HC Deb 13 March 1964 vol 691 cc939-49

Order for Second Reading read.

3.30 p.m

Sir Neill Cooper-Key (Hastings)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The purpose of this modest little Measure is to enable the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham and their colleges to carry out land transactions without supervision. At present, the colleges, but not the universities, are prevented by sixteenth century legislation from disposing freely of any land they own. The universities and their colleges may also hold land on trust which prevents free disposal. Indeed, on one view of the law, each college holds all its corporate property on trust for the educational purposes of the college.

The Universities and Colleges Estates Act, 1925, enables all these bodies to overcome these restrictions and so to carry out land transactions, but subject in most cases to the consent of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Minister holds any capital money arising from these transactions and this may be invested or applied in ways authorised by the Act.

The Bill will enable the three universities and their colleges to undertake all ordinary land transactions without the Minister's consent and to administer the capital money arising themselves. It is, in short, a Bill to put these universities and their colleges in the same position as modern universities so far as their endowments are concerned.

We have heard a great deal recently about higher eduction and Government control of the universities. I should, therefore, like to make it quite clear that the Bill has nothing to do with the proposals in the Robbins Report, or with any of the other suggestions put forward in that context. Nor has the Bill any connection with the Colleges Rating Relief (Oxford and Cambridge) Bill, which is sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Sir H. Kerr).

Basically, this is a simple, straightforward exercise to take the Minister of Agriculture out of the 1925 Act, so far as that is possible. My right hon. Friend acknowledges that his control over the universities and their colleges is no longer required and he is glad to give it up. The proposals to which the Bill gives effect have been discussed with the universities and they have welcomed them enthusiastically. I would, therefore, commend the Bill to the House as a wholly uncontroversial Measure that will enable the older universities and their colleges to manage their own land transactions in the same way as their more modern counterparts.

There are several questions that might well be asked. How is it, for instance, that the Minister of Agriculture has the task for supervising the colleges' land transactions under the 1925 Act? Why was this supervision ever necessary, and why has it now become redundant? To answer these questions, we must go back about 400 years to the Parliament of Queen Elizabeth I, which passed the Ecclesiastical Leases Acts 1571, 1572 and 1575. The need for these Elizabethan Disabling Statutes, as they are known arose in the reign of Queen Mary I, when the bishops, foreseeing that a Protestant succession would soon take place, resolved to make provision for the lean years ahead by letting out their properties on long leases.

The leases were granted for large premiums, but at consequentially low rents. The large premiums were, of course, a benefit to the immediate incumbents, but the low rents were prejudicial to the interest of their successors. In the next reign, the fear of Elizabeth I's death without an heir and the succession of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots may have caused many of the lower clergy, particularly those who were married, to fear the loss of their livings. The practice of granting long leases therefore spread and since so many fellows of colleges themselves were in possession of livings, it is not difficult to see how the idea was taken up by the colleges. The Ecclesiastical Leases Acts, to which I have already referred, were introduced to stop this practice. Their principal effect was to prevent the bodies from disposing of any of their land, except in certain limited ways.

These Disabling Acts are still on the Statute Book. They apply to all ecclesiastical persons and bodies and to all colleges in the strict legal sense. This means that they apply not only to colleges in universities, but also to the colleges of Eton and Winchester. The Acts do not apply to the universities themselves.

From about the middle of the nineteenth century a succession of Acts restored to a limited extent some of the powers which the Elizabethan Statutes had taken away. In 1858, the first Universities and College Estates Act enlarged these powers and conferred them, with other powers, on the universities to which the 1925 Act now applies, making that exercise subject to the control of the Copyhold Commissioners, who later became the Land Commissioners.

In 1898, another Universities and College Estates Act extended the enabling provisions still further by adapting for use by the universities and colleges many of the powers available to a tenant for life under the Settled Lands Acts of the time, subject to the control of the Board of Agriculture, which had inherited the powers of the Land Commissioners. The Board's powers were now exercisable by the Minister of Agriculture. Further amendments to the Settled Lands Acts were extended to the universities and colleges by the property legislation of 1925.

At the same time, the Universities and College Estates Acts were consolidated in the Universities and College Estates Act, 1925. The 1925 Act applies to the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, to the colleges of those universities, and to the colleges of Eton and Winchester. It is an enabling Act which allows the universities and colleges to deal in land. By using its provisions those bodies can overcome the restrictions in the Ecclesiastical Leases Acts and also any restrictions or deficiencies in their charters and statutes and any deficiencies in the terms of the trusts on which their land is held. In most cases the exercise of the powers conferred is subject to the consent of the Minister of Agriculture.

The sixteenth century Statutes, and consequently the enabling provisions of the 1925 Act, apply not only to the colleges in the universities but also to the colleges of Eton and Winchester. The Bill does not, however, free the two schools along with the universities and their colleges. The reason for this is quite simple. Other endowed schools are subject to the control of the Minister of Education under the Charities Act, 1960. Eton and Winchester were exempted from the Act because of the alternative control exercised under the 1925 Act.

