HC Deb 26 March 1947 vol 435 cc1334-44

8.45 p.m.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 11 to leave out from "dispute," to "be," in line 12, and to insert: in accordance with a determination by the arbitration of an arbitrator appointed in default of agreement by the President of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. This is a very different topic from the one which the Committee has recently been discussing. What this Clause does is to give a definition of a forestry dedication covenant, and it points out that a covenant is entered into with the Commissioners to the effect that land which has been covenanted shall not be used otherwise than for the growing of timber. That is the purpose of the covenant, but it makes the exception that this covenant can be avoided with the previous consent in writing of the Commissioners, or, if there is a dispute between the Commissioners and the covenanter, under the direction of the Minister of Agriculture.

The point of the Amendment is concerned with that difference of opinion, and with what should happen in case there is a dispute. The Clause says, first of all, that the Commissioners must give their consent in writing, but, if there is a dispute, the Minister of Agriculture gives a direction as to what should be done. Hon. Members may ask in what circumstances might it occur that the person who had signed the covenant with the Commissioners might wish to have it altered. It is possible for people to change their minds, for good reasons, from the point of view of estate management. The owner who dedicated might change his mind, or the successor to the owner, or whoever succeeds to the property, might also change his mind and have the covenant altered. He may put it to the Commissioners, but in the event of their disagreement, what happens? As the Clause stands, it is the Minister of Agriculture who will act, and, although we hope the Minister will look at it kindly, it is, of course, in the existing law that the Forestry Commissioners are bound by the instructions which they receive from the Minister.

That is laid down in the Forestry Act of 1945. It is possible, therefore—1 do not put it any higher than that—that when the Commissioners refuse to give their consent in the first instance, they may be acting under some general direction which they have derived from the Minister of Agriculture. Then, having refused a dispute arises, and it comes back to the Minister of Agriculture to settle. But it may well be that the matter has been prejudged in the first instance, because the Commissioners may have been acting under instructions from the Minister before anything occurred at all.

That, to put it mildly, is rather awkward. It is true that, under the dual responsibilities of the agricultural Ministers under the law which was passed very recently, the Minister of Agriculture is not only responsible for the Forestry Commission, but is also responsible, of course, for agriculture, and is supposed to try to keep the balance, and it was decided that he was the best person to keep the balance between those two possible conflicting interests. But, in a matter of dispute of this kind, it is important that there should be no risk of anyone saying that the Minister has a bias, and it is just because of the awkwardness of his being responsible for the Forestry Commission anyhow, that he then comes in, so to speak, as an arbitrator, if there is a dispute between them, that we have looked round to see whether it is not possible to think of some other form of arbitration in the case of a dispute. I hope that I have not laboured the point too much, but I wanted to make it clear. The Amendment comes down to the suggestion that an arbitrator should be appointed, in default of agreement, by the President of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

If anybody asks me why that body rather than any other has been chosen, the answer is that we are merely following the precedent of the Act of 1919. Though it was for different purposes—the idea of a covenant was not in that Act; that is a novelty of this Bill—under that Act, and during all the years that it has continued, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has been used for the purpose of finding an arbitrator when there has been a dispute between an owner and the Forestry Commission. The Act of 1919 seemed to be a good enough precedent for this purpose, and, for that reason, this Institution was the choice made by my hon. Friends with regard to the possibility of an arbitrator if the matter could not be settled by agreement. I hope that the Minister will find it possible to accept the Amendment, because it is really a protection for himself. It will avoid any possibility in the future of anyone saying that he was biased in a matter of this kind, and will remove the settlement of a dispute completely away from the Minister who might—I do not say he necessarily would—have had something to do with it at an earlier stage.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

As one would expect from the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), he puts his case so kindly, and almost generously, that one feels, despite one's better judgment, that one ought to accept it there and then. Unfortunately, however, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman and his hon. Friends seem to me not to be too optimistic about the result of this Amendment. Clause 3 is identical with Clause 1, but there is no parallel Amendment to Clause 3. Therefore, if I were to accept this Amendment, there would be no corresponding Amendment to Clause 3, and, while we should be obliged to go to arbitration in any such cases as those quoted by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, in Scotland the Secretary of State would be the arbitrator.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Western)

Surely, if Clause 1 were amended, a similar Amendment to Clause 3 would be consequential?

