HL Deb 25 July 1927 vol 68 cc864-76

Order of the Day read for the House to be put in Committee on re-commitment of the Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bledisloe.)


My Lords, those of your Lordships who were in the House the other day will remember that the noble Marquess the Leader of the House gave me authority, in view of my protest that this Bill was being rushed through your Lordships' House, to say something on the Motion that the House resolve itself into Committee. I am anxious not to delay your Lordships, but I should like to ask the noble Lord in charge of the Bill exactly how far it confers new powers upon the Commissioners and how far it is simply transferring powers which already exist from one authority to another.


My Lords, in answer to the noble Earl's question I should like to express to him, what I know he realises fully, my personal regret that this Bill should appear to be rushed in any way through your Lordships' House. It is one of the unfortunate circumstances of our Parliamentary procedure that we find ourselves at the end of July in the position of being asked very rapidly to agree to the Bills which have come up from another place. My reply to the noble Earl's question, so far as I can answer it at short notice, would be this. This is, as I pointed out on the Second Reading, a very technical Bill, but it may be shortly stated as giving the Commissioners of Crown Lands almost identical powers with those enjoyed by a tenant for life under the Settled Land Act in respect of a settled estate. I need hardly remind your Lordships that the powers of a tenant for life have been considerably extended by several Statutes during the last twenty or thirty years, but so far as the Commissioners of Crown Lands are concerned we are in a very similar position, because they are limited owners, or at any rate they are trustees with limited powers, and their powers have not been extended in a similar fashion. The power of sale, which is the important power to which your Lordships specifically referred on the Second Reading, is wholly untouched by this Bill, except in one respect—namely, that land can be sold not only for a money consideration but in consideration of a terminable annuity. That is the great distinction and, if I may so call it, the extension of the powers of the Commis- sioners in respect of land which they hold, in a sense, in trust for the Sovereign.

The Bill contains also certain consequential and codifying clauses, and there are certain references to funds in the hands of the Commissioners, on trust for certain Gloucestershire ecclesiastical charities, which it is proposed should be handed over to the Gloucester Diocesan Board of Finance. But, speaking quite shortly, there really is no new power of any importance conferred by this Bill except such as would naturally be enjoyed by a tenant for life under the Settled Lands Acts in respect of settled land. I do not know whether this statement will satisfy the noble Earl. I was not aware of the exact question that he was going to put to me, but I am quite certain that no criticism can possibly be brought against this Bill in reason except as regards the disposal of land, and that power of disposal was already possessed by the Commissioners prior to the introduction of this Bill. Perhaps I ought to refer to the fact that this Bill is founded upon the Report of a Select Committee that sat on the Crown Lands (No. 2) Bill which was published in May of this year. I am asked to mention that fact.


My Lords, when this Bill came before your Lordships last Thursday the debate on the Second Reading was taken at ten minutes to eight o'clock. The noble Marquess who leads The House, with the in variable courtesy that he shows to all of us, suggested that the Bill should then be given a Second Reading, and he would permit a word or two on the Motion to go into Committee. I do not want to keep the House one second more than is absolutely necessary, but this Bill really is of much more importance than at first sight appears, and I hope that the House will be generous enough to excuse me I say a few words upon it. Agriculture, as we all know, is going through the agonising death throes of the old feudal system, and this Crown Lands Bill is another step forward in the old Liberal land policy which is going to replace it. It is a further legal confirmation of the land policy of the Liberal Campbell-Bannerman Government of 1906, which was, as the House knows, to attempt to put the people back on the land and to make the countryside, to use Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's own words, "No longer the pleasure house of the rich, but the treasure house of the poor."

How was this to be done? By the old Small Holdings Act of 1908, which has been taken out of cold storage and put again on the Statute Book. By that Act was ensured the gradual sane and safe nationalisation of some of the land of England, without any violence or confiscation, and with as little interference as possible with the system of private ownership, as it exists at the present moment. What did that Act of 1908 do? It really gave to the county councils the obligations and duties—not the option—of finding land for people residing in the county, whoever and whatever they might be. If the land required by the county council could be obtained voluntarily all well and good. If there was any objection to the land being taken it could be taken by compulsion, and if the owner of the land tried to put an extreme value upon it, all that had to be done was that the Ministry of Agriculture sent down a valuer to see the land. That valuer did not allow any agent, or any expert witness, or any lawyer, to come before him. He himself decided what the price of the land should be, whether it was to be leased or bought, and against his decision there was no appeal.

