HL Deb 21 July 1958 vol 211 cc62-7

5.26 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill seeks to amend at several points the Act and the trust deed which at present control the administration of Chequers. As your Lordships know, this historic house has been a source of pleasure and encouragement to successive Prime Ministers over the past forty years. It has been the scene of many historic conferences, and the scene of many momentous decisions, especially during the war years. Your Lordships will, I am sure, wish to join me in expressing once again our appreciation of the great generosity of the late Lord Lee of Fareham, and of Lady Lee, in presenting this beautiful house and its many treasures to be held in trust for the benefit of successive holders of this increasingly arduous office.

With the lapse of time, however, and the great changes which have taken place since 1917, it has become apparent that several of the provisions of the Act and the trust deed which it embodies, although natural and proper at the time when they were drawn up, are no longer appropriate to the present day, and the trustees have found increasing difficulty in carrying out their duties in administering the house and the estate. At the same time, the income from the endowment has long ceased to suffice for the upkeep and maintenance of the property, arid it has been necessary for the Exchequer of late years to assist the trustees with a series of grants in aid. The trustees have therefore decided that they must ask the Government to introduce legislation to allow a relaxation at certain points in the somewhat strict provisions under which they operate; and it is desirable that the Exchequer's grants in aid, which have hitherto rested only upon the authority of the Appropriation Acts of successive years but which will clearly be a permanent requirement, should, in accordance with the general practice, be specifically authorised in a permanent Act of Parliament.

The amending Bill which is now before your Lordships is necessarily a somewhat complex document, comprehensible only by constant reference to the various provisions of the original Act and its Schedule. In essence, however, it has three simple objectives: first, as I have just indicated, to place on a permanent footing the Exchequer assistance to the trustees; secondly, to simplify the administrative procedure of the trustees, mainly by reducing their number, and by relieving from this particular burden a number of eminent people who are much preoccupied by their own heavy duties; and, thirdly, to allow the trustees somewhat greater freedom of action, so as to permit a more efficient and economic administration of the estate while still requiring them to preserve its character as a property and as a suitable country residence for the Prime Minister.

On the first of these three objectives, I need not enlarge. It is provided for in Clause 2 of the Bill. The second matter is dealt with in paragraph 2 of the Schedule. The existing administrative trustees are Lady Lee, the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Minister of Works, the Lord Chief Justice, the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Trust, and the Director of the National Gallery. Your Lordships will appreciate the difficulty, I think, in merely assembling such a formidable body. We desire, therefore, to reduce this body in number, retaining of the existing trustees only Lady Lee and the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Trust. The others will be the Lord Privy Seal, as chairman; a person nominated by the Prime Minister, another nominated by the Minister of Works; and finally, the Public Trustee—six persons in all, in place of ten as at present.

Other provisions in the Bill—namely, paragraphs 11 and 12 of the Schedule—simplify the requirements for the actual conduct of business by the trustees. The third objective is, broadly speaking covered by the remaining provisions of the Bill. The most important is no doubt that contained in paragraph 10 of the Schedule, which gives the administrative trustees, subject to certain restrictions, the powers of a tenant for life under the Settled Land Act, 1925. At present the trustees have practically no power to sell land; they cannot raise loans, and cannot apply capital to effect improvement in the estate, even though the latter is obviously necessary from time to time if the land is to be farmed in an efficient and economic manner.

It is proposed that the trustees should be given powers similar to those available to trustees of any public trust, subject, however, to certain very important qualifications. In the first place, the administrative trustees must always have regard to the need for preserving the character of the property as a suitable country residence for the Prime Minister. They must also refrain from making any avoidable change in the essential character of the house and grounds. Finally, before exercising their powers to sell land, they must obtain the consent of the Prime Minister. Moreover, my honourable and learned friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury gave an express undertaking in another place that the Leader of the Opposition will be consulted whenever there is a major question to be decided affecting the estate or of selling the land. Their power to dispose of chattels, which include many works of art, will be exercisable only with the express concurrence of the Lord Privy Seal, as chairman of the trustees. In other words, even if a majority of the trustees wished to dispose of any chattels, they could not do so without the express consent of the Lord Privy Seal.