Mr. Williams

As there happens to be no similar Amendment on the Order Paper, it could not be consequential.

Captain Crookshank

There is another stage.

Mr. Williams

I only mention that in passing. When this Clause was discussed in another place, it was urged upon the noble Lords that the Forestry Commission were apt to become one-track minded, and that it should not, therefore, be left with the Forestry Commissioners to settle any case of dispute between the Commission and the woodland owner, whether or not land hitherto dedicated should be diverted to other uses. The very words which this Amendment sets out to delete were actually inserted in the Bill in another place, to meet the very objection made in that place. Lands having been dedicated, the question of diversion to other user obviously is a matter of policy. It might even be 20 or 30 years after the dedication scheme was entered into before any proposition was made to alter the user of that particular land, and it might be a matter of high policy whether or not a change of user could take place. Indeed, it might involve a whole series of considerations. This is the reason which I want to bring to the notice of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for having to resist his Amendment.

If there is a proposition for a change of user, it may involve, I repeat, a whole number of considerations, including, for instance, a consideration that would have to be dealt with by the Minister of Town and Country Planning. It may involve considerations that would have to be dealt with by the Minister of Agriculture, questions that were wholly unsuitable for an arbitrator to decide. In fact, in another place, the sort of case that was instanced was that, where an area of land was dedicated, and where, later on, the owner desired to change the user, for instance, to plant an orchard, then quite obviously, the Minister of Agriculture would be the person chiefly concerned with the proposed change of user, and, clearly, he would be the person to reach the decision on a matter of policy of that kind, and not an arbitrator. Therefore, I am sure that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will see that, while theoretically there is something in the point which he makes, the question of user, many years after the dedication scheme was entered into, would not be a matter for an arbitrator to decide, but one for the Minister who happened to be responsible for the use to which the land might be put. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will see the substance of my case, and will not press the Amendment to a Division.

9.0 p.m.

Colonel Ropner (Barkston Ash)

I hope that the Minister is not relying on my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) and those associated with him agreeing to his suggestion that this Amendment would serve no useful purpose because there is no similar Amendment to Clause 3 There are many gallant Scotsmen on this side of the Committee who would certainly take an early opportunity of submitting a manuscript Amendment, were he able, as I still hope he will be, to change his mind and accept this Amendment. What this Amendment seeks to do is to make arrangements which are fair to both parties, namely, the land owner and the Forestry Commission, in case of dispute after the deed of covenant for dedication has been entered into.

The Committee must bear in mind two important considerations when determining the merits of the Amendment. First of all, I would ask the Minister to appreciate rather more fully than he has so far done that a dedication covenant is not terminable by the mere passage of time but lasts for ever. It is, therefore, very important and a very serious matter both for the landowner and also for the Forestry Commission. If we, as we must, think in terms not of months or even of a few years, but of decades—one might even say centuries—the Minister must admit that conditions may become entirely changed. It may be right and proper that a certain parcel of land should be dedicated today or tomorrow or at some near date for the purpose of growing trees. But it may well be that at some more distant date the land could be used for a much better purpose; better in the sense that it would have been more profitable to the landowner and better in the sense that it would be better for the nation.

Secondly, I would ask the Committee to bear in mind that the two parties to these covenants are the landowner and the Forestry Commission, but the Forestry Commission itself is, to all intents and purposes, a department of the Ministry of Agriculture. Therefore, I do not think the power given under the Clause as it stands to the Minister of Agriculture can really be of much satisfaction to those of us who are suggesting this Amendment. The Minister of Agriculture himself is really one of the contracting parties.

