HC Deb 22 April 1971 vol 815 cc1468-89

Queen's Recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to amend section 7 of the Shipbuilding Industry Act 1967, it is expedient to authorise any increase in the sums payable out of moneys provided by Parliament or into the Consolidated Fund which is attributable to any amendment of the section increasing the limit of £400 million imposed by subsection (5), as amended by section 1 of the Shipbuilding Industry Act 1969, on the Secretary of State's liabilities on guarantees given under section 7, but so that the new limit shall not exceed £700 million less the amount of any sums which have been paid by the Secretary of State to meet a liability falling within the subsection and have not been repaid to him.—[Mr. Ridley.]

8.53 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Dell (Birkenhead)

I should like to ask the Government some questions about this Money Resolution. The Under-Secretary left us in some doubt on the subject of legality and I should like to follow the questions put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey).

The Under-Secretary seemed to be saying that it would be illegal to go beyond this £700 million because there was no legislation, but not illegal to go beyond the current legislative limit of £400 million, although there is no legislative authority to do so. I wonder whether he would explain what is illegal, what is done simply because it is courteous to the House, and from where exactly the limits of this operation derive in law so that we may be quite clear what he meant when he said that what the Government were proposing to do after Second Reading was not illegal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North was making an important point. If it is true on the face of it that it is not illegal to go beyond the current limit of £400 million, why will it be illegal to go beyond the next limit of £700 million if the interests of the industry so require?

Secondly, as he knows, there have been representations from the Chamber of Shipping about these guarantees expressing concern about the fact that orders placed by British shipping companies in British shipyards have not been covered in full and that, apparently, it is not proposed to cover them in full. For example, the owners of four container ships have been told that only the vessels themselves may be covered, but not the containers, which are essential for the operation of the ships. Exactly what is the limit of operation of these guarantees? Do they cover orders in full, and to what extent do they not cover the orders?

I am sorry to revert to the next point, but it must be clear to the hon. Gentleman that he has left the House in some doubt about what is to happen after May 1973 when the £700 million expires.

One of the original intentions behind these credit guarantees was that eventually, they would rotate—in other words, enough guarantees would be released in order to enable the Government to cover new orders. Do we understand from the hon. Gentleman that that ambition is now dead, that these guarantees will never get to the point of rotating and that some other method will substitute entirely? In other words, is this the case not just for any requirements above the £700 million which may be necessary in future but over the whole range? Is it the case that the £700 million of credit guarantees will gradually come to an end altogether and that this system will play no part in the further support of orders placed by British shipowners with British yards?

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I will do my best to answer the questions put by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell), although I shall not go over again the ground I have covered in relation to the future of the credit scheme.

First, the Government can do anything they wish legally unless they are expressly forbidden by legislation to do so. I apologise for giving the right hon. Gentleman a wrong answer earlier. I am advised that we could give credit guarantees to any amount so decided without legislative authority and be strictly within the law. It is clear, however, that it is right that we should obtain authority for so doing. We should particularly obtain legislative authority because if there is a default and credit is not paid we would have to present the bill to Parliament and would have to be able to justify to the House that it should cover that bill. Therefore, there is no reason why we should not go over the £700 million. But I believe that it is perfectly justifiable, once a Bill has obtained its Second Reading, to advance guarantees against the £700 million limit contained in the Bill, and that is what we intend to do.

Secondly, the credit is available to cover all the equipment of a ship. It can be used to cover containers. The limit of £400 million has been biting hard and the only question has been whether it is better used, in view of the short supply of credit, for new ship orders or for containers. We are at present consulting the Chamber of Shipping, with the introduction of the Bill, to see what it would like to do in this respect, although the Government will eventually decide how to use the money.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether we would substitute a new scheme for the existing credit. He himself knows the answer. It is impossible to do anything about credit which has been advanced to an amount of over £200 million and therefore it would be impossible to consider substituting an existing credit mechanism for a new one.

