HL Deb 07 June 1984 vol 452 cc828-30

7.20 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bellwin, I beg to move that the Commons amendment be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons amendment be now considered.—(Lord Skelmersdale

On Question, Motion agreed to.


[References are to (Bill 90) as first printed for the Commons] Clause 1, page 1, line 15, leave out ("desirability of preserving") and insert ("preservation or).

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth agree with the Commons in their amendment. Since the Somerset House Bill was last considered by this House one amendment has been made in another place. I therefore seek your Lordships' approval to the Bill as amended. Rather than read out the amendment, I hope it will be helpful if I rephrase Clause 1(3) with the amendment included. It reads: In determining whether, and on what terms. to lease any part of Somerset House the Secretary of State shall have regard to the architectural importance of the building and to the preservation of public access to its courtyard"; rather than the words on the face of the Bill, which refer to, the desirability of preserving public access to its courtyard.".

The one amendment proposed to the Bill by another place concerns, as will now be obvious, public access to the courtyard. Your Lordships may recall that Clause 1(3) as originally drafted required the Secretary of State to have regard to the desirability of preserving public access to the courtyard. The word "desirability" was originally included in the Bill to show that although the Government wish to preserve public access to the courtyard, there could well be circumstances in which it would not be practicable to maintain such access; for example, major stuctural work might be needed on one or more of the wings of the building and to the surface of the courtyard itself. In such cases the Secretary of State has a duty to protect the public from danger, and it might therefore be necessary to restrict access or prevent it altogether for a period. The amendment does not endanger that point of principle.

A number of most useful points have been raised during the various debates on this Bill, both here and in another place. I believe it offers us the opportunity to enhance the protection of our national heritage in the widest sense. I therefore commend the Bill, as amended, to the House and beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in the said amendment.—(Lord Skeltnersdale.)

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I do not intend to oppose the amendment, but it is more cosmetic than substantial. Given the choice I would have preferred the words "desirability of preserving" public access. On my reading of it, "desirability" is more positive and would also allow for the hazards which the Minister has pointed out. Nobody would think, in those circumstances, that access had to be given. This has been precedented in other places and other Acts.

However, it is not worth arguing about. I thank the Minister for his help and co-operation throughout the somewhat lengthy proceedings we have had on the Bill in this House. The promises that he made, which are not on the face of the Bill, have been recorded in Hansard. I hope that in the future a note will be taken of them.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, the Commons amendment seems to be baffling, if nothing else, because the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, seems to think that it slightly weakens the situation and I think that, if anything, it slightly strengthens the situation. I like it my way. I think we are all reasonably contented. I should have thought that, on the whole, it is a good amendment, and the Bill certainly is a very good Bill. We welcome it.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I certainly support the Motion moved by the noble Lord the Minister, but he will forgive me for saying that I have never heard such a spurious explanation in justification of an amendment. I do not recall hearing at any time during the various stages of this Bill about access to the quadrangle at Somerset House being temporarily interfered with by works and reconstruction.

We had considerable debate about this question of the courtyard at Somerset Houe, especially in relation to the war memorial in it. Various amendments were attempted to fortify the claim to access to the courtyard, and especially to the war memorial. I suspected that the reason for the word "desirability" was to avoid a commitment on the part of the Government to keep it for access by the public. I have not had an opportunity of refreshing my mind, but it is pretty clear on this matter. I was worried because I thought that the Government had at the back of their minds the possibility that they might want to erect something different altogether on the site of Somerset House, especially on the Strand side of the building, which might interfere with access to the courtyard. After all, it is a very valuable site. Did I not say that, with a Government who are privatising anything they can lay their hands on, Somerset House was in peril, and that I wished that the Bill should make the safety of Somerset House much more certain?

Of course I support this amendment, because the words inserted in the Bill in another place are stronger than the words in the Bill as it left this House. Therefore, after all the debates we had on this in this House—and they were not inconsiderable having regard to the size, length and in some respects the importance of the Bill—we come back to where we were. When will Ministers learn to have minds of their own and not follow the guidance given on these matters by the staff behind them who want the maximum elbow room for future Ministers to do anything they want on matters which are the subject of legislation? Flexibility is the keynote of all the advice that is given to Ministers on legislation. I have had it; I have been there. It requires firm determination on the part of Ministers to insist on what they want. If this aim of preserving the access to the courtyard at Somerset House was not in the Government's mind, it should have been. They have no ideas, no convictions, and certainly are anxious to avoid any commitment on this matter altogether. I am sorry that, after so much scolding that I had to indulge in during the night, I have to repeat it again this afternoon.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, this short debate exactly proves the difficulty. We have one idea on the wording from the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, another from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and yet a third from the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who does not trust either them or me. I thought this might happen, and I took the trouble to take legal advice on this point. I am advised by lawyers that in law the words make absolutely no difference as amended now from when they were originally on the face of the Bill and as discussed by your Lordships' House. However, the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, feels that it is stronger and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, feels that it is more in keeping with his way of thinking means to me that the public relations value (if one may be allowed to have a public relations value on the face of an Act of Parliament) has made this operation well worth while.

On Question, Motion agreed to.