Column 1143English provision. Therefore, will the Solicitor-General clarify the position for me, and perhaps for other hon. Members? If a deed--we are talking about deeds which very often involve relatively small amounts--is to be effective, does it need to be sealed, or can it be effective without attestation and sealing?
The Solicitor-General : A deed, to be effective, so that it could be enforced at law, requires to be signed, sealed and delivered. Although the sealing has now become very much a formality, and tends to have a little circle, or a little circle with the letters "LS" in the middle of it in place of the type of seal which applied in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when people were less familiar with writing and wanted to have some other way of marking their formal approval to a document, it is, nevertheless, a requirement today. However, it has become an outdated formality and it will cease to be a requirement, so that difficulty will be removed.
It is a matter of balance and judgment, but I urge upon the House the argument that the Law Commission has thought about the matter carefully and that we have had the opportunity for further thought in correspondence with a number of charities that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has mentioned. I recommend to the House that the Bill has got it right and that the amendment should not be accepted.
Solicitor-General has said, and I accept that some thought has been given to the matter. The amendment was tabled principally as a response to the concern of a number of charities. I hope that, if experience suggests that the system proposed in the Bill, which will no doubt shortly be enacted, will result in any diminution of the amounts being given to charities, the matter will be the subject of further consideration.
Having said that I am a Scotsman, I can tell the House that, in Scotland, if one writes a holograph and signs one's own name, that is quite effective. Perhaps that is something for our English colleagues to learn.
Order for Third Reading read.--[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) : There is a small matter in the Bill on which I am not altogether clear. Clause 2, begins : "A contract for the sale or other disposition of an interest in land can only be made in writing and only by incorporating all the terms which the parties have expressly agreed in one document or, where contracts are exchanged, in each".
A little later, the clause says :
"This section does not apply in relation to",
"a contract made in the course of a public auction".
I am not a lawyer, but I am a chartered surveyor, and I have been to many public property auctions. If you went to such a public auction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would have a catalogue in which you would find general and special conditions of sale. We all know that, in an auction, at the fall of the hammer, the contract is made. There is
Column 1144then a memorandum that has to be signed. I believe that it forms part of the contract, in which are incorporated the general and special conditions of sale.
I think that I am right in saying that a contract can be void for uncertainty. It occasionally happens in property auctions that someone sticks his hand up, the property is knocked down to him, and he disappears. Here, we have a provision which seems to remove any confirmation of a sale. There seems to be a discrepancy. I do not understand it, and I should be most grateful for some clarification. 11.50 pm
The arrangements about sealing change the law from that which was mediaeval to that which is modern. I am not absolutely convinced that witnesses were necessary to sealing, but I understand that the reason is that the incidence of fraud is fairly high, and having a witness is likely to reduce it. We are glad that the other formalities have gone and that we are to follow what is in reality the practice. The law has always been arcane in respect of the rule that contracts have to be evidenced in writing rather than to be in writing. People have found that they have made contracts by accident, and they have not always been helped by judges who have made decisions about these matters without knowledge of how the world works outside the court.
We also have the repeal of the rule in Bain v . Fothergill. I think that that redeems a Conservative party pledge. What I hope will flow from the passage of the Bill is a change in the nature of conveyancing. The vendor's solicitors will in future spend much longer preparing the contract package and examining their own title, and the purchaser will not have to find a catch in the contract. I hope that the practice of vendors having to look at the title, which they do not have to do at the moment, will expand, so that when a purchaser receives a contract, it is as complete as it can possibly be. The result is that conveyancing will be simpler and cheaper. This is an important Bill, and I hope that it will not pass unnoticed. 11.52 pm
The Solicitor-General : I am grateful for what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has just said. This is an important Bill. It is short, but it modernises the law in extremely sensible and practical ways.
With regard to detailed law, I must refer my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) to his learned societies. It is not for me to give him advice. It must be very clear, as I am sure he will appreciate when he reads the Bill at his leisure, that, at an auction, the sale is completed at the fall of the hammer ; the opportunity for writing and signature would not be appropriate, so there is that exclusion.
This is a very sensible little Bill. It has passed quickly, but not without careful thought, and I commend it to the House.
Bill read the Third time, and passed, without amendment .
Read a Second time.
Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.-- [Mr. Patnick.] Bill immediately considered in Committee : reported, without amendment.
Order for Third Reading read.--[Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]
Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 75 (Third Reading), and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.
