HC Deb 19 December 1973 vol 866 cc1545-78

10.30 a.m.

Resolved, That if the proceedings on the International Organisations (Land) Bill are not completed at this day's sitting the Committee do meet on Wednesday 16th January at half-past Ten o'clock.—[Mr. Eyre.]

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I beg to move, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the International Organisations (Land) Bill ought to be read a second time. This is a short Bill which is useful and non-controversial. As we all know, international co-operation in many fields has increased significantly in recent years. This has resulted in the establishment of

numerous organisations with international membership. The United Kingdom has an important contribution to make in this sphere, and the Government wish to encourage the establishment in this country of the headquarters of some of these organisations.

Under existing legislation—in particular, the Commissioners of Works Act 1852 and the Town and Country Planning Acts—the Secretary of State for the Environment is enabled to acquire land and accommodation for the public service, either by agreement or by compulsion. However, the term "public service" cannot be construed as covering international organisations. The purpose of the Bill is therefore to extend the Secretary of State's powers to acquire land and premises for the use of international organisations, both those to which the United Kingdom already belongs, and those of which it is to become a member. Clause 1 so provides.

In case the Government should wish to offer an international organisation accommodation in Northern Ireland, the Bill confers on the Ministry of Finance for Northern Ireland, where the Town and Country Planning Acts do not apply, powers of acquisition similar to those conferred on the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The practical effect of the Bill will be that the Secretary of State for the Environment will be able to provide, either by leasing or purchase, offices and a full range of other installations—for example, laboratories, conference facilities, and so on—which may be required by an international organisation. Provision of domestic accommodation is not specifically excluded, but this would not normally be offered.

Property purchased under this Bill would normally remain Crown property. There is, however, no reason why it could not be sold to an international organisation legally entitled to hold land.

The powers conferred by this Bill are not likely to be used frequently. Most European institutions, for example, are already well established. However, the Government need to be in a position to offer accommodation where appropriate, particularly where a new organisation is to be established and it is thought desirable to have its headquarters in this country. Compulsory powers of acquisition would very rarely need to be exercised, but it is desirable to have them in reserve.

It is not possible to forecast precisely the effects of this Bill on public expenditure, but they will be small. The amount of expenditure will in each case depend on whether the full costs are to be recovered from the organisation concerned, and on the location and size of the accommodation required.

Any financial arrangements that the Government might wish to offer to an international organisation would need to be justified in the usual way by the relevant Department.

Members of this Committee will be glad to hear that the Bill will have a negligible effect on public service manpower.

Mr. Idris Owen

May I ask my hon. Friend a question——

10.35 a.m.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

Perhaps a number of us will be asking questions, however non-controversial the Bill may be.

I first express some mild surprise that no indication was given in the Minister's remarks about cases which have given rise to concern to pass the Bill. I am not discussing the merits or demerits of the ways in which either Governments or international organisations have to meet their needs for offices and other facilities in this country. But I should have thought, from experience and from reports that one has read, that there would be no difficulty for Governments or international organisations to obtain premises and facilities in London or elsewhere. Indeed, we know that recently, as the Minister indicated, there has been considerable growth in "settlement" in this country due to membership of the EEC and encouraged by Britain's recent adherence to the treaties.

If there has been no difficulty for international organisations to make their own arrangements up to now, whether they be recognised government organisations or commercial bodies, why do the Government feel that there is likely to be difficulty in future? What kind of case material has the Department in its records or from other Departments which has led to the introduction of the Bill? It would be useful for members of the Committee to know the Government's experience in this matter.

I should like to put one or two other points to the Minister arising from his remarks, accepting that there is a need for the Bill supported by whatever information the Minister may provide. Why is it not possible for the Government, whether the Bill is before us or not, to make use of lands and facilities they already have at their disposal for the use of government or international organisations?

I have in mind the stark, staring illustration across the road—I am not making a party point, because it has been the responsibility of successive Governments—of the Broad Sanctuary site which has stood empty since the old Westminster Hospital was demolished. It was allocated, God bless its memory, for a new Colonial Office 25 years ago. Subsequently it went out to international or Commonwealth architectural competition for a conference and office complex which was urgently needed in the middle fifties. It was shelved again and turned over to National Car Parks and since then it has been a rather wasteful eyesore, to put it mildly, considering the site and its position.

Why cannot that site be put to use? Why cannot other sites, which I shall not bother to elaborate upon, which are already in the ownership of the Government be put to use, with or without the need for the Bill? I do not know whether it would require legislation to use such facilities in this way. I may sound a little lighthearted when I refer to Broad Sanctuary, but underlying it is a serious point which has been worrying me and other hon. Members for a long time for a number of reasons going well beyond the matter of waste of resources.

I turn to one other question which at least one of my hon. Friends is tempted to raise on a point of order. The Bill refers in Clause 1(2)(a) to the Commissioners of Works Act 1852. It has been difficult—virtually impossible—to obtain a copy of that Act in the Library for reference purposes. One of my hon. Friends may wish to pursue that point.

But, since it has been difficult to refer to the legislation mentioned in the subsection, we should like to know what the Commissioners of Works Act 1852 says, and if possible to have a copy of the said Act before the Committee for reference purposes.

May I take the opportunity, perhaps a little light-heartedly, but nevertheless seriously following on from what I said about the Broad Sanctuary site, to refer to that old chestnut, as it is now, Centre Point. It is about one and a half years since certain undertakings were given to the House and to the country about legislation to deal with Centre Point. One and a half years ago, the Government gave an undertaking that if that building was not let "within a matter of months" action would be taken by the Government to ensure that it was let.

We know, although it was never officially stated, that legislation was drafted in the Department to that end. Options were left open as to how it should be handled. The option which most people assumed would be adopted from the style of the dialogue embarked upon by the then Secretary of State was either to take management powers into the hands of a Government Department or for the Government to empower a local authority to act on their behalf.

