§ 4.33 p.m.
§ Mr. W. S. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)
I am sure it will be agreed that, having just dealt with the Obscene Publications Bill, it is extremely appropriate to go on to the Land Commission Act, because if anything could be referred to under that same heading it is indeed that Act. But having been fortunate to come at the top of the Ballot, I am going to be careful throughout my speech to restrict myself strictly to the terms of reference to which you, Mr. Speaker have drawn attention. Although I realise that the great interest in connection with the Land Commission is at present centred on the betterment levy, to which I shall refer, I am going to deal first with administrative questions, in accordance with your Ruling, and, in the much wider context, to draw attention to the activities of the Land Commission in relation to the attempted bringing forward of land for development.
This is a matter of maladministration. Inevitably, each hon. Member must draw upon his or her own personal experience in a matter of this kind, and therefore I make no apology for drawing attention to the activities of the Commission in this field in relation to the Royal County, part of which I am privileged to represent in this House and which by the Annual Review of Planning Statistics for 1967–68 is shown as having a population, at mid-1967, of 471,840. In Berkshire that shows a growth of 16.3 per cent. over the previous five years. Berkshire with Hampshire has the second highest average rate of growth in the country.
For example, the main town from which my constituency comes—Wokingham—has increased over the last eight years at an annual rate of 7 per cent., and I have to draw the attention of the House to the problems which this kind of expansion brings with it, into which the work of the Land Commission is now to be injected. It brings tremendous strains in finance. There are no special grants for specially-fast developing areas. Inevitably, the ratepayers of Berkshire understandably require facilities—as my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe), whom I see in his place, and I know only too well—ahead of the rate income that is available. This 1295 brings very great strains on local finance. Then education. In Berkshire, for example, there are 310 temporary classrooms in use. This is a far higher number than the local education authority would wish or in any sense consider desirable.
The problem of roads in a fast-growing area like this is massive. This year we have been warned that owing to financial stringencies there is no possibility of more than minimal work being done on any except Class A roads; and the whole problem of land drainage is overlooked until something goes wrong with it. That is a problem which constantly causes difficulties in an area of the kind I am representing. We all appreciate, and certainly within the County of Berkshire it is understood quite clearly, that there must be phased development and expansion in an area of that kind. That is why Berkshire county necessarily evaluates its house building and land availability at six-monthly intervals—by what I believe is regarded in local authority circles as a fairly sophisticated system.
Our latest returns show that working on the basis of a 50 per cent. availability pattern, which is by common consent a very low factor, there is sufficient land available for at least 2½ to 3 years at the highest rate of house-building yet recorded. I am setting that background firmly as the start of what I want to say to the Minister because on top of all the strains to which I have referred only briefly, so as not unduly to take up the time of the House, there comes a request from the Minister—we do not know publicly what kind of figure he is asking for but we know it is a massive request—for further land to be released in the area which includes Berkshire for development by the Commission. I see the Minister is nodding his head.
§ The Minister for Planning and Land (Mr. Kenneth Robinson)
It is land coming forward for development, not necessarily by the Land Commission.
§ Mr. van Straubenzee
That is an encouraging statement because it has relevance to what I shall say in a moment; but certainly to my certain knowledge local officials of the Land Commission have made it extremely clear that they have their eyes on land to be 1296 developed by the Commission; and I will give a specific example. I have managed to prise out of the Commission—one has one's methods for doing these things—a proposal that there shall be developed at the behest of the Commission an additional 200 acres of land immediately adjoining the town of Wokingham, the town to which I have drawn attention and which over the last eight years has been growing at an average rate of 7 per cent. per annum.
There has already been a proposal for a smaller acreage. There certainly will be now a proposal for a larger acreage—200 acres—immediately adjoining that town which has been expanding at that rate, with all the pressures and strains which I have already described. All those concerned with local planning would agree that the area selected is in principle the right area for the expansion to take place. My point is that by bringing in the Land Commission another layer is superimposed in the whole planning context, a layer whose officials have no knowledge of education and local educational problems, no knowledge, for example, of the matter I have discussed such as surface drainage, no knowledge personally of the road programme, all matters which are within the control of the County Council concerned.
It is this new superimposition which I protest about in the strongest possible terms. I firmly believe that in an area such as that which I represent expansion, and expansion there certainly must be, controlled by those who have knowledge of all the services which go with this planning is what is required, and we shall rue the day if we entrust any part of it to a body such as the one I have described.
I said that was not the particular aspect of the Commission's work which is most generally commented upon. Nor is it. I want next, however, to deal with a short, small, detailed point which is nevertheless of some importance. The Commission in its various activities will be dealing with very substantial acreages of land. It will be, by administrative decision, making land available for in many cases private development. I personally think that the House should be more certain than it is of precisely how declarations of personal interest in its work are to be handled. We are particularly 1297 sensitive about this point at this precise moment of time, because we in the House are being urged, in my view rightly, Co look at the way in which we handle these matters.
I shall not bore the House, but I had a series of Questions to the Minister on these matters. I have the references here if it should become necessary to recount them. The long and short of it is that there is no way in which the public or hon. Members can have any knowledge at all as to what declarations of interest have been made, in what circumstances, and in regard to what land. I myself believe that in this totally new field there should be a new system. I hope that the Minister will agree to have a look at this and not, as he has indicated in various Answers to me, merely regard it as a domestic matter for the Commission which it is no part of our duty to look into.
As I leave this point I have one matter to comment upon with some personal distaste. It so happens that over the autumn months I have been asking a number of searching questions about the Commission and have been looking closely at certain detailed matters in connection with its members. It so happens, for example, that I discovered, as is perfectly reasonable, that Sir Harold Samuel is a member of the Commission and that, as he is fully entitled to do, he takes no salary for being a member.
I want to tell the House what happened to me as a result—I think it would not be right to say "as a result", but what happened to me at the same moment of time. On three separate occasions at the time that I was tabling these Questions I was approached by three separate persons, all of whom were of an official or semi-official character—though not Government servants, I hasten to add—and all three of whom asked me why it was that I was asking Questions about Sir Harold Samuel and implied to me that it would be happier if I did not. All three then said precisely the same thing, on three different occasions, and in three different places. What they added was, "I think you will probably remember that Sir Harold is a very substantial contributor to Tory Party funds".
I have no idea whether this was done with Sir Harold's approval or consent. I merely record the fact that it happened 1298 on three separate occasions from three separate people. If there is anybody inside the Commission or elsewhere who considers that by a remark of that kind hon. Members can be silenced, I think they had better think twice—and they had better think twice about hon. Members on both sides of the House. I merely record this matter, understanding that the Minister himself has no personal responsibility for it.
§ Mr. K. Robinson
I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that the approaches were made to him by persons who were not public servants. I am wondering how that squares with the hon. Gentleman's later remark as to whether anybody, whether inside the Commission or not, considers, and so on. I take it that these approaches were not made by anybody connected with the Land Commission?
§ Mr. van Straubenzee
I want to make that perfectly clear. That is why I said that they were not in an official capacity. I am very glad to make it extremely clear to the Minister that none of the three persons, two at least of whom would be known to him, are in any way officials of his Ministry or of the Commission, nor are they Government servants. If they were, I should have said something to the appropriate Minister.
As I said earlier, what is really exercising the public mind is the way in which this levy is operating. I want to take three examples of the way it is operating. I take the first one only by way of principle, because I have been extremely fortunate in being notified of my success in the Ballot for the Adjournment at a later date, and I therefore think that it would be a discourtesy to the Chair if I were to deal in detail with the specific case which on that occasion I shall deal with. I therefore do not deal with it, except in principle.
The principle that I want to raise is that of the charging of levy in the case of compulsory purchase. In a compulsory purchase a person is dealing with the district valuer. It is perfectly true that there is appeal to the Lands Tribunal. This in proper cases can be exercised. In such a case it is virtually true—certainly for the small man it is true—that the price received is that which is—if I use the word "dictated" by the 1299 district valuer, I use it without any personal criticism of district valuers, but merely to state the reality of the situation.
§ Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)
I am a little concerned. I apologise for having allowed the hon. Gentleman to go past the very serious point he raised about the three approaches that were made to him by three different people on three separate occasions in three different places, almost bringing pressure to bear upon him not to perform his public duty by raising matters in the House which he was rightly raising, because they seemed to imply that the Chairman of the Commission, who is an unpaid Chairman, would be displeased: he was reputed to be a contributor to Conservative Party funds.
In my opinion, this is a serious state of affairs and I think that it requires elaboration to a greater extent than the hon. Gentleman has done. If need be, it should be looked at by at least some person or persons in the House. The bringing of pressure to bear upon a Member not to do his duty is a very serious matter. I compliment the hon. Gentleman on paying no heed to it and on raising the matter which he felt that he was in duty bound to raise as a public-spirited citizen.
§ Mr. van Straubenzee
On a point of fact, let me first correct the hon. Gentleman. It was a mere slip on his part. The person to whom I was referring is not the Chairman of the Land Commission. He is a part-time member and my Questions—and obviously the Chair would not have passed them if they were not proper—elicited certain information about his service, including the fact that he is not accepting any payment. I merely recorded quite briefly what had actually happened to me.
I believe this House, if having been here ten years gives one the right to say this, ought to be just a little careful before it gets on its high horse on privilege matters. If an hon. Member feels that something needs saying, I think it is quite sufficient that he says it within the privilege of this House. It has to be remembered that each hon. Member is responsible for the strict accuracy of what he has said. Naturally I have undertaken that I have spoken accurately. What 1300 I have said will be quite sufficient, if the hon. Gentlemen reflect.
I hope the Minister will pay attention to cases of compulsory purchase. I was arguing this way: in the personal experience of many of us the present practice when land is changing hands voluntarily is for the vendor to stipulate a price higher than he would otherwise have done, in order to cover the levy paid. I noticed, in an interesting article in The Times by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), he said that Sir Henry Wells, the Chairman of the Commission, had stated that the Act was not putting up the price of land. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman quoted that remark in good faith. In the modest experience of a practitioner in this field, this is simply not accurate.
The reason why that statement can be made is this: the collation of information given, by reference to the now expanded details which have to be given to the Inland Revenue on the transfer of land, is behind the collation of the figures upon which Sir Henry Wells is working. I can only draw upon my own personal experience, but I believe that those selling voluntarily are requiring an additional value because of the levy. This is one of the reasons why the land to which this Act refers is increasing in price. The unfortunate person who has to sell as a result of a compulsory purchase order has not that freedom, nor has the Lands Tribunal on appeal. Neither the district valuer nor the Lands Tribunal can reflect the increased cost of the levy. The person who has his land compulsorily taken from him is therefore at a disadvantage.
