HC Deb 29 March 1946 vol 421 cc787-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

3.59 P.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I wish to call the attention of the House to the administration of Regulation 62, 4A, which was passed during the war in order to prevent any speculation in land and also to prevent anyone purchasing land or a farm and thus avoiding military service. I will not take up the time of the House in reading that Regulation, but the effect of it is that since 3rd September, 1939, no one could purchase land or a farm, give a sitting tenant notice to quit, or get him out of that farm, unless he had obtained first of all the permission of the Minister of Agriculture. During the war the interpretation of that was that if a farmer was doing his job properly and was graded as an A or B farmer, the Minister refused permission for anyone to turn him out from his farm unless it could be proved that an alteration of tenancy would increase the production of food—

It being Four o' Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain Michael Stewart.]

Mr. Baldwin

The result of the way in which that Regulation has been administered, is that most farmers and their advisers feel quite safe that if they are farming their land properly they have security of tenure, to a certain extent.

I wish to call attention to two instances where the Regulation is now being interpreted in a different manner. This raises in my mind matters of some consequence. The first case is that of some brothers named Tedstone, of Herefordshire, who are on a farm of 327 acres and have been farming it for 14 years. In February, 1945, a Mr. Walker purchased that farm. Mr. Walker as that time was, and possibly still is, farming in Suffolk. Messrs. Tedstone Brothers are good farmers. They felt pretty happy and took advice and felt they would not be disturbed. In September, 1945, a sub-committee of Herefordshire War Agricultural Committee inspected that farm, obviously so that they could give advice to the Minister of Agriculture, since an application had been made by the purchaser asking for notice to quit to be upheld. On 7th November, eight months after the notice to quit was given, a letter was received by Messrs. Tedstone Brothers to say that the notice to quit had been upheld.

Those tenants and their advisers felt they were quite safe, and as a result made no attempt to find another farm. Now, after eight months, and less than four months to go, they are more or less thrown out on the road. I suggest that where a purchaser of a farm wishes to have his notice upheld, he should at once take steps to make an application to the Minister. I want to ask the Minister a few ques- tions of which I have given him notice. Number one is, Did the Minister act on the report of the war agricultural committee? Two, if so, was that report adverse or otherwise? Three, if the Minister did not act on that report, was any other inspection made on his behalf? Lastly, why was there a delay of eight months?

The other case is one that causes me a considerable disturbance of mind. A man named C. R. L. Perkins, whom I know personally as a good farmer and breeder of shorthorn cattle and pedigree Ryeland sheep, is the person concerned. He sold his farm in my county early in the war when his son joined the Forces. Subsequently, at the request of his son who wanted to come back into farming, he was accepted as the tenant of a farm of 153 acres at Brickhampton, Gloucester. After Mr. Perkins took this farm he realised that it had been farmed as a "bye-take," a farm which is not the main farm but is used as an outlying farm and, in this particular case, it has been used as a hospital. The previous tenant had sent his re-actors to this farm out of the way, more or less as a hospital. The result was that Mr. Perkins had to take very active and expensive steps to get the farm cleaned up, by inoculation and so forth. He also increased the arable land on that farm by 100 per cent.

In February, 1945, this farm was purchased by a Mr. King. Mr. King and his father-in-law, a Mr. Smith, who is reputed to be a prominent member of the Gloucestershire War Agricultural Committee, visited Mr. Perkins and endeavoured by offering him a year's rent for compensation for disturbance, to get him to give up the farm. In view of the fact that he had put this farm into first class condition and also because he wanted it until his son returned from the Forces, Mr. Perkins refused to do so. Subsequently, Mr. King gave Mr. Perkins notice on 29th September, 1945, to quit on 29th September next. The farm was inspected in November, 1945, by what was presumed to be a sub-committee of the Gloucestershire War Agricultural Committee. It was a small sub-committee comprising a Mr. Phillips and one of the executive officers. The sinister part of this affair, which I do want the Minister very seriously to consider, is that when that deputation arrived at the farm it was accompanied by Mr. Smith, the father-in- law of the man who was making the application to the Ministry of Agriculture for a certificate. Although I know I shall be told that Mr. Smith was not on the farm in an official capacity, I say it is wrong that he should have been there. Whether Mr. Smith was invited by the Gloucestershire War Agricultural Committee to inspect that farm officially or unofficially, I do not know, but I think it pretty monstrous that a member of the war agricultural committee, who is the father-in-law of the applicant, should be anywhere near that farm when the inspection was made. In point of fact, I am told by the valuer who was acting for Mr. Perkins—I may say Mr. Perkins was ill in bed at the time and had to have someone to represent him—that Mr. King, the purchaser of the farm said he was not well enough to go round the farm and instead, his father-in-law, the member of the war agricultural committee, went round this farm with this sub-committee.

