HC Deb 04 July 1950 vol 477 cc281-6 Subsection (3) of section forty of the Finance Act, 1930 (which exempts from estate duty objects of national, scientific, historic or artistic interest), shall be amended by inserting the words "and houses and other buildings whether or not yielding income," after the word "income."—[Mr. Colegate.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Arthur Colegate (Burton)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I am very grateful to have the opportunity of raising again at this stage, a matter which I raised in Committee by moving three new Clauses or Amendments. When he replied then, the Solicitor-General said that he could not see his way to accept my proposals, mainly on the grounds that the Gowers Report was just about to be published. That was a fact of which I had not been aware and, naturally, I accepted it and, with the permission of the Committee, my Clauses or Amendments were withdrawn.

Since then the Gowers Report has been published, and what it says, and the conclusions which it draws, make the matter very much more urgent than I thought it was when I put forward my proposals during the Committee stage. In that connection may I quote one or two sentences? In the first place the Report points out that It is not too much to say that these houses represent an association of beauty, of art and of nature—the achievement often of centuries of effort—which is irreplacable, and has seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of civilisation. A little later this Committee—the appointment of which is due to the Chancellor and I am grateful to him for having appointed it—says: The great houses of this country represent the highest achievements since the Renaissance of the arts and crafts associated with building…. Then they sound a note of urgency: Now, owing to economic and social changes, we are faced with a disaster comparable only to that which the country suffered by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. In view of those statements I do not think it can be believed that it is premature to raise this subject at as early a date as possible. No doubt the Solicitor-General can quote precedents, of which he and his learned Friends are masters, to show why my Clause should not be accepted, but some of us come here not to quote precedents. We come here to create them, and this is a case where we should create a precedent. Instead of adhering to that dreadful tradition that Royal Commissions and committees sit and report and year after year drags on with nothing done, we should adopt an entirely different attitude and say, "Here we have an opportunity to do something immediately; let us do it now."

The recommendations of the Gowers Committee are three-fold. First, they propose the creation of an historic buildings council. I hope that in the next few months that will be created by legislation. The other two recommendations are that there should be exemption from Death Duties—a recommendation made in almost the very words I suggested before I saw the Report—and that there should be some relief from Income Tax and Surtax as regards certain approved expenditure.

The question may be asked, "If you are so keen on this subject and think it so urgent, why do you not move a new Clause on tax relief?" That requires careful consideration. The Report indicates a number of safeguards and suggests means by which that should be done. Although the Report was signed on 30th March, I can understand that it is reasonable of the Treasury to wait until next year. So we get this programme: first, exemption from Death Duties. Let us carry that out now. Then, within a few months, let us create the historic buildings council and, thirdly, in next year's Budget let us deal with the question of relief for approved expenditure on these houses.

If we give relief from Death Duties now, it will be an earnest to anybody concerned with these houses that they should do nothing hasty, but should hold their hands if it is a question of disposal or demolition. And it will be recognised by everybody concerned as an evidence that the recommendations of the Gowers Committee will be carried out. When, previously, I moved three Amendments, the defence was made that the Gowers Report was about to be published, and it was on that ground alone that I asked for the leave of the Committee to withdraw the Amendment. There are, however, certain arguments I should mention.

Neither in the Gowers Report nor in my new Clause is there any question of vast estates escaping tax. As a matter of fact, the least valuable part of large estates today is the mansion. The difference between 3,000 or 4,000 acres with or without a house is not great. In any case, the cost to the Treasury would necessarily be small because the amounts concerned are not large and only a few houses will be found to be exempted from Death Duties—sometimes in a whole year not a single house will be exempt.

Therefore, I urge the Chancellor to accept this new Clause. I know when a thing is urgent, and this is urgent. I do not profess to be a parliamentary draftsman and I shall be content with any drafting amendment he cares to make to the Clause. Because the right hon. and learned Gentleman appointed the Gowers Committee in 1948, it would be a matter of gratification to us all if he would accept the principle now, because it would not only carry out the first part of the Gowers Report but would be an. indication that the Government intend to carry out the rest of its recommendations in a short time.

