HC Deb 28 April 1961 vol 639 cc864-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the case of the compulsory acquisition of land of a private citizen in Antigua, a case which, I think, will, on the facts and on the face of those facts, astonish and shock the House by its disclosures of what may seem to be rather a callous disregard of the rights of the individual and the disclosure of what may, on the face of it, seem shameful inefficiency in colonial Government.

The position is that prior to 1958 the compulsory acquisition of land by the Government in Antigua was carried out by virtue of the Land Acquisition Act, 1944, and it was under that Act that the Government there acquired or proceeded to acquire the land of a Mr. Alvan Comacho. Mr. Comacho was a shopkeeper who had worked hard and saved, and placed his savings in a piece of land of about 11 acres. He partly developed that land and he hoped that the development would be continued by his family as a source of income for them.

In 1955, when Mr. Comacho was about 85 years old and failing in health, he received a letter dated 28th September, 1955, from the Administrator in Antigua asking him if he would sell his land for the purpose of a school to be built by the Government. He replied that he did not wish to sell and that he had plans to develop the land. That reply was sent by his daughter, Mrs. Fernandez, who, under his direction, was looking after his affairs during his failing health. That was in October, 1955.

One afternoon in February, 1956, a Mr. Thompson called at Mr. Comacho's shop and started discussing this land, trying to persuade Mr. Comacho to sell it to the Government. Mr. Thompson was then the Administrative Secretary in the Government of that time, and it transpires that he had been deputed by the Executive Council in Antigua to make this casual and informal approach to Mr. Comacho to persuade him to sell his land to the Government. I do not think that that sort of—I would use the word "crafty"—method of negotiating a Government purchase will commend itself to the House.

Mr. Comacho resisted the persuasions of Mr. Thompson and resisted the threats of compulsory acquisition if he did not agree to sell his land. He asked for time to consult his children, and on the following day, through Mrs. Fernandez, his daughter, he wrote expressing his refusal to sell and objecting to the threats of compulsory acquisition.

After that, the Comacho family heard nothing further for several months. Then they were told by neighbours that the Government officials had been on the land driving posts and landmarks into the land. Mr. Comacho wrote to the Governor at once—

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

Mr. Page

Perhaps the House will bear with me while I read the letter which Mr. Comacho wrote to the Governor of the Leeward Islands as a result of hearing that Government officials had been on his land. He wrote: Your Excellency, I have been told that my land at 'Nut Grove' is once again being surveyed and that the Government is determined to take it. I am now. Sir, a very old man of 85, having worked hard all these years as a small retail shopkeeper and am still doing so by God's grace to maintain a certain standard of living. God has also blessed me with four children and five grandchildren, who all love this land and no amount of money offered them could take its place. I could have sold it, for many were they who desired it, but with God's grace I have succeeded thus far to pay the taxes to fulfil my desire and that of my people that they should inherit it. We are not a salaried family. We labour much, but we also wait long and patiently to reach our goal—that's why thus far it has not been developed. Some of my children and grandchildren have gone abroad with the hope to return and be able to fulfil a cherished dream—theirs and mine—to make full use of it. Thus, you may understand, Sir, how deeply grieved I am. Your Excellency may not know it, Sir, but the determination with which this Government has been following me up to deprive me of my children's inheritance is an old issue. I therefore humbly beg and appeal to you as the only one in power to give me your kind consideration to preserve the land for my family". What had happened was that on 26th June, 1956, the Executive Council had resolved to acquire compulsorily part of Mr. Comacho's land. A notice was published in the Gazette, but no notice was served on Mr. Comacho. Apparently it is a quite proper procedure for the Government of Antigua to resolve to acquire land and then to proceed to enter upon it to survey it without any further notice being given to the owner of the land. That is what Mr. Comacho heard about Government officials going on his land to survey it on 4th September, 1956. I understand that the survey showed that the Government would desire to take nearly four acres of the eleven acres of Mr. Comacho's land—incidentally, right through the middle of the eleven acres, thus reducing in value the remainder of the land and making part of it inaccessible.

Mr. Comacho's letter of protest to the Governor, which I have read, remained unanswered and he was given no opportunity to make his case either against the compulsory acquisition as a whole or against the part of the land taken, thus leaving the rest of it at a very much reduced value.

