HC Deb 16 February 1955 vol 537 cc511-20

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [15th February]: 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.—[Mr. A. J. Irvine.]

Question again proposed.

10.1 p.m.

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

When I was interrupted by the clock last night, I was in the course of replying to questions from the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas).

They raised three points. Two were minor ones, and the other was of some substance. It will be convenient to deal with the minor points first. The hon. Member for Edge Hill mentioned Regulation 6 (3) of Statutory Instrument No. 1599. He referred to our proceedings in Committee on the Town and Country Planning Bill and complained that nothing had been done to remove doubt then expressed about which the appropriate body was to decide when a person was a person: … entitled to an interest in land which is substantially affected by that apportionment. … I think that his doubts are resolved by Regulation 6 (1) which says: Subject to the provisions of paragraph (2) of this regulation, if the applicant wishes to dispute the Board's findings, or if any other person, to whom particulars of an apportionment have been given or who claims that he is entitled to an interest in land which is substantially affected by an apportionment, wishes to dispute that apportionment, he may within 30 days of the issue of the Board's findings, give notice in writing to the Lands Tribunal that he disputes the findings, or as the case may be, the apportionment, and thereupon the dispute shall be referred to that Tribunal… In those circumstances, it is for the Tribunal to settle the question, as a preliminary point of jurisdiction, whether that person should be heard or not. There are arrangements for that to be done.

It is fair to add that the Board can inform those whom they believe have an interest, but, of course, they cannot divine who has an interest. They cannot guess who it may be. Therefore, the onus of discovering what is going on rests with the person who is interested and who wishes to intervene. It can hardly be otherwise. I think that it would be accepted by the hon. Member that the Board cannot take the initiative. If there is a party who feels that he has a part to play or a claim to make, he must take the initiative, and I think it will be agreed that under Regulation 6 (1) he has an opportunity to make his point.

The second point the hon. Member made was on the difference between Statutory Instruments 1599 and 1600. No. 1599 requires an application for payment to be made: … on a form issued by and obtainable from the Board. … No. 1600 says: A claim …shall be made in the form, or substantially in the form, prescribed by the schedule. … There is nothing sinister about this. It is a simple administrative point. The explanation is that it was just not possible to put the printing of the forms relating to Statutory Instrument 1600 in hand until rather late.

And so the Regulations were framed to enable claims for compensation to be made even though the forms were not obtainable. If they can get them, of course everyone would prefer to have a printed form, particularly if they can get one free. In fact, the Central Land Board sent out 30,000 forms to people whom it believed to be entitled to a payment. The hon. Member can check the accuracy of what I say if he looks at the date of the respective forms, because he will see that the form to which I refer was printed in December, 1954.

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

What happens in the case of the Regulation where the application has to be in the prescribed form and, because they are out of print or have been destroyed by fire, the forms are not available? Why is precisely the same form of words used in that case as in the other Regulation?

Mr. Deedes

If the applicant can make it clear that the required form was unobtainable, I have no doubt that his claim would be accepted.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

Not according to the Regulations.

Mr. Deedes

I think that is a point which might be left to the discretion of those who have to judge the claims.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

That is exactly the kind of thing which is so intolerable. Either these Regulations have a meaning and should be followed and should be binding on absolutely everyone, including civil servants, the Lands Tribunal, the Central Land Board and everyone else, or they should not be binding on everyone. It is utterly unjustifiable for the Minister to say that these Regulations are binding on the citizen but only binding upon civil servants and the Tribunal and the Board at their discretion. His explanation is rather extraordinary. Will not the hon. Gentleman reconsider this Regulation in the light of his own argument?

Mr. Deedes

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman has misunderstood what I said. He asked what would happen to someone unable to obtain the prescribed form who made his application on another sort of form. The implication of what he said was that the claim would be rejected. All I was saying was that clearly it would not be. Of course it is binding on the authorities to provide the proper form, and that is understood. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, this is repeated in legislation introduced by his own Administration, and is more or less uniform throughout town and country planning.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman has already spoken twice on this Motion. He is only allowed one speech.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I am not making another speech. I am only asking for elucidation of what the Minister has said. I hope that is in order.

Mr. Speaker

If it is a short point, but we cannot allow the debate to degenerate into a conversation.

Mr. Deedes

May I leave it like this: I will ascertain what will be the situation if these forms are not available and if an applicant failed to get a form, and I will undertake to satisfy the hon. and learned Member on that point.

