HC Deb 01 February 1961 vol 633 cc1122-30
Mr. Ross

I beg to move, in page 9, line 1, at the beginning to insert: Before carrying out any flood prevention operations or making a flood prevention scheme". I think that it would be for the convenience of the House if we also took the Amendment in the same page and line—leave out from "land" to end of line 4 and insert: the local authority shall consult with the appropriate authority in relation to such land". They both cover the same point.

It might, perhaps, be very much simpler if I were first to read the Clause as it now stands, and then give the amended version. The present wording of subsection (1) is: In relation to any Crown land nothing in this Act, or in any scheme made under this Act, shall (except so far as the appropriate authority consents) affect prejudicially any estate, right, power, privilege or exemption of the Crown. If these Amendments are accepted the subsection will read: Before carrying out any flood prevention operations or making a flood prevention scheme in relation to any Crown land the local authority shall consult with the appropriate authority in relation to such land. I think that it is about time that we dragged ourselves into the twentieth century—and into the second part of the twentieth century—in relation to these Crown lands, Departments of Government and the rest. We simply suggest that where a beneficial and desirable scheme for the prevention of flooding in relation to non-agricultural land is required, all that should be legislatively needed is consultation between the local authority and the appropriate authority—and, of course, that "appropriate authority" is defined later in the Clause. When what is desired is something that is to be for the benefit 'of everyone within the area, all this reference to estate, right, power, privilege, exemption of the Crown and the like is quite anachronistic, and we should face that fact.

The Lord Advocate

We had some discussion of this point in the Standing Committee, and if I did not undertake to look at it I certainly have done, because these Crown exemption Clauses are rather a headache. We have to decide when they should go in and when they should not go in.

The effect of these Amendments, if they were accepted, would be that a local authority would have to consult the Government Department—because that is what it comes to—before carrying out flood prevention work, but would not need to obtain the Department's consent. That could cause difficulties, not only in regard, for example, to security matters, but, as was mentioned in the Standing Committee, there might be Post Office cable works underneath the land that was to be dammed—

Mr. Willis

That is covered in the Schedule.

The Lord Advocate

At any rate, there are these cases of difficulty in regard to Government Departments whose land might be affected, although it is quite true, as was suggested during the Committee stage, that the Secretary of State could refuse his approval of a flood prevention scheme if he thought that it was prejudicial to a particular Government Department.

Quite apart from that, there are these cases where a local authority can do its, as it were, non-subsidised work—

Mr. Willis


The Lord Advocate

Maintenance, yes. By another Clause, local authorities are empowered to enter on land to carry out maintenance work and if these Amendments were accepted they would be entitled, apart from consulting the Department concerned, to go on to War Department land, for example, or places where there are atomic stations, and so on, when doing anything of that nature. If the authority said no, it could still go on, with the obvious prejudice which might then arise. Although the Secretary of State would have to approve flood prevention schemes, he would be powerless to intervene in that case and the local authority could exercise powers of entry and the like. For that reason, I suggest the Amendment should not be accepted.

Mr. Willis

I am very disappointed with the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. A characteristic of all the speeches we get from the Government is a general distrust of the integrity, honesty and desire to serve their country of local authorities. In a democracy such as ours, the Government ought to treat responsible elected authorities of the people in a rather more dignified manner. All this authoritarian control of these men does not produce the best type of representative on local authorities. We are constantly being told that we cannot get people of the right type to serve on them. One of the reasons is that the Government insist on treating them like schoolchildren and not like adult men and women when probably they have spent many years in local authority work developing a great sense of responsibility and are as conscious of the needs of the community as anyone.

We must also remember that Government Departments do not always act very reasonably. They can be exceedingly awkward. They dig in their toes over all sorts of things. The tuppenny ha'penny empire built up by some wee person is challenged by what a local authority wants to do. Clad in a brief authority, the individual stops the local authority doing it. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) sits mumbling on his seat. When he made a contribution to the debate it was to tell us how selfish he was. We all have examples of Government Departments doing absurd things. We know how difficult it is at times to get them to undo those things or to persuade the Minister to overturn what the department is doing. That is particularly true of the Service Departments, which are exceedingly difficult to deal with on questions of land.