Statutory Instruments, &c.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the Leeds Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (British Railways Board) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the Leeds Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (General) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Port of Tyne Authority and British Railways Board) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Various Local Authorities) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.-- [Mr. Patnick.]
Question agreed to.
That Mr. Secretary Wakeham be discharged from the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) and Sir Geoffrey Howe be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Patnick.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Patnick.]
I am glad to have this opportunity to debate the future of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, Melton Mowbray. The debate is especially relevant now because, if certain ideas floating around the Ministry of Defence were to be accepted by Ministers, the RAVC, Melton Mowbray, would have no future at all. As I have told three successive Defence Ministers--I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces to the debate--the RAVC has long believed that some officials in the Ministry of Defence have for many years wanted to close the operation at Melton Mowbray, and have not hesitated to say who they are. I look to my hon. Friend to ensure that such fears are groundless.
I say to the Minister in the most unmistakable terms that the RAVC is an integral part of Melton Mowbray. It has been there with the horses as a remount centre since 1903 and has been continually used for horses since that time. The Army dog training school, which was already under RAVC command, has been in Melton Mowbray since 1946. The current facilities in Melton Mowbray are the Army veterinary hospital which deals with all horse and dog surgery in the Army. It has facilities for hospitalising 24 horses and seven ill dogs. It has custom-built equine and canine operating theatres, with all the necessary support facilities, as well as an equine and canine radiographic and medical treatment complex.
The average daily in-patient figures last summer were 10 horses and four dogs, and a further 10 horses and six dogs were treated daily as out- patients. That excludes routine inspections, vaccinations or radiography. The Army school of equitation trains equitation instructors, supervisors for mounted units and, of course, the horses. There are extensive stabling provisions, an indoor riding school and facilities for field and obstacle exercises, many of which have been extensively refurbished in the last five years. Training courses continue virtually all year.
The Army school of farriery was purpose-built in 1962, and is recognised as one of the best teaching facilities in Europe. It trains Army farriers and also shoes the Army's horses. The remounts depot at Melton Mowbray deals each year with 60 to 70 young, unbroken or partially broken horses which are purchased by the Army. They are put to grass in Melton Mowbray and vaccinated, and become accustomed to being handled before being passed to regiments such as the Household Cavalry or the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. Sick or tired horses also receive rest and recuperation at grass at Melton. Of course, there is also the dog school. It supports 1,219 Army- trained dogs worldwide, of which 20 per cent. require to be replaced each year. The school trains both dogs and their handlers. More than 550 student handlers and between 240 and 260 dogs are trained each year. However, the staffing establishment remains small. The military personnel at Melton Mowbray are currently 135,
Column 1147of whom 53 are members of the Women's Royal Army Corps. There are 33 civilians. Among the facilities available are free access for the Army to about 40,000 acres of commercial property and surrounding farmland, including many public and private premises in the town, which are made freely and willingly available by local people for specialised dog training.
Within the camp itself there is a purpose-built RYPE village on a 10-acre site, with a security fence, for training in arms and explosives searches. There are also 250 acres available for dog training within the estate. Quite deliberately, horses, cattle and sheep are kept grazing there, as that is an essential part of Army dog training. There is a former gun test range at Asfordby about a mile away, and 40 acres in size, which also provides important training facilities.
As there is such a formidable infrastructure of training and achievement, and such excellent results are being achieved, one might think that it would all be the subject of congratulations. Instead, there has been a relentless and restless determination by the Ministry of Defence to scrap it, or initially to merge the dog training with that of the Royal Air Force. The Ministry first studied the proposed merger, and rejected it, in 1966, but it dug up the roots again to inspect them in 1972, 1975 and 1977, and on each occasion confirmed the previous result.
In 1978, the Minister told the former Expenditure Committee that it would be a waste of time to re-examine the matter. However, its fingers remained itchy, and in March 1982, there was yet another review, which recommended a joint dog training school at RAF Newton and RAF Syerston, and that the horse activities at Melton should be contracted out, with the entire site being sold. Those drastic proposals fell apart in 1983, when a test trial of civilian dog handling proved a failure, and further studies found that moving the equine facilities was either impractical or more expensive, or both. There were further studies on dogs alone in 1983, 1984 and 1985. In 1985, we actually got a decision, which was announced to Parliament by Lord Trefgarne and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee), who was then the Minister. On 9 July 1985, my hon. Friend announced in answer to me that all service dogs would be trained at RAF Newton by 1989, but under the command of an RAVC officer. He added that the equine activities would remain unchanged at Melton and
"There are no plans to transfer these functions to any other location in the foreseeable future."