Since then, we have waited and waited, and what has surfaced is a proposal, not to deal with matters such as Centre Point—and there are other buildings but Centre Point is the most notable example—but to allow an increase in the rates charge on empty properties in the Local Government Bill. Do the Government intend to take such action? If they do so, it will enable the Government to use such empty properties for the very purposes for which this Bill is drafter. Why not take over Centre Point, Space House and other buildings at appropriate valuations to use for the public service? Those valuations would not be at £48 million, at which the building is at present valued——

Mr. Arthur Jones (Northants, South)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would tell us what he considers to be an appropriate valuation?

Mr. Freeson

I shall be delighted to do so if I am not out of order. There are various broad principles on which one can assess an appropriate valuation. I shall try to be moderate since we are asking the Conservative Government to do it. In the first instance, I shall not quote what I would do.

If a building is erected at a cost of £5 million in 1965, and is valued at £25 million by the time the Government or their spokesmen describe it as an obscenity, an insult and a scandal—words used by the Government spokesman 18 months ago—one would expect the Government to use their existing powers, this Bill or other appropriate legislation, to take over that and other buildings at that valuation, and not the valuation reported in the financial columns and property columns today of £48 million. What was announced two days ago in the House by the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not affect that—not one scrap. So that is one answer—a very moderate one from the point of view of the Conservative Party.

My own answer would be more in line with the suggestion made by the then Secretary of State—not in the House but in an exchange he had at a luncheon party—that if the owner of Centre Point and similar buildings did not feel able to undertake the lettings despite their being on the market for so many years, the Government would be happy to take them over at the building cost. It may have been a slip of the intellectual tongue for a Conservative Secretary of State to have said that, but he did say it.

May I translate what the right hon. Gentleman said into Labour Party policy terms? Taking the building over at the then existing use value means the 1965 value. I hope that that helps the Minister, because he spoke about the need not unduly to increase public expenditure. In fact, there would be a marginal increase. I throw this out as a suggestion. Let the Minister adopt the proposal of the then Secretary of State for the Environment and take over such buildings as Centre Point at the cost it took to build them.

May I underline that point by asking a question? If it is appropriate for the Government to introduce this non-controversial Bill to enable them to purchase and lease buildings and properties for international bodies, why should it not be appropriate for the Government to seek similar, simple powers to take over, purchase or lease buildings and properties for other public services and community needs in this country, going well beyond the public service powers they have now, perhaps extending the powers already in the New Towns Acts in the areas designated for new town purposes?

This country and its cities are in dire need of Government action, whether it be for the provision of facilities for international bodies, Government or otherwise, the provision of essential Government services, or the provision of various local government services. It is time that the Government took powers to meet those needs urgently instead of confining themselves to a simple Bill to assist international bodies which seem to be well able to take care of themselves; and we have had no evidence that they will experience future difficulty.

10.48 a.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will allow me to express two brief reservations and one hope about the admirable way in which he presented his case. My first reservation concerns his use of the words "normally", "not normally" and "only rarely" too often in a 700-word opening speech. They stuck out rather like fairy lights in a power crisis, and I fear that "not normal" and "rarities" tend to become the rule rather than the exception as legislation is enacted.

My second reservation is a basic one concerning this or any future Government seeking to extend their powers of intervention in land matters acquiring land and holding land for any purpose whatsoever, particularly as the agents for any international organisation.

My hope is that my hon. Friend will be able to consider at some other stage the question of the disposal cost of land so acquired, because it seems to me that the costs should be fully recoverable from any international organisation benefiting from the powers which the Government seek. In the event of there being any difference between the cost of acquisition and the cost of subsequent disposal, the ultimate beneficiary should pay the higher of the two prevailing prices. The cost should not fall upon the public account.

10.50 a.m.

Mr. J. D. Dormand (Easington)

The Minister said that this was a non-controversial Bill. With his usual disarming and charming manner, he makes everything sound non-controversial. But his introductory speech could not have been better designed to raise suspicions and therefore raise controversy.

The first question I need to ask—this is a repetition of what my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) said, but it seems to me crucial to this matter—is why have the Bill? The Minister certainly did not give a reason for it in his introductory speech. Even in what is described as a limited measure, such as this, one does not simply pluck things out of the air. There must be some motive for introducing it, and perhaps the Minister will tell us about it later.

Having said that, I welcome the Bill. In these days of internationalism, buildings of this kind lend status. One immediately thinks of Luxembourg, the so-called postage stamp State which has achieved considerable status, and rightly so, because of its international buildings, its organisations and the activity that goes on in that country.

I should like to know whether "international" includes EEC organisations because, as is well known, many Opposition Members have certain reservations about the EEC, from many viewpoints. We should not like to be placed in a position where other action would have to be taken, on the return of the Labour Government, on buildings that were becoming established.

Mr. Arthur Latham (Paddington, North)

Some hon. Members opposite also have reservations.

Mr. Dormand


Would the Minister in addition tell us something about the location of these buildings? Those of us who come from the North-East think there is no reason why they should not be placed in the regions. The usual argument against that suggestion is that they would be too far from London and the central Government. I think that that is now an old chestnut, particularly with the excellent modern communications in and to the North-East. There is a new town in my area, Peterlee, and I have been making inquiries about the location of Government buildings there since I became a Member in 1970, without any fruit being picked. Developing new towns, especially those that have had little opportunity to develop on this type of scale, should be fully considered in this matter.

That leads me to ask a supplementary question. If the Bill is enacted, will the House as a whole, or any subsequent committee, have the opportunity of dealing with the question of the location, whether it be London, Birmingham, Easington or elsewhere? That is of some importance. The Bill states that it will have a negligible effect on public service manpower and we accept that, but it seems to me that in all these buildings there will be many unskilled jobs. I refer to porters, cleaners, attendants, and so on, who in a constituency such as mine would make a valuable contribution to solving the local labour problem. From that point of view, the subject is important.

