HC Deb 17 May 1935 vol 301 cc2102-8

Where under the Acts of 1925, 1930 and under this Act the Minister is required to cause a public local inquiry to be held, any objector who has appeared at any such inquiry shall be furnished by the Minister with a statement explanatory of the reasons which have entailed the condemnation of his property.—[Mr. North.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

2.23 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The object of this Clause is really to reaffirm the rights of the subject as against the encroaching system of bureaucracy. The present procedure when a house is condemned, I think, is well known to most hon. Members. A house or property is condemned, and the owner is entitled to object. If he objects, the Minister causes one of his inspectors to hold an inquiry. At that inquiry the aggrieved party and the local authority can give evidence, and on the report on that evidence and other things the Minister makes his decision. But he gives no reason why he has reached it, and, therefore, a man does not know what are the reasons for having his house condemned. I am not complaining about the justice of the Minister's decision, because when you are dealing with a great number of cases, and embarking on a vast scheme of slum clearance, obviously there must be hard cases. There must be cases of injustice, but I think, in the main, the sympathies of the Minister are most probably as fair as anybody else's. I complain that people are not allowed to know how justice is being done; or, alternatively, if justice has not been done, no one is allowed to know anything about it. May I read from a passage in the book of the Lord Chief Justice? Lord Hewart says: How is it to be expected that a party against whom a decision has been given in a hole-and-corner fashion and without any grounds being specified should believe that he has had justice. Those words explain better than any words of mine the point I am making, that if a man is not told the reasons for condemning his property quite obviously justice will not have been done, and even if it was right that his property should be condemned he will never have a feeling that he has been properly treated. Let me take an extreme case of injustice which can occur under this Bill if unamended. Supposing a mistake is made, a genuine mistake. Supposing the inspector who makes the report falls into an error, and that in consequence of it the Minister condemns the property. How is the owner ever to have a chance of discovering that a mistake has been made, or to get redress for something which should not have happened? Under the present procedure he cannot do anything, and I submit that that is not just, is not fair, and is not equitable. It is certainly not the kind of justice to which we have been accumtomed in this country.

If the Minister or his Department or anyone else makes a mistake it should be admitted, and the person who suffers should receive some form of redress. In this Clause I am not asking the Minister to publish the reports of his inspectors. I am aware that a good many Members would like to have the reports published, but I hold the view that there would be certain difficulties in the way of publication, and therefore I am not asking for it. What I am asking the Minister to do is to give, within his discretion, reasons for condemning the person's property. He can include some of the reasons which are given him by his inspectors or he cannot, as he thinks fit; but the report of the inspector has not got to be published. If the Bill is allowed to pass in its present farm we are doing something which is contrary to the spirit of British justice, which is bound to cause friction, bitterness and annoyance, and will not help us to get the Bill working in the way in which we wish to see it work. I hope the Minister will be able to accept this Clause.

2.28 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

In Committee there were many discussions on the principle which, to a certain extent, is being carried out by this Clause, and also many discussions on various forms of appeal tribunal. I feel it is administratively possible to carry out what the Clause asks for, and that it would be advisable to grant it, mainly for this reason, that however effective and however well-planned this Measure may be, there is the possibility that it will create hardship in a number of cases, and it will be very difficult for the unfortunate person who has his house taken from him to appreciate the reasons for it. I believe that if, after all the formalities have been complied with, he were given a statement of why his house had been condemned or scheduled for slum clearance that would go some way if not to satisfy him at any rate to make him realise that there was a reason for the hardship which had been imposed on him. Am I allowed to say a word on the other new Clause? I understand we are discussing it with this Clause.

2.30 p.m.


I am most unwilling to do anything which might seem to run contrary to a suggestion made from the Chair, but my new Clause raises an entirely different point. I am not wholly in agreement with the present Clause, and mine raises a different point, and I respectfully ask that if there is to be a discussion on my Clause at the same time that we are discussing this Clause that that will not preclude me from making a speech in support of my Clause when moving it.


In the circumstances we had better keep the two Clauses separate.


I am very much obliged.

Lieut.-Commander AGNEW

May I ask whether it is your intention, Mr. Speaker, to call the new Clause standing in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Thorp) "Appeal to the County Court"?


No, I do not intend to call that Clause.


I have made my case in support of this Clause, and perhaps I may be allowed to say something on the other new Clause when it is before us.

2.33 p.m.


