HL Deb 15 June 1967 vol 283 cc1108-16

7.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The objects of the Bill are simple. Under the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922, arrangements were made whereby cottages could be provided in Ireland for ex-Servicemen of the 1914–18 war. With the erosion of time it has become clear that in order to make sure that the trustees are not inhibited from securing the greatest measure of benefit to those who qualify, additional powers are needed by them.

Subsection (1) enables the Trust to provide these men with accommodation other than cottages. Under the original Act, the trustees could house these men only in cottages. This they did, and to-day the Trust has 1,896 tenants in their cottages on both sides of the Border. Incidentally, 759 of these tenants are widows. The trustees must continue to look after these cottages and tenants as their main concern. But there are still some survivors of the First World War for whom cottages are not available or are not suitable. Cottages built for active young soldiers returning in 1918 and 1919 may not now be the best form of accommodation for men who have grown a great deal older. The Trust need the new power in order to deal with such cases, in so far as they have the funds. Old people's fiats are among the schemes they have in mind, and there will be other ways in which the Trust can assist these men with their accommodation.

Subsection (2) is needed because a number of widows want to buy the cottages which they now occupy as tenants. Hitherto, the Trust have been unable to oblige them since the expiry of the temporary power of sale given by the 1952 Act. Now that, with the passage of time, the waiting list of 1914–18 men has dwindled, the sale of cottages to widow occupants without restriction will be to everybody's advantage. The widows will secure the property for themselves and their families, while the Trust will add the purchase money to the funds they use to look after their remaining tenants, either in the old cottages or in the non-cottage accommodation which the subsection is giving them power to provide. To sum up, this Bill is short; its aims are simple and, I think, beneficial all round. The trustees need it. Their tenants want it. The ex-Service organisations support it. In fact, I can confidently recommend this Bill to your Lordships as a measure that will be welcomed in all quarters. I beg to move.

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

7.24 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, for his explanation of this Bill. But the fact remains that the question of the Irish Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust is a somewhat rare visitor to Parliament, and as it is connected with public funds, it is one of the matters which I think ought occasionally to be debated. Therefore, I hope that the House will bear with me, and the noble Lord will forgive me, if I ask him a few questions about how this is going, other than those to which he has already provided the answers.

The first question that I should like to ask the noble Lord is whether he will be able to make available to Parliament a little more information than is at present available, at any rate to Members of your Lordships' House. When I wished to find the latest accounts of this Trust your Lordships' Library was not able to supply any. I do not say this in any way derogatorily of the Librarian, because he, with the greatest courtesy which he always displays, took me down to the Library of another place. But even that vast reference Library could produce nothing later than the accounts for the year ended March 31, 1958, which have on the front of them: Presented to Parliament by command of Her Majesty. They are, I believe, technically known as an Unprinted Command Paper, and that is the very last piece of information which is available in this building.

Since this is a statutory Trust, I think that we might know a little more about it. I know that the Chairman of this Trust is a gentleman to whom reference has just been made in connection with the previous Bill; in other words, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration himself. But I do not think that anywhere that I have been able to look there is available the names of the other trustees, although I think there are four others, two of them Irish.

Further than that, this seems to me to be a suitable moment to ask how the scheme for this Trust is working out. In 1922, when it was set up, it was a strict Trust, and it was there in order to provide housing for the veterans of the 1914–18 war—if I may use that transatlantic term. In due course it became apparent that amendments were required, and that was the root of the 1952 Act, as it became. That Act enabled the Trust to have wider powers to sell their houses. This was necessary because, by a decision of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Eire in 1933, it was decided that, so far as the cottages South of the Border were concerned, there was no power in the Trust to charge any rent for them. This was because of a mistake in the drafting of Section 3 of the Act of 1922. On the other hand, the courts of Northern Ireland, for reasons which I do not exactly know, decided to the contrary and said that there was power to charge rent.

