HC Deb 05 June 1947 vol 438 cc415-26

Amendment made: In page 21, line 23, insert "the."—[Mr. T. Williams.]

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I beg to move, in page 21, line 34, after "person," to insert: being the owner of the land in question. The object of this Amendment is to obtain some clarification. In the Standing Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Mr. York) had on the Order Paper an Amendment to delete this Clause. We then had a very lucid explanation by the Minister which, unfortunately, cannot be attached to the Bill. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) thanked the Minister for his explanation and asked whether it would not be possible to effect some simplifiction. The Minister replied: I do not know whether it can be made clearer, but it is very clear to those who drafted this wording. In any case, we will have a look at it again."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A; 6th March, 1947; c. 389]. It may be very clear to those who drafted the Clause, but it is very difficult for those who have to interpret the Measure. I ask the Minister to reconsider this point and to make quite clear exactly what the position is. We want to make sure that where a man owns one farm and is tenant of another farm belonging to someone else, and appoints the same agent to look after the two farms, if the agent does his job badly and it becomes necessary to dispossess the farmer of the farm that he owns, the owner of the second farm shall not be penalised by having his farm taken over as well. The owner of the farm may not be resident in this country and he may have appointed an agent upon whom he relies, and that agent may have let him down. Unless it is made clear, the position may be that the owner will be dispossessed of his farm through the fault of his agent. We ask the Minister to see whether that could not be made more explicit. The ordinary layman who has to interpret this Measure will never know where he stands.

Mr. York

I beg to second the Amendment.

We had a small Debate on this matter in Standing Committee, and it was apparent that the Subsection was not understood by the Committee. The Minister explained it satisfactorily, but we believe that if these words are added there may be no further misunderstanding. I hope the Minister will agree to include them.

The Solicitor-General

I will willingly, so far as I can, endeavour to make clear what this Subsection is meant to do. I do not think we can accept the Amendment, because that would make the Subsection do what we do not want it to do. If hon. Members will consider this Clause in relation to Clause 16, they will see the object of the Subsection. Let us go to Clause 16 (1) and (2) first. Hon. Members will remember that under Subsection (1) the Minister in the circumstances there described can, in the first place, acquire the land to which the Order relates, or any part of that land. Then he can go on and, under Subsection (2), acquire any other land managed by the same person. He can, therefore, acquire those two groups of land. Supposing two plots of land, plots A and B, were both being managed by the same land agent. Looking only at Clause 16 (2) the fact that they were being managed by the same land agent would bring them within the scope of the words I have quoted, but there are these correcting words in Clause 20 (3) saying that in a case of that sort the mere fact that the land is being managed by the same land agent is not enough, and that one has not to look at the, land agent, but at the person who is employing the land agent.

One has, therefore, to ask in relation to plots A and B not whether they are being managed by the same land agent, but whether the same person is managing them through a land agent or through whomever else he pleases. What is the net result of all that? Whenever one is seeking to acquire land under Clause 16, the sole test is whether the land is being managed by the same owner in the sense I indicated. I want to qualify that in this way. In order to manage land within the meaning of the words I have quoted, a person need not actually be the owner. He may be a long leaseholder. He has to be a person whose relationship to that land is such that one can fairly say of him that he is managing it; that is to say, his relationship is that of a landlord to the land. That would obviously include the case of a freeholder, but it also includes a long leaseholder. One would ordinarily say of a long leaseholder that he manages that land.

Mr. York

One of 21 years?

The Solicitor-General

The term of the lease is not defined in the Bill, and hon. Members may well ask how long. I can only answer that that is a question of degree. One could not say it of a leaseholder who had no more than a year's interest, but one could say it of a lease- holder who had a 10 years' lease. That is what it is meant to mean. I hope I have made it clear why we cannot accept the words: … being the owner of the land in question. They would exclude the case of the long leaseholder of 10 or 20 years or whatever period his lease was, and Subsection (3) would not do what we want it to do. That is why I ask the House to say that the Amendment should not be accepted. Hon. Members might say that if that is all we want to do, why should we not rely on Clause 20 (2) which provides that in certain circumstances the leaseholder may be treated as the owner; that is to say, the freeholder may be pushed aside and the leaseholder substituted for the purpose of the Bill. That is not sufficient for our purpose, because under Subsection (2, a) agreement is required and under Subsection (2, b) an application to the land tribunal is required. It would, therefore, not go far enough for us. For the purpose of Clause 16 (2) we want the word "owner" to apply automatically to a long leaseholder. If that is not clear, I apologise to the House. This is not easy to expound.