I am not very sure that by giving examples of what may happen at some date in the future we strengthen our argument, but I will, nevertheless, try by giving one. It may well be that a piece of land is considered by both the owner and the Forestry Commission to be fully suitable for dedication now, and a dedication covenant may consequently be entered into. On this piece of land it has been decided that trees will grow and that it is an economic proposition to continue to grow trees on it. But, suppose that after the passage of time it is found that the trees do not grow and that both the landowner and the Forestry Commission were wrong in the judgment they made when they thought that the trees would reach maturity on that particular site. I suggest to the Minister that in circumstances such as these the landowner may find himself compelled by the Forestry Commission to continue wasting his own money and the resources of the nation by uselessly devoting to that land further efforts to grow trees.

I would like to say that I am second to none in the tribute which I pay to the ability of the Forestry Commission. That compliment is not prompted by the fact that I was a Forestry Commissioner myself, but while serving in that capacity I had the great pleasure of learning of the great knowledge and ability displayed by the Forestry Commission, not only by the chairman himself, but also by all who served on the Commission giving advice from their knowledge and in their work in an executive capacity. Trees have been made to grow in sand dunes and in waste moorland where only a few years ago no one thought they could grow, but there are still some who believe that those many thousands of acres now producing spruce in the Border country may be rendered derelict wastes after a high wind in a few years' time, when the trees are reaching maturity. I hope I have not confused my argument by endeavouring to give an example. There are hon. Members on both sides who could give other examples of what may go wrong in future during the course of operation of dedication scheme. We know that Government Departments always dislike admitting that they have made a mistake, and Government Departments are very reluctant to give up land over which they have got some measure of control. I conclude by saying that I think there is a real case for arbitration where genuine differences of opinion do arise between the contracting parties, and I think it is wrong that only one of the two contracting parties should forever be given the option of terminating the contract.

Mr. Vane (Westmorland)

I was very disappointed to hear the Minister dismiss this Amendment as he did. Obviously, we all agree that dedication is part of a long-term policy, and it should not be easy to slip out of one's dedication obligations whenever one feels like it, but we consider that there are a number of cases which can arise where a difference of opinion may crop up between the private woodland owner and the Forestry Commission. The Minister said that the issues would always affect town and country planning, and that, therefore, they would be on Ministerial level, but I can think of other cases. There might be, for instance, a case of opencast coal-mining or of cutting timber and uprooting a wood to give greater clearance for a landing ground. I know of a case near my home where that has arisen. In all these cases I do not think the Minister, with the best will in the world, would be the best judge. The right hon. Gentleman said it was strange that we should be moving to delete certain words which have been inserted in another place to meet the wishes of certain noble Lords. I think it would be more correct to say that the words met them in part, because I am sure they were not fully satisfied by those words. If the Minister wants the scheme to be a success, he would be wise to accept the Amendment, because it would give far greater encouragement to private owners, if there were cases of dispute, to know that the people who would sit in judgment could in no case be considered to be an interested party.

Mr. York (Ripon)

The alteration in the use of land is acknowledged to be necessary from time to time. If in every case the Forestry Commission are to have to give their consent, except where objection is taken by the owner, we shall then get the position that the Forestry Com, mission will refuse consent and after the owner has referred the matter to the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Agriculture will come back to the Forestry Commission with advice as to the decision to be given. That does not seem to me to be a reasonable way of dealing with this matter. What is the Minister frightened about in arbitration? Do I understand that he is not frightened of arbitration? If he is not and if the forest owners have asked—as indeed they have asked—for arbitration on their disagreement with the Forestry Commission, why will Le not give it? If the demand is unreasonable and if the land obviously should remain for growing timber, an arbitrator of the type who would be appointed would not make a decision contrary to the evidence offered.