Finally, and further to my first question to the Minister, have the Government in mind to establish the international Population Institute in this country? I have asked questions about this matter for two years and had a little carrot thrown to me on two occasions that the institute might be established here. The Government's announcement yesterday that a Minister is to be given special responsibility for the population gives added weight and urgency to the proposal. I believe that it would be a most welcome organisation in this country.

10.55 a.m.

Mr. Idris Owen (Stockport, North)

I wished to intervene earlier purely on a matter of clarification. Subsequent speakers have asked nearly all the questions I had in mind to ask.

I am not clear what an international organisation means. What is the qualification for an international organisation? The Mafia is an international organisation, and so is FIFA. Perhaps my hon. Friend will give a further explanation about what he has in mind. For example, if a branch office of the EEC were to be established to deal with regional development that would be exciting. Will my hon. Friend indicate what difficulties the Government have experienced in the past 30 years as a result of not having had the advantage of the Bill being on the Statute Book?

10.57 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Latham (Paddington, North)

You may be able to assist me, Sir Ronald, because I am in extreme difficulty in serving as a member of the Committee and in making comments on the Bill. I have two problems. I served for 57 sittings with the Minister's predecessor on the Committee stage of the Housing and Finance Bill. In those days we would enter a very dark room and the Minister's predecessor would cast light upon the situation, sometimes artificial, sometimes coloured and interesting light, and the gloomy room became interesting and entertaining. Today, however, I must say frankly that I could have written the Minister's speech—and I know nothing about the Bill. I am no better informed now than when I came into the room.

The other difficulty is that referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), namely, that of obtaining the necessary references to understand what the Bill is about. Clause 1(2) refers to three enactments. I checked Section 113 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 and learned that: The Secretary of State for the Environment may acquire compulsorily any land necessary for the public service". I turn to the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 and find in Section 103 that The Secretary of State for the Environment may acquire compulsorily any land necessary for the public service". Having looked up those two interesting references, I know no more about the purposes of the Bill or the procedures to be followed than I did before I took the trouble to look them up. There is difficulty in obtaining a copy of the Commissioners of Works Act 1852. I hope that the Minister will cast some light upon whether the appropriate section in that Act would tell me more than the other two Acts referred to in Clause 1(2).

The procedural difficulty is that having checked with the Clerk—I have not served on a Second Reading Committee before—I understand that the same rules apply as apply in the Chamber, namely, that, except by leave of the Committee, one may speak only once and that it is customary for only the Minister to seek to obtain and be given leave of the Committee so to do. With such inadequate presentation of the purposes, motives and machinery envisaged by the Bill, one is not able to put the questions one would normally address to the Minister in order to be satisfied that it would be proper for the Bill to have a Second Reading. I say that in preface to some questions that I want to ask. I ask the questions in total ignorance both of the parent legislation to which the Bill refers and of the purposes behind the introduction of the Bill at this time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East alarmed me when he suggested that the Secretary of State might have in mind buying Centre Point for some international organisation. I do not know which international organisation might be thought appropriate, never mind the appropriate valuation. If there were an international confederation of white elephants it might be housed there. Perhaps Mr. George Thomson could bring his regional agency into Centre Point so that it could be as vacant as ever whilst occupied and thus manage to come into public ownership. It might be a conceivable engineering feat to have Centre Point moved to the North-East. Certainly, we should be glad to have it out of London.

Apart from that one suggestion that Centre Point might be in mind, there has been no serious suggestion about the type of property or organisation. The point made by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen) about the Mafia being an international organisation underlines how reasonable it would be to have, not merely in a statement by the Minister, but in the Bill itself, some indication of the type of international organisation for which propery might be acquired. I do not know whether Clause 1(1)(a), where it says … institution of which the United Kingdom … is, or is to become, a member really means a governmental institution, or whether it could mean some other international body of which some nongovernmental agency in the United Kingdom was a member. It may be a legalistic point on which the Minister would wish to take advice to find out whether these words make this exclusively provide for governmental agencies and not other institutions which might become members of international bodies.

Secondly, when I referred to the two Acts that I was able to find there was no clear definition of what is regarded as "public service", nor do I find any indication so far as to whether the power that it is proposed the Minister should take might be used in certain circumstances for some private body which had the Government's blessing but was not strictly a part of their agencies.

As regards paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 1(1), where reference is made to becoming a member of an institution or organisation, how does one apply the words: … or is to become, a member "? Could it be that the United Kingdom or one of its bodies might become a member, that an application is pending, and that accommodation might be acquired, or does it strictly mean that there is a treaty, and that membership has not been ratified or taken into full effect? Perhaps the Minister could clarify that point.

The broader point that I want to raise is this. I am concerned, as are a number of other hon. Members, as a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, not only about the growth of executive power and the lack of parliamentary checks, but about the sometimes seemingly cursory and casual way in which Government Departments go about exercising powers which have been delegated to their Minister. What I had hoped to find in the parent enactments, but which I have not found, is guidance as to what parliamentary procedures will any action under this Bill be subject. Will it be necessary for the Minister proposing the purchase to make an order? Will that order then be subject to the affirmative or negative procedure in the House? If not, what other provision will be made for the Secretary of State, in exercising the powers conferred by the Bill, to report to Parliament on his action, to be subject to question and thus to give the House of Commons the opportunity to challenge what he does?

I could not quite follow what the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) meant, unless he had his tongue in his cheek when he said that the case had been admirably presented by the Minister in introducing the Bill. It seemed to me to be an empty case. One can hardly describe the contents as admirable or non-admirable. I want to know what should have been in the case and was not and to be told what kind of international organisations are envisaged. What has given rise to the presentation of the Bill now? Has there been a particular case in which the Government wished to take action of this kind and found that they did not have the power?

Furthermore, bearing in mind my concern about the increase of executive power in any direction, if, as has been said, it is thought that these powers are likely to be used only infrequently, why is it not possible for the Minister to promote a Bill or take some other appropriate action to deal with an individual case as it arises, rather than ask for blanket powers that may, despite the Minister's assurances, be used more regularly and more frequently by himself or any successor than he envisages at present?