This is a very practical matter in a constituency such as mine. If I say no more about it it is out of deference to a particular case. I have been very careful not to refer to it this afternoon.
The second point I draw attention to is the quite astonishing social result of this levy. Let me give an example. Part of my constituency is the Woodley area of Reading—a fast-growing and expanding suburb area of Reading. It has a very large young population and it desperately needs another primary school. There is land there owned by a company which has planning consent for houses, exempt from development levy 1301 in respect of the building of houses. The company has a good record locally and is prepared, though perhaps not willingly, to make the land available to the local education authority for that desperately-needed school. It is so desperately needed that it was programmed in the present financial year.
The local education authority was on the point of posting the cheque, quite literally, to take possession of the land so that work may commence. The advisers of this company then wisely intervene and say, "If you, the company, sell this land to the local education authority, you are instantly making yourselves liable for a development levy". This is the position. If land owned by this company is used for housing purposes no levy is payable; if it is used for the highly desirable social purpose of a badly-needed primary school, development levy is payable. The result is foreseeable. The company have withdrawn; lengthy negotiations are now afoot; the Department of Education is to be persuaded to issue a compulsory purchase order. That will be fought through the courts and the culmination is that the company is advised by leading counsel that in these special circumstances they will be entitled to disturbance, which will increase the price of the land by 57 per cent.
As a direct result of the problems which this Act has brought upon us, this highly desirable social development is being thwarted. I have very real anxieties—I do not overstate this—that in my constituency there will be young persons and children without proper education. They will not be able to have the schooling to which they are entitled.
Finally, I give one example of the operation of the levy upon a small person. I represent 100,000 persons in an area which is fast expanding. Speaking in the strictly parliamentary sense, I am what is known as "overweight". I therefore have in my postbag a substantial number of cases of this kind. I take the latest example, that of an old-age pensioner of 70 and his wife, two years younger, with a weekly income of £11 and money in the Post Office Savings Bank. The story is of a modest house, old, but standing in a certain area of ground. The local post office want some of the ground for an expanding telephone exchange. They act with perfect propriety, 1302 but they naturally let it be known that they have compulsory powers if necessary.
The old-age pensioner, who for purely technical reasons at the time of the publication of the White Paper was not the legal owner, had been the occupant of the house for 26 years. He sells part of his site for the telephone exchange. It is inevitable that he is charged a levy upon that sale. It says something for his public spirit that, with a shrug of the shoulders, he says that he understands it is necessary in his particular case. But the story does not end there. The plot is then divided in half by this development. He gives half of it to his daughter so that she can build a small house, and builds a modest bungalow himself on the other half. He now faces a development levy of £600 in respect of his own house.
I would read the last words of a letter which this man wrote to me:Note to Secretary—be indulgent with an old man, and let Mr. van Straubenzee see this.I suppose he assumed it might not have got through to me personally.
I wonder whether I could convey to the House the anxiety and the problems which are set for people in this sort of situation. As a result of what he has had to do he has been left with no liquid cash at all and the levy has taken up virtually all his savings.
The Minister is under pressure from all sides on this. I am glad to see his hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) behind him, because I gave him notice that I would refer to him. The hon. Gentleman is quoted in a local newspaper, I hope accurately, as commenting on this case as follows:I am fully behind the idea of creaming profits from land speculators, but I do not think that people should pay tax if the price of the land does not exceed £15,000.That is a notable conversion. I hope that now that common sense has begun to prevail with the hon. Gentleman it is possible that he and I can combine to try to get some sort of sense into the Minister's mind on the small transaction.
§ Mr. John Lee (Reading)
The quotation is basically correct. I said a figure of about £10,000 to £15,000. What is not reported there is that I have criticised the Land Commission on the grounds 1303 that it does not go the way of land nationalisation, which is what I have always wanted.
§ Mr. van Straubenzee
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, those comments of his are quoted, but I did not want to humiliate him by quoting them in public. But at least we have now got on. We have got to the figure of £10,000; at least we now have the basic concept.
§ Mr. John Lee
Is the hon. Gentleman now going to co-operate with me in persuading the Government to adopt land nationalisation?
§ Mr. van Straubenzee
There are elements of foolishness on both sides of the House, but that goes beyond it. I am making the point that, without breaching the Act, until such time as we can lay our hands on it and slit its throat, which we cannot do in this debate, it would surely be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to do something at least to help the small transactions, which now even his hon. Friends do not believe were included in the Government's intentions.
It so happens that there was a property in my constituency years ago called Briar Patch, and Briar Patch sends a shudder down the spine of every civil servant in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, as a result of a previous socialist experiment. I have a case that I have not quoted, but the details of which I am willing to give privately to the Minister, in which I have serious reasons for doubt about the health of the small person concerned. Therefore, I say advisedly that if we are not careful we shall find that this oppressive legislation has had that kind of drastic and dreadful effect. That is why I am so grateful to the Chair for giving us permission to raise the matter and to hound the Minister until it is amended.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I intervene more in sorrow than in anger. I must say at once that I think that the attitude and conduct of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Land has been very uncharacteristic.
I want to deal first with a matter in which I think he will feel himself to 1304 have been unfair, namely, our discussion last Friday, when he said,The hon. Gentleman—referring to the hon. Member for Essex. South-East (Mr. Braine)—' quoted what my right hon. Friend said in an article in The Times a day or two ago.…There were statements in his article which I think my right hon. Friend on reflection will not wholly agree with.…My right hon. Friend knows perfectly well that the Land Commission has no discretion to waive interest."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st March. 1969; Vol. 780, c. 1010.]That was when he refused to give way to me. I am sure that he will agree now that what he said was grossly misleading. Anyone who looks at the article will see that I clearly set out that it was my right hon. Friend the Minister's responsibility to deal with the waiver of interest. Indeed, his evasion of responsibility goes very much to the root of the problem we are discussing, and it is a matter to which I shall return.
In many respects the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) made a very thoughtful speech. I do not expect him to agree with me, but I am not satisfied that the Land Commission has built up the rate of acquisition sufficiently speedily. I think that that is very relevant to the problem with which he began. He made it quite clear that in an area like his constituency phasing of development is all-important. I accept at once what he says. There are very real difficulties of local government finance in providing for such phasing. I think that it is in this context that the Land Commission has a real part to play. This does not mean that it superimposes its ideas on the local authority. They have to work in cooperation, but if they do so the Land Commission has a very real rôle to play to see that development is properly phased.
I pay tribute once again to the Land Commission for the way in which it has conducted its affairs over the past two years. But when we talk, as the hon. Gentleman did, about land prices it is disappointing that the Commission, whatever our views about it, has not resorted to Crownhold or concessionary Crown-hold. This must be a matter of Ministerial responsibility. If it had done so we could have discussed the matter and seen whether it was effective. This was something to which I called the Commission's particular attention, but the Commission 1305 has not yet made any concessionary disposals.
I want to return at once to the hardship cases which have been our main concern. I believe that we can all agree that no one is anxious to be unfair. I emphasise, as I always have, the importance of realisation of profit for liability to the levy. I made a great virtue of the fact that in nearly all cases the levy would be paid on realisation of profit; for example, the person who sold his land would receive his windfall profit less levy. That is the great virtue of tackling the problem as we did by way of the levy.
But I realised, and I am sure that those of us who discussed the betterment levy during the passage of the Act realised, that there would be circumstances in which this did not obtain. This is very relevant to many of the cases which have been brought to my attention. As the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) knows, we discussed this very fully in Standing Committee. It was in this context that I said that I felt that the Commission had a very active part to play. In cases of financial difficulty it has power to provide for instalments.
What we were mainly concerned about, however, was that there might be cases where the person did not realise the profit on which he would be called upon to pay levy, and we provided that the Commission could postpone the payment of levy in such cases. I think that hon. Members on both sides would agree that there was a proper field for the Commission to exercise its discretion.
The question of interest arises here, and it is a question on which my right hon. Friend cannot evade his responsibility.
§ Mr. R. F. H. Dobson (Bristol, North-East)
Would my right hon. Friend clear up just how he would see postponement? Does he see it as being continuous or as the levy being completely waived?
§ Mr. Willey
The hon. Member for Crosby will remember that we discussed this in Committee. Some hon. Members were anxious that we should define the ways and circumstances in which the Land Commission should exercise its discretion. I argued, and my argument was accepted, that it was better to leave that 1306 discretion unfettered. Nevertheless, a public body might feel in difficulties if it had unfettered discretion, and I said explicitly in the Standing Committee that if necessary I would give general directions. That is now a responsibility on the shoulders of my right hon. Friend. A public body may feel in difficulty in some cases in exercising a discretion. Very properly we cannot give specific directions here, but I said in Committee that it was a matter on which, if the Land Commission felt that it was in difficulties, I would be prepared to issue general directions to make its position easier. But the question remains—and this is why we have concentrated our attention on waiver of interest—of whether one waives interest.
In Standing Committee we discussed four or five cases. I said that, in these cases, we would provide a waiver, and this was done. This is a very important question if rates of interest are high, because the Commission can well feel that, although it has discretion to postpone, unless there is a waiver of interest it may appear penal to the person it is trying to help.
It is not easy to decide whether there should be waiver of interest or not. But the fact that a question is not easy to decide does not mean that it should not be decided. There are some circumstances in which interest should not be waived: for example, if they are analogous to a mortgage. No one would suggest that any person should get a mortgage without interest. But there are other circumstances where one would say that not only should there be a postponement, but that that postponement should be free of interest.
I set a precedent for my right hon. Friend which is very relevant to many of the cases we have been considering. As the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) will recall, we considered the problem of the farmer who builds a cottage for an agricultural worker and yet later may make a handsome profit by selling it as a country cottage. In such cases, we provided for waiver of interest, and I think that this was right. I am trying to define the circumstances in which the waiver should be used. I think one has to assume the good intention of the farmer to provide the cottage for his agricultural worker.
1307 I think that this circumstance applies to many of the cases at present before us where there is no realisation because an owner-occupier lives in the house which has been built. I am not being dogmatic on this matter, and I want to hear now, as I did during the passage of the Act, the views of right hon. and hon. Members, but I would think that one has to accept the intention to occupy the house and, therefore, that one would not impose interest. One would surely say that this case should be interest-free because it was the intention to provide a house for owner-occupation, but that the levy is only postponed.
