HL Deb 09 February 1967 vol 279 cc1474-84

3.13 p.m.

LORD KENNET rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (Dissolution) Order 1967 be made in the form of the Draft laid before this House on the 17th of January. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the effect of this Order is to absorb the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources into the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, with the exception of a few functions in respect of Wales and Monmouth shire which go to the Secretary of State for Wales, and functions relating to forestry and the Forestry Commission which are transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The forestry functions came from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1965, and included responsibility for the whole of the Forestry Commission, jointly with the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales.

Certain changes were made in the management structure of the Forestry Commission while it was under the Minister of Land and Natural Resources to enable it to operate as much in the field of marketing and selling timber as in producing it. Certain other responsibilities, which were transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will, on the dissolution of the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, go to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. They are, first responsibility for the Ordnance Survey. The Minister of Land and Natural Resources announced a major expansion in the work of the Ordnance Survey a year ago. The need to bring the large-scale Ordnance maps and plans for the country up to date is urgent, and provision has been made for the completion of this large-scale survey of the built-up areas by next year, and of the smaller towns by about 1970. Plans for the remainder of the country, where there is less development, will all be up to date by about 1980 under this new provision.

The second group of responsibilities in this category—namely, those which have passed from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, and now to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—relate to common land and allotments. The Commons Registration Act 1965 provides for the registration of common land and town and village greens in England and Wales. Registration began last month, and is expected to be complete in 1972. The Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Wales, will be responsible for framing proposals, when facts are established as a result of this registration, for legislation to provide wider facilities for public access and enjoyment, and increase in the productivity of these lands. The functions of the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources in regard to National Parks and to water return to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The Minister of Land and Natural Resources was charged especially with responsibility for the multi-purpose water projects, of which the Morecambe Bay barrage project is one on which the House has recently touched, because of the announcement that a full-scale study was going to be carried out. This is an outstanding example of such multi-purpose projects.

One of the main activities and pre-occupations of the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources during its short existence was the drawing up and passing through of the Land Commission Act. The Land Commission is now in existence, and this was one of the things which made it expedient to have what my right honourable friend the Minister called a "core Ministry"—a small Ministry with few officials who were pulled out of their existing Ministries for a short time in order to carry out certain jobs, of which perhaps the Land Commission was the biggest. The legislation to provide for leasehold enfranchisement, which is another major Bill coming from this Ministry, is already far advanced in its preparation and is to be published shortly.

The integration of the staff of the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources with that of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was announced in May of last year and has been complete for some time now. We are here praying for the dissolution of the Ministry. My right honourable friend the Minister of Land and Natural Resources is to be dissolved as the Minister in charge of a separate Department, but I am glad to say that he is to be precipitated again as a Minister of State under the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

There was criticism when we set up the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources and there is now criticism when we bring it to an end. I think this is to be expected. One would always expect an Opposition to criticise virtually any change either way in the machinery of central Government bureaucracy. We did it when the Party now in Opposition wound up the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, and there have been plenty of other occasions. Governments of all colours are continually starting and winding up Ministries. I think there is no need to be defensive about it; it is right that the central Government bureaucracies should behave rather like those marine organisms which split readily into two in response to a new situation and are combined again into one in response to another new situation which may arise. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (Dissolution) Order 1967 be made in the form of the Draft laid before this House on the 17th of January.—(Lord Kennet.)


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for explaining to us the purpose of this Order which is to dissolve this Ministry. May I assure him straight away that I am not going to behave like a marine organism (or even like a jellyfish, I hope), because I welcome the ending of this Ministry. My only regret is that it cannot take its works away with it. That would really be a good day's work.

However, before the Ministry goes I should like to congratulate it on putting on the Statute Book the Registration of Commons Act. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, would allow me to give credit where credit is due, and to say that this Act was drafted by a Conservative Government. Of course, the water activities to which the Minister refers with regard to the Water Resources Board's multi-purpose projects have been entirely helpful.

So far as the Minister, Mr. Willey, is concerned, I should like to praise him, not like Mark Antony but without Mark Antony's dissimulation, because I believe he has done an admirable job in a particularly difficult Ministry. I have seen a good deal of his work in the world of local authorities, where we have felt that he has been entirely helpful and most patient in dealing with the many difficulties with which these new bodies have had to deal. It seemed to me, looking at the Ministry as a whole, that no Minister could have put a better face on an impossible assignment, and it is bad luck on Mr. Willey that his name should go down to posterity as the Minister responsible for putting the Land Commission Act on the Statute Book. This arouses mirth amongst noble Lords opposite, but I do not believe that this Act will arouse mirth with the people of this country as they come to realise exactly what it means. It cannot but add to the cost and complexity of every land transaction in the future, and I am quite certain that it will attract to itself the maximum of unpopularity. It was said in Whitehall that this was the previous Minister's reason for denying himself the privilege of handling it. As I say, I only wish to-day we were saying the last rites over the Land Commission Act as well as over the Ministry.

