HL Deb 07 June 1973 vol 343 cc190-212

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. The sponsors of this Bill are the East Sussex County Council. My noble friend Lord Gage is a member of that body, as well as being a keen supporter of the Bill. Alas! for him, and for us, he is prevented from being here this afternoon by an engagement of long standing and he has asked me to express apologies to your Lordships. In his absence his mantle rather mysteriously, as is the mysterious way of mantles, has descended upon me, and I apologise. I am not a member of the East Sussex County Council—in fact I live in West Sussex. But I am empowered to speak with the authority of the County Council and the Conservators.

The Ashdown Forest (which is probably well known to many of your Lordships) lies in East Sussex to the extent of about 6½ thousand acres South of East Grinstead—one of the most beautiful and desirable large tracts of open country available to the public in the South of England. It is not comparable in size as a forest in the strict sense of the word —by which I mean being heavily wooded —with its elder brother the New Forest, but it is a varied piece of country with woodlands and open land, and all common land, lying within the manor of Duddleswell in the rural district of Uckfield. The administration of the common is in the hands of a Board of Conservators which up to this moment has been manned partly by local authorities and partly by the Commoners themselves, the local authorities being the East Sussex County Council, who have one vote, and there are five members of the East Grinstead Urban District Council with one vote; and the Cuckfield and Uckfield Rural District Councils have one and three votes, respectively. The lord of the manor has one vote to himself or his nominee, while the elected Commoners have nine. This gives a total number of ten appointed Conservators from the local authorities, including only five on the county council as against nine Commoners.

The Bill proposes to change the constitution of the approved Conservators for various reasons (which I will touch upon lightly) and give them enlarged powers. At this point I find myself in a slight difficulty to know exactly how much I shall say without leaving your Lordships, on the one hand, woefully misinformed, or bored to tears on the other hand. Not by any means for the first time, we have an odd situation in which a Bill is being presented to your Lordships for debate—I am initiating a debate I am conscious of that—on Third Reading but which has not been before your Lordships on the Floor of the House at all. This comes about through a perfectly ordinary but not usual quirk of procedure, in a manner I am about to describe.

The Bill was referred in the ordinary way to a Select Committee —I was a member of that Committee —which in fact never met. There were two Petitions submitted to that Committee—after all it was formed for the purpose of hearing Petitions—but they were withdrawn. The more important of the Petitions was submitted by Uckfield R.D.C. It appears that another body of persons approved heartily of the Uckfield Petition but did not ally themselves with it officially in any way. Then they found that the Uckfield R.D.C. had withdrawn its Petition and they were, in a sense, left out in the cold. The rights or wrongs of that procedure are, so far as I am concerned in connection with the Bill, neither here nor there. They are germane to any particular discussions we may have on the general points of procedure—I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will have an observation or two to make on that point. The fact is that the Bill has arrived at this point without having cleared the last hurdles of controversy. Therefore, it is necessary for me to say something about it, but I propose to say, I think, almost as little as possible; simply to explain what it is it intends to do.

I have explained, with almost extreme brevity, what the position is at present. I now make a comparison with that by explaining what the new Board of Conservators is intended to consist of. There will be nine members of the East Sussex County Council, two of the Uckfield R.D.C., the lord of the manor, as before, and five elected Commoners. This gives the county council an overall majority of one. It therefore has the controlling interest in the affairs of the Conservators, which it did not have before. There are various reasons for this and one of the more compelling is finance. The number of Commoners is about 590, who pay an annual rate, a forest rate, to the Conservators based upon the common rights that they enjoy. That forest rate brings in annually a total of about £1,300. The actual running of the forest costs a good deal more than that and the difference is made up by the local authorities: the county council and Uckfield. The difference that has to be made up at present is about £11,500. This is the burden that falls on the local authorities, and that of course under inflation is increasing year by year, whereas the rates do not.

The proposal under this Bill is that the county council shall become entirely responsible for finding the extra money; the forest rate will continue as before. If that is to be so it is reasonable, I submit that the county council itself should enjoy a measure of control; in fact, should have a majority on the Board of Conservators. That seems to be reasonable, to put it at its lowest. Also, the county council is almost certainly, I would submit, the best authority for administering such a large public amenity, for that is one of the ways in which it should be looked at. Increasing numbers of people come from all over the country, including London, to enjoy the countryside. Much has to be done in the way of conservation for their benefit, for the benefit of the local people and for the benefit of the land as a whole. There is no better authority for that purpose than the county council's with its financial resources, the powers and the general expertise that are always at its disposal. That therefore is the proposal of the Bill. It can be stated in short by saying that the county council will take control and will find most of the money.

