HC Deb 07 August 1972 vol 842 cc1439-44

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

12.42 a.m.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

When I examined the Minutes of the Joint Committee, I was surprised that there was no comment on this consolidation Measure, since I thought that the Committee's attention would be drawn to Clause 17 and its reference in line 18 to "rentcharge". Right hon. and hon. Members may recall that I said on Second Reading that I did not think it appropriate at this stage to pass a Bill containing rentcharges since we were awaiting the report of the Law Commission and the near promise of some future Government action.

It had been my intention to table an Amendment to the Clause. I was hoping on this occasion to be 13th time lucky, having been unsuccessful with a clutch of 12 Amendments to the Hydrocarbon Oil (Customs and Excise) Bill last Session.

I appreciate that this word "rentcharge" does not refer to chief rents. However, it is a Pavlovian trigger to me and, in this connection, it is no coincidence that so many hon. Members representing West Country constituencies are present. This is a problem which is peculiar to the West Country and Manchester. I have received correspondence from people in the West Country who read in the Press that I intended to table an Amendment to the Bill.

I apologise to the Solicitor-General for this misunderstanding. In expiation I can only say that there are two types of Members, first and second-class. A first-class Member is one with legal training. A second-class Member is one who blunders along but who possibly does not have his feelings quite so blunted by the "on the one hand, on the other hand" attitude of his legal brethren.

If the Solicitor-General can throw some light on the subject, even at this late hour a couple of minutes spent on it will not have been in vain.

12.45 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Speaking as another first-class Bristol Member following the first-class Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks), perhaps I may make a point before my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General replies. This is a consolidation Measure. Therefore, presumably, it represents the collected body of law.

I know that the hon. Member—I nearly said my hon. Friend; we can be good friends about this—for Bristol, South, does not like the law as he sees it to exist and he sought to change it. He has not succeeded in changing the law in this matter, however, and ground rents, rent-charges and other similar matters are still legal and must, therefore, be paid.

The hon. Member has unwittingly encouraged some of his constituents to withhold from my constituents—the owners of ground rents, rentcharges and what have you—some of the money that is due to them. Lest it should be thought that up in Clifton there are rich landlords who own the land on which stand the houses of people who live in South Bristol, I should explain that it is not quite like that at all.

There are many people living on savings, small incomes, ground rents and similar things bought for them perhaps by their parents. Elderly maiden ladies, for example, live on these things. It is a great hardship to them to try to collect any small sums from people living in Bristol, South, and elsewhere if unwittingly they have been encouraged otherwise by the hon. Member for Bristol, South.

I hope, therefore, that we can at least say that this is the law and that until the hon. Member succeeds in changing it these landcharges and ground rents are legal and should be paid.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) for giving me the opportunity of raising this point and, I hope, disposing of it in a modest way quite shortly.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South, appears to be dominated by canine metaphors. On the last occasion we discussed this matter he was concerned that we were not letting sleeping dogs lie. This evening he has spoken about his Pavlovian reaction. I wish no disrespect to him when I draw attention to those two facts.

The position is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West, said, that the law in relation to chief rents or perpetual rentcharges is not being changed by this legislation, for the simple reason that chief rents are outside the Bill. Clause 17(1), which is the interpretation Clause, contains a reference to "a rent-charge", which is merely a word used in the definition of "annuity", but that does not mean that the law relating to rent-charges or chief rents is being altered by this legislation, which does not touch on it.

The Committee will recall that a rent-charge is a periodical payment in respect of land where the relationship of landlord and tenant does not exist. In other words, "a rentcharge" is a general expression for rent other than rent in the ordinary course of a lease.

The hon. Member and my hon. Friend are concerned with two aspects of a particular variety of rentcharge known as a chief rent. A chief rent arises from the sale of a freehold for the income in the form of a perpetual rent rather than for a capital sum. That kind of chief rent is outside the Bill since it is not registrable under the Bill as a rentcharge of any class.

There is, therefore, no need to amend or reconsider the definition of "annuity" as the hon. Member for Bristol, South at one time had in mind. That relates to interests limited to periods of years or to the life of a person. A chief rent is distinctive because it is not limited in that way. From whichever side of the argument one approaches the matter, the Committee can rest assured that the Bill has nothing to do with chief rents.

I hope that I do not expose myself to the risk of curtailment from you, Sir Robert, before I go on to make a further comment which may be helpful to hon. Members. The Law Commission is urgently considering the question of chief rents and will be publishing a working paper in the near future setting out its proposals, which are not definitive and are intended merely to invite further comments. I understand that the proposals are likely to be, first, that legal rentcharges should still be capable of creation but only as a clear alternative to a purchase of the unencumbered freehold. In other words, the purchaser should be given a choice of buying at £x without a rentcharge or at £x minus £y with the difference being made up by means of a rentcharge. Second, any such rentcharge should not be capable of lasting for more than 70 years. Third, existing legal rentcharges should he extinguished on the basis of automatic expiry without compensation after a specified number of years. Fourth, the procedures for apportioning and redeeming rentcharges should be simplified and improved. The object should be, among other things, to get rid of the present situation whereby a property may be the subject of a number of different rent-charges. The aim should be one property one rentcharge at the most.

I know not whether those proposals which are likely to be put forward for consideration will serve to bring together the differing viewpoints of the hon. Member for Bristol, South and his constituents and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West and his constituents, but the Committee may at least be glad to have the tentative proposals before it so that they may be considered during the coming Recess. I cannot believe that the gulf on this or any other matter which lies between the citizens of these two quarters of Bristol is all that great or is in any sense unbridgeable. I hope that the debate on this Clause will help to cement their citizenly solidarity on other this and other0 matters.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

The House will be grateful for that statement by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. I can claim to be in both camps, because I have in my constituency many who possess these rentcharges and many who pay them. This is a matter of substantial controversy in our part of the world.

We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) for raising the matter and for pursuing it. I have not always been totally on the hon. Gentleman's side, although his proposals have largely been to make illegal the creation of new rentcharges, as there are methods by which existing ones can be terminated.

Without prolonging the debate, I assure my hon. and learned Friend that his announcement will be universally welcomed both by those who possess these rentcharges and by those who pay them.

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

I am so surprised to hear what the Solicitor-General has to say that I feel that I must rise to congratulate him. This problem is not confined to Bristol. In north-east Lancashire there is a problem particularly in regard to the collection of ground rents which ultimately involves their apportionment.

The Solicitor-General may remember that I was given leave to introduce, under the Ten-Minutes Rule procedure, a Bill designed to abolish this form of collection, whereby one person has to collect the ground rents for a whole block, this involving arguments between neighbours and the type of situation which looks like developing between my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) and the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke).

I hope that the recommendations of the Law Commission will be published shortly and that they will ultimately result in legislation to abolish some of the worst iniquities which result from the ground rent or chief rent problem, however it is described.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

I congratulate the five hon. Members who have spoken so far, particularly the Solicitor-General, on keeping so skilfully within the rules of order on a consolidation Bill. I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) on his assiduity in remaining here on three occasions now to a very late hour to raise this matter—on Second Reading, on Second Reading action replay a few days later, and again tonight. As a result, he has succeeded in obtaining a valuable statement from the Solicitor-General, which I am sure all hon. Members will welcome. We shall read with interest in HANSARD at some later date the proposals of the Law Commission. From what I heard of them I think that they will be broadly welcome, but of course we shall want to study them in greater detail before we can say that we shall accept them in all their content. This has been a useful short debate, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 18 and 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 5 agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading) and agreed to.