HC Deb 27 July 1965 vol 717 cc388-96
Mr. Skeffington

I beg to move Amendment No. 23, Clause 11, in page 6, line 23, to leave out from "prescribed" to the end of line 26.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that with this we should discuss the following further Amendments, all in Clause 11: Amendment No. 24, in page 6, line 24, to leave out "and".

Amendment No. 25, in page 6, line 26, at the end to insert: and the Registration Authority shall cause to be inserted in at least one newspaper circulating in the district an advertisement of the Minister's intention to make the Order, stating the place where the application can be inspected, and the address to which, within a period to be specified (not less than thirty days) objections to the making of the order are to be sent". Amendment No. 26, in page 6, line 28, to leave out, "it appears to him".

Amendment No. 27, in page 6, line 29, to leave out "that".

Amendment No. 28, in page 6, line 34, to leave out paragraph (b) and to insert: (b) after affording to any person submitting to the Registration Authority an objection to the making of the order within the period specified in the last preceding subsection, the opportunity of being heard by a person appointee by the Minister, and considering the report of that person he is satisfied that no rights of common have been exercised over the land for at least thirty years, and that the owner of the land is known. Amendment No. 29, in page 6, line 36, at the end to insert: (4) The person appointed to hear objections in accordance with the last preceding subsection may, if the Chief Commons Commissioner agrees, be one of the Commons Commissioners appointed under section 17 of this Act. Amendment No. 30, in page 6, line 37, to leave out subsection (4) and to insert: (4) The Minister shall, before dealing with any application under this section, send copies thereof to the registration authority and to such other local authorities as may be prescribed, and shall inform those authorities whether he has granted or refused the application; and those authorities shall take such steps as may be prescribed for informing the public of the application and its grant or refusal. I shall select for decision the Government Amendment No. 30, and I include for discussion at the same time the Amendment to it in the name of the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine), after the second "shall" to insert, "in due course".

Mr. Skeffington

The effect of Amendments No. 23 and 30 will be to oblige the Minister to send copies of applications for exemption to the relevant registration authorities and to each other local authority as may be necessary, and he will be enabled to provide by regulations for full publicity to be given to applications for exemption and to the rejection of an application for an order.

When the Clause was debated in Committee, the Opposition stressed the need to give full prior publicity in respect of applications for exemption, and my right hon. Friend entirely agreed with that view. It is important to give everyone an opportunity to make representations beforehand and for these to be taken into account before a decision is reached. As the Bill stands now, potential objectors will be put on their guard by the Minister's advertisements in the London Gazette, which not everyone reads, and also in the local Press. These advertisements will be inserted before registration is started.

It is true that, even where there are local newspapers, these are not always an extremely good medium, although, in my view, people read their local papers more comprehensively and thoroughly than they read the national Press. But all commoners, for instance, who may wish to establish their rights will read even the local papers, and a notice on the parish board will be even more effective. By the Amendment, we shall require district councils not only to make available copies of the applications for exemption but also of the Minister's advertisements as well.

11.15 p.m.

This will follow the general procedure which we have suggested in other parts of the Bill. We also think it is very important—and we agree with the Opposition on this and there has been no dispute on this matter—to let everyone know when an application is refused, because this refusal will be the result of objections made to the Minister. We think, on reflection, that it is necessary to notify the objectors of the Minister's determination.

Mr. Corfield

I do not for a moment want to oppose the Amendment, but I want to point out that the purpose of the series of Amendments in my name and those of my hon. Friends is to ensure the same result. It is to write it into the Bill instead of the regulations that there will be publicity. This would give an opportunity for anybody who can claim that his particular bit of land is not included in the common or forest under subsection (1) or that this particular area should not apply, to make written representations, if there is not a formal hearing in the normal sense of the Local Government Act. I was not quite certain that the Parliamentary Secretary covered this point.

It seemed to us that, in view of the fact that these issues will be similar to those which the Commons Commissioners will consider under other provisions of this Bill, it might be useful for the Minister to use one of the Commons Commissioners to hear this issue, subject of course to the consent of the Chief Commons Commissioner whose prime duty must be to ensure that his Commissioners are available for the other hearings for which they are provided under the Bill.

