§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 1.25 p.m.
§ Colonel Clarke
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I am afraid nobody can deny that this is an unexciting little Bill, and one that is unlikely to arouse very much interest, but at the same time it is curious how sometimes in the most unexpected places a touch of romance will be found, and to those who are interested in the history of our countryside this apparently dull little Bill does possess a picturesque side. That is because, in order to understand its purport, one has to go back to the times 1529 when that countryside was very different from what it is to-day—the times before the common fields were enclosed, and when the Saxon conception of the manor still obtained. It will be remembered that that state of affairs gradually gave way, as a result of the Enclosure Acts, to a countryside such as we see to-day; for, although in a very few parishes the old strip cultivation still remains, it is to most of us something that we only see in pictures of the countryside in the early 18th century.
I do not want to go into the rights and wrongs of these enclosures, but I am glad that the matter with which we have to deal to-day is one in which the Commissioners have shown that common humanity has swayed them. For countless years, I suppose, before the enclosures took place, it was the custom for the poor of the parish to collect turves and wood for firing, on the waste of the manor and round the edges of the common field. After the enclosures had taken place, it was obvious, of course, that that could no longer be maintained, and, with the dividing up of the common fields and the waste of the manor into the farms that we know to-day, these sources of fuel naturally ceased to be available; but, to minimise the incidence of this hardship on the poor, fuel allotments were provided in many parishes. These fuel allotments were of two kinds. They might either be pieces of ground from which the poor of the parish might collect turves or wood actually in kind, or they might be pieces of ground which were let for some purpose or other and the rent derived from them devoted to buying firing for the poorer people of the parish. In either case these lands were vested in trustees, who were generally the vestry.
My first main point is that these trusts were irrevocable trusts, subject to certain limited relief which was afforded by the provisions of Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876, under which the Charity Commissioners were authorised to allow a fuel allotment to be used as a recreation ground or for field gardens, or to be exchanged for another piece of land of equal value if a more suitable piece of land could he obtained in that way. Apart from those reliefs, the sale or lease of a fuel allotment is, as the law stands to-day, not possible, and it will be easily understood that from this fact frequent 1530 cases of hardship arise. You may, for example, get a case where a fuel allotment has become useless because the turf has all been dug out, or the bushes and trees which provided kindling have all been cut down. Again, the standard of life in our villages to-day is much higher than it was in those times, and people often burn coal or oil, whereas in the past they burned peat or wood.
Moreover, in cases in which fuel allotments have been let, it often happens that from some cause or other the rent has so declined as to be practically negligible. I will quote one specific instance where that has happened. It relates to a charity in Warwickshire, entitled the Dunchurch Poors Plot Charity. In this case the actual fuel allotment consists of about 22 acres, apparently secured by an Inclosure Award dated 5th November, 1708. Actually that award cannot now be found, although its terms are known, and an extract from the award is in the possession of the vestry, and it has been ruled by the Charity Commission that that extract makes the property a fuel allotment, and therefore unsaleable in law. At the present time the income from the charity enables the parish to provide winter coal for all widows, old age pensioners, and other needy persons in the parish; but, since part of the income arises from the rents of certain houses which are now getting very old and will shortly have to be pulled down as no longer habitable, the trust may lose something like £80 in income in the very near future. This will cripple it for the purpose for which it exists. Part of the plot is let for allotments, and it seems unlikely that any more allotments will be let, so that the income from that source is not likely to increase.
What the trustees would like to do is to sell, say, half the ground and rebuild the cottages with the proceeds. This would be a great help to the people in the village, as more houses are wanted, and it would also keep up the income, which, as I have said, is likely to be depleted to the extent of £80. The local authority consider the part of the land now occupied by allotments to be particularly suitable for the building of houses, and have asked the Charity Commissioners to sell them part of the fuel allotment for this purpose; but, 1531 owing to the existing state of the law, it is impossible to do this, and it looks as if in the near future the number of houses in the parish will be reduced and it will not be possible to replace them, while the income from the charity will no longer be sufficient to provide the fuel for the poorer people as it has been in the past. I could quote other cases, and there are two in particular which I would like just to mention. One is at Sedge-ford, in Norfolk, where land could not be sold to the district council for housing purposes except under compulsory powers involving a great deal of extra work which would be avoided if this Bill were passed; and the other is at Hanwell, in Middlesex, where an Act of Parliament had to be obtained to authorise the sale of land belonging to the charity for use as an open space. I will not quote any more cases, because my hon. and gallant Friend who is going to second this Motion has a particularly good instance which he will place before the House.
The Bill aims at dealing with the problem I have described. Clause 1 empowers the Charity Commissioners to make an Order for the establishment of a scheme for the administration of such a fuel allotment. Actually the Charity Commissioners make every year some-think like 400 schemes of this kind, not all relating to fuel allotments, but for the purpose of straightening out existing charities. If the income is less than £50—and in nearly all cases the income of these fuel allotments is less than £50—the request of the present trustees or of two inhabitants in the parish if necessary will cause the Charity Commissioners to take the matter up. In addition, notice of this scheme has to be displayed and brought to the attention of all public authorities concerned. A public inquiry is to be held, if necessary, at which objections can be raised. If anybody raises an objection that there is danger of the loss of a public open space, societies such as the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Society can come to the inquiry and lodge their objections. I am certain that if, on inquiry, the Charity Commissioners found that the land ought to be retained as an open space, they would refuse to permit any schemes that threatened to prejudice the public by dealing with it in any other 1532 manner. Thirdly, in order that there shall be no possible chance of the interests of the public in connection with the preservation of open spaces being jeopardised, I have myself got into touch with the Secretary of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Society, and it has been arranged that the question of whether the Bill will in any way conflict with the interests of town planning will be gone into between now and the Committee stage.
