HC Deb 10 November 1954 vol 532 cc1361-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Oakshott.]

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I am sorry to intrude into the happy atmosphere that has prevailed in the House for the last two hours, but I have a duty to perform. I want to bring forward what I regard as an unsavoury case, which has to do with two of my constituents—a Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd. The name of the farm concerned is Holborn, and it is situated near Kington, in Herefordshire. I mention that because on the notice of the Adjournment debate the name has been wrongly spelt, owing to my bad writing.

Mr. D. J. Lloyd was the owner of this farm in 1944, when he applied to the war agricultural executive committee for the approval of a scheme to obtain water. A Mr. Sturgess, the then cultivation officer for the committee, came out to the farm, drew up a scheme and approved the cost. The original cost was to be £290, but it was eventually increased to £370, owing to the fact that a deeper bore had to be made than was originally intended. The scheme was approved and a grant recommended of £170. Soon after this date the executive committee set up a new department called the water and drainage department, and a Mr. Young was put in charge.

The scheme to obtain water failed, and the contractor removed all his equipment. Mr. Lloyd claims that he spent £300 on this scheme. The result of this expenditure, for which he got no grant, was that he went bankrupt in 1947. Previously, he had sold the farm to an old friend of the family named Williams, who accepted him as a tenant, but after the bankruptcy Mr. Williams wanted to help the Lloyds and accepted Mrs. Lloyd as tenant of the farm. That was in 1948. The position then was that the water scheme had failed; Mr. Lloyd had failed; the farm had been sold and a new tenant had taken over.

In 1950, when Mrs. Lloyd was the tenant and Mr. Lloyd was carrying on the farming, they lost five cattle through drinking foul water. They then decided to go in for another scheme. The same contractor and the same water officer were called in. They met in the house, discussed ways and means of carrying out a new scheme, and eventually it was decided to have one. This is denied by Mr. Young and the contractor, Mr. George, who say that they did not meet Mr. Lloyd in this scheme. Someone is telling lies, of course, because Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd are prepared to swear on oath that they were all present together and that they decided what should be done. They also say that the questions of Mr. Lloyd's bankruptcy and Mrs. Lloyd's tenancy were discussed, and that Mr. Young said that no fresh scheme was necessary.

Mr. Young and Mr. George say that they did not know that Mr. Lloyd was a bankrupt, but it is astonishing that Mr. George would not start work on the scheme unless £50 was paid to him in advance. This money was borrowed from the landlord by Mrs. Lloyd, further money was borrowed from Mrs. Lloyd's mother, and a total of £222 was paid to Mr. George to complete the second scheme. This scheme was successful, and then arose the question how much grant should be paid, and to whom. Correspondence took place with the Ministry of Agriculture's Legal Department, which maintained that the grant for the second scheme should be paid to the Official Receiver. I have in my possession correspondence which was carried on at the time between Mrs. Lloyd and the Official Receiver, and at one stage the Official Receiver denied any claim in this matter, but the Ministry of Agriculture insisted that it should be paid.

I must say that Mr. Lloyd was extremely foolish in many of the actions he took. He tried to imagine himself as being still the tenant and, instead of saying that he was acting for his wife, tried to give the impression that he was still in occupancy of the farm and that he was making claims on his own behalf. It may be that I took a hand in this when, in 1949, I wrote to the then Minister of Agriculture on his behalf and, from memory, I think that I wrote to the Herefordshire county executive asking them to expedite a scheme which had been delayed for some five years.

In October, 1953, I took up the case on behalf of Mrs. Lloyd and, in some correspondence, there is a letter from the Ministry of Agriculture, dated 22nd October; and may I here say that when my right hon. Friend who was Minister of Agriculture is asked to sign a letter, he should see that the statements contained in the letter are correct. In this letter to which I refer it is stated: Grants are made only to landowners and to tenants acting with the approval of their landowners. So far it is not established that Mrs. Lloyd is the tenant. I sent a certificate from the landlord to the Minister stating that Mrs. Lloyd had been the tenant since 1948, and that, in fact, the cultivation department was dealing with Mrs. Lloyd.

