HC Deb 16 June 1927 vol 207 cc1323-33
Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

On this Clause there are two points I want to raise with the Minister of Agriculture, or the Solicitor-General, or the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is now in the House. The Committee will observe that most of the Clauses are in common form, that the Crown shall not sell land for less money than they could get for it, though there are cases in which that has not been done. The two points I want to raise are, first, when Crown lands are sold I can see nothing in the Measure that lays it down that the purchase money shall go to the reduction of debt and shall go into the sinking fund. As far as know, this Bill may be another step in order that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may next year for the purpose of his Budget sell the remaining Crown leases. I think it is necessary to have an assurance that any money accruing from the sale of the nation's property shall go to the reduction of debt. It is necessary because of the extremely improper practice followed since the War of using money from the sale of War stores for revenue purposes instead of reduction of debt. The last Conservative Government and the present Government have done the same, and the only Chancellor of the Exchequer who followed the practice of applying such money for the National Debt was the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden), who followed a sound financial policy in this matter. It is essential, therefore, that we should have some assurance that the moneys, which may be considerable, will not be used for balancing the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget next year, if the Government unhappily remain in office, but will go to the reduction of debt. The second point is on page 4, sub-section (5), which says: A sale may be made in one lot or in several lots, and either by auction or by private contract, and may he made subject to any stipulations respecting title, or evidence of title, or other things. The words I wish to question are these: "or by private contract." In what circumstances will Government land be sold by private contract and not be exposed to auction? We had the case of the sale of the Erribol estate, which was raised on both sides of the Gangway. I need do no more than cite that example. It will be within the knowledge of the Committee that the estate, which belonged to the nation, was sold privately, that the price obtained for it was questioned, and that it was stated by Scottish Members with knowledge of the district that a better price could have been obtained if the matter had been put up for auction, but the Government refused to give satisfaction to the House on that point. I believe that there are other cases, but with this example before us we ought to have some assurance that a private contract will not be resorted to unless, in the first instance, the land has been offered by public auction. Earlier in the Clause, the Crown is permitted to put a reserve price on the land and to withdraw it if, at the auction, it does not, fetch that price. Therefore, I can see no reason why in all cases land to be sold should not, in the first place, be exposed to public auction; afterwards, if a better price can be obtained by private tender, that is a different matter. I think these two points are of some importance, and I shall be glad to have a few words of reassurance from the Government on the matter.

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Captain FitzRoy)

Does the hon. and gallant Member move an Amendment?

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I do not know, Sir whether you will permit me to move an Amendment, to Subsection (5), to leave out the words "by private contract." I did not want to narrow the discussion, and so I raised those two points. Perhaps, later on, if the answer is not satisfactory, you will allow me to move the Amendment.


I must put the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."


I have no intention of delaying the proceedings. Speaking quite seriously, nobody is more anxious than I am for this Bill to proceed, but I should like, when the Solicitor-General replies, if he will state why he intends to take this Bill to-night. Perhaps the Minister of Agriculture will answer. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), who is leading on this occasion, will have no objection to some compromise. Nobody wants to stay here until the small hours of the morning, and I hope that when the Minister of Agriculture replies he will give us some idea as to how far we are going tonight or to-morrow morning. With regard to the Clause, generally, the Minister of Agriculture, does not take so much part in the Debates now as he did when he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I remember once sitting up all night with him, and he replied to me with perfect courtesy at 9 o'clock in the morning. I do not wish to repeat that experience again. The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) was perfectly right in stating his objections to the Commissioners. They are very excellent people; one is a permanent civil servant and one is the Minister of Agriculture for the time being. They may be very excellent gentlemen, but in Acts of Parliament we do not take good deeds for granted. You have to consider that all men are more or less alike. It is of the highest importance, in framing a Bill of this kind, that everything should be safeguarded. If the State is selling a piece of land, that sale should be carried out in the best possible conditions, with due regard and to the national financial position. We want to secure that when this land is sold there will be no coalition between the seller and the buyer with a view of making a much better bargain. The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull made another point, as to how any surplus should be disposed of. I think the hon. and gallant Member is wrong. I disagree with him when he says that any surplus should be used for the redemption of debt. I have never believed in that policy, and I hope I never shall, with all respect to the hon. and gallant Member. I want to ask the Minister of Agriculture how any surplus is to be disposed of? We see in Clause 10 that it is to be devoted for a school house, town hall, market house, public library, public baths, museum, hospital, or other public building. Am I to understand that any surplus accruing from the sale of Crown lands is to be devoted to the purposes named in Clause 10? I certainly am not going to be a party to devoting any surplus of a sale of this kind to the redemption of debt. Nobody admires the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull more than I do. I have learned more from him than from many Members of this House, but I cannot agree to this money being spent on that object. I would sooner have it spent on the welfare of the people concerned in the Crown lands. I hope the Minister of Agriculture will give some details as to where the profits, if any, from the sale of these lands will go. I hope also that he will say how far he intends to go to-night.


