HC Deb 29 June 1951 vol 489 cc1792-801
Mr. Powell

I beg to move, in page 17, line 27, to leave out paragraph (c).

The paragraph which it is proposed to leave out substitutes, in the case of worked ironstone land, the acquisition procedure of the War Damaged Sites Act, 1949, for the generally applicable authorisation procedure of the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946. In Committee, the objections which were raised to this more summary and expeditious procedure were to a very slight extent met by the Minister in that he gave what amounted almost to an undertaking that, in practice, his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture would allow an extra 14 days' grace. Nevertheless, upon further consideration it seems that the House is making a mistake in leaving this provision in the Bill at all.

The grounds which have been given for substituting the 1949 procedure for the 1946 procedure are that in certain cases the 1946 procedure has been found to involve undue delay. There is, perhaps, an additional reason that in the case of worked ironstone land the ascertainment of present ownership may not always be as easy as in the case of other land coming up for acquisition.

My contention is that if those reasons are valid in this case, where there really cannot be any extraordinary degree of urgency, however much we may wish to get on with the job, they are going to be valid in almost any other case for compulsory acquisition that can possibly be imagined; and that by inserting this obscure paragraph in a comparatively obscure Bill, we are creating a precedent which will be invoked in every successive future case where compulsory acquisition powers are given in a Bill. Therefore, it behoves us very carefully to consider the justification of what we are doing before we retain this paragraph in the Bill.

The Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946, which was intended to be a new code for the procedure of authorisation where there was to be compulsory acquisition, was a Bill which went through all the normal stages in both Houses and was considered in great detail and with great care. If it is now the Government's opinion that that procedure is unsatisfactory and insufficiently expeditious, they ought to justify it to Parliament and to the country by producing an amendment of the principal Act of 1946.

The Government ought not to insert the thin end of the wedge in the Mineral Workings Bill, where no one will notice it, by saying, "In this case we will use the war damaged sites procedure." We know perfectly well what will happen. This paragraph will be turned to in future. We shall be told that there was no objection to it in the case of worked ironstone land. The Government will say, "A precedent exists, therefore we are going to do the same in the next case, and the next and the next."

The War Damaged Sites Act was really in a special category, and not the type of case which ought to afford a precedent either for the acquisition now in question or for any other kind of compulsory acquisition. It was to deal with bomb damaged sites, particularly in regard to the imminence of the Festival of Britain. That is to say, it was designed to deal ex hypothesi with sites of which the ownership was likely to be difficult to ascertain, which had in many cases been abandoned by their owners for almost a decade and where special difficulties in the acquisition procedure were to be apprehended. In the second place, it dealt ex hypothesi with an acquisition which had to be completed within a definite and relatively short period of time.

There is no justification in those conditions for repeating the same procedure in the present Bill. We have a general code for the acquisition of land. It applies even where we make it for such urgent purposes as housing, for highways, and for any of the many more urgent purposes than are envisaged in the Bill. We ought to adhere to that procedure whenever there is to be compulsory acquisition, and if the Government do not like the procedure in general they ought to tell the House so and present an amending Bill.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I beg to second the Amendment.

The Amendment and the paragraph which it seeks to delete are concerned with the correct procedure in respect of compulsory hiring of land. Perhaps it would be right to remind the House as a background to this question, that compulsory hiring of land, as against compulsory acquisition, does not have very deep roots in the constitutional customs of the country.

I do not, of course, refer to powers of requisitioning in war-time, which have very ancient roots. Apart from that, until comparatively recently the only provisions for the compulsory hiring of land were contained in the Defence Acts in respect of emergencies or apprehended emergencies. The only occasions on which compulsory hiring could take place were emergency and short-term occasions, there was no elaborate procedure for objections, representations and the like.

With the coming of the Agriculture Act, 1947, which is referred to in this Clause, the position became rather different because that Act empowers compulsory hiring up to 35 years. Because that is so, and because that is long-term and non-emergency hiring, the Agriculture Act very properly assimilated the procedure of the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946, to which my hon. Friend has just referred, which is contained in Section 93 (1, a and b) of the Agriculture Act.

The Clause to which this Amendment relates seeks to deviate from that procedure and to follow instead the procedure of the War Damaged Sites Act, 1949. The difference, briefly, between these two procedures is that whereas under the First Schedule of the 1946 Act—which I hasten to say is far from perfect; a few moments ago, in the discussion on another Amendment I gave some of the reasons why it is not—there is at least provision for written representations and objections, right of hearing and presentation of arguments, etc., there is none of that in the War Damaged Sites Act procedure. It gives rise merely to the right of written representations but to no right of hearing.