Sub-section (2) of Clause 1 provides for the scheme allowing of either of three courses. First, that on the sale or letting of any part of a fuel allotment, the trustees will be able to apply the capital sums thus obtained or any of the revenue to the provision of fuel for the parish, or, if that income is more than is required for the purchase of fuel, providing other benefits that are required. It may happen that fuel allotments, which in the past provided only peat and turf, may have had under them good gravel or something of that sort, and when this is sold, the proceeds of the sale may go towards enabling the poor of the parish to receive much better firing than they got before—coal instead of peat, for example—and the other money obtained may be used for other public purposes in the parish. The second provision is that the fuel allotment, or any part of it, might be exchanged, and the money payable to the trustees for the equality of exchange, if any such sums were payable, might be devoted to the same purposes as I have described. If an exchange were made and as a result of the exchange, a corresponding amount of land for the purpose of providing fuel in kind was obtained and also a balance in cash, that cash could be invested and devoted either to getting more fuel, or again, perhaps, getting coal instead of turf, or to some other purposes in the interests of the parish. Lastly, it will enable the use of the fuel allotment, or part of it, for some other purpose altogether if that is considered desirable. That would be some purpose which would be in the interests of the parish; for instance, it might be necessary to build a village hall and a site might be obtained in this way.
Finally, I want to make three things clear. This Bill does not include common land in the ordinary sense of the word. It does not concern the taking of turf or 1533 the collecting of fuel on this common land. It might happen that in a parish, besides the fuel allotment, there was a common as well. I do not think it would often happen, because, originally, if part of a common were left unenclosed that would have been considered a sufficient area from which to collect the fuel.
§ Colonel Clarke
No, Sir. I am simply bringing this up because I think it might be one difficulty that would arise. I do not know of any case, but I would not say that throughout the length and breadth of England such a thing did not exist. But if it did exist, the fact that the fuel allotment was sold and the money invested would, I understand, make no difference to the rights of the people to go out and collect fuel from common land or the waste of the manor as intended. It is not intended to secure the sale of all fuel allotments. Lastly, allotments in those cases have nothing to do with allotments in the ordinary sense of the word—I mean allotments in the sense of a small piece of garden provided for people in the parish who, unfortunately, have not gardens attached to their houses. I hope that the provisions of this small Bill are made clear. It occurs to me that although it is a very small and un-ambitious Bill, it has some possibilities of small, but fairly certain, service. I believe, too, that it will enable the intentions of those men of good will who set up these trusts in the past to be carried out. That is dependent on it reaching the Statute Book. In order that it may do so, I ask the House to give it a Second Reading.
§ 1.43 p.m.
§ Major-General Sir Alfred Knox
I beg to second the Motion.
I propose to confine my remarks to the description of a special case in my constituency, as my hon. and gallant Friend has given a general description of what lie thinks would be the effect of the Bill in other places in England. I have had a good deal of correspondence on this subject in the past four or five years. There is a parish in my constituency that suffers under the limitation imposed by a trust many years ago, when the trust 1534 was established. The trustees think, and I very strongly agree with them, that if this Bill is passed we shall be able to increase the amount of fuel available for the poor of that parish by at least four or five times. Some time ago I asked the Attorney-General to bring in a Bill to this effect. He looked at the proposals sideways for 18 months, and then passed the buck to the Minister of Agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture then told me definitely that there was no time. Now my hon. and gallant Friend has been lucky in the Ballot, and I hope we shall get satisfaction and put this arrangement, in this parish and elsewhere, on comparatively modern lines. This particular trust was established many years ago—certainly before 1804. Three pieces of land in the parish were placed in the hands of trustees with the following limitation:The trustees should let the land annually to any person, preference being given to those who are cottagers and labouring or working men or industrious women within the Ancient Parish of Iver, to the intent that they may be thereby entitled to keep a cow or cows.This trust or charity is called the "Poor' s or Fuel Allotment." It is laid down that the income from the grazing of these three pieces of land to be let to poor people desirous of keeping a cow or cows should be devoted to the provision of fuel for firing to be distributed among the occupiers of dwelling-houses or cottages in the "Ancient Parish of Iver," provided these occupiers arepoor and industrious persons in the same parish occupying lands or tenements of not more than the yearly value of £10.These pieces of land are now vested in the Charity Commissioners. Trustees manage them generally, but they cannot part with or sell them and they are not entitled to make any breach in the terms of the trust. The parish of Iver has completely changed in this period of 150 years since the trust was established. It is now most difficult, and has been so for the past 25 years, to find in the parish of Iver a poor person who is willing and wishes to keep a cow or cows. Really, for 25 years the trustees, if they wanted as they have wanted, of course, to raise money from these pieces of land in order to finance the giving of fuel to the poor people of the parish, have been compelled in every case to break the terms of their trust. Still, in spite of breaking the terms 1535 of trust, the yield from these pieces of land is very much less than it will be if this Bill be passed.
I will give the details of the acreage of these three pieces of land. The largest piece is 19¾ acres, and the land is on an island in the river Colne, which runs between the eastern side of Buckinghamshire and Middlesex. The only access to that island is through a shallow or ford which adjoins the land occupied by a fairly substantial farmer named Sanders. If Sanders for some reason did not want to take the grazing of this island of 19¾ acres for which he pays an annual rental of £27, there would be no other tenant to take the land. No one could get his cows on to it without trespassing over Sanders's land. I think that the House will agree that this farmer is giving a very pair price considering he is the only person who really could take the land.