May I renew my plea not only to the Minister but to the Chair? We have not had a clear case presented and we have not heard anything we did not know before we came. May we have a clear exposition for the case, the purpose and the way in which the legislation would be exercised? Would you, Sir Ronald, be indulgent and the Minister generous, when he has presented the case, in giving way often enough for us to have satisfactory answers to the questions we shall ask when we have been told what it is all about?

11.7 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Jones (Northants, South)

When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replies perhaps he would deal with one or two points that occurred to me while I listened to his introduction and the ensuing debate.

Who will hold the title to the land to be compulsorily acquired? Will it rest with Her Majesty's Government, or is it intended that the title will pass to the international organisation on whose behalf the initial decision compulsorily to acquire, or to acquire by other means, was made?

Does my hon. Friend envisage that it may be acquisition of property which will subsequently be developed, either with new structures, by conversion, improvements or extensions? This is particularly relevant with regard to who holds the title, if it will be held by an international organisation. We dealt earlier with the question of reimbursement of Government expenditure. What about the circumstances in which the land acquired is subsequently resold and where there may be additional proceeds from that sale beyond those of the original acquisition and development?

These questions are important in the context of the Bill we are asked to consider in terms of ownership or occupation by an international organisation.

11.10 a.m.

Mrs. Doris Fisher (Birmingham, Ladywood)

There are two points that worry me particularly. One is the acquisition of land. We all know that there are various parts of the country where land shortage is acute. I should like to support by hon. Friend when he says that, if we are thinking of selling land to an organisation, it should be used in a very limited way. The amount of land agreed should be for the limited use of that agency or institution, and should not be used as an excuse for a speculator to move in, who may produce some grandiose scheme for offices with fountains, and so on, to increase the value of the land, use a small part of it for an international organisation, so that the rest of the property becomes liable to speculative profiteering. I should like the Minister to give an assurance that the amount of land will be strictly controlled for the particular use of the organisation or the institution.

May I also make a special plea to the Minister that, when he considers the compulsory purchase of the land, he does not take the easy way out? I refer to compulsory purchases from the local authority who has ownership of the property for some future use but which is not able to develop it because the Government, for reasons best known to themselves, have decided not to give the local authority the necessary finance with which to develop the property, whether for a health centre, a hostel for the handicapped, or whatever it may be. I should not like the Minister to have an unfair advantage over local authorities which have been accumulating land for public services in their locality.

In the event of compulsory purchase being enacted by the Government, will 1he public be able to have a dispute with the Government over the ownership of land in the same way as they are able to with a local authority Or does it mean that under the previous enactment the compulsory purchase is complete because the Government themselves, as opposed to any other body, are involved in the compulsory purchase?

11.13 a.m.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)

The Minister will realise that once again there is nothing that breeds controversy as much as non-controversial legislation. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have rightly asked for specific answers to a number of questions on this minor, but useful Bill.

I echo the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), namely, would the Government introduce an uncontroversial two-clause Bill compulsorily to acquire property for British, as well as for international needs? I assure the hon. Gentleman that there would be less controversy and discussion from the Opposition on such a Bill than there is on this Bill.

The Minister should answer questions from both sides of the Committee. First, why is it necessary to have the Bill? When a Government bring in a Bill it is usually because there has been some difficulty which can be overcome only by legislation, and when that Bill is brought in at this stage of a very busy Session, albeit in a Second Reading Committee, there must be some reason such as an inter national organisation which has been deprived of offices in this country, by agreement or other means, which necessitates this legislation.

Alternatively, is it that we have been told by international organisations, particularly EEC organisations, to harmonise our law for the acquisition of property with Community law? I do not know, but that could be the reason. There must be a reason why the Government wish to introduce the Bill at this stage of the Session.

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) said about where such property should be situated. I would give my hon. Friend full support if an additional sub-para-graph were to be added to Clause 2 when the Bill reaches Committee Stage, to the effect that, wherever practicable, these organisations should acquire land in the regions of this country and not in London. I think that that should be written into the Bill.

The hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) asked how this is to be done. Is the land to be owned by the British Government and leased to the international organisations, or is it to be acquired by the British Government and the fee simple passed to the international organisation? I can see difficulties when actual ownership of the land and buildings goes to an amorphous international body rather than to a specific owner.

Other problems of ownership arise. I believe that under other enactments, these buildings would acquire quasi-diplomatic status. Having such status, how far do the British Government's and local authorities' writs run? Can one cross the fence into the international organisation and obtain a sort of diplomatic immunity? One can think of all kinds of sinister plots for novels from a Bill such as this, with mansions in the country acquired by the Government for some international organisation being used for all sorts of nefarious purposes, much to the disgust of the villagers in the area. Seriously, what will be the diplomatic status of these buildings?

That leads me to wonder about the rights of individuals. The Bill does not specify empty properties—it merely refers to properties. Cannot a conflict arise between the owner of a property who wishes to use it for a commercial, residential or industrial purpose for this country and the Government, who can slap on a compulsory order for an international organisation? I can see a fruitful discussion in the columns of the Sunday Express on the fact that British industry and commerce were being denied the use of a building because an international organisation wanted to acquire it and the British Government were allowing a compulsory purchase order to be placed on the building.

To whom would an appeal be made against the Minister's order? I presume it would be to the court, as there would be no other source of appeal if the Minister decided to allow an order. My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham), who has clearly done a great deal of research on the Bill—[Laughter.]—as much research as possible though he was denied access to some of the Statutes—asked, "Will there be an order before the House? What powers have we got over the Minister?" We must not give a Secretary of State in any Government such unbridled power that the individual has no right of appeal against his decision outside, and Members of the House cannot take him to task by parliamentary means. We need to know what will be the right of appeal of an individual objecting to the order being placed on his property.

