HC Deb 11 July 1958 vol 591 cc731-44

Order for Second Reading read.

11.5 a.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I need make only a brief speech in recommending the Bill to the House. I think it would be useful if I just reminded hon. Members of the background. The Chequers Estate was presented to the nation, thanks to the generous gift of the late Lord Lee of Fareham and Lady Lee, as a country house for the Prime Minister of the day. I do not think anyone will deny that this has been of considerable help and benefit to successive Prime Ministers and Governments, who have been able fully to enjoy the privileges of Chequers and to profit by them.

The estate was originally endowed with an income of about £4,000 a year for maintenance, and was vested in the Commissioners of Works, now the Ministry of Works, as custodian trustees, by a trust deed. The trust deed is incorporated in the Chequers Estate Act, 1917, and it is this Act which we are now asking the House to amend.

In accordance with the deed, the estate is at present controlled by a singularly distinguished body of administrative trustees, including the Prime Minister, you, Mr. Speaker, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Lord Chief Justice. I think, as it will be seen from my remarks shortly, some of these distinguished persons find it difficult to apply their minds to the details of the administration of a country estate, not that they lack interest or ability but that they lack time.

The area of the estate is about 1,000 acres, much of which is farm and woodland. The farms are let, and the total annual income of the estate, including investments, is now about £4,700 a year. Since 1917, Chequers has been the scene of many discussions among Ministers of all political parties on many subjects, and I hope that the discussions have, on the whole, inured to the national good. Among those subjects has been the question of national solvency, so it is rather piquant that we are now to consider the solvency of the venue itself, because we are finding that, with every care and economy, the original endowment cannot produce enough income to maintain the estate.

I feel sure the House will agree that the need for financial assistance, hitherto given on the authority of the Appropriation Acts, should now be met by specific legislative provision, and that is proposed in the Bill. Quite apart from the question of the viability of the estate, there are strong practical reasons why the 1917 Act should be altered. Its administrative and procedural provisions are very detailed and, with the lapse of forty years, a number of them have become inappropriate and inconvenient.

I have mentioned already the difficulty of the trustees in their day-to-day administration of the estate, but there are also restrictions on the trustees' powers to sell or to mortgage property, and these do not make for economic management. Again, it has proved very difficult, and I think it is no longer practicable, to observe the condition of the trust that the house, gardens, furniture, books and pictures should be kept precisely the same as when they were handed over. I know that each incumbent, if I may so describe them, has attempted to do this, but it is not always easy for the wives to accept exactly the situation as they find it. I have had the honour of being a frequent visitor to Chequers as well as enjoying the personal friendship of the late Lord Lee and of Lady Lee, and I am sure we all wish to respect their wishes. I am glad to say that Lady Lee now agrees that some adaptation should be made in this very rigid condition. There is a good principle in keeping things exactly as they were, but from time Ito time there has to be some slight adaptation of furniture and pictures.

Those are the sort of considerations which have prompted the Government to introduce this amending Bill. We believe it will modernise the provisions of the original trust without departing from the main intentions of the 1917 Act. As a Government, we fully realise the need to preserve the amenities of Chequers as a suitable country house for the Prime Minister of the day. It is proposed to restrict the trustees' power of sale and disposal so as to ensure that this is achieved.

There is a substantial area of woodland which lies in the eastern part of the estate and does not contribute to the essential character of the house and gardens. If this Bill is approved, the trustees plan to sell that area to the Forestry Commission. The matter has been already discussed with the Commission on a provisional basis. I am authorised to say that I think the House can take it that if the trustees are granted the necessary powers the sale will take place in this way. I think that was an aspect of the matter which interested hon. Members opposite. I hope, therefore, the House will agree that if the powers are given this would be a satisfactory arrangement.

So much for the general background. Hon. Members have the Bill in front of them, and I do not think I need go through its provisions in any detail. I mentioned just now the need to put the financial aspect on a proper statutory basis, and that is done in Clause 2, which deals with the grants in aid. The Bill gives specific authority to make such grants in aid of the expenses of the administrative trustees. The main provisions of the Bill, however, are those in the Schedule, which, read with Clause 1, amend the original deed of settlement. The Bill reduces the number of administrative trustees to the five mentioned in paragraph 2 of the Schedule—that is, Lady Lee, during her lifetime, a chairman appointed by the Prime Minister, someone appointed by the Minister of Works, the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Trust—a very suitable trustee I should think—and the Public Trustee.

