§ 6.39 p.m.
§ Lord Patten rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the legislation governing the National Trust in England and Wales is in need of modernisation.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am glad of the opportunity to ask this Question about the legislation governing the National Trust, which may seem to some to be in need of some modernisation. Others speaking later in the debate will do so with much greater knowledge and experience than I have. I look forward to their contributions, in particular that of the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, whose distinguished service to the National Trust began as chairman back in 1975, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, whom we welcome back to his place. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, who is answering for the Government, will remember, as I do, that in another place when people came back after a break in service they were referred to, somewhat coarsely, as "retreads". We shall have to find a better word for those who come back into the service of your Lordships' House. I look forward very much to what the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, has to say.
§ I come pretty fresh to the subject. I am a friendly outsider, if you will. To raise any questions about that august body, the National Trust, might seem mildly 425 improper, rather like questioning the purposes of his Holiness the Pope—something that one does not quite do. The original purposes of the National Trust are not only entirely proper, but absolutely laudable, and I applaud them. However, the duties and burdens laid down by statute as long ago as 1907 in a body of legislation growing through five Acts of Parliament, last reviewed more than 30 years ago, may be a challenging load because of the scale of the task that faces the modern National Trust.
§ The distinguished social theorist, the Anglican canon and the London solicitor who set up the National Trust in late Victorian England and our predecessors in this and another place who passed the statute in Edwardian England could not have foreseen what a landed leviathan it was to become. The National Trust has accumulated holdings that no Whig magnate in our House in the 18th century, even after a couple of bottles of port, could have dreamt of accumulating. It has more than 600,000 acres of land, 575 miles of coastline and nearly 250 monuments and buildings, ranging from great baroque palaces to ex-council houses, I am told. I applaud that and the care and taste that go into those houses. I shall not speak about matters of taste or tenantry, which may interest some in your Lordships' House.
§ However, perhaps necessarily, the largest private landowner in England and Wales is largely run from London, though with an army of volunteers to whom I pay tribute. It is unregulated. Some people—not me—say that it is out of touch and remote from time to time. Perhaps that is a matter of the simple scale of the National Trust and how large it is.
§ The present scale and organisation of the National Trust seems inconsistent with the modernising agenda of the Government, with which I have some sympathy from time to time—I do not want to alarm the Government Front Bench. Devolution and local accountability are increasingly part not only of regional rhetoric, but of regional reality. So perhaps it is our fault and that of another place that some key issues have not been addressed, and in particular that legislation does not accommodate reasonable demands for a regional or local voice to be heard within the National Trust, whether that voice is of the paid-up member or simply of the interested or disinterested outsider who might be affected in some way, such as a tenant.
§ That was to be my theme when I discussed the Question with the usual channels a few weeks ago. However, since this Unstarred Question went down on the Order Paper, I have received, by my modest standards, a veritable snowstorm of correspondence and faxes, not only on the regional deficit to which I have just referred and to which I shall turn more fully later, but on a perceived democratic deficit in the electoral affairs of the National Trust, particularly in the use of what one might term the block vote. Some have represented to me that, because of that block vote, the inner circles of the National Trust are becoming a bit too close to a self-perpetuating 426 oligarchy for comfort. I do not know whether that is true; I simply speak as an interested and sympathetic outsider.
§ The disputed system seems to have been a fairly recent invention. It came about only after the report on the constitution of the National Trust by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Oliver of Aylmerton, back in 1993, which I have looked at with some care. The complaint, in brief, is that the National Trust council turns out a list of those standing for election, putting an asterisk next to the names of those whom it favours. If those people do not get enough votes directly cast—a system that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, and I are used to from the many normal, direct democratic elections that we have faced in the past—the block vote is used by the National Trust to get them home and dry even though they do not have a majority of the popular vote as expressed by those present in the hall and those exercising their undoubted and proper right to vote by post.
§ As has been widely reported, that happened at the National Trust annual general meeting in October this year. Some of those standing were clearly elected by the popular vote of those present or using the postal ballot, but, after a second or two of glory, they were then promptly indirectly unelected by the use of the block vote.
§ Kafka could not have made this up. He would have been proud. At the 2000 annual general meeting, a motion against the block voting system was proposed and seconded by two QCs—I do not know them—and supported by 10 silks in all. The motion was supported by a majority of the direct votes of those present and those who had filled in their postal ballots, but then—yes, you have guessed it, my Lords—that vote against the block vote was promptly overturned by the use of the block vote.
§ With respect, the National Trust might like to look at the practices of the National Trust for Scotland, which are wholly democratic. There is no block vote and only votes that are properly accounted for in person or through the postal ballot are taken into account. That strikes me as a thoroughly democratic system—the sort of system that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, and I are used to in general elections when facing the electorate.
On this issue, I have seen correspondence sent to me from Mr Henry Keswick, who is obviously held in great esteem by Her Majesty's Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, wrote to him in September this year in the most generous terms, thanking him for what he had done for the National Gallery over the past 19 years. He has subsequently written to the National Trust chairman over what he sees as these electoral eccentricities or oddities. The chairman wrote back on 10th October to say that the council had decided to see, after the most recent AGM,
whether a review of election procedures was desirable".
In my view it is not just desirable, but urgent. There should be an inquiry conducted by someone entirely independent of the National Trust. If not, I fear that pressure will grow on the Minister and the Government.
§ I conclude on the matter of the regional and local voice where I had intended to begin my speech before I learnt about these troubles in the National Trust. The trust is unregulated. Despite being set up by statute for the benefit of the whole nation and its citizens, not just for paid-up members of the National Trust, there is no one to whom complaints can be made by an aggrieved tenant, for example, save the deciders of those who should or should not get an asterisk—the wielders of the block votes that I have referred to. Perhaps the Minister will give some consideration to the need for greater public transparency and accountability to those who are not necessarily members.
Does the Minister also agree that, just as there might be a case for the council of the National Trust reaching out more to its own members, so the National Trust as a whole might reach out more in a truly inclusive way to people in the regions and localities? There are regional councils of the National Trust, but they are nominated by the centre and there is no local election to them. That seems wrong. Take the recent cause célèbre—some would say scandal—over the Golden Cap estate in the National Trust's care in Dorset. The local Blackmore Vale Magazine reported to me:
Local Trust members are aggrieved at the lack of consultation".
I am told that the story is repeated time and again across the country.