I come now to the exceptions, which is a different matter. I know that my right hon. Friend has criticised me for talking about the element of discretion but it is relevant to many of the cases before us and I am very disappointed that neither he nor the Land Commission has been sufficiently positive about it. I have little to add to what I said when we debated the Land Commission early in February. I then said that I thought there were three main categories, and again I say to my right hon. Friend that he should not confuse this by talking about individual cases. I have said to him that, in looking at individual cases, he should see whether they provide categories for exemption. I also say to my right hon. Friend now that, if there is one case justified on its own merits, he should make an exception, as we always ought to do in legislation. We wish to avoid avoidable unfairness, and it is not proper merely to reply that one may be making exceptions for very limited categories. The point at issue is whether in equity we should make those exceptions.
I turn now to the three categories which I gave and I still think that these remain the three principal categories. The first is in relation to the interim period. As I have said repeatedly, once one decides not to make legislation retrospective, one has the difficulty of an interim period. The hon. Member for Crosby believed that I exaggerated the danger of collusive sales, but that was the purpose of the provision. The interim period is over. The Government have in fact provided for some exceptions but I want to call my right hon. Friend's attention to what the Parliamentary Commissioner said. 1308 He called attention to administrative inconsistencies, saying:On 14th December, 1967, the Minister stated that he could do nothing to alleviate the liabilities of the complainants since the Land Commission was bound to act in accordance with the statute. Yet within a few weeks the Government acknowledged that there was a genuine case…I know the difficulties about this but I think it illustrates what I have been complaining of—at any rate, an initial inflexible attitude by the Land Commission and my right hon. Friend to these cases.
The second category covers what we call the single family dwelling house. Mr. Desmond Heap, with whom I had a dialogue during discussions on the Act, said on one occasion that the only reason he could find for this exception was that I was a sentimentalist. Let us recognise the fact. It is a sentimental exception. If it is a sentimental exception, let us deal with it sentimentally.
We have found that probably we drew the definition of the family too narrowly. But when we were discussing this I felt that most people thought I had drawn the definition broadly because we included illegitimate and adopted children. Obviously, we were dealing only with adult children, implying that one only builds a house for an adult child. It so happens that I have very good reason to believe now that there can be adult grandchildren and I cannot see the difficulty of making an exception for grandchildren.
What surprised me with regard to this case was that it had been raised as long ago as last summer. Surely this is a very limited category of people. I may add that, in talking about cases of this kind, I am doing so on the information I have and I recognise that it is difficult to talk about individual cases unless one has access to the full facts. But I am now concerned with whether a grandchild should be exempt. I cannot see any reason for excluding a grandchild from the exempt family.
The other exception is fairly obvious, for this is the widow, and "widow" and "wife" are the same person. Thus, there is surely here a category of cases which we exempted and which should be expanded if it is genuinely thought that "family" is drawn too narrowly.
1309 Incidentally, I have here a letter about one of these grandchildren cases—from the daughter, in this instance. She writes:Mr. Kenneth Robinson…replied telling us how to ' get round the levy' by getting my mother to buy the chalet and live in it for 6 months…I know that we drew the definition widely, but it is not very seemly for a Minister to write saying that one can "get round the levy" by the inconvenience of living in the house for six months with one's grandchildren. It would be better simply to say, "We will bring you within the exceptions."
Thirdly, we have the de minimis cases, the small cases. When we discussed this in early February, I said:We discussed this when we considered the Bill, when I believed that there should be no de minimis provisions. We did not then have any experience."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1969; Vol. 777, c. 643.]I think on reflection that the hon. Member for Crosby would think that I was unduly narrow about this. I would remind him, that two years ago, when discussing the legislation, we did so very much in the context of the scandal of land prices and speculative dealings. This is why I emphasised, and make no apology for doing so, the dangers of evasion by fragmentation. I recognise that my right hon. Friend faces the difficulty of fragmentation but I also emphasise that this was not a difference of principle. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor expressed himself more inelegantly on the matter than I did. The Lord Chancellor said:No one really wants the Land Commission to mess about dealing with a large number of small cases.I said:I am in no way averse to our all putting our heads together and seeing whether or not a viable way can be found.We made some provision. There was the eleven-tenths rule, the definition of development, but we have still to consider de minimis in the context of the working of the Act. Whatever provision is made in the Act we still have to consider, once it is in operation, whether there are small cases where the levy is not worth collecting. That is something which we cannot decide other than by experience.
1310 We should now have had sufficient experience to consider it in this narrow sense. Since my reluctant intervention into this controversy I have had quite a large number of cases brought to my attention. It is in the light of this experience that I am asking my right hon. Friend to look in a broader sense at the de minimis provision. It seems that one could bring an awful lot of these hardship cases within a fairly narrow band and this might be the simplest way of dealing with these problems.
I would say at once to the hon. Member for Crosby that it seems that this would be a narrow band, much narrower than the band that he and some of his colleagues proposed. I mention this because one of the difficulties about anything like the levy is what I describe as escalation. If we provide an exemption we have to suddenly jump to the full levy and we have therefore to decide whether the levy should be graduated. I would not like to suggest a graduated levy, but in the context in which we are considering such a provision the question of escalation would not arise.
It is for these reasons that I ask my right hon. Friend again—I am hopeful in view of what I saw in the Saturday Press—for some definitive statement.
Other hon. Members may put more cases before him, but these are the three simple categories of cases which ought to be considered. I received a letter from the right hon. Gentleman's private secretary on Friday which said:In her letter of 11 th March, copy attached, Mrs. Wallbridge suggests that we should send to you letters which she had previously addressed to me. This correspondence, which might have been expected to receive official treatment by the Land Commission, has been dealt with in the Minister for Planning and Land's Office, advised by the Commission, because Mr. Robinson has insisted on seeing betterment levy cases on which hardship is alleged.I am, of course, prepared to do as Mrs. Wallbridge asks, but only if you agree. I should add it is the Minister's view that the matter, which involves details about the levy assessment and a cheque forwarded to the Land Commission, is entirely within the competence of the Commission and he believes that this is a point of view which you will subscribe to.This, I feel, illustrates the fundamental difficulty. I do not think, with respect, that the right hon. Gentleman ought to 1311 have been dealing with Land Commission cases through his Private Office. If he does this, the Land Commission will feel that hardship cases are being dealt with by the Minister. Moreover, when a person who has been in correspondence with his private secretary raises a point the Department says "Oh, this is a question for the Land Commission." There is undesirable blurring of responsibilities. We should say that the Act clearly provided certain discretionary powers which the Land Commission can exercise. It also placed clear responsibilities on the shoulders of my right hon. Friend to extend them if he thought fit, either by way of providing for waiver of interest, reduction of interest or by providing for further exceptions.
If we kept this proper constitutional division of responsibility we would see the problem much more clearly. Personally, I would welcome the Land Commission telling us what it thinks in the light of its experience. I would like it to express a view as to whether it feels that its discretionary powers would be more effective if there were a waiver of interest. I would like my right hon. Friend to tell the House quite frankly whether he feels that these powers should be used. If one gets a blurring of responsibility I am afraid there is no effective action or deletory action. I hope when the Minister replies that we will have a clear and concise view about what is being done in these cases.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
I wish to examine the working of the Land Commission in two particular aspects affecting my constituency. Before turning to the particular there are one or two general truths which should be considered. So far the Land Commission has cost the taxpayer about £4½ million to raise in betterment levy £8.7 million. Now we have just heard from the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) that the Minister's Private Office is calling in all cases where hardship is mentioned. Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I appreciate the Minister's personal concern and I am glad that hardship cases should come in for his personal review. I respect him for that, but here is another item of expenditure. What is the true cost of this legislation? I believe 1312 that it is very much higher than the apparent £4½ million.
The original Land Commission Bill, which was so badly drafted, disappeared as a result of the 1966 General Election. When it reappeared after the election it was virtually as badly drawn as ever. We had a long Committee stage with 21 sittings, and at the end of the seventeenth sitting there were still 50 Government Amendments outstanding. This gives some indication of the continued bad drafting, right to the very end, and explains the climate and difficulties in which the country is now plunged. At that seventeenth sitting I asked the Parliamentary Secretary:I should like a clear assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that if this Measure becomes law, which I hope it will not, and it is found that people are being penalised…and that there is some miscarriage of justice … he will undertake to bring in as quickly as possible new legislation to put it right.This is what we are calling for today. The Parliamentary Secretary replied:… as to whether there is a miscarriage of social justice, of course I cannot give undertakings of the comprehensive kind that the hon. Gentleman suggested, but I hope that all hon. Members are interested in the general philosophy that where there are miscarriages of social justice, they should be put right."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E; 2nd August, 1966; c. 789.]Of course we are, but this sort of airy-fairy attitude by the party opposite, that it will all come out in the wash and we need not worry, is extremely perturbing to the small man. It is against this background that I want to raise these particular cases. I hope that we will have a specific pledge from the Minister that these hardship cases will be reviewed and that there will be amending legislation soon.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)
Order. I ought to remind the hon. Member of the statement made by Mr. Speaker at the commencement of the debate, that demands for legislation are not admissible on this Bill.
§ Mr. Wells
I am grateful. Can we look forward to an answer from the right hon. Gentleman in due course?
I turn to the particular aspect in my constituency. The first is the area of Walderslade, 450 acres in all, lying partly in my constituency, geographically mostly in the Sevenoaks constituency, and with 1313 a small part of it in the Rochester and Chatham constituency. This is to be developed by the Commission. It is an admirable area for development, and I should be glad to see it developed by somebody. It has been considered ripe for development for many years.
However, I object most strongly to the harrying tactics adopted by the Commission and its servants of some of the small owner-occupiers in the area. The whole area has been designated as fit for development, but it seems that the bureaucrats discovered only after the paper plan was completed that people actually lived there and that some of the occupiers who lived there had already objected to the plan. I believe that the bureaucrats thought that they were just buying by compulsory purchase 415 acres of scrub and they were genuinely surprised that there were objections.
Naturally many of the owners who do not live there. or owners who have poorish properties, are glad enough to accept compensation and to be bought out. But there is a comparative few who are extremely proud of their homes and who wish to stay put. The only reason that I can ascertain for dispossessing them is bureaucratic tidiness. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) mentioned at Question Time that he and some of his hon. Friends thought the Commission was excessively bureaucratic in its activities, and this is exactly the type of thing on which back benchers on both sides of the House sincerely agree. I hope that the great god of bureaucratic tidiness, which is screwing down the little man, will be abolished.