There is no sort of procedure under the law in Antigua for a public inquiry such as we would have in this country. Instead, the survey having been made, the Legislative Council resolved on 1st October, 1956, that the land should vest in the Crown. Notice of that resolution was published in the Gazette on 4th and 11th October, 1956, and as from the date of the second notice, those four acres of Mr. Comacho's land became vested in the Crown, all without a notice directly being served upon him and without giving him an opportunity at any stage to make representations in opposition to the seizure of his land. All this was done under colour of the Land Acquisition Act, 1944.

The House will not be surprised that it was then found that the Act was ultra vires and entirely invalid. What had happened was that the Leeward Islands Act, 1871, an Act of the Imperial Parliament, had not given the Legislative Council any power for compulsory acquisition of land. The 1944 Act was, therefore, invalid. One might have thought that the opportunity would then have been taken to devise a procedure for compulsory acquisition in the Colony which would have protected the individual, but this was not done. On 23rd October, 1958, two years after the land had been taken from Mr. Comacho, the Legislative Council passed the Land Acquisition Ordinance, 1958, validating everything that had been done under the invalid 1944 Act.

For those two years, Mr. Comacho had had neither his land nor compensation for it, nor any communication from the Government until, two-and-a-half years after the land had been taken from him, he received this letter, dated 10th April, 1959: Sir, I have the honour to refer to the Declaration made by the Governor in Council on the 1st day of October, 1956, and published in the Gazette of 4th and 11th October, 1956, whereunder 3.812 acres of land part of Golden Grove Estate owned by you, became vested absolutely in the Crown as from 11th October, 1956. In pursuance of the provisions of the Land Acquisition Ordinance, 1958, I shall be glad to be informed whether you are willing to enter into negotiation for the sale of the 3.812 acres by voluntary agreement and, if so, on what terms and conditions you will sell. That was signed by the "Authorised Officer". It contained a little muddled thinking in that it stated that two-and-a-half years previously the land had vested absolutely in the Crown and it then invited Mr. Comacho to enter into negotiations to sell it to the Crown.

Mr. Comacho was then in hospital. His family asked me to raise the matter direct with the Colonial Office. My letter to the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was dated 13th May, 1959. The Administrator of Antigua took such a long time to supply my hon. Friend's predecessor with information on the subject that I did not receive a reply until one dated 19th August, 1959, over three months after my inquiry. That is not the way that a colonial administrator should treat the Colonial Office.

I found that we were not in issue in any way on the facts of the case. The circumstances were as I had related them. The land had been seized about three years previously under an invalid Statute. There had been publication in the Gazette, but there had been no notice direct to the owner. Although every- thing and everyone concerned had been whitewashed by a retrospective indemnity Ordinance, not a thing had been done about providing compensation for the deprived owner.

On 8th October, 1959, Mr. Comacho died, a sad man at seeing his savings taken from him in this fashion. Mrs. Fernandez, his daughter and his executrix, then on what I thought was the best advice for her, ceased to question the actual seizure of the land and endeavoured to get compensation paid for it. In pursuance of that, I studied the 1958 Ordinance to see how she should go about getting compensation. I came to the conclusion that the procedure there provided did not provide in any way for obtaining compensation for those whose land had been acquired under the 1944 Act. The Board of Assessment which had to be set up under that Ordinance did not apply to those whose land had been seized under the 1944 Act. This whitewashing 1958 Ordinance was itself defective, and it left the deprived owner with no sort of procedure for claiming compensation.

From October, 1958, when this Ordinance was passed, until now, just two-and-a-half years later, nothing whatever, so far as I am aware, has been done to amend the Ordinance so as to enable people to claim compensation under the 1944 Act. On 2nd January last, I was informed by my hon. Friend that it was the intention of the Government of Antigua to reopen negotiations with Mrs. Fernandez to come to some agreement over the compensation for the land. That was on the 2nd January, and my latest information, which is a letter of 5th April from Mrs. Fernandez, says that no word has been said to her by any Government official about reopening negotiations.

It seems to me that all these facts point to a deliberate course of action on the part of the Government of Antigua to deprive the Comacho family of compensation for their land. It is four-and-a-half years since the land was taken from Mr. Comacho. The school has been built on the site, and still the family remain not only uncompensated but without any procedure whereby they can enforce compensation to be assessed.

