HC Deb 27 July 1956 vol 557 cc868-75
Mr. Mitchison

I beg to move, in page 2, line 46, at the beginning to insert: Subject to the provisions of the Crown Lands Acts, 1829 to 1943, it shall be the duty of the Crown Estate Commissioners to preserve the value of the Crown Estate and to secure therefrom as large an income as is consistent with good management and, subject to that duty, to hold and manage the Crown Estate in such manner and for such purposes as the Minister may from time to time direct, either generally or as regards any particular matter: and accordingly. The beauty of this Bill is that we are appointing gentlemen who are in some respects trustees without telling them what the trusts are, and we are appointing gentlemen who have duties without telling what the duties are. There is no statutory definition of what their duties in practice have been taken to be. There are mysterious remarks in the Eve Report about tacit understandings, but I have never understood how a tacit understanding could regulate the duties of public servants, though perhaps I am too sceptical.

Looking at the matter at large, it seems to me that the Commissioners have a duty to the Crown so far as the capital value is concerned, to preserve it, not to make away with it, not to be led by the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) into too many speculative transactions on the Stock Exchange and so on; and that they further have a duty to collect as high a revenue as they properly can.

Of course, the Commissioners have to show themselves to be what I think they have been in the past, good managers from the point of view of proper and fair behaviour, sometimes generous behaviour, to their tenants in London and in the country. Accordingly, what is proposed here is a simple statement of those two duties, taken, as a matter of fact, nearly verbatim from the annual accounts which are published by the Commissioners and which, year by year, contain a few words more or less of this kind.

Then there follows a statement in the Amendment that, subject to that general duty, which is, after all, very much the general duty of any trustee, the Commissioners are to be subject to Ministerial directions, either generally or as regards any particular matter. I agree that if there were no such things already, it would be a rather major amendment, though judging from what I heard on the previous Bill this afternoon—if I may be out of order for one moment, Sir Charles—the spirit of King Henry VIII is about the Chamber this afternoon. In fact, I think that there are existing powers, and that those powers which are contained in Section 32 of the Crown Lands Act, 1851, really amount to allowing the Treasury, as the position then was, to give almost any direction.

The actual safeguard in those days was that the Treasury is the Treasury and has a peculiar responsibility with regard to public funds and the like. It has no Departmental Vote. It is not substantially a spending Department. It is a taxation collecting, watchdog Department. Consequently, it was right and proper that it should have power to give general directions.

That power will now be handed over under the Bill to the Minister. For England, the Minister will be the Lord Privy Seal, who, taking the term out of the Report, holds a highly non-Departmental office. However, in the case of Scotland it will go to the Secretary of State, who is a spending Minister on a very large scale. I do not object to that being done. I think it is as well that it should be defined. Indeed, I should like to see these powers, which have not been much exercised in the past, used in future for the sort of public objects which it would be out of order for me to repeat now but were mentioned on Second Reading.

Therefore, so far as I am concerned, it is deliberate that the Minister should have that power, but I doubt whether in that respect there is any great alteration of what is already in the Bill. I would merely ask the Committee to consider the matter in conjunction with the next Amendment, because that is an essential part of the machinery proposed. I refer to the Amendment in page 3, line 5, at the end to insert: Provided that nothing in this subsection or in the said section thirty-two, as amended by this subsection, shall authorise the expenditure of moneys out of the Crown Estate or the income thereof for any purpose for which the Minister or any other public authority is authorised by Parliament to expend moneys. If I might refer to that Amendment shortly now, Sir Charles, I could put the two matters together and perhaps save time.

The Deputy-Chairman

If it is for the convenience of the Committee, the following Amendment may also be considered.

Mr. Mitchison

Thank you. Sir Charles. The next Amendment is a proviso. I am always doubtful about getting the drafting right, but what is intended is clear. It is intended to prevent the Minister or any other public authority, including a Government Department or a local authority, from getting round Ministerial responsibility to Parliament, the kind of thing which is reflected in all our procedure about Estimates and so on. In the case of a local authority, it would prevent it from getting round its financial responsibility by using money from the Crown Estates. We had that point on Second Reading.

