HL Deb 08 June 1964 vol 258 cc708-14

4.23 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the land transactions of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, and their colleges, are at present governed by the Universities and College Estates Act, 1925. Under that Act they must obtain the consent of the Minister of Agriculture for many of these transactions, and it is the principal object of the present Bill to avoid that necessity, and to free these bodies from a control which is neither necessary nor desired, and to which our other universities have never been subject.

It may help if I state very briefly how the present position arose. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Parliament passed certain Ecclesiastical Leases Acts in order to deal with a practice that had arisen during the religious troubles of the time—the practice of taking a high premium for a long lease at a low rent. These Acts, commonly known as the Elizabethan Disabling Acts, imposed, inter alia, severe restrictions on the freedom of all colleges to dispose of their land and property.

By legislation, now consolidated in the Universities and College Estates Act, 1925 (which I shall call the 1925 Act), Parliament has enabled the colleges in these universities largely to overcome the restrictions imposed by the Elizabethan Disabling Statutes. The 1925 Act also enables these colleges and the three universities, which are not themselves subject to the Elizabethan Disabling Acts, to overcome in their land transactions possible restrictions in their charters, or lack of powers. The exercise of the powers given under the 1925 Act is, in most cases, subject to the consent of the Minister of Agriculture. He is the successor in title of the Copy hold Commissioners, later the Land Commissioners, mentioned in earlier Acts. Under the 1925 Act, the Minister also holds the capital monies arising from these land transactions. The present Bill will enable these universities and their colleges to undertake most land transactions without the Minister's supervision, and to administer the capital themselves.

The origin of the Bill may be traced to the Nathan Report on Charitable Trusts and the White Paper that followed it in July, 1955. The Government then said that there should be discussions with the universities and colleges to find out whether it was necessary to retain the powers of supervision over investment and land transactions exercised under the 1925 Act. These discussions have been held, and all concerned, including the Minister, have agreed that the control is no longer required.

I should perhaps mention one other matter. The present Bill does not affect the position of the colleges of Winchester and Eton. The Elizabethan Disabling Statutes apply to these colleges as they apply to the colleges in the three universities, and Winchester and Eton are both included in the colleges to which the 1925 Act applies. In exercising their powers under the 1925 Act, Winchester and Eton will therefore remain subject to the Minister's supervision. It will be recalled that they are exempted from the provisions of the Charities Act, 1960 by inclusion in the Second Schedule to that Act, and that other endowed schools are subject to the supervision of the Minister of Education. In these circumstances, neither Winchester nor Eton wishes to object to its exclusion from the present Bill.

My Lords, this Bill carries a stage further the process, begun in the nineteenth century, of enabling these ancient universities and their colleges to deal with their land in a manner suited to the conditions of to-day. I trust that the Bill will receive your Lordships' support, and I commend it to the House. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

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

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, not only for having introduced this Bill but for the way in which he has explained it to us. Many of us were mystified by the control which has been exercised over so many years—centuries—by the Minister (not always the same Minister, but Ministers under different names), and we were puzzled to know the origin of it and why it has so long continued. The noble Lord has given us the origin of it: he has not explained why it has been allowed to continue so long. But, at any rate, we are very glad to be rid of it now. I think he used the term "most of the restrictions" when speaking of their being got rid of under this Bill. I wonder whether, when he comes to reply, he can tell us what restrictions are still left; because, if there are any, one will want to know why the last remaining restrictions should not be dealt with in this Bill while we are about it. Otherwise it would appear, on the law of averages, that it might take another forty years before we get rid of them, and I am all in favour of making a clean sweep if that is feasible.

I am also interested to hear that these restrictions do not apply to any other university. Therefore, all that are left appear to be Winchester and Eton. They are in a class by themselves, and I imagine it may be, since they do not want to be relieved of the restrictions, that they feel there is some glory in coming under the supervision of the Minister. At any rate, they are not included in the Bill, and I would not press that they should be.