I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen) on the definition clause. What is the distinction between the United Kingdom and Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom? One can understand the second one— Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom is … a member "— but one cannot understand the first one, that the United Kingdom, as such, is a member.

"To become" a member again leads to difficulty, as my hon. Friend has said. Is that just the vague intention of the Government, or have specific steps to be taken before the Bill's powers could be used? The speculations of the hon. Member for Stockport, North with regard to the Mafia are interesting and I wonder, in view of recent pronouncements, whether Her Majesty's Government are about to become members of that organisation. It could be.

Mr. Idris Owen

I was only being facetious.

Mr. Oakes

I appreciate that. So am I.

The Chairman

Order. We cannot have sedentary interruptions.

Mr. Oakes

I appreciate that, Sir Ronald.

Finally, I should like to ask a detailed question on rates. When these organisations have their buildings, will they become Crown property within the meaning of the Rating Act, or will they pay rates in the ordinary way? I hope they will pay rates in the ordinary way and not become Crown property. I do not know whether they would be Crown property, as they are required for an international organisation. If they become Crown property, as the Committee will know, there is the compounded figure fixed by the Treasury that goes to the local authority. If they are not Crown property, the buildings are rated as ordinary property and pay rates in the ordinary way.

The Opposition are not opposed to the Bill, but we should like to know why it is necessary. We should like to know of specific instances and about the rights of the individual faced with a compulsory purchase order and about the status of that property when it has been acquired.

Mr. Mudd

Perhaps, on reconsideration, the hon. Gentleman will wish to put a further question to the Minister, namely: where land is acquired for the purpose of constructing offices for an international organisation, would the fact that such a purchase was brought about by the Government obviate any necessity for conformation with planning requirements?

Mr. Oakes

That is a very valid point, because the Government have many powers to obviate the ordinary planning process. The Committee is indebted to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, and doubtless the Minister will consider it, because a monstrosity could arise in an area where the local planning authority has no control over it whatsoever. As I said, that is a very valid point and I hope that the Minister will answer it when he replies.

11.22 a.m.

Mr. Eyre

I should like to reply to the many interesting points that have been raised during this debate on what has been referred to many times by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee as a non-controversial Bill.

The hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) said that no cases of specific difficulty had been quoted which appear to him to justify the introduction of the Bill. He then asked why, if there had been no difficulty to date, there should be provision now. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government have been interested, in the national interest, in attracting to this country the headquarters of international organisations. He will remember that the Government were interested in trying to get the headquarters of the European Patent Office in this country, but eventually it was decided that it should go to Munich.

A more recent matter concerned the European Medium Range Weather Forecasting Centre. The Government were successful in making arrangements for the headquarters of that centre to be established at Shinfield Park near Reading. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to ask why no difficulties were heard of on that occasion. No legal difficulties arose because the Ministry of Defence, which administers the United Kingdom Meteorological Service, had a site already in Crown ownership which was made available. The United Kingdom share of the cost of establishing that organisation was taken by the Ministry of Defence within the defence budget. In that case the availability of Crown land with an entirely suitable site meant that the Government were able, without difficulty, to accommodate this international organisation, which was to the advantage of this country.

Looking ahead, there is only one case in the pipeline to which we should like to give assistance in this country, and that is to bring about the establishment within the United Kingdom of the European Trade Mark Office. The Government think it important that the general principle should be that some of the major institutions, of, for example, the European Economic Community should be located in the United Kingdom. The Government's decision to propose that the European Trade Mark Office be sited in London was reported in HANSARD on 12th July at col. 432. The decision was taken in the light of the Community's decision to establish the European Patent Office in Munich which, as hon. Members will recall, caused considerable disappointment in United Kingdom trade circles.

The establishment in London of the European Trade Mark Office would ensure the retention in this country of a substantial amount of professional work by trade mark agents and barristers, and would help to stop the drift to the Continent of professional and commercial work on industrial property. The United Kingdom's dominant commercial position in trade marks would not be helped if the Trade Mark Office were located elsewhere. About 60 per cent. of the applications which come before the office are likely to be in English. In these circumstances, the presence of the office in London would be welcome to British industry and would bring employment and balance of payments advantages. The bringing of employment and balance of payments advantages are considerations which this or any other Government of this country would want to bear strongly in mind in all matters of the kind of which I have given two recent examples.

Mr. Freeson

Accepting all that has been said about the loss of the Patent Office in Munich and the prospect of the Trade Mark Office coming to Britain, what are the difficulties in bringing that institution to Britain which this Bill needs to obviate? We were not told of any difficulties. That was the point of my question.

Mr. Eyre

The Government, or any other Government, would seek to be in a position to deal efficiently and promptly with any need to provide premises and facilities.

Let me return to a point that the hon. Member for Willesden, East made in his opening speech. He asked why not make use of land and facilities now at the disposal of the Government. I agree. That is perfectly right and proper. Indeed, the Government did that in the case of Shinfield Park. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the land and premises now in Government ownership may not always be suitable.

Of course, the Government would wish to make the best use of all assets now in their possession. A great deal of time and effort is given by this Government, and will be given by successive Governments, to that end. But in a case which has yet to come forward at some time in the future there may be circumstances in which it would be a distinct advantage to this country for the Government to be able to act promptly and effectively to provide premises and facilities.

Mr. Latham

The Minister has not answered the question. The question is not whether it is desirable to have particular offices here, or what facilities should be available, but why the Government have to make the provision. There are many other international organisations, and certainly international companies, which are capable of making their own arrangements for accommodation and purchase of lands. There are a number housed in this country already which have not needed Government assistance or Government intervention. Why do we have to make legislative change so that the Government them selves make the acquisition rather than act as agents or grant facilities or merely expedite the normal business process?

