HC Deb 06 July 1961 vol 643 cc1809-16
Mr. Ross

I beg to move, in page 3, line 11, to leave out from "State" to the end of line 14.

Subsection (2) of this Clause reads: The report of the Commissioners for any financial year shall set out any directions given to the Commissioners during the year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer or Secretary of State "— and then we have these important words: except any direction in the case of which the Chancellor of the Exchequer or Secretary of State has notified to the Commissioners his opinion that it should be omitted in the interests of national security. We have here full control by the two Ministers to issue directions as to whether or not the directions shall have publicity. It is rather strange that this should come up tonight, because it is not very long ago that we had concern and commotion in the House over this very thing being pleaded by a Minister. Having quoted partly from a document, he said that he could not quote fully from it. In that case, I think the phrase used was "the public interest."

In this House, therefore, we have always been very concerned about the pleading of public interest, of national security, when it means withholding, not merely from Parliament but from the people as a whole, information as to directions that have been given by a Minister to a commission such as the Crown Estate Commission.

11.0 p.m.

I know that the justification given for the words "public security" or "national security" will be that they relate only to matters of defence. But I cannot see how to any great extent the Crown Estate will be involved in this in such a way that the people in the area will not know about it.

I do not know whether it is a bad thing or a good thing—it is probably a good thing—that we cannot take any action in the House in relation to any buildings or the siting of any base of any kind without its being known. So how we can plead the public interest in relation to the sale or development of a piece of land for a certain purpose and keep it secret is beyond me.

That would defeat the purpose of the withholding of the direction, but that is not my real concern. My real concern is the possible misuse of this power to withhold publicity from a direction that the Minister has given to the Commissioners. It is interesting to note that although the Secretary of State can act on his own and the Chancellor can act on his own in relation respectively to Scotland and England and Wales, they can also act jointly. But in this case they can veto a direction individually. If a joint direction has been given by the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of them acting on his own and without consultation with the other could give a further direction that no mention should be made of the joint direction in the annual report.

Our main concern is abuse of power, this danger that by pleading the public interest or national security, in this case, one or other of the Ministers concerned can bring upon himself this protective shield from the glare of public opinion and Parliamentary knowledge of what is being done.

I think I am right in saying that Parliament can get to know whether or not publicity in respect of a direction has been withheld. All that a Member of Parliament has to do—he has a right to do so—is to ask how many directions have been given in the year. If the Minister says that seven have been given and only six appear in the report, we shall know, and no doubt our curiosity will thereby be aroused to find out about the one not mentioned there; and we shall then be told that it is not in the interests of national security to divulge it.

I wonder whether the Financial Secretary, who seems poised to reply—I would ask him to be very quick if he wants me to hear him—will satisfy me that this power will be very sparingly used and truly only in important matters relating to defence.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Edward Boyle)

I gladly respond to the invitation of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). The point is that it is essential that the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State should be allowed to preserve the secrecy of any directions that they may give to the Commissioners if the national interest so demands.

But there is nothing sinister about this. It is the common form security provision that is applied in the case of Ministerial directions, and I think it must be ultimately a matter for the Government of the day to decide whether there is anything that it would be against the national interest to publish. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that subsection (2) reenacts Section 2 (4) of the 1956 Act, and the words which he seeks to delete are words that are common form for a great many of our statutory provisions. For example, I have here the Coal Industry (Nationalisation) Act, 1946. Section 54 (2) of that Act contains words practically identical with those which he seeks to leave out of this subsection.

I assure him that, to the best of my knowledge, these provisions will be very sparingly used, and I hope, with that assurance, that he will agree to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Ross

With that explanation, I am glad to beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Parkin

Now that we have a new manifestation of the Crown answering, I hope that we shall be able to get yet another view of some of the problems that have been worrying us. I think that if the Committee is to get serious treatment from the Treasury Bench of the contents and intentions of Clause 2, we should get from the Minister replying a much more cogent and understandable exposition of what the Government have in mind—certainly something more practical and less theoretical than the arguments in some of our discussions up to now.

The draftsmen apparently thought it necessary to occupy nearly as much space for this Clause as for Clause 1, and it must be tremendously important. I hope, therefore, that the Financial Secretary will explain it to us. In particular, I hope that he will tell us what the Government expect the Commissioners to do which will involve Clause 2 (4), because this seems to imply some kind of long-term planning, some form of comprehensive planning, which has been rejected out of hand by the Government spokesmen up to now.

The questions of premiums and leases and the sharing between capital account and income account, must surely involve a process of enhancing the value of land, which can only be the result of some comprehensive development. It will be interesting to know what the Government have in mind and how they visualise the deathless landlord appearing in this respect.

Our criticism of this Bill up to now has been that it does not appear to set a very high standard. It only sets the standards of normal trustees, and even the most reasoned reply that we have had seemed to imply that private interest and public interest coincide—that a good landlord would never do anything against the public interest, not because it was the public interest, but because it would be against his private interest. The two sides of the Committee do not seem to be able to agree on that.

Here in Clause 2 are references to elaborate financial arrangements and planning which must have been introduced into the Bill because the Commissioners already practise some kind of planning of this kind.

We have had some interesting new ideas in the debate. For many years now, the deathless landlord has been the landlord most sought after by those to whom "nationalisation" was a dirty word but who wanted in practice to get as near to it as they could. We now learn that the deathless landlord is looking for the deathless tenant as the best possible tenant giving the best possible covenant.