So the position is that since 1933 there has been no rent charged in Eire, but there has been rent charged in Northern Ireland; and in 1958 the rent that was charged, or at any rate should have been charged, because I think £139 of it was not paid, was £35,462. It is a considerable rent roll, and at that time there were rather more cottages belonging to the Trust than there are now, according to the figures given by the noble Lord to-day. Of course, the result of this was that it was impossible, or very difficult, for the cottages in the South to be maintained because there was no money coming in. So a scheme was put forward and incorporated in the 1952 Act, that these cottages could be sold to the sitting tenants, or to the widows, within a certain length of time, and the money used to build new cottages. I believe this was done because if I again look at the latest accounts which I have, they show that during that year 158 cottages were sold, and that since the purchase scheme started 580 of them in the South had been sold off. I have no record of how many were sold in the North of Ireland and it might be interesting to know that.

How is this going to proceed? First of all, are there plans to go ahead and sell more of these cottages—I believe the noble Lord said that there were—and, if so, what is to be done with the money? Is the Trust going on indefinitely applying the money from these sales to building new accommodation only for those who served in the 1914–18 War and their widows, or is the time now coming—it had not been reached in 1952 but it may have been now, 15 years later—when those soldiers and sailors and, I should have thought, airmen who served in the 1939–45 War might become eligible?

Again, if one looks at the 1958 accounts, there were investments in this Trust amounting to something in the region of £250,000, and I daresay that that could provide quite a number of houses. Also, unless I have read the accounts wrongly, which is very probable, there was in the reserve account something over £200,000. So there is quite a lot of public money involved, or there was at that time, and it would be very interesting for Parliament to know how the trustees propose under this new Bill—and of course I entirely approve of the flexibility which is being given to them in it—to spend the rest of this money. Is the Trust going to be self-liquidating in the end? Is it the intention to sell the houses which are already up and to use the money realised to build new ones?—with the result, no doubt, that less money will be acquired for each old house than it costs to build a new one, so that in due course the fund will run down. Or is it intended that there shall be retained these, to my mind, fairly large reserves for an almost indefinite period? This is the moment, perhaps, when the noble Lord could tell us about this. He said that the waiting list was small. But how many people are there, in fact, still on it, some fifty years from the end of the war concerned, who have still not got cottages under this Trust scheme in either the North or the South of Ireland?

There is one other question I should like to ask the noble Lord. He said that there had been consultations with the organisations representing those who live in these cottages. I should think he means the British Legion in Northern Ireland and in Eire; because it is essential that they who are the main beneficiaries of the Trust should be consulted. But I remember, when I read the debate on the 1952 Bill, seeing that that measure was not introduced without the agreement of the Government of Eire and the Government of Northern Ireland. Have those two Governments been consulted in this case? If so, do they agree with the provisions of this Bill? I think those are some of the relevant question which might be asked. If the noble Lord could give us the answer to them, I am sure it would be very useful. Furthermore, I think it would be even more useful to Members of this House if, before we reach the next stage of the Bill, the noble Lord were in a position to supply some more up-to-date accounts and any other information relating to this Report so that we can study the progress of this scheme.

7.33 p.m.


My Lords I am grateful to the noble Viscount. As regards the question of the accounts, which is the question he raised first, presentation to Parliament before 1958 was made by mistake. These are not public accounts and the law does not require them to be presented to Parliament. Treasury regulations which govern the procedure of the Trust require the trustees (a) to keep proper accounts, (b) to have them audited, and (c) to send a copy each year to the Treasury and to the Secretary of State. This has been regularly done and copies of the most recent accounts, those for the year ending March 31, 1966, I have in my hand. I will show that to the noble Viscount if he would like me to do so.


My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that I am specially privileged in this? I daresay it was presented by mistake; but there is quite a lot of money involved and I think it should not be only myself who has that honour.


My Lords, I think as is the case with the accounts of any charity, any noble Lord or any member of the public who wants to look at the accounts can go to the appropriate Charity commissioner—I am not certain about this; but I think that is the position—and see the accounts of the charity. Charities do not publish their accounts. The noble Viscount knows this. They are available, just as are the shareholdings of a public company. People can go along, pay their shilling or so to see the accounts or the shareholdings, how much each shareholder has, and so on.

