HC Deb 19 June 1959 vol 607 cc785-93

Order for Second Reading read.

11.4 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.

This Bill is necessary for reasons which I will set out—namely, to enable the Government to accept the gift to the nation by Lord Stanhope of his magnificent estate at Chevening. The Stanhope family have occupied the house for seven generations, since the first earl was first Minister of George I. The present Lord Stanhope, who had been in his time Lord President, Minister of Education and First Lord of the Admiralty, has wished that his family house and estate shall be able to continue in the service of the nation. He has felt for some time that this fine creation represented something that ought not to be allowed to perish, something which had indeed an enhanced value among the pressures, the stresses and the haste of modern times, and that Chevening should continue to make a contribution to the values of civilisation.

Judging, perhaps rightly, that Ministers were among the greatest sufferers from these stresses and strains, in 1943 he informed the Prime Minister, then Mr. Winston Churchill, that he proposed to leave the estate and the house to the nation. The Prime Minister at once accepted what he described as "this princely gift". I wish now to thank Lord Stanhope on behalf of the nation, and I hope on behalf of the House, for his splendid generosity.

The house lies in a tract of land of great natural beauty, partly wooded and covering several thousand acres. It is spacious but not overwhelming and it is a building of unusual charm, the designs of which are attributed to Inigo Jones. It conveys an atmosphere of restfulness and peace. Successive generations have extended and improved the house and added to it and to its treasures, which include the most intimate pictures of Lord Chatham, who occupied the house in 1769, and of his sons the second Earl and the younger Pitt. There hangs the portrait of Lord Chesterfield by Gains-borough, and in the gallery leading to the library are letters and memories of many previous Prime Ministers. There is a letter of Lord Rosebery's written to the present owner's mother in 1911, in this very month of June, in which he has crossed out the address "Chevening" and written "Paradise". There is a poem by Disraeli, framed, which I can only describe as "rough". In the library are originals of Stanhope's life of Pitt and Mahon's history of England. One pictures Mr. Baldwin, who often visited Chevening, browsing among the volumes of literature and choosing apt quotations for the next week's debate.

Recently Lord Stanhope indicated that he would like to complete the arrangements necessary to put his offer into effect. Discussions revealed that legislation would be required, and the Bill was accordingly prepared. The Bill takes the form of validating a trust deed already signed and executed by Lord Stanhope. This deed in many of its provisions bears a strong resemblance to the Chequers Trust Deed, as amended by the Schedule to the Chequers Estate Act, 1958, which modified the original trust deed in some important particulars.

The deed which is set out here declares that the Chevening Estate, the house and its contents, and the Chevening Trust Fund, are held in the first instance, as long as Lord Stanhope is alive, upon trust to permit him to occupy and use the estate and house and to enjoy the income from the fund. The fund will consist of investments amounting to £250,000, the income from which will be added to rents from the estate and should meet all reasonable requirements.

After Lord Stanhope's death the deed permits the Prime Minister or his nominee to occupy, use and enjoy Chevening as a furnished country house. Provisions are included to cover the possibility of the trust for this second purpose failing, for example, if the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition should declare that Chevening is no longer wanted for the purpose. The Leader of the Opposition has been kept fully informed and has been consulted before we introduced the Bill.

The persons who will in due course be qualified to occupy Chevening are, in the first place, the Prime Minister of the day. He may, however, if he desires nominate instead anyone of his colleagues who is a Cabinet Minister. He may, alternatively, nominate certain members of the Royal Family, who are defined broadly as the widow or a direct descendant of King George VI or the spouse, widow or widower of such descendant. At present, this broad definition includes Her Majesty the Queen, the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret, the Prince of Wales and Princess Anne.

It will be open to a future Prime Minister either to occupy Chevening or to put it at the disposal of certain other persons chosen from his own Cabinet colleagues or members of the Royal Family. The Prime Minister of the day can at any time terminate such a nomination, whether it was made by him or his predecessor and an occupant who ceases to be Prime Minister or a Cabinet Minister, as the case may be, is no longer eligible for occupation. So, in certain circumstances, the trust in favour of the Prime Minister or his nominee would determine if, during a period of six continuous years, nobody occupied Chevening. The trust would, however, at once determine, that is to say come to an end, without the imposition of any waiting period if at any time both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition notified that this was their desire. In that case, the estate would be made available to the Canadian High Commissioner, failing him to the United States ambassador and, failing him, it would pass to the National Trust.

