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Law Of Property Bill Lords

Volume 155: debated on Friday 16 June 1922

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Order for Third Reading read.

I have it in command from His Majesty to signify to the House that, His Majesty having been informed of the purport of the Law of Property Bill [Lords], gives his consent, as far as His Majesty's interest is concerned, that the House may do therein as they think fit.

I have it. also in command from H.R.H. the Prince of Wales to signify to the House that H.R.H., having been informed of the purport of the Bill, gives his consent, as far as His Royal Highness interests are concerned, that the House may do therein as they think fit.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

I feel that this Bill is of such magnitude and of such great and permanent importance to the legal system of this country, and the ease with which land may be dealt with in future, that the House would like a very few words from me on this motion. I desire, if I may, to thank all parties in the House for the assistance that they have given throughout the passage of this Bill. It is a somewhat remarkable thing that on a Bill of 300 pages in all the proceedings in this House up-to-date, there has only been one single division. I recognise that the Bill might have been approached in a contentious spirit from different sides of the House and from the point of view of different interests. Instead of so approaching it all Members have done their best to make the measure a better measure, and they have approached it with a desire to that end only. At the same time I would like to say a word of thanks to all the Associations and all the individuals who not only during the last three years during which the Bill has been before the public, since it was recommended to the public by the Committee over which I presided, but for many years previously, for the endless trouble and thought which they have given to the constructive improvement of this great measure. In these things we do not reach perfection, but I believe that in this Bill we have reached much nearer perfection than is usual. That is due in my view to the universal desire to join together in attempting to achieve the main object of the Bill. Suggestions from whatever quarter they have emanated, have received the most earnest consideration of the Government and its advisers. We have sought the best advice we could get on every subject involved in the Bill, and if any section feel a little disappointed, I think the House will agree that all sections have had a fair run for their money on this Bill.

I want, if I may, particularly to thank the Conveyancers of Lincoln's Inn, past and present, to whose brains this Bill is due, and I would mention particularly the late Sir Philip Gregory, whose services were of such inestimable value. The story of the negotiations for the consideration and improvement of the Bill would occupy many volumes of the size of the Bill and it is only due to those negotiations and the care with which they have been conducted that even the Lord Chancellor, with his great tact and knowledge in another place was able to send the Bill down to this House as practically an agreed Bill. We must not expect immediate results from the Bill. It is not to come into force until the 1st January, 1925, in order to give time for Consolidating Measures and for the preparation of text books, but at the end of some ten years I believe we shall be filled with wonder at the waste of time and energy that has taken place in this country for so many generations in the administration of this branch of the law. It is a tribute to the infinite capacity of our race that it should have worked a system of patchwork incongruities, designed apparently to combine as much complexity of detail as possible with no underlying principles. We have not hurried matters and we shall not hurry matters after the Bill has passed, but I think we may look forward to the good working of this measure in the hands of a profession which has shown itself beyond question to be wholly disinterested. May I add one personal note of thanks? The subject-matter of this Bill is not that branch of the law with which my professional life has been mainly concerned. I have approached it a little as a layman, but, thanks to the extraordinary assistance of Mr. Cherry, who has devoted so much time to this measure with such magnificent results, I have been able to give such assistance as I could to the House. I thank the House for the measure and I express my confident belief that it is a very great reform, and my hope that as a result the transfer of land in this country will become both cheaper and easier.

I am sure that the House will desire me, as the first Member to address it after the Solicitor-General, to congratulate him upon the result of his labours. They have been specially onerous, owing to the fact which he has himself, with quite unnecessary modesty, stated, that the special branch of law covered by this Bill is not the one to which he has given his special attention during his long and very distinguished professional career. Any shortcomings in that respect have not been at all obvious, and it is another mark of his remarkable legal attainments that he has been able to adapt himself to the intricacies of this very comprehensive and complex measure in a manner which has commended his knowledge and adaptability even to the most expert of the Members of this House.

I think it is also fitting that I should, on behalf of those with whom I am usually associated politically, pay a special tribute to the work of the Lord Chancellor (Lord Birkenhead) in connection with this Bill. It is quite true that two or three at least of his predecessors, notably Lord Haldane, had taken a great interest in, and done a large amount of work in connection with this scheme. But I am quite certain that were it not for the persistence, industry and ability which the Lord Chancellor has applied to the measure, we should not be supporting the Third Reading to-day, and that what is a really great reform in our system of land tenure would have still remained long overdue. I desire to express our deep appreciation of his labours in the matter.