I rise to support this new Clause. It seems to me that the law will not be fair to the owners of large numbers of houses which are included in a clearance area. The present procedure is for an inspector to be sent down by the Ministry and then for him to make a report to the Minister, a report which is not seen by the person concerned, and for the Minister to act on that report. The owner of the property knows nothing at all about it until he hears that the Minister has made an order for demolition. The right hon. Gentleman said in Committee, on the question of the report being published, that if the report were to be published the inspector would give only the barest outline of the leading facts, because he would fear criticism. If that is the case, how unfair it must be for the owner of the property to know nothing at all of what is in the report, especially if he feels that if he had protested and the report was published he would know a great deal more about the reasons for the demolition order. What chance has he at any time to know why he is losing his property? In a court of law an offender knows the offence with which he is being charged, but the owner of property which is to be demolished has to be content with the bare statement of the Minister that his property is to go, and he is punished without hearing the evidence. He does not know why he is to be punished. Nothing is said to him as to how he might save his property. He is permitted to know only the sentence, that is, the order for demolition. That is very unfair.

I am not suggesting that there is injustice in any way, but surely a man ought to know something about reasons before property, which may mean everything to him, is condemned and taken away from him. How is it posible for such a man to feel that justice has been done in his case? He considers, possibly, that his property is in order, unless he hears something from the authorities concerned, but he is never told. All he has to do is to listen while the sentence, the order for demolition, is read out to him that his property must go. An individual who owns one house can go to the local authority, and if he is not satisfied with their decision he has the right to go to the county court where he hears a considered judgment. He knows why his property is to be demolished. The owner of a number of houses knows nothing at all. In Committee upstairs it was said that if justice is not done it ought to seem as though it has been done. I am certain that the owner of a number of houses which are to be demolished merely by an order of the Minister, will never feel that justice has been done to him.

2.37 p.m.


From some of the observations which have been made it is possible that the House may have inadvertently received impressions which would not be given by one who knew very much about the machinery of this legislation. The owner of the property has a full opportunity of going into the case against him, and if he objects to the procedure there is provision for a public local inquiry in which he has an opportunity of making good his own point of view. I feel some little regret that we were not able to discuss the proposed new Clause in connection with the new Clause which follows it, because I may not be able to make clear to the House the view which I recommend. This matter deserves very careful consideration, because, as hon. Members have Tightly said, deep personal interests are involved in this procedure, and we should in all respects establish a form of procedure which satisfies our ideas of justice as regards the rights of the individual in relation to the rights of the community. I agree that there must be no breath of suspicion cast upon the full information of the owner as to the nature of the proceedings to which he is subjected.

I have given the matter the very closest consideration, and have tried from day to day to remove every conceivable difficulty from the path of this great reform which is now in progress. The discussions in the Committee upstairs were adequate to satisfy us that here is a breath of of suspicion which we can remove, the suspicion that the owner is not informed precisely and definitely what is the matter with his house. In order to remove that suspicion, it would be in accordance with natural justice and good practice that we should undertake that reasons for the condemnation of the House should be stated to the owner; in a word, I accept the principle of the proposed new Clause. I do not think that the actual wording of it is perfectly appropriate to its purpose, but I will take great care to get it into more precise wording. In view of my acceptance of the principle that a statement of reasons for the condemnation of the property by the Minister should be given to the owner, I suggest that the promoters of the proposed new Clause should withdraw it. I will undertake to supply my version, possibly in another place, and to provide an opportunity for it. Any further discussion of the reasons might perhaps be given on the next new Clause.

2.42 p.m.


Before the proposed new Clause is withdrawn I would like to point out that this is a further reversal by the Government. It is within the recollection of Members of the Committee, although I have not had time to look at the OFFICIAL REPORT because the Minister's speech has only just been made, that this point was raised by Conservative Members, and either the Minister or his Parliamentary Secretary very eloquently and adequately gave reasons why it was not desirable, from the point of view of administration, that the owner of property which has been condemned should be informed of the detailed reasons. Otherwise, it was stated, it would be impossible for the inspector to make an impartial report to the Minister. I think I am right in bringing this before the House, and I would ask whether the Minister can tell us on what other points he is proposing to withdraw from the attitude he took up in Committee. It would be for the convenience of the House if we could go through the Order Paper and the Minister could indicate on what amendments—


That would obviously be out of order.


Perhaps at some convenient time the Minister might be able to do that. I desire to point out this complete reversal policy on the part of the Government. To-day as on a previous occasion, after a convincing and eloquent speech is made in one direction, an equally eloquent and convincing speech has been made in the opposite direction.


The Minister said in Committee that he was not prepared to give away all the confidential information which was reported to him by the inspector, but that he was prepared to consider the person who appealed to know what was the general ground of objection.


In view of the Minister's statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.