§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. It is a very technical Bill, and I believed until I entered the House this afternoon a wholly uncontroversial Bill, which the Government are extremely anxious to see pass through your Lordships' House before the adjournment of Parliament. The Bill is designed in the main to bring up-to-date the powers of the Commissioners of Crown lands in the management of their estates. Originally all revenues from Crown lands were paid to the Exchequer, but after the increase in the reign of Henry VIII, two Surveyors-General were appointed. The Commissioners were first appointed in 1786, and their duties in the main rest on the Crown Lands Act, 1829, as amended by various later Statutes. In 1923 the Forestry (Transfer of Woods) Act transferred the Crown woods and forests, for example, the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, to the Forestry Commission, and the Crown Lands Commissioners are no longer responsible for Crown forests. Perhaps I may here say that I understand the Motion on the Paper in the name of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for the rejection of the Bill has special reference to the New Forest. Therefore it is significant to note that the Bill in no way refers to the New Forest, the administration of which was transferred by the Forestry Act, 1923, to the Forestry Commission.
At the present time the Commissioners of Crown lands are individuals, and Clause 1 incorporates them, thus avoiding difficulties on change of personnel and bringing their office into line with other Government Departments. Clauses 2 and 3 codify the Commissioners' powers of sale on the lines of the Settled Land 723 Act, and the University and College Estates Act of 1925, and allow them to sell for a perpetual or terminable rent as well as for a capital sum. Clauses 4, 5, 6 and 7 enable the Commissioners to grant leases, subject to Treasury consent, up to 100 years, instead of for the varying terms authorised at present according as the lease is for building or mining. At present they are limited to sixty-three in the case of mining and ninety-nine years in the case of building. Clause 8 is modelled on Section 50 of the Settled Land Act, 1925, and contains general provisions for sales and other dispositions of lands, allowing reservation of minerals and various easements which will be of use in dealing with mineralised areas. Clauses 9, 10 and 11 give the Commissioners power, where it is for the benefit of Crown lands, to grant water rights to statutory bodies, to provide land for such public purposes as the erection of churches, school-houses or village institutes, and to appropriate land for laying out roads, parks and open spaces. His Majesty's consent must be obtained in any cases which may involve the permanent alienation of Crown land gratuitously.
Clause 12 gives power to the Commissioners to make agreements in connection with town planning schemes. Clause 13 enables the Treasury, with His Majesty's consent, to authorise the Commissioners of Crown Lands to take under their management and lease houses in the Royal parks and place at His Majesty's disposal other houses in lieu. Clause 14 is a general clause enabling the Commissioners to enter into contracts for the purposes of sales, leases and other authorised dispositions, while Clause 15 applies to Crown lands the provisions of the Settled Land Act, 1925, relating to improvements, thereby extending the Commissioners' powers in that respect. The first subsection of Clause 16 proposes to repeal the exemption from stamp duty of leases and other instruments made with the Crown. The remaining subsection of Clause 16, together with Clauses 17 and 18, remove certain doubts as to the appointment of receivers and other officers of the Commissioners, the management of houses in Royal parks, and the return to the Commissioners of land granted for the erection of churches and schools and no longer required for such purposes.
724 The Commissioners are trustees of certain ecclesiastical funds in the diocese of Gloucester, and Clause 20 transfers their functions to the diocesan board without changing the beneficial application of the moneys, and thereby relieve the Commissioners of an inconvenient trusteeship. The Bishop of Gloucester, I understand, fully assents to the transfer, in fact he desires it. The remainder of the Bill consists merely of definitions, the necessity for Treasury authority in the case of any transactions of upwards of £1,000, restrictions on the sale of land in Royal parks and forests, and certain savings as to forests and foreshores being transferred to the Forestry Commission and the Board of Trade. The Bill is a very technical Bill, and it almost exclusively provides for matters of machinery. It has already passed the House of Commons, and I hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.