Now, they require certain more powers, which I do not propose to go into in any detail, over and above the powers already enjoyed by the Conservators. But there is one particular clause in the Bill which I wish to stress at the very outset. It will probably arise again as we go on. It is Clause 16, at page 10 of the Bill, headed "Duty of Conservators", which says this: It shall he the duty of the Conservators subject to the provisions of this Act at all times as far as possible to regulate and manage the forest so as to protect the existing rights of common upon the forest, to protect the forest from encroachments, and to conserve it as a quiet and natural area of outstanding beauty. My Lords, everything else that comes within the Bill after that comes under the shadow of that particular clause. There have, I have heard, been criticisms levelled against the Bill of what I might describe as, I think, "a nervous kind". Is it right to put all this authority in the hands of the county council? One might almost think from some of the things I have heard, that this was a body of totally irresponsible people who really do not know what they are about and will let the whole place get into trouble. But it should be remembered that they themselves have inserted that clause under which they must operate, and the operative words I think are that they shall: conserve it as a quiet and natural area of outstanding beauty. That clause is followed by one which sets out the general powers of the Conservators. I think it might be reasonable if I were to run rather quickly through these—there are not very many of them. They shall:

  1. " (a) subject to the consent of the lord of the manor, …engage in arboriculture which shall include the planting, felling, cutting and lopping of trees and shrubs, the enclosing of newly planted trees or groups of trees, and the selling and disposing of timber;
  2. (b) to protect any part of the forest and erect fences therefor;
  3. 194
  4. (c)to conserve fauna and flora and (so far as consistent therewith) to improve grazing;
  5. (d) to conserve and maintain those parts of the forest which are of historical, archaeological and physiographical interest;
  6. (e) to provide and maintain vehicles. plant, machinery, apparatus and equipment and buildings required in connection therewith;
  7. (f) to provide and maintain recreational facilities"—
with a particular provision which I shall not bother to read out—which do not involve the erection of new buildings or structures of any kind, the siting of caravans or the provision of camp sites;
  • (g) to make, provide, maintain and extend parking places for vehicles with means of access thereto and sanitary facilities for the convenience of the public;
  • (h) to appoint officers and staff for the purpose of more efficiently and properly carrying out the duties of the Conservators and for the proper regulation and management of the forest and to allow or pay to them such fees or salaries as the Conservators shall think fit."
Those provisions appear to me to be perfectly reasonable and I think your Lordships will probably agree with them. I do not know of any particular opposition that is likely to come to that list of duties or powers.

The criticisms of this Bill are not for me to set forth. They will be put forward, no doubt, by opponents of the Bill. I think probably the best thing I can do is to leave matters just there at this moment; to allow criticisms to come —they will probably come from the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and possibly others—and to do my best later on to dodge or parry such arrows as may be fired at me.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Cork and Orrery.)

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, the last thing I thought was likely to happen to me was to make a speech about Ashdown Forest. It is an area of great beauty which I have passed through and occasionally stopped at on a number of occasions, and I start by declaring no interest other than what I conceive to be the public interest and the interest of those who are affected. I am intervening only because I have, as I studied this Bill and some of the objections that have been raised to it, become more and more concerned that a Bill which in fact contains items of very high controversy among certain people should pass through your Lordships' House without a single word being said in this respect.

Some of the difficulties that we are in spring from our own procedure, and if I have to make criticisms they certainly are not criticisms either of the Lord Chairman of Committees or of those who advise him; nor indeed are they in that sense criticisms of the sponsors of the Bill. The procedure has been followed correctly. The Bill, in fact, if I may correct the noble Earl, has been before the House, because it had a Second Reading—it must have had a Second Reading to have come into this House—and no objections were raised. It then was due to proceed to the Opposed Bill Committee, when Petitions would be made against it. It has been the practice of your Lordships' House in regard to Private Bills that we do not, as a rule, feel competent to deal on the Floor of the House with matters which are better dealt with by a Committee, with evidence put before it in a semi-judicial capacity. When I was Leader of the House, I had on occasion on Third Reading, to intervene to say that the House would be well advised to accept the conclusion that the Committee had come to. I remember one case when the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, was the Chairman of such a Committee. But in this case one of the Petitioners, as the noble Earl fairly said—this, I think, was Uckfield—withdrew their Petition on being satisfied, and no doubt genuinely satisfied, that their concern had been met by suitable Amendments to the Bill. It is true that a section of the Cornmoners—and I must be precise when I speak about the Commoners—were gravely dissatisfied, but it was then too late for them to petition.