The last question the noble Viscount asked is one that I can answer. Both the Government of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland have been consulted. I have here the names of the other four trustees, which will interest the noble Viscount—par- ticularly as some are Members of this House. Three of them are appointed by the Secretary of State. They include the Chairman, Sir Edmund Compton, who, as the noble Viscount knows, is the Parliamentary Commissioner. Then there is Lord Carew, appointed by the Secretary of State and resident in the Republic of Ireland. There is Lord Killanin who is resident in Ireland and appointed, I think, by the Government of Ireland. Then there is Brigadier J. Y. Calwell, appointed by the Northern Ireland Prime Minister and resident in Northern Ireland. There is also the Duke of Westminster, who is resident in Northern Ireland and appointed by the Secretary of State. It may be that I have the particulars of one of those wrong; but I think I am right in saying that Lord Killanin is resident in the Republic of Ireland and is appointed by the Government of the Republic of Ireland. It may interest the noble Viscount to know that they did not think it necessary to come and say, with their own voices, that they agreed to this Bill; but they have all indicated to the Chairman, Sir Edmund Compton, that they are in agreement with the provisions of this Bill and that they hope it gets through without too much trouble or without any trouble at all.

As regards the number of cottages, in the South the original number was 2,709 which has fallen now to 1.064. In the North, the orginal number was 1,315 which has fallen now to 832. The noble Viscount was pretty well right in his explanation of the 1952 Act, so I do not think there is very much point in my mentioning it. As to the position about the 1939–40 war veterans, I may say that that proposal has been raised before and it was turned down on the grounds that this Imperial Trust was set up for those volunteers in the First World War—because there was no conscription at that time in Ireland—who were promised that when they came back from the war they would be given appropriate accommodation as a mark of the country's gratitude for their war service. That was what was done, and that is why I do not think it appropriate that the 1939–45 war veterans should have the same kind of treatment. But that suggestion will be looked into. I am not certain what the position is. You cannot suddenly put a lot of new beneficiaries into this trust without legislation.

Then the noble Viscount came to the important point about the end of the Fund. I had thought of that. It could lead to a great deal of argument, as I think anybody with a political instinct would know. There is nothing urgent about this now. There are plenty of people living and many ex-Servicemen who have not moved into the accommodation provided by the Trust. The position is that, instead of having an argument about all this (if it were likely to lead to argument), it would be much better to get this little Bill through to let the trustees sell to the widows and to use the money from the sales to buy other accommodation for ex-Servicemen who have not been able, through age or infirmity, to use these cottages. That, I think, answers nearly all the points raised by the noble Viscount. If he cares to interrupt me—


My Lords, the noble Lord said that it is a matter of policy that those who served in the 1939–45 war should not be included among the beneficiaries of this Trust. This seems to me to be acceptable only upon two bases: first, that there is still left a fairly large number of those who served in the 1914–18 war or their widows; and, secondly, that the reserves and the total amount of money left in the Trust at this date is unlikely to do more than provide sufficient housing for them which may in due course be sold to them. If, however, the money is being dealt with in such a way that, after satisfying the foreseeable needs of those people, there is still cash in the fund, it seems to me that this particular policy decision may have been premature, and that it might be the thing to do to add the power in this Bill to give the trustees, if they think fit, discretion to include the later war veterans among their beneficiaries.


My Lords, I do not think we can possibly include it in this Bill. A non-controversial Bill of this nature can be drafted, put before Parliament, and passed in a week. Therefore I think that when a policy decision has been taken, that could easily be done. I should imagine that one of the reasons we do not like to tie this to the Republic of Ireland particularly is that the British Government would be holding out an inducement to the subjects of an inde- pendent Republic to fight in the British Army; and as this is an Imperial trust fund I do not think that would be good politics. However, after the interesting debate we have had, I hope your Lordships will agree that the Bill should now be read a second time.

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