The amount of unanimity, or agreement, which has been arrived at, is so remarkable as to be almost alarming. I hope that the results of this extraordinary measure of agreement will be reflected in the benefits, not only to the professional classes engaged—that is a very small part of it—but to the nation as a whole. Landed property for centuries past has been regarded as the ex- clusive privilege of a comparatively small class. The country as a whole has been industrialised and its main interests are commercial. In that respect land is as much a commercial asset as any great factory or machine. It is because the undoubted tendency of this measure must be to make the user of land much more a part of the social business and a commercial unit in its widest sense that this Bill is so heartily welcomed by all parties in the House. I, therefore, again express our appreciation, not only to those who have assisted outside the House, but to the Minister of the Crown in charge of the measure.

I wish to speak on the Third Reading of this Bill rather in the hope that my words may come to the knowledge of some of the members of the lower branch of the legal profession to which I belong. As a very modest member of that profession, I cannot claim that they should attach value to my opinion on this Bill, except by reason of the fact that I may claim to have spent a great deal more time on it than probably they have done up to the present, and consequently to know a great deal more about it than they yet do. I would like my colleagues in the profession to know my opinion that the fears which some of them have felt with regard to this Bill are unjustified. I have heard criticisms to the effect that it is likely to cause chaos when it first comes into operation. I have heard criticisms of many different kinds—criticisms on the one hand, to the effect that instead of making things easier it will make them more difficult, and on the other hand, from some members of the profession, to the effect that they are likely to have their livelihood taken away. I do not think that any of these fears are justified. The Bill, the longest public Bill which has ever been passed by Parliament, has been passed in a space of time which is as short as the Bill is long. But that does not mean that it is hasty legislation. It is the product of at least twenty-five years of hard work. During that time it has been through the purifying furnace of the criticism of all the greatest lawyers of the day, many of whom have passed away, but two of whom, at any rate—with whose names this Bill will always be associated—have been engaged on it continuously for the last twenty-five years. I refer of course to those whom the Solicitor- General mentioned. A tribute is due to the Lord Chancellor, whose tremendous intellect and knowledge of law have made the passage of the Bill possible, and to the extraordinary industry and learning of the draftsman of the Bill.

So far as the Bill is concerned from the lawyer's point of view, it is not sufficiently known, perhaps, outside, that long as it is it is not likely to be such a difficult measure to learn or to work. The great changes are brought about by the first part of the Bill, that which is said to be an assimilation of the law of real property to that of personal property. That is where the greatest difficulty, no doubt, comes in. Something like three-fourths of that part of the Bill are devoted to wiping out old intricacies and cobwebs which it is quite time should disappear into the limbo of the past. There is a comparatively small remainder, which will be the working law of the future, which will be simple, and should not be beyond the powers of any member of the legal profession to learn in a comparatively short time, however long he may have been engaged in the old practice. The later part of this Bill is, of course, composed entirely of amendments, for which all lawyers have long been waiting, in the Conveyancing Acts, the settled Land Acts and the Trustee Acts, and reforms of that kind.

The Bill was described by the Lord Chancellor in the memorandum as not revolutionary but evolutionary. That is true; but it does not alter the fact that the changes are enormous. The changes of evolution may be quite as great as those of revolution. One, at any rate, of the differences between them is that the changes brought about by evolution are generally beneficial and lasting, while those brought about by revolution are temporary and fleeting. That does not minimise the greatness of the change which has been made. The human being of the present time is the result of evolution, if we are to believe the scientists. There could be no greater difference than between Consul, who was considered so carefully by a Committee of this House recently, and perhaps the finest product of evolution in the human mind at the present moment in the person of the Lord Chancellor. The great difference between Consul and the Lord Chancellor and the difference between our old law and this Bill will be equally great. This Bill is also an illustration of what the Prime Minister spoke about the other day, work by amateurs advised by experts. The British Parliament has had the common sense to realise that this is a Bill which had to be settled in its details by experts. This House and another place have passed it in a very short time, but with no carelessness, and have made, in its passage, some alterations which will make the Bill even better than when it was first introduced. On behalf of my branch of the profession as far as I can speak for it, I welcome the Bill. It is one which I believe will do good not only to the country as a whole but to the profession also, because the more our work is simplified, the more work we can do and the better we can carry out our mission in life, which is to be of assistance to our clients.

Although I do not hold the same view as the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. D. Herbert), nor do I take quite the approving view of the right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean), I join with them just as readily in congratulating the Solicitor-General upon his conduct of this enormous measure. I do not think all his geese are swans. I do not think the Bill is going to accomplish all he hopes it will accomplish, but I am not behindhand in recognising his urbanity and consideration, which have indeed made the passage of this Bill so easy. This Bill of course will pass its Third Reading, but whether it be a good Bill or a bad Bill, I cannot assent to the suggestion that it is the considered work of the House of Commons. Having regard to its size, very little time has been spent upon it in the House. I quite recognise, with the hon. Member for Watford, that a great deal of time has been spent upon it elsewhere. Committees have brought their minds to bear upon it. There has been a great deal of consideration given to it by different societies, but as far as this House is concerned, the Second Reading Debate only occupied two or three hours, the Report stage only two or three hours, and I believe it was only a few hours in Committee.