After Lord Stanhope's death the administration of the estate and the fund will come into the hands of a body of administrative trustees. This will consist of the Lord Privy Seal as chairman, two persons nominated by the Prime Minister, one by the Minister of Works and the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with power to co-opt. This body will operate so long as the estate is held for the benefit of the Prime Minister or his nominee. The administrative trustees will have wide powers of management, including control over the investments of the trust fund. They will, however, be subject to certain restrictions. In particular, they cannot sell any land except with the approval of the Prime Minister and cannot under any circumstances sell the land in the immediate neighbourhood of the house.

So much for the background of this splendid offer. I now turn to the terms of the Bill itself. As I said, its purpose is two fold, first to validate a perpetual trust and, second, to give certain exemptions from taxation, in particular from Estate Duty, and, in due course, from Income Tax, without which even this great estate with its generous endowment would not be self-supporting.

Clause 1 of the Bill deals with the first of these aims. Subsection (1) is the main part of the Clause. It validates the trust deed in spite of the fact that it sets up a perpetual trust not being a charitable trust. Subsection (2) provides that the vesting deed shall be taken to comply with the requirements of the Settled Land Act, 1925. Subsection (3) protects a restriction imposed by clause 12 of the trust deed on the powers of the trustees to sell, lease, exchange or mortgage land. Subsection (4) refers to a complication which follows from the fact that during Lord Stanhope's lifetime Coutts Bank is the trustee of the settlement but that at his death responsibility for administration passes to the body of administrative trustees I have mentioned. That is the content of Clause 1.

Clause 2 carries out the second objective I mentioned; namely, it gives exemption from Estate Duty. Hon. Members will appreciate that on an estate of this size the rate of Estate Duty would be high and would make such inroads on the estate as very seriously to undermine its finances although it is very generously endowed. So, following the precedent of the Chequers Estate Act, 1917, it is proposed to give exemption from Estate Duty. It is also proposed, again on the precedent of the Chequers Estate Act, to exempt the trust from Income Tax except so long as Lord Stanhope is the beneficiary. In other words, Lord Stanhope will not escape Income Tax by reason of this Clause; it will operate only at his death. That may seem ungenerous, but the Exchequer considers it to be right.

With these explanations of the trust deed and of the import of the Bill, I think hon. Members in all parts of the House will agree that this generous project is one to be welcomed without reserve. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House. We have rarely an opportunity, whether it be on a Friday or any other day, to join together in welcoming an addition to the nation's resources quite so remarkable as that which we have before us today, one endowed with every sort of historical precedent and a great deal of historical beauty. Therefore, I have the greatest pleasure in recommending to the House the Second Reading of the Bill.

11.15 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill, the character and purpose of which have been clearly explained by the Lord Privy Seal I should like also to express on behalf of the Opposition our most sincere thanks and appreciation to Lord Stanhope for this magnificent gift to the nation.

I have not myself had the pleasure of visiting Chevening yet. Lord Stanhope has, however, been kind enough to invite me to do so and I hope to do so before long. My information about the property, therefore, is secondhand, but there can be no doubt, as the Lord Privy Seal has made plain, that this is a most remarkable house and estate. The fact that the original house was built after a design of Inigo Jones, or so it is said, and built, in the main, in what we all agree was the best period of British architecture and contains some famous Gainsborough portraits and exquisite furniture, is, I think, known to everybody.

It has, also, some remarkable historical associations. The Lord Privy Seal referred to the fact that Lord Chatham and his wife occupied the house for a time and that Lord Chesterfield was closely associated with it, but we should not overlook the historical associations which members of the family of Stanhope themselves bring to us. The first Lord Stanhope was himself Prime Minister for a short time and the present Earl was Lord President of the Council, Minister of Education and, I think, First Lord of the Admiralty. It is worth recording, in expressing our thanks for this gift, that the family has already contributed intellectually to our history. The second earl, for instance, was described as the best mathematician of England in his day. He was apparently not allowed to pursue those studies very far, because Lord Chesterfield did not approve of mathematics for him.

The fourth earl was a famous historian, but the third earl must not be overlooked. He was brother-in-law to William Pitt, and the further Pitt moved to the Right the more the third Lord Stanhope moved to the left. After the French Revolution he became such an outspoken Republican that his views estranged him from Pitt and earned him the uncoroneted title of "citizen Stanhope." He was also an inventor and made notable contributions to the art of printing, in constructing calculating machines and, above all, in the design or invention of fire-preventing materials. In 1777, he had a two-storey wooden building erected at Chevening and invited a number of celebrated people, one of whom was John Wilkes, to occupy the upstairs room while the one below was burnt out. They are said to have sat through the experiment unconcerned, "enjoying the luxury of ice creams."

