HC Deb 09 July 1959 vol 608 cc1722-6

Lords Amendment: After Amendment last inserted, insert: D.—(1) Where after the commencement of this Act an authority to whom this Part of this Act applies purport to acquire, appropriate or dispose of land under an enactment whereby power to acquire, appropriate or dispose of land is conferred on that authority, or on a class of authorities to whom this Part of this Act applies, then—

  1. (a) in favour of any person claiming under the authority, the acquisition, appropriation or disposal so purporting to be made shall not be invalid by reason that any consent of a Minister which (whether by virtue of this Part of this Act or otherwise) is required thereto has not been given, and
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  3. (b) a person dealing with the authority, or with a person claiming under the authority, shall not be concerned to see or inquire whether any such consent has been given.
(2) In relation to Scotland the preceding subsection shall have effect in substitution for the provisions of subsection (2) of section one hundred and sixty-eight of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947, in so far as those provisions relate to the consent of a Minister, but without prejudice to the operation of those provisions in cases to which the preceding subsection does not apply.

Mr. Bevins

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

It will be within the recollection of several hon. Members on both sides of the House that at an earlier stage of our deliberations my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) and other hon. Members raised the question of protection for people who purchase land from a local authority against the possibility that the local authority itself had failed to obtain the Minister's consent in circumstances where ministerial consent was required.

The Clause says that where a local authority to which Part II of the Bill applies fails to get any Ministerial consent required, the new Clause will validate the transaction so far as the purchaser is concerned and serve to protect the purchaser's successors in title. I think that it meets the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby and by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) in Committee.

Mr. MacColl

Perhaps the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) can tell us whether this was the real case which was recently discussed in the courts where, if I understood it rightly, somebody who had a lease under the local authority applied for an extension of it and the local authority pleaded that it had not had the consent.

One could think of a great many cases where it would be unjust and wrong for a local authority to be in the position of being able to plead its own mistake in order to get out of a contractual responsibility into which it had entered with somebody, leading somebody to derive a title from it. But there may be cases—this is what is worrying me—where a considerable injustice has been done to the public, who, after all, are the people financially concerned. Ministerial consent has been cut down a lot in these transactions in the Bill, and there would be no point in amending it at all if it was not that in certan types of cases in the interests of the public and in the interests of the ratepayers it is desirable that a local authority should get Ministerial permission. Although one may condemn it if it has failed to get it, there may be cases in which it would be wrong to say that the public good should suffer and that the interests of the person who is acquiring from the authority are paramount over those of the public. I suppose that in most cases it might complicate things a little.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Crosby would help us on this, because he is very experienced in these matters. It would normally be possible, would it not, for a purchaser to inquire from the local authority whether consent had been obtained in a case where it was necessary before completing a transaction? It would be part of the normal process, would it not, in a conveyancing transaction? I do not know. In the absence of any other legal advice from the benches opposite, the hon. Member for Crosby might tell us, for it would be helpful to know.

I am just as concerned when we are looking at the glaring case of whether a right would require that a person acquiring in this way should not be affected by a mistake made by a local authority, but there are other cases where Ministerial consent is a protection to the public against abuse, and where that is so I am not at all sure that it is necessarily desirable that the interests of the public should be subordinated to those of people who are acquiring the land.

Mr. Mitchison

I have been trying to discover what valuable or useless contribution I may have made to this matter in the course of twenty-five days' proceedings in Committee, but I must confess that for the moment I have been unable to trace it.

The Clause raises a rather difficult question. It no doubt protects the purchaser, but it also enables the local authority with impunity to disregard certain limitations on its own powers. There is no provision in the Clause—I am not saying there ought to be—for hanging, drawing and quartering the mayor, the chairman of the council, the town clerk or anybody else, but it is not altogether a good thing that the position should be that if an authority disregards limitations on its powers nothing can be done about the authority and nothing need be done about the purchaser because he is protected by Statute.

I should have thought with my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) that one ought to be careful and not give such a protection to the purchaser as would relieve him of the duty of making some ordinary simple inquiries. After all, if a person is building or altering a house, he or his architect will inquire about the local provisions, byelaws and so on applicable to it, and one would hold an architect negligent if he failed to do so.

I should have thought that in this type of case it was reasonable to put the person buying from the local authority in no better position than he would be if he bought from someone else. I quite agree that if he were buying, for example, from a limited company he would not as a general rule be called upon to inquire whether all the proper formalities had been gone through. This, however, is not quite that type of case, and at this stage I suppose there is nothing we can do about it. At least I hope the Minister and his Department, when considering this sort of question at any time in the future, will remember that in practice one can do nothing to the authority if it is even deliberately careless, while at the same time the purchaser is getting a complete exemption.

I say again to the Minister that I wish this Clause had been discussed in the course of our normal procedure and not brought forward, in this instance, at 11.25 at night.

Mr. Bevins

It is true that if a member of the public is buying from a private individual questions of consent will not arise; certainly not so far as Government Departments are concerned. Although this protection is afforded to purchasers from local authorities, there is nothing in this Clause which absolves a local authority in any way from getting the consent of the Minister. I can imagine what would happen if they did not; the members of the council would be subject to a surcharge.

Mr. Mitchison

Yes, but that does not cover every case. It may be that this sort of transaction is put through carelessly; that the council does not do what it ought to do. There may be no question of surcharge, although something has been disregarded; and it can be disregarded with impunity. A Clause of this kind ought to have very careful consideration before it is brought forward and, if I may make the point again, it ought not to be brought forward in the form of a Lords Amendment at the very last stage.

Question put and agreed to.