HC Deb 16 December 1986 vol 107 cc1179-84

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

11.57 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise the specific case of one of my constituents and the general issue that flows from that case. This matter relates to Mr. Andrew Castellain, who lives in the old coastguard station at Zennor on the north coast in my constituency not far from Land's End. Mr. Castellain has owned his house for some years. To his utter amazement, not long ago he discovered that some years ago his house had been registered as common land. I found that incredible when he came to see me, and I suspect that any other hon. Member, including my hon. Friend the Minister, would think so, too.

What happened was that under the Commons Registration Act 1965, all that was initially required was that any person should register provisionally what he or she thought was common land. There was a lady in my constituency, who has since died, who was secretary of the West Cornwall footpath preservation society. She was a public-spirited lady, and she fulfilled that requirement under the Act and went round registering what she thought was common land. She did it in good faith, but perhaps her enthusiasm was not matched by her accuracy. Be that as it may, by one means or another Mr. Castellain's property was included in the map that she submitted to Cornwall county council, the registration authority under the 1965 Act.

Under that Act, which you will remember well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there was a period of time in which objectors to registration could press their objections. I believe that that period was about three and a half years, although a much longer period was recommended by the Royal Commission that drew up the report that formed the basis of the legislation.

The trouble was that people such as my constituent had no idea that their property had been provisionally registered, because all that was required was that an official notice should be put in the local newspapers or newspaper. In the case of my constituent, that notice did not specify his house by name. It referred to various plot numbers, and I suspect that it would have meant nothing to him if he had seen it. Consequently, it was only when he was considering installing electricity that, by accident, he came across the fact that several years earlier his house — not garden — had been registered under the Act. Moreover, it had not just been provisionally registered, because the period for objections had elapsed, and so the property was definitely registered.

My constituent was not too worried. He thought that it might be a simple matter for the mistake to be rectified. Oh no! He wrote to Cornwall county council, which replied that it was sorry and understood his predicament, but that it had no power under the 1965 Act to rectify the mistake. He then came to see me, and I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister and received a reply from Lord Skelmersdale, the Under-Secretary of State, who confirmed the position. He admitted ever so politely that the law was nonsense but said that there was no provision under it, except for a very narrow category, for rectifying mistakes over registration. Furthermore, he told me that there were several people who were in the same predicament as my constituent. Perhaps that was an understatement, because since becoming involved in this case I have come across many similar cases, not necessarily involving houses but, rather, land.

For example, the National Farmers Union tells me that hundreds of people have had their land or property registered by mistake and can do nothing about it. Many hundreds of cases are known, but many more people must be in blissful ignorance of the fact that their property has been registered as common land under that Act. As the law stands, nothing can be done about that. The consequences of wrongful registration can be quite serious. In the case of my constituent, or anybody else who has had a house registered by mistake, I suspect that it would be difficult to find a buyer for the house. Although the law may not be clear on the consequences of registration, many potential purchasers would probably shy off, on learning from their searches that the property has been designated as common land. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that.

A few years ago various bodies got together to form the Common Land Forum in order to try to agree on a reform or review of the law on commons. Its report was published in September. It is quite a large document, of which only part deals with the problem of wrongful registration. The other parts of the document deal with more controversial aspects, such as access to common land.

The Common Land Forum was formed under the aegis of the Countryside Commission and includes various bodies, ranging from the Country Landowners Association on the one hand, to the Open Spaces Society and the Ramblers Association on the other. The document amounted to a compromise on changes in the law. Almost without exception, the members of the CLF are anxious that their carefully compiled package should not be broken apart to deal with the problem of wrongful registration. They want legislation on the whole package, and I suspect that that might be the attitude of Her Majesty's Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make his first statement on the report and on the Government's attitude to the report.

My view is clear. Many innocent people have suffered or could suffer as a result of a defect in the 1965 Act, which has resulted in inadequate notice being given to owners of land and property that their land and property was being registered, albeit provisionally. They have suffered because of the failure of this House and the other place to ensure that there was some mechanism in the 1965 Act to rectify obvious mistakes and nonsenses.

I want the Government to introduce legislation on this matter. I want the Secretary of State to have the power to rectify, in a simple manner, obvious nonsenses and mistakes, and cases such as that of my constituent Mr. Castellain, who suddenly discovered that his house is technically common land.

I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to give me, and more particularly my constituent, many other people who have already found themselves in similar circumstance, and many more who are blissfully ignorant of the situation concerning their property, some assurance that the Government will introduce legislation, or enable me or some other hon. Member to bring in a simple Bill to rectify this defect in law.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the consent of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and the Minister?

Mr. Favell

I do.