Some years ago a local gentleman who has an estate there wanted to take a lease of this island for 21 years at a rental of £50. The trustees would have liked that because it would have nearly doubled their income from the land, but the Charity Commissioners said that it was quite impossible to give a lease of 21 years, because the terms of the trust laid it down clearly that the land should only be let annually. The trustees had the island valued and the valuation came to £4,620. That sounds a very large sum for I9 acres of agricultural land. The reason is that there is a large deposit of gravel which is very valuable for a particular kind of brick. The adjoining land is worth £300 an acre to a firm for manufacturing purposes and if it were possible perhaps more could be obtained for the land on this island to complete the undertaking.
The other piece of land of 13½ acres is, as the builders say, ripe for industrial development. It is on the main Slough-Uxbridge Road. Part of it has been let for allotments but allotment holders cannot be found for the greater part of it. It is let at a total rental of£12 18s. Immediately adjoining land has been sold for as much as £300 an acre for building purposes. Supposing the trustees were free to sell these 13½ acres even at half that figure, we calculate that it would bring in £2,000. The third piece of land is smaller—4½ acres—and it has been for many years lying 1536 derelict, but during the last few months a man has come along who is not a resident of Iver, and, although they have no right to let the land to him, the trustees have done so, for the purpose of growing mushrooms. He is paying a rental of £7 10s. per annum. This piece of land is right in the middle of an area occupied by a big contractor who goes in for ballast dredging, and it is worth, at any rate, £150 an acre to him.
We have these three pieces of land, the island site which produces £27 per annum and has been valued at £4,620—and, as a conservative estimate, I put the value at £4,500—the 13¼ acre site which produces £12 18s. per annum and has been valued at £2,000; and the 4½ acre site, which produces £7 10s. per annum and has been valued at £600. Therefore, this trust has three pieces of land which produce an income of £47 8s. per annum, and if the trustees were empowered to sell this land they could invest the proceeds in gilt-edged securities, say, War Loan, to produce £248 10s. annually. The income of the trust would be multiplied more than five times, and it would be so much more money available to provide the poor of the parish of Iver—there are poor there still, though there are no industrious people wishing to keep a cow—with fuel and to be used for other purposes for the advantage of the poor. If this money were invested in gilt-edged securities it would be absolutely safe. At present, as these lands are left, the safety of the income is more precarious. If anything happened to the farmer, Sanders, who takes the largest piece of land, it would be impossible to get anyone else to rent that island, and the greater part of the income would disappear at once. This is a practical instance. I speak of it because I know the facts and have been trying for many years to get relief for the trust, and, incidentally, for the parish of Iver, I hope the House will give a Second Reading to the Bill, because I cannot imagine any one opposing it on political or economic grounds.
§ 1.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede
I am afraid that the hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox) will be disappointed in the sentiments he expressed in his peroration, because I regard this Bill, although he says it is a small one, as being very dangerous. In the first place, it seems 1537 to me that it offends the sound Parliamentary principle that we should not provide a second remedy for an evil when a perfectly sound one already exists. The fact that such a remedy exists was proved in the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clark) when he said that the parish of Hanwell, faced with this problem, had managed to solve it by the promotion of a Private Bill. Such a Private Bill is not a very expensive matter, but it ensures that a particular case receives appropriate attention, either through a Select Committee upstairs or through the committee on Unopposed Bills.
It is a very true saying that hard cases make bad laws, Parliament has had this matter before it on several occasions since it perpetrated the original injustice through the Enclosure Acts. I cannot think of a better example of historic injustice than that which was given by hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe when he told us that this island, which was allocated to poor and industrious people, including women, is approachable only by a shallow ford, and is surrounded by the lands of a farmer. Quite clearly, whoever got the piece of land that was enclosed it was not the industrious poor. It may have been in those days the non-industrious rich. It would be dangerous that a matter which has already received the attention of this House, and for which we have provided remedies, should be dealt with in the way proposed, when the other remedy of procedure by Private Bill is available. Neither of the hon. and gallant Members dealt with Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876, which they seek to repeal by Clause 1 (3). Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876, has the peculiar advantage of having three separate Preambles of its own, apart from any Preamble there may have been to the Commons Act itself. The third Preamble says:And whereas power exists or is claimed in divers Acts of Parliament to divert an allotment from the uses declared by Parliament respecting the same, be it enacted,…Among the powers given to the Charity Commissioners under Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876, is the power to allow these lands to be used, where their original use has expired, as what are called recreation grounds and field gardens. I believe that "field gardens" was the term then used for what we now more generally describe as allotments. 1538 Let me take the case put by the hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe. I do, not think that he has proved that the, best use for the parish of Iver would, of necessity, having regard to the modern development of Iver, be the development, of these pieces of land on the lines he, suggests. I cannot think that it is necessary to provide opportunities for further ribbon development along the road to Slough. I cannot think that the best' use for this island on the River Colne is of necessity cutting it up for gravel. The original intention of the Act of 1876 ought not to be departed from except on a case specifically shown in relation to that Act.
§ Mr. Ede
The Colne is not a navigable river. The provision of a small artistic bridge might add to the amenities of the district and provide access in the summertime and at other suitable times for the inhabitants of Iver and district to meet one another and to use this island as a recreation ground. Moreover, the provision of some facilities for the juvenile population of Iver to paddle in the river, under proper safeguards, might be a desirable thing.