Mr. Dell

I do not think the hon. Gentleman has taken my point. The intention was for these guarantees to rotate —in other words, as guarantees fell out because the ship was paid for, that value of guarantee would be used for new orders. Obviously, there would have to be a certain minimum value of credit guarantees available before that could happen and a certain time would elapse. That was the original intention. Has that intention been clearly abandoned? The hon. Gentleman suggested that beyond the £700 million there would be a new system, although he could not give the terms. I was asking whether the £700 million which would be available would be allowed to rotate—that is, fill in some of the gaps as part of it is released—or whether the whole thing would be abandoned and everything would depend on the new scheme.

These are fairly clear questions which derive from the nature of the credit guarantee scheme and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman could answer them.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Ridley

With leave, may I say that the fund is rotating and that when the money is repaid it becomes available for relending. We estimate that £25 million will become available for relending this year, which will increase the amount of the credit from £700 million to £725 million, although the ceiling level is not affected. The right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the scheme can rotate.

I have said many times that I do not yet know, and therefore cannot tell the House, the terms of any credit scheme which may be announced later. For that reason, I cannot answer the right hon. Gentleman's second question.

Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Craigton)

I should like to pursue the question of the legality or illegality of what the Government intend to do. The Under-Secretary of State has said that it is not necessary to have legislation because there is a general Government power to cover guarantees. He is saying that he can act as he likes unless we tell him that he must not go beyond a certain limit.

However, I should have thought that in the Money Resolution there was a specific debarment against the Government going beyond a certain limit because, unless the Resolution is completely meaningless, it says in the third last line that the new limit shall not exceed £700 million". I presume that during the passage of the legislation which laid down the present limit of £400 million the House solemnly passed a Money Resolution saying that the limit should not exceed £400 million. The House said to the Government, "You have authority to go to £400 million but not beyond." Now we are giving the Government authority to go to £700 million but not beyond it.

Either the Money Resolution is completely meaningless or what the Secretary of State has said is not accurate. Can the hon. Gentleman reconcile what he has said with what he is asking us to pass in the Resolution?

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I support what has been said from this side of the House. This is a matter of considerable constitutional importance. I am prejudicing myself in a way because I am anxious that the industry should have the money, but we cannot let the Government behave like this.

The Government must realise that they cannot spend a penny unless they obtain Parliament's authority. The Money Resolution refers to "moneys provided by Parliament". That was the position before, and it is the position now. The Comptroller and Auditor General should be alerted to this matter. If guarantees have been given, the position should be exposed. All that the Secretary of State is saying is that if a guarantee has not been given he will guarantee the money out of his own pocket. It is exactly the same position as the position which exists between a local authority and the district auditor, and the House should be alive to it.

We cannot tolerate this sort of slipshod administration, with the Government saying, "It does not matter. There will be a Bill some day—this week, next week—but we are sure to get it. Therefore, we can go ahead in a slipshod administrative way". This is vitally important, because the control that Parliament exercises over the Executive is that of finance. The Executive cannot spend anything unless it has parliamentary approval for it. Here we have expressed parliamentary approval subject to a limit. If the Government give guarantees, they must be covered by legislation backing those guarantees. We should not let this go idly by.

Criticism was made earlier of the arrogant way in which the Department disregarded the opinion of the House of Commons. Now the Minister says, "That is the view I take." I have been here longer than the hon. Gentleman and he might not be as aware as I am of the traditions that the House has established over a long time. I cannot remember a Minister ever coming to the House and saying, "We are considering legislation, but do hon. Gentlemen mind if we ignore it and give a few guarantees?".

Mr. Ridley

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Mr. Willey

If I am wrong, let us have an explanation. The Secretary of State is here and the obligation is upon him to give the explanation, he is in charge of the Department—or let us have a Law Officer. Let us have someone who can satisfy the House about what after all is the cardinal control that the House exercises over the Executive.

Mr. Ridley

The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that the previous Government advanced £7 million to Upper Clyde Shipbuilders not very long ago and never sought legislative authority to do so. Can he explain that one away? Since he claims such great knowledge and wisdom in constitutional matters, can he tell us by what authority the Labour Government did that?