My first point—and this is again a procedural point—is that when petitioning against a Bill, in order to give notice to those who are sponsoring the Bill petitions have to be in by a certain time. It is then possible for the sponsors to prepare their arguments and meet the case. But in this case the Petition on which those Commoners who objected to the Bill were replying was withdrawn, and it was then too late for them to petition. They then had no means of making the objections, some of which I believe to be quite serious, and getting them before the Committee. Noble Lords may be aware that an unopposed Bill goes to the Unopposed Bill Committee. Here again I make no criticism of those who have to deal with it, but it is not possible for the Unopposed Bill Commmittee to do very much except to tidy up the Bill. They have no evidence before them—indeed if I may say without disrespect to the Lord Chairman himself, they have no membership of the Committee. It is an onerous task that has been put upon the Lord Chairman, with his admirable legal adviser, to decide what to do. On the occasions when I have spoken to the Lord Chairman I have found him not only immensely courteous but extremely helpful and anxious to please. But the fact is—and I shall seek to show why in a moment—that this is a Bill which raises some fundamental issues which are not of a kind than can satisfactorily be dealt with alone on the Floor of the House on Third Reading. I could have put down Amendments to the Bill, but again on general grounds I would not have said that that was desirable because I should not really know whether there was a valid objection to the Amendment. Therefore I thought it would not be responsible for me to seek to amend the Bill.

Furthermore, we have had concern expressed before in this House, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, that in the consideration of these matters we do not cater adequately for the public interest. Up to a point, the Select Committee will take into account the public interest, but basically it is a process of semi-judicial dispute; and although it may be possible to give instructions to the Select Committee to take into account some aspects of the public interest, none the less I am increasingly concerned, as life gets more complicated and as action in one case impinges upon and affects people possibly far beyond those who actually have a locus to enable them to petition. It is a fact that Commoners are never very popular when it comes to legislation. As the noble Earl, Lord Malmesbury, the Official Verderer of the New Forest, will know, the Commoners are not necessarily the easiest of people to deal with; but they have rights, and those rights ought not lightly to be removed without proper consideration being given to them. It is a fact that whereas we may seek to protect property rights in the sense of possession of land, there is a real danger all the time—and it may come from the public at large as the public move into areas of common land—that the Commoners in a particular area may find their rights diminished and that there will be no compensation.

The fact is that this is a controversial Bill. Under Parliamentary procedure it will go to another place. I have always thought that it was a wasteful procedure that Private Bills should go through the same procedure in both Houses and both go before Select Committees, but I am bound to say that in this case I am thankful that this is the procedure, because it will be possible for this Bill to be petitioned against in another place. That is one reason why I do not propose to advise the House to reject this Bill on Third Reading, although, depending on the answers that we get from the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, I may wish to consider whether the debate ought not to be adjourned or whether the Bill ought not to be sent to a Select Committee.

Turning now to the objections to this Bill, I would point out that it is a fact that the voting rights of Commoners in Ashdown Forest are not based on what might be called an obviously democratic system. In the New Forest, as the noble Earl will know, every Commoner with rights has a single vote. In Ashdown Forest 17 big Commoners with 55 per cent. of the acreage have 55 per cent. of the voting power. That would be all right if they paid proportionately, but they do not. This is a striking example of representation without taxation, because in fact those who hold 55 per cent. of the votes pay only 9 per cent. of the rate, and those who pay 91 per cent. of the rate have only 45 per cent. of the votes. Therefore there is a schism between the 17 big Commoners and the rest.

It is not possible in this Bill to amend the voting right and it is extraordinary to me that a matter of such obvious injustice should not have been put right in a Bill where there is provision with regard to the conduct of the Conservators. Indeed it is not now possible to put it right because it would extend the scope of the Bill, and that would be unparliamentary. I am bound to say, however, that if we let this Bill go to another place the Conservators under the old system would be very well advised—and I understand they have certain proposals—to readjust this matter, as it is crucial to the attitude to the Bill. It is the dominating Conservators, who have 55 per cent. of the votes but who pay only 9 per cent. of the rate, who are supporting the Bill and have come to terms with Sussex County Council, while a large number of the smaller Commoners are opposed to it. I want to make it clear that if Sussex County Council are going to pay the piper I do not object in principle to the idea of their having a minority—although I shall be careful on this point, knowing of the New Forest Bill which we are likely to see in the autumn and which will also raise this controversy. But, as I understand the situation, it is likely that the majority of the Commoners would not have supported this Bill, but they did not have the vote.

