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Mr. Cash: I do not want to get into a slanging match with the Minister, but from the evidence that I have it is clear that the advisory service did a minimal job on this point. The Minister said that it was not for the advisory service to engage in drafting exercises, but this is not the most difficult undertaking. It is a matter of public interest that goes beyond Adlestrop, for the reasons that I have given.

Ms Keeble: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should read the correspondence in his possession carefully, to see how many people in Adlestrop can be identified as having expressed an interest in enfranchising. That would give him some indication of the scale of the issue.

Mr. Cash: The Minister implies that relatively few people are affected, but the issue is not a matter of special pleading in relation to Adlestrop. It may apply to a range of other people throughout the country. When I made that point earlier, the Minister nodded because she knows that the case raises questions on the rural exemption, which the hon. Member for Cleethorpes mentioned, and for many estates in country areas. Such situations could arise in many villages, so the Minister's response is not good enough. I do not wish to engage in a slanging match, but I am concerned that the hon. Lady is being obtuse. It would not be difficult to resolve the question. The hon. Lady has not replied to the debate yet, but I am not happy with the direction of her argument.

Mr. Greg Knight: Is an injustice any less of an injustice if it affects only a few people?

Mr. Cash: That is exactly my point. If the operation of the law in respect of a minority is defective, we have an opportunity to remedy the problem. I am increasingly concerned that the Minister has made a policy decision that the Government will not assist a relatively small number of people in Adlestrop with a problem that has arisen as a result of great complexity in the law. I do not doubt that it has cost the people in question considerable time and expense, but the problem has arisen because earlier legislation is defective. It is a matter of putting right something that is wrong.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon is about to speak to amendment No. 62, dealing with private legislation. I have great experience of those matters and I can tell the Minister that private Acts have been introduced over and over again to deal with special cases that give rise to considerable difficulties in practice. Anomalies exist, and this issue is an example on which the Government could help out. Where is their sense of social justice?

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that the letter from Mr. Mason states that the previous Minister—now the Minister for Local Government—accepted that the problem needed to be addressed? It appears that the Department's policy has changed, because the present Minister's predecessor—she shakes her head, but we have it in writing from Mr. Mason—agreed that the problem needed addressing.

Mr. Cash: I shall not pursue the argument any further.

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7.15 pm

Mr. Wiggin: Following my unhelpful previous intervention, I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Bearing in mind the lack of complexity of amendment No. 88, what does he imagine the Minister would have said to the constituents she offered to meet when they came to talk through their concerns? Would she have tried to persuade them that they did not want to enfranchise? What advantage would the constituents have gained from meeting the Minister on such a straightforward amendment?

Mr. Cash: That is a good question, and we have put it vicariously to the Minister, because she will have heard my hon. Friend's remarks. The mere fact that anomalies affect a limited number of rural areas is no reason—if the Government mean what they say about rural communities, social justice and playing fair with people—to resist the opportunity to remedy a defect in the law. The Bill is before the House and the amendment has been selected. Why will not the Government take the appropriate action? If they are not prepared to do so, we will divide the House on the question. I shall give the Minister the benefit of the doubt until she replies. She knows all about this matter, because she has already told us that she was at the meetings with the Minister for Local Government. I shall listen with great interest to her reply, but without prejudice to any comment I may wish to make on what the hon. Member for Wimbledon says on his mysterious and fascinating amendment.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Amendment No. 62 stands in my name, but I can confirm that I shall not seek to divide the House on it. I wish to seek some assurances from the Minister in relation to a matter that affects my constituents in Wimbledon, but I do not wish to detract from my overall support for the Bill in any way. I was unfortunately not called to speak on Second Reading and could not serve in Committee because of my commitments on another Committee. That is why I am raising this issue on Report.