An inspection was made, and, when they had made it, the parties who made the inspection went off again together, to Mr. King's other farm some distance away, where, I presume, they were doing what is normal in cases of this sort, that is, making an inspection of the farm of the tenant and also that of the purchaser to see whether, in fact, the production of food would be imperilled or improved, by a comparison between the two farms. I do not know what was the result of the inspection of Mr. King's farm. The Ministry of Agriculture has told me that both Mr. King and Mr. Perkins were graded as A farmers, and may I explain that an A farm is the highest category. I am told that the output on Mr. King's farm may be better than that of Mr. Perkins.

I want to call attention to this fact, and I am sorry to have to rake it up. Mr. King, who is farming another farm, did something that was contrary to the milk recording regulations, and the result was that he was called in front of the Milk Marketing Board and his records were expunged for something like 12 months, so that I do not think that Mr. King could be quite as good an A farmer as it appears. I also call attention to the fact that Mr. King is not solely a farmer He farms another farm to the one now purchased, but he is also a director of a motor firm in Gloucester. I do not want to rake up matters which had best be left alone, but I am bound to say that, during some police court proceedings in which Mr. King figured, the excuse for the breaking of the law was that Mr. King, because he was a director of this motor firm, was a very busy man. Therefore, it occurs to me that a man who uses this excuse of being a very busy man. in the motor industry, and is also farming another farm, should not have been looked upon with any great favour by the Ministry of Agriculture in turning out another man who has brought a very poor farm into first-class condition.

I would ask the Minister whether it is possible to reconsider this case, because the notice to quit does not expire until 2nth September next, and I ask the Minister to give me specific answers to the questions of which I have given him notice—Did the Minister act on the report of the agricultural committee? If so, was the report an adverse one? Does the Minister think that, in view of the fact that the father-in-law of the purchaser was a member of the war agricultural committee, and was present when the inspection was made, this was a right proceeding, and that notice to quit should be served? Will the Minister consider inspection by a fresh tribunal or, better still, by an independent arbitrator, so that a decision which is very material to the farming industry can be put right if it is found to be wrong?

In conclusion, I want to say, as a member of a War Agricultural Executive Committee during the war and as a farmer, I am prepared to accept the controls under which we have had to carry on during the war, and which are going to be administered by a fresh body of committees, but I am very disturbed to think that practices such as I think happened in this case are possible. That is why I ask the Minister to reconsider this case. I think it is very important that he should impress upon whatever body or bodies are to nominate members of the new committees that they should appoint men of absolute integrity. Controls unfortunately lead to malpractices, and if we are to have these controls it is essential that we shall have men of the very highest standard on those committees.

4.16 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. Collick)

Defence Regulation 62(4A), which is the subject of this discussion, provides that where any part of an agricultural holding is subject to a contract of sale since the outbreak of the war or has been sold in pursuance of such a contract, any notice to quit that holding or any part of it shall be null and void in the absence of written consent by the Minister of Agriculture. It is important in this connection to keep in mind the purpose of that Regulation, which was primarily to prevent the sort of speculation with which those of us who know the farming industry have reason to be familiar. For example, there is the sort of case where a speculator, aiming at a quick turnover, will buy a farm with the intention of getting vacant possession, and, when he gets vacant possession, proceeds on lines which come strictly and properly within the definition of speculation. The object of the Regulation was to prevent that sort of thing taking place, and also to prevent the undue disturbance, in wartime, of farmers who were doing a good job of work and farming their land properly.

When the war ended the question arose of whether there should or should not be any changes in the administration of this Regulation. Cases have arisen, for instance, in which a farmer or someone has bought a farm or agricultural holding with the intention of allowing his son, who is perhaps in the Forces, to work it on his return. A slight modification was made in the actual administration of the Regulation which amounted to this: the Minister wanted to be sure, before giving his written consent, first of all that there was no speculation of any kind, and secondly that there would be no seriously adverse effect on the production of food. Those are the two over-riding considerations which the Minister had in his mind in giving or refusing consent. I think we have got to keep that quite clearly in our minds in the consideration of the cases that have been referred to.

Mr. Baldwin

Will not the hon. Gentleman agree that when such modification of the rules as this is about to take place, it would be advisable to give notice of that modification, or of the intention to modify, so that farmers may know where they stand?

Mr. Collick

It was relatively a minor modification. There were difficult sorts of cases to decide. and it was thought, administratively, that a slight modification of this kind, with the changing circumstances of the end of the war, was something which, in those circumstances, was justified.

