HL Deb 13 June 1939 vol 113 cc439-48

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

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, in moving that the House do resolve itself into Committee on this Bill, I may remind your Lordships that the Bill has already been submitted to and examined by a strong Select Committee which, under the Chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Romer, has made material alterations in it. These Amendments are intended to remove, and I hope and believe have removed, the objections and anxieties which were expressed by some of your Lordships on the Second Reading of the Bill. Undoubtedly the Bill in its present form is in some ways much improved, and should be of greater assistance when application is made to the Court. In addition to that, I think it is true to say that the interests of the remainder man have now been wholly and fully safeguarded. But I think I ought to say that in the opinion of the National Trust it is doubtful whether so many great houses will come to the State from the Bill in its amended form as would have come under the Bill as it was originally drafted. Nevertheless, in view of the difficulty of obtaining legislation of this character and the congested condition of Parliamentary business, the National Trust have decided to proceed with the amended Bill, believing that it is worth their while to do so even if a certain number of entailed estates fail to be saved from the inevitable destruction which will be their fate if their owners are either unwilling or unable to take advantage of this Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Viscount Esher.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF ONSLOW in the Chair.]

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, as one who moved the original rejection of this Bill, I should like to take this opportunity of thanking my friend the noble Marquess, Lord Zetland, and his society for the Amendments which were proposed to the Select Committee and which have now been very largely embodied in the Bill. My colleagues and I feel that the greater part of our objections to the Bill have now been met, and I regret that more of my colleagues are not here with us to-day to express their thanks; but no doubt they are treading pastures which perhaps will not be required to come under the good offices of the National Trust.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, as one who took a certain part in the course which was followed by your Lordships, and was very dissatisfied, as I explained to the House, with the Bill as it was presented on the first occasion, I think perhaps I ought to say a few words now. In particular I ought to say them having very carefully examined the amended Bill as it comes from the Select Committee and is now in your Lordships' hands. That Bill removes, I think, practically all the objections which I voiced before your Lordships in reference to the Bill as it was originally framed. In particular I may mention, without going into details, first, the large alterations that have been made with reference to the lease by the National Trust, which is to replace in the hands of trustees of the settlement the mansion house and grounds and certain lands occupied and enjoyed therewith; and, secondly, the provisions that are to be found in Clause 7 of the Bill with regard to the various matters to which the Court is to have regard in considering an application to approve the proposed transaction. I need not go into any detail on that matter, because I see here my noble and learned friend Lord Romer, the Chairman of the Select Committee, who no doubt will explain to your Lordships any material point in the measure as it now exists to which your Lordships' attention should be drawn.

I will only say one thing more, and that is with reference to the position of the trustees under the Bill if the Bills turned into an Act, because I know that that is a matter which has exercised the minds of some of your Lordships. I apprehend that if a trustee is asked to assent to the proposed transactions, and if his powers are not abruptly taken away from him by a request from some person who is sui juris not to consent to the transaction, that trustee is quite at liberty to say: "The question is one of such difficulty that I am unable to consent, and accordingly I shall take the course of leaving the matter to the Court" That is the only addition that I have to make to the few words which I have addressed to your Lordships. So far as I am concerned, I think the measure is one which your Lordships would do well to accept.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, it has been intimated to me that it might be of assistance to your Lordships if I explained, as shortly as may be, the Amendments that have been made in this Bill, since it received the Second Reading in your Lordships' House, by the Select Committee over which I had the privilege of presiding as Chairman. The greater part of the Amendments which were introduced in the Select Committee are Amendments of a drafting nature, or Amendments of a merely explanatory character. The vital Amendments are really comparatively few in number. In fact I think I may say that there is only one vital Amendment, and that will be found in Clause 5 of the Bill.

Before referring to Clause 5 I would call your Lordships' attention to the fact that under Clause 3 a tenant for life under a setttlement is given power to grant, gratuitously or otherwise, to the National Trust the principal mansion house on the settled land, and any lands occupied or enjoyed for the purposes of agriculture sport or afforestation the acquisition of which in the opinion of the Council is necessary or desirable for preserving the amenities of the principal mansion house. … Those lands are for convenience referred to in the Bill now as "the amenity lands." Everyone knows that the National Trust is not in a position to purchase all those old country houses which it would desire to acquire, and there is no doubt that although Clause 3, subsection (1), says a tenant for life may grant, gratuitously or otherwise, the mansion house and amenity lands, he will in fact grant them gratuitously. An owner in fee simple, an absolute owner, can, of course, do what he likes with his property; but a tenant for life of settled lands cannot defeat the interests of those who are to come after him, and therefore cannot give away settled land without receiving anything as compenstion. The compensation that is to be received by those who come after the tenant for life is the lease, which is referred to in Clause 4, paragraph (c). That will be a lease for a number of years, the number of which will be determined by the Court or trustees, without whose consent this transaction cannot take place.

