HC Deb 15 February 1955 vol 537 cc338-43

11.11 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Central Land Board Payments Regulations, 1954 (S.I., 1954, No. 1599), dated 1st December, 1954, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th December, be annulled. In the short time available for this subject to be considered, I desire to draw attention to certain features of these Regulations—and of the other Regulations also mentioned on the Order Paper, relating to the Town and Country Planning (Compensation) Regulations, 1954— which we think are open to serious objection. These Regulations deal with applications to the Central Land Board for payment under Part I of the 1954 Act. We, on this side of the House, are opposed to the policy contained in that Act. We have fought that battle and it is over, and now, although we do not approve or like the policy adopted, we are anxious to see it administered fairly, reasonably, and equitably.

We do not think that these Regulations provide for reasonable and equitable administration. We do not want to see bureaucracy and red tape being allowed —in the fashion they are being allowed by these Regulations—to create unfairnesses between the parties and to give rise to unnecessary confusion. Of course, to the extent that we on this side approve a greater degree of State intervention in affairs, to that extent we have a special interest to ensure that, wherever possible. the administration is made efficient and sound.

With these considerations in mind, I would ask the House to glance at the proviso to Regulation 5. It is one of the most shockingly arbitrary things that I have ever read, even in a Statutory Instrument. Here we are dealing with the machinery of applying for payments, the particulars which must be entered on the form, and the particulars additional to those for which the form provides which may be required by the Central Land Board. The proviso reads: Provided that where the applicant has failed to furnish any particulars or evidence required by the Board under the last preceding regulation the Board may defer the determination of the application until after such particulars and evidence have been duly furnished, or if they at any time think fit may determine the application notwithstanding such failure, and in so doing may disregard any particulars already supplied by the applicant to which such requirement had reference. That is bureaucracy gone rampant.

An applicant may offer in his application certain particulars, the accuracy and correctness of which may not be questioned by the Central Land Board at any time—particulars about which the Board may feel the need to make further inquiries but which are not inaccurate in themselves. The Board is invited in certain situations to disregard the particulars which have been submitted even though they may be accurate and correct.

The point is that if a free vote were taken in the House upon the merits of this proviso, it would be disapproved by an overwhelming majority. The Departments are taking advantage of the exigencies of our Parliamentary system, as they take advantage of everything else, in order to extend their powers. But I am bound to say that it would have been a most shameful thing if this kind of proviso got through without adverse comment from the House.

Sir Ian Horobin (Oldham, East)

Surely the hon. Member will bear in mind that there is an appeal allowed to the Lands Tribunal, and if the hon. Gentleman suggests that this procedure is a gross abuse, surely the Lands Tribunal will so decide.

Mr. Irvine

There may or may not be something in that, but it is highly unsatisfactory to incorporate such a provision in the Regulations. It is not good enough to defend an obvious abuse on the ground that it can be appealed against, or to defend sin on the ground that one can afterwards be penitent.

The proviso, taken by itself, is, I should have thought, plainly unsatisfactory. The House will observe the arbitrariness of the first sub-paragraph of this Regulation, which enables the Board to consider any particulars supplied and to take such steps as they may deem requisite for a proper determination of the application, and shall thereafter determine the amount… The Board may take any steps that it may deem requisite for the purpose of making its determination without any kind of safeguard or limit whatsoever. One might expect a proviso following a provision of that kind to be a limiting proviso. Instead, it has the characteristics which I have just pointed out, of extending and underlining the arbitrary powers of the Board in this connection. I feel, therefore, that these Regulations are in this respect thoroughly unsatisfactory.

I desire to draw attention also to Regulation 6 (3) which deals with a point which received some consideration in the Standing Committee. That Regulation provides that a person who establishes that he is entitled to an interest in land which is substantially affected by that apportionment may take the matter to the Lands Tribunal. We were told that what was ambiguous in the Act would be made plain in the Regulations. But the contrary has occurred, and it remains entirely in doubt where a person goes in order to determine whether he has an interest in land which is substantially affected … He may be a person who has not received a notification from the Central Land Board. He may think that his interest is substantially affected, without any notification or without the matter having been brought to his attention by any civil servant. He may look at the Regulation and see that if he has an interest in land which is substantially affected he has a right of appeal, but he receives not the slightest guidance or indication as to which tribunal he should approach in order that the question whether or not he has an interest which is substantially affected—in other words, whether he is eligible to appeal—may be determined.

