HC Deb 17 June 1965 vol 714 cc991-7
Mr. Russell Johnston

I beg to move Amendment No. 24, in page 6, line 36, to leave out from "unless" to the end of line 39 and insert: seven days' notice in writing has been given to the occupier". The object of the Amendment is simple. The Clause deals with entry on to land. This is accepted by the Liberal Party as being reasonable. The question at issue is: under what circumstances and with what sort of warning ought it to take place? Clearly, where a Clause gives power of entry on to land, even when it is occupied for residential purposes, it is a considerable interference with personal liberty, and it is reasonable that some safeguards should be created. The safeguards are written in in subsection (2), which provides that a person who is authorised to enter upon land shall not demand admission as of right unless 48 hours' notice, or, in the case of land occupied for residential purposes, seven days' notice, is given.

The Amendment substitutes for 48 hours' notice the period of seven days' notice in writing, so that this period applies in both cases. We think that this is a reasonable request to make, and one which should not be refused by the Government. First, what is the difference between land which is occupied and land which is occupied for residential purposes? Why is it necessary to make a distinction? We could very well put the two things together. Why does a representative of the Board seek to gain entry on to land? He seeks to do so in order to survey it, or to search a little, or to make borings, under the terms of subsection (4), and I would have thought that none of these things would normally be embarked upon unless at least a week's prior thought had been given to the exercise.

It is clear, therefore, that this Amendment in no way hampers the activities of the Board. It merely seeks to safeguard the right of the individual. In the Bill as originally drafted the period was not 48 hours, but 24 hours—until it was amended in Committee. It seems to me intolerable that on a Tuesday somebody should be warned that on the Thursday morning his land will be entered upon freely.

This is not an expensive Amendment. It can reasonably be accepted. I have not moved it in any partisan spirit. Incidentally, I regret the tone recently adopted by the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Malcolm MacMillan). I am capable of answering that sort of attack, if he so desires it. It was quite uncalled for. I ask the Government to give the Amendment reasonable consideration.

Mr. Willis

This is similar to the Amendment which the hon. Member moved in Committee, and I am afraid that my answer will also be very similar to that which was given then. As the hon. Member says, first, the period of notice was 24 hours. That is quite usual. It is the normal period of notice in respect of entry on to land. It was the period provided for in the Act of 1955; the Agriculture (Scotland) Act, 1948; the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act, 1947; the Local Employment Act, 1960; and the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act, 1956. It is quite normal in legislation to have a period of notice of 24 hours.

However, the Government very magnanimously agreed to accept an Amendment moved by the official Opposition which increased the notice from 24 to 48 hours. We were prepared to come and go a bit on this. But we cannot see that we ought to go any further. We are providing for a period of notice which is longer than in most Acts, and if we went much further than 48 hours it might lead to a certain amount of inconvenience in the administration of the Board. An officer who was visiting a certain area might want to enter upon a piece of land and not be able to do so.

For instance, while he was in the Shetlands an inspector from Inverness might get a telephone call from Inverness asking him to enter upon a certain piece of land. He might be able to give the person concerned two days' notice while he was there, and then be able to get on with the job. I do not want to press the point too much, because I realise that individual rights are more important than the convenience of officials, but it would be rather inconvenient for the Board's officials if this period of notice was incorporated in the Bill.

We must also remember that in most cases the notice that a person wished to enter upon one's land would not come as a surprise. Such a notice would arise in the course of the preparation of a scheme, and the Board would consult people or bodies in order to discuss the preparation of the scheme before it would require to make an entry in order to obtain a more accurate assessment of the situation. Entry might be required in respect of the implementation of a scheme, but in that case the scheme would already be known. Therefore, as we visualise the situation, in most cases the requirement to enter upon land would come about as a result of discussions. We feel that most landowners would not object to being given 48 hours' notice. There may be some, but in most cases the person would be getting more than 48 hours' notice. Having already doubled the period, we think we ought to leave it at that. I hope that in the circumstances the hon. Member will feel inclined not to press the Amendment.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

The Minister of State said that 48 hours' notice was the usual period given in other Acts. But that does not mean that the period is right in this Measure. I agree with the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) that this is far too short notice. Seven days would be much more reasonable. This is a Board with enormous powers, and I am concerned about the rights of the individual. The individual ought not to be kicked around in this way and given such short notice.

The Minister of State is normally quite reasonable and does things for individuals, and I urge him to think of liberty and not put all these powers and rights into the hands of the Board. We must protect the individual, and to that end I commend the Amendment.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I support what has been said by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison). What is important is the convenience of the landowner, tenant or occupier. It is always extremely provocative if one gets a notice out of the blue saying that a surveyor wants to come and look at one's property. It immediately suggests the most frightful possibilities, perhaps that one is to have an atomic power station built among one's crops. It is the initial shock which is critical. As the Minister of State said, later on, when perhaps operations are to begin, one knows the worst, or the best, because what is proposed may be beneficial to one.