What puzzles me is what has happened to the money for the acquisition of this land. I assume that it has been advanced by the taxpayers of this country under the Commonwealth Development and Welfare Fund—an advance for five schools to be built in Antigua, of which this is one. Why has not that money reached its destination in payment of compensation to the owners of the land taken for the building of these schools? I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to clear up that point and tell the House that some real steps are being taken to compensate this family, four-and-a-half years after the land has been taken from them.

4.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

First, I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) for the courtesy he has shown me by presenting me with the relevant papers and documents held by him. Secondly, I think it would be only proper to say that the zeal and skill and sympathy he has shown in this case does him great credit. I, too, have the greatest sympathy with those who suffer as a result of Government action even if it is in the range of social service.

However, I cannot accept that the Antigua Government have adopted a deliberate course of action to deprive the Comacho family of any compensation for their land; still less that C.D. and W. funds have been handed over for these purposes and have been withheld from the proper recipient. I think that I can perhaps clear up this point which affects the general taxpayers of this country. Colonial Development and Welfare Funds were for the building of schools, the construction of buildings; the question of the acquisition of sites was left to the Antigua Government, to find the money from their own resources.

I must clear up this point at which my hon. Friend hinted, which was that British taxpayers' money has in any way been squandered. My hon. Friend's detailed account of the matter, while exact and accurate, was incomplete, perhaps, in a number of important respects. In the first place since he has drawn attention to the powers of the Government to acquire land, I must explain how the legal complications—and they are considerable—in this case arose.

Before 1958 the Leeward Islands had a Federal Government distinct from the local Governments of the individual territories. The Federal Government had powers to make certain laws under the Leeward Islands Act, 1871—or rather the Crown had such powers which were devolved on the Leeward Islands through the Act of 1871—and the unit Governments had powers to make others.

Whether the Leeward Islands Federal Government were badly advised on their powers at the time I do not know, but in 1944 they passed a Land Acquisition Act and operated it for several years. After the Leeward Islands became individually responsible in 1956, serious doubts arose as to whether the Federal Government had powers to legislate on the compulsory acquisition of land for the Crown; on the other hand, there was no doubt that the unit Governments had power to do so.

To resolve those doubts, therefore, the Antigua Government passed their own Land Acquisition Ordinance in 1958, and this Ordinance followed the older one fairly closely. Moreover, since what has taken place under the older Act might otherwise have been judged illegal, the 1958 Ordinance validated everything done under that Act. I for one would be the last to encourage retrospective legislation. I see that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) opposite smiles rather wryly, but the Colonial Office has continually advised Colonial Governments against it. However, it is difficult to see how else in this case the Antigua Government could have resolved their particular practical problems. Nor do I follow how their action could be represented as anything in the circumstances but reasonable.

Unfortunately, although there was provision for assessment of compensation by an independent board for acquisitions made under the Act of 1958, the draftsmen did not bargain for unsettled oases of compensation under the old Act. Here, of course, I must admit immediately that there was an error, but it was a very marginal error, as I hope to show in a moment, although, of course, it is no benefit to the Comacho family that the marginal error should, as it were, have fallen upon them with such force.

I believe that there was at this time felt to be little likelihood of any such case arising. Indeed, as far as I know, in this respect the Comacho case remains unique. Further, the persons concerned may have thought that the Comacho case might be settled by amicable agreement, and there have been indications that this would be so throughout. Whatever they thought, no such provision appeared in the 1958 Act, a defect whose correction, I am informed, the Antigua Government have seriously contemplated. Nevertheless, I am sure that the whole House will agree that a simpler and more reasonable procedure in the case of one instance would have been to settle this one outstanding claim without recourse to the enactment of further legislation.

Let me turn to the events which my hon. Friend has described. In the mid-1950s the Antigua Government, faced with serious overcrowding of their schools, and dependent for the most part as rent paying tenants on a number of Church-owned buildings, which were not always suitable for their purposes, and which were in disrepair, decided to embark on a new school building programme on a comparatively large scale. They were able to finance the building of such schools from moneys from the United Kingdom under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act. We approved this grant but it covered only the cost of construction. The Antigua Government did not apply to us for the cost of acquiring sites. As I said at the beginning of my speech, this is an important point, as it means that this case does not bear on the pockets of the British taxpayer.