Many of the cases which I wish to mention concern old people. Some of them built their homes with their own hands. Notable is the case of a Mr. Olley, who built not only his house but his fitted furniture and everything in it with his own hands. He is a craftsman who has worked to the very highest standards. He is now old and naturally wishes to stay in his own home for the rest of his life. I have had voluminous correspondence with this gentleman and I will not weary the House with all of it, but I must read the last letter, dated 13th March, which I received from him:I have had a visit from two men from the Land Commission to talk over any worries I might have. One of them said, ' Be honest. Do you want a house as big 1314 as this? ' Afterwards one of them gave me the impression that he thought I should be content with a house less well built and appointed. I told them that if I had not wanted a house like this I would not have planned and built it. Their visit did nothing to abate the worry and fear I feel".Here are these men from the Commission coming round and bullying and badgering old people to change their way of life.
A Mrs. Friday wrote to me a couple of days later, on 15th March:Dear Sir, I have received a draft compulsory purchase order from the Land Commission for my home. My house is a substantially built brick bungalow, and would fit in well with any new development. My husband built the house in 1932 for both of us, we have lived here ever since bringing up our children in this house. Naturally, I have been very happy here and do not wish to move, nor will I under any circumstances".I am delighted that she is a lady of character. She goes on to say:I am over 65 years of age, was widowed a few years ago when the shock made be a diabetic"—and so on. Why should this good lady be bullied and badgered?
Finally, I bring before the House the case of a gentleman of New Zealand nationality but of Dutch extraction, Mr. Vroegryk, who lives in an extremely attractive house. I have not seen it, but I have seen photographs of it. He wrote to me saying:I wish to confirm that I have no objection to the development of this area as a whole, or indeed parting with some of my land for that purpose. But I do object strongly to the compulsory purchase of my residence, the house is in excellent condition and provides a very comfortable home. Mr. Stacey from the Land Commission informed me that there are no detailed plans as yet for the proposed new road or any other development on my property, so there is no reason to effect compulsory purchase. I would consider it only fair that existing occupied residences, of which there are only a few in this area, should remain undisturbed"—and so on. He goes on to mention a firm of private developers.
§ Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)
Has the hon. Gentleman checked whether these statements made about members of the Commission interrogating his constituents are true?
§ Mr. Wells
I have checked them. I apologise for boring the House with this lengthy correspondence. I have a large file here and I am trying to keep my speech as short as possible. However, 1315 after every constituency interview or letter I have written to my namesake the Chairman of the Commission to inquire what the deuce these people were doing.
§ Mr. Wells
Yes. The hon. Gentleman will now have to suffer while I read a section of a letter from the Land Commission.
The Commission may or may not have acted properly, but it has answered my constituents' letters promptly, and it has answered my letters with courtesy and care. But it is absolutely unyielding, and it is this wretched bureaucracy which I find so distasteful. The Kent County Council has taken a little longer to answer letters, but it, too, has acted correctly within the law as it stands. But I repeat: why should these people, mainly of pensionable age, living in these nice homes, who do not wish to be disturbed, be disturbed?
I must quote from three letters. The first was written to me by the Commission and deals with Mr. Vroegryk's interview. It states:Mr. Vroegryk did, however, call at our Regional Office at Croydon on 21st October, 1968, and was seen by Mr. Stacey and a colleague. He said he could understand our proposal to include the part of his land required for the ring road and for residential development but he could not understand why we had also included the southern part of his land (including his house) when, according to the Development Plan, these fell into an open space. The Kent County Council's tentative plans on Open Space were explained to him by Mr. Stacey"—and so on. I shall revert to this letter later.
When I received that letter, I wrote to the county council to this effect:I am now told by the Land Commission that Mr. Vroegryk's house is required for an open space and nobody knows what Mr. Olley's house is required for but it is near Mr. Vroegryk's residence and therefore it would seem probable that it is also required for an open space.The House will appreciate that I am reading only extracts from these letters in order to save time. This is an extract from a letter dated 20th December from the county council to me:As these notations may not now be appropriate in the Compulsory Purchase Order area and could be changed by the proposed layout for comprehensive development now 1316 being prepared on behalf of the Local Planning Authority, it has been decided to delete such notations with the exception of the diagrammatic line for the proposed distributor road which is to form the main access to the development area. I would state, however, that in the revised map as exhibited in the summer neither Mr. Vroegryk's house nor Mr. Olley's house were included in any area shown for public open space".Why the devil are they being dispossessed? For no reason more or less than to please some bureaucrat! These are perfectly reasonable, sensible, elderly people who are being bullied and badgered.
I will revert to the letter dated 3rd December from the Land Commission to which I have already referred. I go on to the interview between this Mr. Stacey and my constituent, Mr. Vroegryk:—He was told that we did not know as yet whether his house would be demolished but Mr. Stacey ' expressed the view that as the house is without drains and mainly timber built it was most probably not the type of building which the local authority would like to have remaining in a Public Open Space area'.In so far as the house is without drains, it is precisely like my house. My house has no drains because there is no main drainage in many large areas of Kent. We have efficient cess pits, septic tanks and similar rustic measures which are perfectly satisfactory to us. If there is to be a massive development in the area connections can be made to the new main drainage. I am speaking of an area which is within 35 miles of this place, where there are many elegant and desirable residences, in the true sense of the word and not in the house agents' sense of the word, that do not have main drains.
It is said that Mr. Vroegryk's house is built of wood; so indeed are many Colt and other modern houses all over the country, and excellent dwellings they are. I have seen pictures of my constituent's house, and any hon. Member would be proud to live there.
This arrogant little suburban man from the Land Commission who thinks that drains and bricks and mortar are all that matter should go and live in a rural area and learn a few rustic truths. I hope that the muddle over this case will soon be resolved.
I turn now from the Walderslade area to a second topic of grievance, namely, the operation of the betterment levy. This is 1317 more on the lines of the complaints which my hon. Friend has already unfolded to us.
§ Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)
I have been following what has been said with great interest and sympathy. Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that subject, will he tell us the end of the story which many of us are hearing for the first time? Were the houses about which he has been telling us not in an area that was designed as an open space?
§ Mr. Wells
I wish to goodness that I knew what the authorities mean to do. One authority says that it is to be designated as an open space, and the other authority says that it is not. That is why I read from the two letters. The Land Commission and the county council have precisely negatived each other's point of view, and it would be interesting to know the truth of the matter. If the houses are to be in a new urban area, they are perfectly adequate for this; if they are to be in an open space, the owners should be told. The houses are being reputedly taken away from them for no stated purpose except bureaucratic tidiness, and it is this to which I object. Even Mr. Olley, who is an old man who literally built his house with pride and craftsmanship, would accept an explanation which was decent, honest and honourable, but he has been mucked about.
Mr. A. P. Cosrain (Folkestone and Hythe)
I am completely confused. Will my hon. Friend say whether the Land Commission or the local authority is doing the planning? If the local authority is the planning authority, why does not it take this over without the Land Commission being involved?
§ Mr. Wells
As my hon. Friend well knows, the Land Commission is not a planning authority, and the planning authority must first set out its plans. The county council has apparently changed its mind. It does not know whether it is coming or going. The Land Commission, in particular this Mr. Stacey, whoever he may be, seems to bully these poor old people without knowing why.
§ Mr. Dobson
What the hon. Gentleman has said seems to change the position, if he will allow me to suggest it. 1318 The planning authority is clearly the county council and not the Land Commission, and here the county council has told the Land Commission one thing and has subsequently changed its mind. I do not see how he can claim that this is bureaucratic tidiness on the part of the Land Commission. It may be so on behalf of the county council but not on behalf of the Land Commission.
§ Mr. Wells
I do attack the county council in part for its attitude, but the Land Commission is responsible for the compulsory purchase order. Officers of the Land Commission called upon these people allegedly to allay their fears but, as will be seen from the letters which I have read, the fears, far from being allayed, have been increased. It is the servants of the Land Commission who have this bad image and who are creating the bad feeling among the individual residents. The county council deals from a mightly high plane with the Land Commission at a mighty high plane. If between them they cannot make up their minds, they should keep quiet until such time as their minds are made up, and then treat the private citizen in an honourable straightforward manner, instead of mucking him about and telling him they will take his house away from him without explaining why.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
Surely it is the Land Commission which will acquire and use the land, not the county council?
§ Mr. Wells
It is the Land Commission which will acquire the land, and if in its turn the county council designates it as an open space, the county council will acquire the land at second hand from the Land Commission. I know my hon. Friend's loyal association with Kent County Council, and I appreciate his point.
I hope the Minister, if he is considering cases of hardship personally, will look at these specific cases of old people who do not wish to move when there is no good reason for them to do so.
The other case I want to deal with concerns Mr. Roberson of Collier Street, Marden, Kent. Three days ago he wrote to me saying this:I am being caused undue hardship imposed on me by this act of betterment levy. I am in my early fifties, worked hard all my 1319 life and managed to save enough capital to build my own house. I was very fortunate in having a plot of land given to me (a gift) and, having received planning permission, my family and myself have toiled hard in our spare time since 4th May 1968 building our future home. All the labour to date has been done with our own hands. We estimated that we had saved sufficient capital to realise our ambition. Now the Land Commission demand £583 betterment levy, a huge slice out of our savings, which means insufficient capital to complete the project. As the land was a gift, nobody stands to make a profit. I feel that we are being unduly penalised simply because we wish to help ourselves, so in desperation I am seeking your advice …If the Minister is personally looking into hardship cases, perhaps I may send him the letter after the debate is over. I hope, too, that some help may come.
We had the words of the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) about the de minimis situation. But I must remind the House that, in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) moved a new Clause, which appears in column 988 of the proceedings in Committee. That would have exempted all small cases. The Minister rejected it, saying:The major reason is one which the hon. Gentleman anticipated, and that is the possibility of evasion. There is a strong risk of fragmentation. A housing estate would not be a housing estate; it would be a number of separate, individual projects, each of them less than £5,000. In that way we should be wide open to evasion.That was the right hon. Gentleman's own reason for being inflexible at that time. However, I would remind him of my own argument, which appears immediately after his own speech. I said:I recollect that whenever one signs a contract of conveyance one has to certify that this small conveyance is not a part of a larger deal. One has to give this certificate, if I remember rightly, for purposes of Stamp Duty. Surely it would be possible to get people to certify similarly in this case."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 9th August, 1966; c. 991.]It seems perfectly reasonable that, if people who are buying houses under £5,000 have to give a certificate for Stamp Duty, they could also give a certificate for betterment levy. Although I am no lawyer, I am sure that the Law Society would very quickly haul up before it any solicitor who urged his clients to behave improperly. I think 1320 that we have all the protection and the standing of the legal profession to see that such certificates are not given in a light-hearted manner.