Furthermore, we find further tendencies to erode the rights of the Commoners. For instance, Clause 20 gives certain power to the Conservators, who will now be dominated by the County Council—and again there is no reason against it, because the County Council is a democratic body and I regard local Government as democratic and fit to carry these responsibilities. The fact remains, however, that there are local interests of long standing which can be overridden, because not only will the County Council have a majority of the Conservators, as in future the proportion will be 9 to 5, but these Conservators will be able to exchange land outside the Forest—outside the perambulation, or whatever they call it. In fact, I do not think one could apply "perambulation" to Ashdown Forest because it is such an unusual shape. It will be possible for them to exchange land inside the Forest—and perhaps the noble Earl will be able to satisfy me on this question—for land outside, to which common rights would not attach or would be extinguished.

While not wishing to be sentimental about Commoners, we know that in the New Forest they are crucial to the nature of the Forest. It is their animals which very largely make the Forest. Inevitably there is a conflict of interest between those who have certain rights, under which their animals can take in through their mouths herbage from the Forest, and others. I do not know whether they have rights of turbary or what rights they have in Ashdown Forest. They have rights to collect litter. The fact is that a number of animals are depastured in Ashdown Forest—there are no marking fees there —and this may be diminished. There is power within this Bill to diminish it. Furthermore, one of the most extraordinary things is that in addition to having a majority, namely, of nine to five, the appointed Conservators also form the quorum. Under Clause 12 the quorum for a meeting of the Conservators "shall be six appointed Conservators". When it comes to the point, the elected Conservators, even if they move to a democratic system of election, can consistently be outvoted. I find it extraordinary that this provision should be in the Bill.

It is an argument, of course, that if the County Council are going to provide the finance they should have a major say in how it is spent, but since there is also provision in the Bill under which they have to approve the expenditure of the Conservators, it seems to me that this particular matter has been tied up so tightly that, having regard to aspects of the public interest and in terms of equity, this Bill ought to be further examined. On the whole, in these matters I try not to pursue an irresponsible policy and hold up a procedure which is expensive, even though in certain respects it may not be entirely satisfactory. I am bound to say, however, that I think we ought to look at this matter again. The Brooke Committee are looking at procedure on delegated legislation, and the definition of public interest in Private Bill legislation is one which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who wrestled with the Brighton Marina Bill, will know is of great difficulty. I hope, therefore, that the noble Earl will be able to satisfy me that when this Bill goes to another place and when it is, as I understand it will be, petitioned against, the County Council will not just dismiss these arguments as being essentially arguments of backwoods Commoners but as arguments on a matter which is of great importance to them psychologically. For that reason I do not propose to advise the House to divide against the Bill, but I do not think that a Bill of this importance which involves great concern among some of the Com- moners—no doubt people will think they are being unreasonable—should leave this House without some voice being raised to put their case before your Lordships.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, all the advice that has been given to me is that the system under which the Forest would now be managed is a very much better one and more in the public interest than the old system. The conservation, protection and enhancement of the Forest is very much advanced by this Bill. That advice has come to me in two parts: part of it has been largely amenity advice. I do not speak for amenity societies, but I have taken the trouble to find out what the Council for the Protection of Rural England feel; what the Commons and Open Spaces and Footpaths people feel; what the Ramblers' Association feels; and indeed about what the Nature Conservancy feels. All of them without exception are satisfied that this Bill is in the public interest and will promote the conservation of the Forest.

Secondly, the advice I have tried to get is whether those interests of property rights—which is what the Commoners' rights are—are in any way damaged. I understand from both the National Farmers' Union and the Landowners' Association, that this is not so and that those rights of property which the Commoners enjoy are in no way spoilt or diminished. It would be a very great pity if this Bill, which, as I say, all the advice I have been able to get suggests is a very good Bill, should fall down. The noble Lord has assured us that it will not fall down in this House, but that it should fall down anywhere merely because of constitutional difficulties with regard to the procedure of Private Bills is really what the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, amount to. He has suggested that it is a matter of high controversy. I do not believe that this is a matter of high controversy and I shall try to show why. All his arguments revolve around the difficulties which confront any Petitioner in any Private Bill, just as much in this Bill as in any other. First of all, those Commoners who feel that they have not been treated fairly are in fact about 2 per cent. of the 583 Commoners. And of that 2 per cent. none, I think I may say, is among the 20 per cent. of Commoners who still exercise their rights of common. The rights of common are mostly those of grazing but certain ones of turbary, estovers and all the other things like it. The noble Lord mentioned the collecting of bedding—heather, bracken and so on. Only some 20 per cent. of the Commoners still use those rights and of the 20 per cent. none is among the 2 per cent. of dissidents—if I may so call them.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord where he gets that figure of 2 per cent, from?