I think such a body would find it easier to devote time to the details of administration of the estate, and I also think that such a body, including the Public Trustee, would be sufficiently weighty to carry the confidence of the House. The other main aim of the Bill is to make the rules of procedure simpler and to substitute in place of the detailed provisions in the existing Act a general requirement that the trustees are to refrain from making avoidable changes in the distinctive features and character of the house and gardens. Other provisions deal with the powers of the trustees, who are given the normal legal powers of trustees, subject to the important restriction on their power to dispose of land and property which is essential to the preservation of the amenities of Chequers for the purpose which it now serves.

The trustees are given wide powers to invest capital in all forms of securities, and additional powers to apply capital to agricultural and other improvement and maintenance, and to pay compensation to agricultural tenants. My hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary, who has the advantage of being a lawyer as well as a noted expert on finance, will be able to deal with any point which may be raised on the complexities of this Bill when he closes the debate at what, I hope, may be a comparatively early hour. I hope this brief summary will have given a fair picture of what we are trying to do in this Bill. Therefore, I confidently recommend the Bill to the House.

I hope that the Bill modernises the provisions of the earlier Act but safeguards the main purpose of the Chequers Trust. I do not think there will be any difference of opinion between the two sides of the House on the value of Chequers. I think it is valuable to the State, quite apart from its value to the individual. I think it imports a certain dignity to the office of Prime Minister, whoever may hold it and whatever party may be in power. I think, therefore, that it has rather more than a national significance. I think it helps us greatly in our prestige that the Prime Minister should be able to have such a home in which to entertain distinguished persons, whether from abroad or at home. I think it also has a great personal value, which I know has been experienced by those who have been Prime Minister, in that there is somewhere which is a retreat to which the Prime Minister of the day can go, a retreat which retains some of the simpler and more attractive virtues of the English country house.

11.16 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to recognise the potential interest we on this side of the House have in this matter and to inform me some weeks ago of the Government's intentions. I should like to associate myself with all he has said about the value of Chequers to the nation and also to express, from this side of the House, our appreciation to Lady Lee for the very remarkable gift of Chequers to the nation.

As the Leader of the House has said, many very important meetings have taken place there and Chequers, situated as it is in a peculiarly lovely part of the English home counties, has certainly been of enormous assistance to successive Prime Ministers. Nor would I wish to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman in the arguments he has put forward about the need for some change in the trust deed. I recall one meeting there at which the Prime Minister, the Lord Chief Justice and myself, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, were present. I must admit it was a very congenial kind of meeting. We had lunch together and discussed, although not at great length, a few problems which arose. It is fair to say that the other trustees could not manage to be present no doubt because they were too busily occupied.

I think it quite clear that for some time now there has been a need to alter the trust deed because of the financial situation. Successive Governments have felt obliged to seek the assistance of the Ministry of Works in taking on some of the expenditure and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it is now necessary to regularise the position under which public money has to be spent to maintain the estate.

Having said that, however, I wish to express one or two anxieties which are in our minds. The Bill as it stands appears to us to give the new trustees very wide powers indeed. Theoretically, they could sell off all the land other than the mansion and the gardens. That land would include even the parkland which is not very far from the garden, indeed, it surrounds it. Of course nobody has any serious anxiety that that is likely to happen in the near future. Nevertheless, in principle I feel that this does go rather too far.

Nor do I feel that the safeguarding words in the Schedule to the Bill, in page 8 are sufficient. They say: … in the exercise of their powers of management the administrative trustees shall have regard to the need for preserving the enjoyment of the mansion house and the gardens adjacent thereto as a suitable country residence for the Prime Minister.… I do not feel they are sufficienty strong having regard to the need for ensuring that no substantial changes are made. Nor, so far as I can see from examining the Bill, is there any guarantee as to what may be done with the land which is sold.

I was very glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that it was proposed to sell the woodlands to the Forestry Commission. I appreciate the decision in that matter because it arose out of a suggestion I made to him myself. While in principle I do not think anyone can object to a change in the nature of public assets, that is to say, a sale of some kind in order to provide more adequate capital development for a small farm, nevertheless I think that in a matter of this kind it is desirable that any land which is sold should be sold to a public agency either—as in this case—the Forestry Commission, the Crown Lands Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, or the Ministry of Works. But, as I was saying, as the Bill stands, there is no guarantee about the amount of land that may be sold, nor any assurances that the land which is sold will be used only for purposes which are suitable.