This was not the only attempt by right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House to put the matter right. On Report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) moved a new Clause on 26th October, 1966, which appears at column 1101 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for that date. Its intention was to exempt the sort of small garden case which has given such offence recently. My right hon. Friend was supported by some of the finest legal brains in the House at that time, and I mention only my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-wich (Sir J. Foster) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith). Hon. Members of that sort of standing felt that this could be done within the excepted framework of the law. If men of their standing think that it can be done, I am sure that it can be.
On that occasion, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames said:Can I press the right hon. Gentleman on this issue, which is crucial? If the ordinary small house in my constituency with a small garden gets planning permission for redevelopment, there is no doubt that it will attract some additional value. Surely in every one of those cases there must therefore be an element of development value which would attract the levy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th October 1966; Vol. 734, c. 1112]The right hon. Gentleman did not see fit to answer my right hon. Friend. However, a little earlier he had expressed precisely the opposite point of view. He may come to this House today saying that he has changed his mind, but the crocodile tears which he has shed in the last ten days are cold comfort to the people who are suffering, since they are being shed by the Minister who forced through the Bill in such Draconian terms.
The simplest solution would be to abolish the Land Commission outright and abolish the betterment levy outright, possibly putting some sort of tax back on to capital gains, as has been suggested. However, to give the right hon. Gentleman his due, throughout the Committee stage he pointed out the complexities and 1321 difficulties of putting the capital gains structure on land betterment. One must understand that and respect it.
In a very good article by Professor Denman which appears in today's Daily Telegraph, the suggestion is made that there should be a simple, straightforward proceeds tax on all transactions in land bought for development or with development in view. Professor Denman argues that this could not push up the price of land and that it would, indeed, operate to make a greater supply of land available. I would urge the Minister now responsible to look closely at Professor Denman's suggestion.
Our constituents have suffered very seriously from these measures. The Government have been remarkably inflexible so far. I hope that we shall have a change of tune from the Minister, if not today, then tomorrow, because I gather from your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the right hon. Gentleman cannot change his coat today.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
I would remind my hon. Friend that the Minister can alter the law by sub-legislation—by Order. Subject to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are permitted to discuss that form of legislation today.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Mr. R. F. H. Dobson (Bristol, North-East)
It is a pity that the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells), who made such an interesting speech to which we listened for rather a long time, should have persisted in using the terms "bureaucratic bullying" and "bureaucratic tactics" with which he peppered one section of his speech. He obviously has at heart, as do many hon. Members on this side of the House, the real need for certain changes to be considered by the Minister because of personal hardship cases and because the Act in that regard is not doing the job which the Government of the day thought that it ought to do.
The hon. Gentleman's comments prompt me to say in clear terms that, in criticising those who work in the Land Commission, we do a serious injustice to them as individuals. They are working 1322 within the framework of an Act which we in this House laid down. Whether we supported it or opposed it is beside the point. It ill-behoves us to make even the small quotations which the hon. Gentleman made to illustrate that all those who work in the Land Commission are bullies who inflict upon ordinary people the sort of pressures that they ought not to. On reflection, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mean to cast the net so wide. If he wishes to comment on what I have said, I am delighted to give way to him.
§ Mr. John Wells
I am afraid that I cannot accommodate the hon. Gentleman. In Committee, I cast very grave doubts upon the stamp of person likely to be recruited into the service of the Land Commission. I have had very disquieting reports of the actions of some of these people in my constituency. Far from withdrawing anything that I said, I would underline it in large red letters.
§ Mr. Dobson
I am horrified that the hon. Gentleman should be of that view. To suggest that people who transferred to a new job in a new Ministry from other sections of the Civil Service are the sort of gauleiters about whom the hon. Gentleman is talking is absolute nonsense and he overstates his case in so doing.
§ Mr. Dobson
This sort of attitude is picked up in various parts of the country by the Press to the detriment of those working in the Land Commission who have the difficult job of trying to administer the Act within the framework which we have laid down.
I regret that in the Bristol area there was a vicious and quite unwarranted attack on Land Commission officers there in similar terms to those used by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells). This is in complete contradiction to the experience of people who have contact with Land Commission officers. My experience is that they treat every case and every comment with great courtesy, with unfailing understanding of the problem that is being presented and always seeking, if possible, to ease the burden on people within the framework set down for them through the Land Commission Act.
1323 I should like to pose to my right hon. Friend some of the cases which have come up in the Bristol area which have had publicity locally. I think that they typify the sort of worries that many people, including myself, have about whom the Act is penalising and whom it is not. I think that from these cases, which are obviously in the minority, we can find those which hit current householders unfairly, particularly those who have lived in the same house for a very long time. If we add to that that the people concerned might be elderly and perhaps well beyond pension age in some cases, as in some of the cases I wish to quote, we have a very difficult human situation.
I have had the opportunity to discuss some of these cases privately with my right hon. Friend. I am delighted that he is seized of the sort of points and problems which beset elderly people faced with meeting levy conditions. However, I should like to ask him to give further consideration to the following points.
Is it hitting householders in certain areas, whether in Bristol or elsewhere, unfairly? I wonder whether my right hon. Friend, in considering what can be done to help ease the problems in certain area, will consider waiving levy on people past retirement age. This is a rather different point from that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) but could there be the sympathetic approach for which he was calling in one of the points of change that he wanted to see? I should think there is a case for looking into this, because it becomes very difficult indeed to talk even rationally of a levy case which brings in people of, say, 83 years of age.
I had a case of this kind within my constituency, of which my right hon. Friend has heard. I hope that it is one of those about which he was talking earlier today. This is a rather unusual case. It concerns a constituent of mine of 83 years of age who lived with his 81 year old wife in a not very elegant cottage. If I remember rightly, it is over 100 years old. The boundary of the land was changed in the Quinquennial Review and it came into the industrial zone. It was difficult to put forward a case for 1324 it not going into the industrial zone. In fact there was no objection from Mr. and Mrs. Bailey that their property should be included in a new industrial zone in the middle of last year.
The follow on was that a company in the area wished to purchase this piece of land, and did so. The Baileys were offered and paid the extremely high price of £5,000 for the cottage in which they had lived for so long. It was a high price compared with the money that they paid for the cottage in the first place, but not a particularly high price to enable them to obtain equivalent accommodation elsewhere. They had to pay £4,000 for similar accommodation a few miles away, but still within my constituency.
Betterment levy of £1,120 was, quite rightly, claimed. I think in this case Mr. and Mrs. Bailey were certainly well-advised. Mr. Bailey immediately paid £800 when the case came up, but he still had to pay the difference between that £800 and the final assessment of £938, namely, £138. The Commission then claimed, absolutely rightly, the interest on that money, £4 8s. 7d.
By this stage Mr. and Mrs. Bailey were quite exhausted by the procedure, but they felt that they had been hard done by. Indeed, when they told me their story, I was inclined to think in a very sympathetic way towards them. I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of this case. He gave me a personal assurance that he would look into it, and I am pleased that he has done so. I know, too, that there seems little chance under the Act that he can do anything to assist in this case.
In Bristol there are at least three other cases involving people in not quite the same circumstances as Mr. and Mrs. Bailey, but I will not weary the House with a long discussion about them. I think that my right hon. Friend is aware of most of them. Some involve elderly people, though not as old as the Baileys, who have had to pay betterment levy under conditions which have not been to their advantage.
Another case concerns a levy on a small firm in the area. I suppose many of us would feel that there is a good case for levying a firm moving into the area, but this is a small firm and its 1325 factory is well needed in the area. This is the case of T. S. Hall Ltd., sheet metal work experts, Vale Lane, Bedminster. The levy did not put this small firm off, thank goodness, but I do not think that we ought necessarily to say that it was a good thing willy-nilly that it should be caught by betterment levy in this way.
I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North indicated that the Minister was personally looking into these cases. I believe that he is right to do so, even though they must put an untold strain upon him. I believe that if he can meet some of these points he will be doing a good service to this House.
§ Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)
The hon. Gentleman has obviously gone into these cases with great interest and sympathy. What is worrying me, and possibly him, too, and I should like his experience, is that a vast number of people who were thinking within the next year or two of selling their houses, perhaps to move somewhere smaller, are petrified to do anything largely because of the Act, and this is only the fringe of those who have been hit.
§ Mr. Dobson
The hon. and gallant Gentleman is correct. I am sure that people are becoming more worried about it. It is also true that the Act could affect the number of changes in houses that take place. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that people who want to retire and move to the beautiful coastline of the South-West are often afraid to do so because they are not sure of their position under the Act. My right hon. Friend said on one occasion that in some instances people in that situation were badly advised. I am sure that this is so, and that leads me to consider another important matter.
In the article in The Times which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North wrote on 19th March he said that in 99 per cent. of cases the levy was not objected to and the assessment was not challenged. I think that that is a cause for worry rather than a pleasurable thought, because I am not sure that the figure of 1 per cent., even if it is being represented as the figure for the country as a whole, is indicative of those who would like to challenge the Act or the way in which the Land Commission 1326 is operating it, but either do not have, or do not have the opportunity for getting, the advice which they ought to receive.
§ Mr. William Price (Rugby)
Is it possible that the legal advisers do not understand the Act either?
§ Mr. Dobson
I have seen on a solicitor's table a book about three or four inches thick relating to the Land Commission. This solicitor, who is a friend of mine, assures me that conveyancing is a long and time-consuming process. I am glad that my right hon. Friend is planning to review the position. It would not be in order to pursue that tonight, but it is important to ask that as soon as he gets to the end of the examination he does something to put our minds at rest, because these cases are becoming more and more frequent and more worrying.
I hope that when my right hon. Friend has reviewed the working of the Act he will be particularly clear in his assessment of what to do about the people who have already been assessed for levy. Some people have been caught by the net and wish to get out of it. It will be extremely difficult for my right hon. Friend to make any action he takes retrospective, but I hope that he will try to deal with the cases which I have brought to the notice of the House tonight because I believe that the Act which was set up to catch the sharks has caught some householders, and that this is to the detriment of everyone concerned.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)
The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) for raising this topic, and for the manner in which he raised it. My hon. Friend rightly emphasised the appallingly difficult planning problems which arise in a county like Berkshire where there has been a rapid growth of population. I should like to underline that emphasis, because, as my hon. Friend said, the problems which arise in his constituency arise in mine next door with some small degree of variation.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of certain planning pitfalls in my constituency, but it would be out of order to discuss that topic now because they have nothing to do with the Land 1327 Commission. To use an old sporting phrase, I am a little afraid that the right hon. Gentleman may well be like the man out hunting who jumps into a field and finds that he cannot jump out again. This is an unfortunate predicament to be in.