§ Mr. Ede
From my experience in trying to provide recreation grounds for parishes; I am sure that if action were taken by the local authority to use the land as a recreation ground the Charity Commissioners would not allow it to be taken over at less than the district valuer's valuation, I cannot think that the finances of the charity would suffer. I do not think that the trustees should be relieved unless they can prove to the House a better case than has been made in regard to the trusts that were imposed upon them by the Act of 1876.
§ Colonel Clarke
May I ask the hon. Member two questions? Does he not think that to promote a Private Bill in respect of charities with incomes of £5,£10 or£15, as is the income of some of these fuel allotments, is rather like taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut? Secondly, does he not think that this Bill is really supplementary to the provisions of Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876, in that it was possible under that Act to turn these lands into allotments and 1539 recreation grounds. We are suggesting that the original land should be sold, alternative allotments or recreation grounds bought, and the balance on the turnover devoted to other purposes. Under Section 19 it is permissible to make an exchange.
§ Mr. Ede
My speech seems to be affording a series of notes for the two hon. and gallant Members to bring in points that did not occur to them when they made their original speeches. With regard to the first point put by the hon. and gallant Member, I admit that it is rather like taking a Nasmyth hammer to crack a nut in the case of fuel allotments with very small incomes, but in such a case the appropriate thing would be for the Minister of Agriculture, or whoever is deemed to be the appropriate Minister for dealing with the case, to assist the charity by promoting a Bill. The hon. and gallant Member admitted that he had got so far with the Minister of Agriculture that he had recognised the fact that a Bill ought to be promoted, but that he had not the time to deal with the matter. There ought to be a more sympathetic attitude adopted by the Minister of Agriculture in regard to the small schemes; but in regard to the particular charity mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe, concerning Iver, that is clearly one in which we are dealing with thousands of pounds. If, therefore, they introduced a Private Bill in that case the cost would not be out of proportion to the benefits which the inhabitants would gain. There is power under Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876, for land to be exchanged. It reads:and provided that it shall be lawful for the said Charity Commissioners, on such application as aforesaid, to authorise the exchange of any fuel allotments or any part thereof for land of equal value situate in the parish or the district for the benefit of the poor for which such allotment is set out, if the Commissioners are of opinion that by means of such exchange land better situate for the purpose for which such allotment is set out will be obtained.The hon. and gallant Member wants to repeal that section; why, I cannot make out. He did not commend this particular part of the Bill to the House, and I can only assume that he has some reason 1540 which he has not so far disclosed. There is this further disadvantage about the method proposed in the Bill. Most of these lands which remain fuel allotments have been town-planned either as open spaces or as allotments. It would appear possible from the phraseology of the Bill to take these allotments outside the framework of a town planning scheme.
§ Colonel Clarke
I am not clear why the hon. Member should think that the Bill will take them outside the scope of a town planning scheme, but I tried to give him my assurance that every opportunity will be given to town planning authorities to consider them.
§ Mr. Ede
Unfortunately the hon. and gallant Member's assurance will not be of any value unless it is included in the Bill. If a local authority is in a difficulty with its town planning scheme as a result of this Bill, it will not be able to say to the Minister of Health or to anybody else that a specific pledge was given by the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead in the House of Commons that this particular think should not happen. We have to make sure that the legislation covers the point.
§ Colonel Clarke
I will give the hon. Member my assurance that I meant what I said, and that if Amendments are brought forward they will be sympathetically considered in Committee.
§ Mr. Ede
It would assist me very much, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if you could tell me whether I am interrupting the hon. and gallant Member or whether he is interrupting me. I quite recognise that the hon. and gallant Member would desire to meet any serious points in Committee, but unless such matters are raised here first, it is sometimes difficult to get them considered in Committee. The hon. Member who raises them may not be a member of the Committee, and it may be that some supporters of the Bill would regard them as being obstructive and not intended to help. I want to suggest seriously that these are matters which require grave consideration before we give the Bill a Second Reading. These fuel allotments and the whole system of such rights as were reserved to the poor under the enclosure awards represent a very distinct piece of legislation by this House, and before we amend it we ought to have regard to the issues which are 1541 involved. I have no doubt that in the course of 150 years, with the changes in the distribution of population and the changes in the conduct of agriculture and the habits of the people, some of these original awards are no longer as useful as they might be, but I object to giving such a general power of revision without being sure that the revision in each case has really the public interest in mind and nothing else.
I recollect the late Lord Banbury once saying in this House, when we were discussing certain rights of the people in regard to the oyster beds in Maldon, Essex, that the rights in property of a poor man ought to be as sacred to this House as the rights in property of a rich man. After all, we are dealing here with some of the rights in property of the poor which this House gave to them when it took away some of the greater rights they had previously enjoyed. One of the most famous sayings of Arthur Young, the great agricultural writer, was that he once went into a parish where common land had been enclosed and a working man said to him "Parliament may be tender of property, but all I know is that I had a cow and Parliament by enclosing the commons took it away from me." The hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe has given us a case where Parliament, although it had taken away the common, tried to preserve the cow, and I can hardly think that the Conservative party, in view of its connection with the late Jesse Collings, would desire completely to divorce the industrious poor from the keeping of cows.
