§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ VISCOUNT BRIDGEMAN
My Lords, the Second Reading of the Corn Rents Bill, which I rise to move, I hope will not tax your Lordships unduly or keep you long, but, however great the pressure of Business or however late the hour, I feel I should spend a few minutes in telling your Lordships what corn rents are all about. Corn rents are a rent charge 73 imposed years ago on certain pieces of property. The annual value of that rent charge varies with the price of corn, in the same way as did the tithe rent charge, until it was stabilised in the first war and finally replaced by annuities in 1936.
Most of the corn rents nowadays, though not all, are owned by the Church of England and collected by the Church Commissioners. Some of your Lordships have met these corn rents before. The first time I met them was at quarter sessions in my county, where we had to deal with a corn rent dependent on the content of a Winchester bushel; and all the work in the office of the clerk of the peace ground to a halt while the best brains got to work on what was a Winchester bushel. I have also heard of disputes in East Anglia—and the noble Lord, Lord Walston, may confirm this—whether or not corn rents should take into account cereal deficiency payments. One's view depends on whether one is a debtor or a creditor.
As with the tithe itself and with the land tax (which, until the present Budget, we had been saddled with since the Marlborough Wars), common sense now demands that there should be a simple means of extinguishing these corn rents by the payment of a lump sum. For good or bad reasons (it does not matter now), this problem of corn rents was never tackled at the time the problem of tithes was tackled in 1936. In theory, it is now possible to extinguish a corn rent, but the procedure, I am told, is so cumbersome that in fact it is nearly always difficult enough to be impracticable. What is more, it involves reference to the Inclosure Acts—Private Acts made at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, copies of which are extremely hard to find.
My Lords, by this time I think that any reader of Trollope's novels will immediately have jumped to the conclusion that the Department responsible for all this must be the Petty Bag Office. But that is not so. The Department which has been responsible hitherto is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and from 1928 to now that Ministry, although they were empowered to lay an order to clear up the matter of corn rents, have found it difficult. I might say, my Lords, that in my experience this 74 is not the only dusty corner in that Ministry which new brooms like the Ryan Report have not touched. I could tell your Lordships of at least another one, but unfortunately that would be out of order. Since this is so I am sure your Lordships will be glad to hear that, if this Bill becomes law, the Inland Revenue will take the matter in hand. They have, in fact, been administering the corn rents since April, 1960; and if this Bill passes into law it will now be possible for them to make a scheme to deal with the matter, which, as I say, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have so far failed to do.
So, my Lords, under Clause 1 the Commissioners of Inland Revenue may, and no doubt will, make a new redemption scheme. I imagine that they will work this out with the Church Commissioners and with all other interested parties, and will arrange the scheme in such a way that it can be dealt with in Parliament by the Negative Resolution procedure. Under Clause 2 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are discharged from responsibility in the matter; and in my opinion, as I have just said, high time, too! Clause 3 is formal, though I am sorry that we have to have subsection (7), and that there are still some antiquities which have not yet been cleared up and cannot he brought into this Bill. However, my honourable friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said in another place that the fact that this Bill was passed would not prevent the matter from receiving further attention and would not impede any further legislation to clear it up. I think your Lordships will be as glad to hear that as I am. This Bill, my Lords, comes to us from another place where, thanks to the good offices of my honourable friend the Member for Windsor, it had a smooth passage. I hope that noble friends in front of me will assist the Bill to have a similar passage here. I hope that I have said enough to satisfy your Lordships that this Bill should be read a second time. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Bridgman.)
§ LORD WALSTON
My Lords, I cannot pretend to speak on this matter with the great expert knowledge of the noble Viscount who has just sat down. A Winchester bushel is something of which I 75 have heard, and I believe seen, but I can say no more about it than that. As for the problems of East Anglia, there undoubtedly are many, and this is probably one of them, though nothing like so serious as the problems which arose at one time with regard to tithe redemption and the payment of tithes. I can only say that this seems to me a thoroughly sensible Bill. I am sorry that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has failed to sweep this out of its dusty corners, and that it has to be handed over to some other Ministry to deal with. But if it is to be dealt with in this apparently comparatively smooth way, my friends and I are happy to see it done.
I rather share the noble Viscount's view about the final paragraph in Clause 3, though possibly it is a pleasant historical relic that the Vicar's Rate in Halifax Act, 1877, should remain. I have, perhaps I might say, been refreshing my memory by looking it up, together with the Kendal Corn Rent Act, 1932—a comparatively recent Act, as some of your Lordships will remember. It is perhaps rather a pity that this cannot be included in this Bill, though, as I say, from an historical point of view there is something to be said for these Acts' remaining, to remind us and our successors of the way things used to be done in the far distant days. As a contribution towards getting this country ready for the '70s, which I gather is the paramount theme at the present time, I am quite sure that this Bill is a very valuable one. I can assure your Lordships that anything we can do to expedite the passage of this important Bill, we shall happily do.
§ LORD DENHAM
My Lords, as my noble and gallant friend has explained, this Bill has been prepared to enable the Inland Revenue to improve the machinery for the redemption and apportionment of corn rents. I do not think your Lordships would wish me to enlarge on what my noble friend has said. I should like 76 merely to repeat here an assurance given in another place, that the acceptance of this Bill will in no way prejudice Government consideration of any wider measure than the extinguishment of corn rents. My Lords, I should like again to welcome this Bill on behalf of the Government.
§ VISCOUNT BRIDGEMAN
My Lords, by the leave of the House I rise just to thank the noble Lord, Lord Walston, and my noble friend Lord Denham, very shortly, for the support they have given to the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.