My Lords, I got my figures from the Sussex County Council and if they are open to question, no doubt the noble Lord will follow that say, first, that the voting is unfair and figures have been given to me in good faith, and I accept them. It is not a very difficult matter to check up. There are 583 Commoners and it is known who they all are and exactly what their views are. Those dissidents—if I may put it that way—could perfectly well have petitioned in the first place. They did not. They could have petitioned either on their own account or with the Uckfield District Council and when Uckfield withdrew they need not themselves have withdrawn. It would not have been altogether fair to say that it has been impossible for them to have petitioned at all.

May I go on to this question of voting rights? It is a false analogy to suggest that the system of voting rights here is undemocratic. The idea of one man—one vote which has been put forward by some of the dissidents is an unreal one. These are not analogous to a man with his rights in society having one vote. They are the votes attributable to the rights of property which certain individuals have. It seems to me that it would be not unreasonable that those votes should be exercised in accordance with what property a man has. May I go on from there to say that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, is quite wrong in suggesting that there is no provision to amend those voting rights. May I have the ear of the noble Lord, because I am challenging one of his statements?


I apologise.


I am challenging his statement that it is not possible to amend those rights. It is possible to amend those rights, and dissident Commoners have been informed by a letter which I have before me, dated May 25, reminding them of the provisions which are available to them. If the noble Lord would like to have the letter from which I am quoting. I will pass it along the Bench to him.


My Lords, since I shall have no right of reply, as this is a Third Reading, may I say that the noble Lord is being quite unfair. I never said that there was no possibility of amending the voting rights. I said they ought to have been amended in this Bill; it is not now possible to do it in the Bill, and there ought to have been provision. I am well aware of the proposals, and, if the system is so undemocratic, I am surprised that they are now proposing a more democratic system.


My Lords, if I misunderstood the noble Lord, I withdraw that remark entirely. But I must stick to my point, that it has always been possible for the system of voting laid down in 1887 to be changed if it had been so wished. The noble Lord then took up the point as to rates charged. Here again, I think the noble Lord has got his figures wrong. As I understand it, the forest rates could by analogy be described as a subscription paid by those Commoners in relation to what their rights are. Again, if you look at the figures, you do not get the proposition which the noble Lord suggested; namely, that 90 per cent. of the rate is borne by 45 per cent. of the actual Commoners; you get a quite different picture. You get a picture in which the rate is borne in proportion by those who can afford to hear it in so far as it is assessed upon their rights. So far from this being a striking example of taxation with representation, it seems to me exactly the other way round. Does the noble Lord want to intervene?


I am afraid I must, my Lords. I did not say" taxation with representation"; I said "representation without taxation". The noble Lord is not listening as carefully as usual. Does he question the figures I gave, which I repeat again, that 17 Commoners have 50 per cent. of the votes even though they pay only 9 per cent. of the rate? If he wishes me to give the figures, in fact the 17 Commoners with the majority of the voting pay £119, whereas the other larger number of Commoners with 45 per cent. of the acreage in fact pay £1,080. I do not see how one can get round those figures, but the noble Lord can go on trying.


I have those figures before me, as the noble Lord has.


I can read them out.


I could have read them out just as well. What I said was that they give a wholly false picture of what the rate is. I am saying it is not a matter of high controversy in that some people's rights have been ridden over roughshod; I am saying it is a total misunderstanding of the state of affairs to say, firstly, that the voting is unfair and cannot be changed; and, secondly, that the rate is unfair and is being borne in the wrong proportions. This is a picture which does not emerge from my reading of the figures. What I am saying is that there are 2 per cent.—and I stick to this figure—of the dissident Commoners who are dissatisfied with the state of affairs. They have been singularly unwilling to co-operate with the county council, with the other Commoners; and, that being so, I think it would be quite unfair to say that if the voting had been put on a fairer basis, or on a basis that they wished it to be on, the majority of the Commoners would not have borne with the Bill. I do not believe that to be the case. I am saying that all the amenity bodies and those bodies concerned with rights of property are satisfied that it is a sensible Bill in the public interest for the advancement of the beauties and attractions of Ashdown Forest. I think it would be a great pity to let it fall down because of the misunderstanding of the noble Lord as to the rights of the Commoners in this respect, tied to what clearly are difficulties with regard to our procedure on Private Bills. I hope that what I have said will go some way towards convincing noble Lords that the controversy here is not, as the noble Lord suggests between one body of Commoners and another, but is really a controversy which revolves around the difficulties of Private Bill proceedings, and as such is in no small measure irrelevant to this Bill.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask whether he can tell us how the voting power of the Commoners can be changed?