If I may come to Amendment No. 30, and touch upon the Amendment to it in the name of the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) and myself, I think it is fairly clear what its purpose is, and I hope that the Minister will accept it. As his Amendment reads at the moment the new subsection (4) would read The Minister shall, before dealing with any application under this section, send copies thereof to the registration authority" etc. and then and shall inform those authorities whether he has granted or refused the application. In other words, before dealing with it he has to tell them how he has dealt with it, rather on the principle of the parson under the bed who did not exist. I would suggest that with a very small insertion, which we suggest, the point is made quite clear.

Possibly the best answer would have been a semi-colon after the word "prescribed", but there are certain difficulties in drafting an Amendment to insert a semi-colon, and it seemed that the better answer was after "shall" to insert "in due course" to make it quite clear that it is a later operation which the Minister has in mind, and so that it does not appear to be a contradiction in terms.

This Amendment does improve the drafting, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can give the assurance that anyone with an objection will have an opportunity to make representations and to have them considered.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

I should like to support the Amendment to add the words "in due course" to the Minister's Amendment No. 30. I found the subsection very hard to understand until I puzzled out that there must be two separate stages, so I hope that that clarification will be accepted.

May I also ask the Minister, when he is prescribing the methods of advertisement that should be undertaken, to go rather more widely than the local Press? Acres of advertisements have to be inserted in the local Press under some statutory requirement or other, and it is fair to say that, although the law may be satisfied, very few people read those advertisements except inadvertently when they are looking for details of sales or for forthcoming attractions at the local cinema.

What catches the attention is a notice which is actually affixed to the land in question. That is certainly true of railway closures. One can advertise as much as one likes, but a proposal to close a railway affixed to the railway station itself catches one's attention. Likewise, if a common or alleged common is to be the subject of an inquiry, putting the subject-matter on a board in a prominent place on the common and directing anyone interested to the local authority will, I think, result in the effect which we all want.

Mr. Graham Page

I feel very much more strongly about the complete nonsense of Amendment No. 30 than my hon. Friends who have already spoken. It really does not make sense when one reads it.

May I go back to what was originally in Clause 11, subsection (2)? In that subsection, the public was given the right to see an application before the Minister started to deal with it. That will be taken out, I assume, by the Minister's Amendment No. 23, and the only words put in its place are those contained in the last two lines of Amendment No. 30, which read: and those authorities shall take such steps as may be prescribed for informing the public of the application and its grant or refusal. The common sense reading of that is that they inform the public that an application has been made and it has been granted or refused. There are not to be two separate publications of the application and the grant or refusal. If it means separate publications, it should say so in the Amendment, otherwise the public will not have the opportunity to see the application before the Minister has dealt with it.

Going back to the beginning Amendment No. 30, that provides: The Minister shall, before dealing with any application under this section, send copies thereof to the registration authority". It is quite clear that the words "before dealing" apply also to the third line of the Amendment, and that, before dealing with the application, the Minister shall inform those authorities whether he has granted or refused the application". Really, it is complete nonsense. Before dealing with it, he is going to tell them whether he has granted or refused it. Surely the right procedure is already contained in subsection (2), where the Minister tells the local authorities about the application, the local authorities are bound to advertise it or make it available to the public, the Minister then deals with it, he then informs the local authorities whether he has granted or refused it, and they then publish that fact. That is the order of things, surely. However, it is not the order of things in Amendment No. 30, because that puts them exactly the other way round. It stands the Minister on his head. It will confuse the local authorities completely, and it really is a shocking bit of drafting.

Mr. Skeffington

I am surprised that that interpretation has been put on the Amendment by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) and the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), because it was most carefully drafted. While the two hon. Members were making their speeches, I tried to interpret it in the way that has been suggested, and I failed to do so. Had the meaning of the Amendment been as suggested by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South, the words "before dealing with any application" would have been put at the beginning so as to govern the whole Amendment. But that is not the case. Certainly we will look at the wording again, but I am quite unable to give it the interpretation suggested by the two hon. Members.

