HC Deb 28 April 1948 vol 450 cc468-73
The Lord Advocate

I beg to move, in page 24, line 15, at the end, to insert: (2) A warning notice served under the last foregoing Subsection shall specify the general grounds on which the Secretary of State is satisfied as mentioned in Subsection (1) of this Section. It was desired in Committee that specification should be given of the grounds in respect of which a warning notice was being served. This Amendment does not quite meet the views of Members opposite that there should be specific grounds as distinct from general grounds, but we believe that general grounds is a more practical proposition than specifying grounds which might vary from day to day or week to week, and which would make it very difficult to get the machinery operating effectively.

Mr. Snadden

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out "general."

We believe that where a person is about to he given a warning notice which might be followed by dispossession it would be only common justice to tell him, whether he was the owner or tenant, precisely what was wrong with his place. The Government have tried to meet us, but we still feel unhappy about the word "general." With this word in the Bill, it would be possible to say to an owner or tenant that his place was not being managed properly in the general sense of the term. He might be told that he would be put under a warning notice for bad estate management or, if he was a tenant farmer, under such a notice because of bad husbandry. Bad estate management covers a whole host of operations, and bad husbandry covers entire cultivation, including the management of livestock. As dispos- session is the final act—a may may lose his livelihood—we feel that a man should be put under warning notice only on specific grounds. As things are, it would be possible for him to be put out because of bad estate management or bad husbandry.

Lord William Scott (Roxburgh and Selkirk)

I beg to second the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

When we realise the extreme penalties that are attached to a tenant or landowner being removed from control of his land, we must insist on specific grounds being stated for such action. Here, we have a general term which might—indeed, almost certainly will—be interpreted to cover a general accusation either of slackness or lack of success. There must be specific reasons for the imposition of such a severe penalty as dispossession.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

I wish to support the Amendment to the Amendment. A few minutes ago the Lord Advocate told the House that the use of the word "substantially" rather than "exclusively" would be bound to lead to trouble. Does not the same thing apply to the word "general," rather than specifying actually what is wrong?

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Western)

The Lord Advocate said that the grounds might be varied from day to day and from week to week. That seems to be a departure from anything we envisaged during the discussions in Committee. It was clear to most of us then that if a warning order was to be served either on a landlord or a tenant, it would be for some specific breach of his obligations either to manage his land in accordance with the rules of good estate management or to farm his land in accordance with the rules of good husbandry.

We understood that that warning notice would be served upon him only after the most careful consideration by the agricultural executive committee, and that it would he served for specific reasons, which, as my hon. Friend has submitted, ought to be stated in the notice. The Lord Advocate now says that the warning notice, and the reasons in respect of which it can be given, may vary from day to day and week to week. That seems to require some explanation. Does he think that once a warning notice has been served it can be continued indefinitely because the grounds may change? If so, that reinforces our contention that an allegedly erring landlord or an allegedly erring tenant ought to be told the charges which are levelled against him. He ought to know, if this slur is cast upon him, why it is, and how he can free himself by putting things right on the estate or on the farm. The words which the Lord Advocate used make me all the more certain that we are right in supporting this small Amendment.

Mr. Scollan (Renfrew, Western)

I would like to ask the Lord Advocate a question. When we dealt with this matter in Committee, my understanding of it was that a general charge did not rule out the Department's right also to issue a specific charge, if they wished to do so. The grounds of complaint against a farmer may alter from day to day. The complaint of today may be different from the complaint of tomorrow, owing to the fact that the farmer may be doing something different. Will it still be in the power of the Department to send the warning notice with a specific complaint where there is a glaring specific case?

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

I am sure the House would be assisted if the right hon. and learned Gentleman would tell us precisely what is the procedure which he anticipates under the Amendment. I assume that the first stage, after the matter has been brought to the notice of the agricultural committee, must be a visit of inspection, and I assume that if the inspector is not satisfied there will be a discussion with the farmer or landlord—I am dealing now with the farmer—on the whole of the management of the farm. I assume that out of that discussion there will emerge two or three points, or it may be only one definite point, on which the inspector thinks that there is a good deal of room for criticism.

Then we were told that the inspection was to be repeated at intervals of something like 12 months. I imagine that after the first inspection, when the farmer is told orally that perhaps a certain field is very dirty, or the repairs of certain fences have been neglected, or whatever it is, that the inspector will not come back for 12 months, and, therefore, there will be no opportunity of altering the grounds of complaint from day to day or week to week. Surely, we are not contemplating such a large inspectorate that someone is going round every week to see how the thing is getting on. Therefore, this cannot be a thing which varies from week to week. It can only vary from inspection to inspection. Therefore, I would have thought that it would not be difficult to put down on paper the points which have emerged from the inspection and discussion.