The first of the three days, I understand, consisted of about an hour and a half and the subsequent days only two or three hours. I do not think the Solicitor-General will argue that the Committee stage was very long, having regard to the enormous number of Clauses in the Bill. The reason why so little time was given to it, was because there were very few Members of the House who understood, or thought they understood it, and very few of the public outside were interested in its provisions. Yet it is an extraordinarily important Bill, one which will affect the property of thousands and tens of thousands of people in this country. I suppose in this case, as in others, public interest is in inverse proportion to the importance of the Bill itself. I have been interested in the comments made upon the Bill in the Press. Very few comments have been made in the public Press, and those which have been made have been singularly ill-informed. Upon the Report stage it was referred to as "a monumental work." That is a phrase which one associates more readily with graveyards than with a measure promising so much as this to the country. Then it has been described again and again as a "codifying measure." It is nothing of the kind. It makes many complicated references to other laws, and the Bill itself is not capable of being understood unless one has a small law library at one's immediate disposal. Upon the Bill being brought before the House of Common for its Second Reading, it was suggested again that the Solicitor-General by this Measure was—

"cutting a road clear through all the jungle of the law procedure of the past."
I am afraid false hopes have been held out. People have been led to believe that they will be able to deal with their house property almost as readily as with stocks and shares. They have been led to think that they will be able to sell a plot of land in very much the same way as a man sells a pair of boots. As far as concerns it being a simple Measure, so simple that
"wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein,"
I need only ask the lay members of the Committee to consider whether they thought the Measure simple or not. They came to the Committee thirsting for information, but they were reduced, in the course of a few hours, to a state of hope less helplessness, and I think it is well that they should know that the legal members of the Committee did not understand the Measure very much better. I think there will be upon the let January, 1925, a rude awakening for the lawyers throughout the country and also for their clients. The average practitioner never reads a Bill until he is obliged to. Speaking from my own experience in the part of the country from which I come, very few of them have as yet attempted to read this Bill. Even if some of them have made the attempt, very few have persevered until the finish. Of course they have a recess in which to study it, but it will need to be a very long recess if they are to understand all the intricacies of the Measure. When they come to read it about the end of 1924 there will be some very severe and mordant criticism. There will be curses both loud and deep, and it will be a very unhappy Christmas for the members of the legal profession who have to acquaint themselves with its terms before 1st January, 1925.

I know as a matter of fact, from the conversations I have had with some members of the profession, that not one of them would think of drawing even a simple conveyance without the employment of counsel, and when the client finds he has the additional cost of counsel as well as other additional costs, I think he will be on the look-out for somebody's blood, having regard to the very lavish hopes and promises which have been held out in connection with the Bill. The Solicitor-General can regard that prospect of 1st January, 1925, with equanimity. This Government is not likely then to be in existence, and he may be able to contemplate all this disturbance from the Olympian heights of His Majesty's Bench. That will be a great loss to the House and a great gain to the Bench. He will not be troubled like other men or plagued like other men. The difficulty in this matter is that we have heard too much of the point of view of eminent conveyancing counsel. As a matter of fact eminent conveyancing counsel only deal with the abnormalities of the profession. Ninety-nine cases out of a hundred are simple conveyances carried through by the country practitioner. It is only in the extraordinary cases that the conveyance is sent to the chambers of counsel to be settled, and I submit that eminent conveyancing counsel are not the best judges of the work of the country practitioner, any more than the experts of Harley Street would be the best judges of the work of the ordinary country medical practitioner. It is perhaps another case which strengthens the demand on the part of the ordinary people to set up a league to keep the extraordinary people in their proper place.

In some respects the Bill does not go far enough. I think it might have been made a more radical Measure of land reform. It would have elicited much more enthusiasm on this side of the House if it had been. In other respects, it makes alterations which give the minimum of reform with the maximum of disturbance. In a word, the chief fault of the Measure is that it creates far too many trusts and it too often invokes the aid of the public trustee. Whilst it seeks to lighten the task of the solicitor acting for the purchaser, it will certainly make heavier the task of the solicitor acting for the vendor, and, whilst it wipes out many old and quaint tenures of land, it even makes the law of entail applicable to personal property. Some reference has been made by the Solicitor-General to his desire to cheapen the law of transfer. I know he is genuine in that desire, but there is one very simple way in which it can be done. Take the ordinary conveyance conveying land of more than £1,000 in value. The stamp duty upon that conveyance is generally in excess of the legal costs incurred. This stamp duty has been raised in recent years. If the Government are genuinely anxious to make the transfer of property cheap and easy they have the means in their own hands by reducing the stamp duty, but they are far from being genuine in that profession. When a short time ago a proposal was made in connection with the duty upon reconveyances, or upon receipts for mortgage money, the Solicitor-General—acting, I suppose, on the wish of the Treasury—insisted upon retaining that small stamp duty of 6d. per cent., although it would mean a great deal of trouble and inconvenience and would bring but a small a-mount into the Treasury.