When the War Damaged Sites Act was debated in this House in the last Parliament I ventured to point out, temperately and objectively, I hope, the difficulty that if that procedure were put in that Measure it would be prayed in aid before very long on quite unsuitable occasions. I regret to say that those temperate observations drew most explosive and eruptive rejoinders from the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), who was then in charge of that Measure. Now that the right hon. Gentleman has deviated I suppose that the Government do not feel bound by the decisions to which he came in that case. But in any event the circumstances are different.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the defence for putting this curtailed procedure, with its denial of the right of hearing of the subject, into the War Damaged Sites Act was that the whole thing was to be over in a very short time, that speed was the essence, that it was virtually an emergency Measure and was not to last for very long. None of those considerations apply in this case. I am not sure, with respect to my hon. Friend, that he is not putting the case a little high when he says that this procedure will be followed in cases of compulsory acquisition. I do not think that there is any reasonable danger in that respect because there is a separate code in the case of acquisition.

But there is the very material danger that if long-term hiring has a procedure which is administratively more simple and, therefore, more tempting to the Government, there may be a tendency to insert in future Bills provisions for longterm compulsory hiring with the minimum rights to the owner and the subject instead of provisions which attract the more elaborate but fairer procedure of the 1946 Act. In those circumstances, I submit that this procedure is quite misconceived in this Clause, and that it would be proper to follow the procedure of the 1946 Act for what is non-emergency long-term hiring.

12.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Lindgren)

The hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) always makes a very attractive case, and he has done so on this occasion apart from the fact that the 1946 Act does not deal with the hiring of land, or at least my impression is that it does not. If that is so, and the 1946 Act does not deal with the question of the hiring of land, then according to my understanding of the hon. Member the major portion of the case he has made in seconding the Amendment really falls to the ground.

Mr. Walker-Smith

May I make the position clear? It is true, as the Parliamentary Secretary has just said, that the 1946 Act does not deal with the provision of a procedure for hiring. Where it is relevant is that in Section 93 (1, b) of the Agriculture Act, 1947, the procedure of the 1946 Act is assimilated for longterm agricultural compulsory hiring. That is how it becomes relevant, because the Clause with which we are now dealing, proposes to do away with that part of Agriculture Act for these purposes.

Mr. Lindgren

It ill becomes me, as a layman, to argue with such a distinguished lawyer as the hon. Member, particularly when he is dealing with legislation by cross-reference.

To deal with the position on a general basis, I would ask, first, what sort of land is it with which we are dealing? If there is any land that is analogous to war damaged sites, blitzed sites and even a battlefield, it is land that has been taken for mineral workings. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), quite rightly made reference to the case he made during the Committee stage, and he has made reference to war damaged sites being dealt with in the way they were because of the difficulty of finding owners who have moved away and that kind of situation.

That is quite corect, but only an hour or so ago his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Fylde, South (Colonel Lancaster), who is very knowledgeable on these matters, pointed out that a great deal of the damage and trouble that has arisen in the case of ironstone workings has been due to the period when agriculture was in a very bad way, and when the landowner, the small landowner in particular, was up against it, being pressed by the banks, and when any offer of a little ready money was snatched with both hands. Many of those owners whom we criticise—and I have criticised them as violently as anyone else—were, as the hon. and gallant Member for Fylde, South said, small owners who took this extra money because they were in a very bad way, and the site was left in the way in which it has been.

The owners have very likely gone, there being no attraction to stay, and the site has been derelict for years. We are not dealing, under this blitzed sites arrangement, with the compulsory acquisition of land which is in use, on which someone is earning a living. We are dealing with land which has been left derelict for the past 30, 40 or perhaps 50 years. So it is necessary, perhaps even in the case of small plots of land required for gaining access to do work, or even to complete the job, to deal with it under this Bill.

It is true, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, said, that during the Committee stage my right hon. Friend did say that there is some case in respect of the person who might be away on holiday and who, being given 14 days' notice, would not be back from holiday before that time had expired. My right hon. Friend promised to discuss the matter with the Minister of Agriculture. Those discussions have taken place, and, as the hon. Member knows, the regulations have to be made. It is the intention of the Minister of Agriculture to provide, in those regulations, 28 days for the submission of written evidence and 14 days' notice for the request for a personal hearing.

A personal hearing would be taken by one of the inspectors of the Ministry of Agriculture. When there is a request for a personal hearing the inspectors are not just waiting for the hearing to give them a job, but have to programme their work over a long time. It takes a week or two to get the information and make a decision. So the shorter period is given in the case where there is to be a personal hearing.

These regulations have not yet been made. They have to be made by the Minister of Agriculture who, as is the case with every other Minister dealing with regulations, is prepared to discuss with the interested parties the points arising. I suggest that the hon. Member should withdraw his Amendment. If the landowners have really important matters to raise the Minister of Agriculture will discuss them.

Mr. Nugent

I wish to add my word to what has been said from this side of the House. It really is fantastic to use procedure of this kind for a purpose for which it was never designed. There cannot be that degree of urgency which necessitates operating 14 days' notice, which is what it amounts to, to acquire land which has been waiting for years to have anything done to it. It really is fantastic to ask the House to use procedure designed for something completely different. As I said in Committee, I have the strongest objection to the abuse of a power given for a certain purpose when it is applied in a case like this. I hope that from the point of view of intrinsic interest in the matter and of the credit of the Government the hon. Gentleman will think again before refusing to give way to us on this.