The trouble with the Land Commission is that it is inevitably associated with the kind of legislation that is put through too hastily without sufficient trouble being given to drafting to realise what the results might be. This really is what the trouble is about. This is what the cases are about. There is complete chaos, muddled with extreme hardship, and these are unfortunate companions.
The other thing that worries me about the Land Commission in respect of the development charges is that whether one can afford to employ the highest skilled professional advice, or whether one is old and retired, alone, widowed, or a grandfather, as in the case quoted by my hon. Friend, and it is a question of selling half a plot of land to a post office and the other half to one of the grandchildren, one cannot with any degree of certainty or accuracy know what the development charge will be.
I do not think anybody knows. It appears to be worked out by doubling the number that is first thought of and taking it away again. The result is that old people who want to sell land which belongs to them or to one of their relatives outside the narrow scope of the family are getting worried, and who can blame them? It is inescapable with any Socialist legislation of this sort that the bitter wind of Socialism blows far more keenly against those who are less able to bear the draught.
The Land Commission was supposed to bring down the price of land and the price of houses. It has done the opposite. In many cases the development charge is merely passed on to the purchaser. In other cases it is a disincentive to the land being made available. We were told that the Land Commission would stop speculation in land prices. This is one thing that it is now going to embark on itself.
1328 There was an innocent looking advertisement in the Estates Gazette on 18th January, and I think it was repeated the following week. The Land Commission was advertising for "white land" in blocks of 100 acres. It asked landowners who owned land of that type to get in touch, on a confidential basis, with somebody in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was a well-got-up advertisement. Indeed, its outward innocence made one weep, but I should like to ask a few questions about it.
"White land" is rather a misleading phrase, because some land is white, while other land is not so white, and some land that is not technically white is regarded as white by many planning authorities. Why did the Land Commission suddenly decide to advertise. Why does it prefer blocks of white land of 100 acres? Is the Commission short of land? Is it that the Commission wants to buy land in advance and make a quick turnover, or what?
Suppose a man owning 100 acres of white land answers the advertisement. On what basis will the Commission decide whether to negotiate for the purchase of that land? Will it be on a straight economic basis, or on some other basis? If the latter on what basis? Suppose the Commission decides to buy that land and the owner decides to sell it. Will that decision be made public so that neighbouring landowners know what development is to take place, and when it is to take place, on land adjacent to theirs? This will affect the market price of land for many miles around.
Fourth, by what method will the Land Commission arrive at a figure in circumstances in which it does not know whether or not it will obtain planning consent? If it does know, or if it finds out subsequently, will it tell the owner?
Fifth, how will the Land Commission manage any such land that it buys in the interim before planning consent is obtained? If it is agricultural land let to a tenant farmer, will it let it back? If it is agricultural land formerly owned by an owner-occupier, will he be allowed to go on farming it and, if so, at what rent? Behind this advertisement, however innocent it may appear, hide many unanswered questions. By a stroke of the planner's pen "white land" worth 1329 perhaps little more than the agricultural value of £300 an acre can overnight become worth ten times that amount. This is where the betterment levy comes in.
What is the motive behind this advertisement? I cannot believe that anyone will fall for it. After all, we have said many times that when we come to power we will abolish the Land Commission. It is possible also that the levy will be reduced to 30 per cent. to conform with the Capital Gains Tax—
§ Mr. K. Robinson
The hon. Gentleman asked what became of the advertisement. There were 90 replies to it, so presumably 90 people do not think his party will win the next General Election.
Sir C. Mort-Radclyffe
The Minister intervened too soon. Perhaps 90 people have answered the advertisement, but sooner or later they must receive answers to the questions which I am asking. If they do not get satisfactory answers, the fact that they have replied to the advertisement does not mean that they will sell the lard. I should have thought that it is very unlikely, therefore, that the advertisement will achieve the desired effect. The 64,000 dollar question is: what will happen to the land after the Land Commission has acquired it and taken its rake-off of 40 per cent. levy when the Land Commission is subsequently abolished? Who will then own the land?
I add my small voice to the growing volume of protests by hon. Members on both sides about the chaos, the injustice, the inequity and the hardship in the administration of the Land Commission, which could easily be altered in a short time by the simplest amending legislation. We shall shortly judge the right hon. Gentleman's compassion and his capacity as a Minister by the answer which he gives today.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I would remind the House that this is the first of 20 debates which we are to have, and that reasonably brief speeches will help.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Mr. William Price (Rugby)
My speech will be very brief, Mr. Speaker. One of the main reasons is that I have no wish to rub further salt in the Minister's wounds. I know that he did not inflict the Land Commission on us. We have had 1330 some talk about his being in the field, but he was pushed there. He is in the field whether he likes it or not. He is stuck with the Land Commission, and he has my sympathy.
This was a well-intentioned Act. It set out to curb the people who had been making vast fortunes for doing practically no work. Even hon. Members opposite, at this very late stage, have accepted that the land market had gone berserk. The problem, of course, was that they took no action. There is, indeed, evidence to suggest that they had created the circumstances which encouraged land speculation, and the present Government had to take action. They did so, and it went disastrously wrong, for this very reason.
The Government decided upon the betterment levy of 40 per cent., which was introduced with a promise that we would restrain rising land prices. All I want to ask the Minister is whether there has ever been a tax imposed by this House which was not passed on to the purchaser. There has never been one, and I do not know whether there will ever be one. But if there is one, it is not the betterment levy.
I became interested in this subject two and a half years ago when I sought to keep a promise to move into my constituency. I looked for land, trying to persuade people that I was the person to sell it to and that if they did not sell it, and quickly, they would lose 40 per cent. of its increased value to the Land Commission. The message came back loud and clear, that I was under a sad misapprehension and they would not pay the 40 per cent. but I would. This was clear from the beginning.
It took me a long time to find a dear old lady who was convinced by my argument, and I eventually moved it—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] Let me tell those who shout, "Shame" that she may have been a dear old lady but she had a far more acute business sense than I had. She got far more for her piece of land than it was worth. But at least she did not get that plus 40 per cent., as would have happened if her solicitors had had their way.
This may be an over-statement, but. there is evidence that this is just how the Land Commission is working throughout 1331 Britain. We in the West Midlands face an acute land shortage. It is very difficult to get the Minister—not the present one, but successive Ministers: I have given up and do not trouble my right hon. Friend any longer—to understand that in an area with a grave land shortage those who hold the land can get practically any price they want. This has been happening. By imposing this 40 per cent. betterment levy, we gave them a glorious opportunity, which did not exist before, to get as much of it back as possible from the poor devils like me who were buying those pieces of land.
What money is being raised by the Land Commission which could not be raised anyway through Corporation Tax and Capital Gains Tax? I know—this was discussed in the Committee, on which I did not have the pleasure to serve: the Whips' Office had more sense that that—that there are difficulties. This became apparent, but how much money has been raised so far which could not have been raised by other means?
I have been asking my next question for two and a half years and have never had a satisfactory answer yet. In all honesty, I am not expecting one tonight. What evidence is there that land speculators are not making as much profit now as they were in 1962 and 1963? That is bad enough, but what has happened with the Land Commission is that, apart from not catching them, we have caught the very people whom we set out to protect, the individual house owners. Some of the cases which have come to me have filled me with despair. I am hearing of them from all over the country. It is interesting to note that they are no longer writing to my Parliamentary colleagues, perhaps thinking that they do not understand it. They write to me instead, and that is an awful mistake, because I do not understand it either.
But I do understand that one cannot put a 40 per cent. tax on and still keep the price down. The matter is complicated. I am told by lawyers in the House that any matter involving land legislation must inevitably be difficult for the layman to understand; but this is beyond a joke.
My position is simple. I have opposed the Land Commission from the moment I began to understand what it involved, 1332 from the moment I appreciated that the very people we wanted to help would be the very people we would hammer. I shall continue to oppose it.
The rules of order do not permit me to ask my right hon. Friend to introduce legislation. However, I urge him to study my Early Day Motion and to act on it. It has some distinguished signatories, one Socialist and a gaggle of Liberals. That is better than nothing. Progress in the House is slow, but progress we are making. There are now two hon. Members on this side of the House who are opposed to the Land Commission and want to see action taken.
I could not sign another Motion that was brought to me. I did not want to be associated with the landed gentry on the benches opposite. I was brought up to doubt their motives. I doubt them today. I do not know whether it is they who are mellowing or I, but I shall leave this House in, I hope, 30 or 40 years' time still doubting them. They always get their priorities right on this subject. They got them right in the '50s and in the early '60s. They have them right tonight. I do not want anything to do with them.
Neither do I want anything to do with this bureaucratic neuter which is costing vast sums of money, which is raising very little revenue but which is raising that revenue from the wrong people. It is causing a great deal of fear and misunderstanding among hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are not likely to be hit but fear that they may be caught.
We have heard many rumours of impending changes. While I do not know whether or not they are true, I hope that this is one occasion when the leakages will prove correct. I also hope that in the interests of justice, fair play and common sense the Minister will take a close look at this matter and convince the Cabinet that changes are desirable and that a mistake has been made.
What has always astonished me about politics, the Government and Parliament is that there is something inherent in our background which says that we must not say to the British people, "We were wrong." I do not see anything discreditable in that. The people would welcome it. They never got it from Tory Administrations, and I am afraid that they have not so far had it from this Government.
1333 I hope that my right hon. Friend will say, "We were wrong and we want to change our mind." He has a wonderful opportunity to do that now, and I beg him to take it. I urge him not to tinker about with individual hardship cases, difficult though they are, but to scrap the Land Commission and on another occasion introduce a radical and just solution to what I admit is a real and serious problem.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)
I am sure that the Minister listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) and has noted that every speaker from the Government benches has quoted hardship cases or expressed genuine contempt for the working of the Land Commission.
The architect of the Measure listed a whole host of changes which, he said, he would like to see made, including changes in the manner in which the Land Commission operates. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Dobson) quoted a number of constituency cases of hardship, and said that he was relieved that the Minister was personally looking into the matter. The House must be aware that this Minister has been personally looking at these terrible hardship cases for many weeks, yet has persistently refused to announce any action.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) warned the right hon. Gentleman that if he continued with this dithering and delay there would be much personal tragedy as a result of the working of the Land Commission and that this would result in this issue becoming a major political scandal. In the eight years that I have been in the House I have never known a period when I have received so many letters telling of desperate hardship resulting from the activities of one body such as this.