Lord Willoughby de Eresby (Rutland and Stamford)

I do not know whether I understood the Solicitor-General quite accurately, but the interpretation he gave about the owner of land seemed to be rather alarming. If I understood him aright, he said that anyone who had land on a to years' lease, or longer, would be, for the purposes of Clauses 10 and 16, considered the owner of that land, and if he failed in the functions of management of that land, he would be liable to supervision and, eventually, dispossession. That is really very alarming. A good many owners of property probably have farms let on 10 or 21 years' leases. It seems very peculiar that if one leases a farm to a tenant for 10 or 21 years and he mismanages it, the farm should then be compulsorily acquired by the Minister under Clause 16. I think I must have made a mistake, so perhaps the Solicitor-General can make it clear to me and to other hon. Members who may have put the same interpretation on what he has just told us.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Vane

I may be very dense, but may I ask the Solicitor-General whether the effect of Clause 20 (3) is, that where an agent acts for a principal who is the owner of a piece of land and is also the leaseholder of another piece of land, and he has attracted the attention of the agricultural committee because of his sins of omission on the piece of land of which he is the owner, then under Clause 16 (2) proceedings for dispossession can be initiated which will dispossess him as the owner of the one piece of land and also as the occupier of the other piece of land? If so, it means that dispossession under Clause 16 can be manipulated to cover not only bad estate management but bad husbandry, too, under Subsection (2). Would he also confirm that the freehold of the second piece of land let to a farm tenant on a long lease will not be affected by sins of omission committed by the farm tenant?

The Solicitor-General

As I am not the Minister in charge of the Bill, I ask leave of the House to speak again. Under Clause 16, Subsections (1) and (2), if the owner of plot A manages it so badly as to bring himself within the general purview of the Clause—that is to say, has exposed himself to the pains and penalties of dispossession—an order can be made under Subsection (1) in relation to plot A. Suppose he is the long leaseholder, say 20 years, of plot B. He will, within the meaning of the words in line 15 be a person who is managing plot B. Supposing then that the Minister is satisfied that it is necessary, for the purpose of securing the proper management of plot A, that plot B must be acquired because they are a single economic unit and cannot be managed separately without dividing them into uneconomic units, or, in accordance with the requirements of the words, the Minister— …is satisfied that it is necessary for securing the proper management thereof"— thereof meaning plot A— that he should acquire any other land… —plot B, of which this particular proprietor is the long leaseholder then, under Subsection (2), the Minister can acquire not only plot A but also plot B.

Mr. Vane

The freehold plot B?

The Solicitor-General

Yes, the freehold plot B. I would add that if the Minister exercises his powers, then the provisions of the Acquisition of Land Assess- ment of Compensation Act, 1919, come into force. I think that hon. Members were considerably disquieted at one stage of the consideration of this Bill by the fact that 1939 prices would be the only prices to apply. Of course, as hon. Members know, by an Amendment to the Town and Country Planning Bill, 1939 prices have now gone and present day prices have been substituted. Hon. Members will know from their reading of that Clause that there is what is called a vacant possession provision in that Amendment, that is to say, in the case of certain land you have to treat it as if it were subject to a notional tenancy excluding the element of vacant possession value. That does not apply to agricultural land, so virtually the position is that the Minister can acquire plot A and the freehold of plot B, but has to compensate at present day market values the various interests in not only plot A but plot B also. The interests are defined in the Land Clauses Act. In a short tenancy the only compensation is for disturbance, but otherwise the value is the market value which has to be paid to the various persons interested.

Major Mott-Radclyffe

Suppose the owner of plot A and the tenant of plot B under a long lease is the same person. If he is dispossessed of plot A by the Minister, and the Minister has powers of compulsory acquisition in respect of plot B as well, surely the owner of plot B is given an opportunity of taking plot B over into his own possession or of finding a suitable tenant like every other owner? Surely he is not debarred from being offered his own land merely because he has leased plot B to the owner of plot A?