This Bill, if it gets a Second Reading, will have to be carefully examined in Committee to make sure that some of the small commons, with a fuel allotment producing only £5, shall be considered and that at the end we can rest assured that these trusts are not being diverted from the purpose for which they were established and that due regard has been had to the widest interests of the parishes concerned. I very much doubt whether all these fuel allotments are as wide in their application as that mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe. I think it will be found that most of the rights are attached to cottages which were in existence at the time the enclosure took place. It is very rare for these rights to be exercised by the in- 1542 habitants at large. Usually they are exercised by the inhabitants of certain cottages or the occupiers of certain properties. Therefore, we want to be quite sure that no divergence takes place from the original trust.
I do not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill to the point of a Division, and I want to assure the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead that I do not raise these issues in any other way than to point out that we are dealing with a very important matter in this small Bill. Even in these days, when the country of King Wenceslas has been so cruelly dismembered with the assistance of this country, we have to remember that one of the kings of that name owes his fame in this country to the fact that he watched some of the gatherings of the winter fuel before the Enclosure Act was passed. We can only hope that this Debate will help to remind the House of some of the difficulties that still remain from the enclosure of commons and that the House may be able to deal with the matter so that we are well assured that no diversion of the original trust will take place unless the House gives its approval.
§ 2.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Williams
I am afraid that, much as I appreciate the sentiments and feelings and policies of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), I cannot quite bring myself to becoming as entirely reactionary as he is. I have often wondered where he got his views from. When listening to him I have been reminded of some voice from the past, but it was not until to-day that I realised that his patron Saint's name was "Banbury." The hon. Member realises that many of us on the Tory benches are more progressive than he is. We look for reaction to the benches opposite. Let me say something about my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox). I recognise that he is one of the most enlightened, one of the most progressive Members of the House, and that he is continually changing his ideas to agree with modern tendencies. But I find myself in very great difficulty. I would like to support the Bill, for I realise that my hon. and gallant Friend has a very just cause. Moreover, he is among those who are continually helping progress in this country and in other places.
1543 We have been reminded by the hon. Member for South Shields that we must look after the rights of property. Personally I think that the rights of humanity come before the rights of property, and that is where we differ. [Laughter.] I am very glad indeed to hear the hysterical laughter of the Socialist party when I am propounding an article of Conservative faith. We have always believed in that doctrine, and many of us try to live up to it. I do not mind having my record gone into, or that of my family. In these matters we have to balance and weigh what is best, not from the point of view only of small property but from the point of view of those human beings who are to benefit by this Bill or otherwise. The hon. Member for South Shields said that a private Bill was not a very expensive thing. I have always heard people in all quarters of the House say that private Bills are often very expensive and a great waste of money. Lawyers might say it, but ordinary private Members cannot possibly maintain that private Bills are inexpensive. They are a very expensive luxury on all occasions.
There are one or two questions I wish to ask about the Bill. In Clause 1, subsection (4), we find that the expression "fuel allotment" is defined as land which shall be used for the purpose of providing poor persons with fuel. We have not got a prehistoric or Socialist Government in this country, but a good modern progressive Government. We see electricity developing in the country districts. Suppose that an Act was passed and that there was no need to provide poor persons with coal or wood but that it was desired to provide them with electricity. Would it be possible to get that electricity provided under this Bill? It is a very important question and ought to be answered here or in Committee. I was hoping that I might have the presence of a Law Officer to hear my remarks.
§ Mr. Williams
Not quite. Subsection (3) of Clause 1 states:The powers conferred on the said Commissioners by this Section in respect of any such fuel allotment as is mentioned in Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876.…I have had a long experience in this 1544 House and I know that when you get a private Member's Bill backed by very intelligent private Members who have taken great trouble to get the Bill passed, very often it is found that the whole of the points it was intended to cover are not covered. I should like to know whether the Law Officers think that the Sub-section I have quoted covers the whole of the matter to be dealt with, or whether there ought to be some further quotations of Acts. It is essential that that sort of technical point should be raised and that the matter should be made absolutely sound. I do not pretend to understand the law side of the Bill. In Sub-section (2, b) of Clause 1 there is a most excellent provision. Where there is one of these small charities whose funds come from a particular piece of land, power is given to exchange that land and to consolidate it if necessary. I do not think that even the hon. Member for South Shields would object to that form of exchange. But that is not the whole of the Sub-section, which also contains the words:in exchange by the said trustees, and for the application of any money payable to the said trustees for equality of exchange.That goes rather further than the exchange of land. When the Charity Commissioners see that an exchange of land is made, that is all right, but it is rather different when money which has been deliberately invested in land is taken out of the land and put into some trustee security. Where you provide for an exchange of land you have an excellent part of the Bill, but if money is taken out of the land in the way suggested the House should hesitate before giving its consent. That really raises the main principle of the Bill. I feel that, as the Debate on Friday afternoon must be comparatively short, we should be doing a great service to the community if we gave a Second Reading to this Bill, which would enable these small charities to make a better use of their funds, and allowed the Bill to go to the Committee, where the whole matter could be gone into carefully from the legal and other points of view. All those principles concerning the violation of the rights of property which were so well enunciated by the hon. Member for South Shields could then be considered. I hope that hon. Members will give the Bill—with its defects, for probably there are some—a Second Reading in order that the Com- 1545 mittee may perform a useful service in discussing the details.
§ 2.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Charleton
I hope the House will not give this Bill a Second Reading. The Bill deals with patches of land all over the country, but we have been given no indication as to how many such patches there are, their area or the purposes for which they are being used at the present time. Hon. Members must be well aware of the growing need of land for playing fields and so on. I know that in the district of Iver, with which I am familiar, London and Slough are rapidly running together, and when that district is built up, as it will be very shortly, such land will be of the utmost value for recreation grounds and playing fields. Those who are interested in the King George V Trust know the difficulties which the trustees have in getting land. Frequently the landowners hold the trustees up to ransom. I know that in Iver there is some land of this sort, and its value is constantly rising. Why should we part with this land when we know that it becomes more valuable with every year that passes? I have no desire to see jerry-builders get hold of the land and put up all sorts of jerry-built houses on it. I want the land to remain in the hands of the people.