Mr. Willey

First, we are in the unusual position of discussing a Money Resolution without a Treasury Minister being present. That point was taken at the opening of the debate. Secondly, there is express legislative provision here. I am not concerned with what was done about U.C.S., I am concerned about what is done in regard to Section 7. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he can give these guarantees without parliamentary authority this is a matter which we can raise if the £700 million is exceeded, but from the Money Resolution it appears that the Minister is completely wrong.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I am not wholly conversant with financial procedures in this House, but I have some regard for financial probity. If we have exceeded the guarantees of £400 million, do I understand that the Government are liable in law, if there should be any default, only to pick up the pieces for £400 million? When the Bill becomes law, will the Government be liable in law only to pick up the pieces for £700 million? Will there be no legal liability for the Government to pick up the pieces in excess of £700 million? The Minister is giving a misleading impression to the House and to the people who might be obliged to give loans to companies wishing to build ships if he is saying that he will be able to exceed the £700 million.

The hon. Gentleman appeared to be misinterpreting the rôle of this House in the control of Supply. I have already confessed my lack of knowledge of the procedures of the House, but I would ask the hon. Gentleman if either the accounting officer in his Department or indeed the Comptroller and Auditor-General was consulted before this Bill came before the House?

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

To return to the point relating to the £700 million limit, I would suggest to the Under-Secretary of State that it is not sufficient when dealing with a Bill of this importance to say "Go and talk to the joint stock banks about it".

It is a well known principle of banking that every advance creates a deposit. The loans are guaranteed by the Government, and a loan is made to the shipowner who has placed the order for a ship. He takes the money as he requires it to pay advances on the building of the ship. The money is then paid to the shipbuilder, who pays it out either for steel or in wages. The money is paid in that way, and it goes back into the banking system. The banks have the same total of money to re-lend subject to their liquidity ratio, which usually amounts to a third. In other words, the money rotates. This is normal banking practice. It is the way in which business has been financed for many hundreds of years.

I cannot see in logic why the Government say that they cannot guarantee more than £700 million. I suggest that my hon. Friend goes and talks to the joint stock banks about it. Why should the figure of guarantee not be increased? In concluding the Second Reading debate my hon. Friend said that he could not tell what in future would be the interest charged on the money. He does not even know what money will be available for lending by the joint stock banks. If in six months or a year's time the joint stock banks found that they could lend up to £1,000 million to the shipyards, would another amending Bill need to be introduced into this House? Why should the total limit not be increased at this stage even above what the joint stock banks are willing to advance? Would my hon. Friend address his mind to this matter?

Mr. Milan

The way in which the Government have drawn this Money Resolution is expressly designed to prevent the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) or anybody else increasing the limit in Committee. This is another objection to the present drafting of the Money Resolution.

Mr. McMaster

Yes, I accept that point.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

I beg to move, That the debate be now adjourned.

I take this step because in the course of this debate the House has heard from two Front Bench speakers three or four totally contradictory explanations. First, the Minister for Industry began by saying that he thought he should tell the House that after the Second Reading he would be advancing the credit. He then indicated that if there was any opposition from this side of the House he would not do so, but that if we were prepared to approve the Bill without a Division he would be willing to authorise the credit. He well knew that we wanted this to be done. I said that this was illegal.

In summing up, the Under-Secretary of State said that this was not to be the case and that the Government could do what they liked as far as I understood it, resting on a prerogative view of Government which is unusual. He cited other cases about the Shipbuilding Industry Board which are not on all-fours with this. He then said that it would be possible, with the authorisation of this Bill, to give credits of more than £700 million. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, he did. He said, "On exactly the same basis as Industry said that we can go ahead now in anticipation of Parliament, since the Government can do what they like there is nothing to prevent their going beyond the £700 million unless Parliament expressly prohibits it." But that is exactly what the Money Resolution does. It says: …shall not exceed £700 million. These are complicated matters, but, inadvertently, the hon. Gentleman misled us in what he said. This is important. I will not got into any discussion of banking matters that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) raised, be-caused I am not competent to do so. But there is genuine anxiety about the amount of credit and whether it is sufficient.