The Regulation also deals with the method of making the application upon the prescribed form. It insists that the prescribed form and no other shall be used. In my view, it does so entirely arbitrarily. In the other Regulations mentioned on the Order Paper, Statutory Instrument No. 1600, to which I referred at the beginning of my speech, express provision is made that an application must be made upon the prescribed form or "substantially in the form"; that reasonable provision also appears in the Regulations covering appeals to the Lands Tribunal. Why has the Department taken it upon itself in this Regulation to require the use of the prescribed form and no other?

I would add a word about the time factor. Bearing in mind the complexities of the matter, the amount of research which has to be done and the difficulties involved in the making of a claim, how ludicrous it is, I suggest, that only four months from the commencement of the Act should be available for completing this process.

I am afraid that I have occupied a disproportionate amount of the time available for this debate but I have sought to draw attention to what I conceive to be manifold objections to the Regulations because of their arbitrary, bureaucratic and inequitable character. I feel that the liberty of the subject is affected—a matter of significance and importance to both sides of the House.

11.23 p.m.

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) has drawn attention to important points reflecting on the way in which these Regulations are drawn. They are points of particular importance, because the Regulations strengthen the hands of the bureaucracy in dealing with the rights of citizens. This is the sort of thing which is always apt to happen unless we have a Minister who is completely on top of the job and who deals personally with the Regulations when they are in course of preparation.

It is no use waiting for the Regulations to come before the House and then putting up a fight in their defence. What is essential in this case is that there should be personal investigation by the political heads of the Department into the form of these Regulations, otherwise this kind of thing is bound to occur.

The matters to which my hon. Friend drew attention were contained in the proviso to Regulation 5 (1). I must say that this strikes me as rather an odd provision. Where the applicant fails to provide particulars required by the Board, then the Board is at liberty to disregard any particulars which he has already provided. This is not a Regulation for the punishment of citizens. The Board is supposed to be instigating a bona fide investigation, in accordance with its duties, into the matters before it. Why is it to be at liberty to disregard the particulars which have already been provided? What is the point?

I have a great respect for the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Sir I. Horobin), who intervened a little while ago. He and I dealt with each other over a period of many weeks in the course of the Committee stage of the Act. But I cannot understand his point about an appeal to the Lands Tribunal. If there is some danger of a gross miscarriage of justice

Sir I. Horobin

There is no question of a "grim miscarriage of justice." If the claimant disputes the use made of the machinery he can automatically use the next part of this Regulation. The Lands Tribunal will protect him. This is purely machinery to make a speedy determination.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

—I understood from the hon. Member that that was to be rectified somehow by an appeal to the Tribunal.

Why should we not have a regulation in the form that there should be no provision at all for discretion to disregard the particulars which have already been given? I understand that there may be some special circumstances in which the particulars already provided may be affected by the information that might be forthcoming in answer to the inquiries which the Board puts to the applicant. I can understand that.

If there are cases of that kind they should be hedged about and particularised in the Regulations themselves. We should not leave a wide open discretion to the Board itself, in all cases, to disregard any particulars which have been supplied, with no other requirement than simply the applicant's failure to furnish particulars for which the Board has asked. That will not do. It is an arbitrary provision which simply should not be permitted.

It is very unfortunate that we should have coming before the House Regulations which are already in operation before we can pray against them, which are not subject to amendment, which are dealt with at this late hour and which contain provisions affecting the rights of citizens. It therefore makes it all the more incumbent upon political heads of these Departments, before any Prayer is placed on the Order Paper against the Regulations, to take care, while they are actually in process of being formed, to see that there are no objectionable provisions in them.

There is also the other provision to which my hon. Friend the Member for Edge Hill referred. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to provide a reply which will be rather more reassuring than would appear on the face of the Regulations.

11.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I am sorry that owing to a combination of circumstances the debate which was initiated by the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) has not had as much time for discussion as I quite appreciate should be given to this subject.

I want to take up what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) about care in the preparation of the Regulations. In my short time at the Ministry two or three sets of Regulations have been brought before the House. These Regulations are not prepared in the manner which the hon. and learned Member seemed to suggest. They are treated with very considerable care.

I assure him that after the care which was exercised in getting through the House both Acts of Parliament, nothing was left to chance. I am not like the hon. and learned Gentleman, a lawyer, but I assure him that the greatest care has been taken, generally speaking, in the framing of the Regulations. Perhaps I can make a start at least to answer the points which were raised by the hon. Member for Edge Hill.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER, being of opinion that, owing to the lateness of the hour at which consideration of the Motion was entered upon, the time for debate had not been adequate, interrupted the business, pursuant to Order [1st December], and the debate stood adjourned till To-morrow.