My Lords, I offered to pass the letter which has been sent to the Commoners along the Bench. May I do so now?


I have already got it.


Perhaps the noble Lord would pass it to his noble friend.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord have thought it possibly worth while doing it in the Bill, since now it is going to be done?


My Lords, I do not think that is necessarily a reasonable question for me to answer. I am not the Promoter of the Bill. If in the first place the Commoners had felt that the old system of 1887 was unfair, it was perfectly possible for them to have said so during negotiations for the complete change, was it not?


My Lords, it is a deathbed repentance.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition was kind enough to give me notice the day before yesterday that in the course of his remarks this afternoon he might make some reference to the procedure of the Unopposed Bills Committee and possibly to the proceedings of this Committee on the Committee stage of the Ashdown Forest Bill; and, of course, he mentioned the Third Reading, but this does not concern me because it is the responsibility of the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery. Out of courtesy to the noble Lord opposite, and in the hope of giving him an even fuller reply than he will get when the noble Earl. Lord Cork and Orrery, deals with the merits of the Bill, I thought I ought to say a few words about the procedure of the Unopposed Bills Committee—which is perhaps all the more desirable because it is a procedure that is unfamiliar, I think, to many noble Lords, and which I sometimes find rather difficult myself—and also a word or two about the proceedings of the Unopposed Bills Committee on this Bill.

May I say first of all, taking your Lordships back to the Second Reading of Private Bills, that when the House decides to give a Private Bill a Second Reading it does not, of course, decide on the principle of the Bill, as it does in the case of a Public Bill. It merely decides to refer it to a Committee. If no Petition has been deposited against the Bill, as was the case in the Ashdown Forest Bill, it is committed—and here I am quoting the Journals of the House— …to the consideration of the Chairman of Committees and such Lords as think fit to attend ". It is, therefore, an open Committee, and not a Select Committee with a named and limited membership like the great majority of the Committees of your Lordships' House. There have in fact been a few cases where a Peer interested in a particular Bill has joined the Unopposed Bills Committee considering it, but so far as I am aware none has ever taken any part in the proceedings of the Committee.

Normally, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, rightly pointed out, the Committee consists of the Chairman of Committees sitting with his Counsel. May I, speaking especially on behalf of my Counsel, thank the noble Lord for the kind remarks he made about both of us. What the Committee goes on to do, once its work has started, is, first of all, to scrutinise in great detail—and the scrutiny is done in great detail by the Counsel to the Chairman of Committees—the terms of the Bill; and then the comments of the Counsel to the Chairman of Committees, approved by the Chairman of Committees, are sent to the Agents, comments covering both the merits and the form of the clauses of the Bill. The Unopposed Bills Committee, when it considers the Bill, takes up these points with the Agents of the Promoters of the Bill. They appear before the Committee bringing with them any witnesses they may wish to bring. Also, here are, of course, representatives of Government Departments who have sent in reports about the Bill. They are represented at the meeting of the Committee and may speak on their reports and give an opinion on questions or amendments. The Bill, when amended or not amended as the case may be, is reported to the House and is then ready for Third Reading. That is the stage which we have now reached in the Ashdown Forest Bill.

My Lords, may I now say one or two words about the proceedings of the Unopposed Bills Committee on this Bill. I should not like the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, to think—though I do not suppose he does—that the Committee was in any way unconscious of or oblivious to the rights of the Commoners in Ashdown Forest. The Committee was fully aware that it was one of its responsibilities to concern itself with those rights. As the noble Lord has pointed out, the voting system did not come into question because the voting system in the Bill could not be altered without an additional provision. On the other hand, there is an extremely important clause dealing with exchange of land, and this was the clause about which the Committee felt that it should closely question the Promoters about the safeguarding of the rights of the Commoners. The proposal in the clause was to give power to the authorities concerned to exchange land in the Forest, which of course is common land, with land adjacent to the Forest. As the noble Lord is aware, the Forest is a rather peculiar and irregular shape, and it was thought that it might he convenient to exchange certain outlying areas of the Forest for certain areas adjacent to the main part of the Forest which are of course at the moment in private ownerships.

