HC Deb 04 April 1957 vol 568 cc623-32
Mr. Maudling

I beg to move, in page 23, line 43, after the first "that", to insert: (a) subsection (4) of that section (which requires twenty-four hours' notice to be given of an intended entry upon any occupied land) shall so apply as if for the words "twenty-four hours" there were substituted the words "twenty-eight days"; and (b). This Amendment is designed to meet anxieties expressed on both sides of the Committee in regard to new powers proposed for compulsory entry upon property for purposes of survey and, where necessary, sinking boreholes. It was said in Committee by hon. Members on both sides that the proposal we were putting forward, namely, to apply the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, was not really satisfactory and that, in particular, the term of notice to be given when a compulsory order is served, which was twenty-four hours, was inadequate.

The purpose of the Amendment is to substitute the words "twenty-eight days" for the "twenty-four hours" which appears in the town and country planning legislation. There is no doubt that this extension should meet any possible objection. It was, I think, an extension which was welcomed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice); he himself thought that twenty-four hours was altogether too short a period.

I should like to stress again that these compulsory powers would be used only where voluntary negotiations failed. Clearly, the policy must be to rely on voluntary negotiation first. But it is impossible to contemplate a situation where an entire project, for which compulsory power of acquisition might be granted, could be held up because of some refusal even to give the right of survey in advance to determine the nature of the soil. By extending the period from twenty-four hours to twenty-eight days, we are, I think, meeting all the objections which were voiced in Committee.

There were two other points raised. It was said in Committee that when notice is given to the occupier, notice should be given to the owner also. That is a very reasonable point, but it is difficult to embody it in a Statute. The Central Electricity Authority has undertaken that where any notice of this kind is served on an occupier, it will do its best to serve notice on the owner, and, where it cannot easily serve notice on the owner, the least it will do is to post a notice to the owner "c/o" the occupier so that the owner will receive notice at the same time.

The other point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill). He said, very reasonably, I think, that if boreholes are sunk in someone's land, the Central Electricity Authority should let the owner and occupier of the land know the result of the testing of the land carried out by the sinking of the borehole. That is quite reasonable, and I agree that the results should be made known to the owner and occupier of land.

I hope that the Amendment will commend itself to the House. It is, I believe, carrying out the wish generally expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

Sir F. Soskice

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, we had a lengthy debate, in which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee actively joined, on the rights of entry given by the Clause. The upshot of the discussion was that the general sense of the Committee was that, if the period of notice were lengthened, it would, broadly speaking at any rate, meet the objections which were felt. The Minister has substituted twenty-eight days for twenty-four hours. Whether a period of twenty-eight days is necessary is, perhaps, open to question, but at any rate it is the period which he has chosen. Speaking for myself I would have no objection to it. If twenty-eight days' notice is given, it is not unreasonable that a public authority operating in the public interest should have the right, after such notice, to enter upon land in order to make the inquiries necessary for the purpose of efficiently carrying on the undertaking.

I would certainly advise my hon. and right hon. Friends to agree to it. I think it improves the Bill, and we certainly shall not seek to divide against it.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I should like to congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General for introducing this Amendment, which I most warmly support. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) has said, it is something which gives us all pleasure, and, indeed, satisfies a feeling which exists, not only in the House but outside also, that one must do one's utmost to protect the rights of private individuals against these large public corporations.

The Paymaster-General rightly said, both in Committee and in his very short speech just now, that this power is used only after an attempt to get agreement has failed. I should like to say that from the investigations I have made concerning the South-Western Electricity Board, it seems to me that that board—and I am sure other boards as well—scrupulously observes the voluntary obligation, so to speak, to try to get agreement. Where it cannot, it is often because of the unnecessary obstinacy of the private individuals concerned.

There came to my attention only the other day, a case outside my own constituency where someone refused the South-Western Electricity Board the quite reasonable access it was seeking to make an inspection. Eventually, when the board did get access, it found that it need not have troubled the individual after all. Had he only been co-operative and helpful he could have had a satisfactory answer at once.

That brings me to another point. I hope the fact that the private individual's rights are being looked after in this way —quite properly, as I think—will not result in any unnecessary delay in getting on with necessary surveys. That is extremely important. It would be a great pity if, after these safeguards—and this one in particular—had been put into the Bill there was any unnecessary delay or obstruction on the part of any private individual.

None the less, I think that we should recognise that there is a great feeling among the members of the public—I do not say that it is always justified—that while it may be inevitable and right, in a minor way at any rate, that the powers of these Government corporations, nationalised boards and the like should be increased, at the same time private individuals are having their rights whittled away. People sometimes feel that that is done unnecessarily. I hope that this Amendment will convince them that, at least in this case, due regard is being had, as is appropriate, to the rights of the private individual.

