HC Deb 31 July 1951 vol 491 cc1409-18

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

3.22 a.m.

Mr. Pryde (Midlothian and Peebles)

The subject I want to raise tonight has caused great concern to my constituency, and, I think, generally. For centuries the Scottish people have looked to the sheriff courts as being the places where the law of Scotland was administered. While people have accused us in Scotland of being very ungenerous to our sheriffs in regard to remuneration, while some have even charged us with being parsimonious, nevertheless, generally speaking, the Scottish people are secretly very proud of their legal system and on more than one occasion we have been indebted to fearless sheriffs in the sheriffs courts in Scotland for unflinchingly doing their duty.

But I intend to show that there are people in our midst today who inad-advertently or otherwise, consciously or unconsciously, seem to imagine that they themselves must assume the powers of the sheriffs and act as if the sheriffs had not some word in regard to the proceedings. All that we require today is simply a reaffirmation of the legal position in regard to the case which I intend to raise. No new legislation is required. I intend to place before the House the facts in one case. Since I signed the Adjournment book in regard to this case, I have received the facts concerning three similar cases.

The case I wish to place before the House this morning is that of a stock man who was employed on a farm eight miles west of the City of Edinburgh. His name is James McBurnie, and on 17th May this year I received a report from that particular area. It said that approximately six weeks ago, an eviction took place at a particular farm. The circumstances surrounding the ejection were as follows: the farmer had given McBurnie, his farm servant, a week's notice. That does not concern us, because that is a matter for the trade union concerned. It is not our job to interfere in the relationship between employer and employee.

The report reveals that on the Saturday upon which the notice expired, McBurnie was away at Haddington, 40 miles off, in search of other employment. During McBurnie's absence, a new farm servant arrived at this particular farm. Shortly after noon the farmer was the instigator in having Mrs. McBurnie, who was an expectant mother, with her family of five young children and her mother, who had called to assist her, put upon the street. The bedding and furniture were put out in the rain, because it was raining very heavily.

In those conditions Mrs. McBurnie had two of her children in the pram, two other children were capable of walking and the fifth child was carried by the grandmother. The eldest of the five children was not much more than five years old. It was in the bitter wind and heavy rain that this pathetic party set off in the direction of Corstorphine, eight miles away, where it is believed relatives gave this family shelter.

I consider that that was an offence against the law, whether consciously or unconsciously I do not know. Since then I have received reports of one case in the Penicuik area. In this case a motor driver was employed by a firm of timber felling merchants working with the Forestry Commission, and he had a hut which belonged to his employer. Here we are told the man found an employer with better remuneration attached to the job, and unconscious of the fact that he occupied a tied cottage he left.

Shortly after he left that employment, representatives of the firm came with an official looking bunch of documents and impressed upon the man that he was in default of the law and he must get out of the house as another worker was coming to take his place, and the man said he was infringing the law. The employee said, "I have nowhere to go," and the representative of the firm said, "I will give you alternative accommodation. Here is a hut 10 feet by 8 feet. True there is no sanitation or water in it nevertheless, it is somewhere to go." The man with his wife and a daughter, aged 19, another aged 14 and a third aged 10, went into the hut, and those five people are today, by reason of that action, which I regard as sharp practice, a problem to the local authority, the Midlothian County Council, and chargeable for housing purposes.

Along with that we have two cases which make one wonder considerably at the facility with which the agricultural executive committee grants certificates for agricultural cottages. Curiously enough, the circumstances in each case are exactly the same. One concerns a lady of 81.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

Will the hon. Member tell me in what way the Secretary of State for Scotland has responsibility for these actions, which are apparently those of landlords?

Mr. Pryde

The position in regard these cases, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is that today one of these cases has been tried in the Edinburgh Sheriff Court, and has been thrown out on the ground that it infringes Scottish law. I am asking that the Secretary of State for Scotland shall issue, through the columns of the Official Report, an intimation that in Scotland no tenant can be evicted, or have his goods and chattels put upon the street, except at the instance of an order enacted by the sheriff in the sheriff court.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I gather that the hon. Member is asking that publicity should be given to the law in Scotland. Is that so?

Mr. Pryde

That is the position, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I want to put the cases of two ladies, 81 years old in my constituency. Each case is surrounded by similar circumstances. Each of these old ladies has, as the only other member of her household, one devoted daughter. Where is there any better virtue than in a daughter who devotes herself to the care of an aged mother? Both of these ladies are widows.