The right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) said that the Minister's attitude towards the problem was uncharacteristic. I share that view. Throughout the time I have been an hon. Member I have, like other hon. Members, had great respect for the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot understand how a Minister of his reputation can 1334 consistently refuse to give any indication of the action that he intends to take to remedy this tragic situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Donald Williams) has handed me a letter telling of the plight of an 80-year-old woman in his constituency who sold a piece of land for £200, who had to demolish some property on that land in order to sell it, who paid estate agents' commission and solicitors' costs which resulted in her being left with £79 7s. 10d., and who has since received a bill for betterment levy totalling £40. This may seem a minor case in terms of the sums of money involved, but £40 demanded from an old-age pensioner who was not expecting to be charged levy is an enormous imposition. I have this week received 40 to 50 letters on this subject from various parts of the country. All tell of people who are desperately worried.
Any Government must realise that if people suddenly receive a bill for taxation which is out of all proportion to their ability to pay, they must become desperately worried. The majority of British people hate and loathe the thought of being in debt. If they suddenly receive a bill for hundreds of £s they are bound to become worried and wonder whether they may be imprisoned because of their inability to pay. As a result of all this their whole life pattern is ruined. Yet, the situation continues and we do not hear of action being taken by the Government.
Last Friday we had an Adjournment debate on this subject. When replying, the Minister said, in effect, "I am watching the position carefully but hon. Members must wait to see what happens. I cannot announce anything in an Adjournment debate." The next day almost every national newspaper carried banner headlines saying that help was on the way. For example, the Daily Express declared:Land Levy—First Steps To Justiceand ran an article by Arthur Butler, who said that a meeting had taken place at No. 10 Downing Street at which it had been decided that action would be taken, and he went on to give some of the possibilities.
The Dwaily Telegraph carried a banner headline saying:Budget To Ease Land Levy For Small Man1335 and under it was a similar story telling of the meeting that had taken place.
The Daily Sketch carried a similar headline:Now Cabinet Climbs Down Over ' Tax of Tyranny'.The Daily Mail carried this headline:Little Man Wins Land Tax Fight".The Sun declared:Home Owners To Escape Land Tax".Beneath each headline was the story of the meeting that had taken place at No. 10 Downing Street and details of the action that had been decided.
I plead with the Minister, if that meeting took place and if it has been decided to take action, to make an immediate announcement to the House on the subject. If he does not do that, this misery and hardship will continue. If action is to be taken in the Budget in a few weeks' time, an announcement should still be made now because with the passing of each day more misery and hardship is caused.
If, on the other hand, this was purely a leak for publicity purposes to take pressure off the Government, the Government should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. If it is a story which was started in Fleet Street with no foundation at all, whoever started the story in Fleet Street should be ashamed of himself. The Minister nods and confirms that this was a story founded on speculation in Fleet Street. If that is so, the person who started it has raised the hopes of a great many thousands of people. They will be desperately shocked and stunned to hear that there is no foundation to this story and that no such meeting took place.
I plead with the Minister. Cases have been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North of widows and grandchildren, pensioners and people in a small way of business. The position of my party is quite clear; we shall abolish the Land Commission. Obviously I do not expect the Government to come to that conclusion, much as the hon. Member for Rugby would rejoice if they did. He is right in saying that Governments of all complexions tend to defend legislation which they have passed and are reluctant to admit that they were wrong. 1336 I do not expect that many changes which I should like to see take place will take place, but the Minister has power to move Orders and to take action as suggested by the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North.
The Minister must take action now. If he does not take action he will stand condemned as one of the most inhuman Ministers. I do not believe he is that. Anyone who has known him over the years would be reluctant to think that. But I cannot understand how he goes on week after week and now says, "I am looking at all the hardship cases", how he can tolerate looking at them and announce nothing, do nothing, and act in no way. I shall never understand that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham for raising this matter. I plead with the Minister not necessarily to alter the legislation but to make a clear pronouncement which would bring relief to thousands of people in a small way of business on whom I hope no Government would wish to inflict suffering in any way but on whom this Government are inflicting suffering at present.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ The Minister for Planning and Land (Mr. Kenneth Robinson)
I do not think anyone can complain that the affairs of the Land Commission have not occupied a fair proportion of the time of the House in recent weeks. We have had a Supply day devoted to a debate on it coupled with home ownership, three debates on the Adjournment, and now this debate. In their speeches tonight hon. Members have attacked the whole range of the Commission's activities both in the collection of levy and in the purchase of land. I shall try to deal with these two matters separately.
Before doing so, I should like to deal briefly with something the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) said in his opening speech in his reference to the personnel of the Land Commission. I have know him for some time. In his references to the Land Commission, particularly its staff and membership, I think he has fallen below his usual standards of controversy. He made public statements attacking civil servants who work in the Land Commission in a branch in his constituency. I do not 1337 like to use the word "smear", but in talking about declarations of personal interest he has tried to cast some doubt on the integrity of the membership of the Land Commission. I have every confidence in the integrity of the members of the Commission and so, I think, have the House and the country.
On betterment levy, most of the criticism has been concentrated both in this House and in the Press. I certainly cannot accuse hon. Members taking part in these debates of being repetitive, for any diligent search among the 350 or so assessments which the Commission makes each week has enabled it to bring forward fresh cases in which levy has been assessed on people who do not make a regular business of dealing in or developing land. I am afraid I may have to be slightly repetitive since my reply can be only to repeat the reasons why levy is charged in such cases.
The reason is the same for cases which hon. Members have just discovered as for cases they have brought to my attention in the last few weeks. I remind the House that this Act has been in operation for barely two years and I have been responsible for the Land Commission rather less than one-fifth of that period. As I have told the House, I have been studying its operation. Perhaps in this context I might deal with the questioning by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) of my looking at individual hardship cases. I have done this for two reasons.
One is that I undertook to look at hardship cases. Only by a study of allegations of hardship can one come to a considered conclusion whether, and if so what, changes might be needed. Of course the great majority of these cases come to me from hon. Members, and it has been my custom, as it was when I was Minister of Health for four-and-a-half years, to reply personally to all constituency cases which hon. Members bring to me. That is the reason why I particularly want to see all the cases which come into the Department.
I listened, of course, with great care to what my right hon. Friend said. He was the architect of this Measure, and, naturally, the House, and I, in particular, as his successor but one responsible for the Commission, must pay regard to his 1338 second thoughts on the matter. I certainly will consider everything he said. I only say to him that I was a little surprised that he never once came to me and offered me help, advice or wise counsel in private before deciding to embark on a public campaign which I think, perhaps wrongly, has been interpreted in some quarters as a personal attack on his successor.
§ Mr. Willey
I have not conducted any public campaign. I will tell my right hon. Friend exactly how I became involved. A journalist rang me up and asked about a particular case. I replied that it was not a matter I wished to deal with and advised him to get in touch with the Department and the Land Commission. Within about half an hour he rang back and said that the Department refused to discuss the matter and the Land Commission refused to discuss the matter. He then asked me about it, and I referred him to the provisions of the Act and advised him to get in touch again with the Land Commission and put his points to the Commission.
§ Mr. Robinson
I only say I did not refuse to discuss this with my right hon. Friend because he did not ask me to. On this occasion I will dispense with my usual introduction.
I shall not spend time explaining the purpose of the Land Commission legislation. I assume that hon. Members know that betterment levy is charged where planning permission has brought about an increase in the value of land. I think this is appreciated by hon. Members. What the Opposition now try to prove by selecting cases in which levy is charged on people of comparatively small means is that the levy is not fulfilling the purpose for which it was intended. Hon. Members opposite argue that it was intended to be payable only by land speculators and not by people who make private but individual sales of land.
We ought to get the facts straight. I have heard it suggested, and it was almost implied by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price), that levy is paid only by the small man and that speculators, who are the main target of the Act, are getting away scot-free. The figures prove that this allegation is quite unfounded. Sixty per cent. of the betterment levy collected to date has come 1339 from cases in which the market value of the transaction was over £10,000. The percentage of the levy coming from large transactions is increasing all the time as the effect of transitional exemptions wears off.
I repeat, I cannot accept that it was ever the intention that levy should be paid only by land speculators. There is no doubt, of course, that the Land Commission Act was intended to apply to land speculators, and this perhaps was the primary reason for the betterment levy provisions, but to say that it was intended to apply only to them is to change completely the emphasis of what was said when the Act was put forward. Nor is there mention in the Act that owner-occupiers or any particular class of individuals are exempt from the levy. There is, of course, Section 61, a particular provision introduced for the express purpose of providing exemption for the person who, for example, had purchased land well in advance with a view to building a house for his retirement. The section also enabled the owner of such land to build a house for occupation by a close relative. This has led by analogy to demands that land which has been given to a wide range of relatives should be free of levy. I will return to this point later, but suffice it to say that the clear purpose of Section 61 was to benefit people who before September 1965 had already bought their land, and not to benefit people to whom land was subsequently given.
These are the facts of the matter, Mr. Speaker. While there is no provision in the Act that transactions below a certain value would be exempt from levy—and the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) had something to say on the circumstances of that—small realisations of development value are, in effect, taken outside the levy provision by the 10 per cent. which is added to the current use value to determine the base value in a levy calculation; but that is all, and it is difficult to see how the claim that the purpose of the betterment levy was to tax only those who speculate in land transactions can be substantiated when it is clear from the legislation itself that it was all-embracing in both the nature and the size of the transactions which were covered.
1340 It has been widely claimed that the betterment levy is the cause of hardship Where it is alleged that hardship arises it usually turns out that the person called upon to pay levy has acted without proper advice or possibly has chosen to go ahead although he had been made aware of the provisions of the Land Commission Act. Betterment levy is not exacted where there has been no profit, or at least gain in the form of a valuable asset, so that if proper advice were taken and followed there would always be some gain out of which the levy could be found, apart from the special circumstances of the interim period on which I will speak later.
I turn now to the various categories which it has been represented give rise to hardship. I feel that it would be more profitable to do so than to try to deal with the very large number of individual cases which have been raised in the course of the debate. The first is where the levy is assessed on people who build a house on a plot of land they have been given or have bought very cheaply. It will be appreciated that it is essential to the scheme of betterment levy that the levy should be charged on people who develop their own land in pursuance of planning permission which they have received, instead of taking the alternative course of selling the land to be developed by somebody else. If this were not so it needs little imagination to see the widespread schemes of avoidance of levy which would spring up, and no one would relish the thought of a levy which could so easily be circumvented; and if circumvention were a simple matter it is unlikely that the more meritorious cases would be those which gained advantage from it.
It is right, moreover, that levy should be charged where a person develops his own land because development of the land puts a valuable asset into the hands of the developer. It has been argued that although the principle of collecting the betterment levy on development is right it should not apply to a person who has been given a piece of agricultural land on which to build a house. But there can be no doubt that the grant of planning permission which enables land to be used as a building plot brings about a very marked increase in value and it follows that the levy is collected in respect of the land. This is a change which the donor of land should take into account, if he is aware of 1341 the situation, when he offers the land. He should make it clear that it is a gift of limited value because the levy will have to be paid if the land is developed.
