HL Deb 16 January 1984 vol 446 cc904-14

7.29 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Leasing of Somerset House for artistic, cultural or other purposes]:

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 7, leave out ("he thinks fit") and insert ("he considers suitable and reasonable for the use to be made of the leased accommodation").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity of discussing the further stage of this Bill free of the clatter of knives and forks and I am thankful that we avoid the supper break tomorrow.

I approach this stage of the Bill in a spirit of compromise. Noble Lords will see that I have softened my own approach to some of the features of the Bill. I wish to move first Amendment No. 1, which is at page 1, line 7, to leave out "he thinks fit" and insert he considers suitable and reasonable for the use to be made of the leased accommodation". This is an attempt to get rid of the phrase to which exception was taken by me and by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, at an earlier stage in the Bill: the phrase, "he thinks fit". In fact the noble Lord himself encouraged us in a comment he made at col. 665 of the Official Report of the 20th December to believe that he would think about removing those words from Clause 1(1) and replacing them with an alternative formula. He has not brought forward any change and I hope that will enable him to accept mine.

I know this is a small point but there are some authoritarian phrases in legislation of the past which we should discard. I am sure that this phrase, "as he thinks fit" has a history. I seem to remember that in my early contact with Civil Service papers the phrase might have been, "as he deems fit"—thereby suggesting there is no argument about it. If we rely on the Secretary of State for the Environment to act as he thinks fit then he is open to the question as to whether he has thought at all. In that sense there is one degree more of accountability in the phrase in the Bill than by the use of the antique, "as he deems fit". But I think the phrase in any form should be got rid of, and the words that I propose to insert seem to be appropriate.

I should like to deal with each amendment in turn and not deal with them all in one speech. We may thus be able to dispose of them one by one. That being the case, that is all I have to say on Amendment No. 1. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for the spirit in which he has moved the first of his five amendments. I readily appreciate that he has softened his approach and although he might feel that some of my answers this evening are rather negative, I hope he will feel that I am also rather less abrasive tonight than I was on a previous occasion.

The words, "he thinks fit" are intended to make it clear that the Secretary of State has a complete discretion in relation to the period of the lease. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said that he thought there was a note of arrogance in the phrase. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, found it, "harsh and abrasive".

The noble Lord's amendment, as he has told us, has attempted to soften the wording—and incidentally takes five times as many words in doing so—but it also introduces concepts of suitability and reasonableness in consideration of the period of time for which a lease might be granted. While I accept that the decision would be left with the Secretary of State, it seems to me that the suitability and reasonableness of the use to be made of the accommodation are not the only factors which the Secretary of State may wish to consider. It may well be, for example, that the fabric of this already old building is a factor that he would wish to consider.

To make it absolutely certain that we have chosen this phrase to which the noble Lord takes exception— "as he thinks fit"—we want it to be quite clear that the Secretary of State is not to be bound by previous statutory requirements with reference to the length of leases of Crown land, which phrase of course would include Somerset House. An example of this is to be found in Section 5 of the Crown Lands Act 1702, which stipulates that, the lease of Crown land shall be made for some term or estate not exceeding one and thirty years or three lives or for some term of years determinable upon one, two or three lives. We had a long discussion at previous stages of this Bill on the possibility of extending the lease to something of the order of 100 years. This simply would not be possible under the legislation to which I have just referred. Nevertheless, at the Committee stage, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has reminded us, I undertook to look again at the drafting of the phrase, "as he thinks fit"; but I have not found a succinct alternative. I suggest that the noble Lord's amendment illustrates the kind of difficulty that one runs into once one moves away from clear, simple English.

The phrase, "as he thinks fit" is not uncommon in legislation, I have discovered. Your Lordships would find it if you cared to turn up paragraph (3)(1) of Schedule 9 to the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, which I suggest has served Parliament very well for 12 or 13 years and has been interpreted by a whole number of Secretaries of State from both main political parties. You will also find it in paragraph 2(A) sub-paragraph (2) as set out in paragraph 7 of Schedule 16 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

My last point is that this House surely prides itself on ensuring that this country's legislation is as clear as possible so that the courts can be in as little doubt as possible as to our intentions. Clarity of intention, rather than mere sound, must surely be the touchstone of our judgment in such matters. On this basis—if on neither of the two others—I really cannot commend the amendment to the House.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I was waiting to see what the Minister had to say, hoping that he would either accept my noble friend's amendment or come forward himself with something which was very similar but rather less abrasive than "he thinks fit". The noble Lord the Minister, as my noble friend has pointed out—I am looking at the relevant paragraph—himself used the word, and perhaps rather softer wording might be appropriate—that is, all other things being equal—to the draftsmen or to a court.