We were asked about representations in writing. I think that it would be possible to do that. We have considered the possibility of dealing with objections by means of a Commons Commissioner. On the whole, we have come to the view that it is much better that at this stage the matter should be dealt with by the Minister with the resources of his Department. For one thing, the Commons Commissioners are not likely to be appointed until the end of the first registration period, and unless we take steps to appoint a number earlier, at additional expense, they will not be there. It seems to us that these are matters with which the Minister and his staff can properly deal, and so we do not feel inclined to meet the hon. Gentleman on that point at this stage.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment No. 30 made: Clause 11, in page 6, line 37, leave out subsection (4) and insert: (4) The Minister shall, before dealing with any application under this section, send copies thereof to the registration authority and to such other local authorities as may be prescribed, and shall inform those authorities whether he has granted or refused the application; and those authorities shall take such steps as may be prescribed for informing the public of the application and its grant or refusal.—[Mr. Skeffington.]

Mr. Corfield

I beg to move Amendment No. 31, Clause 11, in page 6, line 44, to leave out "decided by the Minister" and to insert: a Commons Commissioner who shall, after the Registration Authority have given such notices as may be prescribed, inquire into and decide upon the matter; and section 18 of this Act shall apply". This is another suggestion that the issue raised in subsection (5) would seem to be a matter much more suitably dealt with by a Commons Commissioner than the Minister. I was surprised at the reference by the Parliamentary Secretary on the last Amendment to "the resources of the Department". What are they? Has the Minister a team of inspectors to hold inquiries, like the Ministry of Housing and Local Government? Is he empowered, like the Minister of Transport, to employ them from outside? Has he a panel of inspectors? If so, who sets it up—the Minister or the Lord Chancellor? It is glib to say that the Minister has these resources. The last time we questioned the Minister about his staff, he had taken on only some administrative officers from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, some from the Ministry of Agriculture and some experts on trees. As far as we know, he has no strength of inspectors.

I suggest that our suggestion is worthy of serious consideration, not only to relieve the work on the Minister's hard-pressed staff who have none of these people to assist them but, more important, because this is a judicial issue. The Clause states: If any question arises under this Act whether any land is part of the forests mentioned in subsection (1) … it shall be referred to and decided". This is essentially something to be decided in the same framework as the other decisions which have to be made of a judicial nature relating to the rights or status of common land. This is a question of status just as other questions of status arise in relation to common land or town or village greens. I suggest that in procedure and administration this is an improvement on the provisions in the Bill.

Mr. Skeffington

The Amendment would require the Minister to arrange a hearing whatever objection was made to an application for exemption. It is suggested that the person appointed by the Minister should be a Commons Commissioner. It seems to us that the Amendment makes very heavy weather of a fairly simple matter. We do not think it desirable or necessary that a formal hearing should be arranged when an objection is made. I will explain why.

11.30 p.m.

It is expected that most of these cases will be open and shut—that they will be cases for exemption which have to meet the statutory requirements set out in the Bill. If there are any doubts, the Minister will refer the matter to be dealt with at a later stage and will not grant the exemption. Only when it is clear beyond peradventure that an exemption meets the conditions laid down in the Bill will he be able to issue his final authority to that effect.

My right hon. Friend will, of course, as we have indicated, whenever there is an application for an exemption, give it publicity in the normal way in the London Gazette and in newspapers circulating in the vicinity of the land concerned. These advertisements will not only define the nature of the land and the exemption sought but will enable objections to be sent to the Department from any people who wish to do so. The advertisements will also specify the time limit for objections and, incidentally, will state where, in the offices of the local registration authority copies of the application may be inspected. Thus, people will not have to come to London to inspect the documents.

An additional reason for resisting the Amendment is that it is not our intention to appoint Commissioners at this early stage and, therefore, the combination of the advertisements, access to the documents locally and the opportunity for objectors to submit objections provides a convenient administrative way of dealing with the matter.

I give an undertaking that, if there is any doubt that an exemption does not qualify under the two loops in the Bill, the Minister will refer the matter for decision at a later stage and will not grant the exemption. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will not feel it necessary to press the Amendment.

Mr. Corfield

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.