Mr. Eyre

The hon. Gentleman is further emphasising a question which he raised in his speech. The powers under the Bill when enacted would not be available to private organisations. The powers would be available only in the case of an— international organisation or institution of which the United Kingdom, or Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, is, or is to become a member "— at some time in the future. It would relate only to bodies of which the country or the Government were members. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the wide-ranging considerations that I mentioned, which are connected with the wellbeing and prosperity of the country's trading activities and major interests, would all have to be borne in mind in the decision whether the Government would assist in the provision of premises and facilities.

May I give an example of the difference between the forms of membership that I have mentioned. For example, the United Kingdom is a member of the European Economic Community, but Her Majesty's Government are members of the International Maritime Consultative Organisation and similar organisations which exist to provide services for the general benefit of the population of the countries whose Governments are members of such organisations.

Mr. Latham

I apologise because the responsibility rests with the communicator rather than the person communicated with, but I have not communicated my question clearly. I shall try to put it simply and illustratively. What is to stop the commission in Brussels, if it wishes, borrowing or renting Centre Point from Harry Hyams without the need for legislation of this kind, which would make the Government the agents?

Mr. Eyre

I am not aware of any difficulty which would prevent the Brussels organisation from acting in the way the hon. Gentleman mentioned. But I emphasise that the European Trade Mark Office is an example of where the Government in this country wish to take a view in a helpful way and at present they do not have the power so to act. The Bill extends the Government's power so that they can act effectively if they decide that it is in the national interest to assist in the provision of premises.

The hon. Member for Willesden, East raised the question of the Commissioners of Works Act 1852. I am sorry to hear that a copy of the Act was not available and I shall do everything I can to make a copy available for the hon. Gentleman. I shall read the important part of Section 2 of the Act: It shall be lawful for the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Works and Public Buildings to purchase, take, or accept any Hereditaments, of what Tenure soever, necessary for the Public Service, and to sell or exchange the same, and to give a good Discharge for the Purchase Money thereof to any Purchaser or other Person and to grant any Lease or Leases, Underlease or Underleases of any such Hereditaments so taken as aforesaid, and to enter into any Agreements for such Sale, Exchange, Lease or Underlease, so nevertheless that all such Hereditaments shall be purchased, taken, exchanged, sold, or leased, and the Produce and Income thereof applied, by the Direction of the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury, and so as every Conveyance of any Freehold Hereditaments in England, Wales, or Ireland, made to or by the said Commissioners of Her Majesty's Works and Public Buildings under the Authority of this Act, be enrolled amongst the Records of the Court of Exchequer in England or Ireland, as the Case may be; and all Acts by this Act authorised to be done by the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Works and Public Buildings, and all and every the Powers and Authorities whatsoever by the Act passed in the Session of Parliament holden in the Third and Fourth Years of the Reign of His late Majesty King William the Fourth, Chapter Forty-three, and vested in or transferred to the Commissioners … for the Time being of Her Majesty's Works and Public Buildings, or by any Two of the said Commissioners. I hope that that has helped the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Freeson

I thank the Minister for his rendering of that proclamation, although it deteriorated a little towards the end. I listened to it carefully, and it underlines the comment I want to make on a matter which arose earlier. What we are doing in the Bill is extending the potential of Crown-held property. Several questions were raised in that context—for example, powers under planing. I hope that the Minister will be in a position not only to clarify the situation but to satisfy us on the queries that arose on the assumption that this was to be Crown-held land. The quotation just given confirms that that will be the legal position.

Mr. Eyre

I shall continue to meet the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, because he went on to Centre Point. He has, I am sure, studied the Chancellor's statements in respect of the taxation position. He will be aware, too, that in discussing the Local Government Bill consideration is to be given concerning the rating position. The hon. Gentleman suggested that Centre Point and other buildings should be used for international purposes. He is perfectly entitled to make such a suggestion, and it will be considered.

Mr. Freeson

The Minister has misunderstood. I do not want to accuse him of being obtuse, but perhaps he his misunderstood. The Chancellor's statement has no relevance to the situation obtaining over Centre Point. I could pursue that matter if necessary, but I shall not do so now. The property market is well aware that it has no connection.

Regarding Centre Point being taken for this purpose, I was not recommending it. I said that an announcement had been made by the Secretary of State for the Environment 1½ years ago that Centre Point and similar empty blocks of offices were to be taken over by the Government if they were not let in a matter of months. As we have heard nothing since about that statement of policy and intention, I suggested that here was an opportunity to resurrect that proposal to facilitate the purposes of the Bill. What are the Government's intentions in respect of the take-over of empty office blocks of this kind, in the light of statements made by the Government 1½ years ago?

Mr. Eyre

As I have said, the hon. Gentleman should have regard to the Chancellor's statement in the context of property development. His view about the consequences of that statement must be refuted. The hon. Gentleman knows that this is a controversial matter, and he would naturally not expect me to accept his view. Furthermore, this matter is being considered in detail in Committee on the Local Government Bill—that is relevant. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to go out of order in respect of the contents of this Bill further than to say that his valid point within the terms of the Bill, that offices of this kind could be considered for use for international purposes, is a suggestion which will be considered.

Mr. Freeson

I must press the Minister a little further. Whatever differing views we may have, there can be no doubt about what the Secretary of State for the Environment said If years ago; and there was no doubt about the kind of information which was "leaked" from the Department into political and journalistic circles in the weeks that followed that statement about the ideas that were being considered, and the kind of draft legislation that was being prepared.

I was glad to hear the Minister say that the possibility of the Government taking over Centre Point and other buildings of that kind which are standing empty will be seriously considered. I must press the point that it is now 1½ years since the Government made that announcement and it should not now be a question of merely considering the matter. Parliament and the public are entitled to know the Government's intentions.

Mr. Eyre

I have tried as fairly as I can to answer the hon. Gentleman's question in so far as it relates to the Bill under consideration.

I pass to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd). I am glad that he accepted my assurance that the powers assumed under the Act would be used on a small scale.