In view of the growth of Government Departments and of the passage of control of land into their hands, it is time we struck a blow for democracy. We do not expect the Government to do that, but there is no reason why the House should not carry out its historic rights and strike an occasional blow for democracy. In view of the increasing growth of Crown land, we ought to bring this practice out of the seventeenth century into the twentieth century. Local authorities contain men with a large amount of skill who are dedicated to serving the public free of charge. These people have spent their lives in it, voluntarily.

But the Government say that they cannot be trusted to consult Government Departments and to arrive at sensible decisions. The right hon. Gentleman said, "We cannot trust local authority representatives to approach a Government Department intelligently and to recognise the wider interests of the State if they are in conflict with the interests of the locality".

Mr. Ross

He also said, "We cannot trust the sheriff", because application has to be made to the sheriff in relation to powers of entry, and surely he would pay attention to the wider interests.

The Lord Advocate

Application to the sheriff arises only in the case of an emergency entry.

Mr. Willis

In dealing with some of the Service Departments it is possible that there might have to be an emergency entry. I can visualise that happening, in which case the sheriff would be called in. We expect that from certain Government Departments. We object to the constant emphasis on the fact that local authority representatives are not to be trusted with any job. The right hon. Gentleman surely knows about the composition of local authorities and knows presumably many members of local authorities—or I wonder whether he does.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is in danger of repetition on a point considerably outside the Amendment. We understand that he is urging that members of local authorities are responsible and reputable persons. We have understood that point.

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for stemming the flow of eloquence, and I apologise for coming back to where I started.

This is a frightening Clause, and local authority representatives do not like to see it in the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman ought to do as he promised in Committee—to give more thought to it and to see what can be done to diminish the need for this type of Clause in Bills, if not on this occasion certainly in the future.

Mr. Dempsey

I, too, ask the Minister to have another look at this Clause. I come from local authority service and I know that the words right, power, privilege or exemption of the Crown create almost a feeling of tyranny in the hearts and minds of those who are custodians of the rights of the local community. We talk about prejudicing these interests, but I ask the Minister to explain the Government's attitude if these interests prejudice the development of a local authority's efforts. That is a crucial challenge. It is obvious that these words must be very ancient, probably dating back to a time when there were very few Crown lands which interfered with the basic social services of this country. But I know from my own experience of cases in which the social services have been prejudiced because of the architects of this Clause and those who sought to enforce its provisions. Even today there are certain major social services which are most costly than they would be if these words were removed. I can give the right hon. Gentleman chapter and verse for that allegation.

The very least we can do is not to give these interests absolute power over the development of community wellbeing. It is reasonable to suggest that the other partner in the development of a fuller life should be allowed the initiative in this case of consulting these interests and of endeavouring to resolve differences and to remove conflicts with a view to ensuring that all concerned work in a measure of sanity rather than in the tyranny which I have found from time to time under the application of these principles.

10.30 p.m.

On more than one occasion in my capacity as a member of a local authority, I have raised issues such as that of the erection of local schools only to meet the untouchable and unmentionable interests of Crown land and estates. One is almost prevented from even looking at them. That is the construction placed on a provision such as this. It inspires almost a tyrannical attitude in the preservation of these places in the United Kingdom.

I appeal to the Secretary of State to look again at this matter. I am not endeavouring to be difficult or in any way obstreperous. All I wish to do is to convey the experience of one of the major local authorities in Scotland in trying to deal with the untouchables who represent Crown land and estates, who have vested powers to prevent the development of land which lies idle and is not even used for the grazing of sheep because of the power of words similar to those in this Clause.

I ask the Secretary of State to realise that it is a serious business for legislators to interpret these words to mean that the full life of a community cannot be developed simply because it would mean using Crown land and estates. I am sure that it was not the Government's intention that a construction of that nature should be put on these words by those who have been chosen to enforce legislation.