§ That regional democratic deficit can be put right by having proper elections to regional councils, reflecting the devolutionary spirit of the times, or, perhaps more radically—I bet that this will come by the end of the present century, which has some way to go—by going further and breaking up the National Trust into a series of regional trusts. Such trusts for the South West, for the eastern counties, or for the Lakes could be more truly accountable on a range of matters. In its electoral practices and its regional structure, the legislation governing the National Trust is in need of modernisation. I wish it well and I hope that it tackles the task vigorously.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Mallalieu
My Lords, in 1994 the National Trust celebrated its centenary under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, whom I, too, welcome back to this House. I believe that the trust then enjoyed almost universal support as a greatly respected and much loved national institution. It was a shock to me when, not long ago, I attended a meeting of around 200 people in the Midlands. Those people were concerned about the future of the countryside. One of the speakers mentioned the National Trust and, quite spontaneously, from all parts of the hall, which was filled with people whom I would have considered to be the natural supporters of the trust, came hissing and booing.
In the space of a few years, the trust has ceased to be seen as a part of the countryside and has begun to be seen by rather too many as something of a threat to it. All who care for the trust—I count myself as one of them—should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for initiating this debate. In recent years, since 428 1996, the style and direction of the trust's leadership has changed. What has gone wrong—and something has gone very wrong—needs to be debated not only in the carefully orchestrated confines of stage-managed AGMs but publicly and in Parliament.
I declare my interests. I am a long-standing member of the trust and, since 1998, I have been a supporter of the Friends of the National Trust—a group of other members who were as distressed as I was by what was going on. In essence, and if one had to put it in a sentence, the trust appears, perhaps as a result of its own success and its growth, to have stopped listening to locals, to its tenants, to its members and to its volunteers. It has become over-centralised. over-bureaucratic and unresponsive.
Central decision-taking means that the regional committees, which could and should ensure that local requirements are properly reflected in decisions, are effectively powerless. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Oliver of Aylmerton, who carried out the last major review of the trust's constitution in 1993, recommended that those committees should he given greater autonomy. But I can see no sign whatever that that has happened; indeed, the very opposite appears to be true.
There is a problem—the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has referred to it already—in the way in which the National Trust manages its membership and the members' views through the existing voting procedures of the AGM. Quite rightly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Oliver, made it clear that membership resolutions cannot be binding on the council. How could one manage an outfit of the size of the trust if it were run in such a way?
However, he made it clear that he saw the AGM as a way in which, by debate and by members' resolutions, members could seek to influence council decisions. Therefore, he recommended no change to the voting procedures either for the membership of the council—half of which is elected—or for the resolutions. But he cannot have anticipated how the existing provisions would be used under the chairmanship of Mr Charles Nunneley, who took over in 1996.
Mr Nunneley has indicated in correspondence as recently as 11th April 2000 that past chairmen—I am somewhat timorous about saying what past chairmen did because two of them are present—tended to say, when asked, that it was their normal practice to distribute their proxy votes in the same proportion as the votes cast directly by members. But he added,My own experience as Chairman has led me to take a different line from my predecessors".He began to use the proxy votes to support candidates for council whom he preferred and to oppose resolutions which were critical of the way in which his council had dealt with issues.
After many years of pressure, this year at the AGM the numbers of those proxy votes and how they were cast have for the first time been made public. It makes disturbing reading because it is clear that for some time the council has managed to defeat critical resolution after critical resolution. I give one example of the 429 Golden Cap estate, to which reference has already been made. A motion by members critical of the trust's handling of that estate was defeated by 1,500 votes. But when the matter is examined, of the members who cast their votes themselves, 42,000 voted against the council's handling and 19,400 in favour of the council. But by throwing his 24,861 proxy votes behind the council, the chairman was able to defeat his critics. So much for the AGM providing the forum for members' complaints.
Of course, until this year the composition of the council, too, effectively was determined by the chairman because his proxy vote ensures success for any candidates whom he chooses to support. This year, following last year's resolution, to which reference has been made, we are told that the chairman appointed a small sub-committee from his council to interview the candidates and to make recommendations. Those recommendations appeared on the face of the ballot paper that each member received. Over 10,000 discretionary votes were then used by the chairman to secure the election of all the candidates whom the council wanted as fellow members. It is right to say that one of them had come one from bottom in the original poll. So much for the members having the opportunity to choose half of the council by election.
In reality, the council is chosen by the chairman through the small sub-committee that he has set up in the past year. He has chosen the successors of those who, in due course, will have the job of determining who will chair the council. It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation. Examination of what has been going on indicates that one of the greatest charities in our nation deserves a better constitution.
Before the debate began, I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, whether it was to be a debate about hunting. I told her that it was not. However, I must mention hunting because it is a matter that has soured relations between the trust and a considerable section of the rural community, and it continues to do so. In doing that, I declare an interest both as a supporter of the Devon and Somerset Stag Hounds and also as president of the Countryside Alliance.
The debate is not about hunting but it is about breach of trust. The Holnicote estate in Somerset, which I know well, was given to the trust on the clear understanding of the donor, Sir Richard Acland, that stag hunting should continue there until it was outlawed by Parliament. He understood the importance of stag hunting to the local community to which he belonged. He continued to say so until his death in 1990. Over and over again, the excellent director-general of the trust, now Sir Angus Stirling, made it clear in writing and elsewhere that the trust would respect its donor's wishes until and unless Parliament decreed otherwise.
Perhaps there is no time now to go into the history of the matter, but it is a sordid history and there is no other way to describe it. A report was commissioned by Professor Bateson. The hunt's consent and cooperation in obtaining samples for the scientific material was obtained on a promise that the hunt 430 would be shown the draft report before it was presented to the trust and would be given an opportunity to comment. In December 1996, Professor Bateson told the master of the local hounds that she had nothing to fear.
In January 1997 a meeting took place at Cambridge between officials of the trust and Professor Bateson. The details of that meeting have never been published, but its result appears to be that Professor Bateson went back on his undertaking to show the report to the hunt. It was sent to the chairman in March that year. He did not distribute it to his council members until the day before a meeting which had been convened to discuss the report. On the day before that meeting he held a press conference in which he made it clear that he would recommend to his council that a ban on stag hunting should take place.
Since then, of course, much further scientific work has cast the very gravest doubts on some of the most basic findings of that report. But, in relation to a resolution in 1998 asking the trust to reaffirm its commitment to observe donors' wishes, the chairman once again put his proxy vote behind the opposition to that resolution in order to support his own position. There is therefore bitterness.