He asked about the expense arising on the public account. I have tried to emphasise that decisions in that respect would depend upon the interests of this country. For example, if it were thought to be desirable to attract the headquarters of an international organisation it could well be that this, or any Government, would wish to act helpfully and to assist that process. Subsequently, the property purchased under the Bill would normally remain Crown property, but, as I said in opening, there is no reason why it could not be sold to an international organisation which was legally entitled to hold land, if it were decided by the Government that that would benefit this country's interests.

On the matter raised by the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand), I hope I have clarified the purpose of the Bill. Earlier the hon. Member argued strongly that regional considerations should be taken into account with regard to the siting of any premises which might be acquired on behalf of international organisations.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have a good deal of sympathy with his views and certainly those considerations would be borne in mind. As he will understand from the circumstances which I described in general terms, there would have to be detailed negotiations and considerations with regard to the siting of such headquarters. International agreement would have to be reached as to the suitability of siting. But the possibility mentioned by the hon. Gentleman of a site being acquired in the regions will certainly be borne in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen) mentioned the Mafia. I hasten to enlighten him on that subject, but, on the serious point he then made, I have given examples of the kind of international organisation to which I am referring, one of which the country itself is a member, and another of which the Government of the United Kingdom is a member.

The hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham) I hope also found some benefit from my reading of the relevant section of the Commissioners of Works Act 1852. He confessed, in the course of his speech, that he was alarmed by the suggestion made by his hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East. I noted that there was support for this view on the Government benches. He raised a question of the interpretation of Clause 1(1) relating to the membership of the international organisation. I wish to assure him that it could apply only to an organisation of which the United Kingdom, or Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, is … a member". The hon. Gentleman also questioned the use of the words "is to become". I should like to explain that that refers to the future—that is, that the Government or the country is to become a member of such an organisation at some time in the future.

Mr. Latham

With great respect, I did understand that "is to become" was in the future tense. But I am asking, not what the simple words "is to become" mean, but what "is to become" is intended to mean in interpreting the subsection. Does this mean organisations of which we are likely to become members, is there some specific proposal? Is there a date on which membership becomes operative? That is what is being asked, not the simple, linguistic definition of the words. We know that they mean in the future.

Mr. Eyre

I was only trying to deal with what I thought the hon. Gentleman asked, and I listened carefully to what he said. I was trying to tell him what the full meaning was. I want to emphasise that any future decision would be subject to Government consideration and decision and review by Parliament.

Mr. Latham

Why does it have to say "is to become"? Once the United Kingdom, or Her Majesty's Government, is a member, the Bill as proposed will apply, because by the time Britain is a member, the Bill is operative. So the necessity for the words "is to become" cannot be explained by saying that it is because some time in the future Britain might become a member. By the time Britain becomes a member within the meaning of the Bill Britain is then a member.

Mr. Eyre

I think the hon. Gentleman will understand that in the complicated circumstances that I have tried to describe it could well be that some organisation may come into existence of which this country is to become a member. It could well be in the interests of this country for the Government to assist in the provision of premises for that purpose. The Bill so provides.

As I have said, any decision made by the Government would be subject to question and debate and to the approval of Parliament, as are all executive acts of a Government of a similar nature.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) raised the question of title. I should like to repeat what I said earlier and say that property purchased under the Bill would normally remain Crown property. However, there is no reason why it should not be sold to an international organisation legally entitled to hold land. I stressed that in making these decisions the Government would bear very much in mind the national interest. With that interest in mind, questions relating to acquisition and disposal would be subject to conditions applying at the time of the transaction. So the desirability of acquisition in the national interest, or the benefit to the country which could be obtained by acquisition and retention of a site, or, perhaps, in certain circumstances and on certain terms the disposal of a site, would all have to be judged against the background of the circumstances applying to the particular transaction.

Mr. Jones

I also raised the question of building operations and site development. Having agreed that, in the public interest, a site or property should be disposed of to an international organisation, would my hon. Friend deal with the point about the proceeds of a possible subsequent sale, which might show a considerable profit to that organisation?

Mr. Eyre

As the property would have been vested in the Crown and would be Crown property, then of course the proceeds of sale would belong to the Crown.

Mr. Jones

In the event that the freehold had been transferred to the international organisation, what would then be the result in a subsequent sale?

Mr. Eyre

Then the property would have passed outside the ownership of the Crown and the position would be the same as for other properties held by international organisations.

The hon. Lady, the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mrs. Doris Fisher) asked for an assurance that the Bill does not relate to private bodies and I give her that assurance. She then mentioned problems with regard to land held by local authorities which wished to retain the land for a local purpose. Certainly all the factors that she mentioned would be borne very much in mind in any possible acquisition under the Bill. I confirm that the usual procedure on acquisition would apply. In other words, if there were objections, a public inquiry would follow.

Mr. Latham

It is important to know what the parliamentary procedures will be under this legislation. I specifically asked whether these would be dealt with by Statutory Instrument and whether they would be subject to the affirmative or negative procedure. The references here are so inadequate, the Bill is so thin, that it is difficult to know what the procedures will be. As it involves taking executive power, we ought to be told.

There is an argument going on with the Department at present as to whether, within the order, it should be specified for which purpose the land has been purchased. The same problem may occur here. If there is to be an order—subject to whichever procedure it is—may we know whether it will be required that, in such an order, the purpose for which a property is acquired has to be stipulated, or would the Minister, under these powers, be able simply to acquire a property, albeit for one purpose, and use it for another?

Mr. Eyre

I want to emphasise that, in replying to the hon. Gentleman, I made it clear that any acquisitions would be subject to the usual procedures—a parliamentary review, by Questions, or debate. That would be entirely appropriate in these circumstances and would afford every reasonable protection.

Mr. Oakes

Debate on what? I appreciate that one can ask a question of the Minister on any subject, but debate on what? Is it to be debate by prayer on a negative resolution, or debate on an Order in Council to be approved by both Houses? The hon. Gentleman surely does not mean an Adjournment debate or something like that. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham) means debate in such a way that Parliament has control over what the Minister has done.

