HC Deb 22 February 1940 vol 357 cc1656-61

8.35 p.m.

Mr. W. Roberts

I beg to move, in page 16, line 16, to leave out from "cultivated," to the end of line 17, and to insert: so as to produce the maximum supply of food. I would preface my remarks by saying how very pleased we are to see the Minister of Agriculture here to-day. We missed him very much on the Committee stage, and we hope that he is now restored to health. The Clause which I am proposing to amend deals with the powers of the Minister and of the war agricultural executive committees to take over derelict land. Much of the land of this country could produce more than it is doing at the present time, but the very worst land of all needs to be taken over and controlled by the Minister through the county committees. The reasons set out in Clause 23 (1) will give the Minister sufficient power to take over what land he might wish, to take over.

"The rules of good husbandry," which words I propose to leave out, are denned in the Act of 1923, and a procedure has been controlled by them by which tenants could be removed without possession, if they were not farming in accordance with the rules of good husbandry. I would direct the attention of the House to the way in which good husbandry is denned in the Act of 1923. Some of the words used are these: The maintenance of the land (whether arable meadow, or pasture), clean and in a good state of cultivation and fertility, and in good condition. That is a very wide definition, I agree. It would appear that if any land was not in good condition the Minister would, under the words as they stand in the Clause, have power to take it over; but there are other words which seem to limit his power very considerably. For instance, there are these: Such rules of good husbandry as are generally recognised as applying to holdings of the same character and in the same neighbourhood as the holding in respect of which the expression is to be applied. That puts a very different light on the matter. It suggests that any market price generally recognised in the neighbourhood would be adequate, and that the standard of farming is to be judged by that which is generally accepted and recognised in the district concerned. I am doubtful whether such a definition would give the Minister the power which he ought to have to take over the very worst land, which has not been cultivated or is absolutely neglected and derelict, owing perhaps to bad drains. The field drains may have been neglected or the watercourses not cleaned out.

If the best use is to be made of a great deal of the land of this country which is much under-cultivated at the present time, I wonder whether there ought not to be a very much wider definition; for instance, down land in the South of England or semi-hilly land in Wales or Scotland, or some of the land in Suffolk. Do the rules of good husbandry provide for taking over such land which with modern methods of cultivation might contribute far more than it is doing at the present time to the total production of British farming? I wonder whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is not limiting himself unnecessarily in accepting the definition which exists at present. Of course, these powers will have to be used with discretion. The words which I suggest are very wide, I admit, in order to facilitate the maximum supply of food. But surely that is the object of this Clause and is the underlying object of the whole of this Bill. The owner or the tenant concerned is fully able to put his case to the local committee if he feels he is suffering an injustice in having this land taken. In my opinion there may be cases where for various purposes it would be desirable to have a wider definition.

Lastly, I must say that I can think of instances under the 1923 Act where farmers have been farming very much below the existing standard for the neighbourhood and against whom the Sections in the 1923 Act have been invoked and who nevertheless have been adjudged to be safeguarded under this Clause. I can think of a case of a landowner who gave notice to his tenant to quit because the farm was in a scandalously bad state. The tenant appealed to the agricultural committee of the county council, which I think is the proper procedure, and the agricultural committee of the county council on the definition given in the Act of the rules of good husbandry maintained his position and ruled against the owner. I would like to ask whether in fact the procedure under this Section in the 1923 Act which is now to be used by the Minister himself has proved in practice to be adequate in order to remove tenants who have obviously neglected their land and on whose land the production is far below that which could be obtained with a good tenant and with the expenditure of a reasonable amount of capital.

Mr. Horabin

I beg to second the Amendment.