In the Crown Lands Act, 1927, there was a provision for payments out of the capital account for improvements which were to take place, and that provision was incorporated in the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1954. It gave the Crown Commissioners power to use the same device which they had in the 1927 legislation when they were dealing with the case of a tenant who could not get a renewal of his lease because the landlord had pleaded that he was precluded from giving it, for one of a number of reasons which were obviously connected with comprehensive planning and development.

In those circumstances, the tenant had to be offered compensation, and that compensation came out of capital account. I suppose that some idea of that kind is embodied in Subsection (4, a). That seems to imply that the Commissioners will be undertaking the process of phased comprehensive development of the estate involved. Otherwise, they would not go to all this trouble to create this machinery for dealing with tenants who are to be displaced and for whom some compensation will have to be provided. I suppose that the lawyers have had to invent some device which regards as re-investment in the land the payment of compensation to the tenant to get out from that tenancy because it is needed for a more comprehensive development.

While throughout the debate up to now we have heard a constant denial that the Crown Commissioners can be subjected to planning regulations or be obliged to consult anyone, when we get what to the layman is this not-so-easy-to-understand Clause we find that it seems to contain an indication that there is much more in the minds of the Commissioners than there was in the mind of the Government when they drafted the other Clauses of the Bill, or than has appeared from their expositions so far. I hope that the Financial Secretary will be enthusiastic enough to spell this out to those of us who do not understand the financial side all that well, and to say exactly what is behind it.

Mr. Pavitt

I am a little concerned about subsection (2), which deals with the cover which the Commissioners will have from instructions given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Scotland. I presume that the reason for that cover is that if, for some reason in the public interest, the Commissioners do not make the maximum profit, they will need to have an alibi and to be able to show why they have so acted. It is, therefore, necessary for the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State to decide over-riding policy in the public interest.

Earlier, it was suggested that it was as part of good management that the Commissioners would inevitably seek a good tenant rather than one who might pay a little more in the short run and not be so reliable. That was entirely the case of the Minister of Housing and Local Government when he put through the Rent Act. He said that a landlord would always want a good reliable tenant rather than a market price which was rather exorbitant. That view has proved incorrect with housing and landlords take what they can and are prepared to have short-term leases and to get their tenants out at the earliest possible moment in order to increase their incomes.

11.15 p.m.

It has been made clear from the Government benches that the Commissioners will deal only with estates and will not attempt to trespass on the functions of the Minister of Education, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, or any other Minister who has a public interest at heart. I am wondering if it does mean in subsection (2) that there can be specific instructions given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Scotland which would enable land to be used in such a way that would not be, perhaps, to the best financial advantage but would preserve the system of good management as put forward from the Government benches—namely, used in a way which was useful for the community, and that the due considerations of the user of the land would be given absolute weight. If that is so, I am quite happy about this subsection.

Sir E. Boyle

Clause 2 has a relatively limited scope. It provides that the Commission shall make an annual report to the Sovereign, and that their accounts shall be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, who shall lay them before Parliament with his Report and shall supply the Treasury with such information as is required. It is rather remote from the Rent Act and some of the points discussed.

In answer to the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), Subsection (4) simply lays down the method of accounting to be adopted by the Commissioners and enables them specifically to make adjustments between capital and income. I am bound to say that I cannot see anything derogatory to the public interest in that. The Subsection enlarges the Commissioners' powers under existing legislation by enabling them to provide, where they think appropriate, for the replacement of capital out of income, and again that seems wholly consistent with the public interest. Paragraphs (as) and (b), I am told, reproduce the existing rules in Section 5 (4) of the 1927 Crown Lands Act and Section 3 of the 1894 Crown Lands Act.

In answer to another point raised by the hon. Member for Paddington, North, I am told that the power under Section 15 of the Crown Lands Act, 1927, can be used to pay compensation to business tenants under the 1954 Landlord and Tenant Act, and the Commission will still be able to do this under the new powers in Clause 1. Subsection (2) of this Clause merely re-enacts Section 2 (4) of the Crown Estate Act, 1956, and simply provides that the Commissioners shall publish any directions given to them, tied with the proviso we were discussing on the previous Amendment.

I hope that with that explanation the Committee will allow the Clause to pass.

Mr. Parkin

I am grateful to the Financial Secretary. He has tried to make it as short and clear as he can. I was not suggesting that there was anything wrong with the Clause or derogatory to the public interest. Quite the contrary, I am suggesting that there is evidence of the intention of doing some comprehensive long-term planning, and I was asking what the Government had in mind or what the Commissioners were, in fact, practising. Although no reference has been made to it in the Bill and no admission of its possibility escaped the lips of Ministers when answering discussions on Amendments, this substantial point about improvements does imply that tenants are going to be displaced and compensated, but only in the interest of a better development of the estate as a whole.

I want to hear more about schemes of development—how comprehensive they are, who is consulted, whether the plan- ning authority is officially consulted, and whether the tenant is going to be consulted where it is in the public interest that a certain amount of economic development shall take place in a certain area. It is fascinating, in view of the doctrinaire denials we have had of the possibility of anything of this kind, that provision is made here for what can be needed for nothing else. That is the only reason that the Commissioners should wish to compensate the tenant for his displacement—the fact that they are going to do something bigger and wider.

That is a most interesting point, because, of course, if ever a solution is to be found to this problem it will be found in a device whose point of impact is at the moment of the change of user of the land. It will never be solved by buying all land at once with all the problems of valuation and compensation. The device which will be found will be a change of relationship at the point of change of user, and this is what the Clause obviously provides for.

Sir E. Boyle

I am sure that these are fascinating points, but, for the reasons which I gave in my earlier exposition, I do not think that they arise on this Clause, and I do not propose to be drawn on them now.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.