Again, in theory, I imagine that the whole of the farmland could be sold to a speculative builder for building housing estates. I do not think that any of us would wish that to happen. It may well be said that the trustees would never agree to it. Here, we come up against the other change which is proposed, namely, that in the character of the trustees. All this may seem improbable, but I feel that it would be advisable to restrict the powers of the trustees rather more than is proposed in the Bill. Perhaps it could be arranged, for instance, that restrictive covenants could be applied with regard to the sale of land for building purposes. However, I do not propose to go into those matters in detail.

What I should like to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman and the Financial Secretary is that perhaps there could be a discussion on these points to see whether we could agree on suitable Amendments. Obviously, this is not the kind of Bill about which one would wish to have heated debates across the Table, with proposals for Amendments and Divisions upon them, and so on. This is obviously the kind of Bill which should be agreed by both sides of the House. Therefore, we should appreciate it if suggestions of this kind could be considered by the Government. We should be willing to discuss with them specific Amendments which are intended to give effect to our proposals.

If there are difficulties in the way of amendments to restrict, for instance, the kind of persons to whom the land can be sold, a possible safeguard might be to ensure that before any sale took place the consent of the Prime Minister had to be obtained. I appreciate that in all probability this would be done, but we may as well ensure that what will be done is completely tied up in the new Measure. In other words, we might as well do the job properly this time. With those reservations, we on this side of the House welcome the Bill.

11.22 a.m.

Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

When, in 1917, Lord Curzon introduced a Bill in the House of Lords to give effect to the wishes of Sir Arthur Lee, as he then was, he described Chequers as "a temple of reconciliation and a haunt of peace." That was the intention of Sir Arthur Lee and. I do not think that anybody would deny that his wishes have not only been carried out but actually extended. Chequers has become much more than a weekend or holiday refuge for successive Prime Ministers. As my right hon. Friend said, it has also become a venue for political and international conferences of the utmost importance. It has been a refuge in time of war. One might even describe it as a less flamboyant Berchtesgaden. I believe that in the future, whatever personal resources Prime Ministers may happen to possess, it will have an importance which will gradually become part of the tradition of our country's political history.

For those reasons, I believe that we should be very careful, in examining the present Bill, not to transgress too far the wishes of Lord Lee when he made this generous bequest to the nation. After all, his conditions were not unreasonable. For instance, he asked that he and his wife should be buried on Beacon Hill, on the estate. He asked that the name of Chequers should never be altered. He asked that the house and its contents should remain unchanged as far as possible. However, he foresaw that circumstances might arise in which his conditions might be inoperative and even an embarrassment to future Prime Ministers and Governments. In clause 19 of the original deed he went so far as to lay down that in the future the detailed provisions of his bequest might be varied through the courts. We are varying the provisions by Act of Parliament.

In varying his requests, in altering the deed which was attached to the 1917 Bill, we should be very careful not to do anything which would have offended him if he were still alive, or his widow, who is happily still with us. I think that the House should be very careful in varying the provisions of any trust, and it is even more important in this case.

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has already drawn attention to some provisions in the present Bill which some might consider are going a bit too far. I agree with what he said. Sir Arthur Lee could not possibly have foreseen that the money with which he endowed Chequers would be insufficient. He could not possibly have foreseen that the money needed to maintain Chequers would be annually four times the income produced by the £55,000 that he left. Certainly he would have approved—how could he have done otherwise?—that the grants in aid, which have recently been made annually by the Treasury to supplement the income from his trust fund, should be fixed by an Act of Parliament such as is now proposed.

In passing, I wonder why it is that Chequers costs quite so much to maintain and why the amount of money which is voted annually should vary so much? The grant in aid in 1956–57 was £18,150. In the next year it was £10,000. In the current year, 1958–59, it is £24,400. I suppose that this wide variation means that in, for instance, the current year a certain amount of money is needed for capital expenditure, and under the terms of the trust that can be taken only out of income or the supplementary Treasury grant. Even so, it seems to me to be rather a lot of money even for so important a house.

