Accounts and Audit: Alternative Provisions
Orders of the Day — Co-Operative Development Bill
(2) A person shall not be qualified to be so appointed unless he is a member of a body of accountants which is for the time being recognised for the purposes of section 161(1)(a) of the Companies Act 1948 or section 155(1)(a) of the Companies Act (Northern Ireland) 1960; but a Scottish firm may be so appointed if each of the partners is qualified to be appointed.
2. The Agency shall send to the Secretary of State, before the end of the period of seven months after the end of any accounting year, a copy of the audited statement of accounts for that year together with a copy of any report made by the auditors on that statement or on the accounts of the Agency.
Mr Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
I know that the House does not wish to have a prolonged Third Reading debate, and I do not intend to launch into one. We wish the Agency well and we look forward to a new Conservative Government working with it.
The purpose of tabling the Third Reading motion, in addition to wishing the Agency well and expressing our support for worker co-operatives conducted on commercially viable and properly organised lines, is to raise a final query with the Government about which we were unable to get an answer on Second Reading. Our query is about the way in which the Agency will conduct its work and the way in which the present Government will make use of it.
We have deep suspicions about the Labour movement—particularly the Left wing—and the present Government about worker co-operatives. I do not propose to labour again the history of Kirkby and Meriden, which I discussed on Second Reading. We are not guilty of any prejudice against them. We feel that the Government have shown prejudice towards them by disbursing money to them on a basis which would not have applied to any other enterprise.
I wish to raise an issue which has been mentioned to me by a number of people in the construction industry. There is great fear within that industry about the Government's intentions towards worker co-operatives. I hope that the Minister can clarify the way in which the Government see the Agency operating when encouraging worker-co-operatives within the construction industry.
I raised the matter on Second Reading, and this brief debate will ensure that the Minister does not overlook it but deals with it directly. The concern arises from a document, "Building Britain's Future: Labour's Policy on Construction". This is a document put out by the Labour Party and the bulk of which contains proposals for the nationalisation of a considerable part of the construction industry. To this we are strongly opposed.
The document contains a section on worker co-operatives. Within the construction industry there is much subcontracting, and this is an area in which a number of worker co-operatives might be formed. The Labour Party's policy, as declared in the document, sets out all that we most fear in a Socialist attitude towards worker co-operatives. It discusses not only encouraging them to set up but giving them an inside track vis-à-vis other enterprises and preferential treatment which is unfair to other businesses in the industry and those who work for them.
I remind the Minister of the passage on page 43 headed "Workers Co-operatives". It states:
Trade unionists in the industry could perhaps themselves take the initiative in establishing co-operatives … and public bodies could actively assist by favouring co-operatives in allocating work.
We trust that this Government's policy is not to ask the Agency to consider any suggestion that public bodies should give favourable treatment to those trying to get public works simply because they are worker co-operatives. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to repudiate his party's policy document and
say that it is no part of the Government's policy and that it will not be pursued by the Agency.
If we thought that the Agency was to be a vehicle for either disbursing large sums of taxpayers' money on preferential terms to co-operatives or allowing co-operatives to compete on an unfair basis with existing small firms in the construction or any other industry, the Bill's passage through the House would have been different.
The Minister said that he was getting co-operation on the Bill and had to resist his hon. Friends' amendments in order to get the Bill through in a reasonable time. I hope he will reassure us that co-operative has been given on a Bill which will not facilitate the aim of the Socialists in the Labour Party of one day giving the co-operative movement preference.
I am glad to say that in the dog days of this Government, since they survived for no other purpose than to have a General Election and do not have a majority in the House to carry out much of their programme, they often do not carry out the Socialist aims of the Labour Party, as hon. Members below the Gangway are anxious to frequently point out. We believe that the Bill rejects all that they would wish to see the agency empowered to do. We know that a Labour Government with a majority would extend the Agency powers and enable it to make the grants and give the preferential treatment to worker co-operatives that the hon. Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) and others have just been demanding.
Will the Minister make clear that the Government will not use the Agency in any way to further the stated aims of the Labour movement of giving preferential treatment to worker co-operatives in the construction industry?
Mr. Alan Williams:
The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) will no doubt recollect that it was not entirely in keeping with the political aims and aspirations of his party when his Government nationaling with the political aims and aspirations make pragmatic responses to pratical situations.
I have not had an opportunity to read the full document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I agree, as would most of my hon. Friends, however, that where co-operatives are set up they should be viable in their own right. The worst thing for the co-operative movement, as I said in Committee, is for co-operatives to be set up which have little or no chance of surviving. Their failure would damage all those potential co-operatives which could be a success.
I do not see why I should accept any lectures from the hon. Gentleman about preference in the building sector for any particular type of organisation. The Tory Party wilfully set about destroying public works departments in order to plough work into the private sector of the construction industry, regardless of the need that exists in many parts of the country for such departments. I therefore regard the hon. Member's interjection as politically mischievous and irrelevant to the Bill.
Mr Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
Do I take it from that last remark that the Minister thinks that the argument advanced from my side of the House about public works depatments justifies the Government contemplating allowing preferential treatment to worker co-operatives in the construction industry? Let me assure him that the construction industry is very concerned about this document. There are those who will mark his words very carefully about the future of worker co-operatives.
Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously saying that there is something in our policies which justifies the Government following the policy outlined in the document? It is a most important document which he should read. It commits his party to nationalising large sections of the building and construction industry. Is he contemplating giving preferential treatment to worker co-operatives? He will cause considerable alarm in the industry if he claims that he is entitled to do that.
There is nothing in the Bill that gives any preferential treatment to the co-operative movement. It tries to put the co-operative form of organisation on a similar footing to other forms of organisation. No one has intended that the co-operative firm should get preferential treatment in the construction industry. To come to such a conclusion would be a perverse reading of my words, or, rather, the hon. Gentleman's words which he tried to attribute me.
Mr John Roper (Farnworth)
I do not want to continue the disappointingly sour note that has entered the final stages of this debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister said at an earlier stage in our discussions that the introduction of the Agency was unique and that it was welcomed by three parties in the House. It is probably fairer to say that on this occasion a fourth party welcomes it with great enthusiasm. I refer, of course, to the Members from the Co-operative Party in this House, who have played an active part in promoting the Bill and in taking part in the various debates on it. At certain times this evening, I think that the co-operative group would have commanded a majority over those present in the Chamber if it had wishes to bring its full numbers to bear.
Many of us in the Co-operative Party have looked forward for more than a decade to the creation of an agency of this sort, so we are particularly grateful to the Minister and to the Under-Secretary for what they have done in recent months, first to establish the working party and then to bring it to a successful conclusion, to ensure that time was found for the Bill in a crowded programme of Government business this Session, and finally to steer the Bill through all its stages in the House.
We are also grateful, in spite of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) in the closing stages, for the assistance that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) and the hon. Member for Rushcliffe have given in ensuring such a smooth passage for the Bill through the House.