The intention of the Government is to get this Bill to-night. Questions have been raised on this Clause, first, as to whether the Commissioners of Crown Lands are to be allowed to sell by private treaty. We consider that that power is essential. It is absolutely necessary in transactions, even for land that is put up for sale by auction, to be able to reserve it for private treaty. I am perfectly certain it is in the public interest that that right should be preserved by the Commissioners for Crown Lands. The other point raised was as to the disposal of funds raised by the sale of land, though both hon. Members opposite disagree as to the true course to take. The procedure is laid down in the Act of 1829, Section 108. It provides that all sums received in respect of any sale of land shall be applied to the purchase of any manors and lands, etc., or, under Section 109 of the same Act, Sums arising from sales may be invested in Government Securities. we believe that that is the only sound course in the case of funds like those in the control of the Crown Lands Commissioners, and this Bill makes no change in that respect.


I do not understand what the right hon. Gentleman meant when, in reply to the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), he said that having regard to the character of the Debate so far he had every reasonable hope of getting the Bill to-night. If the right hon. Gentleman regards the discussion that has taken place as being frivolous, and if the subsequent Debate is conducted on purely frivolous lines, I do not see how he can hope to get the Bill at a reasonable hour to-night. If that is to be the attitude and temper of the Government spokesman to any reasonable opposition, then certainly he will not get the Bill for some considerable time. The hon. and gallant Member for Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) raises a very important question, and a question of a similar type could be raised on every single Clause and Sub-section. Points emerge in connection with the Bill which show that the Committee are unaware as to the dimensions of Crown lands, unaware as to how the capital sum in the hands of the Crown Lands Commissioners is used and invested, and unaware as to the sale and purchase of new Crown lands. The Minister of Agriculture is one of the Crown Lands Commissioners; but I dare say that he has never given five minutes' study to that particular branch of his Department except to give his approval to the promotion of this Bill. Owing to the scope of his Department and the very big problems which he has had to tackle in connection with the ordinary agricultural work of the Department, as a Commissioner of Crown Lands he has never given a serious fraction of his time to considering how the Crown lands are managed or manipulated. The other Commissioner is a permanent civil servant, the head of his Department, and, as far as I know, he is a very capable, efficient and loyal civil servant; but is the whole policy of this important Department to be left to the routine day-to-day decisions of one permanent official? Is he going to control—


This Clause deals with the sale of land.


I was rather slow in coming to the point and you anticipated me by the fraction of a second. Under no legislation is there anything that lends point to what I may call the high policy of this Department. There is no one responsible for that except that the Minister of Agriculture is a Commissioner of Crown lands.


The hon. Member said that I anticipated him by one second, but he is dealing with the question on the same line.


I was going to get back when your anticipation of my intention to get back delayed my getting back. The Department may enter into any arrangement with any private purchaser and the Minister of Agriculture may not know of it. Some document may go through for his signature, but as a matter of fact there is now to be a seal kept in the Department in order to save the right hon. Gentleman the troublesome work of putting his signature to a transference of property. Apparently this seal is to be kept in a safe, and any transference of public property may be done by a permanent official, who stamps the seal on the document, and so much Government property is given away. There are no ordinary guarantees, no guarantees of publicity and advertisement. In the Select Committee I got from the responsible witnesses the fact that there was no compulsion on them to advertise, and that advertisement was very seldom done. It was a matter of private bargaining between two individuals behind closed doors. You have not the operation of the ordinary market and two or three competing purchasers by which you may get the approximate market value of the commodity that is to be sold. Any private person who wants possession of a particular bit of Crown property can go privately to the civil servant, or the solicitor to the Crown agents, and say, "I want to buy this particular bit of land." I came across this in the Select Committee. Several salmon fisheries are owned in Scotland by the Commissioners of Crown Lands. One was let to a company for a period of 10 years at a rent of £15. Another, which I gathered was of a corresponding value, was let to a gallant colonel for a period of 25 years at 5s. per annum.


Where is it?


For the first time to-day the hon. Member is interested. It is the question of a cheap salmon fishery.


And you pay for the salmon by the ounce.


If I estimate the hon. Member's angling abilities correctly it will be far better for him to get his salmon in the dining room of this House rather than go fishing for it in Scotland. Here you have a valuable salmon fishing let for 25 years at 5s. per annum. Do any of the sporting Members on the other side of the House believe that it is justifiable that the Crown should get 5s. a week in this instance? [Interruption.] There are many obvious jokes which turn on this matter. For instance the word "canned" is connoted. But is 5s. the market value of fishing rights on a valuable salmon stream in Scotland?