The second statement in that letter of 22nd October last year is: The rating authorities have said that since February, 1948, Mr. D. T. Lloyd has been the tenant…and I am afraid this seems to destroy the grounds for Mrs. Lloyd's claim. There never has been a D. T. Lloyd, and the agricultural executive committee could have found out who was assessed for rates merely if it had done what I did and established that Mrs. V. C. Lloyd had been on the rate office books since February, 1948. She had paid rates by cheque. I have produced books to the Minister showing that to be so.

The third statement in that same letter is: This is only one of many unsatisfactory features of the whole affair. On one occasion Mr. Lloyd called at the agricultural executive committee office representing that he was his brother, and that D. T. Lloyd was dead. He asked that the water supply grant should be paid to the widow, Mrs. V. C. Lloyd. I think that action could lie there, because there was never a D. T. Lloyd, so how can it be suggested that D. J. Lloyd, the original owner and tenant, who had been dealing with the war executive committee for some eight years, could possibly go to the agricultural executive committee office and say that D. T. Lloyd was dead; and that D. T. Lloyd had been his brother? It does not make sense.

Another statement in the same letter is: Also, the bona fides of at least one receipt is in doubt. Lloyd did not give receipts, but received them. What is suggested? Is it that Lloyd forged the contractor's name on a receipt? If so, why was he not prosecuted? Is it suggested that he forged somebody's signature to get a grant for something for which he never paid? The matter could easily have been cleared up by the executive committee.

There is another letter from the Ministry, dated 9th April, 1954, in which it is stated: Until very recently all our dealings have been with Mr. V. C. Lloyd, whose first application for a grant-aided scheme was made in January, 1944. In fact, that application was signed by David John Lloyd. Yet the Minister tries to tell me in a letter of 9th April that the dealings had been with V. C. Lloyd. It shows the state the officials have got into. The result was that we could not stop the Minister paying this money over to the Official Receiver.

The next chapter is this. Mrs. Lloyd decided to go in for a scheme of reclamation of some marginal land, and applied to the A.E.C. Mr. Sturgess came out, drew up a scheme in the name of Mrs. Lloyd, showed what the grant was; and eventually Mrs. Lloyd was paid the amount. Part of the scheme was for drainage, and the drainage department was called in to deal with that small part of the scheme. Meantime, Mr. Young had resigned or been promoted or sacked. My hon. Friend perhaps knows which it was. Therefore, a fresh officer was appointed, but still they had this black mark against Lloyd. Two officers measured up the drainage scheme, which was put before the drainage department.

Twelve months went by and nothing was done, and Lloyd asked to be allowed to call in an outside contractor. That was agreed to, and this work was done by a very prominent firm of agricultural contractors, and a debt was incurred of £100, which Mrs. Lloyd paid. When she claimed for this she was blandly told by the water department that there was no scheme in her name. In other words, the little bureaucrats in that office saw a way of doing the Lloyds down, and of doing them out of what they justly were entitled to. I understand that this department inspected the drainage scheme and agreed it was done correctly.

I wrote to my hon. Friend to ask what was the amount of grant and how much was paid over to the Official Receiver. In a letter dated 8th November it was stated that Lloyd could produce receipts —I am referring to the second water scheme—only for an amount of £221 19s. 4½d., and that one of them was of doubtful validity. It was stated: We finally decided to pay grant on the two receipts amounting to £171 19s. 4½d., which incidentally were both in the name of Mrs. V. C. Lloyd, but obviously related to work on the scheme. I want to stress this. The receipts on which they based their payment were given to Mrs. V. C. Lloyd. The letter said: At the rate of 50 per cent. the grant was £85 19s. 8d. but against this had to be set the sum of £40 which Mr. D. J. Lloyd owed to the Radnorshire Agricultural Executive Committee. The Minister said the two schemes were one. Therefore, when the grant was paid, why was the grant based on receipts for the second scheme and why did it take no account of the expenditure of something like £300 incurred for the first scheme? If the two schemes were one, why should the Ministry pay out any grant at all when the only receipts it had in its possession were receipts made out to Mrs. V. C. Lloyd? It was not entitled to pay any money at all if what it said was correct.

I shall be interested to know why the Radnorshire executive office was entitled to any of this grant. When did D. J. Lloyd incur this debt? Did the Radnorshire executive give him credit as an undischarged bankrupt or was this debt incurred before Lloyd's bankruptcy? If it were a debt incurred before the bankruptcy, why did not the Radnorshire executive office put in its claim to the official receiver and take its cut from the assets which were realised? I cannot understand why the Radnorshire executive had any right to claim a part of this grant. The total grant paid was only £85 19s. 8d., whereas if the two schemes had been added together and treated as one the amount paid would have been about £261. This should be investigated because it is a disgraceful performance.

