HC Deb 06 July 1961 vol 643 cc1759-88

8.30 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 15, to leave out "(4) The Commissioners shall" and to insert "and to".

The Deputy-Chairman

I think it would be convenient to discuss with this Amendment the next two Amendments in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), that is to say, in page 2, line 15, to leave out from "directions" to "as" in line 16, and in page 2, line 18, to leave out from "State" to the end of line 22.

Mr. Mitchison

Yes, Sir William.

Subsection (3) lays down the general duty of the Commissioners which, broadly speaking, as it is throughout the Bill, is to behave as good Tory landlords. Subsection (4) allows directions to be given to the Commissioners, but only as to the discharge of their functions under the Bill. The object of these Amendments is to allow the appropriate Ministers to give directions to the Commissioners even apart from their duties as good Tory landlords.

We take the view that an estate of the size and public importance of this ought Go be run in a way appropriate to just a little more than being a good landlord, and there ought to be power in the appropriate responsible Ministers to direct the Commissioners to use parts of the estate for some good public purpose. We can each find our own instances. I remember at one time suggesting allotments—or was it small holdings for agriculture?—for part of it. Whatever the matter may be, the intention surely ought to be that the Government of the day, through the responsible Ministers, should be able to give general directions to the Crown Estate Commissioners.

I ought, perhaps, to explain to the Committee the way the Amendments would work within the terms of the Bill. Subsection (3) describes the general duty of the Commissioners to maintain and enhance its value and the return obtained from it, but with due regard to the requirements of good management. As amended, it would go on to say: and to comply with such directions…as may be given to them in writing by the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State; The Amendment will have the incidental advantage of shortening by several lanes what is already a very long and dull Bill.

This Amendment raises a point which, though it is limited to the Crown Estate Bill, is really one of considerable substance. It is fair to remind the Committee that there was a Bill in 1956 which became the Crown Estate Act of that year, which raised a good many of these points. As they are being re-enacted in this Bill, I propose accordingly, speaking only for myself, to put the points, substantial though I conceive them to be, as shortly as possible, and, again speaking only for myself, not to attempt to divide the Committee on any of them, however important I may think they are.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Jocelyn Simon)

The result of these Amendments would be to impose a double duty on the Commissioners. The first one would be to maintain the Crown Estate as an estate in land, and to maintain and enhance its value. The second one, which is of equal validity and force, would be to comply with directions given by the appropriate Minister.

As the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said, this raises a point which was fully debated on, and determined by, the earlier Act. The point here really is that the Amendment would place a double and coincident duty on the Commissioners. In other words, the Minister would be able to give directions to the Commissioners to enter into transactions contrary to the duty to maintain the Crown Estate as an estate in land and to enhance its value. That is the only way in which it differs from the Bill as it stands at the moment.

Thus they would be able to use the Crown Estate as an instrument of Government policy, and that has two aspects. The first is the one determined on the earlier Act—whether it is right to use the Crown Estate as an instrument of Government policy. The hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) gave the arguments for that course very fully on Second Reading, as indeed the hon. and learned Member for Kettering did more shortly. As to that, I would point out, first, that it was determined by Parliament in the earlier Act, and, secondly, that it would be entirely contrary to the recommendations of the Eve Committee, and therefore not acceptable.

However, I would point out another consideration, which I am sure the Committee would wish to have in mind. What we are concerned with here is not only the capital of the Crown Estate, which, of course, is surrendered into the hands of the Crown Estate Commissioners, but reverts to the Sovereign at the beginning of each new reign, and is then compounded. The revenues are surrendered, as the hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out on Second Reading, in return for the Civil List. While, at the beginning of each reign, we continue the arrangements that we have entered into for the last 200 years, the revenue is public revenue, and is part of the general revenue of the Executive.

Therefore, it is not right that it should be in the hands of the Executive to be used as instruments of Government policy in a way which is not capable of the same scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee and, indeed, this House generally, as are the ordinary revenues which are used as specific instruments of Government policy in the Estimates, thereby being subject to the control of the House.

I emphasise that second point, because it is the more important one. I know that the Committee would not be very impressed by the fact that we should be reversing a decision of three years ago. Hon. Gentlemen opposite below the Gangway would obviously argue about it, and quite rightly, because we are entitled to do so and should do so. But, in effect, all the arguments of the Eve Committee were against this. In addition to that, it is not consistent with our traditional concept of Parliamentary control of the expenditure of the revenue of the Crown. For those reasons, I could not advise the Committee to accept the Amendment.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

The Amendment of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) would have improved this miserable Bill. I am very depressed to hear the Solicitor-General rejecting it. I am sorry now that I tabled an Amendment in my own name. If the Solicitor-General himself had tabled it, it would have been accepted.

In view of what the Solicitor-General said in his Second Reading speech, making reference to my own comment, he apparently believes—or somebody must have passed him a note to that effect—that the Crown Commissioners had in one case actually consulted the local planning authority. It would nat have hurt him.

The Solicitor-General

I certainly did not limit it to one case.

Mr. Parkin

I was hoping that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have found time to explain a little more fully how he thought the Crown Commissioners ought to fulfil his duties. After all, he referred to the Eve Committee as if it had come down from the mountain with the tablets and the final word and as if the Government had accepted the lot. But the Eve Committee put quite bluntly and frankly its own difficulty, and asked that two duties should be written into the Statute. The first related to the management of the estate.