We come now to the major point raised last night. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas), in particular, was concerned with the wording of Regulation 5. He described it, as did his hon. Friend, as bureaucracy at its worst, and so on. I should like to go through Regulation 5 (1) rather critically, and I think that it would be for the convenience of the House if that were done sentence by sentence. The Board shall consider any particulars supplied pursuant to the last preceding regulation"— there is nothing wrong about that— and cause such investigations to be made and such steps to be taken as they may deem requisite for a proper determination of the application … I think that is fair enough, because there are things to be verified and values to be checked and so on. Some of these payments relate to transactions in land where the purchaser may have his story to tell as well as the vendor. Finally, when the Board has done everything necessary for the proper determination of the application it shall, thereafter determine the amount of the payment … That is what they are there for.

We now come to the proviso about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and I appreciate the point he made. First, it must be remembered that the form of application which is issued has been deliberately kept as simple as possible. In the more complicated type of case—for example, the analagous cases dealt with under Section 10—additional information may be required. Sometimes the applicant may not fill in the whole form. In such a case the Board will have to seek additional information before it is in a position to determine the application, and it is given the necessary powers to do so under Regulation 4 (1) and (2).

What is to happen if the particulars or evidence required by the Board are not forthcoming? If it is a case where the information already supplied is inadequate, the Board is likely to defer the determination of the application until the evidence is available. That is the most likely course. On the other hand, information may reach the Board from another source. It may be able to fill in the gaps through its own knowledge, and may then feel that it is best to settle the claim.

But there is another possibility. What is to happen if the information is forthcoming but is not accurate? I use the words "not accurate" with some care, because it may be accidentally wrong or—and this must be admitted—deliberately falsified. Let us assume the more innocent of those possibilities—that misinformation has been quite innocently provided. How does the Board know that it is wrong? Again, it may have to obtain its information from more than one source. That will be so in many cases. Secondly, there may be inconsistencies in the one application which make it quite clear that one part of the information is not correct.

In those circumstances, the Board is in duty bound to ignore the information which appears to it to be false. What is the alternative? If it takes the informa- tion into account and determines the amount payable at a higher figure than it would otherwise do, that is a misuse of public funds. It may be said that the decision whether the application should be taken at its face value has to be taken at the Board's discretion. I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that the Board is bound to check and cross-check the information.

But this is not the last check. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East (Sir I. Horobin) pointed out yesterday, the applicant has a remedy if his information is wrongly interpreted. If, as a result of the Board's action, an amount is determined at a lower figure than the applicant thinks right, under Regulation 6 (1) he can take the matter to the Lands Tribunal. It may be asked why the Board is so anxious to determine an application in these circumstances and why it should not defer the decision until the applicant takes some different action. The answer is that the amount payable to some other person may depend upon that which is payable to the first applicant.

There is a queue in this matter, and a certain order of priority. For example, a vendor who sold land at a price somewhere between the restricted and full value may be entitled to a payment under Section 5, and the person who bought it from him may be entitled to a payment under Section 11, or under Part II or Part III of the Act. The amount payable to the purchaser depends upon what is left of the claim upon the fund after the claim has been paid; and so the application of the first person cannot be left undetermined indefinitely. As long as it is left indefinitely undetermined, someone else is waiting. That is therefore a reason for some element of time to be taken into consideration and for establishing priorities.

I have gone through the Regulation in some detail, and I am bound to say that I regard what I have said as a more reasonable explanation than the interpretation which the hon. and learned Member put on it last night. I hope he will now see it in that light.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

I rise to make only one very small point on a matter which is of some practical importance in the adjudication of these claims. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has referred to Regulation 6(1), which governs the determination of disputes and under which the jurisdiction of disputes is given to the Lands Tribunal, which is an admirable body for these purposes; but the difficulty about that provision, as I see it, is that the notification of disputes has to be made within 30 days of the issue of the board's findings.

In connection with the time limit for lodging claims, 30thApril, to which some exception has been taken, there is a proviso in Regulation 3 allowing the board to make an extension of time. There is no such proviso in regard to the time limit of 30 days for the notification of dispute, and, in my submission, it is all the more important to have some provision for the extension of time in that notifications may be made not only by people who are claimants but also by people who, not having themselves made a claim, then take the point that they are entitled to an interest in land in respect of which somebody else has made a claim.

Those are people who, of course, are not apprised of the matter at all, or not necessarily apprised, at the time that the initial claim is put in, and 30 days without any provision for extension, one would have thought, is, therefore, an unduly short time for the limiting of the notification of dispute with the Board.

Under Regulation 7 (2), if the notice of dispute is not made within those 30 days, then the finding becomes conclusive for the purposes of Section 14 of the Act. As the House is aware, most time limits of this sort, for example in the rules of the Supreme Court, are subject to a provision for extension of time, and I am very apprehensive that injustice may result if some provision for the extension of this 30 days' limit is not written into these Regulations. I hope my hon. Friend will bear that in mind and, in due course, will be able to amend the Regulations.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

Dealing with the points which have been raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas), I was a little surprised at the line which the Parliamentary Secretary took on the question of that prescribed form.