One of the reasons I brought this case forward is to call attention to what is taking place in this old England of ours. This is not the only case. We have had Crichel Down, we have had the Pilgrim case, we had a case debated on the Adjournment last night. This is something which is occurring in all Departments—municipal, county or ministerial. We, the Conservative Party, must see that a private person who has a claim against a Ministry has the same right of having his complaint investigated and the same right of getting that to which he is entitled as any other citizen who has a claim against another citizen.

We must break down this State dictatorship. We talk glibly about Communism in Russia, but this is the sort of thing they do in Russia; the State makes up its mind about something and the individual has no claim or cannot get his claim investigated. In this case we should have been able to put both parties on the mat, put them on oath and find out who was telling lies and who was not, but as it is we have to accept what the Minister has decided.

The Conservative Party has proclaimed that it will set the people free, and it is up to us to get on with the job a little faster in future than we have done in the past. I quite agree that the Conservative Government have done a good job in getting rid of some of the controls which existed when they took office, but we must take steps, while we have the chance, to see that any dispute, whether it is between individuals or between an individual and a State Department, can be taken to independent arbitration or a court of law. There must be no case in which a man has to commit suicide because he cannot get justice.

We want to get on with the job now, because if a Socialist Government come into power in the distant future, which heaven forbid, they are pledged to bring in more controls and more nationalisation and to set up more Departments. It is more than ever essential that we should bring in legislation to see that the ordinary citizen is not dominated by those in control.

I have been speaking rather strongly, but I feel very strongly about this matter. This woman who has been "done down" has to carry the burden of a bankrupt husband and a son who is a permanent invalid. Instead of a Department of State taking advantage of her ignorance and the man's ignorance it should have given them every assistance which it possibly could give. The tin-pot bureaucrats who make these statements should not be allowed to do so without some form of investigation, because it places the Minister, who puts his name to these documents, in a very difficult position. The ex-Minister found that to be so in the Crichel Down case. That can occur again unless some action is taken to verify statements put to the Minister for him to sign.

12.10 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

This is a long and involved story, starting with the original application in 1944 and finishing now with the Adjournment debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), and I cannot possibly deal with all its details in the few minutes that remain to me.

The broad facts of the case are that the original application for the water supply scheme was made by Mr. Lloyd, and at no time until 1953 was there any suggestion that this scheme was on an application of Mrs. Lloyd's. The original scheme failed in its first boring, which failed to give a satisfactory result, and after a long process, partially of repair, partially maintenance and partially adaptation, a second boring was finally tried. It proved successful and was connected up with part of the work of the original scheme, and the pump and part of the equipment were moved over to the new borehole.

As far as the Ministry was concerned, however, it was always the same application, and Mrs. Lloyd's suggestion that she was the applicant arose only at the very end. Our problem is whether there is any sound, reliable evidence which would justify us in treating Mrs. Lloyd as being an official applicant for a second scheme at any time. The fact is that there simply is not any evidence for that.

We have the obligation that everybody has when a man is a bankrupt to pay whatever is due to him to the Official Receiver. Unless there was really sound evidence to show that a second application had been made, and that it had been made by Mrs. Lloyd, we had no alternative in the matter. We have our obligations the same as anybody else, and we have our obligations also to Mr. Lloyd's creditors, who, no doubt, have a considerable amount owing to them. But be that as it may, there certainly is no evidence, and all the facts about the tenancy, important though they may be in some ways, are not really relevant to this particular issue.

Our practice is that where application for a scheme is made, even if the tenancy alters, we continue with the original applicant, and it is for him then to make what disposition he likes with the incoming tenant. But it is the original applicant, even when he ceases to be the tenant of a holding, with whom we continue to deal as a grant-aiding Department until the scheme is completed, even when his tenancy has ceased. Therefore, all the doubts about the question of tenancy are not really relevant to the question of who was the applicant and to whom the grant was due.

We can pay out only on receipts that are obviously sound, reliable receipts that relate to the work done, whether on the first or second part of the scheme. The fact that the first boring failed does not invalidate the scheme for grant aid providing it had been approved as being a reasonable, sound boring. Therefore, when we came to pay out the grant we considered such receipts as could be put before us for work done.

