HC Deb 23 October 1945 vol 414 cc1911-21

5.14 p.m.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

I beg to move, That the Acquisition of Land (Owner-occupier) Regulations, 1945 (S.R. &O., 1945, No. 759). dated 18th June, 1945, made under Section 58 (6) of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, a copy of which Regulations was presented on 15th August, be annulled. I would first remind hon. Members that these Statutory Rules and Orders should be inspected by each individual hon. Member, because if they pass through this House they have the force of an Act of Parliament. Therefore, it is the duty of each one of us to go through these Orders, to read them, to see what provisions they contain and to understand them. During the last Parliament, the Government agreed to provide explanatory memoranda for those Orders which were particularly unintelligible to the lay mind. This Order, No. 759, has no explanatory memorandum, and, if hon. Members have not read the Order, I would recommend them to do so, in order to see whether they can understand it. I have gone into it fairly closely but even the Preamble is, to my mind, unintelligible. The Preamble takes the whole of the first page and about a quarter of the second, and, if I may say so, the draftsman on this occasion has had a most unenviable task. He did his best and I take off my hat to him, but he is a skilled draftsman and I am not, and I cannot, for the life of me, understand all that is in the Order. The Preamble does not say what the Order is about or what the Order is going to do and yet the Government are asking for arbitrary powers to make this Order have the same force as an Act of Parliament.

To begin with, in this Order, which has four pages, of which two pages are Order and two pages are Schedule, four separate Acts of Parliament are referred to—the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, of which the Order refers to Section 58 (5), the whole of Part II, Section 58 (6), and Section 52 (3); the Law of Property Act, 1925, Section 205 (1); the Settled Land Act, 1925, Section 117 (1); and the Interpretation Act, 1889. Hon. Members of this House have not the time to go into the Library and look up all these Acts of Parliament. I suggest that the Attorney-General has a very great advantage over us. He is a legal luminary, and many of us are not. Why not, when an Order of this kind, full of technicalities, comes before us, print in italics the various Sections and Subsections of the Acts which are referred to? Then we shall be able to see how these various Sections and Sub-sections are related to the Order we have to consider. In other words, why should not the Government make it intelligible in order to prevent delay. We are asked by the Government, or rather a Select Committee of this House has been asked, to consider ways and means whereby the time of the House may be saved and the Debates in the House cut short, but how can we allow Debates to be cut short, if we have Orders presented to us like this, which we cannot understand? If the Government will make these Orders understandable, I suggest that the Debates, on the whole, will be very much shorter.

The definitions in the Order refer to-various Acts of Parliament. For example, the expressions "settled land" and "settlement" are to have the meaning given by Section 113 (1) of the Settled Land Act, 1925. Why not say what "settled land" and "settlement" mean in the Order? Why should Members of Parliament have to hunt up the Settled Land Act, 1925, to find out what "settled land" and "settlement" mean? I feel that we have got to have some explanation from the right hon. and learned Gentleman before we allow this to go forward.

Then, again, in the Budget statement, where there are technical points which the layman cannot always understand, there are examples. Why not give an example in this Order to show how it affects the small owner of a cottage in the country with a small parcel of land around it on which he plants potatoes? I do not know whether this Order affects the owner-occupier of a cottage in the country with a small plot of land around it. He may come to me, or to any other hon. Member and say, "In view of this Order, is it safe for me to continue to plant potatoes?", and, without a great deal of study, I could not tell him whether to continue to plant potatoes or not. I do not know whether the Order affects him or not. [Laughter.] It is all very well for hon. Members to laugh, but I am looking forward with great relish to hearing the right hon. and learned Gentleman say what exactly this Order does mean.

In conclusion, I ask again why there is no explanatory memorandum, why the Preamble was not put in such a way that we can understand what the Order means and what the Government wants to do. I ask again, as we have asked before that, where Sections of Acts of Parliament are referred to, a very brief part of the Act should be printed in italics, to show how it affects the Order. This, I believe, will save time and Debates in the House, and we should then be able to get the vast volume of legislation before us passed in a quicker and more satisfactory way.

5.24 p.m.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedford)

I beg to second the Motion.

