§ 3.20 p.m.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF HOUSING AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT (LORD KENNET)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Kennet.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD AILWYN in the Chair.]
§ Clause 28 [Power of authorities possessing compulsory purchase powers to make general vesting declarations]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 28 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
This is the clause which proposes to empower local authorities to make general vesting declarations, as the Land Commission was empowered to do last year. Perhaps I should mention that the subsequent Motion standing in my name to leave out Schedule 2 is related to the Motion which I am now moving. I think that the sweeping proposal contained in this clause needs a good deal of justification by the Government. As I understand it, under a general vesting declaration, when 1405 a compulsory purchase order has been confirmed by the Minister the local authority will be entitled to enter on the land concerned and to take full control of it after 28 days. There will be no question of proving title, no question of what is to happen to those who are living on the land already, and everything will pass into the hands of the local authority. Yet the authority will not be required to hurry up and pay for what it is acquiring. These are sweeping powers and they require probing.
When we had the Land Commission Bill before us, it was explained that there was special advantage in a general vesting declaration, because in many instances the Land Commission would not be acquiring the land in order to retain it for its own purposes, but in order to resell it to builders or local authorities or others who were going to do something with it. Quite clearly, the Land Commission could not dispose of land if there was any question about its title to the land. That is why it was put to your Lordships that the general vesting declaration would be advantageous in that it would establish by Statute the Land Commission's title to the land.
But here we come into a very different field. When, for example, a local authority wishes to acquire land compulsorily it is because it desires itself to do something with the land. It is not in the normal case in a hurry to resell that land to somebody else. Therefore, there is not the same pressure of time to establish title to that land. Your Lordships may say that in certain instances it is very urgent that the local authority should get access, but that is already provided for under certain sections of the principal Act, so there is no need for fresh legislation on that score. Your Lordships may also say that it may be impossible to find the owner and that would cause delay. But that, also, is provided for under, I think, the 1965 Act, so no difficulty arises on that score. What the Government are proposing here is a short cut for local authorities, which is not justified by the arguments adduced to defend the legalisation of that short cut in the case of the Land Commission.
I ask your Lordships to address your minds to what may happen here. There may be owner-occupiers living on the 1406 land concerned. A compulsory purchase order is made against their objections and, against their objections, is confirmed by the Minister. If this clause becomes the law the local authority will then be able to enter upon the land 28 days later, those people will no longer have any lawful right to remain in their home, and they will have to hasten to purchase another home. But I look in vain for any provision in this Bill which will ensure that by the end of the 28 days they receive payment from the acquiring authority. They may therefore, after 28 days, not only lose their home but be without any money with which to purchase a new home. This smacks of injustice, and I think we shall want to know from the Government what steps they propose to take to safeguard against risk of injustice arising under this new procedure.
I am anxious to press on with our consideration of the Bill this afternoon, and I do not intend to make long speeches if I can help it. But I hope I have said enough to convince your Lordships that there are serious issues at stake here, and that I am well justified in moving to leave out Clause 28.
§ LORD MITCHISON
The noble Lord has not told the House that this is no new procedure. It was in force at the end of the war and worked, I think, without any grievance and for the public advantage. It is not a question of when the local authority gets into the land. It is a question of a general vesting declaration; that is to say, a question about title to the land. What the clause does, in effect, is to empower the local authority to take a good title itself and to piss on a good title to developers and others who may be concerned.
I cannot see the hardship in this. The local authority ought not to be held up, any more than the Land Commission should be held up, by protracted discussions about legal title. Such discussions may, in effect, prevent the authority using the land itself or giving a good title to others who are going to use the land. That is why the procedure was used after the war, when I think it was in force for three years. This has been included in the powers of the Land Commission. Are we to have the position that the Land Commission has power rapidly to give a 1407 good title to land, while the local authorities themselves may not do so? Noble Lords opposite are, often rightly, solicitous of the position of local authorities, and I should have thought they would be reluctant to allow the Land Commission to have this power, and to oblige them in some cases to use it in lieu of a local authority, just because without this clause the Land Commission could, and the local authority could not, give a good title to the land. It is not a question of entry or kicking people out of their houses. It is a question of general vesting declarations; that is to say, avoiding all the very protracted delay which, in spite of the improvements that have been made to it, our legal system allows to happen, particularly in the case of land taken over from a multiplicity of owners, as this might well be.
I should have thought that this procedure had every advantage. It has been used before; it has been used for good purpose, and I have never heard any serious objection to it. It is possible that those engaged in the profession of the law might feel that they ought to be allowed to have more "run" than this would allow them; and there is a clear case, I should have thought, for allowing the local authorities to proceed with the speed which I feel sure we should all wish them to use in cases of the public good. There is no hardship to anybody that I can see. It was said that there would be a delay in payment. Of course, interest is allowed during the time of any delay. I really cannot see why a power which has already been given to the Land Commission and which has already been used in another connection by authorities since the war should now be denied to local authorities. It seems to me a very short-sighted opposition, if I may respectfully say so.
§ LORD KENNET
I must entirely agree with everything that my noble friend has said about this and I have only one or two other points to add. This power of general vesting declaration for local authorities has been before the electorate at Election time. In the White Paper on the Land Commission, which was published in September, 1965, it was stated that the Government would later on, in subsequent legislation, confer this power on public authorities other than the Land 1408 Commission. So this clause is merely carrying out something which was in a White Paper published before the last General Election. Certain fears have been expressed, not in this House, but in certain quarters outside, about the effect of this general vesting procedure. I think Lord Brooke came close to sharing one of the fears, although not the other. I refer first to the fear that this procedure might be used as a means of short-circuiting the authorisation of compulsory purchase. This, of course, could not be used in that way. The normal procedure whereby the local authority proposes compulsory purchase and then, if anybody objects, there is an appeal to the Minister remains entirely untouched by the vesting declaration procedure.
The second fear was that the procedure could be used as a means of postponing the settlement of compensation. This, I think, was the point that worried Lord Brooke more than the other. As a matter of fact, it appears to me that it should make the prompt payment of compensation easier, for the following reasons. The machinery for dealing with false claims and for recovering sums overpaid as compensation which is introduced along with this vesting declaration procedure will make it possible for payments of compensation to be made before there has been the precise investigation which at the moment always has to precede the payment. So when they are using the vesting declaration procedure the local authority can pay out promptly what they think is the right amount of compensation, and if they find that any mistake has been made they can either get it back or make supplementary payments. In other words, by this very provision they are freed of the necessity to get it exactly right first time, which necessity, of course, always tended to make them delay in payment.
My noble friend said that this principle was precedented in the 1944 Act. This is so. That worked all right, and I think this will, too. Moreover, the principle of this, and much of the detail, is based on the 1962 Act; namely, the expedited completion procedure there, which also dates back to its original introduction in 1944. I think that, by and large, the combination of this means of cutting short protracted legal squabbles, and especially squabbles about ownership, and difficulty in finding owners, and 1409 giving local authorities the same right to a good title as the Land Commission have, coupled with, and never forgetting, the fact that it goes with power given to the local authorities to pay compensation quickly, without thereby landing the public in a possible loss if they got it wrong at the first shot, should work out overall to the public good. Furthermore, I need not remind your Lordships that if local authorities do not think there is a case for using them they will not use them; and if they think that there is a case for using them and their electors find it oppressive that they should, then the electors have the time-honoured remedy.
§ THE MINISTER OF STATE FOR COMMONWEALTH AFFAIRS (LORD SHEPHERD)
I wonder if the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, would permit me to move the adjournment of this debate for a few moments in order to make a Statement. I beg to move that the House do now resume.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.