Seven days is not an unreasonable period of notice for a first entry. I wish that we could have had as a compromise such words as "seven days' notice or by agreement." If one objected, one would then have seven days in which to steel one's courage for what was coming. On the other hand, if one accepted entry by the Board one could accept notice of less than seven days—entry the next day perhaps. I feel that this is something on which the Government might have met the Opposition.

Even when one is keen to have a visit, such as by an inspector coming to mark one's calves, with the prospect of one getting a subsidy, one likes to have as long notice as possible, even a week, to prepare the beasts and get ready. When one is to have an unwanted visit, 48 hours is a very short time indeed. I urge the Minister to extend the period.

Mr. Younger

It would appear from the Bill that the warning of intended entry will not be in writing anyway. The man has to produce evidence of his authority, but the actual 48 hours' notice does not have to be in writing. I wonder what the Secretary of State thinks about that. Perhaps in these circumstances one either has everybody quite happy about the procedure, in which case it does not matter whether the notice is seven days, 48 hours or whatever it is, for it will all be done by agreement, or there may be some difficulty, or likelihood of difficulty, and if that is the case, what use will it be to be able to say that one has given notice to the owner verbally when one has no evidence of it? These are just the circumstances in which written evidence would be necessary if the person was being difficult.

I urge the Minister to think again about the 48-hour period of notice. I agree that in the vast majority of cases that is ample notice, but I suggest that, particularly in the Highlands, where there are great distances and people's lives are rather more difficult to run, and they have to go away from home for longer periods to do simple things that many of us can do in half an hour across the street, it is only too likely that if the 48-hour period is written into the Bill in some cases notice will be served only to find that the actual owner is not there. The notice may then be served on, perhaps, a servant, baffled by the rights and wrongs of the matter, who feels that he must say "yes", and then when the real owner returns there may be a situation of great annoyance—quite unreasonably, I admit—which may cause embarrassment.

I do not think that the Minister made a completely convincing case for the need for 48 hours' notice. Anxious as we all are that the Board shall work quickly and effectively, I should have thought that in practically every circumstance the giving of seven days' notice would present no difficulty to the Board. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that.

Mr. Willis

I have forgotten the point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro). I will come back to it presently. Meanwhile, I will deal with the observations of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger). The hon. Member pointed out the difficulties that might arise owing to the long distances involved and the fact that people might be away from home. I remind him, however, that the notice is only 24 hours in the case of the Crofters Act, where, equally, the same conditions as the hon. Member has mentioned apply.

As far as I know, there has been no considerable volume of complaint about the operation of the Crofters Act. I cannot, therefore, see that we have suddenly reached a position when, owing to the great number of complaints, we should do something more. We are, in fact, giving twice the length of notice that is given in the Crofters Act.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) was, of course, fighting for liberty. I remind him, however, that I did not hear his voice quite as much when the Crofters Act was being passed in 1955, or when the Local Employment Act was being passed in 1960. We did not hear then his loud protest about this sort of violation or terrible thing that we were doing concerning individual liberty. I am not complaining that the hon. Member does it now, but he is not very consistent. What was done in those two Acts was to provide for 24 hours' notice and not 48 hours.

I come now to the hon. Member for Dumfries, who suggested that we might clearly do as hon. Members opposite have suggested to meet the wishes of the other side of the House. In Committee we accepted an Amendment from the Opposition to provide for 48 hours' notice. It is not quite fair that the official Opposition having moved an Amendment to increase the time from 24 to 48 hours and we having agreed to accept it and to put it in the Bill, hon. Members opposite should then demand that we increase the time again. One does not do that sort of thing in the House of Commons.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Ross

I beg to move Amendment No. 25, in page 7, line 20, to leave out "unoccupied".

I am assuming an Amendment that was originally put down by the Opposition and I suggest, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it might be convenient to take, at the same time, Amendment No. 26, in line 20, at end insert: , being either unoccupied premises, or premises of which the occupier is temporarily absent,".

Mr. Deputy-Speaker indicated assent.

Mr. Ross

It was, I believe, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) who drew attention to the weakness of subsection (5), that we were obliging somebody to secure unoccupied premises and to leave them as he had found them after carrying out his business in the premises, that it would be unfair if the unoccupation was due to the fact that the occupier or the owner was absent temporarily and that it was only right that something should be done in a case like that and that we should put an obligation upon the person who was entering to ensure that he left these premises, too, in the way he found them.

For this reason, we adopted the Amendment of the official Opposition, but we felt that it contained an element of the ludicrous. It would have meant tint although the owner was there in occupied premises the person who entered by law would have to lock up. We therefore decided to add to the Opposition Amendment being either unoccupied premises, or premises of which the occupier is temporarily absent. This meets the point that was made in Committee and it does so better than the original Opposition Amendment.

Mr. Anthony Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

Even if it just takes only 30 seconds I should like to express my appreciation at the way the Government have adopted the suggestion, and extended it a little bit. I think that it does usefully meet the point.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 7, line 20, at end insert: , being either unoccupied premises, or premises of which the occupier is temporarily absent,".—[Mr. Ross.]