I happen to be a trustee of another great English house, Knole, in Kent. Without betraying any family secrets, I can say that the amount of money needed to maintain that house—which is one of the largest in England, very much larger than Chequers—is a quarter of what is needed to maintain Chequers. Is not it also a fact that there is a revenue from the farms of Chequers which could be added to the £4,000 which Lord Lee's bequest produces?

I have this incidental suggestion to make to the Financial Secretary. Would not it be suitable to open Chequers to the public at times when the Prime Minister or his guests are not in residence? I cannot see that it would detract from the dignity of the place, any more than the Queen regards Windsor Castle as any less her own because the public are allowed to see over the State rooms even when she is in residence. Such a facility would certainly add to the income of Chequers and help to diminish the Treasury's liability.

The particular points upon which I think we may be transgressing Lord Lee's wishes are these. The most important is one to which I do not think the Leader of the Opposition referred. It concerns the clause 8E of the present Bill, which permits the sale of chattels. This clause is in direct contradiction to clause 15F of the deed attached to the original Act, which states: All pictures tapestry books manuscripts china relic and works of art as specified in the catalogue … are never to be removed from the mansion house except for the purpose of effecting necessary repairs or restorations. That seems to me to have been a very moderate and reasonable request for Lord Lee to have made. He had amassed a great collection, he was a man of great culture, learning and taste, and it would be a pity were we to give the new trustees, or their successors, an absolute right to disperse that collection.

The House may remember that when, in 1953, we discussed the National Gallery and Tate Gallery Bill, an Amendment was moved by an hon. Member to give the trustees of those galleries the power to sell pictures that they had obtained by bequest, donation or purchase. The House, quite rightly in my opinion, rejected that Amendment. Should not it also, in the present case, deny to the future trustees the power to disperse these collections?

There are many pictures of great value and beauty. The furniture is exquisite, the collection of Cromwellian relics is unrivalled anywhere in the country, and I think that it is desirable for us to retain all these objects in the house where they were assembled, and from which it was the wish of the original owner that they should never be dispersed.

I have never been to Chequers—and I am even less likely to go there as host than as guest—but, from what I have heard from those who have been there, nobody could say that Chequers was an ugly place outside, or that its contents were unworthy of the purposes for which Lord Lee made his gift. It is a beautiful house. The deed attached to the original Act does not, in my opinion, prevent the possibility of rearranging the furniture; of changing the furniture for more modern or comfortable pieces where the present pieces are not suitable; of putting in new bathrooms, or of making such alterations as we would normally make in our own houses in order to keep them in good repair and suitable places for our guests. I think that clause 8E in paragraph 10 of the Schedule should be deleted.

Lord Lee also stipulated that there should be no plastering of the brickwork, or tampering with the external appearance of the house. This Bill removes that stipulation completely. It also deletes completely the provision that there shall be no new building within 200 yards of the house. I wonder why these drastic powers are now being given to the new trustees? Of course, one can assume that they themselves will be men of culture—Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the National Trust Executive is to be one of them.

I agree that the present trustees are too distinguished to deal with the day-to-day affairs of Chequers, but in another part of the present Bill we see that the Minister of Works is no longer to be the custodian trustee. His duties are to be transferred to the Public Trustee. I cannot imagine that the Public Trustee, whatever his personal qualities may be, would be a better custodian, a better manager of the day-to-day affairs of Chequers, than would be the Minister of Works, in whose hands rightly reposes the care of most of our great houses and monuments.

I have dealt with all the points in which I think that the Bill goes too far. Personally I would welcome an Amendment which the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition might arrange with my right hon. Friend to make these amendments a little less drastic, for there is one question alone that we should ask ourselves before we finish with the Bill: would it, in principle and in detail, give pleasure or pain to the original benefactor. Lord Lee of Fareham? In some respects, I think it would give pain.

11.35 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

This Bill has been received kindly by the House, and I am very grateful for that. It has been debated with a felicity, if I may say so, that is consonant with the splendour and beauty of the house, and its surroundings.

In so kindly welcoming the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition nevertheless expressed one or two anxieties. May I say at the outset that my right hon. Friend certainly welcomes the suggestion that any Amendments may be discussed between him and the right hon. Gentleman before the Committee stage. There is some little urgency about this because, as the right hon. Gentleman and the House know, it is desired that this matter should be finished before the end of the Session, and that the amendments to the deed should be validated by Act of Parliament so that the estate can be properly administered.