When a Bill concerning land comes from the other side of the House, I am suspicious of it. My forbears in the country were deprived of the use of common land. It was said in this House at the time that the cottagers could not use the common lands profitably, and that therefore the rich landowners must do it. The rich landowners often sold the common lands in order to pay their Parliamentary dues. Ever since I have been in the House, the wail of the landlords has been that they could not work the land, that land does not pay, and that they are losing money on it. Not only have the landowners taken away the common lands from us, but we have taken the rates off their land. The whole story of what has happened in regard to land in this country shakes one's faith in the ability of hon. Members opposite to deal with it. I say that the people must retain the use of the land. I am opposed to any public body or trust of any description parting with land for building or for any other purposes. What the Bill means is that the land is to be sold to somebody 1546 who wants to make a profit out of it, and I am opposed to that. Let us keep these open spaces. Let us keep them for posterity, and posterity will bless us. I hope the House will reject the Bill.
§ 2.31 p.m.
§ Brigadier-General Clifton Brown
The contention of hon. Members opposite seems to be that if a person has land he may not get rid of it. Why the question of landlords has arisen on this Bill, I do not know, except that they seem to be high in the imagination and estimation of hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Charleton
If the landowners had not taken the common land from us, the people would not have been cold in winter.
I thought the argument of the hon. Member was that landowners should not be allowed to get rid of their land, because the land must not be allowed to get into the hands of speculators.
Then I withdraw my remarks. I do not know what the hon. Member was talking about. I gather that the main objection of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) to giving the Bill a Second Reading is that a bigger matter is involved, and that until we get legislation concerning the Charity Commissioners which deals with the main points, this point ought to be reserved. I hope I have not misinterpreted what the hon. Gentleman said. I think the hon. Member gave us a good, old-fashioned Tory speech. He talked about the enclosures, and seemed to blame the Charity Commissioners for enclosing land which had been acquired by the injustices of the old landowners. I submit that what the Bill does is to allow the Charity Commissioners to do what many other trustees have to do, that is, to sell land and turn it into stocks and shares. If that is allowed to the capitalists and the big landowners, who have to do it in order to pay death duties, why should not the Charity Commissioners be allowed to do the same thing? The Charity Commissioners may hold on to land and get only a small rent for it, and thus have very little to distribute in the way of fuel to poor people; or they may sell the land, put the money into War Loan, for instance, and make a bigger income, and 1547 therefore distribute much more to the poor people. I cannot see why any hon. Member should object to the Charity Commissioners exchanging one form of property for another so as to get a bigger income, and therefore be able to distribute more in the way of fuel to the people who need it.
I recognise that the Bill will require amendment, but I cannot see any objection to its principle. I admired the adroitness of the hon. Member for South Shields who, having stated his objections to the Bill, said he did not intend to oppose the Second Reading. I wondered on which side the hon. Member would eventually come down. Some hon. Members seemed to be amused at the suggestion that part of this grant could be used for a supply of electricity to poor people in some villages. I think the suggestion that "fuel" should include a supply of electricity for cottages in rural districts is one that ought to be considered, and that an Amendment to that effect might possibly be incorporated in the Bill. The existing arrangements were made 150 years ago and circumstances have changed since then. I know of a case in Surrey in which the great grandfather of the present landowner bought a farm in every parish in the county, because land was then supposed to be the safest investment for money. In some cases the investment has turned out to be safe and in other cases it has not been so safe, but if private landowners are in a position to change their investments from land to other forms of security, why should not the Charity Commissioners be allowed to make such changes?
It is suggested that the sale of the land by the Commissioners might lead to undesirable results, and that, instead of being used for open spaces, might become overcrowded with buildings against the interests of the inhabitants. My hon. and gallant Friend who moved the Second Reading of the Bill gave an assurance on that point, and I hope that the Solicitor-General will be able to give a further assurance to hon. Members opposite. It should be possible to make some provision to ensure that the amenities will not be destroyed and that the land can be dealt with under rural planning schemes. I see no objection to the Bill which cannot be met in Committee, and I hope the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ 2.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Watkins
I am sorry I cannot agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Newbury (Brigadier-General Brown). We have had many interesting Bills brought before the House on Fridays, but I do not think I ever remember one which was such a leap in the dark as this Bill. We are asked to make general arrangements applying to these pieces of land all over the country, but not one of the supporters of the Bill has given us any information about the number of cases involved. If the hon. and gallant Member who moved the Second Reading could tell us the number of cases to which the Bill will apply, it would help us to come to a decision.
§ Colonel Clarke
I understand that a number of cases come up every year, but not a great number in each year. Over a long period there might be a considerable number. If the hon. Member will give me a little time I think I shall be able to give him the exact figure.