Whatever one's views of the rights and wrongs of hunting, that matter was handled appallingly. Richard Walker, who had to deal with the matter in the High Court back in 1997, made that clear. The resentment continues, particularly in the West Country, where the trust is now regarded as a bad neighbour. It is regarded not as part of the rural community but as something set apart. I very much hope that the new director-general, Miss Fiona Reynolds, of whom we all have the very highest hopes, will take steps to establish what can be done to put matters right. I fear that the founder of the trust, Octavia Hill, would not be pleased by what has happened during the past six years.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Chorley
My Lords, I hope that I may start on a personal note. It is a pleasure to be back in your Lordships' House—quite unexpectedly, too—not least because of the warm welcome I have received from the police, the Attendants and many noble Lords. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, for their kind remarks. I do, however, feel just a little rusty, although I hope that I am not a retread. I was chairman of the trust from 1991 until 1996, I recently attended its annual general meeting and I keep in touch with it.
When I was thinking about what I should say this evening, I was a little puzzled. I wondered why the noble Lord, Lord Patten, should be interested in the somewhat arcane matter of the National Trust Acts. Even more, I wondered why he should expect the Government to be interested in them. In the event, his agenda was rather different, although not all of it was unexpected.
I want to touch on one of the main thrusts in the noble Lord's interesting speech. He said that the trust should be more regional and should, in effect, be split 431 up—that was his ultimate aim. That, of course, is not a new idea; it has been around for quite a long time. My immediate observations are threefold. First, the trust is a national trust. Its importance and influence are much greater if it is national and not split up into regions. Secondly, important economies of scale can be gained in terms of the expert advice and specialist advisory services that are offered. My third observation involves a more profound problem; that is, the weight of the trust's membership is very largely in the South East, whereas disproportionately much of its expenditure is in the North, the Lake District, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, which are relatively poor in terms of trust income. If there were, for example, a hugely rich and independent south-eastern national trust, I doubt whether it would be frightfully interested in subsidising the Lake District, Northumbria, Wales, Northern Ireland or Cornwall. There is a problem in that regard. The noble Lord may have a point in that a more federal structure might begin to emerge through the new structure which is just about to be introduced.
Incidentally, I say to the noble Baroness that although it is true that my noble and learned friend Lord Oliver suggested that the regions should be strengthened, he was not in favour of elections. I wish that I had time to deal with all of the other points—there were many—in her speech.
I shall try to answer the question that I raised earlier; namely, why is the noble Lord interested in the National Trust Acts? I shall put the question slightly differently. Why does a private charity have to have its own Acts of Parliament? The answer is that the National Trust was founded in 1895 as a company limited by guarantee. That is still a popular vehicle for setting up charities. Later, Parliament gave it the power, which only Parliament can override, to declare land and property inalienable. That required legislation that was provided in the first Act—the 1907 Act. By doing that, the original company-type constitution was, in effect, simply put into the Act. As a result, it includes much of what I should call constitutional housekeeping. To take just one example, it includes in Section 17 provisions for the vacation of office by a council member who fails to attend meetings. That is scarcely the stuff of primary legislation. The legislation is a private Act, and it was last updated, as has already been noted, in 1971. We have a somewhat odd arrangement, which is cumbersome but relatively easy to live with and it would be relatively expensive to change.
If that curiosity had been the main point of the noble Lord's Unstarred Question, I should have been sympathetic. However, I would have reminded him of the wise words of the American mechanic: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".
That is why the trust was set up with its own Act. In all other respects, the trust is subject to charity law, fiscal and otherwise, and is the responsibility of the Charity Commissioner in the same way as any other charity.
432 The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to my noble and learned friend Lord Oliver of Aylmerton. Eight years ago he carried out a comprehensive review of the trust's constitution and his report is the main point of my departure. He devoted considerable length to matters such as voting on resolutions and elections at AGMs. I shall concentrate on that because it was a contentious issue in 1993, and it has evidently become a contentious issue again.
On the question of the chairman's proxy vote—the noble Lord, Lord Patten, called it a block vote—the argument, as the noble Lord rightly said, was that members who gave the chairman their votes without specifying how the chairman should vote put too much power in the chairman's hands. My noble and learned friend commented on that. He said:There is no convincing argument that it could be of any conceivable benefit to the working of the Trust to deprive a substantial part of the membership of the option, which they clearly value, to delegate to another member the decision of an issue on which they are invited to vote".It was the practice then and I believe that it is the practice now, although the noble Baroness obviously does not agree, for the chairman to cast his unmandated votes on resolutions in accordance with council policy and not, except on rare occasions, to use his proxy votes in elections. I very much doubt whether that has changed. On that, my noble and learned friend said:that the Chairman of the day has exercised the judicious use of that power in respect of a handful of individuals over the years is, in my view, perfectly proper and not a ground for criticism".All of that is well known.
Since then there have been procedural changes, which were mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the noble Lord, Lord Patten. I do not want to go over that ground again because I do not have much time. I invite the noble Baroness and the noble Lord to study the Oliver report again. It seems to me that they have not really addressed the arguments of my noble and learned friend. He stated, in paragraph 80 of his report:On balance, I can find no compelling reason which would lead me to recommend that the voting system at general meetings, either on resolutions or on elections, should be substantially altered. Similar criticisms to those raised in the present inquiry appear to be have been raised both at the time of the Benson Review and of the Arkell Review. In neither case was it thought right to recommend any alteration in the system of proxy voting".Both the Benson report—I believe that it was produced in 1968 and that the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, was a member of the relevant body—and the Arkell review touched on the constitution and took exactly the same line.
Neither the noble Lord, Lord Patten, nor, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, can reliably draw conclusions from the figures that the noble Baroness cited regarding recent motions because neither she nor anyone else can know how those who gave the chairman their discretionary vote would have voted if such discretion had not been available. With due respect to the noble Baroness, I do not think that her conclusion is logically valid.
433 I must bring my remarks to a conclusion. I regret that I have not had time to discuss other important constitutional matters—or, indeed, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. I must content myself with a final quotation from the final paragraph of the report of my noble and learned friend Lord Oliver of Aylmerton. He said:it is with administration of a charity that this inquiry has been concerned, and I have heard nothing in the course of it which has persuaded me of the necessity for, or desirability of, any substantial alteration in the basic constitution as it was conceived by the founders of the Trust.Nothing that I have heard today, or during the intervening years, suggests to me that the conclusion is not still valid.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lord Mancroft
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Patten has given us a great opportunity this evening to consider this issue, and we are grateful to him. I must also say what a pleasure it is, as both the other noble Lords who have spoken said, to see the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, in the Chamber this evening and to have the benefit of his experience as chairman of the trust.
I, too, should declare an interest as a member of the National Trust and a supporter of the marvellous work that it does. I have been a member for many years, although, I must admit, not an especially active one. Perhaps I should also declare my interest as a board member of the Countryside Alliance—an organisation that has not always agreed with every one of the trust's decisions but has always recognised and usually supported the trust's role as one of the United Kingdom's largest landowners.