8.44 p.m.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

The difficulty I find in accepting this Amendment is how to define the meaning of "so as to produce the maximum supply of food." That is an extremely wide definition and, as the hon. Member has said, one can see that there might be a ridiculous example. For instance, one may say to any farmer, "If you have this field under intensive cultivation for growing things like cabbages, that would be producing the maximum amount of food." It would have to be used with such discretion that I think in practice one would have to go back to the old practice of going by the rules of good husbandry. I am satisfied that these rules of good husbandry, as they are understood in the country, will in fact cover the cases which we have in mind. Of course, this has also to be read in conjunction with the orders which county committees can give to individual farmers and the powers which they have under other regulations. I think we would get into tremendous trouble if the words suggested were in fact put in. Therefore I hope the hon. Member will not press this Amendment.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

I am not sure whether the words of the hon. Member would be more effective than the words in the Clause as it now stands. I am more concerned to know that the district committees of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will interpret the 1923 Act as they should do, whether the next-door farmer is friendly or otherwise. I merely rise to ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman whether, according to experience already gained, he feels that the district committees are really fulfilling their functions with regard to land which is not being cultivated in accordance with the rules of good husbandry. We know, broadly speaking, what the intention and purpose of these words are, but I am rather doubtful, after a reply given, I think, by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman or the Secretary of State for Scotland when a direct question was put to him a week or so ago. He was asked how many acres of land have been taken over under the terms of what was then Clause 22, and he told us it was about 6,000 acres throughout the country. That is a very small area. Of those 6,000 acres there may very well be some building land, some park land, and the remainder may not be cultivated in accordance with the rules of good husbandry. At best it is a very small area.

I know that the war agricultural executives have not been in existence long and have not had an opportunity to examine thoroughly and give effect to the demand in Clause 23 as it now Stands. I do not wish to delay the Debate but I would like the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to tell the House whether he is still satisfied that four farmers and landowners appointed from area A and operating within Area A will exercise the powers invested in them by the war agricultural executive or whether, instead of leaving the whole of this duty exclusively in the hands of four farmers drawn from this rural area to operate only in that area, where presumably they are all very friendly farmers one with the other, it might not have been better to have a fifth person on that district committee who would have been able to exercise, shall I say, influence over the other four. Does the right hon. and gallant Gentleman not think that the five of them would be more effective as the county agricultural executive agents than the four local farmers operating within their own district? I know they have not had a long period in which to see what they are going to do, but I wonder whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has any information at all which satisfies him that this function is being positively carried out.

8.50 p.m.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

If I may say a word by leave of the House, I think the point is this. These county war agricultural committees are composed of absolutely independent people who can exercise their judgment—I am taking the analogy of the county councils—and one need have no fear with regard to that. All the information I have from the committees is that these men are going into this job with the desire to get extra production and with exactly the right spirit. I am certain that they will, as far as is humanly possible, show no favour to their neighbours. Indeed, I think it will be found that they will come down on their neighbours like a ton of bricks unless they do their job properly. I am satisfied from all the information I can get that they are carrying on their job in the right spirit.

Mr. Roberts

In view of what the Minister has said I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Dennis Herbert)

Mr. Ridley.

Mr. T. Williams

May I ask whether the Amendment in the name of my two hon. Friends, in page 16, line 25, to leave out "three" and to insert "ten," is not to be called? As far as we can discover it is completely new matter, is strictly within the confines of the Money Resolution, and would in no way extend the Bill or involve finance.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is not in order because it would extend the time.

Mr. Williams

It provides for an extension of time during which the: Government or the tenant of the Government can retain possession of land taken over which had not been or was not being cultivated in accordance with the rules of good husbandry. The Amendment seeks to extend the time during which the Government can retain possession of the land from three years to 10, but that in no way involves extra expenditure and to that extent does not cut across the Money Resolution.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has forgotten that it is not a question of getting beyond the Money Resolution, but a question of what is permissible on Report. The Amendment might have been in order on the Committee stage, but it is not in order on the Report stage.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

I should like to be clear about this so that we may be guided on future occasions. This seems to me somewhat of a precedent. If it is merely a case of extension of time which involves no further charge to the taxpayer, and if the time is not without the long Title of the Bill, I do not understand why it is not in order to move an Amendment to that effect on Report.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is not clear as to the actual facts. The result of this Amendment would be to increase the charge, but not beyond what is permitted by the Resolution. That does not matter on the Committee stage. On the Report stage, however, no increased charge can be moved in an Amendment although it is within the Resolution. There is the difference between the Report stage and the Committee stage.