Turning to the main purpose of this Order, in November, 1964, the Prime Minister said that there was to be this Ministry, a Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, which was to be responsible "for future policies relating to the availability of land as the community needs it". At that time much was said about the need to separate strategic from tactical planning. I am bound to say that this always seemed complete unreality to me, and some of us said so. This Ministry had an inherent defect in it from the start. A Ministry of Land and Natural Resources which did not have planning powers could never deal effectively with land problems. Of course, as we know, in the tug-of-war between Government Departments, particularly, I imagine, between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Agriculture, to bring this new Ministry into being, this was one of the struggles which was decisively lost by the progenitors of the Bill and won by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and it was not long before the Ministry became known as the "waif of Whitehall". I may say in conclusion on this part of my comments that this was the major purpose of the Ministry when it was set up. It could never succeed, and I am sure that Her Majesty's Government are right to recognise this fact and wind it up now. As I have said, the basic defect is that they did not have the planning powers.

I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, one or two questions about the final winding up. The Order says in paragraph 3(2) that there is to be an additional Minister of State, which increases the total number of Ministers of State from 20 to 21. Does this mean that the Ministerial salary will be continued at £8,500 a year as at present, or is it to be set at some lower level? This Government's record in the creation of Ministers and Ministries must surely constitute a record in the history of this country. To-day there are no less than 112 Ministers and Junior Ministers, and this has to be taken together with the huge growth of the Civil Service in the last couple of years. I saw the figures for the nine months from January to October last year, and there are an additional 17,000 civil servants. All this must be paid for by the taxpayers, and this is at a time when all other incomes are frozen.

I make the point most cogently to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet: is it really right to create a new post of Minister of State in a Ministry which, surely, does not need another Minister of State and which should not have had one in the past? This is no reflection, of course, on the noble Lord. Here in this House he covers an immense range of work. But in the other place the equipment of Minister and Junior Ministers is higher than it has ever been, and I feel that there is a heavy onus on the Government to explain why it is necessary to put this further burden on the taxpayer.

Finally, with regard to the civil servants at this Ministry, could the noble Lords tell us what number they eventually reached, or what their strength is standing at now? And also what economies will be made in the winding up of the Ministry, and to what extent there will be transfers to the other two Ministries? I welcome the Order. I congratulate the noble Lord on bringing it before us and, as I said, I am only sorry it cannot takes its works with it.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, while associating myself with the tributes paid to Mr. Willey personally, I feel that there are so few occasions under this Government for a little light relief that we ought not to allow this Order to go by without observing with interest the creation, with great expectations, of this Ministry, its complete failure ever to obtain the powers that were intended for it, and now finally its early and unregretted demise, unwept, unhonoured and unsung. I am sure we shall all join happily in the Prayer to bring this Ministry to a conclusion. It is just worth recording some of the things said by the Prime Minister and his colleagues at the time when it was set up only two and a quarter years ago. He said on January 25, 1965: We have made the biggest reorganisation of the machinery of Government that has been carried out in peace-time in the last half century. The Minister of Housing and Local Government, not to be behindhand in welcoming this possible but already defeated and almost abortive rival of his, said: We have made more changes in Whitehall in our short time in office than they"— that is the Conservatives— made in 13 years. If the Government go on reversing now what they did only a few months ago they will continue to retain their record.

It was, I think, as a result of advice given by academic professors of planning that the Prime Minister had the bright idea of setting up again a Ministry of Town and Country Planning. That was, I think, essential when it was originally set up, and very distinguished work was done during the time when it was presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. But I have long been convinced that it is impossible for planning to be effectively carried out in this country except by the Department which is responsible for the building of houses, for the provision of water, for the control of the finances of local authorities and for the general rating system. Therefore, I thought it was quite obvious that no separate Ministry of Planning was ever likely to be effective and that there must inevitably be friction and conflict with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. How right I was!

In the early days—I do not think it extended quite to a week—after the Socialist Government came into power there was engaged one of the great battles of Whitehall. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, then Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, was quite convinced that it was hopeless from an administrative point of view, and undesirable, that the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources should have any control over the planning of land; and so then was engaged a great battle.

There are many of these battles in Whitehall. There is a well-known code governing them. The rules of the game provide for ambush, for outflanking, long-range bombardment, trench warfare, attack at dawn, and indeed for hand-to-hand engagement. But, of all these battles at Whitehall, none will be longer remembered than the occasion when the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government defeated the Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office, so that all the responsibilities for the control and use of land originally laid down by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in his Act of 1946, have been retained by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Old Caspar would say, "This was indeed a famous victory". Indeed, I can assure your Lordships that around the fireplace in the drawing room of the Athenæum where Permanent Secretaries assemble after lunch, from one generation to another will be passed down the story of how that most distinguished first lady Permanent Secretary was able to retain within the Ministry of Housing and Local Government these extensive and important responsibilities which it had been intended to transfer to the grandly named Ministry of Land and Natural Resources.