My Lords, I think they would be most happy to be included; but they understand their exclusion, for the reasons I gave.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, in a day when we are always complaining about the restrictions that the Government put on individuals, it is interesting to see a process of de-restriction. Our ancestors, in certain ways, were much less trusted by the "grandmother" State than we are to-day. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of this Motion. His own college, which I understand is only "deemed to be a college", the college of Christ Church, will also benefit in the same way as Magdalen and all the other places that really are colleges. It is curious that Eton and Winchester remain unaffected by the Bill, and I am wondering whether it would not have been simpler to transfer them to the Ministry of Education or whatever body should properly deal with them. But I think the answer to my noble friend is that this is the simplest way of dealing with a fairly complicated problem on which a good deal of time has been spent and in which at one time it was thought simpler merely to repeal certain earlier Acts of Parliament. This is the easiest way to do it and it is one On which I am sure the House will be united.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, as a Fellow of a Cambridge college I must declare an interest in this matter. In view of the very clear exposition given to us by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Conesford, of this complicated matter it is not necessary for me to add anything. But I should like to say that I have observed for many years the working of the system of restrictions described by the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, and I can assure your Lordships that if these restrictions are removed that will greatly facilitate the work of the bursars of the colleges who administer their estates. In conclusion, I should like to assure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Conesford, that the bursars of the Cambridge colleges will be very grateful to him for the amount of care and time he has devoted to the production of this rather complicated Bill.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Conesford has spoken with his accustomed skill and clarity in outlining the purpose of this Bill. I will not detain your Lordships longer than is necessary to say how pleased I am to be able to welcome this measure on behalf of the Government. Nearly four centuries have gone by since the Elizabethan Disabling Statutes restricted the powers of colleges to deal in land, and of course this legislation is quite out of tune with the present times. Over the years Parliament has conferred enabling powers which allow the older foundations to carry out land transactions. Many of these powers can already be exercised without any ministerial supervision, and the Bill is simply a logical extension of this process.

As your Lordships have heard, all those concerned are in agreement with the Bill. I am glad to confirm that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be pleased to relinquish almost completely the task of supervising these transactions, and I join the noble Lord in commending the Bill to your Lordships' approval.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank all noble Lords who have taken part, and briefly answer the only questions put to me? The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, understood me correctly when I said that many of the restrictions, but not all, have been removed. I think that the position is this: that the only functions under the 1925 Act which the Minister will retain will be certain limited powers exercisable only on application by a university or college to authorise transactions outside the ordinary run of the enabling provisions. All ordinary transactions under those provisions the colleges and universities can effect without the Minister's consent. I can give greater details hereafter, but I do not have detailed descriptions—


My Lords, I do not expect the noble Lord to let me have them. If certain restrictions are to continue, ought they not to be clearly stated in the Bill? Or can we refer to the noble Lord's speech one day and find out what they are? I take it that the Bill can be amended to make clear what are the restrictions that still remain.


My Lords, I think it will be easier at a later stage; but it can be seen in the provisions of the Bill itself and the Schedules that we are striking out certain words of the 1925 Act. There may be some provisions in that Act where we are not striking out the words "with the consent of the Minister" and the like. That is how I think it arises, but I shall be happy to look into that in greater detail and have a word with the noble Lord. Of course, it is not quite the case, as he assumed, that the Elizabethan Disabling Statutes have bound the colleges and universities for all this period; for from 1858 onwards there have been these relieving Acts which are now consolidated in the Act of 1925 to which I referred.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, had a little bit of fun about the definition of Christ Church. It may interest him to know that it is necessary to have a definition in the Statute because Christ Church, unlike any other college in either university, is a cathedral as well as a college. That is why these words, which are identical with the words now appearing in Section 1 of the 1925 Act, appear again in this Bill. Speaking as a Christ Church man, perhaps I may say that the only point, I think, on which the definition could be challenged is that it says shall be deemed to be a college in the University of Oxford instead of be deemed to be the college in the University of Oxford". But I thank him for the speech he made, and I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord McNair, for welcoming the Bill on behalf of Cambridge University and the Cambridge colleges.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I think it is not his fault but, if I remember rightly. Christ Church was in fact founded by a Magdalen man. I am sorry that he got it wrong.

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