It has become clear to me—I have received this message from many quarters during the past few days—that all is not well with the National Trust. The trust has a vast bank of goodwill on which to draw; but there is a growing feeling—which, I think, led to my noble friend's Question—that the account in that bank is getting a little low.
I perceive problems in two specific areas. The first is the way in which the trust is and is seen to be managed at the top; the second lies in respect of the trust's relation with its tenants, neighbours and supporters in the countryside—as opposed to its supporters who do not live in the countryside.
As someone who sits on the board of a large countryside organisation with a large and occasionally difficult membership, I am well aware of the difficulties of managing such an awkward creature, but I also know that if I were on the council of the National Trust, I would be extremely worried. First and foremost, I know how almost impossible it is to run such an organisation with a council—in other words, a board—that has 52 members. It is a difficult position, and if day-to-day management is delegated to an executive committee, as in the trust's case, that is far smaller but still representative of that board, while some problems are solved, others are multiplied. I do not know whether the size of the council is laid down 434 in the Act—I think that it may be—but until the number on the council is substantially reduced, any management problems are bound to increase.
It was not until I looked in detail at the way the chairman uses his proxy votes to ensure the election of pre-selected candidates, regardless of the votes of the membership, that I realised what a complete mess he has got into, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said. That way of packing the council is completely unsatisfactory, almost as unsatisfactory as are the Government's proposals for this House. I listened carefully to the quotation from the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Oliver, cited by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, but he wrote that report before those activities—that way of managing the council—occurred. The noble and learned Lord would not have written what he did if the council was being managed in that manner at the time. A big change has taken place.
The National Trust is not a campaigning organisation, nor can it operate like one. Some years ago, when the animal rights movement decided to move in on the trust and turn it into a political football, I remember the enormous headache that responding to those circumstances gave the chairman of the day, the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. He spent a lot of time and energy trying to pour oil on troubled waters, and with a mixture of tact and gentle persuasion sought to steer his ship through some tricky waters. Some of the problems that the trust faces today stem from that era, and I would be interested to know, whether, with the benefit of hindsight, the noble Lord would have taken an even more robust line than he did, or whether that was possible.
However, I am certain that the way that the present chairman is leading the trust has exacerbated rather than soothed the situation. In particular, the manner in which the chairman has used proxy votes—what my noble friend Lord Patten referred to as block votes—at AGMs to bolster his own policy decisions and prevent dissent, is a tactic that, while it may be acceptable in a commercial setting, is totally out of place in a charity. The first rule of management in a publicly accountable charity is transparency. That has been lost, and with it a good deal of support.
Of course it is difficult to run a democratic organisation when most members are detached from day-to-day problems, and especially when within the membership are smaller groups of activists focused on their own area of concern. However, the solution is not to avoid the issues and seek to stifle dissent—especially when the price for following that course of action is the alienation of supporters and those with whom the trust works on a daily basis.
The second problem concerns the trust's relationship with its tenants and—although to a much lesser extent—with its neighbours. In preparing for today's debate, I spoke to as many people as I could—in particular to tenants. What I found did not comfort me. Clearly, I could not speak to a representative number, but I spoke to enough of them to realise that the National Trust is a landowner in serious danger of 435 losing the confidence and support of its tenants; in some areas, it has already done so. If that were to continue, it would be catastrophic, and it must not be allowed to happen.
I am fully aware that one of the most difficult things to do is to communicate with large groups of people—be they tenants or members—and that the cost of such communications may be prohibitive, but there is clearly a serious problem of lack of constructive dialogue within the trust itself and between management and tenants. Indeed, my conversations with senior management within the trust were completely at odds with what I learned elsewhere. I do not believe that there is complacency as such, but I suspect that in some areas management simply cannot see the wood for the trees and do not realise that, with respect to their tenants, they are sitting on a time bomb. It may also be that some of the management of the trust are following a policy that everything is all right. If so, they are sorely mistaken, because it is not all right.
The unhappiness of tenants in the West Country on Exmoor is well known—the noble Baroness talked about it a few minutes ago—but it is not isolated. As my noble friend Lord Patten said, a substantial group of members and supporters of the trust in west Dorset proposed a resolution at the last AGM criticising the trust's management in respect of its activities on the Golden Cap estate. I do not know the ins and outs of that issue, but one thing is absolutely clear. The issue, which I am sure is difficult—such issues always are— has been hopelessly mismanaged by the trust.
One swallow does not a summer make, but two swallows and several angry resolutions are too warm for comfort. I have no doubt that each issue can be explained away, but what cannot be explained away is an unpleasant feeling of malaise, which is beginning to surface more than it should. This is not a happy evening for the National Trust; if it is wise, it will take notice. As I said at the outset, I do not know whether the legislation governing the trust needs to be updated, or whether this is an issue of style of management.
If your Lordships conclude that further legislation is not required—if it is, I cannot see it being proposed for a long time—it may well be that the only solution is a change at the top. There is no doubt that a focus for the issues that we are discussing has been the manner in which the council is run and the way in which the AGM is chaired—both of which are entirely unsuited to a trust operating in this day and age. A chairman with the best interests of the National Trust at heart might well conclude that he should step aside and let someone else take on the task of rebuilding the bank of goodwill to which I referred, before that bank account slips into the red.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Lord Gibson
My Lords, I find myself in difficulty in that I retired as chairman of the trust 15 years ago—I took it on 25 years ago—and do not recognise in the criticisms that have been made this evening the trust as 436 I knew it. I shall not try to defend it from those criticisms; I have no knowledge of the facts. I regret that but cannot help it.
I want to talk about the word "modernisation". The trust has not been dilatory in modernising itself. When I joined the executive committee 40 years ago and became chairman 10 years later, the trust did not feel it ought to do anything except manage historic buildings and care for the landscape which had been entrusted to it for public enjoyment. In those days there was never any question of becoming involved in public arguments unless the issues directly affected the trust's properties. Many local questions did so. But the trust did not become involved, and did not feel that it should in the great public questions in which it is involved today.
I applaud that change. I am sure that the new director-general will take it further. She is a natural campaigner. We in the trust never used to campaign. But the world has changed and the trust has changed enormously. The context in which it operates has also changed and we can foresee further changes in the trust. If the complaints made by noble Lords are right, then I have no doubt that nobody is better qualified to correct them than the new director-general who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said, we all regard with esteem.