In particular, I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on saying that the electricity undertakings will in all cases do their best to get in touch with the owners. That is very important. In these days when land registration is increasing so much it should be much easier, as the years go by, to do that, although I know that it is something that one cannot put into a Statute. I know of a most unfortunate case in my own constituency where, due to the operation of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act—which was taken, I know, largely as a model for this Clause—an owner was not given notice, and planning permission was given to someone else who got in behind the owner's back in such circumstances that fraud could have followed. I feel that we should lean over backwards to see that private individuals' rights are safeguarded, and owners informed.

I am sure that the House is very grateful to my right hon. Friend for heeding the feeling of the Committee, and I warmly support the Amendment.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

After that speech the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) will possibly get a reputation for tightrope walking, because I remember his justifiable criticisms in Committee when he said that there was arrogant use of power by the electricity boards when seeking to survey people's land. It was on the evidence of the arrogance of many of the boards, and particularly of some of the minor officials, that criticism was made on both sides of the Committee of the 24 hours' notice. The Paymaster-General has leaned over backwards to meet the wishes of the Committee. Indeed, I am not at all sure that 28 days is not too long; but 24 hours was certainly too short.

I fail to see why regulations cannot be made to compel the area boards—or the Generating Board, if need be—to tell people in advance that they intend to survey the land. There should be compulsion on them to seek a voluntary agreement. There have been cases where they have used their powers without first ascertaining whether voluntary arrangements could be made. Obviously, one accepts the Amendment as it now is, but I still think it should be made incumbent, by regulation, upon the area boards or the Generating Board to seek voluntary access before using their compulsory powers to survey an individual's property.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I do not want to add to the arguments which were put forward in Committee, but I should like to thank my right hon. Friend for meeting us over the time of notice, and for adopting the period which I suggested. The broad point is chiefly a matter of good public relations, as the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. C. R. Hobson) has stated, but the longer period is necessary to enable certain changes to be made within a reasonable time—for a crop to be cleared, or even for the weather to improve: in particular, for the occupier or owner of the land to have a chance of fixing appointments with and consulting professional advisers and the like. All these points of possible difficulty are met by the Amendment.

With regard to the notice to owners, I am delighted to know that the Paymaster-General has adopted the suggestion that where, for some reason or other, an owner has not been identified at an earlier stage of the negotiations—as one hopes would normally be the case —a copy of the notice will be addressed to him at the property in question. That will remove a good deal of potential dissatisfaction.

Finally, I should like to thank my right hon. Friend for providing that a copy of the findings of any exploration of the subsoil will be sent to the owner. I think that it is agreed that it would be somewhat inequitable for a public body to have the compulsory right to know more about the subsoil on a property than the owner himself.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I am a little overwhelmed by the gratitude of hon. Members opposite to the Minister, and particularly that of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). I have vivid recollections of the Committee being delayed for 2,¼ hours debating this Clause which the Minister had brought forward. Even after the Minister had offered to make concessions, the hon. Member for Taunton, the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew), with seven of their hon. Friends, voted against it. They did so even though the Minister, just before the end of the discussion, said: I said that I would extend the period of notice, but that I would have to consider how far I should extend it."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, Standing Committee D, 14th March, 1957; c. 600.] They so disregarded the Minister's integrity—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—that they were not prepared to trust him. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."]

We are glad that the Paymaster-General has extended the period of notice to 28 days, because there can now be no real misunderstanding at all, but I think that those who voted in Committee against the Clause even after the Minister had agreed to make concessions, were really wasting the time of the Committee.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I am certainly not one of those who detained the Committee for 2¼ hours, and I hope now not to detain the House for more than 2½ minutes. Nevertheless, I want to add my word of thanks and welcome for this reform—

Mr. Hobson

We have more P.P.S.'s than we know what to do with.

Mr. Iremonger

I am not a P.P.S., for the record, but I want to add a word of appreciation, because I was—and I say it without anything but pride—one of those who voted with the Tory Party on this Amendment. Unfortunately, we were defeated by others of our hon. Friends. I am extremely glad to see this sign of grace.

5.30 p.m.

I discussed this matter with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, vulgarly known as the Chief Whip, and I am glad to see that my consultations with him have borne such a happy fruit. At the same time, I think that I should make it quite clear what my position was, at any rate, in voting against the Clause after my right hon. Friend had given us an assurance. I did not for a moment doubt that he would do as he said, but I felt that if I failed to vote against the Clause as it was printed I would be giving my support to the words "twenty-four hours" which seemed to me to be an affront to the individual rights of British citizens, and I did not want to go on record in the proceedings of the Committee as having supported it.

I thought it necessary to register my protest, and also to emphasise to my right hon. Friend. however silently, that I was in no way less sincere and vehement in my feelings of protest than my hon. Friends. I noticed in Committee that the right hon. and learned Member—Newport is the latest of his many political loves for the moment—

Mr. Hobson

That was because of the Government's electoral fiddle.