My Lords, we secured and indeed insisted on—and this was at our initiative —an Amendment to this clause to safeguard the rights of the Commoners in the case of any proposed exchange of forest land. Clause 20(3) allows the authorities and an owner with land adjoining the Forest to agree to alter the boundaries of the Forest by exchanges of land. Forest land would thus be exchanged for an equal area of land outside the Forest. At our request, the Promoters inserted an Amendment giving any Commoner the right to object to proposals to exchange land. If objection is made, the exchange may not be effected without a local inquiry. An Amendment was included in Clause 20 which now ensures that Commoners are first of all informed by notice of their right to object before an application is made to the Secretary of State; and, secondly, if any Commoner—this of course includes the large landowning Commoners and the small landowning Commoners—makes an objection, and the objection is not trivial or vexacious, the Secretary of State is bound not to consent to the proposal without a local inquiry. It was our hope that this would safeguard the rights of the Commoners in any proposed exchange of existing common land for land which is not now common land. My Lords, with those few words I hope I may have assisted in giving a fuller reply to the noble Lord than he would otherwise have received.


My Lords, I do not concede it to be any part of my duty or function to remark about the criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, of the procedure in any way at all. It will be dealt with most ably and most properly by the noble Earl, the Lord Chairman.


My Lords, I entirely accept that. I felt that it was appropriate to put before the House the difficulties in procedure and I do not necessarily expect the noble Lord to answer.

4,15 p.m.


My Lord I thought that was the noble Lord's attitude, but it is for me to reply to some of the noble Lord's remarks which I shall do in addition to the most able remarks that have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. With him, I would fix on the words of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton (I do not know that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, actually quoted these words), "a section of the commoners" and then again "a large proportion of small commoners". These are the people on whose behalf the noble Lord speaks and no doubt he knows how many there are. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, said that he is informed that they represent 2 per cent. of the total of Commoners. I have not the same figure in the form of percentage, but I have a numerical figure, and my information is that the number is about twelve individuals out of a total of about 590. The noble Lord challenged that figure with a question, but as he is speaking for these people presumably he knows how many there are, and if he doubts the accuracy of these figures no doubt he will say so. I think this is a very small number, twelve out of 590.

In the matter of voting, I do not know whether or not democracy has anything to do with it. I very much doubt it. However, I do not think the question is particularly relevant. The question is whether or not the existing system is a good one. It is certainly a great deal less undemocratic than that actively antidemocratic method of voting known as a card vote. The question is whether this system of voting is to be continued or not. Provision is made in the Bill for it to be changed, and the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, is that if this provision is made in Schedule 1 to the Bill under the authority of Clause 14 it can be made by a meeting of the Commoners after the Bill has passed into law. The question is whether the Commoners will make the change.

In a letter which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, Commoners have been circularised in this connection, and here I think I am bound to take a leaf out of the book of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, himself by reminding him of the number of times that we have seen him, particularly from this side of the House, look around the House with a bland and charming smile and say, "My Lords, I am astonished". My Lords, I am astonished that the noble Lord himself has been so totally misinformed. He is in touch with people who have this information that I am about to give to your Lordships. What was proposed to all the commoners was that a committee should be set up to discuss the possibility of a new system—and I will say in a moment what this system is.

The dissident (if I may use the word) commoners for whom the noble Lord speaks declined to join this committee, saying that they proposed to petition another place and were advised not to enter into any controversy at the moment. Therefore they let this committee proposal go by default and took no part in it.

The result of this inquiry, by whatever means it was held, was to change the voting structure. At the moment the largest landowner, voting according to his acreage, has no fewer than 500 votes, with the lowest having only one; and, as the noble Lord correctly said, on that basis an extremely small number of Commoners can control the vote of all. The new proposal is that a commoner with less than one acre shall pay 50p, and so on pro rata up the scale in a rather complicated way, which I will not go into, until the top man, who pays £20, gets a voting number of 20. He has 20 votes as against the common man's one—a very considerable reduction from 500; and by these means the voting majority of the large landowner is entirely blotted out.