The number of years will necessarily depend very largely upon the nature of the settlement. As a matter of fact, where a man is absolutely entitled to what has been settled land, but there is still remaining charged upon the settled land a jointure for his wife or, probably, his mother, or portions for his brothers, that land is settled land, and the owner, subject to the jointure and the portions, is a tenant for life; that is to say, he has the powers of a tenant for life. In a case like that, if the Court or trustees come to the conclusion that the jointure and the portions are adequately secured by the rest of the settled estates, the length of the lease which will be granted under Clause 4 may be a very short one. On the other hand, suppose that you have a case like this; a tenant for life, with remainder after his death to his first son in tail, subject however again to a jointure which will arise on the death of the tenant for life in favour of the tenant for life's wife, and subject also to portions for the younger brothers of the tenant in tail. In such a case as that the lease must necessarily be a long one.

Now the lease might be of such a length that it would be substantially as valuable as the mansion house and amenity lands with which the tenant for life has parted. It will not be quite so valuable, for reasons that I will indicate in a moment, but the intention of the Bill is that there shall be handed over to the National Trust, for preservation for the benefit of the nation, the mansion house and the amenity lands, and there shall be substituted as part of the settled property this lease which will be granted by the National Trust to the tenant for life for the benefit of himself and the others entitled under the settlement. In the Bill in the form in which it received a Second Reading at your Lordships' hands there was a provision which entitled the National Trust immediately after the death of the tenant for life to determine that lease. I venture to say that with that provision in the Bill no trustee who was alive to the responsibilities of his office, and no Court would possibly sanction the transaction, because in the case that I have referred to the lease would be worth nothing, the tenant in tail would receive nothing, there would be nothing on which the portions were to be secured or the jointure would be secured to represent the mansion house and the amenity lands which had been granted away to the National Trust. So it seemed good to the Select Committee to delete that provision altogether.

One can well understand why the National Trust wished to have that power of determining the lease. It was not with any intention in fact of determining the lease, because the idea no doubt was that, the lease having been determined, the tenant in tail would be allowed to continue in occupation of the house, and after him his son, and so forth. Because, as one well knows, the object of the National Trust under the country-house scheme is to preserve, for the benefit and the enjoyment of the nation, not a dead museum, but a house which is being occupied and used as an English home, so that members of the public who go to visit such a beautiful place will see it in its proper setting. But nevertheless, when the Court has to act on behalf of an infant, or a trustee has to act on behalf of a tenant in tail, and of those entitled to portions, it would be impossible to sanction a scheme under which the lease would become of no value whatsoever.

That provision being deleted from the Bill, further Amendments were obviously necessary as regards what was to be in the lease, and therefore your Lordships will find that Clause 5, Clause 6 and Clause 7 have been considerably altered with a view to ensuring that the lease should not get into the hands of persons whom the National Trust think undesirable. Because if the lease is not put an end to, the lease will be a valuable one at the death of the tenant for life, and the lease will then become subject to Death Duties, and if necessary the lease may have to be sold by the tenant in tail for the purpose of raising the Death Duties. But nevertheless the mansion house and the amenity lands will remain the property for ever of the National Trust, and through the National Trust of the nation, and the lease will contain covenants by the lessee not to use the mansion house otherwise than as a private dwelling-house, and not so to use the amenity lands as to destroy the object with which they are acquired by the National Trust. Those are, I think, the only substantial Amendments that have been made. We have struck out that power of determining the lease. On the other hand, we have directed that there shall be inserted in the lease covenants which will protect the National Trust.

I only want to say this in conclusion. Your Lordships will find set out in the Bill (I think it is in Clause 7) considerations which are to actuate the Court, and the same considerations are to actuate the trustees in giving their consent or withholding their consent to the disposition by the tenant for life of the mansion house in the way proposed. One of the things that the Court can take into consideration is the value to the other settled land of the preservation of tins mansion house and its amenities, and that is, I think, a consideration which very often will weigh, and in the end may be the determining factor when the matter comes before the Court, or before the trustee. The lease, as I say, will not be quite so valuable, even though it is a very long one, as the fee simple, because of these restrictive covenants—the covenant, which was in the Bill before, to allow the public to visit the mansion house on such days as the National Lust think proper, and the covenant not to use the mansion house except for the purpose of a dwelling-house, and not to develop the amenity lands in such a way as to prevent them from being amenity lands. The lease therefore will not be quite so valuable as the fee simple in the mansion house with which the tenant for life has parted.