After all, if the Regulations require the claims to be made in the prescribed form, I should have thought there was no answer to my hon. and learned Friend's contention that that binds everybody, both the person who makes the claim and the person who receives it and has to adjudicate upon it.

I understand that "the form "means the form of words and that it need not necessarily be the exact piece of paper as printed by the Stationery Office and handed out. If a person who is studying the italic form of handwriting thinks that his claim would look better in that form of handwriting, then if he gets the exact words and fills in the blanks properly, as I understand it his application is in the prescribed form.

But what my hon. and learned Friend was assuming was that the supply of forms had run out, there were none available and the person concerned was unable to get somebody else's form from which to copy.

I understand that as between these two Regulations provision is made in the other for such a contingency, but in these Regulations it is not made. One, therefore, must hope that there will always be a sufficient supply of forms, either to be handed over the appropriate counter, or available to be copied if that is the only way in which the thing can be done when the last form on the pile has been reached. I imagine there would be no difficulty about that.

There is no doubt that as the proviso to paragraph 5 of these Regulations is worded there is a very wide discretion left which on the explanation of the Parliamentary Secretary is not needed. The words in the last line but one of the proviso are: in so doing may disregard any particulars already supplied…. What I understand the Parliamentary Secretary to mean is that that should be limited to incorrect particulars. If the particulars supplied are correct clearly they have to be given judicial consideration by anyone who is to adjudicate on the claim. If that is the interpretation I think that the Regulations would have been improved if the word "incorrect," or a word of similar meaning, had been put in before the word "particulars" to make it clear that if accurate information is supplied it will not be ignored.

10.22 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the care he has given to the points raised by us on this Regulation. But one matter emerges which, on analysis, I think can only be described as laughable. We had thought that Statutory Instrument No. 1600 and also the Regulations governing the procedure for reference to the Lands Tribunal were more flexible and satisfactory than this Regulation because they gave greater consideration to the public and persons concerned in not requiring the use of the prescribed form. We are now told that that is simply due to the fact that there was a danger that an insufficient number of printed forms would be available. This is bureaucracy reduced almost to the ultimate farce.

Here was a provision contained in Statutory Instrument No. 1600 and also in the Regulations governing reference to the Lands Tribunal which affects estate agents and persons with an interest in property and was regarded as being helpful in character. We now learn that the sole explanation of that helpfulness is the danger that the forms may run out. Whilst thanking the hon. Gentleman for the kind attention given to the points raised, I must remark that that explanation cannot be regarded as satisfactory.

As to the point I raised on Regulation 6 (3), it could not have been clearer from what the hon. Gentleman said that the question of whether a person is entitled to an interest which is substantially affected so that he may refer to the Lands Tribunal is to be treated as a preliminary point by the Tribunal. Those were the words of the hon. Gentleman and they were perfectly clear. But why not say it like that in the Regulation? It is nowhere expressed there. The lawyer and the layman alike will have difficulty in determining from the Regulation as it is worded how this question is to be dealt with. We hear from the Parliamentary Secretary, and it will be contained in the Official Report, that it is a preliminary point for the Tribunal, but that, alas, will not receive the circulation and atten- tion that this Statutory Instrument will receive among the people affected.

With regard to the Regulation 5 proviso, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) that there would be no objection if the Board was empowered to disregard incorrect or inaccurate particulars. The proviso would not have been criticised in this debate had that precaution been taken; but as my right hon. Friend pointed out, what is inequitable and open to objection is that the Board is given explicit power—it is invited, as it were—to disregard particulars submitted without any reference to their correctness or incorrectness, their accuracy or inaccuracy. I should have thought that this would be generally agreed to be most unsatisfactory.

Nor is it any additional answer to say, as the Parliamentary Secretary has said and as the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Sir I. Horobin) said yesterday, that this was nothing to worry about because one could go to appeal. That is not at first sight a satisfactory answer. Even on analysis, I do not think it is satisfactory. What kind of prospect of success would an appellant have if he took this issue to the Lands Tribunal and that Tribunal was made aware that the Central Land Board had arrived at its determination having disregarded certain particulars which it had been empowered by Parliament to disregard? The prospect of success in a appeal, in the context which I have invited the House to consider, would be negligible.

I cannot help feeling that the whole problem of the delegation of powers, and far too often arbitrary powers, to administrative tribunals is still an unsolved problem and one of the most important problems of our time. I believe that it is the duty of Ministers when considering Regulations emanating from their Departments to check Regulations with that overriding consideration in mind. In this instance, the Minister has failed in that duty and he has perpetrated in these Regulations one of the worst examples of the dangers of which I speak.

Question put and negatived.

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