The fact is that the main part of this Bill in the eyes of a good many people is the one Clause dealing with registration and making registration compulsory at the end of ten years. That is the valuable Clause in the eyes of many people. They attach very little importance to the rest, but they are very anxious that an official system of conveyancing should be introduced, even at the end of ten years. The Bill is unnecessarily legislating ten years ahead, and I would rather that we had waited until that time and trusted to the wisdom of that time, but I know that some of the pressure behind this Bill and some of the enthusiasm for it are not caused by the first part of it, running into hundreds of Clauses, but by the one Clause practically making registration compulsory at the end of ten years, and thus enabling the Government to wipe out a definite pledge made in this House' more than ten years ago by the then Leader of the House, who said that registration should never be made compulsory and that the initiation of the imposition of a registration system should always rest with the local authority. Although I have made criticisms upon this Measure, and although I have been associated with the hon. Member for Central Portsmouth (Sir T. Bramsdon) in the making of criticism, we have never pressed anything to a Division. I am very anxious that there should be nothing on our side to show that there was any obstruction to the Measure, which I think contains many useful provisions. Many of its Clauses will bring about magnificent results, justifying all the hopes of the Solicitor-General. It is a Bill which contains much wheat and a good many tares. It will be difficult, perhaps, to get rid of the tares without destroying the wheat, and I am content that both shall grow together until the harvest. It may be that after the 1st January, 1925, my fears will be falsified. If so. I shall probably say no more about it. If, however, my fears are justified by the events, I shall probably take the opportunity of saying, "I told you so."

I want to join again in the congratulations offered to the Solicitor-General. I think his management of this Bill has been extraordinary. His consideration has been such that one has felt it almost impossible to put down Amendments, and to have pressed any to a Division would have looked almost like base ingratitude. Reference has been made to the assistance he has received from Mr. Cherry, and it is of interest to me, sitting on these Benches almost as a newcomer, to watch the interest that has been taken, and I think Mr. Cherry, from his place under the gallery, has watched the Solicitor-General with feelings of mingled pride and anxiety, very much as Edward III. from the mill watched the Black Prince conducting the battle in the distance. I have watched all the telegraphic communications, and I think that in this matter the Solicitor-General has been largely dependent upon Mr. Cherry, to whom he himself has paid his tribute. I hope their best expectations will be realised. I believe the profession, as suggested by the hon. Member for Watford, will do their utmost to work this Measure, and I think other Members of this House will recognise with honesty that just as in the past the great Measures of law reform have been generally initiated, pressed forward, and carried through by lawyers, so it is the desire of the legal profession throughout the country to simplify all these Measures relating to the transfer of real property. If, following on this Measure, there can be a codifying Measure, there will be, I think, more general support given to it throughout the country. That would be a very great reform worthy of the activity of this House, and although I have some fear, as far as some of the Clauses of this Bill are concerned, generally I welcome it. I am glad to think it has been supported its main principles by all sides in this House, and although I demur from some of the prophecies that have been made, I join just as readily as the hon. Member for Watford in welcoming a Measure which holds out some hopes of getting rid of the complications and difficulties of the past.

We have listened to compliments paid by the learned Solicitor-General, but some of them have been of a very doubtful character and rather what one would call backhanded compliments. He thanked the House for having only had one Division on this Measure, but I think, if it had been better understood and less technical, there might and probably ought to have, been many more Divisions than there have been, so that. I look upon that as a very doubtful compliment. My hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Foot) said the Solicitor-General has conducted the Bill in such a manner that it was almost impossible to put down an Amendment to it. If that be so, he is a most dangerous man, and the sooner he is removed the better it will be for the people of this country. I consider that any consolidating Bill would be of very great advantage, and I personally think there are many things beside the transfer of land in regard to which a consolidating Measure is badly needed. We hear quoted in this House very often old Acts of Parliament of hundreds of years ago which are altogether out of date. A lot of these things ought to be superseded by one great consolidating Bill, which would make it much simpler to deal with the business of the present lay than it is at the moment. However, there have been some other fears expressed, and one was that the lawyers would have nothing to do. I have no fear on that score. The lawyers will look after themselves all right, and you can consolidate what you like, but they will be there; there will be no keeping them out. I welcome any consolidating Bill, because I cannot but imagine that it must be, with all its drawbacks, a very great advantage as compared with the old system under which these matters-were dealt with.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with Amendments.