The answer is in the negative.


The answer is in the negative—from one who has spent most of his life in the Dutch East Indies. This is a very small example of how the nation is not getting an adequate reasonable income from its properties. All of us on these benches—and I think all of us who sit above the Gangway—take the view that the whole of the land belongs to the people. We are now left with only a small amount of the land that was, at one time, the possession of the people. Out of the small amount left we are only getting an inadequate portion of the income which we Should derive from it. That is the policy which the Minister defends—the carrying on of these transactions behind closed doors, and without publicity. That must lead to advantage being taken of the nation. Let your permanent official be as clever and capable as you like, if there is no general indication of the public attitude towards this property, if only one man can go quietly to the Commissioners and say, "I want this fishing or these mineral rights, or this bit of land—what is the price?" then you can see how it will be done over a lunch. Even supposing it were done over a desk, it would not be a business transaction. I put it to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite that in their public work they should be as honourable, as efficient, and as careful in their handling of public property as they would be with their own personal possessions on their own estates.


More so.


Well, I am putting it very low, and I am glad to hear that sentiment, but I am afraid from what I hear of the utterances of hon. Members opposite on the platform that they do not believe that anybody in the public service working for the community can give as good or as energetic service as can be given by those who are looking after personal property. Their idea is that only the goal of personal property and personal gain makes a man put forward his best, most honest and most efficient service. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] That is your stock-in-trade; that is your chief argument against the general theories of this party. I honestly tried to save the Minister trouble in moving the Amendment to the first Clause. Had I been met on that, all these points arising on the various Clauses would not have worried me. I would have agreed with the appointment of three responsible Commissioners who could have been trusted to do all that is now left to a permanent official. Since the Government have rejected a proposal

for efficient and proper control it is necessary for us to see that in each of these Clauses, the practically uncontrolled powers granted to this permanent official are limited in such a way that he cannot misdirect our public property. I hope the hon. and gallant Member for Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) will be prepared to record his opposition to the attitude of the Government by going into the Lobby against it.

Lieut.- Commander KENWORTHY

The Minister of Agriculture answered a question about the disposal of the purchase money by saying that it was either re-invested or, under Clause 100 of the Act of 1829, it could be used for the purchase of further land. In this connection I want to draw attention to a real scandal. During the War land on Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge, was used as an aerodrome. After the War it was sold to private persons, and has since been used as a pig breeding farm. I have seen the place myself. That is a scandal, because Stonehenge is a unique prehistoric relic. Some local archæologists drew attention to the matter the other day.


I think the hon. and gallant Member is going beyond the subject of this Clause.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I do not want to extend my reference to the subject except to say that the land again comes into the market, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Minister, when he is re-investing some of this money, will see that this land which was sold so suddenly after the War will be repurchased.

Question put, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 146; Noes, 34.