Perhaps the noble Earl opposite (Earl Beauchamp) will allow me to say that I am perfectly well aware that he is likely to raise some objection to the Bill's reaching your Lordships' House at very short notice after leaving the Examiners, and after—as I think he will suggest—some dilatoriness on the part of the House of Commons in disposing of the Bill. Since he was good enough to mention the matter to me I have been at some pains to find out what actually happened in the House of Commons. The Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on March 14, read a second time on March 30, and, being a hybrid Bill, it went to a Select Committee, which was set up on April 6. The Easter Recess then intervened, and the Select Committee commenced sitting at the beginning of May. The Bill was reported from the Select Committee on May 16, and then the Whitsuntide Recess intervened. It was re-committed on the floor of the House of Commons on June 16, and the rest of the Committee stage, the Report stage, and the Third Reading all took place on July 12. Between June 16 and July 12 the House of Commons was exclusively, or almost exclusively, occupied with the disposal of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Bill and the Finance Bill. On July 19 it came before the Examiners of this House. It has been with the Examiners for a week and now comes at the earliest possible opportunity before your Lord- 725 ships. Personally I entirely share with the noble Earl the regret that this Bill should come before your Lordships' House at the end of the Session at very short notice, and I can only ask the indulgence of the House, and particularly the noble Earl, to allow this Bill to pass its Second Reading in view of its urgency and the great desire we have to get it through this Session.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Bledisloe.)
§ LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU
My Lords, I have a Motion on the Paper for the rejection of this Bill, but since I put it down I have had some conversation with the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading, and I have received certain assurances from him in regard to the possible effect of this Bill on the New Forest. We are, naturally, in the New Forest very suspicious in these days of anything which contains any allusion whatever, however remote, to the Forestry Commission, and I think that possibly justifies my suspicions. But I am glad to say I have assured myself now that the Forestry Commission will have nothing to do under this Bill with the New Forest, which, I am sure, must be a great relief to your Lordships on all sides of the House. There is only one point I should like to mention. In regard to Clause 23, can the noble Lord tell me whether the New Forest comes definitely under the definition of a Royal forest? It has its own legislation, but I do not know whether it is included under that definition. As I put down my Motion under a misapprehension, I shall not now move it.
§ LORD OLIVIER
The noble Lord, by the explanation he has given to the Leader of the Liberal Party, has disarmed certain criticisms I was about to make myself of the way in which this rather solid and indigestible Bill is thrust upon us at this time. I have looked through the Bill, and I agree with the noble Lord that it is an innocent and harmless Bill, and I shall not offer any opposition to it. But I should like to ask what is done with the proceeds of Crown lands and Crown property that are parted with under the present arrangements, and under this Bill. Is 726 the money treated as revenue, or is it funded in any way for the benefit of the Commissioners?
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
It is all treated as capital except in the one case to which I specifically referred, where there will be a terminable annuity. Of course, part of it will be treated as sinking fund, and part otherwise.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
My Lords, I must congratulate the noble Lord opposite on the skill with which he discovered my intentions, which I thought were locked in my own private breast. However, he seems to have divined from my action in connection with previous proceedings that I wished seriously to raise the point that this Bill was only put down for Second Reading this morning. Apparently, the noble Lord has had some private communication with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu which was not made to us or to the Front Opposition Bench, because evidently Lord Montagu had time to put down his Motion on the Paper.
§ LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU
I put this Motion down last week because the very title of the Bill filled me with alarm; but I had no communication until to-day with the noble Lord who represents the Government.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
I am glad to hear that that is the state of the case. This Bill was only brought to this House on July 13, it was circulated on July 15, it went to the Examiners on July 19, and was put down to-day. Do two or three days really matter so much that there should be this tremendous haste? The Bill itself is evidently a difficult Bill. The noble Lord twice told us that it was a very technical Bill. In spite of that fact, we are refused the opportunity of considering it before its Second Reading. He himself took no less than ten minutes in explaining this very technical Bill to the house. For my own part, I do not understand how many of these powers which are now to be given to these Commissioners are already possessed by other analogous bodies. I confess that with regard to Clause 2, giving the Commissioners of crown lands power to sell any Crown land, that does rather fill me with alarm. It may be that they had that power already, in which case it 727 would make a good deal of difference; but, if not, it is certainly a matter that we ought to go into in Committee with a good deal of care. I cannot pretend that I have been able to go into the rest of the Bill carefully, and I therefore venture to say to the noble Marquess that, even if he insists on taking the Second Reading to-night, I hope he will give us some little time to consider the Bill before it goes into Committee.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
My Lords, I am sure this House will acquit me of any desire to delay business, or to bring any frivolous complaint forward, but there are several of us who feel very strongly about some parts of this Bill. As my noble friend has said, we knew nothing about when this Bill was going to be brought forward until this morning. On the Paper this morning we discovered that the rejection of this Bill was going to be moved by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. We could anticipate why that was. It was concerning his fear that the New Forest, which is such a great national asset, should be interfered with in some improper way. We could understand that. I understand now that the noble Lord has been satisfied by the Minister of Agriculture on this point. Therefore, I should like to ask leave to state very shortly some apprehensions I have on the subject. The Bill is a long one of some twenty-four clauses and, as the noble Earl said, it is highly technical. Clause 2 of this Bill gives power, subject to the consent of the Treasury, to dispose of all the Crown lands, subject to the saving clause, Clause 23, as to Royal forests and parks. I should like to ask the noble Lord, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, whether the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary represent the whole of the Commission and whether they have absolute power over the gigantic estates of the Crown in succession to the old Crown Commissioners. Are the old Commissioners broken up and have the Minister of Agriculture, as Chief Commissioner, and the Secretary absolute power over the whole estates of the Crown?
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
They have absolutely the same power as they have possessed for many years past from the 728 time when the noble Marquess himself was a Commissioner. This Bill creates no new power of sale.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
I I do not think the noble Lord understood my question. Have they power over all the urban property as well as the agricultural property?
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
Yes, they have power over the urban property as well as the agricultural property, but they require the consent of the Treasury for the disposal of certain lands. But the powers of sale and of disposal are exactly the same as previously existed before this Bill was introduced.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
Then the Minister of Agriculture and his Secretary at this present moment have the entire management of the whole of the agricultural and urban property in London and everywhere else. That is a most important matter because the Crown estates are something of stupendous value. Yet here we are with this Bill brought in, and the noble Lord cannot answer the simple question whether the Minister of Agriculture and his Secretary have absolute power over these estates.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
I really ought to intervene at this point. The noble Marquess knows perfectly well, because he himself used to be a Commissioner of Woods, that the Minister of Agriculture is ex officio a Commissioner of Woods, or rather he used to be in the noble Marquess's time. He is now a Commissioner of Crown Lands and the other Commissioner is also the Secretary of the Commission. To speak of the Minister of Agriculture and his Secretary as able to dispose of Crown lands is not strictly accurate, but the two Commissioners of Crown Lands at the present moment are the Minister of Agriculture and the other Commissioner, the Secretary, who will join with him in the disposal of these lands.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
The noble Lord will forgive me. It was during the Campbell-Bannerman Government and at my request that the agricultural land, 70,000 acres, was handed over to the Minister of Agriculture, but there was no question of a Minister of Agriculture interfering in any kind of way with the urban property, with Windsor 729 Castle, or with the Home Farm at Windsor Castle or anything like that. It was only the agricultural part of the Crown lands, amounting to 70,000 acres, which was handed over to the Minister of Agriculture. Now we are told that this Bill hands over the whole of this enormous property to the Minister of Agriculture, who is ex officio Commissioner, and the other Commissioner, who is the Secretary of the Commission. For that proposal to be sprung on the House of Lords at a moment's notice is really rather strong. I do not want in any way to make any difficulties of any sort, but it is a little strong that at ten minutes to eight o'clock this matter should be raised in this House. Look at the benches of the House. It is a little strong to bring a Bill of this sort before the House at this moment. However, we are in the hands of the Government.