There is no doubt whatever that all of us want something of that sort. It was not necessary while it was the Treasury which had the power to give directions, but it has become necessary now when for the Treasury there has been substituted a Minister, one half of whom at least is obviously a spending Minister relying on Estimates.

These two proposals together will give some indication in the most general terms—subject, no doubt, to Amendment, if necessary, in a later Measure—of the duties of the Commissioners in order to make it clear that they must put those duties first. Subject to that, they will give the Minister full power, if he has not got it already, to give the Commissioners directions and so on. They will add the very necessary proviso that those directions are not to be used for getting round the Minister's own financial responsibility or for getting round the financial responsibility of any Government Department or other public authority.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. H. Brooke

If it is proper for me to refer to the second of the two Amendments first, I should like to say about that, that while I appreciate the intention of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), I do not think that this Amendment was as successful in its drafting as some of the others with which he has helped us on this and a previous Bill. This Amendment to line 5 appears to me to be so widely drawn that the limitations which it would place on the powers of direction to be placed in the Minister could hardly be assessed. The Minister would be stopped from directing the Commissioners to spend money for any purpose for which any Government Department or local authority is authorised by Parliament to spend money. One of the most obvious purposes of that kind is the buying of land.

Although I cannot say in what form or in what manner the Minister might wish to give directions, we should be very careful about the way we define his powers. I do not want for a moment to argue that Section 32 of the Crown Lands Act, 1851, is perfect. It is very likely that when we come to the later Bill we shall have to consider further the Ministerial power of direction. Again, I should like to refer the hon. and learned Member to some of the things which he said on Second Reading. He said that he saw no reason why there should not be proper safeguards, if necessary in a later Bill, to ensure against the danger which he is seeking to ensure against in the second Amendment. In that second Bill we shall need to examine this matter very carefully, but that should be done when we have seen how it is proposed that the powers in the Crown Lands Acts themselves should be amended.

I studied the first Amendment very carefully, because I had a great deal of sympathy with the first part of it. It seemed to me to be an excellently inten-tioned statement of what the duties of the Commissioners should be. I was not quite sure about the phrase: as large an income as is consistent with good management. I could have understood the phrase, "as large an income as is consistent with bad management," but I think that the hon. and learned Member was thinking not so much of good management in the normal sense of the term as of good management in the sense of acting like a good landlord. At least, that was how I read it.

Even so, it would be wiser for us not to impose statutory powers on the Commissioners at this stage. I have very carefully read paragraph 17 of the Report of the Eve Committee on Crown Lands and paragraph 20 where the Report recommended that the new board should be left to operate temporarily within the present statutory framework. Would not that be the wisest way to proceed? Most certainly I would judge that it will be desirable in the second Bill to amend the Crown Lands Acts so as to state or re-state—whichever is the true wording—the duties of the Commissioners.

I do not think that it would be wise to do so at this stage, until we have the board appointed and until it has carried out what the whole Committee is asking it to do, review and examine the whole of the Crown Lands Acts and guide us about how they should be consolidated and improved. That is the time when Parliament will be able to take fresh stock of the position and seek to define in perfect language the duties of the Commissioners.

Mr. Mitchison

I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for some of the personal remarks he made. At the same time. I am not quite as critical of the proviso as he is. The purchase of land—which was the instance he took—would not be prevented, though the purchase of land for a housing estate might be prevented, and that is exactly what the proviso is intended to do.

