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Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. As the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, said, based on his great experience, this matter should be seriously considered by the Government. The present blanket exclusion of houses in rural areas from the proposed low rent test provisions of the Bill would render unenfranchisable houses that bear no direct relationship to the management entity of an estate where houses are leased on 120-year leases and have ground rents of around £30 a year.
The noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, mentioned the village of Adlestrop in Gloucestershire. I know that a number of householders there are very concerned about the position they are in. Therefore I hope that the Minister replying will take notice of what was said by his colleagues tonight.
This amendment will remove an injustice, which is inherent in the provisions of the Bill as presently drawn and amended by my noble friend on the Front Bench. It will cause no possible detriment to the freeholder, the workforce or the local community once the principle of leasehold enfranchisement has been accepted, as, of course, it has. I warmly recommend this amendment to your Lordships.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I added my name to this amendment and I warmly support it. The point has been made that it is difficult for an individual or any of your Lordships to judge whether land is integral to the management of an estate. Tribunals of every sort are frequently asked to judge such matters. I for one am prepared to put this sort of matter into the hands of a tribunal.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the point of the rural exclusion is to retain the low rent test for properties which are an integral part of a rural estate. I believe, however, that the Government's criteria for determining the exclusion will be the best way to achieve this. They set out a clear and simple test which will accurately identify the properties which we intend should not be enfranchisable. I accept that any rule of this kind is bound to generate exceptions and hard cases. That is inevitable. There is clearly a balance to be struck here.
My noble friend Lord Hamilton of Dalzell made an important point when he said that it may be part of the management function to ensure that houses or cottages on the estate are available for employees--for example, for farmer workers to occupy. That may be the case, but it may also be part of the management function to preserve the integrity of the estate for a future generation to inherit.
As the amendment does not itself clarify the point, it will be necessary to issue guidance on it to the tribunals. If it were to be binding, there would need to be an express power in the primary legislation. The real problem, for the reasons I have given, is that it would be very difficult to frame any general guidance which can help tribunals to arrive at consistent, appropriate and fair decisions.
My noble friend's amendment would also mean that in every potential "rural exemption" case an application to the tribunal would have to be made, with the possibility of appeals to higher tribunals. This would create uncertainty for both leaseholders and freeholders and unnecessary expense since the parties would have to bear their own costs of fighting their case. These costs could easily extend to the fees of experts in estate management as well as of lawyers. The freeholder would have to state the purposes of management of his estate and effectively the future of the estate would be determined by the tribunal. I hope that my noble friend will understand if I say that his amendment would cause a number of difficulties as well as uncertainties and it would therefore be difficult for us to accept it.
Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I am extremely disappointed that my noble friend could not be a little more sympathetic to the purpose of the amendment. He does not seem to have any understanding of its objective, which is to make things fairer for a great many people who are now not able to take advantage of the principle of enfranchisement which is integral to the Bill.
The amendment has received widespread support. No one has spoken against it except my noble friend Lord Hamilton. Therefore, I find it odd that the Government are not prepared to give encouragement and to say that they will consider the matter again in another place to see whether some arrangements might be made for giving guidance to the tribunal. That seems to be my noble friend's main objection to the amendment. If the principle is accepted, surely we can get round the difficulties.
I believe that this is an important point of principle. At this late hour one is always reluctant to seek to divide the House, but because this point has been discussed right through Committee stage, Report stage and now, and because the amendment has been refined and refined again to try to meet the objections which the Government have raised, I think that the opinion of the House should be tested--
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, before my noble friend seeks to divide the House, I hope that he will think again. He said that he was sorry that I did not give a sympathetic response. I have tried to address myself to what the effect of my noble friend's amendment might be. It is not an argument about the principle; we are dealing with what should be put into legislation. If the amendment were accepted, we would be putting something uncertain in legislation. It is impossible for
I really believe that it would be unreasonable of my noble friend, particularly at this late hour and at this late stage, to seek a Division on this amendment when I have tried to explain to my noble friend that whatever he includes in the Bill will not work if it is along these lines.
Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I know that I have angered my noble friend, but the fact is that tribunals now sit in all urban areas to discuss situations and problems which are just as difficult as my noble friend alleges that this is. Tribunals consider the management schemes which previous landlords have set up, rightly, to preserve the amenities of an estate, as I explained when I moved the amendment. I happen to know of one such valuation tribunal which has been sitting for nearly a year and has not yet come to any conclusion. If such difficult issues can be put before leasehold valuation tribunals, why cannot the difficult issues that we are now considering be put to them also?
I had hoped that the Government would be sympathetic to the amendment which seeks to remove a great unfairness affecting a lot of people. I had hoped that the Government would look for a way of giving guidance to tribunals to make their work easier. If the Government are not prepared to do that, we are left with a very unhappy situation for a lot of people. I must insist on putting the amendment before the House. I am sorry to have annoyed my noble friend who is a real friend, but I think that this is an important point of principle which should be decided. I commend the amendment to the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.