HC Deb 03 February 2004 vol 417 cc202-7WH

11 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

On new year's day, 40 families in the beautiful village of Peterstone Wentloog, formally known as Llanbedr Gwynllwg, in the rural part of the city of Newport, received a bombshell in the post in the form of a letter demanding 9 per cent. of the value of their homes in return for permission to have vehicular access to those homes—access that they have enjoyed all their lives. The letter also demanded that they pay the legal fees of the person—Mr. Mark Roberts of Friar's Point, Barry island—who claims ownership of the land, in particular the common land, that is near their homes. It threatened litigation if they did not speedily accede to that extortion.

Many of the residents are elderly. Some inherited their homes. They are almost all of modest means and it would be impossible for the great majority of them to pay the sum demanded of between £19,000 and £45,000. Understandably, the letter caused great distress, anger, fear and resentment. The residents sought legal advice immediately, but the news was, for some of them, very depressing. As this area of law is little understood, much of the legal advice was that they would be wise to settle with Mr. Roberts and pay those amounts. The alternative was to go to law. That could cost between £40,000 and £50,000, and they would still have to pay the money demanded.

In addition to the threats in the letter, a caution was placed, through the Land Registry, on land near the residents' homes. That made their homes unsellable because if people sought to buy them, they would discover the caution and, understandably, would not want to face the possibility of bills of between £20,000 and £100,000 on the purchase of properties that are, in some cases, worth less than that.

That extraordinary situation is not unique and has been raised in the House of Commons before. It relates to a part of the law that has been exploited by two people, Mr. Michael Farrow and Mr. Mark Roberts, in other parts of the country. I am grateful for the help that I have received from other hon. Members who have experienced similar problems in their constituencies as far back as 1999. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Farrow have deployed the scam in places such as Newtown, near Newbury, where a campaign has been going on for five years, in Alstonefield in the Peak district, in Chalfont St. Giles and in Holmbury St. Mary near Guildford.

The claim to ownership of the land known as Broadstreet common in Peterstone Wentloog is based on the manor of Romney title, which Mr. Mark Roberts purchased at an auction. As a result, he claims ownership of common land. Many of us probably believe that no one owns common land but, sadly, at least half the commons in the country have owners and it is possible that they could make claims.

The legal position is a morass. It goes back to changes in the Law of Property Act 1925. Rules were changed that were beneficial to home owners, allowing them to gain access to their homes, particularly if they had been using that access for 20 years. To simplify a highly complex situation, let me explain that, sadly, a decision taken in a notorious court case in 1993—Hanning v. Top Deck Travel Group—allows the loophole to be exploited. That is now the settled law. The decision that has been exploited was taken on the basis that no one should be granted a right of access for vehicles under the 20-year rule, because crossing the land in a vehicle was a criminal offence.

That has a perverse effect as far as my constituents and those of several other hon. Members are concerned. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Guildford (Sue Doughty) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for their help with the debate. They have all been affected by similar scams.

One of the groups—the Newtown Common action group—has conducted a vigorous campaign during the past four years. I pay tribute to it because it is made up of people of modest means who have had to spend more than £100,000, which they raised in whist drives and other fundraising events, to take their appeal against the judgment in the case of Hanning v. Top Deck Travel Group through the courts. The case has reached the House of Lords, where the Law Lords will make their decision on 25 and 26 February. The group's fight is about the right to use access ways across common land that have been established for 20 years or longer. If the decision goes the right way, there is hope that there will be some relief for my constituents.

The Peterstone Wentloog village group has formed a resourceful and energetic action team. I attended a meeting a fortnight ago, at which there was great gloom and despair because it had just received the threat. The mood was low. Another depressing factor was that at least two families who live nearby had already acceded to the demands of Mr. Mark Roberts. Deciding to cut their losses, they paid the amount involved. I cannot give details because the court placed a gagging order to prevent them from discussing it. However, the villagers are aware of those payments, which have added to the pressure on them.

There was more optimism at a meeting on Sunday because several beneficial things had happened. One problem was the difference in the laws in England and Wales, but that was solved thanks to the swift work of my colleague Mrs. Rosemary Butler, the Assembly Member for Newport West. She has persuaded Carwyn Jones, the relevant Minister in the Welsh Assembly, to introduce secondary legislation this week. It will be retrospective and mean that an outrageous claim for 9 per cent. can no longer be made. The maximum will be 2 per cent., which is still an unfair amount when people are effectively paying for nothing, but at least the sums that are demanded are being reduced. There has also been further action from Newport city council, which has sent a letter to Mr. Mark Roberts to demand that he provides more evidence of his claim to ownership of the land.