The farmers of the area go to the agricultural executive committee of their county—one in Midlothian, the other in Peeblesshire—and secure with the greatest ease certificates indicating agricultural cottages. In the area where I have lived for 61 years, the particular cottage never was used for agricultural purposes. 1 have traced the history of the Peebles cottage and found that the widow's husband built it so that he might practise his craft as a rural joiner, and that it never has been an agricultural cottage.

In the Midlothian case, because the old lady was able to appeal to the provost and magistrates of the borough, she was able to have her case defended in the Edinburgh Sheriff Court, and last Thursday the sheriff summarily dismissed the farmer's appeal that this was an agricultural cottage. Here we find exceptions to the rule, because generally speaking the farmers in Midlothian and Peebles are sound, charitable. Christian individuals. But it is the exception which proves the rule.

Andrew Dodds, who did more than anyone else to improve the conditions of farm servants in my constituency, wrote: 'twas God that made the ploughman, Wi' clay, as can be seen But the De'il he made the fermer, Wi' stane frae Aberdeen.

3.35 a.m.

Mr. J. J. Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

I am very impressed by this very important point which has been raised by the hon. Member for Midlothian and Peebles (Mr. Pryde). It is tremendously important. I intervene only to ask for clarification by the Scottish Office of this particular point. Would it be too much to ask the Lord Advocate to give us a short reply about the state of the law in Scotland in regard to these cases? It seems to me, from listening to my hon. Friend, that there is some confusion among the agricultural workers as regards this particular case. It would be a most desirable thing if we could have the position clarified, even at this late hour. If not, then perhaps it might be done at some later stage; but it is an important issue.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We are on a very thin line. As I understand it, in response to my inquiry, the Secretary of State for Scotland is being asked to take administrative action to inform those affected of the state of the law, but the hon. Member did not make that point in his speech. Now the hon. Member is asking about the state of the law. One cannot, by that pretext, urge administrative action to alter the law.

Mr. Robertson

With respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I have not had an answer, and I was merely seeking an answer from the Lord Advocate.

3.37 a.m.

Mr. Hoy (Leith)

What my hon. Friend was asking was not for an alteration in the law, but a clarification of it, and the Ministers on the Front Bench would, I think, be only too willing to lend their assistance in that matter. I rise to support the case put by my hon. Friend who opened the debate and who, as we all know, so admirably represents his constituency. When these depressing cases are raised, one would naturally expect some representative from the Scottish Tory Party to be present to pay some attention to things which are important to our people in Scotland. There is one Tory Whip, who does not represent a Scottish constituency, and perhaps he should be specially commended for being present this morning. But there can be no excuse for the complete absence of all his hon. Friends.

The case made tonight is one which, I am sure, would have awakened the sympathy of hon. Members opposite had they found time to be present; it certainly has the sympathy of all hon. Members on this side of the House. It frequently happens, when one hears of cases of this type, that there is unnecessary trouble between the farmer and the farm worker, for it raises the greatest antipathy between employer and employee. It is indeed distressing that merely because some farmer wishes to make a change, a whole family should be turned out into the street.

It may be that the law gives this right, but I think that, in view of the cases mentioned—and especially the first which was quoted, although my hon. Friend was careful not to give the name of the farmer concerned—this is a serious matter. I hope that the Minister will at least look at this and give an assurance that it is possible under the law for action to be taken to prevent distressing instances of this kind from happening in Scotland in the future.

3.40 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Thomas Fraser)

First of all, I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian and Peebles (Mr. Pryde) for very kindly furnishing me with an outline of the case that he intended to make this evening and giving me, to assist me in my researches, the names of the four families whom he has mentioned. I am, nevertheless, in a difficulty in replying to the debate for the reasons that you suggested, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, during the speeches made so far.

There was no action which my right hon. Friend could have taken to protect either of the first two families my hon. Friend mentioned; but if it is of any assistance I say quite categorically that there is no farmer or any other owner of tenanted property in Scotland who has the right to turn the tenant, the occupant of the house, into the street with his goods and chattels without an order from the court; and even so he has to get some assistance in doing it. It would seem, therefore, that these two families have been treated quite improperly and quite contrary to the provisions of the statutes. Having said that, I must repeat that there was no action that lay with my right hon. Friend to deal with the persons concerned in these two cases.