Looking back—old men are allowed to look back— over the past quarter of a century, when I became chairman we had recently had the Benson report, which led to the Act of 1971. We then had the Arkell report in the early 1980s, and my noble and learned friend Lord Oliver of Aylmerton, a former Lord of Appeal, produced a report in the 1990s. There has been no lack of the trust looking at itself and changing accordingly. Certainly my noble and learned friend Lord Oliver did not recommend what he called "tinkering" with the constitution. But the trust would not be opposed to further legislation if, in the course of the continuous review, it was felt to be necessary.
I have asked about the current review and am told it is quite far-reaching. There is no question of the trust being broken up into regional units. That would be a mistake. In all large organisations—certainly any with which I have been connected—tensions exist between the centre and the outlying parts. That is certainly true in business and it is a perennial problem. But if the organisation is well managed, a balance can be reached where the differences are tolerated and dealt with. However, they will always exist.
I do not know what one should do about the trust as it increases in size. I do not believe that it will take over any more historic houses. Owners can now set up their own trust, so that is unlikely. In the past few years it obtained Chasleton, where there was no money for the use of the private owner and it was not subscribed to sufficiently by the public, though it is a wonderful house. But I do not think that will happen too often in the future. There will always be more land. And the new idea of the trust showing what happened to middle and working-class families is a laudable idea.
437 The recently published three-year strategic plan of the trust promotes three strands. It wants to lead the cause of countryside regeneration; it wants to stress the importance of lifelong learning and education; and it wants to deepen the general understanding of our landscape and historic heritage. Those are laudable and enormous aims, and quite a different type of trust, if it succeeds in those aims, will emerge.
The trust wants to broaden its appeal, and I applaud that so long as it is not done at the expense of standards of presentation and curatorial expertise. There is always that danger. It happens with museums when they try to broaden their appeal that something is lost in terms of standards. That wants watching and I am sure the trust will try to monitor it.
I can understand why people resent the voting system. However, I was persuaded by the Oliver argument that if I, as a member of the trust, cannot attend a meeting and want to transfer my vote and give a proxy to another member who can—it may be the chairman—it is not undemocratic that I should be allowed to do so. My noble and learned friend referred to the disproportionate power that the chairman is said to have because of that. But he pointed out that it was only disproportionate because a proportion of members had decided to make it so. He asked why they should not have the right to do that. I can understand the frustration it causes. But as a member of the trust, which I still am—I am a life member—I do not want to give up my right to give a proxy. I never attend the annual meetings. If the consequence is that the chairman has a lot of proxies which enable him to determine the matter, then presumably that is what the members who voted in that way want. It may be frustrating to people who feel that those members have not heard the arguments, but it is not undemocratic.
I do not have much more to add. I enjoyed my chairmanship of the trust more than any other job I have ever done. I hate to hear the trust attacked as it has been this evening. I hope that those problems can be put right. I am too old to take part in the process, but I commend the trust to your Lordships as an example of a charity which, taken over its lifetime, has done a fantastic job.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Lord Northbrook
My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Patten for introducing this important debate. I declare an interest as a member of the National Trust and the Countryside Alliance. I wish to point out, like my noble friend, that I am generally a great admirer of the institution and the work it has done in protecting our building heritage. A particularly shining example near to where I live has been Uppark in Sussex, where the restoration after a serious fire has been magnificently achieved. Also, its work to protect our coastline deserves high praise.
438 The trust's latest 2000–01 report contains some interesting statements. The chairman, Charles Nunneley, says at the very start of his commentary:The least welcome change has been the decline in the fortunes of the farming community … the trust has been working with all our farm tenants throughout the year and with the Government at national and regional levels … The council receives progress reports on agricultural and rural matters at every meeting. The future of the countryside remains at the top of our agenda".The director-general, Fiona Reynolds, stated in her review that the trust must be seen,showing leadership in attacking the problems affecting the countryside".She went on,Our relations with our farm tenants have never been better".From my experience as an investment fund manager I have seen how complacency can creep into large companies and organisations and how leading executives can make impressive generalised statements where, in reality, the situation on the ground is rather different.
In some ways I believe that the trust is a victim of its own success. It has grown enormously in size and as a result has become increasingly bureaucratic. For example, a trust tenant locally in Hampshire was visited by no fewer than 15 different trust advisers when he required some building work to be done. That was before the builders were involved.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are many other examples of this cumbersome officialdom, which demonstrates how centralised the trust management style has become. As was stated by many speakers, at council level it appears that Charles Nunneley, the chairman since 1996, has centralised the council's role, taking upon himself and a few senior officials major powers and using the council as a rubber stamp. I shall seek to demonstrate that by reiterating the story of the Acland Estate in Devon.
Sir Richard Acland left his property, Holnicote, to the National Trust nearly 60 years ago. He was well known for his love of hunting and made it clear in a memorandum of wishes that he wished stag hunting to continue on the estate unless or until outlawed by Parliament. He was advised that it was not necessary to specify that in the deed handing over the property as he put faith in the National Trust to honour his wishes. Indeed, at all times until April 1997 the National Trust stated in clear and unequivocal terms that the express wish of donors in favour of hunting would continue to be honoured in relation to gifts of land made to the National Trust.
As has been stated, in July 1994 the trust commissioned a report by Professor Bateson into the effect on deer of deer hunting, which concluded that the sport was cruel. As stated by others, the report was undertaken in great secrecy. Even the local hunt was not allowed to comment on its conclusions prior to publication. From reliable written evidence I have seen, the succeeding chairman, Charles Nunneley, kept the conclusions of the report under wraps until the very day before asking the council to approve it. It had not enough time to study it in detail.
439 Even though subsequently an independent study replicating experiments on which Bateson had based some of his key findings came up with results so different that he was forced to radically water them down, the chairman pushed through the report and the council was denied the opportunity of obtaining the opinions of other animal physiologists critical of the Bateson report and its conclusions. The council has since refused to change its mind. That meant that a traditional country sport, which has not been declared illegal by the law of the land, is now banned from the property despite the strong wishes of the former landowner. It has alienated all the local tenant farmers who are now faced with a massive increase in the local deer population, thus damaging their crops, fences and woodlands. As a result, relations with the National Trust are far from the halcyon situation reported by Fiona Reynolds in the annual report. The farmers are angry at being deprived of their legal sport and are having to shoot the deer. That has meant far more wounded animals, which the hunt has then been asked to destroy. The trust should not interfere in that sort of matter when it is not illegal.
Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Davies, this question. Should not the National Trust Acts be amended to prevent the trust from passing its own laws on its properties which run contrary to the law of the land or against the legitimate wishes of the donor? Also, should the Acts be altered to prevent the chairman using his proxy votes in such a way to overturn the wishes of its voting membership?