We have heard about tactical and strategic land planning. It was the Prime Minister who drew that distinction, and Mr. Willey, when he was petitioning another place for his own earthly dissolution, talked again about tactical and strategic land planning. After the conflict I have been describing tactical land planning was retained by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. But, with this new reorganisation of Whitehall by the incoming Prime Minister, it should not have been overlooked that a Ministry of Economic Development had been set up, and that they were responsible for strategic planning of land use. So the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources found that, as regards land, they were deprived of the tactical control and were simultaneously deprived of the strategic control.

If they were not going to have any control over land, perhaps they might have some control over water! Perhaps the real purpose was to carry out the nationalisation of water, which has been in the Election Addresses of the Party opposite for a long time. But it was only recently that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, indicated to us that the nationali- sation might not take place during the present Parliament. As a matter of fact, at no time did the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources exercise any effective control over water at all, because once water was in a reservoir or in any way made available for use, it then again came under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. It was only water resources that were under the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources: in other words, water, so long as it was not available was under them; and when it was available it came under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

Now what was to be done? Here were earnest and zealous, imaginative, and I dare say ambitious, Ministers who were most anxious to justify their position and earn their salaries. Of course, there was the Forestry Commission. So the Forestry Commission was taken away from the Ministry of Agriculture and given to this Department. It will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that, after this interval of two and a quarter years, it is now being returned to the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture from which it was originally taken.

Then, of course, there was the Commons Registration Act. That has been put on to the Statute Book. But, as my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford said, it had in fact been drafted in the Ministry of Agriculture while the Conservative Government were in power. I noticed that, when the Prime Minister was explaining what valuable work the Ministry had done, with his usual modesty he did not refer to the Commons Registration Act. But what he did say was that it had done very good work in passing the Land Commission Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, was just a little too modest when he said that it was not the main purpose of this Department to pass and administer the Land Commission Bill, because Mr. Crossman in another place, speaking on March 25, 1965, said: The Ministry of Land and Natural Resources arose to start with out of one simple and practical fact."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons: Vol. 709, col. 941.] He went on to refer to the Land Commission Bill and said: this tremendous measure of reform which, when it is completed, will alter the balance of power in the Government. He said that he was not going to predict what the exact balance of power would be in Whitehall when the Land Commission were in full operation, but he went on to say: but it will be different from to-day, because it is not possible to create a Land Commission without making big changes in the structure of Whitehall. I feel sure that there will be grave apprehension among Ministers and among civil servants now that this Land Commission, with its earthquake-promoting propensities, is on the Statute Book. He continued: It will not be possible to have it all under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government as it was before. That is the basic reason why there are two Ministries. Then he concluded with the remarkable sentence: It is because we have foresight. There were also proposals for leasehold enfranchisement. The Prime Minister said it was so important to have this Department in order that they should prepare these proposals. Well, the preparation of the proposals has now been passed to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. So when we look back upon it we ask ourselves: what, during its two and half years of office, has this Ministry done? It has set up the Land Commission and passed the Land Commission Bill. It has reorganised the Forestry Commission, and returned it to the Department from which it took it. It has appointed a new National Parks Commission. Having said what I have, I think we should all join heartily in the Prayer for its abolition.

I should like to end on a cordial note, by quoting a few memorable lines from our great national poet, which seemed to be strictly applicable to the demise of this Ministry. Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yes, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind.

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to spoil the atmosphere which has been created by one of the jolliest epitaphs for a Government Department I have ever heard from the Opposition Benches. I must congratulate the noble Lord on the vivid panorama of Whitehall gossip with which he regaled us, which only from time to time coincided with what I have been able to observe of its true history. But whether it coincided or not, it was inimitable, and I thank him for it. I am glad to say that several substantial traces of this Ministry are being left behind in different places, in particular the Minister himself who will be fully reintegrated after his translation, wearing another hat.

I am sorry I cannot tell the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, how much the salary is going to be; it has not yet been decided. I commend his diligence in inquiring. We have not 112 Ministers; we have only 110. Attention to detail is always commendable. It is a large number. This Government think that is a good idea. There is much to be said on both sides. It has not been done inadvertently or out of sheer profligacy. It has been an act of policy to have a large number of Ministers; and we think it is paying off in various ways—although this is perhaps not a matter which the House is supposed to be discussing this afternoon. With those, I hope, uncontentious remarks, I will leave this Order.

On Question, Motion agreed to: The said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.