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 Mr Richard Luce Mr Richard Luce , Shoreham 12:00 am, 8th February 1979

The Minister will know that on a number of issues concerning overseas development she and I do not always see eye to eye. On this occasion, she will not be surprised to learn that we on this side of the House give full support to the principle behind the Bill. It can only be right that the status and the function of the Crown Agents should be clearly defined for all to see, that the Crown Agents should have proper statutory authority, and that they should be fully accountable for their activities.

The catalyst for the introduction of this Bill has been the appalling story of the so-called own-account activities, the financial disasters that took place in the 1960s and, particularly, in the early part of the 1970s. I agree with what I believe the Minister was implying in her introduction to the Bill, that a sharp distinction should be drawn between the traditional services of the Crown Agents, that have grown up substantially and steadily since the establishment of the Crown Agents in the last century, and the short-lived but nevertheless sad episode of the own-account activities. The Government seem to acknowledge that there should be a sharp distinction. As the Minister explained, the Bill establishes two separate organisations to deal with the two separate sets of activities or problems.

The Crown Agents are a unique organisation providing a unique range of services. I can think of no parallel organisation, certainly in the United Kingdom, or, indeed, in any other part of the world. Perhaps some hon. Members can. I do not believe that there is an organisation in any part of the Western world which is parallel to the kind of organisation that has grown up in the form of the Crown Agents. It is right that we should consider this as a unique body and deal with it on a pragmatic basis. We should accept the Bill in some respects as a unique measure to deal with the situation.

The right hon. Lady has set out clearly the historical background to the introduction of the Bill. I do not intend to weary the House by repeating what she has said. She has highlighted the fact that since the early part of the last century, for nearly 150 years, the Crown Agents, who started by providing a service for the procurement of goods and services to our colonial territories, have expanded and extended their range of services to the financial, professional, technical and commercial fields, provided in various colonial dependencies and to a vast range of independent Governments, most of them, if not all, members of the Commonwealth, granted independence in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Two notable developments have occurred since the independence of these countries. The first, stemming from the process to independence, was the financial disaster and the accompanying reports and inquiries with which we have been dealing throughout this decade. Secondly, the Minister revealed another notable facet to the whole problem on 10 November last year when she told the House in so many words that some genius— because he must be a genius—in her Department—