Another example already mentioned by several speakers is the case of the Golden Cap estate. A motion deploring the sacking of a long-established warden sponsored by the Dorset region was carried on the direct vote of members by some 23,000 votes but was defeated when the chairman used his proxy vote of no fewer than 24,861 to overturn it.
Another case of using proxy votes occurred at the annual general meeting this year, the date of which is not listed in the annual report. As has been stated, the chairman once again used his proxy votes against what appeared to be the views of the membership. When direct votes of the members were counted, Robin Page, the farmer and journalist, was 7,000 votes ahead of Elsie Owusu but the chairman used his proxy votes to ensure Miss Owusu's election.
Finally, to further confirm the trust's centralising tendencies, it has been announced that the head office and three regional offices are moving from Queen Anne's Gate to Swindon in 2004 except for the director-general and 40 others. According to the Daily Telegraph of 26th August, that has caused dismay among its 120 staff and is likely to mean that as many as 80 per cent will not stay. The article states:Senior staff arc furious. They fear they will lose contact with the academic institutions and contacts that are essential for their work. In particular they resent the double standards apparently being applied by Mrs Reynolds and her immediate staff who will stay in London".In conclusion, I repeat my opening views that I am a great supporter of the trust as originally set up. However, some of its actions in the past seven years 440 have caused me great concern. I do not know whether such actions can be corrected by legislation. Like my noble friend Lord Mancroft, I suspect that it is the chairman that needs to be changed.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Judd
My Lords, I hope I shall be forgiven for intervening briefly in the gap. I should declare an interest as a member of the north-west regional committee of the National Trust. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, would no doubt regard that as questionable. I am also an ordinary member of the trust but I am not a member of the council or the executive.
I found it difficult to recognise the trust from some of the comments that have been made tonight. The tremendously strong membership, the number of people who visit the properties and the kind of spontaneous, general public support for its work illustrate its high standing among many people in this country. It is also important to keep in mind that the trust takes seriously its responsibilities, one of which it sees as protecting wildlife and the natural resources for which it is responsible. When it considered the Bateson report, it felt it had no alternative but to take action on red deer because of the suffering which, that report established, was beyond question. Therefore, it acted and did what it believed was required of it in terms of its statutory responsibilities.
I should like to say more, but I shall make one further point. I have worked half my life in voluntary agencies. I have often held out the trust as a model of an organisation which has huge responsibilities. which takes its work seriously and which also has a popular membership. How many other charities in this country have a popular membership which can participate in an annual general meeting in the way that happens in the National Trust? As has been said, if as an ordinary member I decide voluntarily to give the chairman the right to act on my behalf, why should not I be entitled to do that? Why should I be debarred from doing that by people who turn up at the annual general meeting when, for a whole host of reasons, I may be unable to attend?
In conclusion, I believe that a sledgehammer has been taken to tackle a nut in this debate. I am sure that all the points which have been made will be taken seriously by the trust. However, the chair of the trust said at the last AGM—why has this not been mentioned in the debate? —that the trust is undertaking its own review of its governance. Surely that is what we should applaud and support.
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Lord King of Bridgwater
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene briefly. For the past 31 years I have had the honour of representing a constituency in which some of the greatest problems and tensions of the National Trust have recently arisen. For 25 of those years, during the chairmanships of the two noble Lords who have spoken, I had no difficulties. I have watched with great distress the way 441 in which an organisation which I much admire has got itself into this appalling mess over hunting. Hunting is a difficult issue, with which I have lived for many years. There are strong feelings on both sides. It was the silliest move possible for the National Trust to get right ahead of the game and of Parliament and to get itself involved in this issue.
Out of that has come a more searching inquiry into the way in which the decision was taken. I say simply that I can confirm the details given by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, about the way in which the matter was handled. It was a tragic misjudgment by the then chairman of the National Trust and it brings into question the way in which the organisation is run.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Viscount Falkland
My Lords, I was fortunate enough earlier to speak briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who has been kind enough to introduce this important debate. He told me about his plans to talk about regionalisation and he has drawn to our attention other matters about which he has learnt. The questions he asked about regionalisation have been dealt with well by two distinguished former chairmen the noble Lords, Lord Chorley and Lord Gibson. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, will be satisfied with that.
I did not detect an intention to question the independence of the National Trust as a charity registered by Royal Charter. I hope that I am right in saying that. Furthermore, I did not detect a suggestion that there should be direct government intervention in the affairs of the trust. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that the Government have no intention of doing so. I believe that such intervention would be bad.
Charity law is rigorous in protecting the independence of charities. They can reach agreements with governing bodies, and that might involve taking into account what the Government say and advise. After all, the Government are powerful and sometimes it is in the interests of bodies to seek their advice and guidance. I do not know whether we have reached that point in this case; the National Trust has taken a battering today from various noble Lords.
Although I listened to and took on board the points eloquently made by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and others, I liked the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gibson. It seemed to be fair-minded and, as one would expect, full of expertise and optimism for the future of the trust. There is no doubt that the trust has changed a good deal over the years, but its characteristics have been copied by many countries. By and large, it has not had many ups and downs. It has had mostly "ups" but, if we believe what noble Lords say, it appears that we are experiencing if not a "down", the prospect of one.
The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, spoke of proxy votes and I thought that his comments were fair and correct. If members do not choose to exercise their proxy votes, what is unfair and undemocratic about the chairman 442 using them? Surely the remedy is with the body to ensure that more members use their votes rather than allowing them to be used as proxies.
I have read some of the press comment about recent events in the National Trust. Since the days of Octavia Hill and Peregrinations on his Bicycle by James Lees-Milne a great deal has taken place. It is no longer merely a question of persuading people to hand over their houses, gardens and great areas of coastline to the care of the National Trust. As noble Lords have said, the National Trust is now an enormous body; it has grown beyond what was imagined some years ago. Noble Lords have given the number of houses, monuments, farms and other properties for which it has responsibility; and until recently, all appeared to go swimmingly.
Like many other noble Lords, I have worked for large organisations. I know that when they reach a certain size they do not necessarily become bureaucratic, but they begin to have a vision of their role and they become keen on communicating it to the world at large. The National Trust has done that. However, large organisations often do not see that communication within the institution is as important and that it should take priority before they go out and promote their ideas for radical changes. The fact that the proposed move to Swindon from its charming headquarters close by was rejected by 80 per cent of its staff shows a singular lack of communication within the operation.
Although it has not been mentioned today, we read about various sackings of guides, and strange and "East German" ways of taking on volunteers. Those stories may or may not be true, but the press has latched on to them. I do not believe everything I read in the press, but there must be a seed of truth there somewhere.
