HC Deb 03 August 1976 vol 916 cc1572-6

Lords Amendment: No. 9, in page 18, line 41, leave out "for the purpose of" and insert "with a view to".

Mr. Guy Barnett

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that it will be convenient to take at the same time the following Lords Amendments: No. 10, in page 18, leave out line 43 and insert: considers that it ought to have information connected with". No. 11, in page 19 line 6, at end insert: ; and (c) any person who, in pursuance of an agreement between himself and a person interested in the land, is authorised to manage the land or to arrange for the letting of it,". No. 12, in page 19, line 11, after third "the" insert: nature of his interest in the land and the". No. 13, in page 19, line 15, leave out "paragraph (b)" and insert: the provisions of paragraphs (b) and (c)". No. 14, in page 19, line 19, leave out "name or address" and insert "information".

Mr. Barnett

These are drafting amendments. The first makes it clear that a local authority may seek information under the clause before it is committed to performing the function for which it needs the information. The second amendment corrects an inconsistency with the remainder of the clause. Information required may be either a name and address or the nature of an interest. It is, therefore, inaccurate to make the service of a notice dependent on the need to know only a name and address.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

The Under-Secretary of State said that these were drafting amendments. They are far from being drafting amendments. Clause 15 gives a local authority power to require not only information about the ownership and occupation of land but the name and address of anyone who has an interest in the land.

As the clause stood, a local authority would have to have decided upon the function the purpose for which it required the information. The words were Where, for the purpose of performing a function", it required this information. With the amendment, the information could be required by a local authority if it were merely contemplating a function. It gives a local authority freedom to be a Nosey Parker about the ownership of and interests in land.

It may be argued that if someone owns or occupies land he should give his name and address to the local authority and state the interest that he has in the land. But there may be family interests and settlements which may not make it particularly pleasant for the owner of land to disclose the mortgages that he has on the land. If there is a specific function in connection with which he should disclose the information, there is some excuse for requiring him to give it. When, however, there is no specific function and the local authority is merely considering some function that it may undertake and therefore wants the information for that purpose, it is going too far to give such power to the local authority. The clause would give power to obtain information for altogether different reasons.

There is always the shadow of the Community Land Act and the acquisition of land under that Act for which the local authority may want information. There is the blighting of property by an inquiry of this kind when no specific function is undertaken. For example, after an inquiry is made, when the owner of land who wishes to sell, is asked by a prospective purchaser's solicitor whether any proposals have been made by the local authority and whether he has been asked for any information, he will have to answer "I was asked for the names and addresses of everyone who has an interest in the land." That may blight his sale of the land.

That deals with Lords Amendments Nos. 9 and 10. Lords Amendment No. 11 relates to: any person who, in pursuance of an agreement betwen himself and a person interested in the land, is authorised to manage the land or to arrange for the letting of it". That might well include a solicitor who, under the terms of the amendment, would be obliged to disclose his client's affairs. It is normally recognised that if such a requirement is put into statutory form there is the saving provision that there shall not be a requirement to disclose anything that would be privileged under the law as it stands. However, that is omitted in this clause.

It was said in another place that the required information could be gained by means of the amendment in the case of property passing from company to company. We know of circumstances in which perhaps a rather shady company transfers property to another company to escape these inquiries. The amendment will not catch such companies but it may catch the innocent—for example, the solicitor who is given charge of his client's affairs, involving property held on trust. I have mentioned family settlements and trusts, but it might be more embarrassing to have to disclose outside trusts and settlements. Certainly it would be embarrassing for a solicitor to have to disclose his client's affairs in that way.

I believe that the amendments to Clause 15 are an unnecessary encroachment on the privacy of the individual. The clause was not especially harmful as it stood, but as it has been amended by another place it is an encroachment that we should resist.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Sainsbury

I shall make two quick points in supporting my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page). First, as the clause is amended by Lords Amendment No. 9, there seems to be a slight contradiction between the first two lines of the clause and line 7 in page 19, which states that the authority may serve a notice specifying the land and the function and the enactment which confers the function". If we are to accept with a view to performing a function", I wonder how the Minister envisages the local authority dealing with the requirement that the notice must specify the land and the enactment which confers the function. How is the recipient of the notice to have any check that the notice fulfils the vague terms with a view to performing a function", conferred on a local authority as opposed to being clearly and specifically for the purpose of performing a function?

Secondly, the Minister suggested that we should disagree with Lords Amendment No. 5. He referred, quite sensibly, to the need to restrain bureaucracy. Does he agree that perhaps the clause is an invitation to generate bureacracy by unnecessary inquiries?

Mr. Guy Barnett

I shall try to answer this brief debate, but I admit that it has come as some surprise to me for several reasons. First, as the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) knows, the legislation which we are considering is well precedented. Presumably we are talking about provisions which have appeared in the past and to which, as far as I am aware, no previous objection has been taken. I think the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) will confirm that previously no objection has been made in debate, although, as he knows, I cannot speak from personal experience, to the sort of provision now before us.

It is clear that for various statutory purposes local authorities need to obtain information from time to time about the ownership of property and other matters. Surely it is wrong to suggest that local authorities may wish to do so for all sorts of unseen and dangerous purposes. That seems to be the implication behind the remarks of Opposition Members.

The hon. Member for Ashford referred to Lords Amendment No. 11, and perhaps I might turn briefly to that amendment. I believe that we should agree with the Lords in Amendments Nos. 11 and 12. They complement one another and are designed to make Clause 15 more effective by catering for a situation that might otherwise be exploited as a means of avoiding compliance with a notice.

Clause 15 as drafted enables a notice to be served on the occupier of the land and on anyone with an interest in the land as a freeholder, mortgagee or lessee or anyone who directly or indirectly receives rent for the land. However, where a person with an interest in land delegates its management and responsibility for its letting, the local authority can often only identify and make inquiries of the agent. The purpose of Amendment No. 11 is to enable this to be done. For example, it will help local authorities to trace landlords who attempt to avoid compliance with statutory notices by passing control or ownership of their properties from one company to another.

It is unreasonable to suggest that these provisions have an unseen motive. They are connected with the statutory responsibilities of local authorities in health and safety matters. I hope that the House will regard them as non-controversial and will be prepared to approve them.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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