I am sure that the Minister will accept that I have been a champion of the Bill on behalf of many leaseholders in my constituency who wish to apply for the right to manage and, perhaps, eventually acquire freeholds. On behalf of Mrs. Robertson and the residents of Grosvenor Court, Langham Court and many other constituents, I strongly support the Bill

Amendment No. 62 is compatible with the Bill's overall objectives. However, every new rule requires exceptions in particular circumstances. In this case, those circumstances arise in relation to a particular category of leaseholders in my constituency—those who lease property on Wimbledon common.

To anticipate any possible interventions, I should say that I am not referring to the Wombles, because I have spent many happy hours with my young daughter looking for their houses so far without success.

There are properties on Wimbledon common that are leased and are subject to a private Act. Like my constituents, and indeed the mythical Wombles, my daughter and I have been able to enjoy many happy hours roaming freely on Wimbledon common because the land is protected by that private Act.

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Members who are familiar with the flight path into Heathrow from the east will know that just before planes fly over the neighbouring borough of Richmond, disturbing the residents' sleeping patterns, they fly over a vast green space in south-west London which is Wimbledon common. It is green space because it has not been sold off for development, and that is because it has been protected since 1871 by the private Act.

The private Act is an Act of Parliament that safeguards private property for the public benefit. It allows the property to be leased, but the freehold is held inalienably under its provisions. The Act concerned is the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act 1871. Like many other 19th-century statutes governing open spaces, the Act provides that the commons are to be maintained for the benefit of the public and, in consequence, prohibits the sale of any part of them. Hon. Members will appreciate that the prohibition on sale is intended as a guarantee against alienation of the land.

In anticipation of my speech, hon. Members have asked about the background to the Act. It goes back to when the railway came to Wimbledon and many people sought to move to the area, so there was a premium on the land. Earlier laws and rights going back to feudal times meant that local people could gather firewood and graze their cattle on Wimbledon common. New house owners, who were not themselves dependent on grazing cattle and collecting firewood, were nevertheless aware of those rights, and they came to Parliament and had the rights enshrined in the 1871 Act.

Mr. Cash: Does the hon. Gentleman know which railway it is?

Roger Casale: It is the railway line that goes through Wimbledon station.

Mr. Cash: Which one?

Roger Casale: It is the line that goes into London Waterloo. Before we get distracted—in Committee we heard long treatises about railway stations and embankments throughout the country—I want to emphasise the uniqueness of the provisions enshrined in the 1871 Act.

We in Wimbledon are proud of the tradition that led to the Act and grateful for the measures that have allowed people to enjoy the commons since that time. Clause 142 abolishes the current bar on a tenant who has been granted an extended lease on a property having a claim to the freehold. It so happens that there is a property on Wimbledon common that is held on an extended lease. It might therefore be argued that even though the 1871 Act provides that no part of the commons can be sold, clause 142 trumps that provision and entitles the leaseholder to claim the freehold. Such an outcome would be extremely unfortunate because it would mean that part of the commons would be alienated.

The amendment seeks to put the issue beyond doubt by providing explicitly that clause 142 does not allow the acquisition of the freehold of property held inalienably under a private Act such as the 1871 Act. As I said, I believe the amendment to be consistent with the Government's overall objectives. The consultation paper that preceded the Bill recognised the potential difficulty

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over property held inalienably for the public's benefit under such private Acts. It compared the position with that of properties held by the National Trust, noting in paragraph 92:

The Government recognised that the position of other properties might not be entirely clear and stated in paragraph 94 of the consultation paper that they were

The paper indicated, however, that there might be difficulties concerning the ability to identify all properties that could or should be caught by such an exception. I recognise that difficulty and I have tried to counter it in the wording of the amendment.

I appreciate that the absence of provision in the Bill is consistent with the assumption that provisions in private Acts that prohibit the sale of property held for public benefit will continue to govern, making an amendment unnecessary. Whatever the explanation, I should be grateful for the Minister's reassurance that it is not the Bill's intention to override private Acts that prevent the sale of land held for the public benefit in circumstances such as those that exist on Wimbledon common.

In Wimbledon, where so many of us depend on the common for leisure and recreation, we do not want to start to undo the work that was started 150 years ago to protect the common for the enjoyment of the community.

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