If this Money Resolution goes through tonight, we shall have legislated, since in a sense the Money Resolution limits the amount of money available, to make it impossible in Committee even to urge any further expenditure, because the Government have the power to limit the amount that Parliament can recommend should be spent. If we pass the Money Resolution tonight, we rule out the possibility of any extension beyond £700 million, plus the rotating fund.

Since the Money Resolution is in the name of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, since very important legal matters arise on which we may need the advice of the Law Officers, since it is of no consequence whether the Resolution is passed tonight in that the Minister will give credit anyway when the Bill has received a Second Reading, which it has already, and since the Resolution is exempted business which could be put on at 10 o'clock any night, when five minutes from the Financial Secretary could resolve our differences, I seriously suggest that the debate on the Money Resolution be adjourned so as to give the Government an opportunity to put before us a clear statement of the position, and we can then proceed in the light of that.

The Minister for Industry (Sir John Eden)

I do not think it would be helpful to proceed in the way that the right hon. Gentleman has suggested. I believe it would be more helpful to attempt again to go over the ground and try to answer his points.

As I understand the position, the Bill relates simply, strictly, and, in my view, righly to the powers of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to give guarantees and to the possible consequences for parliamentary approval of expenditure in the event of a guarantee being called. That is the important point. In this regard, there is no difference here from previous Acts which the right hon. Gentleman's Administration brought before the House. The Bill, after all, is a simple amendment of the 1967 Act.

In general terms, if one decided to give guarantees against bank advances, one could go up to any figure that one chose. But where one is limited is that, in the event of that guarantee being called, Parliament has not authorised the expenditure beyond the sum of money set in the Bill.

Mr. Benn

Obviously, I have not the record before me, but I take it that the Money Resolution on my last Bill to become an Act was identical to this, except that it said: …shall not exceed £400 million. That being the case, the Minister has now said that the guarantees that he would be giving beyond the £400 million that he is ready to give now that the Bill has received a Second Reading would be illegal were they to fall due for the Government to pay. So, in anticipating the Money Resolution, the Government have given guarantees that it would be illegal for the hon. Gentleman to discharge by making payments, but not, he claims, simply to give. This raises the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey). This is why, with the best will in the world, we must have a lawyer or a Treasury Minister here if we are to dispose of the matter.

Sir J. Eden

I understand the pressure from the right hon. Gentleman. The difficulty or the difference of opinion arises—I am doing my best to try to make this clear—on the use of the word "illegal", which is taken to cover the proper procedures by Parliament for the control of expenditure which, in constitutional terms, is something different.

There are two points. The first is whether it is legal or illegal. When this was first used, it was in a much wider context. It would not have been illegal to have authorised expenditure because it could be drawn from the Civil Contingencies Fund or something like that. In the examples which have been given, this has been done by the previous Administration and by others. In that sense my hon. Friend was using the expression "not illegal". I hope that I have made that point clear.

Concerning the control of Parliamentary expenditure—this is the important aspect in considering the Money Resolution—in the event of guarantees being called, the expenditure may not exceed £700 million. If, before the Bill becomes an Act, guarantees were called, those guarantees could not exceed £400 million, because that is the amount in the Act. The right hon. Gentleman knows that Parliament has authorised the issuing of guarantees up to a total of £400 million in previous legislation.

Mr. Wiley

I am still not satisfied. I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying that this is not illegal or improper because if this unlikely event occurred we could scratch up the money from the Consolidated Fund or elsewhere. I do not accept that. I know of no grounds for believing that if Parliament makes an express provision the Government can scratch around and find some fund to save themselves. This would be denying the whole purpose of the legislation.

I can appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point in saying that this is an awful bore and that it is a most unlikely call to be made on the Government. But we are concerned with guarantees and the legal basis for them. I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman said on the first point.

On the second point, I can understand the Minister saying: "I have come to tell the House frankly my difficulties. I hope the House will be tolerant and, having heard the position, will allow me to go ahead and do something which is quite reasonable". However, I cannot accept that. If we allow this kind of slipshod administration we shall run into very real difficulties. This is why we have the Comptroller and Auditor-General and accounting officers. I was horrified to hear that this is being done on the advice of the accounting officer. He, at any rate, is identified and will have to account to the Comptroller and Auditor-General in due course. But it is asking the House to do too much to say that a Minister whom we trust and who is a nice chap is doing something which is regrettable but which the House is pressing him to do, and that therefore we should not bother about constitutional propriety. That is just the one thing which we must bother ourselves about.