Secondly, in the light of general Government policy, it asked that these things should be put in the Statute. That is just what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not done in the Bill. He has chosen to insert only the ordinary trusteeship duties which are inadequate, not only in my opinion but in the opinion of millions of people of all parties in the world. There is an increasing feeling that there is a problem here which has to be tackled on new ground. that it is a mistake to put large estates into the hands of trustees who are bound by certain rules and responsibilities to their trust, and to their trust alone, and that we must find a way of reintroducing the responsibility to the community.

I will not go over all that ground again, but I would remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there are seven pages of enactments to be repealed, and it is very tempting to quote some more of them. But many of them contain this ancient notion of stewardship and the ancient notion that the landowner is responsible for the people who live on the land as well as the exploitation of the land itself.

This is a backward step. This is not a Bill which is defending and consolidating ancient rights. These rights are not ancient, and they are not good they are modern developments of land holding and land administration. It is wrong that the Crown itself should now be loaded with this responsibility as though this was an ideal way of administering the property of the Crown.

8.45 p.m.

I do not find the Solicitor-General's arguments convincing when he says that, if the Commissioners follow the directions of the Government, this would be a way in which the Government would be expending public revenue without accountability to Parliament. After all, one could run through the sort of lecture one gives in this Chamber in the mornings, explaining how the British Constitution has evolved, how the Parliamentary system works, and how it alters every few years in the light of experience and if we can find in these cases other devices. But he has found no difficulty in accepting the fact that local authorities which own land can exploit it in various ways, from gran- diose schemes right down to letting a bit of beach to an ice-cream vendor. No one feels that that is something which should come under the intensive control of the Auditor-General or of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been working that one too hard. I hope that before we leave the Amendment we shall have a little more robust reply from him on the subject of the relationship between the Crown Commissioners and planning authorities. It is not much that I am asking for.

The Solicitor-General

It may not be much, but I think that what the hon. Gentleman is asking for is beyond the scope of this Amendment.

Mr. Parkin

I suggest that it is not beyond the scope of this Amendment, because the Amendment asks that the directions should come from the Government. In the Bill, of course, but silently, the Government have followed the recommendation—a most startling recommendation—of the Eve Committee that the Minister to which the Commissioners should be responsible should not be a Minister who has anything to do with the land of the country. On no account were the Minister of Housing and Local Government or the Minister of Agriculture to be brought in. Thus, not only were these two Ministers left out but they were made to sign the Bill on the back to show that they did not mind being left out. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that this Amendment could mean anything but that the Ministers of the Government should through the appropriate channel—which, in this case, would be the Minister of Housing and Local Government—get in touch with the planning authorities and ask their advice about these matters.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must not take this rather sterile view about rents and values and possible losses of revenue, because it might be that proper, comprehensive planning would enrich the community in such a way that the return to the Exchequer in other ways would far outweigh the little bit of revenue that might be lost if the Crown Commissioners were instructed to use a certain piece of land in the interests of the community, instead of holding out for the last halfpenny of rent or for whichever activity would produce the biggest rent.

It is fair to insist that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should say more about this before we leave this stage of the Bill. We should know whether he has it in mind to introduce, if not into the wording of the Bill at least into its working, this notice that the Crown Commissioners, if necessary through the Ministers of the Crown, should comply with the requirements of comprehensive planning and should not throw away, as the repeal of the enactments seems to suggest that they are instructed to do, the old responsibilities of stewardship which lay upon the Crown as the ultimate owner of all the land in the country.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

The Solicitor-General is using a technical objection to obstruct the insertion of an important principle. He is arguing that because of a problem of Parliamentary accountability for Crown lands we are in some way inhibited or debarred from laying down principles which should govern the stewardship or management of Crown lands by the Crown Commissioners. I should have thought that that was not the case.

One thing which seems to emerge clearly from the Eve Report is that Parliament is responsible for laying down the principles on which the Crown Commissioners carry out their management. Incidentally, I hope that in the course of our deliberations we can make some criticisms of the Eve Report and that it will not be regarded as sacrosanct.

The question which arises is whether the principle to be laid down is that the pursuit of profit is always paramount, or whether other social considerations are to arise and be taken in account, either on an equal basis with considerations of profitability, or as matters of paramount importance. The question my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has raised is whether the desirability of economic and social planning of the use of land and sometimes the social desirability of using land in a less profitable way are to be included as part of the terms of reference of the Crown Commission. It is obvious that they should.

Throughout the Bill there is a stink of commercialism. It is in every Clause, and what the Solicitor-General has been saying is that in all cases the only thing to be considered is the cash. That is what the Government are interested in as recipients of the cash, and that is why the Treasury is to be the controller and not Ministers who know anything about the use of land or have anything to do with it. Although those Ministers have their names on the back of the Bill, they have contracted out. It is the Treasury which will have a grip on the whole business, and it is the profit motive which will operate.

The Solicitor-General does not appear to appreciate that community welfare or public good should be considered by the Crown Commissioners. He uses the technical objection of the difficulty of Parliamentary accountability and refuses to lay down that some consideration of comprehensive planning of Crown lands might be desirable.

It is because of such considerations that an intelligent Government might give some directions to the Crown Commissioners. The Eve Committee recommended that the Crown Commissioners should not be subject to all the vagaries of Ministerial policy, and with the kind of Government we now have that is understandable. The Commissioners should not receive daily directions from different Ministers when those Ministers might try to push them around while they are trying to manage the Crown lands. But it was not the intention that there should not be directions about national policy on the use of land, national policy on agriculture, national policy on the promotion of parks for the benefit of the people, and national policy on seashores. It is obvious that the Crown Commissioners must take account of such national policy. It is obvious that they should receive directions from Ministers on such general national policies.