I should like to add my plea to that made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor), and to say that a number of us on this side of the House have read this Statutory Rule and Order very carefully, but, despite the application of our best intelligence, we are at a loss to understand what it means. We welcome the opportunity of hearing from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in clear and concise terms, precisely how it is altering the acquisition of land in England. We are promised by the Government a spate of legislation, and a great many Statutory Rules and Orders, and it is highly desirable, therefore, that, at the start of their period of office, however brief that may be, they should be reminded of the need to explain carefully and precisely to the House what they are going to do with this particular Order. I should like a definite assurance to-day that, to all future Orders there will be attached, as was promised in the last Parliament, an explanatory note setting out, in language which a layman can understand, what the Order is designed to do.

5.25 p.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

I apologise to the House for speaking immediately after my hon. Friend on the bench beside me, but, by arrangement with him, I want to amplify a point which he made. I know nothing about this Order, and I never saw it until it was actually read out by my hon. Friend. I am not interested in that particular question, but, so far as I can see, my hon. Friend is entirely justified in the statements he has made. But a very important question of procedure arises. As the Attorney-General will be aware, there was, in the last House of Commons, and by no means confined to one party so far as I can recollect, considerable agitation on a question which affected hon. Members in all parts of the House, namely, the subject of Orders in Council.

At the risk of appearing to put myself in the role of a pedagogue, may I say, through you, Mr. Speaker, for the benefit of hon. Members here, that the agitation was not because any party or sectional interests were affected. Many hon. Members had not the slightest idea of what the Order in Council meant, and I think that, through the present Prime Minister, who was then the Deputy-Leader of the House, it was agreed that there should be consideration of the matter, and, eventually, an announcement was made by the Government which was received most favourably in all quarters of the House. That announcement was that, in future, all Orders in Council would be accompanied by an explanatory note of a straightforward and simple character, which would make the position quite clear to those who had no technical knowledge of the subject under discussion—and we cannot all have technical knowledge on every matter. For some reason, for which perhaps the Opposition generally are to blame, there was no question put to the Government on whether or not they intended to continue this system, which was unanimously accepted by the former House of Commons. I very much hope that they are going to continue it. It would not be a breach of undertaking, because the promise was given by a previous Government, but it would be a calamity and a retrogressive thing if we went back to the old system whereby there was no explanation of these Orders.

I think anyone who looks at this Order will say that what my hon. Friends have said is amply justified, and that it is impossible for any layman to understand what it means. I very much hope that the Attorney-General will meet what I believe is the unanimous wish of the House, and give us an assurance that the arrangement reached in the other Parliament will be adhered to.

5.29 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

I only wish that there had been an explanatory memorandum attached to these Regulations. I confess that it would have saved me from burning a certain amount of midnight oil last night. Let me say that I am not at all surprised to see that a Prayer has been put down to annul these Regulations, because, at first sight, they do appear to be extremely complicated and difficult to understand. I am afraid that that is inevitable, because of the subject matter which is dealt with. Both the provisions of Section 58 of the Town and Country Planning Act of last year, to which the Regulations refer, and the interests in land, to which these Regulations apply, are complicated matters, and when you have to provide in a written instrument for complicated sets of facts, and you have to apply them in relation to complicated rules of law, it is exceedingly difficult to produce a document which has the appearance of utter simplicity.

Indeed, that appears to have been the view taken by the House itself in regard to the matter because, when it dealt with the provisions that are now embodied in Section 58 of the Town and Country Planning Act, it expressly left this matter, which was one of especial complication, to be dealt with by the Lord Chancellor. Apparently, the House then realised that the enactment of rules in regard to matters with which these Regulations deal, was a matter far too detailed for inquiry before the House, and they thought it better to leave it to the Lord Chancellor and the lawyers to deal with. This is their child; a child, I might say, born after a very lengthy gestatory period, during which advantage was taken of consultation with every conceivable Department and authority which might be interested in the matter and might have been thought able to assist in a satisfactory accouchement. I say that it is their child. I might perhaps be permitted to add that it is the child of the late—I will not say the lamented, but the late—Government. However, in spite of the vices of its parentage, we have taken it over. Indeed, its custody was transferred to us, and we hope to make something of it because we think these Regulations, in fact, embody useful rules. That was apparently the view of the scrutinising committee, which, of course, has had to take them into consideration.

