HC Deb 25 July 1972 vol 841 cc1776-81

Order for Second Reading read.

3.15 a.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

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

The Bill is a Measure of pure consolidation. It basically takes its root from the Land Charges Act, 1925, which was itself a consolidation Measure.

The 1925 Act dealt with two topics—registration in the land charges register of various charges on unregistered land and registration in local registers of local land charges on land whether registered or unregistered. The two topics have grown apart over the years. The Bill consolidates all the legislation relating to the first of those topics, and that relating to the second remains in part in the 1925 Act. That part, as amended, is set out in Schedule 4 and remains in force in that form. But it is drawn together in its consolidated form in the Schedule. When the matter was considered by the joint consolidation Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, in language of refreshing informality, said that it was, "A jolly good idea". The Law Commission is now considering the law in relation to local land charges. If it recommended any legislation in respect of that—and one cannot make any forecast on it—then it could be most easily accommodated if the existing law were in the form set out in Schedule 4.

The Bill passed through all its stages in another place without any amendment and was considered by the joint consolidation Committee without amendment on 21st June this year

3.18 a.m.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

On reflection, one prunes away some of the more barbed remarks one might make. I content myself with saying that it is very late, and we want to expedite the business of the House as much as possible, but the Bill should not be allowed its Second Reading without some comment from this side.

I have consulted Erskine May, and I shall try to keep within the bounds of order, which are extremely narrow for a Second Reading debate on a consolidation Bill. I remind the House of the words of Mr. Speaker Morrison on 5th November, 1954, when he told hon. Members, who were anxious to stray into considering the merits of the legislation under discussion, …the only question that can be discussed, is whether the law should be consolidated, or should be left expressed in a number of different statutes as it was before the consolidation took place."—[Official Report, 5th November, 1954; Vol. 532, c. 732.] I submit that despite the rosy gloss, to which we have become accustomed from the Solicitor-General, which the hon. and learned Gentleman put on the Bill in his closing words, we should leave the legislation in its present form, because one of the land charges dealt with in the Bill is the rent charge on freehold land, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) will recognise as chief rents. It is better that the legislation be left as it is and not consolidated, because the whole question is under consideration. I can rest my case by quoting the words of the Minister of Local Government and Development on the Report Stage of the Local Government Bill. Discussing a specific Amendment on rent charges and local authorities which I moved, he said that he did not want to embark upon a reform of the Law of Property Act, 1925 in the Local Government Bill and mentioned a number of problems peculiar to local authorities in connection with rent charges on freehold land. He said: I think that it would be wrong to deal with this fringe problem before the central policy, which I am assured we shall be getting from the Law Commission, has been settled and property legislation has been brought forward dealing not only with the chief rent but with all the other aspects of enforcement of covenants, and so on, in relation to freehold land."—[OFficial Report, 13th April, 1972; Vol. 834, c. 1460–61.] We would be well advised on this occasion to disregard the Solicitor-General and to take the advice of the Minister for Local Government and Development. When we consolidate like this, perhaps over 11 or 12 years, and we have one consolidation succeeding another, the whole matter goes through on the nod and we are virtually reduced to a rubber stamp. We are even discussing this important business after opposed Private Business, which is a question which should be taken up on another occasion.

If we consolidate this legislation tonight, there will be a strong temptation on the part of the Government, pressed as they are with their timetable, to say that although they accept that the whole question of land charges needs another examination, there is no hurry as they will eventually get the Law Commission recommendations. If we give the Bill a Second Reading I believe that we shall be encouraging the school of thought which says, "Let sleeping dogs lie". I hope that the House will resist passing through at 3.22 a.m. this important measure which is awaited by many people who are deeply concerned about land charges.

3.24 a.m.

The Solicitor-General

I invite the House not to be beguiled by the gentle blandishments of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks). He has expressed his views about a particular aspect of the law that he would wish to reform, but I cannot understand how it becomes more difficult to reform the law—if reform is justified; and I cannot say anything about that—if the law is set out clearly in one place instead of in a rambling collection of statutes spreading over 30 or 40 years. Probably the opposite is the case. It is not a case of embalming a dog which the hon. Member would like to stir so that it becomes more sanctified by its embodiment in this form. The dog, if anything, is laid out more plainly for him to scrutinise and dissect. When there is an opportunity of doing so, there can never be a case against making the law clear and drawing it together in one place. He could still assail it with as much vigour or with the same gentle style he adopted this morning.

3.25 a.m.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

I rise only to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) on succeeding in keeping in order for four minutes at this hour of the night, which is a remarkable achievement on a consolidation Bill. I also seek to follow his remarks by saying that I, too, share his views on the iniquity of bringing before the House the Second Reading of two Bills at this hour after opposed Private Business. We are, after all, used to dealing with "unimportant" measures such as the Criminal Justice Bill at this hour, but to deal with two vital Bills of this kind at this time is going too far.

3.26 a.m.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks) in what he said. The abuse of the House by the Government in forcing legislation of all kinds through at unseemly hours should be the subject of representations. By opposing the Bill, my hon. Friend is seeking to deliver a rebuff that may compel the Government to think about all the other Bills, of which they have a large chain, which they might try to force through the House.

Secondly, I support him strongly in the matter of what he said. He has been kind enough to point out that the subject matter of the Bill is of deep concern to my constituents in Ardwick, who are afflicted by this section of the law which would be codified by the Bill and which my hon. Friend has long sought to change. I disagree with the Solicitor-General when he says that things will be as they are if the Bill is passed. That is not so. By agreeing to codify the provisions to which my hon. Friend and I and many other hon. Members take exception, the House is in a sense assenting to the continuation of a grievance that afflicts our constituents. The unorganised situation gives some hope of amelioration, but to codify the law will make many people feel that, regardless of the blandishments of the Solicitor-General, this is the way in which the Government intend the law to remain. On those grounds I support my hon. Friend.

The Solicitor-General

I cannot begin to comment on the merits of the issues with which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend are concerned and about which I confess I know very little, but I beg them to believe that it is possible for a consolidation Measure actually to clear the ground and to make change simpler. Certainly in at least one respect, the separation of the land charges from the rest of these provisions, codification in this form is forecast as making it simpler to make any changes that may be necessary if any changes are recommended. I beg hon. Members to accept that by recharting and codifying the jungle, we are not sanctifying it but merely making it easier to scrutinise the merits and demerits when the time comes.

Mr. Kaufman

There are two views. The hon. and learned Gentleman can almost beguile me into accepting his. I wish that circumstances had permitted the hon. and learned Gentleman to remain with us in the North West from which events in 1966 removed him, for then he would still have had an opportunity of being seized of this problem which afflicts us in the North West.

I realise that what he said is a view that he asks the House in all sincerity to accept. I confess that I am still more tempted by the viewpoint of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South. The word used by the hon. and learned Gentleman, "sanctification", is an exceptionally good word to describe what my hon. Friend and I object to. That being so, I shall continue to give my hon. Friend my support, even though it

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It appearing from the result of the Division that 40 Members are not present, the business stands over until the next Sitting of the House.


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hawkins.]