Mr. Iremonger

With great respect, he was fiddled out of his seat by his right hon. Friends long before that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman used a very interesting and revealing phrase. He said that in the development of modern economy and industry it was inevitable and right that there should be a certain diminution in the intergrity of individual rights.

I can quite see how he comes to that conclusion, and to a certain extent everyone would feel bound to go with him in that direction. But when he said that when individual rights were being infringed in this way the position should be watched very closely, I was not quite satisfied with that phrase. I rather felt that if one of us were standing on the Terrace of the House of Commons and we saw a man struggling in the water and crying for help, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would say that we should watch him closely. I think that something more than a close watch would be called for. I should throw him a lifebelt and see that he was brought safely to the shore.

I think that we should bend our utmost endeavours in this way if there is any slight indication of a lack of respect for the rights of private property, or any lessening of our defence against the infringement of personal rights. For that reason I voted against the Clause in Committee. I am very glad to see that my right hon. Friend has made such a very fine come-back. I welcome this sign of grace and have much pleasure in supporting the Amendment.

Mr. Hobson

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what the Patronage Secretary told him in the interview to which he referred, in view of the change of policy of the Paymaster-General?

Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton)

In adding my expression of welcome and gratitude to my right hon. Friend, I would remind the House and, in particular, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) that the points raised in Committee by my hon. Friends included not only the one about the twenty-four hours' notice but the ownership point, which has now been met so generously by my right hon. Friend. In that respect the description given by my hon. Friends was incomplete.

The only other point I want to make is that this House has always guarded the rights of the individual very zealously indeed. However necessary it may be to interfere with those rights in pursuance of the nuclear power programme, the House should do so with the greatest reluctance. For that reason I welcome the Amendment, although if there were any question of it involving the mass production of notices in connection with surveys over a wide area it would he regrettable.

There should not be a presumption of obstinacy on the part of individuals. The procedure should be used only as a last resort. Officials should not try to make their task easier by making a mass issue of notices before making surveys of a certain area. I support what the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. C. R. Hobson) has said. It is well known to hon. Members that cases have occurred where way leave and other officers have from time to time more than exceeded their authority and have invaded the rights of individuals.

Mr. Hayman

Has the hon. Member read the second paragraph in column 592 of the proceedings in Committee? There the Minister said: I have said that we will do what we can, as a matter of administration, about notification to owners."—[OFFICIAL REPORT,Standing Committee D,14th March, 1957; c. 592.]

Mr. Mathew

The point in connection with the owners received only an assurance in very general terms. My right hon. Friend undertook to look into the point about the extension of time and, knowing my right hon. Friend, I at any rate was fully satisfied with it, and I think that I can speak for my hon. Friends in saying that they were also satisfied.

Mr. Nabarro

It would be gracious and generous to thank my right hon. Friend for his movement in the direction of my hon. Friends and myself. This was an important issue in Committee—

Mr. C. R Hobson

This is outrageous.

Mr. Nabarro

—and it is the source of some regret that we are evidently not going to hear from the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) this afternoon, because he is always so zealous in the matter of individual rights and liberties. He should welcome the fact that there are a few true Tories in this House today who do not believe in the over-riding powers—

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)

Thank goodness there are only a few.

Mr. Nabarro

—of the Executive or officials of nationalised industries. In fact, nine true Tories in Committee voted against the Government. The Clause was agreed to in Committee only with the aid of Socialist votes. Originally the provisions of the Clause required only twenty-four hours' notice to be given, which was quite monstrous. The nine Conservatives who voted on the first occasion and the eight who voted on the second were all in agreement that that was a totally inadequate period.

I asked for a period of three months, and for an independent tribunal to hear an aggrieved person. Three months may be too long, because, as I said on that occasion, I do not wish in any way to impede the development of the atomic energy programme or the extension of energy supplies, notably in rural areas. I think that we can accept twenty-eight days as being a reasonable compromise.

As the Bill still has to go to another place, I would ask my right hon. Friend to consider the possibility of an aggrieved person being allowed, if he so wishes, to have an independent hearing in certain circumstances. I do not think that that is an unreasonable recourse, having regard to the fact that quite considerable acreages of land may be involved, in rural areas. Instead of having these arbitrary powers—which is what we are still vesting with the nationalised authority; although there is now twenty-eight days' notice—we should give an aggrieved person some form of appeal if he still thinks that the local electricity board has acted in an overbearing or arbitrary fashion in seeking entry to his land.

It is not just a question of walking the land. It may well involve the employ- ment of heavy boring tackle, jigs, taking lorries on to land which may be cultivated, and so on. It is an important consideration, and one which had a good deal of sympathy from both sides in Standing Committee, that an aggrieved person should have the right of appeal to an independent tribunal, if necessary.

While thanking my right hon. Friend in this qualified spirit this afternoon for moving in our direction—it is the third time that he has moved in our direction on the controversial matters to which the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) has referred so many times in the last day or two—I ask that this one outstanding matter might be given a second thought in another place.

Amendment agreed to.