HC Deb 11 November 1980 vol 992 cc427-30

Lords amendment: No. 205, in page 164, line 28, at end insert— Provided that where any persons carry on a business to the main purpose of which any such undertaking is merely ancillary those persons shall not be treated as statutory undertakers for the purposes of paragraph 18 above

Read a second time.

Mr. Keith Wickenden (Dorking)

I beg to move, as an amendment to the Lords amendment, in line 1, leave out from 'business' to 'shall' in line 3 and insert— as a body corporate having capital (other than loan capital) which is divided into shares or stock owned, or capable of being owned, by members of the public, those persons and that body corporate". I shall try to be brief. I have an interest to declare in the subject matter. Lords amendment No. 205 seeks to amend part X of the Bill so as to limit the powers of the Secretary of State to compile the register of land in which public bodies have a freehold or leasehold interest and also to limit the powers of the Secretary of State to enforce the sale of such land by those bodies. In other words, the amendment would define rather more closely the bodies to which this part may apply.

It is clear that it was never the Government's intention to apply part X of the Bill to privately owned bodies, which by accident, or, more likely, because their assets happened to be connected with water and the sea shore, were set up by Act of Parliament. Lords amendment No. 205 was proposed by Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and was accepted by the Government. It goes only so far as to exclude private enterprise operators who operate some form of facility such as a jetty or railway pursuant to statutory powers, where that facility is ancillary to their main business. It does not exclude from part X such privately owned undertakings set up by statute which have as their main business such activities. Here I declare my interest. The undertaking which comes immediately to my mind is the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company but it equally applies to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, to Milford Haven and a long list of such undertakings.

It is clear that it is not the Government's intention to apply part X of the Bill to privately owned bodies. I cite as authority for that the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services, who said in Committee: The hon. Gentleman knows that this part of the Bill applies to publicly owned bodies I have made that clear. I have also made clear that we do not think that it is sensible, for the reasons that I have given about the disciplines that apply over privately owned land, for it to apply there.—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 22 April 1980; c. 340.] Similarly, in the other place Lord Avebury specifically asked whether what is now amendment No. 205 covered the case of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company. In replying, my noble Friend the Earl of Avon said: Speaking off the cuff, which I do not like doing, we think not."—[Official Report, Home of Lords, 13 October 1980; Vol. 413, c. 1075.] He was wise indeed to say that, because he was in fact wrong.

The public bodies affected by part X of the Bill are set out in schedule 13 to the Bill. The first 17 are not contentious, but No. 18 is the phrase "statutory undertakers". That is an unfortunate phrase, first used, I understand, in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which in itself should be enough to cause misgivings, on the Government side of the House at least.

The meaning of the phrase is defined in the unnumbered paragraph at the end of schedule 13. It says: In paragraph 18 above "statutory undertakers" means persons authorised by any enactment to carry on any railway, light railway, road transport, water transport, canal, inland navigation, dock or harbour undertaking and so on.

It clearly applies to every dock undertaking which is set up by Act of Parliament, which, in fact, is every dock undertaking in private ownership.

Clearly, I would not wish at this late hour to press this matter to a Division if it can be avoided, and if the Minister can give me some assurance that, in order to correct this anomaly, in due course a statutory instrument will be laid before the House under clause 82(2), which provides that The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument amend Schedule 13 to this Act … by amending or deleting any entry for the time being contained in the Schedule". That would satisfy the point and correct that issue which the Government did not wish to raise in the first place.

Mr. King

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the Lords amendment was to qualify the definition of the statutory undertaker but does not go as far as he would wish. I well understand the point that he is raising. He fairly quoted what I said in Standing Committee about it, that it was intended to apply to land held by public bodies. That, indeed, is the title of part X of the Bill.

I give him the assurance that we believe that this matter may be met, but of course it cannot be met now without further amendment. We believe that under the powers of the Secretary of State by order it will be possible to tackle it. I would rather not give my hon. Friend an answer off the cuff tonight but I give him the assurance that we shall now look at the matter urgently in relation to the power under clause 82(2) and see whether it can be satisfactorily resolved

Mr. Wickenden

In view of that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 206 agreed to.

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