The problem comes about only where land has been given or sold at a favourable price to a developer; and where it is sold at full market price as a building plot levy will have to be paid by the vendor; and the developer will have no liability. It amounts to this: a plot does not escape levy being assessed merely because the owner decides he will give it to somebody else. That is the position with regard to gifts.
The next category concerns cases where land was bought in the interim period between publication of the White Paper and the coming into operation of the Act. Rather too much play has been made of the comparatively few cases caught by this provision. It is true that within this category levy is charged on a profit which was never made, but this fact has been taken to illustrate the hypothesis that this is a feature of the scheme of betterment levy, which is not true. The purpose of the interim period provision is, I hope, clearly understood: that since the White Paper declared that the last price which a vendor paid for land could be taken into account in his levy calculation, some embargo had to be placed on people obtaining an artificially inflated base value during the period against the time when they would wish to sell or develop their land. It was made plain in the White Paper that this would be done, and provisions to this effect were included in the Bill from the outset and fully debated during the various stages of the Bill going through the House.
Nevertheless, there are cases of people who went ahead with the purchase of land at high prices during the interim period but it is significant that in many cases the purchase was made during the last few days of March or the first few days of April in 1967, after the Act received the Royal Assent but before it actually came into operation. Those involved had presumably not taken the precaution of obtaining advice on the new Act. The House knows perfectly well that the Government have already extended concessions to people who fell into this category. These were designed 1342 to relieve the lot of the small purchaser who might be presumed not to have appreciated the need to seek professional advice.
The next category of case in which it is said hardship has been caused is where a private individual, possibly an owner-occupier, sells a house or it may be part of his garden or perhaps some other small plot of land that he may happen to own. Considerable sympathy is evoked for people called upon to pay levy in these circumstances, but it seems sometimes to be forgotten that the price they are able to obtain for their land is available only because of the prospect of development. Levy is due only if the sale has been made at about the current use value of the land because planning permission, or the prospect of planning permission, is in sight. No levy is taken on current use value of the land for the very good reason that the proceeds will enable the vendor to go and buy the equivalent elsewhere. Moreover, a vendor is given an additional allowance of the current 10 per cent. of the current use value free of levy, so that there is no question of current use value being finely or narrowly determined. I do not delude myself that people are anxious to pay 40 per cent. levy any more than they are anxious to pay any other tax, but taking the grant of planning permission and the charge to levy as a whole—taking the two parts together—people are not worse off than if the process had never happened. This should be made clear.
§ Mr. Peter Walker
The hon. Gentleman has just recited all the various categories of hardship case. He has stated that this is the position under the Act and that it is working correctly in that sphere. Is he therefore saying that in those cases he has cited he has come to the conclusion that this is a sensible Act and should continue?
§ Mr. Robinson
I made clear at Question time this afternoon that I had not reached a conclusion; so the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is "No, I have not reached a conclusion". I am explaining that the provisions of the Act are not the all-embracing callous set of provisions manifestly unjust—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Robinson
The hon. Gentleman does not do his cause service by grossly exaggerating it. I have neve denied that there are cases of hardship—never from the start. I only say that when one is dealing with an Act which this House has passed after very considerable debate and discussion it is desirable to get the matter in perspective. In the House I was asked about the number of cases in which hardship had been claimed. The answer is under 3 per cent. We may all say that this is too many, that we should very much like to have a form of taxation which gave no possibility whatever of hardship. We should then be living in an ideal world very different from this one.
§ Mr. Robinson
I have told the hon. Gentleman that I have not reached the conclusion that he alleged that I had reached.
§ Mr. Robinson
If I may remind the hon. Gentleman of his own intervention, he asked me whether I had reached the conclusion that this was a perfect Act which did not need amending. I said that I had not reached that conclusion.
A great deal was said also about the activities of the Land Commission in its land acquisition function. This was dealt with by the hon. Members for Wokingham and Maidstone, who jointly initiated this debate. I will not attempt to set out in detail the activities of the Commission in this respect, which I think are now well known. I said a good deal in the debate on 6th February about the Commission's activities on the land side, about the reasons why its programme of land acquisition had taken some time to build up, and about the state of play at that time.
All I want to do today is to give an up-to-date account of the present position and deal with the two particular areas which have been raised by hon. Members. By mid-March the Commission had acquired 550 acres of land; contracts had been exchanged or were in preparation for a further 550; and compulsory purchase orders had been made or published in draft for a further 1,580 acres. Therefore, the Commission has 1344 made substantial progress towards the acquisition of 2,700 acres, and, furthermore, it has approved proposals for the acquisition of another 5,100 acres on top of that.
I think this shows that the programme is now building up in a fairly satisfactory way and that a good deal of the earlier criticism was misplaced. It is rather like with the levy. The Commission started by coming in for criticism because it was doing too little. It is now being criticised on both counts because it is doing too much. At least, that is what the hon. Member for Wokingham implied today.
I should like to say a few words to the hon. Gentleman about the site that he referred to near Wokingham. He admitted that he thought it was the right site, but he went on to say that the Commission ought not to have control over the development. The fact is that the Commission does not have control over the development. The control rests with the local planning authority and with my right hon. Friend. What the Commission can do is to make proposals and thus help the land to be brought forward for development, and it can make contributions in certain circumstances to servicing the land.
§ Mr. van Straubenzee
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that even that is proper when the appropriate planning authority is hostile to the programme the Commission has in mind?
§ Mr. Robinson
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a slight difference of view between myself and my predecessors and some of the planning authorities in the outer Metropolitan area about the amount of land coming forward for development for private enterprise housing. I should have liked to have had the hon. Gentleman on my side on this matter. I have asked these planning authorities to look at their proposals and bring more land forward. Berkshire has been included in this request. I have had replies from a number of the authorities, but we have not yet reached the date by which I asked them all to let me have their responses.
I repeat what I said in an intervention, that the purpose of this exercise is to bring the land forward. It has been explained to these authorities how the Land 1345 Commission can help them in doing this. There is no question of forcing the Land Commission on any reluctant local authority if it does not wish to make use of the Land Commission's services.
Anything I have said about this case and what I now say about the case at Walderslade must be without prejudice to my right hon. Friend's decision on the planning application and the compulsory order. Subject to this, I am satisfied that the Commission is doing all it can to deal with any re-housing problems which may arise and also that objectors, both to the compulsory purchase order and to the planning applications, will receive as much information as possible as long before the inquiry as possible and that they will be given full opportunity to deploy their objections at the inquiry. This is a scheme which has been carried out in conjunction with the Kent County Council. I must say that I listened to the hon. Member for Maidstone with all the care that I could, but I became extremely confused at several points in his speech to know whether he was criticising the Land Commission or the Kent County Council. On balance, it seemed to me that the Kent County Council had rather more of his strictures than the Land Commission.
The House will not expect me this evening to go beyond what I said at three o'clock this afternoon. [Interruption.] I do not think the hon. Member for Worcester was present this afternoon at Question time. If he was present, he was uncharacteristically silent. I have said that I am studying this. Hon. Members know that this is not a simple Act. All I can say is that I am doing what I undertook to the House to do, and if in the Government's view general changes are justified, proposals will be put to the House; but it would be quite wrong for me to give any advance indication, a fortiori in a debate on the Consolidated Fund, whether or not changes may be proposed in what is, after all, a matter of taxation.
§ Mr. Peter Walker
Will the Minister therefore confirm that the whole of this announcement on the front page of every newspaper on Saturday had no foundation?
§ Mr. Robinson
I think Ministers ought not to be called upon to comment upon stories in the Press. I might perhaps, 1346 however, make an exception on this occasion and say that even after a long study of the Press of our country over very many years I was very surprised to see a story based on false conclusions drawn from wrong premises and the resulting conjecture presented as fact. I will content myself with that comment at this stage.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am not going to prevent the hon. Gentleman, but it will help the Chair in the conduct of debates if hon. Gentlemen who wish to take part in a particular debate will let the Chair know.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Prior
Mr. Speaker, I had no intention of taking part in this debate, although I have listened to very nearly the whole of it. The only reason I want to intervene for a few minutes is because I believe that the Minister has not done himself justice or the House fairness in his speech.
To take up the last point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) on the question of the Press, one of my constituents rang me on Saturday morning and raised the question of the Land Commission. I referred him to the speculation in the Press. He said, "Can I believe this or not?".
I told him flatly, "It is inconceivable that responsible political correspondents could have written this story up without any guidance from the Government as to what was happening; or, if they have written the story up and it is not true, it is inconceivable that within a very short time it will not be denied by the Government".
§ Mr. Prior
In a case like this it would be only reasonable for the Government to deny it. It has taken until this afternoon for the Minister to make any statement about it. This was not a statement by just one newspaper or one political correspondent. These were political 1347 correspondents of great repute right across the board. It was most unreasonable of the Minister not to have replied to it until this afternoon when he was challenged on it. This Government have never been slow in the past to feed all the stories in the world to the national Press. Yet on this particular occasion they chose to say absolutely nothing.
The right hon. Gentleman, in spending so much time dealing with individual cases of hardship, is totally missing the point. He is spending so much time on individual cases of hardship that he has no time to deal with the principles of the Act, which we all know now to be wrong. Anyone who has had anything to do with land management will know—and I declare an interest in this—when one gets involved in this sort of legislation, if one tries to be as all-embracing as this Act has tried to be, one is bound to encounter the problems which have been encountered.
The Minister has told us this afternoon with some satisfaction, though it explains much of the trouble, that 60 per cent. has come from levies of over £10,000 and 40 per cent. from levies of under £10,000. That shows very plainly that the vast majority of the money that has come into the Land Commission so far has come in very small amounts from small people. I do not believe it is worth the candle to try to collect this money. If the Minister would even take the advice from his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee), he would cut out everyone below £15,000. I would lower that and make it £10,000 or even £5,000.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows he cannot amend legislation in this particular debate.
§ Mr. Graham Page
This could be done by an Order under Section 63. With respect, I think we are entitled to discuss it.
§ Mr. Prior
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page).
We have reached a stage now where a large number of small innocent people—innocent because they do not know the 1348 Act or have not had the advice they ought to have had—are being made to suffer. Time after time, the Minister says he is not yet in a position to give an answer.
All Governments occasionally get themselves into a muddle, but this Government and this Minister stand condemned for their callous attitude to these people.