New Clause. — (Injury to Ancient Monuments by Their Owners.)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd July 1953.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Nicolson Mr Nigel Nicolson , Bournemouth East and Christchurch 12:00 am, 22nd July 1953

I apologise for detaining the House for two or three minutes but I do so because it seems to me that this new Clause is the central point not only of this Part of the Bill but also of all our law relating to ancient monuments, and because discussion upon it was unfortunately curtailed in Committee through lack of time. I thank the Solicitor-General for having gone at least some of the way to meet the points which we advanced in Committee, but I am afraid I cannot say that I think he has gone all the way to meet what we want done.

The immediate object of the new Clause is to remove the absurd anomaly whereby an owner of an ancient monument cannot be prosecuted for defacing it, but it leaves in some doubt what is the meaning of the words "injure or deface" used in the relevant section of the 1913 Act. In the last 40 years has there been an interpretation of those words in the courts? Do they, for instance, include damage through neglect or carelessness or use which may be perfectly proper in one sense but may be damaging to the monument?

If I were a member of a court interpreting the new Clause instead of a Member of this House discussing how it should be phrased, I should not be inclined to interpret the phrase "injure or deface" to include those categories which I have mentioned, and I think it is a great pity that my hon. and learned Friend has not been able so to rephrase the Clause that it includes those categories. After all, damage to an ancient monument is very seldom wilful but is often done through ignorance or, possibly, indifference.

The Solicitor-General will not agree to put into an Act of Parliament a Clause which makes it obligatory upon an owner to protect a monument by spending money upon its upkeep or by losing money through refraining from using that part of the land on which the monument stands for a purpose which might otherwise be harmless and for which he would normally use it. Could my hon. and learned Friend not make it quite clear that the owner is under an obligation to take all reasonable care of the monument which happens to stand in his field? Could he not re-phrase the Clause in that way so that an owner would, for instance, be obliged to put his cattle, which might otherwise damage a very important prehistoric or local monument, in another field instead of in the field in which the monument stands?

Of course, that would be an inconvenience to the owner, but it is always an inconvenience to have an ancient monument upon your property. Recently, I was engaged in negotiating for the purchase of a farm in Wiltshire which had three scheduled monuments upon it and, quite rightly, the solicitors who acted for us pointed out the existence of those monuments as a drawback to the property, which we accepted, just as we should have accepted an outcrop of natural rock in the middle of a field, as detracting from its value.

It seems to me, having very carefully re-read the Solicitor-General's arguments in the Standing Committee, that there is a slight inconsistency here, because in some cases we put an obligation upon an owner to look after an ancient monument, as we allow him under this very Bill certain compensation if, in having to look after a monument, he loses money. In Clause 13 (5) it is said that If … it appears to the Minister that owing to neglect the monument is liable to fall into decay, the Minister may, with the consent of the Treasury, make an order… that is, a guardianship order for that monument.

But the trouble is the Treasury will so seldom consent, and my right hon. Friend has so little money with which to take monuments under his guardianship. Unless something is done I am afraid that the greater number of monuments will never be under the Minister's guardianship but will remain in private ownership and I would ask even at this late stage my right hon. Friend to incorporate in the Bill some words the effect of which would be to make owners look after monuments on their land.

What is the object of the Ancient Monuments Act? It is to protect ancient monuments. That signifies that we have reached a stage of civilisation in which we regard the monuments of previous civilisations as worthy of preservation for our own sake and for their sake and the records they embody. If a monument is destroyed either the principal Act is too weak or it is weakly administered, and I think that in this particular case both are true. The Act is weakly administered because my right hon. Friend is short of staff and money with which to look after the monuments. In this Bill we have an opportunity to strengthen the principal Act itself, and not only by administrative means but by altering the penalties for wilful damage or for neglect which leads to the damage of a monument, to help to protect the monuments.

We have a priceless record of antiquity in this country. Foreign archaeologists who come to England are astonished at the wealth we have in this respect, but they are equally astonished at the neglect with which we treat our monuments. Even at this late stage I do beg my right hon. Friend to look at this matter again.