It does seem to me that the words my noble friend has now suggested are a great improvement on the amendment that was put forward at Committee stage. I fail to see why the words, he considers suitable and reasonable for the use to be made of the leased accommodation", would cause difficulty, as the Minister said. In the first place, he said that this may not cover the fabric of the building. I submit that it certainly does cover it, because if the fabric of the building needs to dictate the length of the lease, then that comes under the heading of, suitable and reasonable for the use to be made of the leased accommodation". The noble Lord went on to quote the Town and Country Planning Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Those Acts are very much wider and larger Acts and cannot really be compared with the very small Bill that we have in front of us tonight, which deals with a specific building. In the Town and Country Planning Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act, we are dealing with great ranges of buildings, wildlife, the countryside, or whatever it might be. This is a very sensitive area and is dealing with one building. I would have thought it would be quite possible to find an alternative form of words which does not have this rather, so to speak, arrogant and abrasive connotation, even if it is unintentional. It would seem to be more fitting and suitable in a Bill of this sort that it should be spelled out as my noble friend has suggested.

As to the idea that there are another few words, I wish it could be kept in mind on other pieces of legislation. A great deal of legislation would be cut down in a very much more relevant manner. It is important that the phrase "he thinks fit'' should be enlarged in this way, and, by changing from "as determined", which was in the amendment moved by my noble friend in Committee, he has put matters back into the hands of the Secretary of State but has spelled out the reasoning behind his thinking. There is nothing at all wrong with that, and there has been no attempt to erode any of the powers of the Secretary of State. Especially after what the Minister said at Committee stage, I suggest that, if he cannot come to a decision tonight, he should certainly take back the amendment and consider it very seriously for Third Reading.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, at least I suppose I should acknowledge that the noble Lord the Minister has tried. He did do what he said he would do; he would think about it. I am grateful for that. I think that he does himself an injustice in suggesting that he cannot find an alternative which would be more acceptable to those of us who are criticising the present form of words. I am sure that if he were to be set in a test paper, "Find suitable words as an alternative to 'he thinks fit' ", he would reveal how much better an education he has had than I have and would find a suitable alternative. So I am rather suggesting that although he tried, he did not try very hard.

But I take the serious point that some phrases are hallowed by usage. Like phrases in the field of diplomacy, they have been found accident-free, not subject to misunderstanding or not unnecessarily restrictive. I understand that. But I am very sorry that he has not been able to come up with something of his own. That is the disappointment, because I thought that, with the advice he would have, he would find a phrase that was acceptable to the Government.

However, in the circumstances, the kindest thing I can do is to beg leave to withdraw the amendment and to ask the noble Lord to go on trying. He has one more chance to earn full marks in this exercise in the use of words in the English language and I am sure he would like to succeed in that. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Birk for supporting me on this amendment. This is not a frivolous matter and I do not need to underline the fact that we are dealing with a building of very great importance to the appearance and skyline of London and the river. We want to ensure that great care is taken in granting licences to use the building for purposes other than those for which it is used at present. But, with the leave of the House, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 1, line 15, at end insert ("and the retention of the Civil Service Rifles War Memorial on its present site in the courtyard or on an appropriate alternative site accessible to the public").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my second amendment deals with the question of access to the courtyard and to the Civil Service Rifles War Memorial. When we look at the provisions of Clause 1(3), the Conditions seem to be a little permissive. Apart from having regard to the architectural importance of the building, the Secretary of State shall have regard, to the desirability of preserving public access to its courtyard. I wanted to make the right of access more certain and more permanent than simply "desirability". The trouble is that we do not know what might be done with Somerset House under the licence which this Bill will give to the Secretary of State to grant leases for parts of the building other than the so-called Fine Rooms.

I confess that I am not absolutely certain what the right of access to the courtyard is now. I know that the public have been going in and out freely for what is probably a very long time. I thought that the Board of Inland Revenue rather discouraged people from going into the courtyard at one stage, because on the pavement at the central entrance in the Strand they put in big white letters the words "Dead Slow". I thought that was a description of the Board of Inland Revenue, but it appears to be a kind of caution to those who might be entering the courtyard in a vehicle.

