidiaries and shares and to float them off, which is the basic power under clause 3(1), will be a major new step. We debated at some length when and how this would be done in relation to an earlier amendment on the valuation and the method of sale. Nevertheless, the power that the Secretary of State is taking under clause 3(1) should be subject at least to the negative procedure under clause 31.

I therefore ask the Government to reconsider their position. To paraphrase the good old song about the girl who could not say "No", we are the guys who cannot accept the answer "No" on as significant, reasonable and parliamentary a matter as this amendment. I hope that the Minister will reconsider this in the spirit in which we have debated it. We have paid enough tributes to him. I now claim my rain check on all my tributes to him.

No, I only sing with at least 99 others. I am president of a male voice choir which is 101-strong, but as the House can see, I do not have the other 100 with me today although I realise, of course, that it is quality rather than quantity that counts.

As we come to the final stages of the Report stage of a Bill which has been very little changed as a result of the 100 hours and more of detailed examination that we have devoted to it, I hope that as a fellow parliamentarian the Minister will accept this one last plea that the power to make directions that the Secretary of State seeks under clause 3(1) should be subject to some form of parliamentary scrutiny.

That is all we are asking, and it is utterly reasonable. I have battered at this door repeatedly. In spite of the Minister of State's amiability, he says "No" most of the time. This time, however, I hope that he will say "Yes", or "Maybe", or that he will agree to look at the matter again. I do not mind how he phrases the reply as long as he gives the assurance that he will reconsider the point that we made in Committee and to which we have now returned on Report.

The matter is important and significant. We decided to end the Report stage on this amendment because parliamentary accountability in the Bill is so weak and poor that he should at least make this concession. I ask and plead with him to do so.

11.30 pm

In moving the amendment the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) said that we had discussed the matter a great deal in Committee and that he would only repeat what he had said many times before. He will not be surprised, therefore, if I repeat what I have said on many previous occasions.

I assure him that we fully recognise the need for proper parliamentary accountability and debate and that that is why we made major policy statements about our plans for BNOC both on and before Second Reading. We explained at length in Committee exactly how we intended to use the powers in part I, and we have answered as many as possible of the detailed questions that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have asked. Those who have followed our proceedings should be in no doubt about our policy and how we intend to implement it.

In earlier debates we cited many of the precedents from earlier Labour and Conservative legislation that we are following in the Bill. I shall not quote them all again. They are all on record in the Committee proceedings. It may be instructive to those hon. Members who were not on the Committee—there may not be many here, but I see present a few of my hon. Friends who are sufficiently interested to see the Bill complete its Report stage—to be told that on many occasions, for example, we used the precedent of the Petroleum and Submarine Pipe-Lines Act 1975. The corporation was set up with powers to give effect to participation agreements, but there was no requirement to submit those agreements to Parliament for approval.

The Secretary of State was empowered by section 3(1) to approve plans for the general conduct of the corporation's undertakings. There was no requirement to report those plans to Parliament. The Secretary of State was also empowered to require reviews of the corporation's affairs. Those reviews do not have to be shown to Parliament. I could quote many other precedents, but I do not intend to weary the House with them. Everyone feels a little tired at the end of a long day.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil was an exceptionally hard-working member of the Committee. He made a great contribution to it. I sincerely would have liked to make the concession that he seeks, but I regret that on this occasion the answer must still be "No".

It is regrettable that the Minister has adopted that negative attitude on an issue of such seriousness. I shall not press the amendment to a Division, because I calculate that the result would be 12 votes to two, unless a few more Conservative Members come out of the woodwork. The issue of parliamentary accountability, which is raised by the powers that the Secretary of State seeks to take in the Bill, is of serious concern.

There will be other opportunities to raise it. In the spirit in which we have debated most of the Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Bill.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.