HL Deb 23 June 1977 vol 384 cc764-70

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. By way of preamble to what I have to say, may I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, that it is not my intention to carry out a post mortem on Mentmore or even to conduct a memorial service. Nevertheless, inevitably there are inferences to be drawn from what happened on that occasion and, I hope, some lessons to be learnt.

I have not seen Mentmore, so I am not in a position to judge whether the disposal of the house and contents as an entity is or is not a loss to the national heritage. But I would say that at £2 million, or even £3 million, Lord Rosebery's offer was a bargain and, if I may use vulgar parlance, a snip. Until the final balance is struck we shall not know by how much the Rosebery estate is advantaged and the nation disadvantaged by Her Majesty's Government's failure to take up Lord Rosebery's generous offer. I was abroad when the controversy raged and also when your Lordships on 9th March this year, in a memorable debate, debated the matter of the national heritage. But from all I have read and heard, the crux of the dispute is very largely concerned with the use or the non-use of the National Land Fund. Indeed, its very existence is questioned by some. The National Land Fund was described by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, as a piggy-bank, the keys to which were hidden in a whole series of Chinese boxes—a very telling metaphor. The purpose of this Bill is to provide her with the keys.

If you go back into the history of the National Land Fund, your Lordships will recall the very high hopes with which Dr. Dalton inaugurated the Fund. I do not think that Dr. Dalton will go down in history as one of the greatest of our Chancellors of the Exchequer. But whatever his standards were, I can hardly believe that he could have so allowed himself to have the wool pulled over his eyes by his officials as to the nature of the Fund. Whatever Dr. Dalton's dream may have been, the National Land Fund was in fact merely a book-keeping entry; a name for an account on which the Treasury alone had power to draw, and one that was outside the control of Parliament.

Very little was spent out of the Fund and it grew from the original £50 million to £59 million in 1957. In 1953, the Public Accounts Committee in another place reported: It is undesirable in principle that substantial amounts of public money for which there is no foreseeable need should be kept in special funds or accounts outside the direct control of Parliament". Mr. Gladstone would have heartily approved of that sentiment. Accordingly, the Public Accounts Committee recommended the reduction of the Fund, and in 1957 the Fund was reduced from £59 million to £10 million.

There was a Division on that occasion in the House of Commons, and it may interest your Lordships to know that of the 438 who voted in that Division, 50 are presently Members of this House. If it does not interest your Lordships, it might interest the Guinness Book of Records. Of those 50, 29 noble Lords voted "Aye"—that is, for the reduction of the Fund—including myself; 21 noble Lords on the other side then voted "No". I should like to ask any of those noble Lords, if they happen to be present, whether in the ensuing years they made any efforts to have the Fund restored to £50 million, or what they have done to maintain the value of the Fund. The Fund now stands at £17 million, which is worth far less than the £10 million in 1957, and in real terms it is less than the figure in 1974 when the present Government were returned to power.

May I go back to that Public Accounts Committee Report for a moment and quote two phrases. One was that they talked of "substantial sums". You have to see those "substantial sums" against the background of a present public sector borrowing requirement of £9,000 million, which means that the sums can hardly be described as "substantial" in the current day and age. Secondly, they referred to "no foreseeable need" for the Fund. Well, that comment seems incredible today, when we are all aware of the threat that looms over the whole of our national heritage for reasons which are painfully and palpably obvious to all of us.

Yet if one reads the 1957 debate, one is very conscious of the fact that there was no sense of urgency on any side. The most constructive suggestion, if rather remarkable one, made in that debate was that the National Land Fund should be spent on bringing electricity to the National Parks. The most surprising remark was made at col. 790 by a Member of the Labour Party, who said: Is it not the fact that in all the years during which the Fund has been in existence there has been no danger…". I do not think that anyone should have believed those words then or would believe them today. But now the argument rages as to whether or not the Fund exists, and it almost smacks of mediaeval theology. I suppose it really depends on what you mean by "exist". In search of wisdom, I went to the dictionary, where I was told that "existence" means a state of being. So I then looked up "being", which means "existence", so you come back to where you started. But of course the Funds exists. It holds securities. It exists in the sense that a banking account exists. It is a book-keeping entry, as I have said, by which Parliament voted certain monies into an earmarked account outside Parliament's control but under the control of the Treasury to be spent on purposes of the validity and merit of which the Treasury alone is the judge.

The real issue now has become that if the money is spent from the National Land Fund, is it or is it not part of the public sector borrowing requirement. The answer in my view is, Yes, in strict orthodox terms. It is also Yes if the Chancellor of the Exchequer says that it is and treats it as such. But the real question is whether or not it should be treated as part of the public sector borrowing requirement, for what we have now is a Fund the use of which is restricted by controls on public expenditure so that it is least available at the time of greatest need, when the economic and political pressures on Government and governed alike are most likely to result in crises which can only be resolved by use of the Fund. In other words, the Fund is not a contingency fund such as seems to have been Dr. Dalton's intention.