In spite of what the Solicitor-General said, I should have thought that it was obvious that in some cases such national policies ought to count for more than cash and the pursuit of the profit motive. The Solicitor-General does not agree. He is determined to elevate the profit motive above considerations of national policy of land use, social amenity, public welfare, and everything else. That is why we are being asked to reject the Amendments.

I hope that the Committee will violently disagree with this profit-making device of the Solicitor-General which will distort any intelligent and sensible policy for the use of Crown land, and accept these Amendments.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I support the Amendments because it seems eminently desirable that the Minister responsible in Scotland or in England or in Wales should be able to decide. In Scotland we have a Minister who is responsible not only for the Crown Commissioners, but, contrary to the generally expressed opinion that as such he should not be the Minister of Housing, or Planning, or Agriculture, he is the Minister for everything. He is our Scottish Pooh-Bah, and he ought to be able to give directions which would lead to the better use of these lands.

It is all very well for the Solicitor-General to say that there is no big money-grabbing aspect to this, but when I read the Annual Report for this year I find that in Scotland eight farms with vacant possession were re-let by tender, the rents being increased from £340 to £1,340. That is a steep increase in rent. It may be justifiable, but it seems to raise a number of questions about whether this is to be the policy, or whether we are to use the land in the best interests of the community.

Suppose that in Scotland the Secretary of State desired to establish a demonstration farm on Crown land in Caithness. Only this morning we were advocating that he should do this. Would the Crown Commissioners be able to say that from a financial point of view it would be better to feu this land as a sporting estate because one of the Tory Members of the House of Commons, or of another place, would be prepared to pay a substantial rent for a few months sport during the summer? It is likely that the rent which would be received for the property as a sporting estate would be very much more than the rent which could be expected from the Department of Agriculture.

Surely, in those circumstances, it is right that the Minister should be able to give a direction and say that he would like this land to be feued for the purpose of a demonstration farm? I cannot see anything wrong with that proposition. That is what the Amendments are seeking to do, and it therefore seems that there is a good case for accepting them.

I could quote other similar cases appertaining to Scotland, but I think that the case I have quoted makes my point sufficiently well for the Amendments to be accepted. Are we to have sporting estates, rather than something for the benefit of the community in the North of Scotland, and rather than trying to rehabilitate the Highlands and build up our agriculture? I am confident that the people of this country would prefer to see the latter course adopted. For that reason, I sincerely hope that the Government will think again about these Amendments.

9.0 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I can reply shortly to the two main points which have been raised in the debate. First, is it true—to use the words of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler)—that the pursuit of profit is always paramount under this Bill? He suggests that that is the duty imposed an the Commissioners. If the Committee will look at subsection (3) they will see that the duty is quite different. It is to maintain and enhance the value"— of the Crown Estate— and the return obtained from it, but with due regard to the requirements of good management. In other words, even though a greater profit might be made by what would be regarded as bad estate management, nevertheless the Commissioners have to have regard to the principles of good management in deciding their rental and sale policy.

Mr. Willis

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman apply that argument to sporting estates?

The Solicitor-General

I always try to reply to the points raised in debate.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

We, as Scotsmen, will try to get used to that.

The Solicitor-General

Clause 3 (1) modifies the requirement to get the best consideration in the way of rental purchase price by its last phrase, having regard to all the circumstances of the case. Furthermore, the terms of Clause 4 seem to me to respond exactly to the demand of the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), namely, that there should also be a responsibility to those who live on the land. It is an exaggeration to read Clause 3 as if it demanded the screwing out of the last penny that can be got from the use of the Crown Estate. That is not at all the way in which the Commissioners approach their responsibility.

The hon. Member for Paddington, North, echoed by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), have demanded that the Commissioners should be directed to use their powers, in derogation of the general duty imposed in subsection (3), to carry out specific Government policy. Is it really the job of the Commissioners of Crown Land to provide experimental farms? It is true that they represent the Crown, but they represent a particular manifestation of it, and their job is to manage the Crown Estate in the general way laid down in the subsection. They do not represent the Crown as the guardian of the interests of agriculture. If there is an experimental farm to be provided in Scotland, that is the job of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. He will provide it wherever it is most appropriate. The hon. Member for Paddington, North—

Mr. Willis

I gather from the argument of the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Crown Estate Commissioners have an obligation if in fact they consider that financially it is in the interests of the Crown estates to let that land, it may be for sporting purposes, rather than to feu it to the Department of Agriculture in Scotland at a reasonable feu despite that fact that we might desire the demonstration farm for which the land is to be feud rather than a sporting estate.

The Solicitor-General

The practical way, I imagine, that such a problem would work out is that, having obtained authority from Parliament to establish an experimental farm, the Secretary of State would decide where it would be best established having regard to the general convenience and the rent that wasdemanded by all the competing landlords who would be willing to sell to him. Of course, one of those landlords would be the Crown Estate Commissioners.

I was going to expand the argument to the wider issue where it was put by the hon. Member for Paddington, North, namely, that the Crown Estate Commissioners should actively consider planning considerations. Again the Crown Estate Commissioners represent the Crown, but they do not represent the Crown as the guardian of the general interests of the community. That is the job of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It is his job to see that planning considerations are paramount, as I pointed out during the Second Reading debate. What the Crown Estate Commissioners do, and what it is important that they should do, even though they are not bound by planning directions, is to cooperate closely, and as a matter of routine, with the local authorities. They plan their developments to fit in with the development plans.

