Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 11:48 am, 8th September 2016

My Lords, I am right behind what the noble Baroness said about the importance of charities and I am right behind them—but no charity is beyond scrutiny. During 2016 so far there has been a growing chorus of concern about the lobbying activities and associated behaviour of one charity set up by statute, the National Trust, and particularly the activities and behaviour of those in the regions away from London, with some terrible publicity recently for a once universally revered outfit.

I am not clambering aboard any bandwagons here, for in a short debate I sponsored in your Lordships’ House back on 12 November 2001 on the need to modernise the National Trust’s governing legislation, many issues were raised concerning inadequate corporate governance, lack of transparency, lack of regional representation in particular, and lack of regulation of its activities. All that was missing then, from today’s cocktail of concerns, was growing concern about lobbying by the National Trust.

The distinguished social theorist, the Anglican canon and the London solicitor who set up the National Trust in late Victorian England—and our predecessors in this and another place who passed the statute in Edwardian England—could not have foreseen what a landed leviathan the National Trust would become. The National Trust, indeed, has accumulated holdings that no Whig magnate in our House in the 18th century could ever have dreamed of accumulating. It has more than 600,000 acres of land, close to 600 miles of coastline and about 250 monuments and buildings. Yet the National Trust is totally unregulated, except by itself. Some people say that it is out of touch and increasingly remote. That, perhaps, is simply a function of the scale and size of the National Trust.

I believe that the present scale and organisation of the National Trust is inconsistent with the Government’s modernising agenda, which I strongly support, because devolution and accountability are increasingly part not just of regional rhetoric but of regional reality. Yet in 2016 the National Trust has set off on a totally new course with its additional lobbying activity, producing a new and positive blizzard of lobbying and a maelstrom of demands and advice, in relation to—just listen to the litany—global climate change policy, fracking, wind farms, and then, as if it was Defra, proposing a six-point national agricultural policy for post-Brexit rural times, with farmers, of course, to be denied subsidy or support unless they pursue particular environmental agendas. These environmental agendas may not be wrong but the suggestion is certainly extraordinary.

At the same time, and in lock-step with a change of focus into becoming this new lobbying organisation, the National Trust seems to have developed a new line in what can only be called autocratic and out-of-touch behaviour, whether towards farmers or cricketers. We just heard about cricketers and warm beer from the noble Baroness on the Front Bench. Just listen to what we have seen in the last four weeks. As far as farmers are concerned, there was the gazumping of local farmers in the Lake District, who were all at an auction to bid for a very delicate, upland hill farm area where they have long been active as the last, rather fragile link with our traditional farming heritage, and very welcome low-cost custodians of our man-made landscapes. Up pops some agent of the National Trust, bidding hundreds of thousands of pounds more than any chartered surveyor would suggest the land was worth as farmland, with all the casual insouciance of someone waving the cheque-book of a land-accumulating Ukrainian oligarch.

Let us turn to cricket and football and the National Trust’s attitude to these activities. Just yesterday, as reported in the Times—and therefore it must be true—the National Trust is evicting the local football and cricket teams from pitches in the park of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. They have been there for decades—almost time out of mind: father to son, and, I dare say, mother to daughter—playing football and cricket and occupying just 1% of the 900 acres of the Shugborough estate. This was because, as a National Trust representative was quoted in the Times as saying:

“Football and cricket really are non-traditional activities”.

You could not make it up. Generations ago the aristocrats used to encourage people to play cricket and football there. I suppose that was noblesse oblige, which is not always to be sneered at—whereas the new autocrats of the National Trust want to turf them out. Again, you could not make it up.

The trust needs to be better regulated. It was set up by statute for the benefit of the whole nation and its citizens, not just for the executive and paid-up members of the National Trust. There needs to be someone to whom complaints can be made, whether by an aggrieved tenant farmer or a member of the general public such as me or anybody else who just happens not to be a member of the trust. After that there is an urgent need for a full review, best set up by the National Trust itself, into its own governance since 1907. It has grown and grown in a way that is not its fault or that it could ever have predicted. I urge it to do this. The noble Lord, Lord Bragg—I apologise for not having suggested this to him in advance—would make a splendid independent chairman of such an independent commission into the National Trust. It would look at the trust to make quite sure that indeed acts in the national interest, cleaving to its statutory and charitable origins.