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Clause 4

Volume 977: debated on Wednesday 30 January 1980

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I beg to move amendment No 17, in page 4, line 25, after 'section', insert—

'for more than six months'.

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 18, in clause 5, page 4, line 36, after 'gift', insert—

'for more than six months'.

Two amendments were tabled on these lines but were started and debated only on clause 5 stand part in Committee. Even that debate was brief. The main point of the amendments was not discussed, hence the re-tabling for debate on Report.

The amendments affect acquisitions and the acceptance of gifts under clauses 4 and 5 respectively. As the Bill stands, the trustees may not make acquisitions or accept gifts, other than money, without ministerial approval. In contrast, they can make 100 per cent. grants without obtaining approval.

Under the amendments the trustees would be able to make acquisitions and accept gifts as they may decide, provided, of course, that they disposed quickly of the property so acquired or received. All are agreed that only in exceptional circumstances, properly involving ministerial approval, should the trustees continue to hold such property for long periods.

The main point at issue is whether trustees are to be given discretion to act. There is much to be said for not tying them to Ministers' coat tails, and giving them the power to acquire, which they would not abuse. I conceded on the previous amendment on the issue of ministerial discretion, and I believe that that strengthens my case on these amendments. The minor point is how long trustees should be allowed to hold property which they have acquired. Six months is stipulated in the amendments, but perhaps it should have been nine months or one year. Nine months would certainly seem to be a practical proposition.

I do not pretend that I shall press the amendments to a Division, but I feel strongly about them.

The effect of amendment No. 17 would be to allow the trustees to acquire and hold property for up to six months without their having to seek the approval of Ministers. As I explained in Committee, the trustees are essentially a body which will help others to acquire property. It is not their primary purpose to acquire property in their own right, even for a short period, and it would be wrong for them to be given the power to acquire property just to buy and sell or otherwise dispose of within a short period without reference to Ministers. They are not dealers or handlers of bridging loans, and they are certainly not running estate agencies or picture galleries. I made clear on Second Reading and in Committee that the trustees should have in mind and agree where property or objects are going before becoming involved with a purchase or other forms of financial support.

We believe that the power to hold property provided in clause 4 will be exercised sparingly, and it is important that Ministers keep complete control of it. It may be suggested that opportunities to purchase items arrive at short notice in the property market and the art world, but that does not justify the trustees acting in their own right in such cases. If they hear of such opportunities before other bodies, which is unlikely, they can still consult the appropriate categories of recipients of assistance to see whether they are interested in the items and need assistance.

To all intents and purposes, amendment No. 18 is on the same point. We believe that we should not encourage the trustees to hold property without knowing where it is ultimately to reside or in whose responsibility it will be held. Trustees should not have the right to hold property without reference to Ministers. The hon. Member obviously feels strongly about this matter. So do I, and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

I am not happy with that reply. May I ask the Minister some questions? He said that the trustees were not concerned with bridging loans. I understand that, but surely they have a warehouse function. The matters with which we are concerned often arise in crisis conditions. It is not a question of trustees dealing with bridging loans or the money markets.

It was slightly unfair for the Minister to give the impression that by tabling the amendments I thought that we were dealing with a bunch of people who would speculate on the money markets. That is not the nature of the trustees.

6.45 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman said that Ministers must have control. Surely we are concerned about day-to-day control. Does he mean that, in this respect, though not in many others, Ministers must have complete control?

The Minister also said that trustees were not justified in acting in their own right. Will he expand on that? I thought that the point was that we should trust the trustees to act in their own right in such matters. If I have got the wrong end of the stick, no doubt the Minister will tell me.

There is little between us on this matter, and perhaps less than the hon. Gentleman indicates. He underestimates the speed with which Governments can act when requested to do so in an emergency. If the trustees need urgent support, advice or decisions from either the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or the Secretary of State for the Environment, I have not the slightest doubt that they will be able to get them rapidly.

However, the basis of the amendments is to extend the period to six months. Despite the immense trust and responsibility that I know the trustees will have, we want to encourage them to pass on property at the speediest rate possible. We do not want them to hold property for a long period. That is not the purpose or the duty given to them in the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman is asking for additional powers which the Government do not think are justified or necessary. I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

I am not sure that the Minister is right in saying that there is little between us on this issue. I think that there is something between us. I am not happy about what the Minister said about the trustees passing on property at "the speediest rate possible". When things are done at speed, they are not always done to the national advantage. The idea that trustees must be hustled and jostled into acting in that way is not wise. If a little more time is taken—and we know that time is often of the essence in these matters—it may be to the greater national advantage. I am not happy with the Minister's reply.

:The last thing that I want is for the hon. Gentleman to be unhappy, particularly since he has been of great assistance during the passage of the Bill. We indicated on Second Reading that before the trustees step in they will have gone to immense trouble to find a recipient or new owner for the property. That will be done long before they pass over the money from the fund.

It is not so much that action will be taken in a hurry as that, when a decision is taken that property will be passed on to a gallery or the National Trust, we want speedy action then so that money is not lying in someone else's bank account when it could be earning interest or purchasing other properties. The spadework takes time. It will perhaps be done over months, but the actual ownership of the property by the trustees should be for the minimum time possible.

I do not think that it is a question of money lying in someone else's bank account. I am not sure that that would be my version of the situation. It is known that the Whips do not wish our proceedings to be too protracted. I do not wish to make a meal of the matter. I give notice, however, that I shall write to the Minister in the hope that there will be a Lords amendment and some reflection given to what is admittedly a complex issue. I shall not withdraw the amendment, but it will doubtless be negatived.

Amendment negatived.