On the other hard, as I say, in some cases the difference in the value will be almost negligible. If and when it occurs to those who are concerned with such matters that the preservation of these beautiful old houses is of far greater value to the nation than the comparatively small sum that is paid on them in respect of Death Duties—I say comparatively having regard, of course, to the enormous sums which flow into the Exchequer—I sincerely hope that these leases that are granted under this Bill to the tenant for life in exchange for the mansion house will be free from Estate Duty, or will, at any rate, be subject only to a very much reduced Estate Duty. If and when that is done I have no doubt that trustees and the Court will have no hesitation whatsoever in granting sanction to transactions proposed to be carried out by a tenant for life under this Bill. Unless that is done I fear that in some cases the discrepancy between the value of the freehold in the mansion house and amenity lands and the value of the lease will be so great that the Court and the trustees will have some difficulty in giving their consent. There it; a subsection inserted in Clause 6 which says that: Paragraph (a) of Section 97 of the Settled Land Act 1925 shall apply to any consent given by the trustees of the settlement under paragraph (a) of Section 4 of this Act. In case that is not quite clear to all your Lordships I would add that Section 97 (a) of the Settled Land Act, 1925, says that the trustees of the settlement, or any of them, are not liable for giving any consent. That, I hope, will calm the fears of some of your Lordships who occupy the position of trustees under settlements and are called upon to give a consent under this Bill.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, I have only one word to say on a point of order. I hope that your Lordships will not think I am taking too great a responsibility in the matter, but perhaps, as I am now growing very old, I may be allowed to say how very disorderly this discussion has been. It is quite possible to dispense with all your Lordships' rules by general consent, but it would be really a little more regular if the thing had been carried out in a rather different way. When the noble Lord desired to raise this discussion, which is a very proper discussion, he should, if he will allow me respectfully to say so, have done so while the Lord Chancellor was still on the Woolsack. The proper opportunity for his speech was when the Question was put, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee. Upon that the whole discussion would have been completely in order, and a very useful stage in our proceedings would have been used. That stage no longer prevails in another House of Parliament, but here we have the power, upon the Motion to go into Committee, to have a general discussion on what is going to take place in Committee. As a matter of fact, your Lordships, thinking no doubt of other things, inadvertently allowed that opportunity to pass. When my noble friend the Chairman of Committees took the Chair no Question was put, and the whole of this discussion has taken place without any Question put, which, as your Lordships will agree, is not strictly regular. I hope I shall be forgiven for having pointed this out so that perhaps it may not recur.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I was going to call your Lordships' attention to the fact, which has just been brought to your Lordships' notice by the noble Marquess, that we are having a very interesting discussion without any Motion before the Committee at all. That is, of course, entirely out of order; but in view of the fact that several speeches have already been made I may perhaps just say a very few words on the subject of the discussion. I should like first of all to express my gratitude once more to the noble Earl, the Chairman of Committees, for having devised a procedure as a result of which the Bill, which was in grave danger of being defeated on the Second Reading, has now emerged for the further consideration of your Lordships in a form in which, so far as I can gather, it meets with universal approval. I should like also to express my appreciation of the action of the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, first of all in refraining from defeating the Bill on Second Reading. In the second place, I should like to thank him for the words of thanks he has expressed to the National Trust and those concerned with the affairs of the National Trust for the agreement they have given to the Amendments which have been made. I do not pretend that the Bill in its present form will be likely to be quite of as much assistance to the National Trust in securing for the nation the settled estates which are dealt with by the Bill as it would have done in its original form, but I fully agree that when you are interfering with such enactments as the Settled Land Acts you must proceed with great caution.

I venture to echo the hope expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Romer, when he said he hoped the time had come when the Government and the public, as represented by Parliament, realising the advantages of securing for the nation these old historic buildings, would be willing to dispense with the high measure of taxation which is at present making their retention impossible, and would at least agree that the leases to which the noble Lord, Lord Romer, referred should be, if not wholly relieved of Estate Duty, at any rate be subject to a very much smaller Estate Duty than is the case at the present time. Only in that event will it prove possible for the National Trust to carry out the full programme of preservation which it set before itself. I must again make my apologies for my contribution to the disorderly conduct of your Lordships' House, but the proceedings had gone so far that perhaps I may be pardoned for making these few observations.

Bill reported without further amendment.