Squadron - Leader Sir Gifford Fox (Henley)

If in a certain case of which the hon. Gentleman does not yet know, I could produce evidence that there is an idea of speculation, can the Minister take back the notice to quit?

Mr. Collick

I think the hon. Member is quite wrong. The Minister does not give notice to quit at all—

Sir G. Fox

He gives the sanction.

Mr. Collick

Once the owner has given the tenant notice to quit the Minister has to consider whether or not to give his written consent. That is where the Minister comes in.

Sir G. Fox

But will he withdraw it if he finds he has given it on wrong evidence?

Mr. Collick

I want to deal with the two cases which have already been raised. I am sure the hon. Member will understand. I want readily and frankly to admit that in the first case to which the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) referred there was very unfortunate delay. The facts are, as I think the hon. Member himself has reason to know, that there was some delay, unfortunately. First of all, when the application was made, the necessary information that the Minister must have before he can make a proper decision in these matters was not available. Therefore, further information had to be obtained, further inquiries had to be made, and there was an unfortunate delay, which I very much regret. It was not a delay of quite the extent the hon. Member suggested, but certainly the delay was of a regrettable kind.

Mr. Baldwin

It was eight months.

Mr. Collick

It was actually seven, in point of fact, but I do not think we need argue about that. There was, I frankly admit, this delay. Here is a case which is not a case of speculation. There is no suggestion in this case at all—there is no suggestion in either of these two cases—that speculation is involved. There is no evidence in either of these two cases of anything which in any way could be interpreted as speculation. The simple fact is that in both of these cases the farmers are A farmers. As the hon. Member explained, farmers are classified by the county war agricultural executive committees as A, B and C. The farmers in both cases are A farmers. So there is no question on that ground at all.

The hon. Member has put specific questions about the reports of the war agricultural executive committee. What I want to say about that is this. It is the fact that in these sorts of cases the Minister seeks the advantage of the knowledge of local people. He has reports from them. These reports give the Minister information. But the decision is the decision of the Minister. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster will agree that as, after all, the war agricultural executive committees are agents of the Minister, the relations between them and the Minister must be of a confidential nature. It is not practical, nor would it be desirable, for matters of that kind to become common property. The Minister, naturally and rightly, takes the whole of that evidence into consideration. and he did in both of these cases. If there is any fault or blame attributable to any one in this matter, it is not the responsibility of the war agricultural committees, but clearly that of the Minister, and it should be placed squarely on his shoulders. I want to make that clear right away.

With regard to the second case, I would point out that, although the hon. Member has put it before the House in complete good faith, it is not quite as he stated. Immediately we were made aware of this, through representations put forward, the Minister called for a most complete report of what happened when these inspections took place. It is quite beside the mark for anyone to suggest or infer any improper motive—although I am not saying that the hon. Member had this is his mind—because the father-in-law of the new owner was there when the inspections took place. He was not there on the invitation of the war agricultural committee, although it is true he was about the premises. He was in no sense there on the invitation of the war agricultural committee.

Mr. Baldwin

I am not imputing anything against the Gloucester War Agri- cultural Committee, because I know the members to be above suspicion of doing anything wrong, but the fact remains that the father-in-law went round the farm with the sub-committee which had to come to a decision. I ask the Minister to review this case, because I think it will cause an unfortunate feeling among farmers.

Mr. Collick: Or the facts of the case, and on the report we have had, the Minister is quite satisfied that the decision which was arrived at was a fair and proper decision, having regard to the terms of the Regulation. I am asked by the hon. Member whether this matter can be reconsidered, and I must make it abundantly plain that, once the Minister's decision has been given, there is no way at all in which the matter can be reopened. That is the position, and that. in law, is where the cases remain.

In conclusion, I would add that we have had occasion to consider this matter, and the decision we have now made is that, in administering this regulation, where hitherto a serious decline of food production was a factor, the Minister's decision now is normally to be in favour of the sitting tenant, if it appears that a change of occupation will result in any reduction at all in the food production of the holding. That is a very definite position taken in relation to this matter. I do not think I can add any more useful remarks on the subject, except to reiterate that I much regret the delay in the first case; and that there is no possible way of reviewing a case once the Minister's decision has been given

4.28 p.m.

Sir G. Fox: I am very distressed to hear that once the Minister's decision has been made it has to be final. I have had a similar case brought to my notice today, which is on practically the same lines. I will not go into details, but, on the facts put before me, I am certain that the Minister has not had the whole of the evidence, although I am not imputing anything against the war agricultural committee, because it has nothing to do with them. There are some other facts which influenced the Minister, which was the particular reason why the field was wanted. I think it is wrong that there can be no change once a decision has been made, and I can only say that it is the modern Gestapo in agriculture.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Four o' Clock