HC Deb 13 June 1939 vol 348 cc1245-51

10.27 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I beg to move, in page 54, line 12, to leave out from "of," to the end of line 30, and to insert: the enactments having effect with respect to the compulsory acquisition of land by any such council as aforesaid for the purposes of their civil defence functions (including any such enactments contained in this Act) shall, with such exceptions and subject to such adaptations and modifications as may be prescribed by regulations of the Minister under this Section, have effect with respect to the compulsory hiring of land by means of such an order. (2) The Minister shall make regulations for the purposes of this Section and any such regulations may, in addition to prescribing the matters aforesaid, contain such provisions as the Minister considers necessary or expedient in connection with the making of any such orders or the carrying thereof into effect. This Clause was accepted in Committee on the Motion of the right hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison). After a comparatively short discussion its terms were agreed to on the understanding that they might have to be looked into again later. They have been the subject of very close discussion with those who originally suggested the terms of the draft, and the conclusion has been reached that the Clause in the form in which it was inserted in the Bill would hardly be workable. There has not been time since the Clause was put into the Bill to work out fully the detailed procedure which would be required under an adaptation of the ordinary provisions for the compulsory acquisition of land or buildings to the case of compulsory hiring, and in this Amendment we propose to take powers to set up the necessary procedure by a regulation. The only precedent for this compulsory hiring Clause is to be found in Section 39 of the Smallholdings and Allotments Act, 1908. That Section enables district councils to acquire agricultural land compulsorily by an Order confirmed by the Board of Agriculture. Under that Act wide powers were given to the Board to make regulations for the purpose of carrying the Order into effect. The regulations that have been made contain a fairly comprehensive code and if this Amendment is accepted it would be proposed to make the regulations follow as closely as may be those made under the Smallholdings and Allotments Act, which I am assured have worked satisfactorily.

One or two points in the Amendment, perhaps, call for some more detailed explanation than I have yet given. In the first place it will be noticed that there is no express mention of the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act, 1919. That Act can be applied for the purposes of the Clause by regulation because it is an Act that affects the development of land by the local authorities concerned, and the extent to which the provisions of that Act and any other enactment can be applied to the Clause will be decided by the code and the regulations.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Foot

I want to make only two observations about this Amendment. First of all, it is provided that it shall have effect with such exceptions and subject to such adaptations and modifications as may be prescribed by regulations of the Minister under this Section. This is a proposal to enable the Minister 10 modify the terms of an Act of Parliament. I do not wish to take up the time of the House, but I wish to enter a protest against this practice being followed. This is an occasion when these things are brought forward, not in the original Bill but in an Amendment at a very late stage of the proceedings. In Sub-section (2) of the Amendment it is provided that the Minister shall make regulations which are to contain such provisions as the Minister considers necessary or expedient in connection with the making of any such orders or the carrying thereof into effect. There, again, the Minister is made the sole judge as to the regulations which are necessary. The words are much too wide and everything necessary would be achieved if the Sub-section were to read: contain such provisions as may be necessary or expedient That is a common form of words. It is going very much too far to leave the matter within the discretion of the Minister.

10.33 P.m.

Mr. Spens

This part of the Bill continues the system of compulsory hiring of land instead of the compulsory acquisition of land, a system which the Government gradually introduced into Bills in which the authorities take over the land of the subject. There have been very grave complaints about the way in which compulsory hiring of land has been used by the Executive. There is no limit to the time for which the land may be taken and during which it is sterilised for public purposes. The practice often affects adjoining land, and does not work out nearly as fair as does the compulsory acquisition of land. I view with great suspicion a Clause which comes from the other side of the House and which was suggested in Committee by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) and adopted by the Government. We need to watch most carefully the way in which compulsory hiring is being substituted for compulsory acquisition of land with its well-known compensation Clauses.

10.35 P.m.

Mr. H. Morrison

As Clause 59 is the Clause which I moved on behalf of the London County Council and other local authorities, and which was accepted by the Government in principle, subject to Amendments, perhaps I ought to say a word about it, though I must be discreet in the circumstances of the case. I do not complain that the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) and the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) should utter one or two words of traditional caution about the substance of the Clause and about the Amendment of the Lord Privy Seal. I understand and respect their traditional objections, though I do not necessarily agree with them. The House must, however, understand the difficulty with which local authorities are faced in the discharge of some of their civil defence functions. Since the passing of the Act of 1937, we have had obligations to carry out a large number of new, difficult and onerous duties. Among those duties has been the organisation in London, for example, of an auxiliary fire service, which has meant the multiplication by nearly 15 within 18 months of the permanent personnel of the London Fire Brigade.