I should point out to him that the phrase "good management" comes from the Agriculture Act, 1947, and something of the sort is clearly advisable in regard to agricultural property. I appreciate the general point, that a matter of this sort should wait until we reach the Third Reading, and although I am rather uneasy about the absence of any safeguard upon the lines of the suggested proviso when we are transferring powers from the Treasury to at least one spending Department, if the Treasury—in the person of the right hon. Gentleman—feels satisfied that its activities will restrain those of the Secretary of State for Scotland in this respect. I shall not complain.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Mitchison

I beg to move, in page 3, line 20, to leave out subsection (5).

This subsection is intended to meet a recommendation of the Eve Committee Report, but it goes a long way beyond it. In its terms it would allow any person appointed part-time as a Crown Estate Commissioner not only to get whatever remuneration might be proper in the ordinary way but also to get professional fees. I suggest that this is really not the right way to deal with this matter. It is much too wide, and it introduces a very bad principle to have a statutory exemption of this sort in favour of trustees, although I recognise that in cases of certain trusts something of the sort is quite common. I understand how the subsection came to be in the Bill, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it goes too far.

Mr. H. Brooke

I certainly would not criticise the hon. and learned Member for bringing this subsection to the attention of the Committee, because there might well be differences of opinion about it. It attracted the attention of hon. Members on both sides of the House in the Second Reading debate. The Committee will remember that the Eve Committee drew attention to the present lack of means whereby the Commissioners can obtain overall professional advice, and recommended that one of the first duties of the newly constituted board should be to advise upon the most suitable means of making such advice available in future.

It went on to recommend that, until this decision was taken, Commissioners who possessed professional qualifications should be regarded as available for consultation and should receive a fee for such services in addition to their salaries as board members. Some people who have read the terms of the Bill consider that that might mean that professionally qualified Commissioners could draw scale fees for any matter upon which they gave advice. That certainly was never contemplated by us. It was never contemplated that, under this subsection, professional members of a board should be remunerated by means of a separate scale of fees for particular items of work.

The actual intention, as I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman would agree, is that they should receive single annual fees appropriate to their professional services, which could be very much more akin to supplementary salaries, because of their special knowledge which they made available to the board, than akin to fees in the accepted sense. This is the object of subsection (5), but while I have had some cause to criticise the drafting of the hon. and learned Gentleman in one of his previous Amendments, I would not be above criticising our own drafting in this subsection. I believe that we have drafted it more widely than in its possible application was ever our intention. I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman is on a good point here, and that the subsection is open to legitimate objection on this score.

The hon. and learned Gentleman and the Committee will appreciate that appropriate remuneration can be paid in practice, apart from this subsection, to professionally qualified Commissioners acting, as it were, in a consultative capacity by fixing their salaries as Commissioners so as to take into account the special nature of the duties required of them. Those salaries would be payable under the Crown Lands Act, 1851, and they would fall on Votes and not on the revenue of the Crown Estate. That alternative is open, and strikes me as a better alternative. The Committee will appreciate that, if we do it this way, the figure of £7,500 which is mentioned in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, will have to be increased. That does not affect either the Money Resolution or the terms of the Bill, but I certainly ought to inform the Committee of it.

If the hon. and learned Gentleman persuades me to accept his Amendment, we must recognise that the figure of £7,500 as mentioned in the Explanatory Memorandum, as the increase in expenditure that may be attributable to the appointment of additional Commissioners, may be something more like £10,500 than £7,500. If that is acceptable to the Committee, then I have great pleasure in advising the Committee to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Mitchison

If I may thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, I take it that the actual figure will appear in the Report, and that we shall know by how much the £7,500 has been exceeded. I am very glad indeed that the right hon. Gentleman has seen fit in this case to substitute a time rate for piece work, for that is what it comes to.

Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)

I have not intervened before, but I am not always very happy about the suggestion that bodies of trustees should have a professional adviser as a trustee. It seems to me that it is extraordinarily valuable, but it is also very difficult for a body of trustees to differ from the professional advice which they get from one of their own members. While, as a temporary arrangement, there would be no objection to it at all, as a permanent arrangement, it is a matter that ought to be very carefully considered when we have another opportunity of doing so.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.