To free the two schools from that control would, therefore, mean that, to the extent that they were able to deal with their and without recourse to the Act, they would be freed from all Ministerial control, entirely in contrast to other endowed schools. To avoid this, the Bill does not apply to Eton and Winchester, which remain subject to all the existing legislation and to the Minister's control under the 1925 Act. Eton and Winchester fully understand the position and have accepted it with good grace.

The idea of abolishing the Minister's functions under the 1925 Act was first discussed more than 10 years ago. In 1953 the Nathan Report on the Law and Practice Relating to Charitable Trusts was published. That Report was followed by a White Paper on Government policy on charitable trusts, and this promised that the Government would discuss with the bodies concerned whether it was necessary to retain the powers of supervision provided by the 1925 Act. The ensuing discussion confirmed that the universities and colleges were keen to be free to manage their own affairs in this sphere as are modern universities that are not subject to the same restraint.

The Bill will achieve that object, and I hope that hon. Members will give their support to this entirely non-controversial and eminently worth-while Measure.

3.40 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

A large number of properties in my constituency would be affected by the provisions of this Bill. A large area of property is owned by a university college—Emanuel—and considerable difficulty has been caused because the college is restricted by the legislation that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Sir N. Cooper-Key) seeks to amend.

Broadly speaking, the college wanted to assist the tenants on the estate by selling the freeholds, but found itself prohibited by certain Statutes. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture had no other course left open to him but to refuse the college permission to operate this estate, as it would have liked to have done, to the great advantage to the tenants and the college.

The Bill would remove the difficulties of this extremely good college, whose intention all along has been to benefit the tenants. It will now be able, without contravening the law and without having to appeal to the Minister of Agriculture, thereby bringing benefit to the occupiers of large numbers of houses in the area. I acquit the Minister of Agriculture of trying to frustrate the college's wishes—he had no alternative but to interpret the existing law and trusts as they had been originally laid down. Try as he would, there were no means of overcoming those practical difficulties.

I therefore welcome the Bill, not only from the general point of view of advantage for the college but for the more particular advantage that would flow to the tenants on this large estate in my constituency.

3.42 p.m.

Mr. John C. Bidgood (Bury and Radcliffe)

Interestingly enough, my house is called St. Catherine's because the land was purchased through the trustees of St. Catherine's College, Cambridge. I well remember, when the land was bought all those years ago, the difficulties experienced by solicitors and other interested people in getting the various legal transactions through so that the conveyance could be made out.

I should like a little more information from the Minister or from my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Sir N. Cooper-Key) on that part of the Explanatory Memorandum which states that the Measure provides for the transfer to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham …of capital money now held by the Minister on their behalf… under the 1925 Act. It would be interesting to know what that capital amounts to. The Minister may find it difficult to give the House this information today but, if he could give it, it would be of great service to hon. Members.

In view of my own experience of the difficulties one has when acquiring land from any of these university bodies, I think that it is high time that some action was taken to deal with the 1925 Act, and I have great pleasure in supporting my hon. Friend.

3.45 p.m.

Sir Kenneth Pickthorn (Carlton)

I should begin by avowing a sort of interest. I have no longer any financial interest or expectation from either of the two colleges to which I belong, but I am still interested in every other sense. I ought also to preface my few remarks by apologising for not having examined the relationship between this Bill and the existing Statutes as closely as I should have done, but I suppose that the promoters, or the Minister who will give us the Government's advice in the matter, have done better than I could manage.

For most of the last 50 years I have had a great deal to do with the management of the estates referred to here, and I do not think that there has ever been any friction or controversy between the college with which I am most concerned and the Ministry of Agriculture or any other Ministry. But it has for many years been a clog to business, and the reason why things have sometimes taken longer or been more delayed than they ought to have been, is that these consents were required. In general there is no doubt—speaking as one who is not as expert as I should be in the matter—that to get rid of these clogs and delays is desirable.

The Bill, as such Bills must be, is really in the Schedule. One can count up a dozen or more Ministerial consents which now become supererogatory in Part I of Schedule 1, and in Part II a dozen or more occasions where the words and be paid to the Minister are to be omitted. It would be difficult, even if one were wholly expert, to count up these things and the things in the Acts to which they refer, and be sure whether all, and neither less nor more, of the occasions where amendment is desirable have been duly noted and put in in their proper places.

There should hardly be a Second Reading of a Bill of this importance without a request from someone for an assurance that all this tedious work has been as fully and as exactly done as if the number of hundreds of thousands of pounds concerned, or number of individuals interested, were very much greater.

3.48 p.m

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

Approaching this matter for the first time, I have yet to be convinced by a speech from an hon. Member opposite that this is a good Bill. I should have thought that the House would require much more explanation before it was willing to give the Bill a Second Reading. The hon. Member for Hastings (Sir N. Cooper-Key) gave us an interesting and learned historical exposition of the circumstances in which the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and some, if not all, of their colleges, came to have imposed upon them in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I certain disabilities from which they were ultimately freed by legislation. As I understand from what was said, that legislation remained in operation until the 1925 Act when it appears to have been modified to the extent that those particular universities and colleges were given a certain amount of freedom.