If we have to have this army of auxiliary firemen, consisting now of nearly 30,000, and consisting in the future of more than 30,000, it may be even 50,000 persons, we need premises in which they can have their training, in which they can exercise, and in which they can have a certain amount of social recreation. We have been criticised, and the Government have been criticised, on the ground that there is admittedly utterly insufficient accommodation for these auxiliary fire service people, and one of the difficulties has been that up to the passing of this Measure, we have had no compulsory powers of purchase and no compulsory powers of hiring. While I do not wish to make any genera] charge against property owners in London, it is the case that, when they are approached by public authorities to sell, and particularly to let, while many of them are willing to be helpful to the public interest, some are sticky, some think it is an opportunity to do well, and some are backward in fitting in with the public needs. The issue before the House in principle on the Clause is, are these duties to be discharged or not? There is the possibility that, if war came, the London Fire Brigade organisation would not have the three or four first-class fires as a maximum that we now have to deal with in time of peace, but hundreds, even thousands of fires, and I tremble for the safety of this city if that auxiliary service is not adequately equipped and efficient.

In spite of the fact that the majority of the London County Council is of a different political complexion from His Majesty's Government, I think the Lord Privy Seal and other Ministers will agree that we have tried genuinely to cooperate with the Government in the discharge of our civil defence functions. If we, on the one hand, have tried to discharge our duty, it is the duty of the House of Commons to give us reasonable powers, subject to proper safeguards, for either the acquisition or the hiring of property if that is vitally necessary in the public interest. In these times of stress, of possible emergency and possible great difficulty, just as we have had to stretch our principles a little in the national interest, so it is au obligation on hon. Members opposite to be willing to stretch their principles in the national interest and show some adaptability.

The problem of compulsory purchase is that, while it is appropriate in some cases, it will be a serious difficulty if we can only purchase outright for good, and if we have no powers of compulsory hiring. It is the case, as every hon. Member recognises, that either this situation of crisis through which we are passing will be solved in a limited time or the world will blow up. I do not want the county councils to be left in the permanent position of having a lot of property—though hon. Members opposite may think that that is what I would like—the possession of which really would not be in the public interest. Therefore, powers of compulsory hiring are necessary, in the interests not merely of the ratepayers of London but of the Exchequer. Hon. Members on the other side who spoke for agricultural constituencies, with experience of agriculture, have said that, from their point of view, hiring might be preferable to purchase, and an hon. Member was good enough to intervene and say that he had some personal knowledge of the difficulties which had existed for months at the Knights-bridge Fire Station, and he begged the House to give us these powers. I am glad to be able to tell him that we have partly solved those difficulties.

There is the constitutional point raised by the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot), which I perfectly understand, and about which I am not going to quarrel bitterly with him, but I know, from consultations with the officers at County Hall and from their consultations with the Minister's officers, that this is a case where it is difficult to get precise words in the Statute which will necessarily meet all the difficulties that may arise. In such circumstances, Parliament has frequently resorted to the device of empowering the Minister, within proper limits, to make regulations. There is the danger that if you make the Statute too rigid you will land yourselves in difficulties that may be embarrassing. I would rather have had complete sweeping powers to do what we like about the hiring of properties, and not be at the mercy of the Minister, who belongs to a Government with which I disagree, but, having regard to his difficulties and having regard to the majority with which he has to live in this House, I shall not too much blame him if he is not going to give us the sweeping powers that we would like but insists on retaining control by making regulations. Therefore, while the hon. Member for Dundee is upholding those constitutional principles for which he is famous in the House, I think it is right that the Minister should retain the power to make regulations, and, while some hon. Members may be a little apprehensive about it, I earnestly hope that, in the public interest, the House of Commons will accept the Clause. We on this side will accept the Minister's Amendment, and I ask the House to give us the Clause, in the hope that it will solve onerous difficulties, not only in London but in other parts of the country.

Amendment agreed to.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I beg to move, in page 54, line 33, after "landlord," to insert: (otherwise than for breach of any of the conditions of the tenancy). If the House will look at the Clause, it will be seen that Sub-section (4) defines the land to which the Clause applies. The land there prescribed is unoccupied land and land in the occupation of a tenant whose tenancy thereof will expire or can be determined by his landlord within a period of three years after the making of an order. The purpose of the Amendment is to make it plain that the right of the landlord to determine the tenancy for breach of the covenant does not of itself bring the land into the category described in the Sub-section. It is really a matter of drafting, but I thought I had better give that explanation of it.

Amendment agreed to.