It should also be remembered that the Forestry Commission will be a party to the arbitration. They are the servants of the Minister. If the Minister has any point to make which involves high policy, or any other policy for that matter, high or low, it is surely his duty so to brief his servants that they put the right case before the arbitrator. The arbitrator will not distrust an important piece of evidence offered by one of the parties that the land should be used for that purpose because of high policy. I have read through the Debate which took place in another place, and I cannot see that any concession has been offered by the Government. They have altered the wording but they have not altered the sense, or the effect upon the owners of property. I am sorry that the Minister has advanced no adequate reason why these matters should not be taken to arbitration. I am disappointed that he should be so stubborn about a matter which we think is reasonable and a matter of common justice.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

I want to intervene for only a minute. I thought the Minister's answer was extremely unconvincing. He talked of high policy and suchlike considerations, but the only example he gave was a vague reference to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. Surely, when the present Town and County Planning Bill is passed there will not be one acre of land in the country in which the Minister will not be interested. In most cases where arbitration would be asked for under our proposal the consideration would be on a much lower level than that of the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the case in which it was wished to change the user of land because the trees would not grow, or because of disease, or lack of drainage, or unsuitable soil. Those are matters which are not at all on the Ministerial level. I ask the Minister why, in the Agriculture Bill in similar circumstances there is an appeal to a tribunal, whereas in this case he wishes to keep the powers to say the last word in his own hands? In one case he thinks it fair to submit a matter to a tribunal. In the other case it is not, although the two cases seem to be very much the same.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Forest of Dean)

I hope that the Minister will not give way on this matter. This is not a legal question but a question of forestry work on which experts, both private and public, may have different views. It might possibly be a case for getting advice. When the Agriculture Bill was being discussed the other day I myself moved an Amendment to the effect that where there was a difference of opinion between the agricultural interests, which generally are the farmers, and the Ministry of Agriculture, it should be referred to a committee not for arbitration, but for advice. The Minister would not accept that and I think he made a mistake. This proposal goes further in that it asks for arbitration. This would tie the hands of the Minister on a matter of fact. It is not a question of law at all. I hope the Minister will oppose it as it is an unnecessary complication in a Clause which is quite straightforward.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

If only to prevent a charge of lack of courtesy I must reply to one or two questions put by the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Ropner). He referred to the possibility of land being used for woodland and then it was ultimately found that it was unsuitable for growing trees. The desire was, therefore, for a change to save wasting money on land which was no use for tree growing. Obviously, if one thinks in terms of a reasonably minded Commission, once the land has proved to be unsuitable for growing trees, they would give the appropriate consent. Assuming the Commission were unreasonable in such a case, then we have to assume that the Minister would be a reasonable person and he would insist on the landowner not wasting any more money on land which was not growing timber properly.

Mr. York

Where does the advice come from?

Mr. Williams

There are various means of acquiring advice, and in all these things, as the hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York) well knows, the owner has always access to the Minister as a last resort to present the best case he can. I am sure he will find ways and means to present the Minister with his case very fully and efficiently.

Mr. York

But the Minister misses my point. I asked the Minister where his advice comes from whether the land is or is not suitable for the continuation of the growing of trees.

Mr. Williams

It would depend on the use to which the landowner now proposes to put the land.

Mr. York


Mr. Williams

If, for instance, a landowner proposed, as I quoted before, to turn land into an orchard, then I should not need an arbitrator to decide that issue. The advice would come from a horticulturist as to the suitability of the land for that purpose. The second point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash was that if a proposal appeared to be in the national interest, then, clearly, there ought to be an opportunity of changing the user. Quite clearly, if the Commission can be satisfied that to change user was in the national interest, I should hope they would give consent. But if the Commission failed to give consent in such a case it seems clear to me that any reasonably minded Minister, once he knew the facts, would always decide in the national interest and not in the interest of trees merely because they were trees. The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) rather strengthened my case when he quoted the case of opencast coal. If a dispute arose between a woodland owner and the Commission whether a change of user should take place to provide opencast coal, that would instantly bring in another Government Department, and would involve a question of high policy upon which an arbitrator had not the right to decide. Therefore I am resisting this Amendment because I feel that it would be wrong for the Government to abrogate their functions and to allow an arbitrator to decide on matters of national policy, and I hope that hon. Members will see the reasons for this.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.