Mr. Parkin

The right hon. and learned Gentleman started by saying precisely that the Crown Commissioners cannot be charged with the duty to consider the interests of the community as a whole in that particular function. He went on to say that that was the jab of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Then he said that the Crown Commissioners, "though not bound by planning considerations…" Is it really true that Crown lands are exempt from the planning consideration of, say, the county as a whole? It is a very startling statement. If the Commissioners are not so bound, they will not be instructed in this Bill to pay attention to the requirements of comprehensive planning and there is no direct link with the Minister. From what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said, the Minister of Housing and Local Government will be impotent to enforce his requirements on them unless the Commissioners want to play.

The Solicitor-General

This ought not to be very startling to the hon. Gentleman. I dealt with it specifically during my speech on Second Reading. Having made a forty-five minute speech, and more, himself, it is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not wait to hear what I had to say in reply, though I can well understand—

Mr. Parkin

The right hon. and learned Gentleman did say that he was not going to reply.

The Solicitor-General

I said that I was not going to reply to his attractive invitation to discuss the theories of Henry George, as the hon. Member will remember. In fact, I did refer to the planning considerations the hon. Gentleman urged and what I pointed out, as is well known to the Committee, was that the Crown is not bound by the planning Acts and particularly by the Act of 1947. Those who build on Crown land are, but the Crown itself—and therefore the Estate Commissioners—is not. But in so far as there is a theoretical lacuna, it is met by the fact that the Crown Estate Commissioners—as indeed does every manifestation of the Crown—respond to and co-operate in development plans, so that their development does not run counter to planning considerations.

If I may return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, I have just been given information that one of the Crown farms on a Scottish estate is in fact let to the North of Scotland Agricultural College for use as an experimental farm. I hope that the Committee will be satisfied that the balance struck by this Bill is the right one and that the hon. Member will withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. Swingler

I am not a bit satisfied with the reply of the Solicitor-General, which I believe makes the situation far worse. First, he said that the Crown Commissioners are in no way bound to pay attention to planning; they are not subject to the planning laws. Secondly, we find in the Bill no power in relation to the Crown Commissioners on behalf of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who is responsible to the people of the country for planning.

The Solicitor-General assured us that the Crown Commissioners are very benevolent people who take all these things into account, but we as Parliament are supposed to be laying down terms of reference. The Solicitor-General is engaged in an exercise of resisting insertion in the Bill of any considerations about the economic, social or housing planning on the ground that the Crown Commissioners take all these things into account, although they are not subject to the planning law. He says that therefore this is entirely unnecessary.

I should have thought it would be a dereliction of duty on our part, having heard the Solicitor-General, not to insist that these matters should be inserted in the Bill. In spite of what he has said about references throughout this Bill to considerations other than cash nexus, he must recognise that in every Clause of the Bill there is emphasis on money considerations. He referred to Clause 3. All he referred to about general provisions relating to management by the Crown Commissioners is subject to: to be determined in such manner as, in their opinion, is calculated to secure to them the best consideration in money or money's worth which can at that date reasonably be obtained. That is the theme of the Bill, the pursuit of profit whether in the use of land as grouse moors or raising rents. That is what we are asked to lay down as the burden on the Crown Commissioners. However paternalistic or benevolent they may be, we are asked to pass this Clause to lay upon them the duty at all points to pursue profit, raise rents and get the highest price for land in circumstances in which they are not subject to the laws of social or economic planning such as are passed by Parliament.

The very fact that the Crown is not subject to planning in any form should mean that the Minister of Housing and Local Government and whoever represents him in Scotland—I am not quite sure of the position there—should have additional power in relation to the Crown Commissioners about the beneficial use of this land. We should insist on writing into the terms of reference for the Crown Commissioners in this Bill that they should have most regard to the beneficial use for the community of this land and less regard to the pursuit of profit.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Ross

Will the Solicitor-General have another look at this question in relation to Scotland and perhaps consult the Lord Advocate as to the real position? We are concerned about the actual words that appear here and now, and whether these will be the words that will discipline and tie the actions of the Crown Estate Commissioners.

It is all very well for the Solicitor-General to say, "We do not need to worry because already a Crown farm has been released to the North of Scotland Agricultural College." He is talking of something that we done in the past. It may be that if this Clause had been in existence at that time the Commissioners would not have been able to do it. We have not the facts and we do not know how long it is since this transaction was arranged. It may be that in the interpretation of this Clause they would not have been able to do it.

With all due respects to the learned Solicitor-General, he did not raise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). We do not know whether this Crown farm could have been let to some one who could afford a higher rent. We do not know what the terms are under which the North Scotland Agricultural College obtained it. The Commissioners might be duty-hound by this Measure to get rid the College as quickly as possible and get someone else who could pay a higher rent.

The Solicitor-General

I speak subject to the Lord Advocate because this is a matter of Scottish law. As I read the Bill, the Commissioners should have due regard "to the requirements of good management", and that would imply a reasonable continuity and a reasonable relationship between landlord and tenant.

Mr. Ross

That would depend on how it has been granted and under what tenure it is held by the College. Is it a lease? If so, for how long? If it is a yearly lease, it may well be that the College is doomed in relation to this farm after the passing of this Bill. I doubt very much whether it is feu. Our objection is that we think that this Clause is far too tightly drawn and that we are placing the commercial criterion far too heavily on the Crown Commissioners. I hope that the Solicitor-General will look at it from that point of view.