I will endeavour as clearly as I can to indicate the effect that these Regulations have, and explain to the House what they do. First, perhaps, I might indicate what they do not do. They do not in any way affect the destination of compensation payable under the Town and Country Planning Act; they do not deal with that matter at all; they deal merely with questions of machinery. The title to the compensation has to be established in the ordinary course under the Act, and upon that matter these Regulations have no kind of bearing. However, as hon. Members know, under the Town and Country Planning Act the person who establishes a right to compensation may also be entitled to additional compensation, if he shows that he is the owner-occupier for the purposes of the Act. In those circumstances he gets, I think, an owner-occupier supplement, as it is called, of one-third. At first blush that seems simple enough, but Parliament apparently thought that the lawyers might find some difficulty about it. Who, for instance, was to be deemed to be the owner-occupier in the case where premises had been destroyed or damaged by enemy action so as to be unfit for occupation? Who was to be deemed the occupier for the purposes of this additional supplement in the case where land was vacant at the time and not occupied at all? Who was to be deemed the occupier in the case where, prior to compulsory acquisition the land had been held, perhaps for some period of years, under requisition by the Government? Were circumstances of that kind to prevent the owner from claiming the benefit of the additional owner-occupier supplement?

Those problems and those cases were, in themselves, fairly straightforward and in regard to those three, and one other case, Parliament made express provision in Section 58 of the Town and Country Planning Act. But then there arose the difficulty: suppose that the land concerned—the house which has been damaged by enemy action, the land which has been held under requisition, the land which is vacant at the time—is not owned by somebody who possesses the full rights to beneficial ownership in himself, but is vested in trustees who have the legal ownership, but who hold the land for the benefit of those entitled under the trust? What was to be done if that additional complication arose? Who was to be deemed to be in occupation of the house immediately before the damage by enemy action occurred? Was it the trustees? The trustees would presumably be a bank, who were not likely to have been in occupation in fact, and whose occupation, if one insisted on it, would really defeat the purpose of this Act of giving the additional supplement to the person entitled to the beneficial ownership. Similarly in the case of the vacant land. Dealing with the ordinary straightforward case of ownership, the House provided in Section 58 of the Act that although land was vacant at the time of compulsory acquisition, if there was a person who both had the right to enter and the intention of entering into occupation within a given period of years, that person should be deemed, for the purposes of the supplemental compensation, to be regarded as the owner-occupier. What was to happen in that case if the land was vested in trustees? The ownership was there, they would have the right to occupy, but was it to be insisted that they were to be the people who also were to have the intention of going into occupation within the fixed period?

Obviously again, if that had been insisted upon, it would have defeated some of the claims which might properly have been made on merit to the owner-occupier supplement, and that being so, it was felt necessary by the House at that time to leave to the Lord Chancellor and the lawyers the very difficult task of providing how these complicated cases should be dealt with under the Act. What was done after a great deal of thought and inquiry by these Regulations was, first, to divide into four categories the different types of trust interest which might arise in land. I agree at once that when the type of interest is described—as it is in the first column of these Regulations as "settled land" or "ecclesiastical property" and so on—no elaborate definition is entered into, but I am bound to say, that I think it would be very difficult and, indeed, quite inappropriate to attempt, by definition, in Regulations of this kind to restrict the meaning understood in the courts of settled land or ecclesiastical property. The intention of these Regulations was not to restrict the right to the owner-occupier supplement but to extend it as far as it properly could be extended, within the intentions of Parliament as set out in the Town and Country Planning Act.