12.8 am

Mr. Favell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) for giving me the opportunity to make this short intervention.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the plight of Mr. Castellain. I am a practising solicitor, and my firm is representing a person with a problem similar to that of Mr. Castellain. He has a house and garden that has been registered as common land, although it was never the intention of the Commons Registration Act to register houses as common land. This house is well over a century old, and has always been occupied by families, and the public have never had access to it, except with the consent of the owners. It is on a large moor in Northumberland, large sections of which are registered as common land. For some reason, the house and its small garden were included in a registration of many acres of land.

My client is unable to have the register rectified because the land was originally registered by mistake. If it had been registered as a fraud, action would be open to him, but there is no reason to suggest that the original application was made for fraudulent reasons. It was done purely by mistake. It is indeed difficult for the owner of a property in these circumstances to sell it, for the simple reason that no building society, knowing the facts, will lend on it. That is an injustice and only this House can rectify it.

12.9 am

The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Planning (Mr. William Waldegrave)

I find myself in considerable sympathy with my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Stockport (Mr. Favell). I do not think that the procedures on the Commons Registration Act 1965 were very well advised in that, to take the example of St. Ives, the publication of notices in a sub-regional newspaper is unlikely to be drawn immediately to the notice of people in remoter areas who are perhaps most affected.

I can confirm the account that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives gave of how the Commons Registration Act 1965 works. As he said, anyone could apply for land to be registered under it. A number of worthy and, as he described the lady in his constituency, public-spirited people went about with greater enthusiasm than accuracy when using ordnance survey maps, and there have been some strange results.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport has professional experience of these matters. There are several examples scattered all over the country. They would be almost comic if they were not so irritating. I hope and believe that the Castellains, who have pursued their case vigorously—I have even read about it in the national newspapers — may have overcome the immediate difficulty with the electricity supply. With a little entirely legal connivance, they can probably overcome their problem. The electricity distribution authority operates under legislation which may help them.

Circumstances such as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport described remain a real problem. A building society or bank, faced with such uncertainty, may raise questions. Being good entrepreneurial characters, they may put another point or two on the interest rate or put other obstacles in the way.

There is no doubt in the Government's mind that this is an absurdity which must be put right. The only question—it is quite a question—is in what time scale it can be put right. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said—I have little to add to his speech—the Common Land Forum has been at work on a package of measures. Under its able chairman, it has brought together pretty good agreements involving a wide group of potentially disparate interests. It is loth to see bits of its package taken out separately, as it fears that its structure of compromise and agreement might fall to pieces. I understand that.

I am willing to respond to my hon. Friend's friendly challenge to give the first preliminary views on the Common Land Forum report. We hope to put out a discussion paper very shortly. My noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale said "by Christmas", but Christmas always seems to come earlier than one expects. It might not quite be before Christmas, but, shortly afterwards, we will go out to consultation. I have no hesitation in saying that we greatly welcome the work that has been done by the Common Land Forum. Although we are tidying up some details of our response to some of its recommendations, we think that it sets out the way forward in a reasonable way.

The question is: can we get legislation from our colleagues in the great pile of legislative measures that hang over any Government? My Department alone is anxious to denationalise the water supply and to introduce rate reform and all manner of measures. This matter is not particularly contentious, but it is a case of getting this matter agreed early.

We shall seek to introduce a package of measures on this issue as quickly as possible. If there should be any untoward delay, I would understand it if my hon. Friend proposed measures to deal with this issue. He provides an incentive to us to introduce a major package. We cannot leave constituents and clients in this ridiculous, indefensible position indefinitely.

I ask the indulgence of my hon. Friends tonight in that I cannot now state when the Government will introduce legislation. What they have said are powerful additional arguments for endorsing this useful collection of agreements that the Common Land Forum has produced. Their arguments provide piquancy and urgency and will be taken fully into account when we consider these matters.

These matters may be small, but they concern injustice to individual citizens and the House is largely constituted to rectify that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend's for raising the subject, but this evening I cannot state the date for legislation. All I can say is that they have added urgency to our search for solutions.

Mr. Harris

I understand the difficulty facing the Government. Nevertheless, injustice affecting the rights of individuals is involved. Would my right hon. Friend consider co-operating to enable me or some hon. Friend to introduce a ten-minute Bill? Is that a possibility?

Mr. Waldegrave

It depends on whether we can introduce the package early. I understand why my hon. Friend should want to do that and I would want to do so in the same position. If he introduced a ten-minute Bill, hon. Members from both sides would add matters and the package of compromises would begin to fall to pieces. Therefore, although it is his right to do so and if he introduces such a measure we must consider it on its merits, I ask him at least to await our consultation paper. However, he should not diminish his efforts to press us to solve these matters soon, because it is in all our interests so to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Midnight.