I agree with the recital of events described by my hon. Friend up to the point where the Administrative Secretary called on Mr. Comacho. My hon. Friend has described this move on the part of the Government as one which will not commend itself to this House. On the information I have, however, I cannot quite share that opinion. I have no reason to think that the interview was an unfriendly one. All that the Government were attempting to do was to resolve the matter in as amicable and informal a way as possible. Mr. Comacho was reported to have been willing to sell his land, but he said that he would first of all have to consult his children. About the same time, Mrs. fernandez' letter was received objecting to the land being forcibly taken from her father.

I do not see more in this information with regard to these interviews than an attempt by the Government to use persuasion, rather than to use their compulsory powers, and there is no evidence to suggest that the interview was conducted in an unpleasant manner. If the Administrative Secretary mentioned the existence of compulsory powers during the interview, I have no evidence to suggest that he did more than describe the realities of the situation, as he himself then believed them to be.

The Antigua Government did not decide to use their compulsory powers until June, 1956, and their procedure thereafter is much as my hon. Friend has described, although I must add that in the 1944 Act the Government were required to exhibit notices at various places concerning the acquisition of land in the locality. My hon. Friend has drawn a contrast with the public inquiry procedure used in Britain and, of course, that is a perfectly valid contrast to draw. It should be remembered, however, that the power of compulsory acquisition in Antigua, then and now, is common in most, if not all, West Indian territories. In this procedure, a good deal of reliance is placed on the good sense of the local administration.

In this case steps were taken to ensure that no course other than that of compulsory acquisition was possible and that the site was the only one suitable. I have explained the legal difficulties which beset the Antigua Government shortly after the compulsory acquisition of the land. I have also said that although the new Act validated the Antigua Government's acquisition and provided powers of compensation, it became evident that the law did not provide for independent assessment of the compensation due to persons whose land had been acquired under the old legislation.

Their uncertainty about the state of the law obliged the Antigua Government to move cautiously and, as my hon. Friend has said—and as perhaps proved the case—they move too cautiously. They attempted to negoiate in 1959, but the price then proposed by Mr. Comacho's—or Mrs. Fernandez's—solicitor, for about four acres was £10,430. This price seemed unreasonable and indeed extravagantly high, to the Antigua Government. At this point they began to wonder whether the only alternative would be to secure a change in the law to provide for independent arbitration. In November, 1960, there was a new turn of events, of which my hon. Friend is perhaps unaware—and it would seem from the last letter my hon. Friend received from Mrs. Fernandez on 5th April, that he is unaware of these events. In November, 1960, the Government were informed that Mrs. Fernandez had engaged a new solicitor who withdrew the terms proposed by her former solicitor, and promised to communicate further. He has not yet done so. In the absence of any proposal from Mrs. Fernandez or her representative, and in view of the great delays, the representations made by my hon. Friend to me, and the representations I made to the Administrator of Antigua, the Government took the initiative in reopening the negotiations by offering 15,000 British West Indian dollars, roughly £3,000 on 3rd March, 1961. No reply has yet been received to this offer. I am not, of course, competent to judge the reasonableness of the offer, but, clearly, the Government action provides a basis for negotiation.

This is an involved case, which has been clearly and well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. There have been delays on the part of the Government which I have attempted to explain and which, by the nature of events, have been partly outside their control. The Government have made an offer in respect of which Mrs. Fernandez's intentions remain unknown. The Government are, as they have been throughout, anxious to reach an early and amicable settlement. I fully share their hope that the matter will be resolved in a way which is satisfactory to both sides.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, West)

I listened closely and with interest to what the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) put to the Under-Secretary on this matter. I would agree with the Under-Secretary, if I might without presumption from this side of the House, in saying that the hon. Member for Crosby put up an extremely detailed and conscientious case on this subject. It is of importance in the House of Commons that citizens of territories which are still dependent should feel that in the last resort they can have a matter raised in the way that the hon. Member for Crosby raised this matter today.

I listened to the debate with a completely open mind in the sense that I knew nothing at all of the details of the case that was being put, but I did not, however, have a completely open mind in the sense that I know the Island of Antigua slightly. I have had the opportunity of visiting the schools and I therefore know the urgency of the need for progress in educational development. It seemed to me from my visit that the Government of the island were engaged on a praiseworthy effort to improve the educational provisions there.

It is a great pity that in this case the owner of the private land should have felt obliged to resist purchase for such a necessary social purpose. I hope, however, in the light of what has been said, that now the Government have made the offer it may be possible to arrive at an amicable solution and that the family concerned, after these very long delays, will be satisfied with the results and educational development in Antigua will be enabled to go ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.