We are going over ground that was covered some years ago by the village group in Alstonefield. One of the leading campaigners, Sue Fowler, is contemptuous of Mark Roberts' claims. She reports that he did not produce any convincing evidence when he was challenged in court to prove ownership of the land. It was all very nebulous: he reproduced ancient statutes, but nothing to convince people that he was entitled to the ownership of the land involved. Sue Fowler also reports that the whole legal area is greatly uncertain. It consists of what remains of a feudal system that is little understood by many lawyers, civil servants, land registry officials or government bodies. Consequently, people are left wide open to abuses by unscrupulous people, such as the two I mentioned.

Sue Fowler also said that historians and other scholars had advised her that the titles, which are often up for auction and bought for vanity, are empty and have no powers attached to them. It is likely that the claims made by Mr. Mark Roberts are baseless, but even if it is discovered that there is no substance to his claims, my constituents and people in other villages will have been subjected to enormous distress and expense in defending their case.

The laws relating to manorial laws were laid down by common law rather than statute, which is reminiscent of many cases we hear about. There was a famous story of a student at Oxford turning up at an examination and producing an ancient statute that said he had the right to have a pot of ale during his examination. The university authorities provided him with a pot of ale but fined him a large sum for not wearing a sword.

There are things with which the lord of the manor in this case has not complied. I am informed that for a manor court to exist it must have a lord and suitors and established customs. To claim a manorial lordship the lord must hold a court of recognition at which his free and unfree tenants "do suit". In other words, they must acknowledge his or her lordship. The lordship must hold a court in the manor at least once a year to which all suitors over whom he claims jurisdiction have been summoned. Without that annual event the lordship ceases to be. That is further convincing evidence that the claims of Mr. Mark Roberts about his lordships are empty.

The victims of this scam have run their campaigns at their own expense. They have borne an enormous burden financially as well emotionally. They do not fight just for themselves. Contrary to popular belief, many commons and common land in Britain are in private ownership. The scam could multiply throughout the land and affect many millions of people. If land ownership is established by someone buying a title, they could make similar demands for wayleaves, public utilities, electricity lines, power cables and sewers that run through the land. There will be enormous repercussions if those two men get away with it.

I am grateful for the attention that the Minister has given the matter. Does he know of any national funding that could be made available to help those groups, which are fighting a national cause? I have been in correspondence with Baroness Scotland who has kindly kept me up to date on the effect of other proposals to reform land law. I understand that no final decisions have been taken. In the light of what has happened in Peterstone Wentloog and other villages, a review of manorial land law should be a priority above all others in that reform. I understand that the consideration of what the review should include has been going on for some years now. Will the Minister energetically back manorial reform in the package?

I should also like an overdue change in the law that would exempt homeowners and tenants from easements. There might be a case in some circumstances for charging for easements in areas where the landowners are conscientiously caring for it and keeping it in good order. That is not the case with the case that concerns me. The two individuals involved have no interest in maintaining the common land and live many miles from it. What about ending the sales of titles? Many of those sales are entirely fraudulent and the one highlighted on the internet site showed that half the manorial rights that were being sold were entirely fictitious and had no basis in history.

I informed the solicitors who produced this atrocious letter that I would name them today if they still had Mr. Mark Roberts as a client. Yesterday they told me that they had had a meeting with the solicitor and his partners and decided that they would continue to serve Mr. Roberts in his campaign of extortion. Their clients, and potential clients, should note their names if they are considering doing business with them and decide for themselves how scrupulous they might be in serving their clients. Their names are: Donald Gray, Bethan Darwin, Jason Smith and Rhodri Lewis. What they are doing may be legal, but such extortion is unethical, unprincipled, cruel and immoral. Mark Roberts and Michael Farrow are parasites feeding off others; the solicitors who feed off them are the parasites' parasites.

11.16 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate and bringing to the attention of the House the need for reform of the remnants of feudal and manorial law, which in some parts of the country are causing serious problems in people's everyday lives. He made his case thoroughly and powerfully.

The Government have introduced specific reforms that should address the worst of the problems highlighted by my hon. Friend, but fundamental reform of this difficult and complex area of law may be needed. That would be a significant undertaking requiring considerable expertise.