§ Mr. Watkins
The hon. and gallant Member is only adding vagueness to vagueness. I think there is an obligation on the promoter of a Bill of this nature to state the number of cases affected and where they are situated. The hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox) admitted that he had submitted this proposal to a predecessor of the present Solicitor-General who had looked sideways at it. I can very well understand that sideways glance. The proposal was then passed on to the Minister of Agriculture, who said he had not time for it. which was a euphemistic way of turning it down. My objection to the Bill is that it is a wholesale proposal to deal with a number of specific cases and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) that the proper way to deal with this matter would be to embody each case in a private Bill and let it be considered on its merits. This land was dedicated to the service of the public for certain definite reasons. It was set aside for the benefit of the poor. Naturally, we are anxious that this service to the poor shall continue. I believe there is danger of that service b disappearing if we pass a wholesale Measure of this kind. We must agree that the arrangements of 150 years ago may not apply in every case to the circumstances of to-day. That is a broad generalisation which we must accept, but 1549 the proper way of meeting the situation is to deal with specific instances in separate Bills, making certain that the rights and privileges of the poor are not damaged. One hon. Member said that the promotion of Private Bills was expensive and that the finance available might not be sufficient to pay the cost of that procedure, but it would not be impossible to group some of these cases together in one Bill, say, a number of cases in one county or in adjoining counties, and in that way meet the difficulty of cost. I hope the Measure will not be allowed to proceed further.
§ 2.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Mitchell
Despite the arguments of the last speaker I hope the House will give a Second Reading to the Bill. The time has come when wider powers ought to be given to the Charity Commissioners because the existing powers are not in all cases applicable to the circumstances of the present time. In particular, I agree, that they should have power for the establishment of schemes as suggested in the Bill, but in regard to the proposal that they should have power to sell land and put the proceeds into securities, even trustee securities, I am not so happy. We have to look on charitable trusts of this kind not as being for a few years only, but as going on in many cases for hundreds of years, and our object must be to do all we can to preserve the rights of the poor who benefit from these charities. I do not find myself altogether in agreement with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Brigadier-General Brown). He made a point of the value, in some cases, of exchanging land for other forms of security. I find myself in much sympathy with those hon. Members who have suggested that land is a peculiarly suitable form of investment for charities. A charity, unlike an individual, does not die, and it is not saddled with Death Duties which create such extraordinary difficulties in the case of privately-owned land.
I, therefore feel that we should be very careful in any powers that we give to the Commissioners to put the proceeds from the sale of land into other securities. Most trustee securities, which are the likeliest form of alternative securities suggested in this Bill, are in the form of debts of one kind or another, either Government debts or corporation 1550 debts and so on, and in these days of unstable currencies in many different countries and of depreciation of currencies, one cannot help feeling that, taking a long view, land may be of more use to these charities. It is for that reason that I hope the House, if it accepts the Bill to-day, as I hope it will, will carefully examine that aspect of the matter, I do not think that too wide powers of investment should be given, particularly in trustee securities. I hope the House will give further consideration to the Bill and will allow it a Second Reading.
§ 2.47 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Terence O'Connor)
In the view of His Majesty's Government, this is a useful little Bill, and I hope that I may be able to dispel some of the fears that have been expressed by hon. Members opposite. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke), who moved the Second Reading, set out the origin of the Measure so very clearly that I do not need to say more than a very few words about it. These allotments, as is known, were the result of the Enclosure Acts down to 1845, and after 1845, and of many private Acts which resulted in fuel allotments being set aside for the benefit of the poor in parishes. The present position is—and I do not think the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) was quite clear in the interpretation that he gave to Section 19 of the Commons Act, 1876, that that Section, so far as fuel allotments are concerned, deals only with the pre-1845 enclosures, so that it has no application to any fuel allotment thereafter, and there is a considerable number of them.
§ The Solicitor-General
I cannot give any figures, neither can I give any figures as to whether there would be few or many applications as a result of the passing of this Measure. At the present time these fuel allotments can only be used for the purposes for which they were awarded, and the only exception is as regards the pre-1845 allotments, with regard to which, by the Commons Act of 1876, the Charity Commissioners may; in their ordinary jurisdiction, authorise the use of the fuel allotment as a recreation ground or may exchange the full allotment or any part there 1551 of for land of equal value situate in the parish or district if better land for the original purpose is so obtained. Therefore, the original purpose for which the land was granted restricts the powers of the Charity Commissioners. They have no power either to sell or to to let, and the main object of this Bill, as I take it, is that the Charity Commissioners should be accorded power, in pursuance of a 'scheme prepared by them, to sell or to let.
At the present time the most ridiculous anomalies have resulted. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir A Knox) gave an instance in the parish of Iver, which was known to the Attorney-General, to whom, and to the Ministry of Agriculture, I think my hon. and gallant Friend did less than justice in his references. It is not the habit of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to cast a sidelong glance at anything and to let matters slide. I know of few people who have occupied his office who have been more assiduous or more pertinacious in following up any matter that he thinks requires a remedy.
§ The Solicitor-General
I hope the House does not misunderstand me if I say that the help of the Ministry of Agriculture has not been denied to those who wish to remedy what is undoubtedly, I think, a grievance. What happens in so many cases is that a change in the circumstances of an area renders the old trusts really of no value to the poor, or of less value than they ought to be. In many cases there is no fuel on the land. They are useless as allotments for the furnishing of fuel, and yet the trustees, being strictly limited by their trust, have to retain land which has perhaps a high building value when there are either no facilities for providing fuel or no people in the immediate neighbourhood of the land who would want the fuel if it could be provided. I am reminded of a case that went, many years ago, to the Privy Council, a case in which one Indian was suing another Indian for trespass to his land on account of the second Indian's cow coming on to his land. The Privy Council found, after the case had been litigated through all the courts in India and had finally reached the 1552 Privy Council, that Indian No. 2 had no cow and that Indian No. I had no land. That contingency can literally be envisaged in connection with the present fuel allotments.