Lord Willoughby de Eresby

May I, with the permission of the House, speak again? Following the Solicitor-General in his example, if plot A is owned by a man who at the same time has a long or a short lease of plot B, which he manages, and he is dispossessed of plot A for bad estate management, the Minister can acquire plot B also. I think the House ought to consider for a moment the lessor of plot B, who really has not sinned at all, but is the man who will have his land taken away from him. Although there might possibly be a case for that under a 999-year lease, no one can suggest that if you let a farm on a 10-year lease you surrender all interest in that land. It is true you will be compensated by the new rate of compensation, but in the case of someone who has gone abroad on public service or Government business and is out of this country for 10 years it is quite normal to let, say, a home farm to a tenant on a 10-year lease while you are abroad. It really is monstrous if, while you are abroad, and the tenant mismanages the farm, you find your home taken away from you under the terms of Clause 16. I ask the learned Solicitor-General or the Minister to think again about this matter, because it is a point of which we were not aware, and it has come as rather a shock to some of us.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I must confess that after the first of the lucid expositions of the hon. and learned Gentleman I was almost persuaded that his interpretation was the correct one and I was happy. Then came the penetrating thought of my noble Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Lord Willoughby de Eresby) which has now opened up a new realm of doubt and difficulty. If we could have an answer to this question, we would be satisfied. The owner of plot B, as the noble Lord says, who has done nothing wrong at all but has given the leasehold tenancy to his tenant, surely is given the full rights of ownership in other parts of the Bill and is allowed to let his holding to somebody else and should not lose the freehold of it without being given any of the privileges that in other parts of the Bill are given freely. I cannot believe that is not the real interpretation, and I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman on considering it again will be able to confirm our view.

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

Sitting here I have been surprised at the complication which can be made of what is really the simplest language. In my view, with all respect to the Solicitor-General, he has been far too conscientious about this matter in condescending to give examples of cases that are purely hypothetical in this context. There must be a myriad of situations to which a provision of this kind could apply. I should like to tell the House what I think the Clause really means. I do not think it has any practical reference or application to any of the cases which have been mentioned. Subsection (3) cannot be carried further than its language permits. It is no use any hon. Member going back to some other Section or trying to read between the lines of this Subsection something that is not there. The Subsection cannot be stretched beyond the bounds of its own connotation. It is an interpretational provision. It says: References in this Part of this Act to the person by whom land is being managed shall be construed, where the management is under the control of an agent or servant, as references to the person by whom the agent or servant is employed. That means that we might, and probably would, have someone in possession of land not being the owner of it at all. He would be a person with some short-term or occupational rights which have no nexus with the status of ownership at all. He would, probably, employ someone as a servant or agent, and put the control of the land with that servant or agent.

The Subsection seeks to make it clear that the person who has put the agent in control is to be liable, and that he cannot get out of his responsibility merely by saying that he is not the owner. It is a very sensible provision. Otherwise that person would not take the responsibility that he ought to take for bad estate management. All that the Subsection seeks to do is to add another facet, so that where you have not the owner in possession, and the person who is not the owner has employed some servant or agent to be in control of the land, the Minister can say that the agent or servant is employed by the person who is not the owner; and that the person not the owner is to be liable for the bad estate management.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Baldwin

We seem to have unearthed a mare's nest of considerable substance. I thought that the explanation given by the Solicitor-General was satisfactory, and I was on the point of getting up and thanking him for what he had said, but when he referred to a leaseholder of ten years being construed as a freeholder, something was raised of tremendous importance. A man may have served his country abroad and have leased his farm on a ten-year lease. The leaseholder is to be construed as a freeholder and the owner is to be dispossessed in his absence. This is a matter which needs reconsideration by the Minister and I hope that he will look at it again. The explanation relating to the Amendment was satisfactory. The words of the Amendment might not be what are required to carry out what we have in mind. In that case it should be drafted so that the ordinary man in the street can understand it. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some further explanation on the point.

Brigadier Peto (Barnstaple)

I hope it is not right that an owner not actually in possession of his land because he happens to be away from this country, or a minor, can be dispossessed because the land was let to a tenant ten years ago or more. It seems to be a logical conclusion from that that no one in his senses will ever again let land for ten years. We shall have short leases, which will mean not so great a security. It has always been to the advantage of farmers as well as of tenants to have long leases. If an owner can be dispossessed through no fault of his own, or his trustees, if he is a minor, that is something which ought to be reconsidered.

Sir T. Dugdale

We cannot leave the position where it is. The House has got into considerable difficulties about this question. The Solicitor-General satisfied my hon. Friends in his first speech regarding the Amendment to Subsection (3). Then he made a remark about Clause 16, Subsections (1) and (2), to the effect that a leaseholder became a freeholder for the purposes of the Bill. We cannot believe that that is the intention of the Government. We ask either that the Solicitor-General should be allowed to make a further statement on the point or that he should consider the matter with his advisers and make certain that the wording of the Subsection does what the Government want it to do.