Who is to interpret the words "good management"? It must be the Commissioners; but in what terms will they interpret them? It may well be in relation to the commercial aspects. That is borne out by the fact that even where the Ministers concerned are due to issue a direction in writing, before they do so they have to bear in mind this ques- tion of good management which has been laid upon them—the right "to maintain and enhance" and consult the Commissioners before they can issue the direction in writing.

The more we examine this, the more I think that the Crown Commissioners will be tied by business. It may well be that they are bound to give consideration to the short-term advantage rather than to the long-term advantage, which may be to the advantage of the Crown Estate. This concerns the whole history of the Crown Estate. If this Clause had been in existence when John Fordyce determined to take action in relation to Regent Street and Regents Park, I wonder whether he would have been able to do what he did to preserve the future development of that area and so enable us to discuss it tonight. He was a Scot. For a long time he had his office in a ruinous building in Scotland Yard.

I ask the Solicitor-General to look at this problem from this point of view. I ask him to consider the long-term commercial advantage, because he has failed to answer the questions put by my hon. Friend. If the Crown Estate Commissioners had the alternative offer, in respect of this piece of land, of a pilot farm or a sporting tenant and the latter was able to offer more, they would be duty-bound to take the offer of the sporting tenant, according to my reading of the provisions. The Commissioners own about 8.000 acres in Caithness. It may be that they would benefit, for instance, from the work of the pilot agricultural unit, which might enhance the value of their own estates, but apparently that consideration must be swept aside and they must judge on the purely commercial aspects of the two proposals.

The Amendment is very reasonable and sensible and merits much greater attention than it has had from the assembled multitude of Ministers concerned, legal or otherwise.

Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)

A great deal seems to turn on the words with due regard to the requirements of good management". They are very important words. A few words like those can be extremely important in a Bill, and unless they are dealt with as the Bill goes through the House they can rise up like ghosts and haunt the House for years afterwards, as was the case with the words in the Nationalisation Acts which were passed in the first five years after the war stipulating that the nationalised body must make a profit "taking one year with another". How many hours have we spent trying to decide the exact meaning of those words?

In this Bill we have with due regard to the requirements of good management". I listened to the Solicitor-General with great interest and respect, as I always do, but I should like to add a few words to what he said, I am afraid not entirely in agreement with him. I work in a property development company, and I therefore have some knowledge of what is meant by the words with due regard to the requirements of good management". If the Crown Estate Commissioners were a private company or a public company registered under the Companies Acts, which I know they are not, their main consideration would be to get the best return for the owners of the company, who are the shareholders. In this case the owners, so to speak, are the Crown.

What is the yardstick of good management? I will put forward a point of view, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will tell me whether I am wrong. When one is selling a property the yardstick of good management is to get the maximum price for it. I know of no other yardstick. When one is leasing a property the yardstick is the amount of money one gets for the lease and the strength of the covenant of the lessee.

May I pose a hypothetical case to my right hon. and learned Friend? It is not as hypothetical as hon. Members may think because it arose specifically in my company recently. What happens if there is a commercial building for letting in an area in which there is a shortage of such accommodation, and a dentist, who is giving service under the National Health Service, who cannot obtain accommodation anywhere else, and whose services are urgently needed, says that he wants 1,800 sq. ft. or 800 sq. ft., say, as office space, and another company, possibly a road haulage company or some other commercial concern, also wants that space? Under the terms of good management it is the duty of the property company to let it to the haulage concern. It is not under a duty to let it to the dentist, because the covenant of a company is always better than the covenant of an individual, unless the company is about to go into liquidation. Generally speaking, one lets to a continuing corporation rather than to an individual, who may die. That is good management from the property company's point of view and it would be good management from the point of view of the Crown Estate Commissioners.

It is not unreasonable to ask that words should be inserted in the Bill to impose on the Commissioners the duty to have regard to social and planning considerations. Perhaps it would not be so bad if the Commissioners were subject to the compulsory purchase order procedure. So far as I know, they are not. If it is the duty of the Commissioners to get the best return, they will get all sorts of people. I do not overlook the fact that today the Commissioners have among their tenants London's foremost gambling casino. I refer to the one in Hamilton Place. There is nothing wrong with that. It is run by a company and no doubt its covenant is good. No doubt it can afford to pay a very good rent. I do not suggest for one moment that some hard-up dentist wants to take the premises over, because they would be far too expensive.

Mr. Willis

Which casino is this?

Mr. Harris

It is Les Ambassadeurs. It is one which has been set up under the new legislation. It is perfectly legal. I happen to know that it is on Crown Estate property, because it always has been Crown Estate property. Before the war the building was occupied by a Member of Parliament.

These are important considerations. It is not unreasonable to ask that the Commissioners, when considering to whom they should let or sell, should have regard to considerations other than that of getting the maximum amount of money. That is the consideration quite clearly laid down in Clause 3 (1), which says that nothing is to be sold, let or otherwise disposed of except for the best consideration in money or money's worth which in their opinion can reasonably be obtained, having regard to all the circumstances of the case. Perhaps the words having regard to all the circumstances of the case are some let out, but it still does not override the words in Clause 1 (3) with due regard to the requirements of good management. This is very important from the point of view of property developers. I know they are not very popular, but they are doing a good job for post-war Britain. They very often do this job under tremendous difficulties. [Interruption.] Hon. Members can attempt to shout me down as much as they like, but their interruptions do not invalidate my point.