He added that the Army was grateful to the people of Melton Mowbray for their support of the RAVC and the pride that they had shown by granting the corps the freedom of the borough in 1977--an occasion at which I was present. My hon. Friend the then Minister said : "We look forward to the continuance of this happy relationship."--[ Official Report, 9 July 1985, Vol. 82, c. 404. ]
That was not good enough for me, and I reported the whole matter to the Comptroller and Auditor General, in my capacity as a member of the Public Accounts Committee.
There were then further Ministry studies, in 1986, 1987 and 1988, following ministerial recommendations or visits by Ministers to the RAVC. We have now had 12 separate
Column 1148investigations since 1966. As the former permanent secretary, Sir Clive Whitmore, admitted to me at the Public Accounts Committee hearing on 30 March 1987 :
"We must have spent a great deal of money in the past investigating the possibilities of rationalising dog training."
He can say that again.
We now have the latest proposal by Peat, Marwick, McLintock to close the RAVC altogether, and set up a service animal centre at RAF Syerston, but with administrative support at RAF Newton. I have not seen the report, so I do not know what expertise, if any, its authors had in equine or dog training. First, the RAF has no horses so all the input from the horses to the service animal centre would come from the Army, but for 20 from the Marines.
Secondly, the RAF has no vets, and neither have the Marines. RAF Newton uses a civilian vet who visits twice a week, and he was living 100 milies away at the time of the 1985 inquiry. Only the RAVC has full-time military personnel in uniform who are qualified vets. There is no equine and canine hospital at Syerston, but there is one at Melton.
There is no equitation or farriery school at Syerston, although there is at Melton. There is no built-up urban environmental training facility at Syerston, which is a remote rural location. There are no officers' married quarters there--only a few NCOs' and airmen's quarters. There are no shops or welfare facilities, and the nearest doctor is seven miles away. All these things are fully and immediately available in Melton Mowbray, a growing town of nearly 30, 000 people.
As for Syerston, one needs to cross the busy A46 road to get to the adjoining land where any training would be done. Syerston will need to provide all these facilities, or place them at RAF Newton and then transport the animals eight miles--wastefully--by road every day, a practice condemned on operational grounds by the Director of Army Veterinary Services in 1985. Incidentally, his professional report was suppressed by the then director of personnel, who declined to attach it to the working party report in 1985. I have seen the documents confirming that that was so.
No notice has been taken of the separate report by an independent expert, Mr. Pagliero, who was originally commissioned by Mr. R. L. Facer, who is still advising Ministers on this whole affair. Mr. Pagliero concluded that the Army's dog training was better than that of the RAF and that the work would be better done at Melton. Needless to say, the RAF and the MOD rejected this advice from an independent consultant, because it did not produce the conclusions that they wanted to hear.
As far as I can see, there are no operational advantages in the proposed course of action. I see very little point in a joint service animal school, anyway. The Army and RAF dogs are trained in different ways for different purposes. The different training techniques will have to continue separately, so why mess around with the present arrangements?
As for the horses, it is quite absurd to contemplate--even Lord Trefgarne did not--moving the horse facilities somewhere else, when they are working very well at Melton and would need total rebuilding in another place. I hope that the MOD also realises that the 33 civilian staff would probably be made redundant, since they are highly
Column 1149unlikely to be able to move to Newton or Syerston. Yet they are highly trained and skilled, and used to dealing with animals. Apart from all the new building infrastructure which will be needed, there will have to be new kennels, new paddocks and new fencing, and cattle and sheep will have to be available for training and for effective pasture management. The RAVC is also converting some of its buildings in order to move a laboratory to Melton Mowbray from Aldershot. What is to happen to it? Will my hon. Friend give a categorical assurance that he will give the highest priority to the expert veterinary advice which he receives on the project? That should be a paramount consideration.
The only possible reason for this upheaval seems to be the hope that the whole Melton site can be sold off for housing development. I have already explained to my hon. Friend why that is very unlikely ; but I will not do the job of the consultant to the developers by explaining why here and now. If the Ministry wants to rationalise its estate, as the PAC has frequently urged it to do, let it start with all that wasteful property in London to which the National Audit Office drew attention in recently published reports. Perhaps the MOD could raise umpteen millions by selling the main building in Whitehall, which churned out a dozen reports on the RAVC in 20 years but produced no action.