Incidentally, I am not entirely happy about the use of the courtyard now, but that is beside the point. That can all be put right, anyway. But I am very keen about the position and the sentiment attaching to the Civil Service Rifles War Memorial, so I have softened my approach to that. I said in an earlier amendment that it should stay where it is. I now say that it should be retained either on its present site in the courtyard, or on an appropriate alternative site accessible to the public.

That, I think, is not an unreasonable condition. It gives the Secetary of State great freedom to do anything with that war memorial except get rid of it or hide it away from public access. I am sure that he would not wish to do either. So long as war memorials are of lasting importance, emotionally and historically, I am sure that that memorial will stay in position somewhere. So maybe I am able to anticipate a more favourable response to this amendment than to the previous one.

In Committee, I made plain my own interest in this war memorial and I do not need to underline it. I think that is all I can say. I am exuding the spirit of compromise at the present moment. I am just seeking a little more accommodation on a Bill which makes a considerable break with the past, traditionally and historically, and in the powers of the Secretary of State, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to my amendment. My Lords, I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I most certainly agree with the thoughts uttered in Committee on the Civil Service Rifles War Memorial, in that this is an artistic monument in its own right. It was designed by Lutyens and erected in 1922. However, it is but one feature of Somerset House and its courtyard. In Committee I said that it was entirely fitting for this memorial to be sited there and that there had been no intention of moving it. I assured your Lordships that the Government's whole aim was to preserve Somerset House in its entirety and that it did not seem appropriate, therefore, to single out this or any other feature for special mention in the Bill. That remains the position.

The noble Lord's amendment, however, goes further than that which he put forward in Committee. The noble Lord said that he has softened his line. I would say that he has wavered it somewhat. In this amendment an "appropriate alternative site ''is mentioned. But this could be anywhere, provided that there was public access. It could be in Hyde Park: it could be in Glasgow; it could be literally anywhere. It seems to me that by including such a reference in the Bill the Government would be signalling a willingness to consider an alternative site. This is presumably the very last thing that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, actually wants. I certainly do not want that to happen. I want the memorial to remain where it is. which is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, wants.

I can assure your Lordships that there is absolutely no intention of moving the war memorial anywhere. It is now a well established feature of the courtyard, to which the public currently has access. It might be helpful if I told the noble Lord. Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that anybody can wander into the courtyard of Somerset House at any time. The Bill makes it quite clear that it is desirable that that state of affairs should continue. However, the management of Somerset House—now the Secretary of State for the Environment—has a paramount need to control the courtyard in connection with access to the building and the maintenance of the building or its courtyard. This may from time to time necessitate the partial or even total exclusion of the public. That is why the Bill obliges the Secretary of State to keep in the forefront of his mind the desirability of permanent access for the public.

Once again, to return to the amendment proper, your Lordships can see the difficulties that can arise when it is sought to be more specific. Once again, I suggest that the preservation of this and of other particular features of Somerset House is most likely to be assured by allowing the Secretary of State discretion within the remit which is given to him in the Bill, which I have just stated. I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, the Minister has put up a very reasonable case. I do not wish to labour the point unnecessarily. Once again the Minister firmly asserted the Government's intention, which will be on the record. If in future anybody feels any doubt about the use of Somerset House, he will be able to refer to it as almost a ministerial assurance, upon which both Parliament and the public can rely. With that I shall have to be satisfied. It may be that with my next amendment one could apply the ultimate safeguard. But we shall come to that in a moment. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 15, at end insert— ("( ) Any lease to be granted under this section shall be laid in draft before both Houses of Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we come now to the question of the licence about which we heard so much in the previous debate. One would not have to lay 2,000 leases, as one would have to lay 2,000 licences under the Telecommunications Bill, so I beg to move the amendment standing in my name. I do not think that to ask that any lease to be granted under this section shall be laid in draft before both Houses of Parliament is asking too much. Documents can be laid before both Houses of Parliament. They are just laid. The Minister criticised my proposal that it should be done by statutory instrument, by inquiring, with a note of asperity in his voice. "What is a statutory instrument, and how could it be used for this purpose? ''Documents are laid.

I remember that when I was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster I was required to lay the accounts of the Duchy before Parliament. And they were. I have looked at our own Order Papers of recent date and have seen references to numerous documents which are laid before Parliament in pursuance of a requirement of section so-and-so of a particular Act of Parliament. It is a statutory duty to lay something before Parliament without indicating that it needs approval or what Parliament should do with it if it does not like it. It is for information. But it is a requirement that Parliament shall be informed. I saw recently that even a draft agreement had had to be laid before both Houses of Parliament. Therefore I should be very interested to know whether this is something that the Government feel they could do.