I ask hon. Members to consider what would happen if a comprehensive development is to be done in the centre of a town. It is a development which everybody in the Committee would agree is necessary, because the buildings are rat-infested and they should be pulled down and rebuilt. Under present procedure it is extremely difficult for anybody other than a local authority to get all the various interests together, because it is such a colossal task.

The Deputy-Chairman

I think that the hon. Gentleman is tending to stray a little far from the Amendment.

Mr. Harris

I apologise.

Mr. Willis

On a point of order. If the area to be redeveloped were Crown land, it would come within the terms of the Amendment, would it not?

Mr. Harris

That is exactly the point I intended to make. I was going to suggest that it was a large area which needed redeveloping and that a portion of it was owned by the Crown Estate Commissioners. Would they be entitled to hold out indefinitely or be difficult? If a private owner is difficult, a compulsory purchase order can be made by a local authority. This cannot happen in the case of the Crown Estate Commissioners. If this body is to be lifted outside the normal procedure, it would be reasonable to insert words imposing on the Commissioners the duty to pay regard to social and planning considerations.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Willis

I rise to ask only one question, but, first, I wish to say how privileged we are to have with us the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland. I wish to put this question because I do not accept the reply which the Solicitor-General gave. The Solicitor-General said a great deal about the matter, but he did not, in fact, reply to the point I was making about the activities of the Crown Commissioners. Thus I now put the question to the Secretary of State, for he is the Minister of Agriculture for Scotland.

Let us assume that the Secretary of State has decided to establish a model farm in Glenlivet, which is Crown property, and let us suppose that he has decided that nowhere else would be suitable except on a Crown Estate. He, as the Secretary of State, might apply to the Crown Commissioners for a lease or a feu, or whatever it is, but, as the Secretary of State, he can give general directions to the Crown Commissioners. And this is the interesting thing; bearing in mind subsection (3), he can only give directions …with due regard to the requirements of good management. Supposing the Crown Commissioners say to him, "You know, we have had a handsome offer from an American millionaire who likes to shoot red deer." Let us suppose that the Crown Commissioners say that that American gentleman wants to spend a couple of months each year in the Highlands in order to adorn his Kentucky home with a few head of deer. Such a gentleman might be prepared to pay a very high price for the land. This has happened in Scotland, and it is, in fact, one of the curses of Scotland.

In those circumstances, what is the position of the Secretary of State? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has given this matter a good deal of consideration and no doubt he has been duly advised by the Lord Advocate, which is one of the reasons why I am rather dubious about the information. What would the Secretary of State consider to be his duties with regard to the term …with due regard to the requirements of good management"? We have had long discussions with the right hon. Gentleman about sporting estates and it is quite obvious that he places great faith in the defence of sporting rights. I see the right hon. Gentleman nodding his head, I think. Meanwhile, he has allowed crofters to pay thousands of pounds to keep the deer out, but not the landowner, who should keep the deer in.

I assume, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman considers that a sporting estate for an American coming to Scotland would be administering this property … with due regard to the requirements of good management. But what happens, meanwhile, to his poor model farm? What does the Secretary of State do in these circumstances? The Solicitor-General did not answer that question and our case is that it would be in the interests of Scotland to have the model farm—and if that means losing a few hundred pounds a year, we still should have it.

But this Bill says "No". The Bill says, in effect, that we shall have the American millionaire with his fifth or sixth wife, and probably her relations as well, and they—[Laughter.] I will not be tempted further—will duly shoot on the tenantry each summer. In these circumstances I do not think that hon. Members should accept this state of affairs. It would be wrong to accept it and the Government should consider this Amendment afresh.

I would only add that if the Financial Secretary should think of intervening this evening, I hope that he will not again retail that joke of his about what the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, said about the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East speaking in the Scottish Grand Committee. I say that only because the Lord Advocate has since then made a much better crack, and if the Financial Secretary wants to be up to date I hope that he will consult us, when we will tell him the new story so that he can tell it to us.

Mr. Parkin

The Solicitor-General should be flattered by the interest he has aroused in this Committee by some of his stimulating ideas, and I only hope that he can find time to elaborate one of them a little further. He has only himself to blame for walking into the problem of landlord, tenant and good manage- ment—he started that one, not this side—and I was glad to hear his hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) take him up on it.

We on this side have for a long time been struggling to cope with the obsession, not only of those who drew up this Bill, but of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his advisers, with the idea that one could solve the problem of land if only decent people would behave themselves and come to a reasonable contract between landlord and tenant.

The Solicitor-General has again tonight used the phrase, "the relationship between landlord and tenant", but he leaves out of account the fact that the community also has to have a say in this. We must insist that the root of the weakness of this Bill, as of the land and housing policy of the Government is that, in all honesty and rectitude, they believe that it is only a matter of landlord and tenant being honourable and decent in a partnership of two when it is a partnership not of two but of three.

It is when the Solicitor-General begins to expand his views on the nature of the monarchy that I am fascinated and want to ask for more. There is this expression that the Crown Commissioners are not the Crown but a manifestation of the Crown. This is worth a book—this is the new pluralism—but is he not himself a manifestation of the Crown in his functions? He nods assent—that is splendid.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman instanced the Crown Commissioners in one of their duties refusing to sell land for a model farm and says that that is the business of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Apparently, the Secretary of State for Scotland has to ask other private land owners. I do not know what truth there is in this legend about all Scotland being occupied by sporting estates, shooting and the rest—is it true? Is it still going on—this eating of more and more properties?