Mr. Milan

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey): The Minister for Industry has not dealt with my point about what the Under-Secretary said earlier, that the Government could pay out anything unless they were specifically debarred. I would accept that as a general constitutional principle, but, unless the legislation is meaningless—I do not think that it is—once one has passed legislation, one has laid down a certain limit beyond which the Government are not authorised to go.

But then the Minister goes on to say that the principle is something different. The principle is not that one cannot go beyond the guarantees laid down in the legislation. One can go beyond it, he says: the difficulty arises only when one is called upon to pay up on the basis that the guarantees now have to be discharged. But that is not what the 1967 Shipbuilding Industry Act says. It does not say that the limit of £200 million, which was subsequently raised to £400 million, is a limit on guarantees which have fallen to be discharged by the Government. Section 7(5) says: The aggregate amount of the liability at any time of the Minister in respect of guarantees under this section…shall not exceed £200 million. It does not say that the aggregate amount of the expenditure, but to the liabilities. Therefore, the Minister cannot take on liabilities exceeding £400 million under the present legislation.

The Minister is trying to draw a distinction between a liability and payment, but the Act specifically directs a limit of those liabilities. So what the Minister has been saying tonight does not represent what the legislation say. It is certainly completely inconsistent with what the Under-Secretary said earlier.

I suggest sincerely that it will help everyone if this Resolution were withdrawn. The Bill has had its Second Reading and the Money Resolution can come forward at any time. It limits discussion in Committee, but it can be passed subsequent to the Second Reading. The Government would suffer no disability.

The Minister and his hon. Friend have tried to explain the exact position. I mean him no disrespect in saying that he has not convinced the House that he understands the questions which we are putting. In any case, the Resolution is in the name of the Financial Secretary. It used to be a courtesy, which seems to have been disregarded in recent years, that a representative of the Treasury was always present during discussion of money resolutions. It would be useful to hear from a Treasury Minister or a Law Officer, and this could easily be done. The Money Resolution could be exempted business on any evening next week. I suggest this course, because we are anxious not to vote against the Resolution.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. McMaster

I am confused on the question of illegality, and I hope that the Minister can help me by explaining at what point illegality would arise. The Money Resolution would provide: That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to amend section 7 of the Ship building Industry Act 1967, it is expedient to authorise any increase in the sums payable out"— I underline those words "payable out"— of moneys provided by Parliament or into the Consolidated Fund which is attributable to any amendment of the section increasing the limit of £400 million imposed by subsection (5). as amended by section 1 of the Shipbuilding Industry Act 1969, on the Secretary of State's liabilities on guarantees given under section 7, but so that the new limit shall not exceed £700 million less the amount of any sums which have been paid by the Secretary of State to meet a liability falling within the subsection and have not been repaid to him. Does that mean that the Minister will be acting illegally only if he pays out more than £700 million? In other words—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must direct his attention to the question whether the debate be now adjourned, not to the merits of the Money Resolution.

Mr. McMaster

In order to decide whether the debate should be now adjourned, Mr. Speaker, I want to know whether there is something in the Money Resolution which would render action by the Government unlawful or ultra vires if they guaranteed more than £700 million but were not in fact called upon to pay out more than £700 million.

The 1967 Act has not led to the payment out of any money. On the experience of the past four or five years, the Government could advance a great deal more than £700 million without in any way acting ultra vires because they would not in fact be required to pay out more than £700 million. Would the Government be acting illegally only if they pay out, as opposed to guarantee, such sums? The Money Resolution as such imposes a liability on the Treasury, but the guarantee itself raises no liability on the Treasury.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

Could we have the help of the Leader of the House? I am sure that he would accept our suggestion that the Money Resolution be withdrawn at this stage. To do so would put the Government in no difficulty, and it would enable the matter to be rectified in a much more sensible and relaxed way. I feel that the Leader of the House will appreciate that, and will be able to advise in that sense. I hope that we might have his support in doing so, as it seems to me the appropriate thing to do at this moment.