I should make it clear, I think, that the trustees have no intention of disposing of any of the works of art or other valuable possessions in the house. They are, however, under the severe disability that, as things now stand, they cannot dispose of objects, even if they are worn out and serve no useful purpose and have no artistic or historical interest whatsoever. A very detailed inventory was drawn up in 1917, and no articles numbered in that inventory can be disposed of in any circumstances whatever. In the light of this, the power to dispose of chattels is no more than is reasonable and necessary. It is, I believe, subject to sufficient qualifications to ensure that it is not unwisely used. I believe that your Lordships will agree that with these safeguards, and bearing in mind the composition of the body of trustees, we need have no hesitation in granting these wider powers to them.

I should add that the trustees have it in mind, if this Bill is approved, to sell to the Forestry Commission some 200 acres of woodland to the east of the house, and provisional arrangements have been made to this end. They also contemplate the sale of certain smaller parcels of land which do not affect the amenities of the house and grounds and the sale of which will render the estate as a whole more manageable. Two of these, in the south west and north west fringes of the estate, will be sold subject to restrictive covenants to ensure that their present character is preserved and that building development will not be permitted.

Finally, in commending the Bill to the favourable consideration of your Lordships, may I say that these proposals have been the subject of consultation with the Opposition, and in their present form embody the views not only of the Government but of the Opposition also. This is only right and proper, I think, as any matter affecting Chequers should be above all Party considerations. The trustees have expressed a strong desire that the new arrangements should be brought into operation at an early date, sine they are faced with certain financial questions which cannot be satisfactorily dealt with in the absence of the new powers proposed. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will be able to agree that the Bill should proceed, and so enable this unique trust to play its important part in our national affairs with greater ease and efficiency. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Mancroft.)

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches desire to do nothing to impede the speedy passage of this Bill to the Statute Book, especially having been informed by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that the terms of the Bill have been substantially agreed by the Government and the Opposition. One can well understand that in all the changing conditions affecting land and property, as well as the value of money, there should be a need for the relaxation of the terms of a rigid trust deed which was drawn up so many years ago. The noble Lord, in his clear exposition of the terms of the Bill, has given the assurance that it is not intended in any way to impair the full exercise, and indeed the full enjoyment, of the original purpose of this Trust. What is sought is greater freedom for a limited number of trustees. We are told in the statement made by the noble Lord that an undertaking has been given that the Prime Minister will consult with the Leader of the Opposition in the case of any question of a sale of any substantial portion of the estate or of any substantial portion of the assets of the estate.

An interesting question occurred to me. Now that the Trust is to be supported out of moneys provided by Parliament, I wonder whether the financial activities of the Trust will come under the review of the Auditor General and be subject to question by the Public Accounts Committee, and whether the trustees will be under obligation to submit a report to Parliament which, like the reports on other nationalised properties, can be debated in another place and in your Lordships' House. Perhaps the noble Lord who is responsible for the Bill can give some indication about these three points. Subject to the answers in that respect, we will do all we can to speed the passage of the Bill.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his friendly reception of the Bill. I think that I can assure him that the public will still have the power of keeping a watchful eye on the finances of the trust. Even though the financial arrangements will be considerably improved by the arrangements proposed in the Bill, it will still be necessary for the taxpayer, via the Exchequer, to supplement the income and expenditure of the trust; and in that way, of necessity, these moneys will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and the taxpayer will be able to see still what is effected by the trust. I am afraid that, as yet, there are no means of making the trust self-supporting.


My Lords, I gather that up to the present the finances have not been subject to Parliamentary supervision—or have they?


Yes, my Lords, in a way they have, because as the Exchequer has had to support the trust, in many respects those sums (they would have to delve fairly carefully into the account to know where they were, no doubt) were technically subject to public scrutiny.


My Lords, I gathered from what the noble Lord said that the funds which had been provided in supplementation of the trust had been provided under the Appropriation Act in a way which was, I will not say illegal, but irregular.


Certainly it was not illegal; and I do not think it was even irregular. It was merely undesirable that this method should continue. It is far better to get it on a more orthodox footing.


Perhaps one could go so far as to say that it was unusual.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.