I hope that all that gives support to my argument that improving communication within the National Trust needs to be one of the first jobs of the new director-general. He comes highly commended and has rightly been praised today by noble Lords. However, we may be alarmed about the press picking up the announcements made by the trust as a change of direction; we have heard a number of quotations from its members which have almost the vernacular of class conflict, which I find most disturbing.
Of course large houses should contain a proper display of the "downstairs" as well as the "upstairs" areas. In saying that, perhaps I may recommend to your Lordships the new film, "Gosford Park", which is about just such matters. There is no problem about the National Trust making a great effort to pay attention to the promotion and restoration of workhouses, factories and other industrial sites and to the role of servants, prisons and so forth. I do not believe that James Lees-Milne would have fallen off his bicycle had he heard that such developments were about to take place.
This is a moment of great change for the trust— indeed, apart from anything else, it is a moment of great change for tourism in this country—and for the 443 way in which people perceive their history. Unfortunately, history is no longer a priority and one of the roles of the trust is to regenerate an interest in history. It will do that by doing what it says it intends to do, but, for heaven's sake, I hope that it does not enter into a confrontational argument with various sections of our community about whether or not certain issues are politically correct. Let us have some common sense. We are going through a change and people are seeing things differently. Surely the National Trust is big enough to be able to make a change without upsetting all kinds of people and other bodies.
An organisation such as the National Trust is by nature conservative in the non-political sense. It is difficult to change, but change will happen. That is all I have to say on the subject and I wish the trust well.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Baroness Anelay of St Johns
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Patten for introducing the debate. He began by describing himself as a friendly outsider. Perhaps I may describe myself as a friendly insider and declare an interest as an ordinary member of the trust. Indeed, I enjoyed a walk across trust land only yesterday.
Every organisation needs regularly to review whether it is still meeting the needs for which it was established and in a way which is effective, appropriate and fair. My noble friend is right to raise a debate about an organisation governing one of our great national institutions and whether it is in need of modernisation. He has chosen an interesting and appropriate time to do so.
In November of last year the National Trust began an organisational review in order to reallocate its staff and resources. As we have heard, last month it commissioned a review of its corporate governance. I was surprised to learn from the National Trust briefing that this is the first time in over 30 years that the trust's management structures have been looked at. I am surprised that the trust escaped the obsession in the 1980s with management restructuring and reviews. I was pleased to read in the brief prepared by the trust that the review of its governance will be significant and will consider, among other options, whether detailed changes to its statutes are desirable or necessary.
I believe that my noble friend's debate tonight will provide valuable input to the trust's review of its governance, and I hope that it will take very careful note of your Lordships' views.
The National Trust has a proud history as a guardian for the nation in the acquisition and protection of threatened coastline, countryside and buildings. As my noble friend Lord Patten said, more than a century later it still cares for nearly a quarter of a million hectares of countryside throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, pointed out that the trust had a unique statutory power to declare land inalienable and that 444 such land cannot be voluntarily sold, mortgaged or compulsorily purchased against the trust's wishes without special parliamentary procedure.
Whether or not we are members, all of us look to the National Trust to be a contemporary organisation which cares for our past so that we treasure it but do not seal it in aspic. It must be a living legacy which we can all enjoy now and make sure that it is left for the enjoyment of others in the future.
My noble friend Lord Northbrook said that on 23rd October of this year the National Trust unveiled changes in its regional structure and the location of its regional offices. The press release that accompanied that announcement stated that,The move is part of a wider organisational review aimed at boosting the way the trust's 4,000 staff and 40,000 volunteers carry out the charity's diverse work—from preserving historic buildings and monuments to helping its tenant farmers weather the current agricultural crisis".It goes on to say that regional offices which provide advice and support to trust properties on everything from conservation to marketing are being changed. I note that as part of the change to its boundaries and regional offices Devon and Cornwall are to become a single region. Although the regional offices at Killerton and Lanhydrock will continue, I wonder how that was received in the South West. I am aware from my work on tourism of the fiercely independent spirit in both counties. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said that on some occasions in the South West the National Trust is now seen as a bad neighbour. That is indeed disturbing.
Tonight we have heard of discontent with the manner in which the trust has operated recently and the fact that it has omitted to make some of the reforms which my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, believe are vital to the success of the careful management of our national heritage. Some concern has been expressed that perhaps the trust has become too centralist in its approach. My noble friend Lord Mancroft spoke about the way in which important questions of policy were decided by the council. He referred to the management problems which follow from a council with as many as 52 members, thereby delegating authority of action to the executive committee. My noble friend Lord Patten and others have expressed concern about how members of the council are elected. He said that perhaps the needs and views of some regions are currently not being given due weight by that body. My noble friend Lord Patten encapsulated the problems very effectively by referring to the regional and democratic deficit.
It is vital that national organisations are sensitive to the needs of different regions and adopt policies which enable them to have the flexibility to respond to those needs. That may mean changing the way in which representatives of the regional voices are heard at national level, and perhaps weighting voting systems so that they can have a direct impact on national decision-making when it affects a particular area either solely or in some special way.
445 As to the democratic deficit, many noble Lords have spoken about the practice of vast numbers of proxy votes being controlled by the chairman at the AGM. I hope that that practice comes under close scrutiny in the trust's review. My noble friend Lord Mancroft questioned whether that method of operation was right for a charity. All I say at this stage is that perhaps one avenue that may be explored is whether a cap should be placed on the number of proxies that any one person can control. That would meet the very proper view put forward by some noble Lords this evening that individuals should be able to appoint proxies to act on their behalf. That is part of our democratic system. But it would also reflect the process which I am aware takes place in parliamentary elections, for example the right of people who live overseas to a proxy vote here. Someone who exercises that right is subject to a cap on the number of votes that may be so exercised.
I can understand that members may feel remote from the trust's decision-making processes, and that is a danger for all national organisations, however well or ill run they may be. It is the duty of every national organisation to resolve the problems that stem from the feeling of isolation and alienation. If they do not do so they threaten their own viable future. The review currently being undertaken by the trust is, therefore, both welcome and, it appears, necessary.
I understand that the trust is independent of government, but I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister on the progress made by the trust so far, how the Government anticipate that the trust may develop the review and over what timescale they believe it is reasonable for the review to be completed. In particular, we look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the suggestion of many noble Lords that perhaps there should be an independent review, as my noble friend Lord Patten suggested, of the rules governing the voting systems used by the National Trust.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for introducing the debate this evening. The debate has attracted not only a number of very penetrative contributions but, for an Unstarred Question, has secured the attendance of an extraordinarily large number of Members of your Lordships' House with an interest in the subject.