Mr. Hollis (Devizes)

I beg to second the Motion.

Although many people have said it might be desirable that these houses should pass into the hands of institutions, the Gowers Report definitely says that that would be unsatisfactory in the public interest. Therefore, if it is desirable to implement the policy of that Report, this is an additional argument in favour of the case put by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

In a humble capacity I have been connected with the matter under discussion and have had some experience, admittedly rather remote, of the dealings of the Chancellor with it. As far as I can judge, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has shown the greatest sympathy in the matter of preserving historic houses. Quite apart from setting up the Gowers Committee, he has encouraged the work of the National Trusts for both England and Scotland—and encouraged them in a practical way.

5.0 p.m.

In so far as the Clause is designed to impress upon the Chancellor the urgency of the matter and to give him an opportunity of showing an earnest of his future intentions, I certainly support it. It is quite clear, however, that the problem is very much bigger than the Clause can possibly tackle. For one thing, in the Gowers Report it is made quite clear that unless some relief is given from duties on the funds by which these houses are maintained, they will deteriorate even though they may remain in the same hands; it is the expense of upkeep which now bears so heavily upon the owners. Secondly, there is the likelihood that if relief from Death Duties is given, the result may be to increase the market value of the houses with the consequence that one object of the Gowers Committee may not altogether be achieved. That Committee recommended that the historic owners of the properties should be encouraged to remain in them. This Clause, taken alone, might lead to the houses changing hands.

There is also the question of town houses, which some of us consider to be equally important. The houses in the great terraces and squares of our towns, however, will hardly be touched by the Clause. Lastly, there is the public relations aspect. I am associated with the National Trust for Scotland. Although we are a voluntary body, we have the greatest difficulty in persuading certain sections of the community that we are not an extremely wealthy investment trust and in convincing others that we are not a nationalised industry.

There is also a third section of opinion which says, not unnaturally, "Why should we pay people to live in their own houses?"A very important public relations point is involved in this matter. and the Gowers Committee have done a great deal to smooth away misconceptions and to give the Chancellor a basis upon which he can act. My feeling is that if there is any possibility of the Clause being taken either as the final word or being represented as a gift, so to speak, to people already in a comparatively favourable position, it would be very unfortunate; but in so far as it impresses the urgency of the matter and may be regarded as a token of future legislation along the lines recommended by the Gowers Committee, it is to be welcomed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir Stafford Cripps)

No one will regret that the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) has once again brought this matter to the attention of the House. It is a matter which is very difficult and complicated. There are many different ways in which our great national heritage in houses of this kind might be preserved, and it was because of that multiplicity of possibilities that I appointed the Gowers Committee to look into this special matter.

I think it would be a very bad thing if we were to hurry forward with a partial solution of this matter before the country and the House had had time to consider fully the whole of the Gowers Report. Certainly, the Government do not wish to arrive at a quick decision on it until they have had an opportunity of seeing the reaction of different sections of the population to the Report. This is a matter in which, as the House will appreciate, everybody does not necessarily take the same view, yet it is very important that if we are to do something it should be something which is generally accepted as being the wise and proper way of dealing with the matter.

I assure the hon. Member that I am very anxious to go ahead and to complete dealing with what is undoubtedly a great and, I think, an urgent problem. Many of these great houses are so historical and beautiful that we just cannot afford to lose them; they are too much a part of our history for us to afford to lose them. Whatever way we choose of preserving them, however, must be a way which broadly meets the views of all the population. It is because I wanted everybody to have an opportunity of examining the problem that we appointed the Gowers Committee, and I want now to allow time for the Report to be studied and discussed; then I hope that we shall be able to come to a conclusion, and that if legislation is necessary we shall be able to undertake it next year.

Mr. Colegate

In view of the statement which the Chancellor has made, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.