Why there should not be one man, one vote is another question. This would go far more in time towards extinguishing the votes of the Commoners themselves, because there is a tendency for the number of Commoners to increase. Every time a piece of land is sub-divided and built on—this happens on certain parts of the common, and there is development—then you get a new Commoner with no holding and no rights that he chooses to exercise. He may be a townsman and he may have nothing whatever to do with the Forest at all. One man one vote would produce the effect that the old voter, the countryman, would gradually decrease in number in comparison with the total number of Commoners, and this cannot be in the genuine interest of the Commoners or of the Forest.

What was the reply to this suggestion? The reply was that 305 Commoners replied in favour of the new scheme, which is 51.7 per cent. That is a majority of 51.7 per cent. in spite of the fact that 43 per cent. did not express an opinion at all. Although the numbers are not complete, we have an overwhelming majority already for our proposal for this new scheme. The Commoners in fact stated that they are for it, and they will do so at a meeting which will be convened after the Bill is passed. Those who voted in favour of the new scheme included all the big 17 Commoners except one. That one stood out because he personally was in favour of one man one vote. The dissident Commoners, the group that the noble Lord, Lora Shackleton, represents—


My Loras, If I may interrupt the noble Earl, I wish he would stop saying that I represent anybody. I merely felt that a case needed to be put. I think that the noble Earl is being a little unfair when what seems to me to be a legitimate argument, which had not been heard, is being put forward, as he said, by the "representative of a dissident group". I think that this is an unworthy argument. As he keeps on harping on this 2 per cent., may I say that it was in January that an extraordinary general meeting at which there were 121 Commoners present voted 95 to 26, which actually represents something like 20 per cent. of the number of Commoners, asking the Conservators to withdraw support for the Bill, which they did not do.


My Lords, I apologise if I have described the noble Lord in any way unfairly. There is nothing further from my intention. I merely thought it a convenient method of referring to the people that I thought he did represent. If he does not represent them I take it back and I apologise. May I put it as those on whose behalf he speaks?


My Lords, the noble Earl has been in the House a long time and he knows that nobody in your Lordships' House represents anyone. This is a fundamental point. The noble Earl knows that in this sense we are not representative. Every noble Lord speaks upon his honour individually, and the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, will support me on that.


My Lords, this is too much! I have withdrawn that and said I apologise, but I think that the noble Lord is speaking on behalf of these people. I do not know what they say in regard to these votes, but I am informed that the leader of them —they call themselves "the Commoners' Action Committee" or "the Commoners' Committee", according to which page of their manifesto you read—did not reply. This does not argue a very passionate feeling one way or the other on their behalf. The loathed and despised voting system at present is bound to go. It will be succeeded by one which is approved by an overwhelming majority of the Commoners. And what, I ask myself and everybody else, can be fairer than that?

The noble Lord turned to Clause 20 and the matter of the extinction of common rights. The noble Earl, the Lord Chairman of Committees, referred to this in one respect and I should like to touch on it in another. If I did not misunderstand him, this is the question of whether or not Commoners could find their rights extinguished by finding that the piece of land on which they have rights has been exchanged for a piece of land outside the Common on which they have no rights. The answer is one of law. Common rights are statutory and they cannot be extinguished, so whatever happens about the piece of land the Conservators choose to get rid of, for whatever reason, the common rights of the Commoners will continue, and cannot be extinguished except by an action of Parliament. Therefore, they are safe.

Clause 12 says that a quorum shall be 6 appointed Conservators. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, objected to this on the ground that it confirms in Committee meetings the majority which is already built into the constitution of the Conservators by which the county council has an overall majority. But it does not. It says that the number of appointed Conservators, 6 of whom form a quorum. is 11, and of those 9 only belong to the county council and 2 to the Uckfield Rural District Council. Therefore, this quorum of 6 may consist of 4 county council members and 2 Uckfield R.D.C. members. There may be present at the meeting the lord of the manor and 5 elected Commoners, making 8 members outside the county council to 4 on the county council. In spite of this quorum, the county council might find itself in a minority at any meeting, so I think that there is nothing in that point.

The noble Lord has asked me for assurances. I cannot give any assurances of any kind. I am not authorised to do so, and I do not think that it is reasonable to ask for them. Every opportunity has been given at various stages for persons who disagree with what is proposed to put forward their arguments. Opportunity has been given to them and they have declined to take advantage of it, and I do not see what useful purpose can possibly be served now by interfering with the further progress of this Bill. Whether or not there are constitutional objections to what has happened is another matter, with which I do not concern myself. I do not think that this number of people, whether large or small, has really any grounds for complaint at all, and I shall be very disappointed, and indeed saddened, if the noble Lord persists with his attitude against the Bill on this ground. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.