I imagine that leases for the use of Somerset House would be very few in number and infrequent. We are all agreed, I believe, that no lease of any part of Somerset House would be on a monthly basis or for a term of two years. Parliament would not be troubled unduly by having to look at these draft leases. If there was anything in the draft leases to which Members of the House took exception, it would be possible for them to seek facilities to refer to the matter. These are procedural points upon which the Minister will no doubt have been well informed.

I am just hoping that Parliament would be able to look at something important. I have an uneasy feeling that something important is going to happen to Somerset House. It has recently been said to me, "You don't want the Inland Revenue staff to be in Somerset House for ever and ever. It doesn't comply with modern office requirements in many respects". The noble Lord the Minister has been to have a look at Somerset House. There are some grand rooms in Somerset House and some not such grand rooms; there are dungeons in Somerset House. Before very long the staffs, for all sorts of reasons, may have to be moved out.

There have been considerable additions to the staff of the Inland Revenue who have been housed elsewhere for a very long time. For example, for 30 or 40 years or more the Inland Revenue have been very substantial occupants of Bush House. There are, consequently, considerations of office organisation, efficiency and so forth. The question is: what is going to happen to Somerset House if it is vacated at some future time by reason of the transfer of Inland Revenue and other staffs to more modern accommodation? What is to be its future? Considerable controversy could be aroused as to what should happen to it. It is at that stage that questions would arise as to what was going to be done with the building. There are some buildings in London which, in my opinion, have suffered grievously during the last 50 years. It is no good relying entirely on ministerial discretion, ministerial taste and matters of that kind. What is to he done with architectural and historic buildings is a highly sensitive area of human values.

I hope, therefore, that this request is not an imposition and is not asking Parliament to give too much attention on a particular occasion to what it may feel is not all that important. What help can the noble Lord the Minister give me on this point? I hope he will be able to say something that will give some reassurance. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I, too, hope that the Minister will be able to give the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, something that will reassure him on this point. In Committee, the noble Lord explained that his amendment—which would require a statutory instrument—was designed to alert Parliament to any intention which the Secretary of State might have to grant a lease of any part of Somerset House. I thought then that he accepted my explanation that a statutory instrument was an inappropriate way of securing that objective. Indeed, I received an intimation of that same feeling this evening—but the noble Lord has now put forward this amendment with the same purpose in mind.

I regret that I still do not believe that it would be appropriate to lay a draft lease before Parliament in any form. First, we would have to consider the timing of the matter. If we were to lay a draft before Parliament at an early stage, Parliament might say that insufficient detail was available—particularly about the terms. The amount of time that has been taken up both on Second Reading and on Committee about the terms of the lease for the North Block illustrates the pitfalls which arise from parliamentary consideration of such a matter at an early stage. If, on the other hand, we were to wait until the draft lease was complete and ready for signature, prospective lessees might be deterred from entering possibly long and expensive negotiations by the thought that they could at the end prove to be abortive because of the failure in some way to satisfy one or both Houses.

Secondly, there is the matter of principle. I suggest that it is not for Parliament to serve as a forum for detailed negotiations such as would take place before the granting of the lease—a point on which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, agreed with me at Committee stage. Having said that, the Government acknowledge that the granting of a lease of part of Somerset House may be a matter of public concern. I also fully understand the current concern of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

I therefore give an undertaking that the Government will inform Parliament whenever there is a serious prospect of a lease being granted of a significant part of Somerset House. Your Lordships will recall that the proposal to lease the North Wing for the use by the Court auld Institute was widely publicised long before a start was. made on the drafting of the lease itself. I understand that the possibility of leasing the North Block to the Court auld Institute has been the subject of parliamentary Questions since 7th August 1980—and here we are on 16th January 1984. Furthermore, in November 1983 the Secretary of State announced in an Written Answer in the House of Commons that agreement in principle for such a lease had been reached subject to further agreement on the details of the lease and legislation.

While obviously it is impossible for any one Secretary of State to bind the hands of a future Secretary of State, I can see absolutely no problem in acting in a similar way for any other lease that might be proposed in the future. I hope that that is the kind of assurance which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, is seeking.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

Well, my Lords, it is. I am very grateful to the noble Lord. He has done everything except put it into words in the Bill. I can see that he has had some difficulty about putting words into the Bill. There are times when Ministers ought to put words into a Bill without having their hands restrained by the Civil Service behind them. I know that might be somewhat adventurous from a legislative point of view, but what a change it would be if one could see words in a Bill that one liked to see in a Bill; benign words containing provisions which satisfied the desires of those who were interested in these particular matters.