I suggest that my hon. Friend contemplate what happened to the proposed move of the radar section at RAF North Luffenham to RAF Henlow ; or the proposed move of the aviation medical centre at North Luffenham to RAF Mount Batten ; or the proposed joint service music school. All these published plans fell apart under serious scrutiny by the NAO, the PAC and the Ministry itself. I strongly suspect that the same will happen with this cock-eyed scheme, and it might save a lot of staff time to drop it now.
I ask my hon. Friend to think of the effect on service morale of all this fiddling about. The RAVC has very important military duties to perform-- against terrorism in Northern Ireland, and in Germany, Hong Kong and Cyprus. It does no good for the morale of the corps if it feels that its main unit at Melton is under threat. Many former members of the corps retire in the Melton Mowbray area, where they are popular and valuable members of the community. The RAVC unit makes a fine presence at the annual Remembrance day parade, and the commandant always takes the salute. In Melton, queen of the shires, where horses and dogs are a way of life for so many, the RAVC is an honoured and integral part. Only last April, the mayor of Melton and the leader of the council wrote in glowing terms to the Adjutant General of the Army about the RAVC.
My advice to my hon. Friend is to dump the plans. If he must proceed with an animal joint service centre, he should ask himself which unit has a veterinary hospital, a ripe village, 40,000 acres of free land, a farriery and equitation school and unrivalled expertise with dogs and horses. The answer, of course, is Melton Mowbray. We are proud of our vetcamp, as we call it. Let the new centre for all the armed services be based there, if there has to be one at all, but the best course of action would be the status quo, as was recommended to Ministers by Admiral Herbert, Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff in December 1984.
Column 1150The present arrangements work well, so leave them alone. If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it--a good message for a Conservative Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : The House will wish to join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) on his persistence in drawing our attention to his constituents' views on any proposal to transfer the Royal Army Veterinary Corps away from Melton Mowbray. Not only has he raised the matter tonight, but he has closely monitored the progress of studies over many years by raising the matter in this House, by meeting me and my predecessors and by correspondence. Thanks to my hon. Friend I am in no doubt of the ties of mutual respect and affection which are the hallmarks of the relationship between the people of Melton Mowbray and the members of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. I join my predecessors in acknowledging this and in expressing my thanks to the people of Melton Mowbray for the warm support which they have always given to the corps. The spirit which has developed between the borough council, the people of the town and the Army would be impossible to overlook or lightly to cast aside.
However, it is our duty and our policy to ensure value for money over all defence activities, particularly those which support our front-line commitments. I am sure my hon. Friend, as a distinguished member of the Public Accounts Committee, would wish to encourage the Ministry of Defence in this direction--he has already indicated that tonight--especially where rationalisation of similar activities between one service and another enables us to manage the defence estate more efficiently and to obtain receipts from the sale of valuable land.
The size of the defence estate depends on the needs of the services and the procurement executive, but we are determined that it should be no larger than is necessary for the services to carry out their tasks efficiently and effectively. We vigorously pursue opportunities to dispose of land and buildings no longer required for defence purposes. In 1987-88 we raised more than £75 million by such sales and last year we doubled that figure to £150 million. Those sums are in addition to more than £400 million achieved in sales of land since 1979.
Ministry of Defence landholdings of some 600,000 acres account for about 1 per cent. of the total area of the United Kingdom. Some four fifths of that MOD land, however, is accounted for by airfields and training areas, and our main opportunities for reduction and rationalisation are therefore likely to occur in the remaining area, occupied by facilities such as depots, workshops and barrack accommodation. We are always seeking to identify opportunities for rationalisation in those areas, and decisions on future deployments take account of the estate costs, although our main consideration must be and remain the operational needs of the armed forces. It was against that background that we decided, as my predecessor Lord Trefgarne announced in another place, to rationalise Army and RAF dog training in one location. As we have heard, the Army trains dogs and handlers at Melton Mowbray. The RAF trains dogs and handlers at RAF Newton, some 17 miles from Melton Mowbray. The tasks for which the dogs are trained at these two centres
Column 1151have many similarities. Both services train dogs in guarding and in deterring and detecting intruders. Both services develop the scenting ability of dogs in order to detect the presence of drugs or explosives, and both services train dogs and handlers to a very high standard. That is not to say that there have been no differences in the training, but they seemed to be outweighed by the similarities. The case for rationalisation in one location was compelling, therefore, but there remained doubts as to which location was the most suitable. Because of doubts expressed about whether RAF Newton, together with the nearby RAF Syerston, was the most economical location, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), now the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, commissioned consultants to undertake a review.