Mr. Assheton

The Parliamentary Secretary made a proposal with regard to the regulations which the Minister of Agriculture is to make. I think he hoped that that would meet the points raised from this side of the House, but. I do not think I should feel quite satisfied with that.

I am very puzzled to know why the Government have introduced this procedure, and I should like to be enlightened on the matter. The whole object of the War Damaged Sites Act was to enable something to be done speedily. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) said, it was considered desirable, in connection with the Festival of Britain, that there should be power to clear up things quickly, but we have been told that this is to tidy up something which has been left derelict for 30 or 40 years. It is preposterous to bull-doze something which has been left for 30 or 40 years.

This matter was argued very fully, when the 1946 Act was under consideration, by both Houses of Parliament. Here, in a Bill connected with mineral workings we are asked to insert a paragraph of a most dangerous kind. We are setting a most dangerous precedent, among other things, because we shall find this sort of thing creeping into other Measures and going through without the careful consideration we have been able to give to this Measure.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to go a little further and to undertake to consider this matter very seriously in the light of this discussion before the Bill goes to another place. I have a suspicion that there might be considerable criticism of this subsection in another place and certainly nothing said on the Government side of the House has justified in any way whatever the suggestion that there is so much urgency about the matter.

I do not know why it is suggested that there should be 14 days' notice when a person is given the opportunity of a personal hearing and 28 days' notice when he makes representation in writing. I do not appreciate the difference between the 14 and the 28 days and the reasons for that, but in any case neither 14 nor 28 days is adequate in my opinion. I would therefore ask the Parliamentary Secretary to look at the matter again and to ask himself whether the analogy he puts forward holds water. The fact that both the war damaged sites and the ironstone areas look derelict is not a logical argument for what he put forward.

Mr. Lindgren

I speak again with the leave of the House in response to the right hon. Gentleman. I think we are getting this a little out of proportion. It is not a question of bull-dozing people's rights with 14 days' notice. Here we are dealing with derelict land which is to be brought back to agricultural use, or to be used for industrial purposes. Many of these ironstone fields are made up of a number of pieces of land which were in personal ownership. Much of it was worked many years ago and there would be difficulty in tracing many of the owners.

As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), said, the procedure under the 1946 Act can be very protracted, particularly when there is difficulty in tracing ownership of the land to be dealt with. Searching for the owner of one small piece of land may hold up the whole scheme and it would not be "bull-dozing" to give 14 days' notice.

I put it to the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent), who generally is very mild in his statements but referred to this as an abuse of power, that it is an abuse if delay in finding the owner of a small piece of land can hold up the development or re-development of 50 acres of land to be brought into agricultural use. As the hon. Member knows, the land would have to be treated in order to be brought back into agricultural use and would have to be re-hired or re-sold to the farmer who is to deal with it. Therefore, we require such powers as are given in the Act dealing with blitzed sites. If the land is needed for industrial purposes that is even more important.

I am, of course, always willing to discuss anything at any time, as my right hon. Friend said earlier. But we have discussed this with the Ministry of Agriculture and in the main the land is required to enable the Ministry of Agriculture to give a long-term holding or hiring of a tenancy to a farmer and to re-sell to a farmer, or to an adjacent farm, in order that they can go on with re-development or rehabilitation of the land. I am quite willing to have further discussions, but I should have thought that better than my having discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture the landowners concerned should do so.

This is not an instrument to deal with existing landowners and those with whom we are in close consultation and working on the re-development of land. This is a provision to deal with the special cases of those whom it is difficult to trace, or those who are proving difficult to handle in connection with a re-development scheme. I suggest that perhaps it would be more effective if the landowners themselves had discussions through the usual channels with the Minister of Agriculture in connection with the regulations which are to be made.

On the question of the 14 days, if a person has asked for an appeal to be heard, then arrangements have to be made for the visit of the inspector. That takes time, and it may be 28 days, or even more, before the visit can take place, consultations held and the report sent to the Minister. In view of what I have said, I hope that the Amendment will be withdrawn.

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Powell

We have had some indication that the mind of the Government is not entirely closed on this point. As the question is to be looked at again, I venture to mention two points which have emerged during the discussion. The hon. Gentleman has just dealt with the first, but I do not think that he appreciated the difficulty of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton) about the relationship between the 14 and the 28-day period. I realise that, where there is to be an oral hearing, more time will be required for the preparation of the case by the appellant than where there is to be a written argument put in by a given day.

On the other hand, the difference in length of time does not meet the case where the owner might be absent or not able to deal with the matter immediately. His difficulties in those circumstances would be the same whether he intended eventually to make an oral or a written application. Perhaps that point might be considered.

Great stress has been laid on the difficulty of tracing an owner. That point was not overlooked in 1946. In the First Schedule to the 1946 Act there is provision that the confirming authority, where he is satisfied that it is necessary, can substitute service on the owner, who presumably cannot be found, by the affixing of the relevant notice to objects on the land. We ought not to be under the impression that the 1946 procedure makes no provision for the type of case that may well be met with in connection with devastated ironstone land. I hope that these points, and the others made during the debate, will be borne in mind by the Government, and that an Amendment will be considered before the Bill goes through its stages in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.