The Solicitor-General has said that it is the duty of the Secretary of State for Scotland not to apply to the Crown Commissioners but to ask if someone will sell him a farm. Apparently he has to hike round Scotland, knocking at people's doors. When they ask who he is, he says, "I am a manifestation of the Crown. I should like to buy some of your land." They would lock him up. It is crazy. It does not make any sense at all. Or, if the people have been following this business, they will tell him, "Talk to one of your other manifestations, and see if you can fix it up between you."

We have to get a decision on this. The Crown Commissioners are not the Crown, but only a manifestation of the Crown. Then, suddenly, they are invested with all the sovereign rights of the Crown. They are exempted from the regulations about planning. At one moment they have all the rights of the Crown and, at another, none of the responsibility of the Crown. "The responsibility is on my right hon. Friend", says the Solicitor-General, but how can the right hon. Gentleman execute that responsibility if he has to go cap in hand to ask if someone will sell him a hit of land for a model farm?

This is all capable of leading to some very nasty conclusions about the object of the exercise. Is it intended that this Measure should add further pressure behind the inflation in land prices? That is exactly what the Secretary of State for Scotland will do. He will put up the prices all the way round. He will not get the land anyway; he will make a bid and he will be turned down. But the gentleman who will use the land for another purpose will simply pay a little more.

One manifestation of the Crown will be set against another. Where is my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds)? We need a new Mock Auctions Bill. All the manifestations of the Crown will be bidding against one another for a piece of land which is theirs anyway. Please, may we have some more about this and, perhaps, a promise of a book from the right hon. and learned Solicitor-General when he has finished with this Bill? It is the most fascinating constitutional concept that I have heard for a long time.

Mr. Mitchison

My hon. Friends have seized with vigour, enthusiasm and picturesque fertility of imagination on the intention of the Clause. There was no such Section in the 1956 Act. I believe that this is the first time that the duty of the Crown Estate Commissioners has ever been defined. I do not think well of the Government for refusing to accept the Amendment. On the other hand, it is fair to say that, the Government being that Government, I never for one moment thought that they would.

The point is very simple. Are the Commissioners to act as landlords or are they to recognise any other public responsibility? Even more important than the fact that they own some rural land is the fact that most of their revenue, two-thirds of it, comes from urban property in London which includes three housing estates where they have adopted the policy of some landowners and, though I suppose they need not have done, applied the increases required by the Rent Act. I should regard a matter of that sort not as a matter which ought to be determined by the very limited cannons of good management and the like, on which the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) rightly and knowledgeably informed us, but as a matter of public policy under the direction of the responsible Ministers. It is the object of the Amendment to allow the responsible Ministers to give those directions irrespective of the very narrow words—for they are narrow words—which otherwise define the duty of the Commissioners.

The Government are entirely wrong. If they wanted a good argument, I could have given them a much better one, namely, that there is no authority in England at present which really deals with questions of the use of land, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Scotland are no real substitute for a proper body such as a Land Commission or something of the sort to deal with the use of public land of this kind.

I refer to "public" land. It is 200 years since the practice began of handing the Crown lands over to Parliament or the Executive—as one may like to put it—at the beginning of each reign. No constitutional monarch now could cease to do it whether or not the constitutional monarch got a Civil List in exchange. It was just about the same time that Queen Anne declined to sanction an Act passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. That is not done nowadays, and neither would the Crown Estates be treated as anything but what they are, public property.

The whole balance every year goes straight into the Exchequer. All that is happening here is that the Treasury is playing its old game of trying to make as much money as possible without due regard to public considerations and interests.

I shall not ask leave to withdraw the Amendment—not for worlds—but I shall not vote about it.

Amendment negatived.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Willis

I beg to move, in page 2, line 30, to leave out "shall not", and to insert "may".

I think it will be for the convenience of the Committee if we discuss with this Amendment the next two in my name and the names of my hon. Friends—in line 33, leave out "nor shall", and insert "and", and in line 34, leave out "be concerned to", and insert "may". They are all designed to alter the meaning of this subsection.

As at present drawn, the subsection provides: (5) The validity of transactions entered into by the Commissioners shall not be called in question on any suggestion of their not having acted in accordance with the provisions of this Act regulating the exercise of their powers, or of their having otherwise acted in excess of their authority, nor shall any person dealing with the Commissioners be concerned to inquire as to the extent of their authority or the observance of any restrictions on the exercise of their powers. Our Amendment seeks to reverse the position, so that the validity of transactions entered into by the Commissioners can be questioned. It seeks to give people the power to inquire, and also to to enable the Commissioners to be challenged, within the limits of the subsection. We propose this because we are amazed at this provision which seems to us to be very far-reaching. As far as I can see, it raises the whole question of what the dickens we are considering this Bill for. Why should we spend hours and hours discussing and considering a Bill which sets forth the powers and duties of the Crown Estate Commissioners, and write into that Bill that if they pay no attention to what we think, nobody can question it? That seems to me to be beyond understanding. That is the position. Admittedly, I have put an extreme case, but that can be done under this subsection.

The Crown Estate Commissioners need not pay any attention to anything in the Bill, and, according to this subsection, nobody can question it. Is not that rather ridiculous and absurd? I should have thought that it was rather absurd, and that, in as much as the Commissioners are more or less acting as a Committee for the Government in the administration of these lands, they should be open to question in the same way as any other Government Department is open to be questioned and also challenged.

