I wish to address the House upon the function of the Land Commission. You will be relieved to hear, Mr. Speaker, that my speech deals with only a very narrow point. I am not concerned with the criticisms that the Conservative Party made of the establishment of the Land Commission—that it would send up the price of land and create an unnecessary establishment of extra civil servants.
I am a director of a company which entered into a transaction, and it received a communication from the Commission saying that it had been notified of the event described in the letter which accompanied the note and was considering:
whether you may be liable to betterment levy in respect of that event, and in order to arrive at a preliminary decision as to liability it is necessary to have further information. Will you, accordingly, answer the questions in the letter, which are of a factual nature. For your guidance notes on the questions are printed on the reverse side of the perforated sheet which may be detached and used for your reply. Members of the Commission's staff will be glad to assist you in answering these questions if you are to call at the regional office (preferably by appointment)".
It adds that if one seeks professional advice, the Commission will pay the fees incurred, only if liability to levy is established.
What was the transaction? The rather formidable questionnaire which accompanies this is headed:
Section 43 Land Commission Act, 1967".
There is a long reference with about 12 letters and numbers, and it says:
The Commission have been notified of the transaction described below as required by Section 37 of the Land Commission Act 1967. As you may be liable for betterment levy in respect of this transaction will you please give the information requested below quoting in your reply the reference shown at
the head of this letter.… The details of the notification are as follows:
Transfer of fee simple of 29·5 square yards, land off the easterly side of Audlem Road, and forming part of the Parkfield Estate, Nantwich, on 28th May 1968 to Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board for the sum of £25.
I hasten to add that I have the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris)—and his support—for raising the matter. At this late hour his constituency might be confused with mine—Northwich.
The 29·5 sq. yds. is about 18 ft. by 15 ft. It is the size of a smallish office. The land was sold as the site of a pylon for £25.
The questions which must be answered are formidable. I will not weary the House be detailing all of them, but some are worth reading. Question 3 asks,
Was any part of the sum mentioned above—
Does the sum mentioned above take into account any increase in value, consequent upon this transaction, of any other land in which you own an interest? If so, please give particulars.
Did you acquire your interest in the land on or after 1st July 1948?
Please give particulars of any income received from the property …
What was the land being used for before the transaction?
In fact, cows were using it for the needs of nature.
Do you claim an allowance in respect of Estate Duty paid? If so, please state the name and the date of death of the person in respect of whose estate the duty was paid …
Do you claim a deduction in respect of Capital Gains Tax or Corporation Tax …?
If you own an interest in any other land for which no compensation for severance or other injurious affection has been paid and which you claim has been depreciated in value in consequence of the acquisition, please give brief particulars including sufficient details to enable such land to be identified.
This is a scandal. It cannot be said that it was a mistake because at the top it states what the transaction was—
Transfer of fee simple of 29·5 square yards … for the sum of £25.
If we assume that the land was worth nothing—not an assumption which was true in fact—the maximum which the
Land Commission would be entitled to receive would be 40 per cent. of £25. But many other considerations enter into it.
I understand that this is not an isolated instance. The Land Commission takes notice of any betterment levy of more than £5. It is rather like the exemption from Capital Gains Tax for a gain of £50. One has to calculate the amount of the betterment levy to see whether one falls below the exemption limit of £5.
I do not want to be petulant at this hour. The scandal speaks for itself. It must have cost a lot of money to send out this form and for civil servants to look at the notification under Section 37 of the Act and to establish what was the assessment. Suppose we took this seriously—and we have to do so—and filled in all the particulars. All this is merely leading up to a preliminary decision whether there is liability, and after that preliminary decision comes the fight between us and the Land Commission whether any amount is due at all. A point of law could be just as vigorously maintained on each side as if the amount were £25,000. The amount concerned does not make any less the validity or otherwise of the points of law.
I raise this matter because it shows bureaucracy gone mad. One of the criticisms which we make of the Government is that they have increased the number of civil servants beyond reason and that the way in which legislation has been drafted in many cases leads to a plethora of form filling and questionnaires. Some 17 or 18 years ago in my constituency I was criticising the then Labour Government saying that the advent of that Labour Government had meant that many forms had to be filled in and that the time of fanners was taken up in form filling instead of in agriculture. A voice at the back of the hall said, "As a farmer I have so many forms to fill in that I have had to engage two new shorthorn typists." That comment was received well by the agricultural community.
I am sure that the Minister will say that it must be ascertained whether any amount is due and that there are bound to be borderline cases. But surely there should be a rule whereby an official at a certain level in the Land Commission is empowered to draw a pencil stroke through a case where it is obvious to him that the amount to be recovered is not worth fighting for. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman really think that we should fill in all these answers and continue with the correspondence in such cases? One is tempted to fill them up facetiously in such trivial transactions.
There are many cases where the local authority is responsible for delay. For example, preliminary consent may have been given but final consent comes after the due date. The result is that the man finds he has to pay a big sum in betterment levy perhaps only because the relevant committee of the local council met on a Thursday instead of a Tuesday.
In a case in my constituency, the Chairman of the Commission wrote to say that this was the luck of the draw, that it was rather like taxation in that a particular date was fixed and there was nothing to be done about it. But it is hard that a betterment levy should depend not on anything the man himself does but on whether the local council's action takes place slowly or quickly.
We are justified in bringing to the attention of the House the work of the Land Commission in this small particular, which is symptomatic of the way of bureaucracy. It is rumoured that the Land Commission has not enough to do and these cases indicate that this is true. While the hon. and learned Gentleman may not be able to give satisfaction in this debate, I hope that he will take these things to heart and see whether some reform cannot be made in the functioning of the Commission.