That was the Bill which I had the honour of bringing into this House, and which your Lordships were graciously pleased to pass. That, I believe, is the Bill which the Conservative Government have once more put on the Statute Book, and which I believe is the law of the land. That gives greater power to the people of England to deal with land than is possessed in any part of the British Dominions, for in any other part of the Empire there is an appeal to a Judge. There is no appeal to a Judge or any other person in this country. Of course we started very well, and in three years, from 1908 to the beginning of 1912, we put 5,000 families on the land and secured nearly 200,000 acres of land, which would be a piece of land one mile wide running from London to York. We did that in three years, and 97 per cent. of the men whom we put on the land are there now. They are doing well, and as it was before the war time those men were put on the land without it having cost sixpence to the State, and in some instances, as in Lincolnshire, they have a sort of sinking fund, so that at the end of sixty years—another forty years—the land will belong entirely to the county without any expense to the public, the ratepayers or any one else.

We were rather hampered in getting as much land as we wished, and so I obtained permission from the Government to take over 70,000 acres of agricultural land from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. That has only touched the fringe of the question. It was really playing with the whole subject, but still it was a beginning, and it helped to an extent. This Crown Lands Bill is a Bill of very far-reaching importance. What does it do? Instead of making the Minister for Agriculture the Minister for agricultural land alone it makes him, what there is in every Dominion or Colonial Parliament, the Minister for Lands. Lord Bledisloe says it only gives the Minister the same powers as a life tenant. It does a great deal more than that. If you read Clause 2 of this Bill you will see what it really does. It gives the Minister for Agriculture power not only over agricultural land but over the whole of those stupendous estates of the Crown which, at the beginning of every reign, since William IV, have been handed over to the nation, and which might fairly be called now the lands of the nation or national land.

Think of the power that this Minister will now have. Land in cities has an enormous value. You can get £10 a foot frontage in some parts of England. Land with 250 or 150 feet depth is worth £10 a foot frontage, and that would buy half an acre of agricultural land, and as land at the present time is a drug in the market, and large properties are being put up for sale and there are no bidders, it seems to me that this is the very time when the Minister of the Crown ought to exercise his enormous powers. I do not know whether under the present Government that is very likely to happen, perhaps not. But, after all, the Parliament Act is not going to be interfered with and the present Government have been three years in office. Two more years shall pass, then we shall have a General Election and then we shall see what we shall see. But whether there is a change of Government at the next General Election or not, it is perfectly certain that sooner or later a progressive Government must come into power. Then what will happen? There will be an enormous chance for the Minister of Agriculture to get as much agricultural land as will be necessary to put upon it the people who want to get on the land. There are 15,000 men now who are waiting and hoping against hope to be put on the land.

Imagine what a rush there would be if there was any possibility of getting good and suitable land at a cheap rate, with security of tenure, in days to come. It seems to me that this Bill is opening an enormous field for a progressive Minister of Agriculture for the purpose of putting men on the land. Instead of putting 10,000 or 20,000 men on the land, we ought to put 50,000 or 100,000, or 200,000, 300,000 or 400,000 families under the new auspices on the land. I have to thank the House most respectfully for having allowed me to call attention to the enormous importance of this Bill. There is a great future before it. It will put new heart into the agricultural population—those men who went out to the War, who fought for you and for me; the dream they had in the trenches will be realised, and they will have come back to a new England, a free England, a land which they hope in time to be able to help, to fashion, and to share.


My Lords, I am sure it was my own fault, but I did not quite understand the answer which the noble Lord opposite gave to my noble friend Lord Beauchamp. Clause 2 of this Bill, as I read it, gives absolute power to the Commissioners of Crown Lands to sell any Crown land, subject only to two conditions. The first is that the price is to be the best they can get, and the second, under Clause 21, is that there is to be Treasury consent. What I want to ask is whether that very large power is not new. Is it simply the old power?


This is a repetition in the exact words of the provisions of the Act of 1829, which governs the sale by the Commissioners of Crown Lands of this property.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF DONOUGHMORE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2:

Powers of sale.

2. The Commissioners of Crown Lands—

  1. (i) May sell any Crown land or any easement, right or privilege, of any kind over or in relation to Crown land; and
  2. (ii) Where any Crown land comprises a manor, may sell the seignory of any freehold land within the manor, with or without any exception or reservation of all or any mines or minerals, or of any rights or powers relative to mining purposes, so as in every such case to effect an extinguishment of the manorial incidents.

THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE moved to add to the clause "The powers of sale conferred on the Commissioners by this section shall not apply to Runnymede." The noble Marquess said: The noble Marquess who leads the House told me that there need be no apprehension on this subject, and he gave me the assurance that Runnymede would not be included in the powers of sale under this Bill. I therefore hope that there will be no difficulty in accepting my Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 3, line 8, at end insert ("The powers of sale conferred on the Commissioners by this section shall not apply to Runnymede").—(The Marquess of Lincolnshire.)


The noble Marquess who leads the House is unfortunately detained elsewhere by important national business, and has asked me to express his regret that he is not present to repeat the assurance which he gave to the noble Marquess that on no account would Runnymede be sold by the Commissioners of Crown Lands. But he has asked me also to say that to put in any Amendment, even the Amendment which I put down on the Paper with a view to conciliating the noble Marquess, would be inadvisable without some danger of encroaching upon the Royal Prerogative. The noble Marquess has not quite appreciated the legal position in which these lands stand. They do not belong to the nation, but are, in fact, the property of the King in right of his Crown, and in fact the revenues were only handed over to his present Majesty on his accession to the Throne in exchange for the grants under the Civil List Act, the property remaining vested in the Sovereign.

I think the noble Marquess suggested that all these lands, or the greater part, of them, were handed over to the nation by William IV. In fact, they have never been actually handed over by any Sovereign, but each succeeding Monarch since then has accepted a certain revenue in lieu of the revenue of these lands for the period of his reign, and on the termination of any reign the property revests in the Sovereign in right of the Crown. This being so, if it were possible to afford protection to historic sites such as Runnymede without any encroachment on the Prerogative of the Crown, the Government would be only too glad to do so. But we do hesitate to take any action which would fetter the disposal of property belonging to the Crown when, in the case of all subjects of the Crown no such fetter exists, or is ever likely to exist, even in respect of sites which may be deemed to be of some historic value or interest.

What I really want to impress on the House in this connection is that, first of all, this Bill confers no further rights of disposal so far as Crown lands are concerned. The Commissioners, after the Bill is passed, will have exactly the same power as they had before, only, as I say, it does in this small particular extend their powers, that they are able to accept some consideration other than money payment. But why, I am entitled to ask, should we fetter the Crown in respect of property which is really, in fact, the property of the Sovereign, when no such fetter is placed upon land belonging to any subject of the Crown? There is nothing whatever to prevent land which may be described as of historic interest, or even an ancient monument, being sold to-day by a private individual who owns it. Therefore I ask your Lordships not to take any step which would provide a handicap in the case of property owned by the Crown, which does not exist in the case of property owned by a subject of the Crown.

I do not know whether I shall be right in taking this opportunity of saying that, first of all, apart from the assurance which I am able to give on the part of the Leader of the House that Runnymede will not be sold, there is some question, I understand, as to what Runnymede exactly is: in other words whether the property vested in the Commissioners of Crown Lands is Runnymede or whether Runnymede is, in fact, some property adjacent thereto. I believe there is considerable controversy on the subject. I am aware that the noble Marquess attends in state once a year as the founder and leader of an association for the preservation of Runnymede, and takes part in a very interesting service, which no doubt expresses devout thankfulness that the rights of the nation were secured as the result of the grant of Magna Charta. There is another thing I want to say, and perhaps it will do something to placate my noble friend, and that is that no sale can take place of any property exceeding in value £1,000 without the consent of the Treasury. Your Lordships realise that it is a somewhat delicate question to deal with in either House of Parliament. I am advised there would be an encroachment on the Royal Prerogative and on that ground I ask your Lordships not to accept this Amendment.


I cannot express the astonishment I feel at the answer that has been given by the noble Lord. He said it was perfectly impossible, without infringing the Prerogative of the Crown, to protect an historic site. That may be so, but one would have thought it would have been equally impossible to sell an historic site. A Conservative Minister for Agriculture a few years ago, in spite of what the noble Lord has told us this evening, put into the market 7,000 acres of land belonging, not to him or to the nation but, according to what the noble Lord has told us, to the Crown. He put into the market those 7,000 acres of Crown land without any opposition and they included the historic site of Runnymede, which would have been knocked down to the highest bidder had not the price been prohibitive on account of its historical value, on which the auctioneer had laid great stress. How can the noble Lord say that you cannot protect historic land and yet you can sell it? I never heard in all my experience of your Lordships' House such an answer given by a Minister of the Crown as Lord Bledisloe has given to your Lordships tonight. I shall certainly persist in my Amendment and add the words to it: "during the life of the present Sovereign."