I appreciate the fact that the Commissioners are not exactly in the position of a Government Department. I appreciate the fact that the Eve Committee recommended that they should not be placed in that position, but it seems to me that their actions ought to be questioned. As I understand it, the Crown Commissioners can do anythink they like on their own land, and nobody can say a word to them. If they refuse to report to the House or to prepare accounts, nobody can question them. I want to ask whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer can question them if they refuse to prepare accounts and present them to him each year? Can the Comptroller and Auditor-General question them? I do not know, because the powers set out in this subsection seem to me to be so sweeping that if they did not do any of the things in this Bill, they could not be questioned.

The second point is that which I have mentioned already in passing. It is that my hon. Friends and myself believe that the Commissioners should be in a position to be challenged, if necessary, by any individual who is adversely affected by them if he thinks that they are acting outwith the powers given to them in this Bill. That seems to me to be a very humble request to make.

I think it was a Socialist Government that gave the citizen the right to take proceedings against Departments. It seems to me that here we are reversing the process. I deplore this, and I should like to see the process strengthened. It is much more democratic and much more in accordance with the spirit of the times in which we happen to be considering this Measure.

The Solicitor-General

I think that I may be able to shorten the debate by indicating the actual scope of the subsection. It is not as far reaching as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) fears.

This is purely a conveyancing provision. It is not for the protection of the Crown Commissioners. It is for the protection of those who deal with them—their purchasers and tenants—and is, indeed, almost virtually and in substance a re-enactment of pre-existing law.

Under the pre-existing law the conveyances and so on had to be registered, but that was purely a piece of machinery. Once they were registered, their validity could not be called in question, in effect, by the Commissioners. The object is that someone dealing with the Commissioners, taking a contract, shall not have to ask whether what is done is within the powers of the Commissioners. The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) will bear me out that this is within the trend of all modern conveyancing legislation. It is very similar to what was done under the Settled Land Act, where what Parliament sought to do was to interpose a screen beyond which the purchaser, the lessee and so on need not look in the way of examining title. This provision does not say that transactions entered into by the Commissioners shall not be called in question. What is involved here is the validity of the transaction.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said that an individual should be able to challenge the Commissioners if he is injured. I entirely agree. There is nothing here which will prevent his doing so. For example, if a tenant claims that the Commissioners are in breach of duty as landlord, he can challenge them in the courts in the ordinary way. This provision does not stop that.

Similarly, the duty to present accounts or to make a report under Clause 2 is not affected. To take an example of rather different scope, under Clause 4 (2): if, for example, the Commissioners made a voluntary payment which was not sanctioned by that Clause, it would not be protected by this Clause. It could be examined by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, it could be investigated by the Public Accounts Committee, and in the last resort, I suppose, it could be the subject of a surcharge on the Commissioners.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with my explanation that this is virtually re-enactment—modernisation but re-enactment—of existing law, and that it is purely a conveyancing device for the protection of those dealing with the Commissioners.

Mr. James McInnes (Glasgow, Central)

In spite of the explanation given by the Solicitor-General, I can well understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has queried this matter. It seems to me that what we have here is largly English legal terminology. I should have preferred a reference to the validity of conveyancing transactions, or, at any rate, something fuller than the words in the subsection.

I think that my hon. Friend was absolutely justified in challenging the points arising from the Clause. As the Solicitor-General indicated, it is rather difficult to understand. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, what is covered here is the validity of the transaction. Subsection (5) appears to me to read: The validity of transactions entered into by the Commissioners shall not be called in question … That conveys to me all sorts of transactions. Further on, the subsection says: … nor shall any person dealing with the Commissioners … by able to inquire or to challenge the Commissioners or to do anything of that kind. I should like to hear the Lord Advocate outline briefly the implications of this Clause in Scottish legal terminology.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. William Grant)

I do not think I can do it better than my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, because the Clause applies equally to Scotland. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) made a slight mistake. In line 34 the words are "be concerned to inquire." That is to say, the purchaser need not do it. Otherwise, if a purchaser took a title he might well have to inquire, or his solicitor would have to inquire at some expense to him, whether the Commissioners were acting within their powers. All this says is that if the title which he gets, whether it be an absolute disposition or a lease or a feu, is on the fact of it a good title, then, have been registered, it is a valid title and it cannot be gone behind merely because there has been a flaw behind the scenes.

Mr. Willis

We are glad to welcome the Lord Advocate to the Dispatch Box to explain in Scottish legal terms what the Bill means, and to have somebody, who at least is suppose to understand Scottish law, explaining to us what that law is. I understand it now, and if the subsection means that I am willing to withdraw the Amendment.

I am wondering about the word "transactions", however. Does the word have a legal meaning in a Statute, or does it refer only to documents? It might mean anything. I have not a legal dictionary with me to look up the meaning, but it is a word which is, to me, capable of fairly wide interpretation. Perhaps the Lord Advocate can answer that point. If not, perhaps he will look at this before the Report stage to make sure that the Clause means what he says it means.

Certainly, in our lay minds on this side of the Committee, we are rather doubtful about it. Our experience in the Scottish Grand Committee is that our lay minds are much more accurate than the Lord Advocate's legal mind. Would he have a look at this point or give an assurance that, in a Statute, this word has the meaning he has given to it and is confined to conveyances?

Mr. Ross

I wish to ask whether or not the only kind of transactions that can be entered into by the Commissioners are conveyancing transactions. There are other transactions. If the Lord Advocate means this to apply purely to the question of conveyancing he should insert a qualifying word before "transactions". I ask him to give sympathetic consideration to that point.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

The Lord Advocate referred to the phrase nor shall any person dealing with the Commissioners be concerned to inquire … If the Government would consider using the phrase, "nor need any person"—

It being Ten o'clock The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.