There is one thing I would respectfully ask the Minister of Agriculture to take into his consideration. He said quite rightly that in old days the Minister of Agriculture had power, with or without the consent of the Treasury to sell any portion of what are called the Crown lands, but, as the House is aware, they were given over by King William IV 100 years ago to the nation. That, land is nationalised and is now the property of the nation. They are not the Crown lands at all. Crown lands is a misnomer; they ought to be called the nation's lands. It was in 1921 that a Conservative Minister of Agriculture put 7,000 acres of land into the market and amongst that land there was a farm at Egham which was divided up. Lot 9 was the well-known land of Runnymede, where King John and the Barons made their famous agreement. When that was known there was very deep feeling at this historic land being put into the market, more especially as it was put into the market in August, 1921, and failed to fetch the reserve, which was put at a very high price on account of its historical value. In Clause 23 of this Bill there are reservations as regards Royal parks and Royal forests. I suppose St. James's Park and the Long Walk at Windsor would be reasonably safe. They would come within the four corners of the Bill. But there are many historical spots that are amongst the 730 nation's lands at this moment and they are not protected under Clause 23.
I would very respectfully ask the Minister of Agriculture whether he would take it into his consideration to protect these historical places. At Runnymede now we have a religious service every year held to celebrate Magna Charta. The Lord Chief Justice of England, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Dean of Windsor and the Recorder of London have all come on successive years, and thousands of people meet on that spot. Under this Bill as it stands, sprung on us at the last moment, that sacred spot is not protected. Could I induce the noble Lord to give us some sort of pledge that that will be looked into and that several of these lands belonging to the nation shall be protected within the four corners of the Bill so that such a terrible act of vandalism shall not occur again?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am sure my noble friend the noble Marquess will forgive me if I do not wander back through English history to the dim regions of Magna Charta. I quite sympathise with his historic interest in this subject. I am informed that Runnymede is perfectly safe, that there is no threat to it and that the profane hands or the Ministry of Agriculture will not be allowed under this Bill to touch Runnymede. The noble Marquess may make his mind perfectly easy.
I will say one more word with reference to what he said in a moment, but I want first to address myself to the remarks of the noble Earl about the difficulties in which your Lordships' House is placed by the proceedings on this Bill. As the noble Earl knows, I sympathise very much with him in these matters and I want to make it as easy for him as I possibly can. The Bill has been in your Lordships' House some days, but it has been before the Examiners. It is a difficulty with this kind of Bill that, it has several more stages to pass than has an ordinary Bill. These Bills have to go before the Examiners before they are read a second time, and have to go to the Unopposed Bills Committee after they are read a second time. All these extra stages make it rather difficult to get the Bills through. I am quite willing to try 731 to meet the noble Earl if I possibly can. As soon as this Bill is read a second time it will have to go before the Unopposed Bills Committee and, therefore, I suppose we should not be able to take the Committee stage till Monday if we read it a second time now.
I suggest to the noble Earl that we might be content with the Committee stage on Monday, it being understood that if he and the noble Marquess desire to raise a debate upon the Motion to go into Committee those of us who sit on this side of the House would be content that they should do so, because I think they have been rather badly treated. We should be content that they should raise a debate then. I might assure the noble Marquess that a full answer will be given to all his points upon that stage of the Bill if that would satisfy him. If, however, the noble Earl says: "No, I hold you to your bond: I will not let you have the Second Reading to-night: we must have more time," that would create a very great difficulty for us in getting the Bill through in the course of the next week, owing to the fact that it has to go before this Private Bill Committee. I do not say it is absolutely impossible—I want to be honest with the noble Earl—but it would be very difficult. I want to treat the noble Earl fairly in the matter and I suggest we should take the Second Reading now. In that case, if there is a debate on the Motion that we should go into Committee on Monday, we shall quite understand it will be, as it were, an adjourned Second Reading discussion. If I may put it in that way to the noble Earl, I shall be glad to have his decision.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
I quite realise that the noble Marquess has great difficulties in regard to these Bills and I think he will acknowledge that I always do my best to meet him. I am quite willing on this occasion to agree to the course which he suggests and I think it is likely that meanwhile private communications will make any debate on going into Committee unnecessary. If I had insisted on a Division I do not think the noble Marquess would have got the Second Reading to-night in the absence of thirty Peers.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed for to-morrow.