I believe that the words of the Amendment could have a beneficial effect on the Clause and that if they were accepted there would be no abuse by the local authorities who are responsible to the Secretary of State and to the electorate for their conduct. People of that kind are very jealous of the public purse, and in that respect they would not abuse any power or confidence vested in them by means of the Amendment.

I ask that the near-intolerance which the existing words inspire should be removed. If the Amendment is accepted it will be a first step in the right direction and it will help to soften the wind of suspicion which has developed among local authorities against the Government, the Secretary of State and his colleagues because of the imposition of such words as are contained in the ante-deluvian phraseology of this part of the Bill.

If this were done we could look forward to even greater co-operation and a better understanding between those who labour for nothing on local authorities and the legislators here responsible for the laws of the land. I often feel that the Secretary of State and Ministers generally are inclined to forget that there are men and women members of major local authorities who give the better part of their lives, without salary, in the service of their fellow-men. It is our duty to encourage them. We seek in the Amendment to show that not only have we confidence in the ability of local authorities but that we know that their members are men and women of integrity whose only ambition is to work with the Government If their ambition is to work with the Government for the betterment of the community, let the Government work with them, and they can do it by accepting the Amendment.

Mr. T. Fraser

I agree with my hon. Friend that for the Government to accept the Amendment would be a step in the right direction, but if right hon. Gentlemen opposite wanted to take all the steps in the right direction that are desirable they would take the whole Clause out of the Bill.

The Amendment seeks to delete the words: nothing in this Act, or in any scheme made under this Act, shall (except so far as the appropriate authority consents) affect prejudicially any estate, right, power, privilege or exemption of the Crown. Do those words mean that the local authority cannot make byelaws for the prevention or mitigation of flooding in respect of a stream within Crown land except with the consent of the appropriate authority? Take the case of the deposit of sawdust—referred to by the Lord Advocate—by the Forestry Commission on Crown land into a stream, an action which the local authority concerned had recognised as being the cause of flooding of non-agricultural land, and suppose the Forestry Commissioners or the Crown Land Commissioners, as the case may be, regarded the application of the byelaws to their stream as prejudicial to them. Would it not be possible for the local authority to take desirable action with the object of the prevention or mitigation of flooding?

I can imagine many other evil consequences that could flow from the inclusion of a Clause of this kind in the Bill, but I shall be content if I can have an answer to the question that I have just asked.

The Lord Advocate

If I may, by leave of the House, speak again, I will deal straight away with that point. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right in suspecting that to take the earlier example, if byelaws were made to stop sawdust being put into a stream, the Forestry Commissioners could say "We are doing this on our own land. We have not agreed to be bound by the byelaws, and we can go on doing it." As I see it, the Clause would justify that. I will be frank about that.

We have been asked to trust the local authorities. On the other hand, we have to trust Government Departments as well. After all, we cannot ask questions of local authorities, provosts or baillies in the House—or only every three years or so—but we can ask Questions of Ministers. That is an old answer but a true one. Here one can ask Questions and chivvy Departments. There is the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), that if a case of security arises the local authority will discuss it with the Service Department. But in many cases it cannot be given all the information about the reasons why the Service Department does not wish certain operations carried out on its land: and no matter how intelligent and trustworthy the local authority may be, without the full facts at its disposal—it cannot in some cases get the full facts—it might be inclined to go on if the Clause were not in the Bill and do something which would, in fact, be prejudicial.

I am not suggesting that the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) was out of order, for it would be wrong for me to do so because it would be a slight on the Chair, but I thought that he ranged rather wide at times in dealing with schools and so on. After all, all we are dealing with here is the question of operations on certain land for the purpose of preventing or mitigating flooding on certain other land. This is, as somebody put it, antidiluvian phraseology, but we have had it for many years under Governments of both political colours. I take refuge not in the emergency entrance offered me by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East but in an emergency exit. He asked me whether, if I would not consider accepting this Amendment, I would think carefully before putting in a Clause like this in a future Bill. I certainly will do that, and, in that sort of half-way house, I hope that we can leave the matter. I appreciate the position and will certainly consider it further.

Mr. Ross

In view of the forthcoming nature of the Lord Advocate's closing words. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.