I assume that there will be a discussion because I understood in Committee that one of the purposes of this procedure was to try to assist the farmer and to give him every possible bit of knowledge and advice which the skilled inspector could give to him. If that is so, surely it will be highly desirable that the farmer shall have a record of what took place and of the points on which the inspector was not satisfied. It is true that the notice will have to be altered, or may have to be altered after the next inspection, because it may turn out that field A is then perfectly all right, and something may have gone wrong with field X. Or it may be that nothing further has gone wrong and part of the complaint can be washed out. Surely, it will be for everyone's good to put down on paper as much as possible, to avoid misunderstanding. At one of these interviews the farmer may not be at his best, because it is rather a nerve-racking business, and he may not understand what the inspector is getting at.

It is highly desirable that the farmer should have the complaints in front of him for calm consideration when the interview is over and when he is not being worried. It is a very important matter for him, and it is desirable that he should have in front of him a precise statement of what he has to watch, otherwise there will be correspondence and all sorts of botheration. I should have thought, in the interests of smooth working, it was desirable to make the notice reasonably specific. We ought to tell him that the complaint is about bad cultivation, or that the fertility of a certain field is bad, or that the farm is dirty, or that the fences are rotten or that the roof of a shed wants mending. One could think of a hundred points. Surely, it is desirable that the man should have in front of him something to tell him precisely what is wrong. Unless the right hon. Gentleman accepts our Amendment, I fear that half the value of the proposal is gone.

Mr. T. Fraser

I want to be as helpful as possible, and I ask hon. Members to believe that the Secretary of State is equally anxious to see that no unfairness is done to anyone. I remember that we discussed in Committee at great length the fact that the warning notice should not be sent out by someone from St. Andrew's House, who may not have much knowledge of conditions, but that it would be served by the executive committee, which is, I think, a body accepted on all sides of the House as being likely to contain good, practical farmers who are not likely to be irresponsible in their actions. One of the main reasons we do not want to accept the Amendment is that up to now the use of the words "general grounds" have been generally acceptable. They are to be found in Clause 30 (4) and Clause 31 (2) dealing with the notices on grounds of bad estate management or bad husbandry, and one would not think that one would have to be more particular with regard to warning notices than with regard to the other notices—perhaps equally particular but not more particular.

Coming to some of the points made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, if the tenant farmer is guilty of bad cultivation, of not applying fertilisers, and of not attending to his ditches he ought to be told, since it is because he is failing in those respects that he is given a warning notice. What the Lord Advocate had in mind when he talked about the changing circumstances was that we did not want to have to say that the field beyond the beeches in the south east corner has not been cultivated. If that was all that was wrong a farmer would not be getting a warning notice. What we want to say is that his cultivations are bad if they are bad, his ditches not up to standard if they are not up to it or that he is not paying proper attention to his permanent pasture. That is the sort of thing we want to tell him, not that eight acres in a corner are not being properly cultivated. We do not want to be so particular, because he might deal with those eight acres and leave the rest of his farm alone.

We are sympathetic to many of the points made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his effort to secure clarity in the Government's Amendment, but I ask him to look at Clauses 30 and 31 where we deal with bad husbandry and bad management. There the words "general grounds" are acceptable, and if we are to accept the Opposition's Amendment and delete the word "general" we would not be providing a more precise warning at all. We will be as precise as possible, and we will ask the committees to be as precise as possible, but it would cast considerable doubt on the precision with which particulars have to be given in the other notices under Clauses 30 and 31 if this word were deleted. Therefore, I hope the Opposition will not press this Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment negatived.

Proposed words there inserted in the Bill.

Mr. T. Fraser

I beg to move, in page 24, line 30, to leave out: it is proposed to continue. This Amendment and the four which follow all run together and are, in fact, merely drafting Amendments consequent on certain Amendments made in Committee. They provide that the Secretary of State shall inform the person to whom a warning notice relates and also the other party interested not only of the withdrawal, but also of the continuance of the notice.

Lord William Scott

I should like to draw the attention of the Under-Secretary to the fact that when this Amendment is carried out paragraph (b) will read in a most peculiar manner and I hope something can be done to make it more intelligible. I do not know if the Under-Secretary has seen how it actually reads after the proposed words have been inserted, but he will find it difficult to read and even more difficult to understand.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 24, line 31, after "notice," insert "is to continue."

In line 43, after "withdrawal," insert "or of the continuance."

In line 43, leave out from "notice," to "to," in line 45.

In page 25, line 1, leave out from "withdrawal," to second "to," in line 2, and insert "or of the continuance."—[Mr. T. Fraser.]