I understand that, despite his unusual interests, his children found the parsimony and peculiarities of the third Earl such that of all them eventually left the estate, including Lady Hester Stanhope, who went to the Lebanon as one of the first intrepid Englishwomen who went to live in that part of the world at that time. Both the character of the house and its historic associations are not in doubt.

I have only two small observations on the detail of the Bill. First, I am very glad that the trust deed does not allow any sale of land, except by permission of the Prime Minister. This means that, if there were to be such a sale, it would be possible to discuss it in the House of Commons and that would be, perhaps, an effective check. Secondly, without wishing to disappoint the Canadian High Commissioner or the American Ambassador, I hope that the time will not come when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition jointly agree to give up Chevening. I hope that Chevening will be retained for the nation and used for the purposes laid down in the trust deed. I have much pleasure in supporting the Bill.

11.21 a.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

I want to ask the Lord Privy Seal one or two questions arising from the Bill, but I wish to make it clear that I do so in no spirit of churlishness, nor do I detract one whit from the gracious compliments which have been paid to Lord Stanhope by the right hon. Gentleman and by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

There is some concern in south-east London, in the area of my constituency, that certain generosities which have been shown to the people of London by Lord Stanhope in the past might be withdrawn by the terms of the Bill. Chevening has been an oasis for Londoners who themselves suffer the stresses, hastes and pressures of modern times to which the Lord Privy Seal referred. In the past Lord Stanhope has thrown his grounds open, particularly from June to September, for a small fee—not for his own benefit, as with the Dukeries, but for the purpose of charity. He has thrown the grounds open to Londoners so that they could go and spend a pleasant day there.

On the Ordnance Survey maps there are indications that the Pilgrims' Way crosses part of the grounds. There is a most beautiful path running from Knockholt through the grounds and used by some of my constituents. The path runs right through the grounds of Chevening and has given unalloyed pleasure to these people.

Will they suffer in future as a result of this Bill? Does it mean that after Lord Stanhope's death the occupation of the property will close the grounds to people who have enjoyed being able to use them? The Lord Privy Seal will remember that members of the Courtauld family took Eltham Palace on lease. They opened it to the public. They spent a great deal of money on improving it, but they did that at appropriate times so that it could be thrown open to the public. Dorney Wood is another example of an estate which in somewhat similar circumstances was so managed that public access on occasions was provided.

My constituents doubt very much whether, if ever the Prime Minister or my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition were in occupation of Chevening, walking along "Statesmen's Walk", taking each other gently by the arm and saying, "Enough is enough", they would welcome my constituents from Deptford, enjoying the pleasant summer, interfering with their walk and their talk. My constituents also feel that, if the property ultimately went into the possession of the Canadians or the Americans, there would be a higher security screen round the place than Lord Stanhope has thought necessary.

No one who lives in London and has to put up with the noise, the inconveniences, the hastes and pressures of London wants to see any part of an alleviation of this life denied to Londoners. It is, therefore, in that spirit, while commending the Bill, that I ask the Lord Privy Seal whether due consideration has been given to the enjoyment of this estate by Londoners and whether the privileges which have been given to them will continue.

11.25 a.m.

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

I did not intend to address the House this morning, but as I am called upon, out of courtesy, at any rate, to reply to the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer), I feel that a Minister should not come to the Dispatch Box without adding his word of tribute to the munificent generosity of Lord Stanhope in making this gift.

I can reply to the hon. Gentleman shortly in a way which I hope will set his fears at rest. The beneficiary during Lord Stanhope's lifetime is Lord Stanhope himself, although the trustees are Coutts & Co. I have certainly no reason to think that the benefits enjoyed by the people of the neighbourhood, including the hon. Gentleman's constituents, through the generosity of Lord Stanhope will be in any way altered or impaired. On the contrary, I have every reason to think that they will continue.

After that, it is a matter for the administrative trustees, but the administrative trustees are presided over by the Lord Privy Seal, who is answerable in this House. My right hon. Friend or his successor will no doubt take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. So far as rights are concerned, they are preserved by the proviso to Clause 1 (1), which I do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman has seen.

Having said that, it merely remains for me to say once more what a wonderful gift this is. I was fortunate enough to be asked by Lord Stanhope to see the house and grounds. It is a wonderful privilege to see the great works of art, the fascinating library and the very beautiful setting of this house. It can only be described, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) when he received the gift, as a most "princely gift" to the nation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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

Committee upon Monday next.