Division No. 186.] AYES. [11. 33 p. m.
Agg-Gardner, Rt. Hon. Sir James T. Brocklebank, C. E. R. Crookshank, Col. C. de W. (Berwick)
Alexander, E. E. (Leyton) Burman, J. B. Crookshank, Cpt. H. (Lindsey, Gainsbro)
Applin, Colonel R. V. K. Butt, Sir Alfred Cunliffe, Sir Herbert
Ashley, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. Wilfrid W. Campbell, E. T. Curzon, Captain Viscount
Balfour, George (Hampstead) Cayzer, Maj. Sir Herbt. R. (Prtsmth. S.) Davidson, Major-General Sir J. H.
Barnett, Major Sir Richard Charteris, Brigadier-General J. Davies, Maj. Geo. F. (Somerset, Yeovil)
Barnston, Major Sir Harry Christie, J. A. Davies, Dr. Vernon
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H. Clayton, G. C. Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington, S.)
Betterton, Henry B. Cobb, Sir Cyril Dawson, Sir Philip
Birchall, Major J. Dearman Cochrane, Commander Hon. A. D. Elliot, Major Walter E.
Bowyer, Captain G. E. W. Cockerill, Brig.-General Sir George Ellis, R. G.
Brassey, Sir Leonard Courtauld, Major J. S. Evans, Captain A. (Cardiff, South)
Briscoe, Richard George Crooke, J. Smedley (Deritend) Falle, Sir Bertram G.
Fermoy, Lord Lamb, J. Q. Samuel, Samuel (W'dsworth, Putney)
Fielden, E. B. Lane Fox, Col. Rt. Hon. George R. Sandeman, N. Stewart
Finburgh, S. Little, Dr. E. Graham Senders, Sir Robert A.
Ford, Sir P. J. Locker-Lampson, G. (Wood Green) Sassoon, Sir Philip Albert Gustave D.
Forestier-Walker, Sir L. Loder, J. de V. Shaw. R. G. (Yorks, W. R., Sowerby)
Forrest, W. Luce, Maj. -Gen. Sir Richard Harman Shepperson, E. W.
Foxcroft, Captain C. T. Lumley, L. R. Simms, Dr. John M. (Co. Down)
Fraser, Captain Ian Macintyre, Ian Slaney, Major P. Kenyon
Gault, Lieut. -Col. Andrew Hamilton Mc Lean, Major A. Smith-Carington, Neville W.
Gilmour, Lt. -Col. Rt. Hon. Sir John Mc Neill, Rt. Hon. Ronald John Sprot, Sir Alexander
Gower, Sir Robert Margesson, Captain D. Stanley, Lieut. -Colonel Rt. Hon. G. F.
Grace, John Marriott, Sir J. A. R. Stanley, Lord (Fylde)
Gretton, Colonel Rt. Hon. John Mason, Lieut.-Colonel Glyn K. Stanley, Hon. O. F. G. (Westm'cland)
Grotrian, H. Brent Merriman, F. B. Storry-Deans, R.
Guinness, Rt. Hon. Walter E. Monsell, Eyres, Com. Rt. Hon. B. M. Stuart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)
Gunston, Captain D. W. Morrison, H. (Wilts, Salisbury) Sueter, Rear-Admiral Murray Fraser
Hanbury, C. Murchison, Sir Kenneth Sugden, Sir Wilfrid.
Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry Neville, Sir Reginald J. Thompson, Luke (Sunderland)
Harland, A. Newman, Sir R. H. S. D. L. (Exeter) Thomson, F. C. (Aberdeen, S.)
Hartington, Marquess of Newton, Sir D. G. C. (Cambridge) Tryon, Rt. Hon. George Clement
Headlam, Lieut. -Colonel C. M. Oakley, T. Ward Lt. -Col. A. L. (Kingston-on-Hull)
Heneage, Lieut. -Colonel Arthur P. O'Neill, Major Rt. Hon. Hugh Warner, Brigadier-General W. W.
Henn, Sir Sydney H. Oman, Sir Charles William C. Waterhouse, Captain Charles
Hennessy, Major Sir G. R. J. Ormsby-Gore, Rt. Hon. William Watson, Rt. Hon. W. (Carlisle)
Herbert, Dennis (Hertford, Watford) Pennefather, Sir John Watts, Dr. T.
Hills, Major John Waller Penny, Frederick George Wells, S. R.
Hilton, Cecil Percy, Lord Eustace (Hastings) Wheler, Major Sir Granville C. H
Hogg. Rt. Hon. Sir D. (St. Marylebone) Perkins, Colonel E. K. Williams, A. M. (Cornwall, Northern)
Holbrook, Sir Arthur Richard Peto, Sir Basil E. (Devon, Barnstaple) Williams, Com. C. (Devon, Torquay)
Hope, Capt. A. O. J. (Warw'k, Nun.) Peto, G. (Somerset, Frome) Williams, Herbert G. (Reading)
Hopkins, J. W. W. Pownall, Sir Assheton Wise, Sir Fredric
Howard-Bury, Lieut. -Colonel C. K. Raine, Sir Walter Womersley, W. J.
Inskip, Sir Thomas Walker H. Remer, J. R. Wood, Sir Kingsley (Woolwich, W.)
Jephcott, A. R. Richardson, Sir P. W. (Sur'y, Ch'ts'y)
Kidd, J. (Linlithgow) Roberts, E. H. G. (Flint) TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Kindersley, Major G. M. Roberts, Sir Samuel (Hereford) Colonel Gibbs and Major Cope.
King, Commodore Henry Douglas Rye, F. G.
Batey, Joseph Jones, T. I. Mardy (Pontypridd) Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring)
Broad, F. A. Kelly, W. T. Ritson, J.
Charleton, H. C. Kenworthy, Lt. -Com. Hon. Joseph M. Robinson, W. C. (Yorks, W. R., Elland)
Dalton, Hugh Lawrence, Susan Shiels, Dr. Drummond
Day, Colonel Harry Lawson, John James Smith, Ben (Bermondsey, Rotherhithe)
Dennison, R. Lunn, William Sutton, J. E.
Dunnico, H. Maxton, James Viant, S P.
Edwards, C. (Monmouth, Bedwellty) Mosley, Oswald Wellock, Wilfred
Garro-Jones, Captain G. M. Naylor, T. E. Whiteley, W.
Gillett, George M. Oliver, George Harold Windsor, Walter
Grundy, T. W. Pethick-Lawrence, F. W.
Hirst, G. H. Potts, John S. TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Tinker.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill" put, and agreed to.