The burden of the criticism that was made by the hon. Member for South Shields—and I am bound to say that I was surprised to hear such a reactionary doctrine coming from such a source—was that these matters could be put right by private Bill procedure. To invoke private Bill procedure to deal with some small charitable trust of this character, where the income, as has been pointed out, may be no more than £5 or £10 a year, when there is a plan allowing of general application which will do no harm to anybody, and where the public interest will be safeguarded by the intervention of the Charity Commissioners and by the powers, on their part, to prepare a scheme, is, I think, like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.
I was rather impressed with the view that at the present time many of these fuel farms have been diverted by virtue of Section 19 to use as allotments, and it might be, if this Bill were passed, that other uses might be made of the land. It occurs to me that it is wholly unjustifiable to deprive the people who ought to be receiving benefit from the charity of the true value of the land, in order to provide cheap allotments to different people. That is really to deprive the section of the poor for whom the charity was originally intended in the interests of a different section of the community altogether. Secondly, under some such provision as this Bill will make, it is possible that the beneficiaries of the different charities may have both their allotments and further benefits, because manifestly, if you have a valuable piece of land, you can dispose of it and use a part of the sum of money to provide for recreation grounds or allotments some where else, perhaps in a more convenient position and certainly at less expense to the charity, and use the surplus funds for investment to supplement the other resources of the charity.
These are the general considerations which led the Government to believe that it is time we had a Bill to deal with anomalies of this kind. I was struck by an apprehension expressed in more than one quarter as regards the incidence of any projected scheme drawn up by the 1553 Charity Commissioners on the Town Planning Act. That is a point which will certainly have to be looked into on the Committee stage of the Bill. It may be that the Charity Commissioners would be just as much involved in any existing town planning scheme as the existing trustees, but I would not care to express a conclusive opinion on that at the moment. It is obviously, a point that will need to be looked into on the Committee stage. One of my hon. Friends—I think the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams)—raised the question whether the Charity Commissioners would be able to supply, for example, cheap electricity to those who had previously been in receipt of fuel. That, again, is a point that wants looking into. My present impression is that they would be entitled to do that out of the proceeds of the sale of the land that was the property of the charity.
These are the reasons why, in the view of the Government, this Bill may be commended to the House. When the possibility of the Second Reading was approaching, the Secretary of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society was communicated with by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and he intimated that the society would not oppose the Bill in any way. They wished, however, to have an assurance that the Charity Commissioners, in dealing with land in accordance with the terms of the Bill, would have regard to the needs of the parishes for open spaces. I am in a position to give an assurance that the Charity Commissioners in dealing with land in accordance with the terms of the Bill, if it becomes an Act, would have regard to the needs of the parishes for open spaces. In view of that assurance and of what I have said about the Committee stage of the Bill, I feel that the House can be recommended to give the Measure a Second Reading.
§ 2.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Alexander
We are glad to have had the advantage of some advice from the Solicitor-General, who has, no doubt, done his best to remove the anxieties which were expressed by my hon. Friends on this side of the House. We are inclined to wonder why, if, as the Solicitor-General said, this is not a matter for Private Bill legislation, but for the application of a general principle by a public Bill, the Government have not long 1554 since produced a Bill themselves. It is important to remember what was said by the hon. and gallant Member who introduced the Bill. He said they had been bringing pressure to bear on the Law Officers and the Ministry of Agriculture for years to introduce such a Bill, but with the sum of their wisdom and legal knowledge, plus the experience of the Ministry of Agriculture, they have never felt inclined to produce a Bill, and it has been left for a private Member to deal with the question. It looks as if the Government were not anxious to shoulder in a Bill initiated by themselves the opprobrium of abrogating in any degree the protection that exists in Statutes with regard to common land and open spaces for the people. So they have waited for a private Member to introduce a Bill in the hope that they will be able to slip it through on a Friday afternoon, not with a full-blooded blessing, but with no obstruction from the Government and the Law Officers.
That is a poor way of dealing with such an important principle as this Bill embodies. While the Solicitor-General brought the right gift of humour into his illustration from the Privy Council records, I do not think that it was a very good analogy, because the Privy Council found in that case that there was neither cow nor land. There could be no such verdict in respect of a case initiated under this Bill. The hon. Member who spoke from the benches opposite, indeed, stressed the fact that there was a great advantage in a charity, which we hope will be, as it ought to be, of a permanent character, having land as an investment It is the purpose of this Bill to take away, to a considerable extent, at any rate, the possibility of land remaining as the basis of a permanent investment. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), I have had some experience with charitable trusts. He as a member of a local authority and I as a member for 20 years of a staff of an education committee have had to deal with the trusts. I have had to look after the amendment of and changes in secondary school trusts, and often we wanted to get rid of properties which were generally regarded as good investments 50 years before, such as railway stock, which badly let down the trusts.
Therefore, there is a good deal to be said for taking the long view of the value 1555 of trusts that was put by the hon. Member opposite. I recognise that there may be some force in the point mentioned by the Solicitor-General that some of the land may have been diverted from its original purpose of fuel provision to a good purpose such as allotments, which, although not yielding the amount of rent that it did formerly, was preferable from the point of view of the general amenities of the people and the preservation of open spaces than getting rid of the value as a land investment and substituting something which was, perhaps, more remunerative at the moment but less valuable on a long view. While I have no strong feelings in the matter, I am bound to say that, looking at the Bill as it stands, I do not want to see it get a Second Reading. The kind of assurance
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.