Orders of the Day — Crown Agents Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th February 1979.

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Photo of Mrs Judith Hart Mrs Judith Hart , Lanark 12:00 am, 8th February 1979

Perhaps we can explore this in greater detail in Committee, but the position is that there are the two accounts, the realisation account and the normal account. If on the realisation account it is possible to pay back into the Consolidated Fund money which has been granted by the Government, that will be done. That is the purpose of having the two accounts. Concerning the seven-year period during which the Government will decide what is the proper rate of return, we shall be having regard to the circumstances of the Crown Agents during those years. But perhaps we can explore this a little further in Committee.

We have, of course, very recently had another illustration of the unsatisfactory nature of the existing constitution of what the Bill describes as the "unincorporated Agents". This was the legal advice, of which I informed the House three months ago, to the effect that in strict law the Crown Agents' revenues should have been paid into the Consolidated Fund as hereditary revenues of the Crown, and their expenditure met from Votes. I remember reminding the House that this all went back to William IV. It was described by a Conservative Member as a bizarre situation, with which I completely agree. In addition, as a matter of constitutional practice, their borrowing should have had the authority of Parliament. I told the House then that I could see no alternative to allowing the Crown Agents to carry on as they had for many years, until we could legislate to regularise the position. The House will, I am sure, be glad that this can now be done in the Bill, and I shall be glad if the House will be so kind as to do so. I hope that the House will agree to make an honest woman of me, because that legal discovery made me feel that I was offending a little against all constitutional proprieties.

There could have been alternative approaches to that which is presented here. As the House will know, the Stevenson report, presented in 1972—which I decided in 1977 should be published—put forward some possible options, and there have been others. They ranged from incorporation by Royal charter to a mere definition of powers and functions with no statutory backing, and from a public trust to incorporation as a limited liability company.

I do not believe that any of these would meet our needs. We must have the firm legislative authority of Parliament to define the functions and powers of the Crown Agents, against the background of the past. We must create a sound and responsible capital structure with sensible financial arrangements. I believe that the Bill provides a workable and flexible basis for the future and which can, I hope, carry on into the future.

I mentioned earlier the great anxieties that we have all had at the various points of past crisis. It was always utterly possible that there could be a crisis of confidence overseas in the Crown Agents. A great deal of consultation and care went into every one of my past statements. I stressed throughout that the Government stood behind the Crown Agents, and I know that Opposition Members supported that view as much as did my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is now in the past. The Crown Agents, concentrating now entirely on those traditional services upon which their history has been built, are going from strength to strength. They deserve to do so. I hope that we can all agree, as I know that overseas Governments agree to do, to regard the inquisitions upon the past as just that—inquests upon a brief inglorious and costly episode in a history of over 150 years.

I am sure that the whole House will agree that we all place our complete confidence—and the backing of Parliament as well as of the Government—in the ability, the capacity and the potentiality of the Crown Agents to serve their overseas principals in a way which will assist the process of development which will engage them in one of the most fundamental economic developments in the world today.