Mr. Benn

I hope that the Minister will accept that there is a little difficulty here and that it is important that people should understand the exact legal position. I know that he was trying to help us, but with the best will in the world it is not possible for a Minister, caught with questioning that it is easier to put than to answer, to give absolutely authoritative replies.

My hon. Friends and I support the Bill and are anxious that the Money Resolution should go through so that the Bill should proceed, but since there is no problem about time the matter could be brought back on Monday. It would show sensible flexibility and sensitivity if the Minister would simply accept that we should put the Resolution on one side and that he should come back with an absolutely clear, authoritative statement on Monday, Tuesday, or whenever it may be, and it would then go through.

After this long day's debate, with so much discussion about the question, I beg him not to try to push us on to the Money Resolution before we have an absolutely clear answer to this question.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

If the Minister accepts what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), I shall not want to press the matter any further, but if he does not I would certainly wish to put the case put by my right hon. and hon. Friends. Will he say that the Government will look at the matter again?

I have not taken part in the debate, and I hesitated to intervene now, but the subject under discussion is of first importance. The Minister did not seem to be very clear in what he was saying. It seemed to me that he was trying to withdraw the word "illegal", trying to suggest that the earlier use of the word had been inept, that it did not quite mean what "illegal" usually meant but merely meant that perhaps the Government were doing a little bit of something that was not quite in order but nothing that was really wrong. If so, he is saying that a Money Resolution can be disregarded by any Government. When a maximum figure is stipulated, whether of the guarantee or the maximum paid out, it seems to me that that is the ceiling.

I have always understood that a Money Resolution is virtually absolute. With your experience, Mr. Speaker, you will be very clear on this matter. It is often the Government's concern to tie up legislation by means of a Money Resolution. It used to be a regular exercise by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) and the previous Member for Edinburgh, East, Mr. George Willis, to look very closely into Money Resolutions, because they knew of their importance for the legislation in question, and the facilities that a Committee would have in amending legislation. They knew that these were contingent upon the Money Resolution, which was absolute for the Committee dealing with the Bill. It is the regular practice of a Chairman when a Committee begins its deliberations on a Bill to advise the Committee that the Money Resolution is available, and we can do nothing outwith the terms of the Resolution. It is an absolute instruction for any Committee of the House.

The power and authority of this House reside in its ability to control the purse strings. It can say that a Government have been given power to spend up to a certain limit and not beyond. There must be a further sanction. We all can recall special Bills that have been passed to give a Government power to make certain expenditures. The Minister for Industry seems to be saying that we do not mean by "illegal" what is commonly meant by the word, but nevertheless if it suits the Government's purpose they can commit themselves to more than this and not just a pound or two. There is apparently no limit.

If this is so, it is different from what I have always understood to be the position. If this is the proper interpretation of a Money Resolution, then I would say that in no Committee of this House dealing with a Bill would hon. Members be legitimately silenced by a Chairman who says that the Money Resolution lays down the terms under which expenditure can be committed. Any future Committee would be entitled to say that the Money Resolution was only a rough guide. It could say that if the Government can allow expenditure in excess of a Resolution, then the representatives of the people can insist that they do it in Committee, too.

No hon. Member worth his salt would accept rules for a Committee that do not apply to the Government. We should have from the Secretary of State a statement to the effect that what has been said earlier has been misleading in the sense that the word "illegal" was wrongly used and in the sense that the Government do not have latitude to commit themselves to more than is here stipulated. The Government have no more latitude than we have as a Committee to involve themselves in further expenditure. I have no doubt that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite are wrong, and it would be an absurd position if, having talked in this way, they have to come back and admit that they were mistaken.

I do not say this disrespectfully but there is no Minister on the Front Bench who properly understands this. It is reasonable for right hon. Gentlemen opposite to say that there is a doubt and that the matter should be withdrawn and brought back next week. Unless this is done, my hon. Friends will have no alternative but to push this as far as we can, which may mean dividing.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South-West)

I apologise for having been absent during the earlier debate, but I understand that the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) shared a similar disadvantage.