Having, as I say, indicated in the first column of the Regulations the four categories into which trust interests in land were to be divided, they then provided in the second, third, and fourth columns of the Regulations for the different classes of persons whose occupancy, or whose intention to occupy, was to be sufficient to constitute owner-occupancy for the purposes of the additional compensation supplement. Perhaps I might refer to column 2 to take one example—paragraphs (a), (b) and (c)— Persons by whom occupation must be had or has been had. Paragraph (b) refers back to the provisions of Section 58 of the Town and Country Planning Act and is the case where property has been damaged by enemy action so as to be unfit for occupation and was in that condition when it was compulsorily acquired. In the case of the ordinary owner, who is occupying for his own benefit, it is enough if he can show that he was in occupation up to the time of such damage and that thereafter the premises had been occupied until they were compulsorily acquired. This paragraph of these Regulations provides that if any beneficiary under the settlement, or any person occupying the land for the purposes of the trust or the purposes of the settlement, was inoccupation at the time of the damage, that will be enough to enable the person entitled to compensation—whoever that person may be—under the original provisions of the Act to claim the owner-occupancy supplement.

Earl Winterton

May I ask the learned Attorney-General a question on that? That in no way affects the rights of a person under the War Damage Act who is a settled landowner to obtain compensation under value payments when those value payments are made, does it?

The Attorney-General

In no way, as I understand it, does that affect the destination of compensation, either under this Act or under any other Act; it merely defines the circumstances in which an entitlement to the owner-occupancy compensation shall arise in these cases which are not normal cases of ownership but cases where land is vested in trustees—in fact, held for the benefit of other people.

In some respects, when one looks at paragraphs 3 and 4, and the lists of persons set out there, each paragraph dealing with an alternative set of circumstances may appear to be a little artificial. In a sense they are intentionally so, because the object was to spread the right as widely as possible and not in any way to restrict it; to spread it so as to cover all possible contingencies in regard to the occupation of land held on various kinds of trusts. There is nothing restrictive in the Regulations, nothing restrictive of the right to owner-occupancy treatment. On the contrary, the right is extended as far as it properly could be. As I say, very great care was taken by those responsible for this matter in drafting these Regulations. All the interested Departments—the Charity Commissioners, the Public Trustee, high legal and judicial authorities—were consulted in regard to the matter and I hope that, after hearing my explanation on the purpose of the Regulations, the Prayer may be withdrawn.

In regard to the other matter which was raised, the question of an explanatory memorandum, I am told—and I do not speak on this matter within my own knowledge—that the undertaking which was given applied only to Defence Regulations and to Regulations made under the Emergency Powers Act, but, as I indicated at the commencement of the remarks I have just made to the House, I myself see great advantages in providing an explanatory memorandum where that can conveniently be done, and without committing ourselves in any way, I will certainly look into the matter, see what the scope of the original undertaking was, and at any rate ensure that that undertaking, to the extent that it was given, shall be implemented.

Earl Winterton

I think we are all very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. May I, with respect, suggest a procedure there? Possibly he would convey the suggestion to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It might be desirable to have discussions behind the Chair, as they are called, on the whole matter with a view, eventually, possibly, to an announcement being made as the result of a friendly Question. We on this side of the House attach considerable importance to this matter, and I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman will find that many hon. Members on the other side of the House do so too.

The Attorney-General

I am very much obliged. I will certainly see that that is done, and, as I said, for my own part I have great sympathy with the suggestion However, these Regulations were published not by the present but by the last Government, so any departure from the undertaking is not a matter for which we can accept responsibility.

5.44 P.m.

Alan Herbert (Oxford University)

I am extremely grateful to the learned Attorney-General for his explanation, and I think I now understand what the Regulations are about. May I add one point, which I gather has already been made? People who are interested in these Orders should be able to know, without all the business of a Prayer, what they are all about. The purpose of a Preamble is to explain what is being done, and when a clear explanation is given, suspicion is removed. The only other thing I would like to suggest to the Attorney-General is what I have suggested in this House before—whether a section could not be printed at the end to show what it will read like, and what it will mean when it is amended. I am sure that it would be practicable in some cases. It may be that in this case it would be too complicated, but there will be many more things like this to come and if that was done it would be of assistance to Members and to people outside.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

I would like to thank the Attorney-General for his lucid explanation, and to make it quite clear that we should have tabled this Prayer whether the Coalition Government had been still in office or not. In the last Parliament we tabled Prayers against a number of Orders and we shall continue to do so, if no reasonable explanatory memoranda are provided. In asking leave to withdraw the Motion, I would urge that examples be given in the Regulations in the same way as they are given in the Budget statement so that the ordinary individual can see how they will apply to him. By that means we should save considerable time.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.