I believe that perhaps the most pertinent question was put by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. I intend to answer it directly because that sets the context for the rest of my contribution. He asked whether the independence of the National Trust as a charity was likely to be infringed or challenged, and whether there was any intention on the part of the Government to intervene. The answer to both questions is no. It would not be right for the Government to intervene in these terms. The National Trust is set up under statute, but it is an independent charity whose rights are set in that 446 framework. That greatly constrains the nature of the contribution that I make this evening. The National Trust is in no way in receipt of taxpayers' money.
At this point I declare an interest. I am one of the 2.8 million members of the trust. Perhaps that is why the question of proxy voting arises to some degree. I cannot conceive of any hall which would accommodate all of the members if they wished to attend the annual general meeting. I hear the criticisms which have been made of the way in which the chair of the National Trust has exercised proxy votes. I have no doubt that the one great benefit of the debate this evening is that the limited framework within which the National Trust operates has been brought before Parliament. We do not have the power to decide any of these issues or reach definitive judgments on them.
But the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has taken advantage of this opportunity to table the debate in which others have joined. Therefore, if there are anxieties about the way in which the trust conducts its business, that is an important point to bear in mind. However, I join with the former chairmen of the National Trust, the noble Lords, Lord Chorley and Lord Gibson, and my noble friend Lord Judd, who stoutly defended the work of the National Trust. We all greatly value the work of the trust. It is one of our cherished national institutions with an immense responsibility. Sixty million visits are made to the trust's properties by our fellow citizens, many of whom are not members. The trust is concerned to protect a large amount of land, including 582 miles of coastline, 20,000 vernacular buildings, over 200 houses of historic interest, 164 gardens, 75 landscape parks, 1,000 scheduled ancient monuments and over 40,000 sites of archaeological interest. It may be that the debate this evening reflects the fact that the National Trust in some way struggles with the problems of success given the size of the enterprise in which it is involved. It is important therefore that the trust pursues its affairs effectively and with responsiveness to its members.
The trust should make sure that it meets changing times. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and other noble Lords who have expressed some anxiety as to whether the trust is up-to-date in the year 2001 that it is. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred to the fact that its management structures have not been reviewed during these past 30 years. It may therefore be thought to be timely that that is taking place at the present time. The reviews that are being conducted are clearly of the greatest import.
Some recognition has been made today by noble Lords to the energy and commitment of the relatively recently appointed director-general, Fiona Reynolds. She has the reputation of getting things done and of being concerned that the organisation should match up to the demands made on it.
There was some criticism of the National Trust. The noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, suggested that perhaps the movement of staff away from London was not meeting with total support within the organisation. By the same token, it is also argued—it was strongly 447 pressed by a number of noble Lords on both sides—that the National Trust should not be so London-centred. There should be greater devolution. Perhaps the issue with regard to location of staff is symbolic of some of the difficulties which occur when change is necessary. That issue is envisaged by many major organisation of that kind.
The National Trust is fulfilling not only its long-cherished obligations with regard to property and land; it is also playing a full and important part in contemporary problems. For example, the trust is deeply involved in national debates on the future of farming. It is playing a leading role in the Government's Rural Task Force which is guiding strategies to encourage rural recovery post foot and mouth. Many rural businesses and crafts are accommodated in trust properties.
By developing links between trust properties and rural and urban schools, colleges and communities, it is promoting life-long learning and education. That is an important dimension. It is an interest which I know the noble Lord, Lord Patten, as a former Secretary of State for Education, has, and which he shares with me, in terms of the important role that the National Trust can play in life-long learning in these terms. It also aims to deepen people's understanding and broaden the appeal of the landscape and historic events. All noble Lords who contributed to the debate today recognise the ability of that work.
The trust is undertaking an organisational review. I was asked for assurances on the extent of it. The review is to enable the trust to protect and manage its properties better and to play a full part in the wider conservation and environmental arena. The review will also cover the corporate governance of the trust, including the workings of its council, the central and regional committees and the relationship with its membership, centres, associations and volunteers. There are clearly a number of options available to the trust for implementing changes recommended as a result of these reviews, including perhaps a review of the legislation. I hasten to add there that this would be a private Bill and not a government one if change were to be contemplated and effected. Until the reviews are completed it is not possible, or particularly helpful perhaps, to speculate on the need for revision of the legislation, particularly as there is every sign that, at present, the trust is finding it possible to modernise within the framework of the existing legislation.
The trust has launched many initiatives and projects to demonstrate how heritage can be made more relevant to communities and how it can play a central role in delivering rural and urban regeneration. That is further helped by the amendment to the boundaries of the trust's administrative regions, and the reduction in 448 the number of regions from 15 to 11 to achieve broad consistency with the boundaries of other organisations. It includes the Government's regional development agencies, with which the trust needs to co-operate and to work. The trust believes that this structure, under three "territory" directors, each responsible for approximately one-third of the regions, will provide a better way of providing national consistency while recognising particular local and regional needs and will be better than a "federal" system of autonomous regions, such as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, I think has in mind.
In concluding his contribution, the noble Lord said that he wished the trust well and hoped that it would tackle its problems and challenges vigorously. Those are sentiments that I endorse. It is not for me from this Despatch Box to comment upon the particular criticisms which have been made by noble Lords. some of whom are members of the National Trust. It is for that body to address itself to those challenges, questions and problems. What has been common throughout the debate is the recognition that challenges have been laid down. The National Trust is certainly at the present time involved in responding to those challenges. They will be pursued with vigour. That is obvious from the nature of the debate tonight.
It may be perhaps that I detect an undercurrent which was reflected by the noble Lord, Lord King—the undercurrent of the particular problem with regard to hunting. The noble Lord will recognise that it is not for me to comment on whether the National Trust has handled that issue in the best possible way. That is its business and that of its membership. Certainly, the matter of hunting is likely to remain an issue of some salience in the countryside. It is fairly obvious that, as my noble friend Lady Mallalieu indicated, some of its actions in the past in relation to hunting have not won total approval among its membership—my noble friend is herself a distinguished member—and the trust needs to look at the way in which it handles these issues.
But, as was fairly reflected by the noble Lord. Lord Northbrook, hunting is a mighty challenging issue. It is one of the greatest controversy. Therefore, the National Trust, with its enormous landholding, is bound to be involved in that debate and facing difficulties which are not unknown to your Lordships.
The debate has served a useful purpose in airing some anxieties about the way in which the trust has carried out its business. At the same time it has paid great tribute to the enormous contribution which the trust makes to our national life and to its success. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, suggested, we wish it well and hope that it will respond vigorously and promptly.
§ House adjourned at nine minutes past eight o'clock.