Mr. Lawson

I took no part in the debate on the Bill. I heard only parts of it here and there. But I have heard all the debate on the Money Resolution. and it is the Motion that we adjourn the debate on that Resolution that I have been talking about.

Mr. Boardman

Like the hon. Gentleman, I was not here for the debate, but I heard the criticisms raised about the Money Resolution and so on, and I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument—it is perfectly valid—that it is the duty of the House to control the public purse, and that is right. But is it not also right that we should ration our time carefully? I heard the suggestion that this matter should be taken on a future occasion. One asks what there is in the Resolution to which hon. Gentlemen opposite object. It is a matter in which the Resolution—

Mr. Millan

We are not talking about the Money Resolution in those terms. We are talking of a Motion to adjourn the House because of the confusion. As I understand it, Mr. Speaker, you have already announced that we are not entitled to object to the Resolution as such. With great respect, the hon. Gentleman is in no position to make a sensible contribution to the debate.

Mr. Boardman

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) will accept that every Member of the House has a right to contribute to any debate. The money to be supplied for this vital industry concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. I accept that that is not the issue which is being debated at present. What is being debated now, and what concerns me, is the use of parliamentary time. This is a precious commodity. I am sure that the hon. Member for Motherwell would agree with that.

Mr. Lawson

Hear, hear.

Mr. Boardman

Indeed, the hon. Member does. We are wasting a great deal of parliamentary time. My intervention will be brief.

Mr. Dell

Tell us what it means.

Mr. Boardman

Does the right hon. Gentleman wish me to give way?

Mr. Dell

The simplest way of saving time is for the Government to explain what the Money Resolution means.

Mr. Boardman

If I understand the right hon. Gentleman correctly—again apologising for my absence—it seems that this is what hon. Gentlemen opposite are seeking to prevent the Government from doing by seeking the adjournment of the debate, thereby preventing my right hon. Friend from putting to them the Resolution, a Resolution which I believe —I hope that I am not out of order—commends itself to the House as a whole.

Mr. Benn

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman appears to be making fun of this.

Hon. Members


Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman was absent, no doubt for good reasons, when the Money Resolution was put to the House and debated. Certain problems arose in the Ministerial explanation, and I moved that the debate be adjourned. My hon. Friends have not prevented the Money Resolution from being put. We are merely waiting for the Minister or the Secretary of State, who, after a busy day, courteously came in for the end of the debate, to give an authoritative reply to some of the unresolved questions.

Mr. Boardman

I gathered that that was the meat of the argument. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to accuse me of taking this matter lightly—[Interruption.]—particularly as some of his hon. Friends appear to be taking it lightly.

Sir J. Eden

The House is in a dilemma because of the rather hasty action of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) in moving the adjournment of the debate. It is now impossible, without going out of order, to answer the questions which hon. Members put about the Money Resolution. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend would press the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his Motion so that we may proceed with the discussion of the Money Resolution.

Mr. Boardman

I understand that the Money Resolution has been debated and that a number of points—

Mr. Lawson

On a point of order. It must be clear to you, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Boardman) has been asked to kill time until troops can be gathered to vote down this Motion. Would it not be wise to ensure that the hon. Gentleman knows what he is talking about before he is permitted to continue? In other words, is it in order for him to go on talking when he knows nothing about the subject under discussion?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman is asking the Chair to apply that test to every speech, it would be a very broad issue.

Mr. Boardman

I had the advantage, if that is the right word, of hearing the remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson). I have no doubt that many good questions have been posed by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and it is clear that the Minister is anxious to answer them. I hope that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East will enable him to do so, and, with the penitence of one who has not had the advantage of hearing all the debate, I ask him to withdraw his Motion.

Sir J. Eden

With the leave of the House, I ask the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) to consider withdrawing his Motion. I appreciate the spirit of his follow-up speech after he moved it, and I am sure he was trying to be helpful.

In the exchanges which have taken place since the right hon. Gentleman moved his Motion I have taken further advice, and I understand that the answer I gave about the differentiation between what is legal and what is within the bounds of the parliamentary expenditure control procedures was substantially correct.