It is this situation which has led to current difficulties such as Mentmore. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, in her frank and fair speech on 9th March, said at col. 1138 of the Official Report: …the expenditure involved, even though reimbursed from the Fund, is still public expenditure. Therefore, it is treated no differently from money spent on schools, housing, hospitals, and the case for it has to be balanced against other claims on the public purse". Then: Mentmore could be purchased only at the price of an equivalent cut in housing and other programmes, and this is the rub". It certainly is. But should it be regarded as such, or should not an exception be made?

The whole National Land Fund, if it was spent in one go tomorrow, must still be seen against the background of the current PSBR of £9,000 million. Would the International Monetary Fund really have jibbed at another £3 million? Of course not. The truth is that it is a matter of political judgment—or, to be more accurate, political pressure. Is it not the inevitable contrast drawn between spending £3 million on a Victorian mansion in Buckinghamshire and the needs of a hospital in someone's constituency? Anyone who has been a Parliamentary candidate or a Member of Parliament knows the kind of questions that are posed and the invidious comparisons which are sometimes, and often, drawn. But anyone who has done that also knows that there are times when these pressures must sometimes be resisted, and it is more easy to do so if the expenditure criticised is done and carried out by an independent authority.

There seems to me also to be a degree of inconsistency in the Government's argument. Her Majesty's Government offered £1 million towards Mentmore, yet last year I understand that no less than £2 million were spent out of the National Land Fund. For the first time in history it spent more than its income. Does this expenditure not equally rank against the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, and have countervailing economies been exacted from the Department's other expenditure to make room for that £2 million?

Is there not another aspect: what is the purpose of restricting the PSBR and public expenditure generally? Surely it is in order to release funds for investment in the private sector, yet after offering £1 million, the noble Baroness appealed to industry and commerce to put up the rest of the money, which in turn of course means funds diverted from investment in industry. There seems a certain confusion of thought.

The truth, in my opinion, is that the present Government machine is not equipped to deal with recurrent crises of this kind. There are two snags. The first is the political and economic pressure on available resources, with which I have tried to deal, and the second is the question of the timing and speed of decision. I do not assign the blame to anyone; the chronology of events concerning Mentmore was too complicated to do that. However, the total delay over reaching a final decision was nothing short of scandalous, but it was also inevitable. We must recognise that Government Departments are handicapped in reaching decisions quickly on such matters; there are so many people to be consulted and so many people involved. How many Departments were involved in the issue of Mentmore? I reckon at least four. We know what happens in Whitehall—the minutes go round and round in a stately minuet while in the outside world time passes very quickly, so we lose these opportunities.

I turn to the Bill itself. The noble Baroness said that the Fund seemed to be rather mythical. This is an attempt to convert myth into reality. I recognise that the Bill is not perfect; it is incomplete and inadequate, but I think its purposes are clear. What I propose is that trustees should be appointed to take over the Fund as it was established in 1946. Clause 2 empowers the trustees, therefore, to acquire and dispose of various properties. I emphasise the word "dispose" because I visualise that we might have a situation, which of course is entirely hypothetical, in which the Government might, in satisfaction of death duties, he offered a house and its contents for, say, £2 million or £3 million. If my Bill became an Act the trustees could without more ado, if they thought fit, acquire it and in due course dispose of furniture and chattels of no great merit. One might even have an auction on the spot with a great auction house promoting it. Who knows—if the word and the thought are not too shocking—they might eventually make a profit, and what a good cause it would be in; to find more funds for helping the national heritage.

Clause 3 deals with the administration of the Fund and here I have offered one or two sops to Cerberus, if I may so describe the Treasury. It limits the amount of capital which the trustees can spend in any one year and the trustees can he ordered to make good any invasion of capital. This would accord over a short period with the general Public Sector Borrowing Requirement of the Treasury.

Clause 4 deals with the appointment and dismissal of trustees. On further consideration, I would make certain changes; I would have had the trustees appointed by the Prime Minister and not by the Secretary of State. I would also have sought to widen the expert knowledge which trustees would have to possess to be appointed to their task; I would have included, for instance, the question of the Nature Conservancy and so on. I am particularly keen on Clause 4(4) which empowers Her Majesty in Council to dismiss the trustees, and I call this the "off with his head" provision.

There it is, a Bill which is short and, I admit, very imperfect. It needs much more expert knowledge than I have to be made adequate. It would be my hope that the Bill would go to a Select Committee which could build on this modest foundation. I appreciate that the Bill is no solution to the problem of preserving our national heritage—only money or lower taxation can do that—but it is I think a step forward which would provide an authority which could act swiftly and which would be immune from pressure. The House should realise that this matter of the preservation of the national heritage remains a very live issue. Even if this Bill does not find favour in the Government's eyes, they should know that another Bill in almost identical terms is being presented in another place backed by Members of all Parties.

This Bill cannot make progress without the help of the Government. If it is not acceptable and if the Government have no alternative proposals, they should face the facts and abolish the National Land Fund, which seems to serve no useful purpose except to mislead and confuse people who cherish the national heritage. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved that the Bill be read 2ª.—(Lord Reigate.)

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed by the Lord Chancellor.