The other two cases concern families occupying tenanted property, who enjoy the protection of the Rent Restrictions Acts. Recently the farmers or owners of the farms acquired the cottages, and to get possession of them for the purpose of accommodating agricultural workers they were entitled, under the statutes, to make use of the certificate procedure; that is to say, they could apply to the agricultural executive committees for certificates certifying that the cottages were required for workers who were needed for the better working of the agricultural holdings. Having got such a certificate the farmer could go to the sheriff court, armed with that certificate, because when he does that he normally finds it is much more easy to convince the sheriff of the desirability of issuing an order in favour of the eviction of the present occupant of the house.

In the first of the last two cases mentioned by my hon. Friend, which he said had been to the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh quite recently, I understand the farmer had not made any application to the agricultural executive committee for a certificate, but he went to the court and failed in his application to get an eviction order against the tenant. So that tenant, for the present at least, is quite secure in the tenancy of her house; and she cannot be turned out by the owner of the house. In the last case, which is subject to the certificate procedure, the owner applied to the agricultural executive committee for a certificate, and when an investigation had been made the agricultural executive committee decided to issue a certificate, and a certificate was issued. But, as I understand it, the farmer or his agents of the farmer have not taken the next step as yet; they have not gone to the sheriff court to have this old lady of 81 evicted from her cottage.

So, so far as I am aware, these two people, who enjoy the protection, such as it is, of the certificate procedure as tenants of controlled property, are still in occupation of their houses. If the time should come when the further processes of law would be invoked by the owners of the houses, I doubt whether there is any action my right hon. Friend could take to protect them. I think my hon. Friend takes the view that since the agricultural executive committees are the agents of the Secretary of State, anything they do must be done in his name, and that if they are making improper use of the certificate procedure or issuing certificates too readily, then the fault must lie inevitably and ultimately with my right hon. Friend.

The power to issue these certificates was delegated to the agricultural executive committees under Section 69 of the 1948 Act and when the instructions were sent out to them as to procedure, this advice was given: It must be borne in mind and impressed on applicants and other parties concerned that certificates do not take the place or have the effect of a decree of possession or ejectment. This can only be granted by the sheriff on a formal petition by the applicant. The certificate is designed to assist the sheriff to decide whether or not the decree should be granted. … In considering applications, regard may be had only to the agricultural needs and merits of the case, i.e., whether the person for whom possession of the house is desired is employed or, conditional on possession of the house being obtained, is to he employed whole-time on work necessary for the proper working of the holding. That is the essential part of the notes. These are the conditions which initially have to be fulfilled before a certificate is granted.

I wish to assure my hon. Friend and the House that the executive committees do not issue these certificates willy-nilly when application is made for them. I have checked up and I find that since November, 1948, when delegation was first made to the agricultural executive committees, to 30th June, 1951, some 223 applications were received. Five of those were withdrawn and 40 were refused, and 174 of the remainder have been granted.

I suggest that this indicates that the committees are doing their job because, in nine cases out of ten, there will be an agricultural need for the house before the farmer will apply for a certificate to get possession because the farmer will normally be seeking to put another worker into a house normally occupied by one of his workers. Notwithstanding those normal conditions, we find that out of 223 applications, 40 cases were refused, five withdrawn—presumably, for the reason that the owner discovered that the case for the issue of the certificate did not exist.

One sometimes finds after farmers have applied for a certificate, that they merely want possession of the house so that they can invite applications for a job, with the likelihood of a more ready response because they have a vacant cottage. But they are not able to get a certificate and vacant possession of a house before they advertise for a worker. He must either be in employment, or on contract ready to take up employment, before a certificate is given in respect of that property.

Mr. Hubbard (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

Would the executive committee issue a certificate in the case of a house which belonged to someone who had built it? What would happen in those circumstances?

Mr. Fraser

The case which my hon. Friend has referred to is a difficult one to understand, in as much as the grandfather of the existing tenant built the house in, I think, 1832. But at some more recent date the house passed from that family into the possession of the farmer, the owner of the land upon which it stands; and so the farmer now has the freedom to apply for a certificate. Although one cannot discuss legislation during an Adjournment debate, my hon. Friend is aware, I am sure, that an announcement was made the other day that action would be taken in the not very distant future to bring an end to the certificate procedure.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes to Four o'Clock a.m.