Mr. Benn


Sir J. Eden

I say that only out of courtesy to the House.

I wish to have an opportunity of elaborating a little further on the Money Resolution on that point. It would be easy to take up the points mentioned by the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson)—the question, for example, of when action is legal. As has been said, it is perfectly legal to pay money out of the Civil Contingencies Fund to the U.C.S., as the previous Government did —they never came before the House specifically for authorisation to do so. However, this Money Resolution is concerned with parliamentary control of expenditure, and it is to that that I particularly wanted the opportunity to reply. For that reason, I urge the right hon. Gentleman, again in the same spirit in which he urged me to accept the Motion, to be good enough to withdraw it.

Mr. Benn

By leave of the House, I wish to explain why I am not prepared to withdraw my Motion to adjourn the debate. If I withdraw the Motion and the hon. Gentleman withdraws the Money Resolution, we shall be getting somewhere and we get back to it again. But, lest people outside reading HANSARD and the words "I have had the opportunity of taking advice" misunderstand what that means, let me say that traditionally it means that there has been a great deal of scurrying among colleagues so that a Front Bench spokesman may be assisted from scraps of paper to know whether what he said earlier was right. That is what is meant when a Minister in difficulty "takes advice". There is no harm in being a little more accurate in describing it.

It does not mean that the Secretary of State himself, whose responsibility it is, has felt able to intervene; nor that a Law Officer has been consulted; nor that a Treasury Minister has been consulted. It means that one has gone to advisers, who must remain anonymous and invisible, but who are present, and asked, "Was I right to say that?" and those advisers have said, "Yes, Minister, broadly you were right." But that is not enough when dealing with the financing of an industry which is faced with uncertainty.

The Minister knows full well that we support the Bill: it was our Bill and it has now been somewhat extended and brought in again. We support the provision of money under the authorisation of a Money Resolution. But we are not prepared to pass a Money Resolution after the Under-Secretary has said that it does not preclude him from going above the sum of £700 million and when the Minister knows full well that when the Bill goes to Committee we shall be unable to move Amendments to increase the sum to more than £700 million.

That is the basic problem which still remains unresolved. In the circumstances, I repeat my request that the Money Resolution be withdrawn so that the Secretary of State may bring it back on Monday when a short, clear, crisp statement explaining the position would have the Money Resolution through the House without further debate and within five minutes, more or less as long as it would take to read the statement and get a word of thanks from the Opposition.

In those circumstances, the Resolution should be withdrawn and I intend, if we do not get such a withdrawal, to advise my hon. Friends to press the Motion.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) is not rising to the situation. He is an intelligent and important person. He wants the present £400 million limit to be raised to £700 million, he perhaps more than anyone in the House, because he believes more than I do in this sort of State guarantee. He knows perfectly well that, in view of the crowded and clouded view of the future of Parliamentary business, if he pushes the Motion the Money Resolution may well be lost. What is wrong with passing this Money Resolution?

Mr. Millan rose

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I do not think I shall give way.

Mr. Milian

The hon. Member was not here.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I have to confess the penitence of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Boardman) for coming late into the Chamber.

I realise that in 1967 the Act created a limit of £200 million. That was subsequently raised to £400 million, and it is now wished to raise it to £700 million. Precisely the same parameters and considerations apply to the £700 million as applied to the £200 million and the £400 million, precisely the same considerations whether it be de minimis or, possibly by means of virement, possibly by means of the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) which would apply to the new figure. [Interruption.] Of course they do. They are exactly the same. They may be right—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the debate lapsed, without Question put.

Original Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to amend section 7 of the Shipbuilding Industry Act 1967, it is expedient to authorise any increase in the sums payable out of moneys provided by Parliament or into the Consolidated Fund which is attributable to any amendment of the section increasing the limit of £400 million imposed by subsection (5), as amended by section 1 of the Shipbuilding Industry Act 1969, on the Secretary of State's liabilities on guarantees given under section 7, but so that the new limit shall not exceed £700 million less the amount of any sums which have been paid by the Secretary of State to meet a liability falling within the subsection and have not been repaid to him.