I will be satisfied with what the noble Lord has said. The assurance he has given is firm enough. I know that under our parliamentary procedures and traditions, one Parliament cannot commit another Parliament, and that one Government cannot commit another—but there is a continuity about our system. Although we are probably reaching a stage at which there might be serious dangers in the discontinuity of parliamentary action over a period of time, which could arise from the peculiarities of our electoral system, on a matter of this kind one can feel that the assurance given by the noble Lord will be remembered, quoted and adhered to in the future by Ministers who may come to deal with the situation that he has described. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

In the Title:

8.6 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 4: Line 3, after ("cultural") insert (", educational").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment seemed to me to be desirable to the Title of the Bill. The words in the Title are, use for artistic, cultural or other purposes". I am a little worried about the words "other purposes" not being linked with artistic or cultural purposes. There could be many "other purposes". I have frivolously described some of the other purposes to which Somerset House could be put. I thought therefore that the word "educational" could be inserted at that point.

Again, this is an attempt to limit the purposes to which this building may be put if it, or any part of it, is leased to somebody else. We are not dealing now with the Fine Rooms, because they are taken care of in Clause 1(2). It is these "other purposes" which worry me. What are these "other purposes"? What does the Bill have in mind? What can imagination suggest for "other purposes"? Surely in dealing with a building such as this, one should be prepared to prescribe the actual purposes.

That has been done in the case of the Fine Rooms; but for other parts we have only "other purposes". It may be that the Minister has in mind that one would not have to worry very much about what the other purposes might be if one was leasing the dungeons, because any old purpose suitable for dungeons would do; that nobody would look to Somerset House and say, "Those are historic dungeons, or artistic dungeons, or cultural dungeons".

Are we going to quarrel about this amendment? I am sure that the Minister cannot be content with the negative role which has been prescribed for him so far this evening. There is nothing much in this amendment except a safeguard. The question is: will he accept it? I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as both Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 reflect the Long Title, I had intended to speak to them together. If perhaps, seeing that this is Report stage, the noble Lord will be prepared to nod, I shall carry on with my plan. But if he would like me to deal with these amendments separately, I will do so.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

Certainly they may be spoken to together, my Lords.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Title of the Bill reflects its contents and the contents of the Bill before you make no reference to "educational" purposes or "similar" purposes to the artistic or cultural ones. Nor does the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, suggest that the body of the Bill be amended in such a way. Therefore, my general point on the two amendments is that they are defective. But even without this I should not like them very much.

The noble Lord is clearly seeking once again to restrict the powers of the Secretary of State, this time by limiting the use of parts of Somerset House, other than the Fine Rooms, to artistic, cultural, educational or other similar purposes. Thus—were he to remedy the defects that I have just mentioned—the Secretary of State would not be able to grant leases for parts of the building to be used as offices, as they are now, by a lessee whose activity did not fall within the defined categories. I think your Lordships can see that this would lead us into some peculiar situations. Furthermore, what are "other similar purposes" to artistic, cultural and educational ones? On the one hand, the noble Lord would seek to tie us down; on the other, he leaves a wide area of uncertainty.

The substance of these points was very seriously considered at some length during the drafting of the Bill, and it is the Government's view that the Bill as drafted offers the most simple solution and one that offers the greatest clarity. I am sure that your Lordships will continue to seek legislation that has these characteristics, and that your Lordships well know how to bring the Secretary of State to account if, in exercising his discretion under the terms of the Bill, he appears too lax.

I should like to make one final point on "educational". The Long Title of the Bill as it is currently before your Lordships makes reference to use for "artistic, cultural or other purposes". I am advised that "other purposes" would include "educational", therefore, certainly that one of the two amendments to which I am speaking really would not be appropriate in this context.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

All right, my Lords, I will not detain the House any longer. I see the problems that the Minister has raised and, again, I can only take comfort from the explanations given by the Minister, which will be on the record for future guidance. I think I shall be content with that.

I hope the House does not think that I have been wasting time on this Bill. It is something which concerns me deeply in more than one way, and I have been anxious to get what safeguards seem to be reasonable for the future of a building of considerable beauty, I think, from certain points of view in the scenery of London. In the circumstances again, I shall be content with the Minister. We are both being very friendly just now. I thank him for what he has said, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

House adjourned at fourteen minutes past eight o'clock.