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was unduly apprehensive. I certainly think that the possibility of the parkland being sold to a speculative builder and villas being put up on the doorstep of the mansion house would be very difficult to reconcile with the duty laid on the trustees to have regard to the need of preserving the mansion house and the land adjacent thereto as a suitable residence for the Prime Minister.

Mr. Gaitskell

I quite agree that that is not very likely, and probably would be inconsistent with what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, but one might have a situation in which the farmland outside the parkland was sold off, and an argument develop as to whether it should be allowed to be used for building purposes. In my opinion, that should not be allowed. In other words, we must have regard for preserving the amenities in a very strict sense indeed, and that the whole area, so to speak, should be free from building activity of that kind. I think that it would be difficult to be sure that that could be prevented by the wording of the present Act.

Mr. Simon

We shall certainly consider that point with the attention that any suggestion on this matter, and any suggestion coming from the right hon Gentleman, certainly merits. The real safeguard, as he himself pointed out, is the character of the trustees, as it is in so many of these public trusts. Although, of course, we must make sure that the general intention of the original donor is respected, which is the point the right hon. Gentleman has in mind and from which none of us would dissent, these matters are in the end such that they should be able to be left to the discretion of trustees of the character laid down in this Bill.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the question of the sale of property to public bodies. In general, as he already knows, we do not dissent from such a proposition. Indeed, when he suggested that the extensive area of woodland which is to be sold should, if possible, be sold into national ownership, negotiations to that end were at once set in train, and Treasury consent to a sale to the Forestry Commission has been given in principle.

I think that it would be difficult to provide, and I myself think that it would be undesirable to provide, that everything and anything sold should necessarily be sold to a public body. There is the golf course, for example, or, even more to the point, some of the outlying cottages. It might be desirable, in many cases, to sell the cottages to the cottagers. Although the right hon. Gentleman's general approach will obviously commend itself to the House, again I think that it would probably be wrong to hark back to the excessive rigidity of the original trust deed, and that it would be desirable to leave a certain flexiblity and discretion to the trustees.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) made, if I may say so with respect, a very helpful and informative speech. I entirely agree with him that the House should be very careful about varying the provisions in any trust deed, and particularly a trust deed affecting what is now in effect national property of great beauty and value. My hon. Friend asked why Chequers costs so much more to maintain than, for example, Knole. I do not know whether in the figures that he gave he was taking into account the fact that Knole has now its income from visitors. I think myself that the main difference lies, first of all, in the fact that the farms at Chequers need a considerable upkeep and secondly, so far as the mansion house is concerned, in the need for security which is implicit in its being the country home of the Prime Minister; I refer to such matters as telephones and so on. All that, I think, puts a purely fortuitous extra expense on the trustees in this case.

My hon. Friend asked about the capital expenditure. That has been averaging about £10,000 a year, and in fact that has been the approximate figure for a number of years. In 1956–57 the exceptional expense was, as my hon. Friend surmised, capital expenditure—on new central heating—and the extra provision in this year's estimates is a further item of exceptional capital expenditure in the nature of compensation to an outgoing tenant.

As to keeping Chequers open to the public and making it available to public visitors at a time when the Prime Minister and guests are not in residence, I think one must have regard to the need for security, but it is perhaps a matter which I can draw to the attention of the trustees.

My hon. Friend asked about the sale of chattels. It has been found that the original clause 15F of the trust deed that was annexed to the Chequers Estate Act, 1917, was far too rigid. My hon. Friend read part of it, but in fact no chattel can really be removed from the mansion house except for the purpose of effecting necessary repairs or restorations. I will certainly look into the point which he drew to the attention of the House, but my own view is that that was far too rigid a provision, and that this is a matter that one can safely leave to the discretion of trustees of this description, particularly as they have to— refrain from making any avoidable change in the distinctive features and character of the said mansion house and gardens"— and have the over-riding duty to— have regard to the need for preserving the enjoyment of the mansion house … as a suitable country residence for the Prime Minister"— I can only add that Lady Lee herself has agreed that the change should be made.

I think it only remains for me to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he has given to the Bill and my hon. Friend for his helpful suggestions, and to say that between now and the Committee stage we will certainly endeavour to discuss any points on which the right hon. Gentleman feels misgiving.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Legh.]

Committee upon Monday next.