Mr. Eyre

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Parliament has in its general power control over the acts of the executive. These are matters in which the Government at present have considerable power for the acquisition of premises and property in the United Kingdom for the public service. Many thousands of transactions are dealt with in accordance with the established procedure, and whenever there is difficulty in a particular case of that kind there are many ways, in accordance with parliamentary procedure, in which the matter can be raised, questioned and debated. That procedure would equally apply to any matter raised under this Bill.

Mr. Latham

I apologise to any member of the Committee who may be impatient with me for pursuing this matter, but it is not only an important matter in relation to the Bill, but involves the very wide principle about how far executive powers are to be extended and what safeguards exist for the use of those executive powers. I insist that the Minister ought to be able to give us something more than a vague answer such as that one might ask a question or initiate an Adjournment debate or there might be an official Opposition debate or something of that kind.

Specific and precise procedures are laid down for the exercise of executive powers. Sometimes they require affirmative approval by the House, sometimes they are subject to a prayer, and there are even other delegatory functions when the Minister, in taking executive action, is not subject to parliamentary checks of that kind. It is right to ask, and proper that we should be told, which powers will apply in the use of the executive authority obtained under the Bill.

Mr. Eyre

The hon. Gentleman expresses strong feelings on this score. I understand his feelings, but the question he raises is a matter of detail concerning the content of the Bill which could be examined in great detail and debated fully and properly during the Committee stage. This is a Second Reading debate to consider the general principles that apply in cases of this kind. The point which the hon. Gentleman raises is more specific and particular, and I suggest that it could be discussed in detail in Committee. The extension that I talk about relates to the international scale of the procedure that already applies and works in so many cases as apply now in the United Kingdom.

I come to the points raised by the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes). He, too, placed strong emphasis on regional considerations with regard to acquisition. Undoubtedly they would be borne very much in mind. The hon. Gentleman went on to raise a point which I expected him to raise about ownership and title and Crown property. Normally the property acquired would be Crown property and would continue to be Crown property. Therefore, the question he asked about rates would mean that the rating system, as applied to Crown property, would apply to these premises. It would only be in circumstances which were justified by the national interest that the ownership would be transferred to an international organisation.

I emphasise that naturally the Govern-would would protect and safeguard the national interest in any transfer of property. In most cases it is much more likely that the property would be taken as Crown property and would continue to be held as Crown property.

Mr. Freeson

That is the second time the Minister has laid stress on that point. There is a question which worries me even though it is something only prospectively on the horizon should the Bill be enacted. The hon. Gentleman talked about exceptions where property would be disposed of to international bodies in the national interest. That is a broad, loose phrase. Nevertheless, in the past—I am not clear on the position today—it has been general practice by Governments to offer buildings and sites surplus to their requirements first to Government Departments, and, when not required by any Government Department, to give first refusal to local authorities or other public services such as hospitals. Therefore, every opportunity is taken to use scarce land resources in certain areas for the public good before disposing of them privately.

The prospect of certain buildings being sold to international bodies removes that possibility in what may be in certain circumstances key sites or key areas in the country. I urge the Minister to give thought to this matter, and if he cannot give a clear answer now I ask him to reconsider what he says about the possibility at any time of selling these sites to international bodies. If we are to maintain the important practice I have outlined, which has been of great assistance to local authorities and Government Departments, it is essential that land does not cease to be Crown-held. There should be no question of disposal to the interests which occupy the buildings in the future.

Mr. Eyre

I should like to emphasise that the acquisition of the property would vest it in the Crown. I have taken note of the hon. Gentleman's serious views about any possible transfer. The property having been vested in the Crown, under the control and ownership of the Government, naturally the most careful consideration would be given to any international or local factors. The balance of interest in all cases would have to be carefully weighed. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government would consider carefully the comments he has made. He is posing what could be difficult and serious questions of judgment. The Government will approach the matter carefully and all the factors mentioned will be borne in mind.

Mr. Owen

May I ask just one question on something that has just been said. Would the Crown have power to reacquire the property at some future date if, it having disposed of the property, the property was used for an unsuitable purpose?

Mr. Eyre

Yes, indeed. The property being in the United Kingdom, it would naturally be subject to the Government's power compulsorily to acquire it at a later date.

Mr. Latham

I should like to make a final comment in a conciliatory mood, because I felt a little angry about one or two seemingly minor points which nevertheless have their importance. The Opposition have said that they do not propose to oppose the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) described it as "probably useful." Having regard to what has been said by most hon. Members about a lack of adequate information about how the Bill will operate and the powers exercised, and particularly the relationship between this legislation and the three enactments referred to in the Bill, will the Minister agree to consider the circulation of a memorandum? That course might be helpful to the Committee after the Bill has received Second Reading. In that way some of the vagueness and difficulties might be clarified at the beginning and would expedite our proceedings.

Mr. Eyre

Naturally I should like to be as helpful as possible. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but I can tell him that the purpose this morning has been simply to have a Second Reading debate on general principles. Many of the hon. Gentleman's observations relate to important matters of detail which will be discussed in greater detail in Committee. The hon. Gentleman will then be entitled to press those matters and to have full consideration given to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the

Russell, Sir Ronald (Chairman) Latham, Mr.
Benyon, Mr. Mudd, Mr.
Dormand, Mr. Oakes, Mr.
Eyre, Mr. Owen, Mr. Idris
Fisher, Mrs. Doris Reed, Mr. Laurance
Freeson, Mr. Rhodes, Mr.
Hawkins, Mr. Stott, Mr.
Hunt, Mr. Tebbit, Mr.
Jones, Mr. Arthur White, Mr. James
International Organisations (Land) Bill ought to be read a second time.
Mr. Eyre

On behalf of members of the Committee, Sir Ronald, I should like to thank you for the courtesy and efficiency with which you have presided over our proceedings.

The Chairman

I thank the Under-Secretary.

Committee rose at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.