Once again, it does not matter whether Mrs. Lloyd had paid the money. So long as it related to the work which had been done, it was proper to pay it out. On the question of the £50 receipt to which my hon. Friend has referred, the facts were that it was a receipt which was dated 26th August, 1948, and the signature was written across the stamp, which was a 1951 issue.

Mr. Baldwin

What does that matter?

Mr. Nugent

How could a valid receipt have been made out in 1948 when it carried a 1951 stamp? The stamp had not been printed at the time the receipt was supposed to have been drawn up, and we had no alternative but to regard the receipt as unsound.

Reading the papers with great care, it surprised me that more receipts had not been produced, because it is quite evident that much more work had been done. One thing which I can say with absolute certainty is that these receipts simply have not been produced to us, except for part of the work which had not been approved. For a great deal of work which obviously had been approved and done we have never seen receipts at all. One of the many mysteries of the case is who paid for the work.

I want to leave my hon. Friend in no doubt at all that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Dugdale), the former Minister, looked into this matter carefully and that I have also looked into it in detail and examined the papers. The facts of the case are quite definite. Only one application has been made. It has always been treated as Mr. Lloyd's application, and there was no suggestion until 1953 that it was ever Mrs. Lloyd's application.

In the circumstances we had no alternative. We could not possibly look around and say that, because Mrs. Lloyd said that she treated part of it as a second application, it was one, unless we had sound evidence to that effect. Therefore, all the other material which my hon. Friend brought in was not relevant to that issue.

The drainage application was treated in the ordinary way. As I told my hon. Friend, the reason why it did not qualify for grant after the work had been done was that when the work was inspected it was found to be radically different from the work that had been approved. Consequently, the inspecting officers had no alternative but to disapprove it. There was no question of discrimination. Any other applicant would have been treated in exactly the same way.

Some of the comments my hon. Friend has made about the case and the handling of it have been grossly unfair to the county committee and my Department. There simply is not the evidence to show that these people have been wrongly treated. I think they have been quite fairly treated.

I certainly admire and respect my hon. Friend's sympathy and energy in taking up his constituent's case, but I cannot altogether say I admire his judgment in the views he has expressed about it. The matter has been fairly and properly dealt with. It has been a long-winded affair, but from the Department's point of view there has been nothing which could possibly bear the accusations which he has made about it.

I hope he will bear in mind that annually some 7,000 water supply schemes, amounting to nearly £2,000,000, and some 30,000 field drainage schemes, costing nearly £4,000,000, are dealt with. Considering the huge volume of business that goes through perfectly smoothly without such severe criticism as my hon. Friend has poured upon me, I feel that his remarks are totally unjustified and I considerably resent them.

Mr. Baldwin

I am not criticising the county agricultural executive committee. I am criticising one little department which is presided over by a little tin-pot bureaucrat. I did not like bringing the case forward, because many members of the executive committee are my personal friends and I have always had good service from its officers. I begged that the matter should be settled at county level, but because I could not get it so settled I have had to raise the case here tonight.

Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)

Surely my hon. Friend's local officers must have known that Mr. Lloyd was bankrupt. It seems to me that they failed in their duty to inform the Minister that Mr. Lloyd had gone bankrupt. They must have known that Mrs. Lloyd was the tenant of the farm. Has any inquiry been made of the local people about Mr. Lloyd going bankrupt?

Mr. Nugent

I have already explained that it did not matter whether the tenancy of the farm had changed or not. Nor did it matter from the point of view of the application that Mr. Lloyd had gone bankrupt. It was quite in order for the application to continue in his name although he had gone bankrupt. In due course, if the scheme had been completed, he would have been entitled to have the grant paid. That was what was done. We knew that he had gone bankrupt. We had correspondence with the Official Receiver. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster knows the letter which Mrs. Lloyd sent on which the Official Receiver replied to her and that her facts were substantially incorrect.

The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) is totally irrelevant to the issue. There was in no way a disqualification because Mr. Lloyd had become bankrupt, nor was there because of the changed tenancy.

The main basis of the complaint is completely misconceived. The applicant was clearly Mr. Lloyd at the beginning and Mr. Lloyd at the end, and it was on his application that we paid whatever we could on receipts related to the work.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.