The consultants' study has been very thorough. They visited not only Melton Mowbray and RAF Newton but a number of operational units where dogs are employed, including a unit in Northern Ireland. They did this so that they could understand clearly what was expected of the personnel and animals trained at the two centres. They then studied every activity which led to the provision of the trained animal and trainer. Those included the testing and health checks of dogs, arrangements for their collection, rejection rates during training, the training syllabuses, and feeding and veterinary care of the animals. They discussed capital requirements with the training authorities, the service quartering branches and the Property Services Agency. They sub-contracted the assessment of development potential of the sites and of the prospective values to a firm of valuers with particular expertise in those matters. Representatives of the firm visited the sites and discussed development potential with officers of the responsible planning authorities.
At the end of that very thorough study, the consultants confirmed the validity of the decision taken by my noble Friend the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces in 1985 that the sensible way to provide dog training in the future was to form a joint service school at RAF Syerston and RAF Newton. The consultants, however, have also taken account of the fact that dog and handler training is not the only activity undertaken at Melton Mowbray. The RAVC centre is also responsible for training horses and equitation instructors, as well as being the depot of the corps, responsible for the administration and management of officers, men and women serving in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. The consultants have shown that considerably greater savings can be achieved by also providing equine and equitation training and the RAVC depot facilities at the joint school, thus forming a service animal centre.
The investment appraisal carried out by the consultants shows that, while substantial savings in operating costs can be achieved by creating a service animal centre, the scale of the savings in capital costs depends on the value placed on land disposals. The consultants advised that there are prospects for development of the land now occupied by the RAVC centre at Melton Mowbray. My announcement, in my reply to my hon. Friend, on 13 July, of the intention to form a service animal centre enables my Department to enter into consultations with the local planning authority.
Column 1152However, as I also said in my reply of 13 July, a further factor which must be borne in mind is the study into the future of the whole RAF estate. That study has the objective, to which I have already referred, of ensuring that we manage our estate as efficiently as possible and dispose of that which is no longer needed. We shall need to consider the consultants' recommendations concerning dog training and the formation of a service animal centre in the light of the outcome of the study into the RAF estate, particularly, of course, in so far as it affects Syerston and Newton.
A further factor touching on the use of Syerston is the effect on present activities there. RAF Syerston is currently used for gliding, including the training of gliding instructors for the air cadet corps. The provision of flying experience, including gliding, is a highly effective way of fostering young people's interest in careers in the Royal Air Force. The consultants' recommendation to form a service animal centre at Syerston assumed that the area there needed for facilities for gliding would be reduced. We are considering this, bearing in mind the need to ensure that equine and canine-related training on the one hand, and gliding instruction on the other, can be safely and satisfactorily collocated.
Despite the further work involved in deciding how best to implement the consultants' main recommendation, we should not lose sight of the benefits already emerging from the studies. Recommendations were also made concerning the most economical means of procuring dogs and the possibility of further civilianisation of support staffs. These recommendations are being considered by the services. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the implementation of certain other of the consultants' recommendations, concerning the common adoption of best practices, is expected to save at least £4 million in running costs over the next 10 years. This alone provides a remarkably good return on the effort we have invested in our studies on this subject. If we can now resolve the question of the location of the service animal centre, I am confident that we shall be able to provide training in the future that maintains existing high standards while savings to the defence budget accrue.
It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge, before concluding, that the uncertainty regarding the future arrangements for training dogs and handlers has given rise to some understandable concern among the people working at the RAVC depot Melton Mowbray and at RAF Newton. It is a great tribute to them all that they have nevertheless continued to maintain the highest standards. The results of some of the training provided at Melton Mowbray and at Newton will have been evident to the public in the very high standards of ceremonial drill and displays, for which the services are rightly renowned, but much of the work of dogs and their handlers is conducted in circumstances far less comfortable than display arenas, be it in the guarding of defence installations or in the search for drugs and explosives. The operational effectiveness of dogs and handlers is of an equally high standard and I am glad to have the opportunity to pay tribute to the RAVC and the RAF provost branch alike on the excellent standards that they consistently maintain in training and handling service animals. I can assure them that I have very much in mind the need to resolve the present uncertainties as soon as possible.
Column 1153I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the interest that he has shown, and I can assure him that I shall take full account of his views and advice when I make my decision.
Column 1154Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Twelve o'clock.
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