I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
While we do not believe in the permanent provision of the Bill, we are by no means wedded to the three years that the new Clause suggests. It could well be that the Minister, with all the facts at his fingertips, will convince us that we have put forward a time scale which is unsuitable or unrealistic for one reason or another. It may well be that in those circumstances we shall settle for something somewhat different.
On the Second Reading of the original Bill, I said that I was not dogmatic about the powers for annual renewal, and I shall not be dogmatic now. We are seeking a solution that gives maximum Parliamentary control with the minimum disturbance of confidence in the industry. I recognise the importance of finding that sort of solution. No one can regard our attitude in the three-year proposal as ungenerous, because in this instance it will be a four-year period. The House does not need to be reminded that as long ago as 27th July, 1965, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the Bill and it was then promised as the first Bill of the Session. It is far from being that, and the Government have found themselves operating an authorisation scheme of licensing without any authority from Parliament for a very considerable time.
It is fair to say that the handling of the Bill will go down in Parliamentary history as the most inept and unconstitutional for many years. But we are not here tonight to bully the Minister. We want not to bully him about the ugly precedent of carrying over a Dissolution power which the Government did not possess, but to make the best improvements that we can to a bad Bill and to end some of the uncertainty in the industry, which is something that the Government seem incapable of doing. Everything that they do seems to increase it.
To discuss the reasons why the Government should seek to make this a
permanent measure is to challenge its raison d'être. There was no question when the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) took office, in those happy and undivided days of 1964, of this being a permanent Measure, nor was there in July, 1965, because at both those times the Minister was still reassuring the industry that there would be no controls—not permanent controls, but no controls. However, on 27th July, the Chancellor told the House that the Bill was part of an attempt to
… reach our aim of eliminating the deficit in the course of next year and of maintaining the strength of sterling …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th July, 1965; Vol. 717, c. 228.]
That would seem, on the face of it, as almost being an argument for a temporary Bill, unless it was believed that the crisis was permanent.
The former Minister said on the 8th December, on the Second Reading of his own, now abandoned, Building Control Bill that it was permanent legislation, and was not introduced to deal only with a short-term problem. He added:
As far as I can see for all the years alead—all the researches undertaken prove this—and, despite the productivity that we hope to get from the industry, it will probably not attract enough manpower to expand at the rate that we needed in the terms of the national economy".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December, 1965; Vol. 722, c. 439.]
The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that the construction industry was not an attractive one. We had an imaginative passage from him about the wind and the rain. He said that men over 40 looked for the inside job, and that "one therefore has wastage". All this is too true. It seems to confirm assertion that he made the other day that he knew nothing of the advent of the Selective Employment Tax before leaving office on 4th April, and that if he had known he would not have advocated permanent powers or, perhaps, the Bill at all.
By 19th May the right hon. Gentleman was quite as doubtful about the value of permanent powers as we are on this side of the House. He said then:
There is no doubt that in the conditions which existed 12 months ago, with overheating of the industry by 2 per cent. or 3 per cent., the Building Control Act was justified; that is, at that time".
Later, he said:
If that Measure was justified, I doubt whether the Selective Employment Tax is justified as well."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th May, 1966; Vol. 728, c. 1630.]
There is no praise for permanency there. I know from the record that the right hon. Gentleman—and I told him that I would mention him tonight—voted for the Selective Employment Tax. Having regard to the right hon. Gentleman's words which I quoted earlier, I imagine that we can look forward confidently to his ebullient and unrepentant presence in the Division Lobby with us tonight when we vote for the new Clause.
Why should be have permanent legislation? I know that the Parliamentary Secretary gets very uncomfortable when we remind him of certain words with which he explained the situation to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors on 7th February this year. I have referred to these words before, but they must be mentioned again if we are to get anywhere near trying to unravel the complicated strands of the Government's corporate mind. After telling us that the object of the Bill was to anticipate crises—presumably created by his colleagues—the Parliamentary Secretary said of the Bill that in another economic crisis measures appropriate to the 1965 crisis would probably not be exactly what was needed.
Really, the hon. Gentleman has there made the case for us against permanency of the powers which the Minister seeks in the Bill. It is argued in favour of permanent powers that they should be reasonably long term because "starts" in construction in one year will affect the following year and the year after. This is true. We were told at different stages—we have been given so many reasons at different times that it is hard to find them all—that the purpose of the Bill was to increase housing. What has been so distressing over the last few months is the way in which the Bill has affected fields that it was never intended to affect. Those fields have suffered.
The incidence of the Bill on the construction figures, the abandonment of architects' plans and the cut-back in projects passing through surveyors' offices—all these were, perhaps, predictable. Infinitely more depressing is the effect on the level of demand and the way in which the level of demand has been reflected on housing "starts". In the first quarter of 1966, for example, housing "starts" were 13,000 down on the first quarter of 1965.