My hon. Friend made his case by highlighting the sufferings of his constituents in Peterstone Wentloog, where properties adjoin the Broadstreet common. They have endured a campaign by the said Mark Roberts, the so-called Lord Marcher of Trellech, who, effectively, has forced them to buy the rights of their vehicle access to their own homes, asking prices that are more than 400 per cent. greater than will prevail when section 68 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 introduces a statutory right to a vehicular right of way. That is already in force in England, and it will come into effect in Wales later this year.

We have heard about the campaign that is affecting these good people, many of whom are elderly, and about the hardship, stress and pain that they have suffered. This matter involves more than just the vanity of the Lord Marcher of Trellech; to some extent, it is a means of exploiting the lacunae in the law. In Wales, the law relating to common land is devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, which is therefore responsible for the implementation in Wales of section 68 of the 2000 Act. Like my hon. Friend, I was delighted to learn yesterday that Carwyn Jones, the Assembly Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside, has decided to use the executive procedure to implement section 68 later this month, rather than waiting until the present consultation exercise is complete. I hope that that will do a great deal to bring immediate relief to the home owners of Peterstone Wentloog.

However, rights of vehicular access over common land are not the only remnant of feudal and manorial land law that might cause problems to ordinary people. My hon. Friend referred to the recommendations of the Law Commission and the Land Registry in their report "Land Registration for the 21st century: A Conveyancing Revolution", published in 2001. They recommended that there should be a clear and comprehensive legal framework to govern both the holding of the land by the Crown and the royal duchies, and the circumstances in which ownerless land passes to them. They also commented that they could not immediately see any good reason for the retention of the remnants of feudalism in land law in England and Wales.

At much the same time, problems similar to those at Peterstone Wentloog, involving the same Mark Roberts, were occurring at Alstonefield in Staffordshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). Concern about those problems highlighted the need for consideration to be given to the reform of the remnants of the manorial system. Since then, as I have mentioned, section 68 of the 2000 Act has come into force in England and we can look forward to it doing so in Wales.

In addition, we have brought the Land Registration Act 2002 into force, which has made significant changes to the law relating to manors. Most importantly, manorial land will now have to be registered in the same way as any other land when it changes hands and, after a 10-year transitional period, manorial rights will have to be registered to bind purchasers of the land that they affect. That should do much to dispel the uncertainty and confusion created by purchasers buying strips of land in such a way and felt by those needing access to that land. However, neither Act modernises the underlying remnants of feudal and manorial law. To test the need for reform, my Department carried out a limited consultation with other interested Government and Crown bodies. It established that there was general support for fundamental reform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West has said much about the antiquated nature of the laws in this area, and the legal theory underpinning the ownership of even the smallest piece of land in England and Wales can be traced with relatively few evolutionary steps back to the Norman conquest. If you, Mr. Cook, or I own freehold property, we are tenants in chief of the Crown or one of the royal duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster. We do not own the land; we own an estate in land known to all land law students as a fee simple absolute in possession. I suspect that that legal theory does not bear much relation to everyday life, and it causes few problems in practice.

The same cannot be said of the rules that apply if, following insolvency or intestacy, a freehold estate reverts to the Crown. Therefore, there are benefits from that side. That happens about 300 times a year. I will not go into too much detail, but Charles Harpum, the former law commissioner, in something of an understatement, commented: The present state of the law can be described rather charitably as nonsensical. Following discussions with my Department, the Law Commission is considering whether the proposed reviews should form part of its ninth programme of law reform. I have no doubt that it will pay much heed to what Charles Harpum said. The draft programme will be sent to my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs for approval later this year. Whether the reviews of the feudal and manorial systems will be included in the programme depends on their relative priority compared with other proposed reforms. The proposals have no special priority in the assessment process; there are always several worthy contenders for each place on the programme. Any further reform that results from the process will, of course, have to comply with the European convention on human rights.

My hon. Friend asked whether funds would be available, and I have to say that no special funds would be. Clearly, in all areas there is a question of priority and my Department would have to balance scarce resources. However, I hope that section 68 and capping the amount involved at 2 per cent. will alleviate many problems. I am also aware of the pending appeal to the Law Lords, which may provide additional comfort to my hon. Friend's constituents, although equally it may not. We must wait for the Law Lords' decision on that case.

In conclusion, I hope that the measures that the Government and the National Assembly have taken will alleviate the problems of the people of Peterstone Wentloog and ensure that such exploitation cannot be repeated. I also hope that a way will be found to replace the remnants of feudal and manorial law with a clear modern code that fits with the current environment. We in the Department for Constitutional Affairs have done much to update arrangements and I am sure that this is also a worthy case.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended till Two o'clock.