Sir K. Pickthorn

There were not any others. The hon. Member said "those particular universities and colleges". The point was that there were no others. These were not chosen out of a much larger class.

Mr. Fletcher

Is the hon. Member referring to the 1925 legislation or to some other legislation?

Sir K. Pickthorn

I was referring to what the hon. Member said. I apologise if I was mistaken. I did not hear him very clearly. He gave the impression that there was a, much larger class and that these particular ones, "particular" being the word he used, were in some kind of implicit contrast to others, and I thought that that was an erroneous impression.

Mr. Fletcher

It may well be the case that the hon. Member did not hear or did not understand what I said. It is true that in the reign of Elizabeth I the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and their colleges were the only universities and colleges in the country to which these Acts could apply, except for Eton and Winchester. That may Nell have been the case in the reign of Elizabeth I, and that situation may well have existed perfectly properly until this century, but then we had the 1925 Act. As I understand, in 1925 the existing legislative situation was modified to the extent that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were given certain exemptions from their then existing disabilities, subject only that the consent of the Minister of Agriculture was required.

I was saying that in 1925 there were other existing universities in the country. Since 1925 even more have come into existence. The burden of the Robbins Report is that in the near future a great many more still will come into existence. One of the things which the Robbins Committee has told us is that it is undesirable in the national interest that Oxford and Cambridge should maintain the kind of prestige over other universities which they have maintained in the past. It may well be that, as a result of all this, certain consequences flow with regard to the financial arrangements appropriate to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but no one has yet explained one point to me.

Granted that legislation in the reign of Elizabeth I is no longer appropriate, nevertheless that legislation was repeated in 1925, except that certain colleges were given certain freedom subject to the consent of the Minister of Agriculture. No one has explained why, if that was appropriate in 1925, it is no longer appropriate that the Minister should give his consent. The hon. Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) introduced an entirely discordant note, because he said that certain tenancies in his constituency, owned by one or other of these colleges, were not able to deal with this matter even with the consent of the Minister of Agriculture, because even the Minister had no power to deal with it.

Dr. Alan Glyn

No, that is not what I said. They were not able to sell the freehold to existing tenants even after asking the Minister of Agriculture, because of certain legislation. I understand that, if passed, this Bill will overcome this difficulty and enable a large number of people to purchase the freeholds, which the college is willing to sell.

Mr. Fletcher

If that is so—and I accept it from the hon. Gentleman—there may well be a case for modifying the rights of the Minister of Agriculture. There may be a case for giving the Minister of Agriculture greater powers than he has at the moment. But it does not follow from what the hon. Member says that there is a case for giving colleges complete freedom to deal with these matters regardless of what the Minister of Agriculture says.

Sir N. Cooper-Key

The 1925 Act applies only to the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, because the colleges in those universities were restricted by the 16th century legislation. The 1925 Act was an enabling Act, and no other universities are concerned, because they are not restricted by the Elizabethan Act.

Mr. Fletcher

That may be, but no doubt this matter was considered at the time the 1925 legislation was passed. It was certainly considered when the Charities Act was passed. It was certainly one of the matters taken into account when the Nathan Committee reported. I well recall the debates that took place in the House and in Committee with regard to the position of these university colleges, including the colleges of Eton and Winchester, as to how their status should be regarded under the Charities Act.

All this was inquired into very elaborately, and certain exemptions from the Charities Act were granted to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and to the colleges of Eton and Winchester. But, at the same time, my recollection is that it was regarded as desirable that such financial structure and such limitations as Parliament had previously imposed on their right to deal with land and other estates should be retained.

It may be that there is a case for the Bill, but I shall not be satisfied that there is until we have had a reply from the Minister to some of the questions raised this afternoon. For example, no one has told us how much money is involved. An hon. Member opposite put a question, but the Minister did not rise to reply. How much capital under Clause 3 will be released by the Bill to these universities and be freed from the control of the Minister of Agriculture?

Sir N. Cooper-Key

It would not be proper to disclose the amount held by the Minister, who acts in the sense of a trustee.

Mr. Fletcher

If it is not proper to disclose that, it seems to me that it is not proper for the House to pass the Bill. The hon. Member ought not to try to sell the House a pig in a poke. I do not see how he can possibly justify asking the House to release a large sum of capital money from the existing control of the Minister of Agriculture without giving the House some idea of what sum of money is involved.

I say that with additional conviction because we are now in a position in which the whole problem of the future financing of the universities, including not only the ancient Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham but the universities now being created and others which are contemplated by the Robbins Report, is under discussion. It seems to me a matter of very great national interest that the financial structure for all universities should be considered as a comprehensive whole. The Robbins Report points out the differences which exist and which it regards as undesirable between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, because of their ancient endowments, and the more modern universities which will have to be financed by the State in conformity with what we all regard as the desirable interests and requirements of higher education.

It seems to me, consequently, that without more information about the subject and, in particular, without information about the capital sum involved in Clause 3, it would be very undesirable for the House to deal with a matter of this importance, as we all recognise it to be. We need very much more information put at our disposal. I hope that the promoter of the Bill or the Minister will be able to——

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.