HC Deb 17 March 1913 vol 50 cc804-7

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Runciman)

This is a very short Bill, and it requires a very short explanation. It is really simply a signature Bill. At the present time, under the old Crown Lands Act, 1829 to 1906, every document that proceeds from the Office of Woods has to have the signature of a Commissioner or Commissioners of Woods. In every other Government Department the signature of the Secretary is sufficient. I regret to say that in the Office of Woods my experience in the last twelve months has been that on two or three days every week I have had to sign scores of documents, all of which I have authorised on transactions which have taken place some time previously. This has caused my colleagues and myself a great deal of labour which in every other Department is avoided by allowing the Secretary to do the necessary execution of the document. Nothing is asked for in this single-Clause Bill excepting the recognition of the signature of the Secretary as a sufficient signature for the purposes of transactions with the Office of Woods. The second Sub-section provides that the instruments purporting to be so executed shall, until the contrary is proved, be deemed to have been duly executed by the Commissioners of Woods without proof of the official person appearing to have executed it. This is done with the object of protecting those who have deeds from the Commissioner of Woods or hold leases signed by the Secretary. It absolves him from the necessity of proving that the Secretary was an officer duly authorised. It is only done with the object of making the signature itself without doubt and of moving any difficulties which lessees or tenants or purchasers from the Office of Woods might have. It in no way extends the power of the Commissioners. It is only for the purpose of making the Office of Woods a little simpler, and in order that a great deal of necessary clerical labour may be performed by the Secretary. If any other question of detail arises, I shall be only too pleased to go into it when the opportunity arrives, but I frankly say that the Bill is very largely introduced to relieve me of a great deal of drudgery and to bring the Office of Woods into conformity with every other Government Office.


I am sure that the House will desire to relieve the right hon. Gentleman of any work of drudgery which he now performs, especially in view of the fact that he has greatly added to the duties of the President of the Board of Agriculture since he has occupied that office; but I am bound to say that I regard this Bill, at any rate in the form in which its provisions are expressed, with considerable alarm, and, speaking on behalf of one who has considerable dealings with the Crown, and who happens to be one of its nearest neighbours territorially, I think that some of us, at any rate, will be in great danger of receiving documents which purport to come from the Crown and to be executed on behalf of the Crown, but which have no validity whatever. As I read this Bill, it will operate unfairly so far as purchasers of property from the Crown are concerned and also to those who make payments to the Crown. There will in the one case be some danger that they will not receive a good title, to which they are perfectly entitled if they pay full consideration, and in the other case that what purports to be a receipt may prove not to be a good discharge. I think that the House ought to notice that the first Section is made to apply to any instrument whatever. That will include a conveyance or other document of title, and it may be executed by any Secretary of the Commissioners. I take it that the term "Commissioners of Woods" is now synonomous with the Board of Agriculture, or at any rate with the right hon. Gentleman and his colleague, who are the Parliamentary representatives of this Department. If that is so, I should like to ask, in the first place, whether the words "any Secretary" are to be construed as meaning some official person, or whether they may apply to any private Secretary of himself or any other person who purports to be a Commissioner. I am bound to say that, as the Bill is at present expressed, it is open to the latter construction. I think that the second Sub-section is the most alarming part of this small Bill. According to that,

"any instrument purporting to be so executed shall, until the contrary is proved, be deemed to have been duly executed by the Commissioners of Woods without proof of the official character of the person appearing to have executed it."

Perhaps I may be allowed, as an old conveyancer, to say that every purchaser has a right to receive from the vendor some substantial proof of his title, and that he ought to receive it. As this second Sub-section is expressed, it is quite possible for any person who chooses to purport to be a secretary for the purposes of this Bill to get into negotiation with some person who desires to deal with the Crown and to forge a document purporting to come from the Board of Agriculture as being now the Commissioners of Woods. The unfortunate purchaser would himself have to prove as best he could that the person purporting to sign that document was not in fact an official of the Department. That is quite contrary to conveyancing principle and conveyancing practice, and it seems to be throwing a quite unfair burden and onus of proof upon a person who may have paid out considerable sums as part of his dealings with the Office of Woods. I am fully prepared to accept from the right hon. Gentleman his statement of the intention and the meaning of the Bill. But, if they are to be carried out by this particular Bill, I do venture to hope when the Bill goes into Committee that he will allow certain Amendments to be inserted in it, to protect those dealing with the Crown from some of the consequences which I, for one, contemplate.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether what he proposes to do under this Bill is in accordance with the usual practice in other Government Departments?



8.0 P.M.


I remember distinctly having two documents in connection with different branches of the Auxiliary Forces signed by the Secretary of State for War himself, and I have also seen other documents signed by the Secretary of State for War himself. As the rule, therefore, seems to still continue in other Departments for the Secretary of State to sign these documents, would it not be as well to bring in an omnibus Bill? If the Board of Agriculture finds its duty is very onerous, must it not be even more onerous in cases such as the War Office and the Admiralty, where there are many more documents to be signed, and where, I should think, the strain would be even greater than in the Board of Agriculture? Perhaps the President of the Board of Agriculture will be able to give me an answer on that point. It does seem rather a large order to say that the instrument may be signed by any Secretary of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. Surely in other Government offices, if it is not signed by the Secretary of State himself, it is signed by the Secretary of State for the Home Office. Any Secretary is a very wide term, and might include the Private Secretary, not only of the President of the Board of Agriculture himself, but of the Vice-President and the Secretary of the Secretary of the Board. I think that is a point which requires consideration.


All these points can be cleared up in Committee, but I can assure the hon. Member who has just spoken that the arrangement we are asking them to make here is in conformity with the practice in Government Departments. There are some documents which must of necessity be signed by a Secretary of State. Some documents, for instance, which pass from the War Office, must be signed by a Secretary of State, not necessarily by the Secretary for War. The law in regard to a Secretary of State is rather different from that which applies to any Government Department which is under a Board. The phrase "any Secretary," I am told by the draftsman, can only apply to the Secretary of the Board, and cannot apply to the Secretary of any individual person. "Any Secretary" must refer and can only refer to one or other of the two Secretaries of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. One or other must necessarily sign. In no case can the signature be given without the consent of the Commissioners.