I should like to say a word or two on what has been said by my noble friend Lord Bledisloe. There is no question here of interfering with the Prerogative of the Crown. The Amendment is in these words: The powers of sale conferred on the Commissioners by this section shall not apply to Runnymede. How can that interfere with the Prerogative of the Crown; it is merely cutting down a power which otherwise, the Commissioners would have. That is not interfering with the Prerogative of the Crown. The Commissioners already have a power of sale and you except from that power the sale of such a property as the noble Marquess has mentioned. May I draw the noble Lord's attention to Clause 23:— Subject as hereinafter provided the powers conferred by this Act upon the Commissioners of Crown Lands shall not extend to any land being part or parcel of the Royal forests, parks, or chases: Is that interfering with the Prerogative of the Crown? The exception there is in the same words and in the same phrases. Of course it is not interfering with the Prerogative of the Crown. I think the noble Marquess is the last person who would desire in any way to interfere with the Prerogative of the Crown.

I quite agree with what he said in regard to the benefit which it is hoped will be derived from this Bill in regard to small holdings, a question in which he has always shown so much interest. As for an assurance, one appreciates an assurance when it is given but it is not a safeguard. If this special provision were not put in and Runnymede were hereafter sold, the purchaser would have a perfect title. The fact that an assurance has been given in this House or in any other House is not a matter which is taken into consideration when you are interpreting an Act of Parliament. I shall support the noble Marquess if there is a Division upon this Amendment. How can it be said it interferes with the Prerogative of the Crown, speaking of it from a legal constitutional standpoint?


I disagree with what was said by the noble Lord opposite about the Prerogative, but I am not going at this time to address myself to that question. I shall confine myself to this Amendment and I would suggest to the noble Marquess that there is an old legal principle which says: "If you include one thing you by implication exclude others." It seems to me that if you include Runnymede only among the things the Crown may not sell there is some sort of suggestion, faint it may be but some sort of suggestion, that you may sell everything else. I am told this power has been in existence since 1820. There are a vast number of other matters in addition to Runnymede in regard to which it would be improper to exercise the power without the full consent of Parliament and after full discussion. I hope the noble Marquess will not press his Amendment. It may be suggested that many other places might be sold which are equally unfit for sale.


Does the noble Marquess wish the Amendment put as it appears on the Paper?



On Question, Amendment negatived.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clauses 3 to 23 agreed to.

LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU moved, after Clause 23, to insert as a new clause:— This Act shall not apply to the New Forest.

The noble Lord said: I raised this point on the Second Reading and the noble Lord in charge of the Bill promised he would look into the question whether "Royal forests" includes the New Forest. If it does, I think he can give me the assurance I asked that the New Forest is excluded from the Bill.

Amendment moved— Page 17, line 21, at end insert a now clause: (". This Act shall not apply to the New Forest").—(Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.)


I think I can give the clearest assurance to my noble friend that the New Forest is a Royal forest and therefore does not come in any sense under the provisions of this Bill. I have taken some pains to ascertain the legal position of Royal forests, and I find that a forest is defined by Manwood's Treatise on the Forest Laws, published in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, as a certain territory or circuit of woody grounds and pastures, known in its bounds and privileges, for the peaceable being and abiding of wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase and warren, to be under the King's protection, for his princely delight, replenished with beasts of venery and chase, and great coverts of vert, for succour of the said beasts, for preservation whereof, there are particulars laws privileges and offices belonging thereunto. Chitty on Crown Prerogatives quotes this definition, and says:— The commencement of forests may be traced to the Norman usurpation which introduced the feudal system, and in consequence thereof the first Kings of the Norman line not only reserved to themselves the sole and exclusive property of the antient forests, but also created others of greater extent, particularly the New Forest in Hampshire. It is clear that the New Forest is, and always has been, a Royal forest and therefore excluded.


I thank the noble Lord for his researches and his discourse. I feel I can go back to the New Forest and assure my friends there that they are in no way imperilled. I will withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

Schedule agreed to.


It will be for the convenience of the House if I do not move my Amendment to the title at this stage but on Third Reading.

Bill reported without amendment.