My noble Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Lord Willoughby de Eresby) raised a point of great substance when he pointed out that if a landowner was engaged, say, in the public service and was absent from this country, his land might be taken away from him by his tenant becoming a freeholder, although the landowner had had nothing whatever to do with it. The tenant, instead of being dealt with under Clause 13, which deals with good husbandry, will be dealt with under Clause 16, as a landowner. We cannot believe that that is the intention of the Government. We think there must be some misunderstanding between the two sides of the House. We would very much like the Solicitor-General—indeed, we press him—to make a further statement on the matter and to say that he will look into the matter again before the further stages of the Bill.

The Solicitor-General

If I may with the permission of the House, I should like to reply to what has been said although I cannot add to what I have said, which was what I meant. I am willing to see whether the language can be made clearer, but I have stated the intention, and that intention was expressed in what I said before. Take two plots of land, A and B. Plot A is owned by Mr. Smith, who is also a person who, within the meaning of Subsection (2), manages B. He has an interest. The terms of his lease are such that he can be said under Subsection (2) to be managing the land. If he manages plot A badly, with the result that he comes under Clause 16 (1), one has to look at Subsection (2). Then the Minister may be satisfied that it is necessary for securing the proper management of plot A—and that makes all the difference—that plots A and B should be economically regarded as a single unit. Then, if the appropriate circumstances ensue, plot B can also be compulsorily purchased. The question is whether A and B must be viewed economically as a single unit. If the answer is "yes," and if the freeholder of A has managed it so badly that the powers under Clause 16 (1) arise, one has to go to Subsection (2), and if it is found that under Subsection (2) plots A and B are a single economic unit, one can say in regard to B that the owner of A is the manager, because he has an interest and his obligations in regard to it are such that he can be regarded as the manager, and the power arises in regard to plot B as well. Hon. Members opposite complain that the wording is unsatisfactory, and I will certainly make any endeavour I can to make this clear.

Mr. York

If plot B is occupied by a tenant from year to year, then this Subsection would not apply? If it is occupied by a tenant on a 14-year lease this Subsection would apply?

Hon. Members

May we have an answer?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I feel we are getting on to quite a different point from that dealt with by the Amendment. It is true that the Solicitor-General raised it in the first instance, but I hope we shall now come to a decision on the Amendment.

Commander Maitland (Horncastle)

When he first spoke, the Solicitor-General appeared to find considerable difficulty in defining exactly where the leaseholder had such a lease that he did in effect have an interest in management which would bring him under the Subsection which we are discussing. I want to know, where the leaseholder has that responsibility, what is the length of the lease? What is the minimum, and how is the status of the leaseholder decided?

Mr. Turner-Samuels

On a point of Order, has that question any relevance to this Clause? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] I would like a Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because in my submission, it has no relevance at all.

The Solicitor-General

Would it assist if I repeat—as we have really got on to Clause 16—that we will attempt to improve the wording of Clause 16? Perhaps, subject to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that would be a satisfactory way of dealing with the matter.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I do not think the Solicitor-General appreciates the difficulty in which he has placed us. We thought we understood Clause 16, but the hon. and learned Gentleman has now, by reference to the Amendment under discussion, given two completely different interpretations. I submit, on a point of Order, that the House is entitled to know where we stand.

Mr. T. Williams

On that point of Order, are we entitled, on Clause 20, to go back to Clause 16?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

In my view, although it may have arisen indirectly, it would not be competent to discuss the meaning of Clause 16. Other opportunities will no doubt arise.

Sir T. Dugdale

The Solicitor-General has said that he is prepared to look at the wording of this Clause again before we reach a further stage, and I think that undertaking is a fair procedure.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Are you ruling on my point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I have decided that it is not competent further to discuss the question of Clause 16, particularly in view of the assurance which the Solicitor-General has given.

Major Mott-Radclyffe

Will the Solicitor-General tell the House if he is really certain that the point at issue under this Clause would always be purely a point of fact, and that no appeal will he asked for under the interpretation he has given us?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not think that question arises.

Lord Willoughby de Eresby

When the Solicitor-General looks into the matter again, would he consider this point? He gave two interpretations of what constituted ownership of plot B. First he said that it was the length of lease; he thought it was about 10 years. In his last speech, he said it is the amount of obligation, or the terms of obligation as to what is the responsibility for fixed equipment. It is a complete shift of ground, and if the position were made clear we would know where we stand in this matter.

Amendment negatived.