HC Deb 16 July 1957 vol 573 cc1103-10

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

10.59 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

I am sure that the vital importance of a good young heather crop is well known to the Minister and to the county agricultural executive committees, but the simple fact is that, unless the hill farmers get an adequate supply of young heather, and unless it is burned regularly, it is useless as a crop for both sheep and for game. Furthermore, the older the heather gets the more fiercely it burns, and, therefore, the greater is the fire danger for neighbouring occupiers.

Events in Northumberland, and even, perhaps in Durham, have clearly demonstrated in the early months of this year that there is a need for a different and more flexible attitude on the part of the Ministry towards the administration of the heather-burning Regulations. In fact, all those responsible for administering these Regulations require to approach this subject in a less rigid manner. The Regulations concerned are the Heather and Grass Burning Regulations, 1949, which were made under the Hill Farming Act, 1946.

No doubt it will come as a surprise to many people that farmers are not allowed by law to burn heather when they think it necessary and desirable. But, as the law is at present, burning is prohibited in England and Wales after the end of March and before the beginning of November. Generally it is prohibited, but there are licences, either general or special, which can be obtained.

My submission is that this licensing system is too rigid and unimaginative and needs revision. I realise that it is too late to make any change in the system this year, but I hope that when the Minister replies he will be able to say that they will make the arrangements more flexible next year, because I believe this rigid system of licensing has led to much heather which should have been burned this year in Northumberland remaining unburned.

Certain of my constituents have been prosecuted and fined for burning heather after the prohibited period. This year, during the early months, particularly in March, the weather in the north of England was particularly wet and unsuitable for heather burning, whereas in the early days of April the conditions were ideal. But when applications were made for permits, they were refused.

It is ironical that those who were prosecuted in Northumberland for burning heather after the prohibited date were often doing so within sight of the Scottish border, on 11th April, and if they had been burning heather a few yards farther north, across the border, they would not have been contravening the law, and could have gone on burning heather until the end of April without obtaining any permits. Therefore, it is understandable that they and other members of the hill farming community in Northumberland think, to put it politely, that the law in this respect is somewhat absurd.

It may be said that if, after the prohibited period, anyone wants to burn heather, he can do so by applying to the Minister for a licence. But there is a very big "but" to this clause, because the Regulations require the farmer in question to apply to the Minister for a special licence in writing at least 28 days before the date proposed for the burning. Surely that is red tape at its worst, because it must be apparent to everyone that to burn heather the conditions must be right for burning and the heather must be really dry. To give notice of intention to burn a month ahead of the time is patently farcical. It reminds me of the story of the farmer who got a young man for lambing and applied for his deferment. The reply came back saying that it was much regretted that his deferment could not be agreed to and suggesting that the lambing should be deferred instead.

I know the Minister can point out that the administration of these heather-burning Regulations is left largely to the local people, that is to say, the county agricultural executive committees, who should be aware of the local requirements. All I can say is that as far as Northumberland is concerned the local requirements of the hill farmers have been very sadly neglected. There are very strong feelings in the hill areas of both Northumberland and Durham on this subject.

I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that if he is to allow the administration of these Regulations to remain in the hands of the county agricultural executive committees, they should adopt a somewhat less artbitrary attitude than they have been adopting during the past year. I am sure the Minister is sympathetic to the hill farmers in this matter and wants to help them and not to hinder them. All they are asking is that they should have the rights which the lowland farmer now enjoys—that is, the right to farm their land according to the best of their abilities and as they think is wisest in the best interests of good husbandry.

Therefore, I ask the Minister to say at least, if he cannot say more, that he will look at the whole administration of the Regulations and that Northumberland, if not also Durham, should be put on a par with Scotland—in other words, that burning should be allowed without any licences until the end of April. If the Minister cannot go as far as that, at least let him say that burning will be allowed without licences or permits up to the middle of April; and if the weather conditions so demand, an open general licence should be granted to the end of April, so that farmers can burn after the middle of April, when the weather previously has been unfavourable. That is all we are asking. We are perfectly reasonable in this matter, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give a reply of a similar nature.

11.7 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) for raising this matter, which is, I agree, an important one in his part of the country. It is not an easy matter, and I will try to set out the pros and cons as well as I can.

I accept at once my hon. Friend's remarks in opening about the need for burning heather to some extent for good farming practice, although it is sometimes debatable what area should be burnt each year. Sometimes, I am told, there is a tendency to burn a bit too much, and at other times a tendency to burn too little. It is a question of finding the right degree. I accept, however, the main point made by my hon. Friend.

I do not think that the general purpose of the heather burning Regulations is in question. The power to regulate burning is to be found, as my hon. Friend said, in Section 20 of the Hill Farming Act, 1946. As far as I am aware, it is in no way controversial, because it is generally agreed that some control is necessary as a safeguard against forest fires and—I stress this—to prevent injury to wild life, particularly to nesting birds during springtime.

The difficulty is in drawing the line between necessary and unnecessary restrictions. Perhaps I can explain more nearly the precise effect of the Regulations. At all times of the year they prohibit the starting of burning in the hours of darkness and require reasonable pre- cautions to be taken to keep the burning under control and to prevent damage to adjacent land. They also require 48 hours' notice to be given to other persons with an interest in the land or in adjacent land.

The important restriction in the Regulations is a general prohibition on all burning between 31st March and 1st November, and that was the main point of my hon. Friend's remarks. This prohibition is not absolute, as my hon. Friend reminded us, and the Minister is free to issue special licences to allow burning in the prohibited period. As the merits of applications for special licences depend almost entirely on local conditions, my right hon. Friend has delegated his power to issue them to the county agricultural executive committees. The procedure is laid down for obtaining these special licences and applications must be made to the committee in writing at least 28 days before the date proposed for the burning. My hon. Friend was critical of that, and I will return to it presently; the applicant must simultaneously give notice in writing to other persons having an interest in the land or in any adjacent land, informing them that they have the right to make representations to the committee within seven days of receiving this notification.

There are a number of other provisions in the Regulations, but I need not mention them now as they are not relevant to my hon. Friend's complaint.

Taking the country as a whole, it is fair to say that these Regulations have worked quite smoothly. There has been no complaint about the general conditions under which permitted burning may be carried out, and they are not onerous. For most farmers, the right to burn between 1st November and 31st March, subject to very simple safeguards laid down in the Regulations, has proved quite satisfactory. There has been from time to time, however, a fair demand for special licences to burn in April, because weather conditions have not been suitable for burning during the normal permitted period.

Many of these applications have been made in Northumberland and Durham, and, in the ordinary way, there has been no difficulty in granting them, though this year, as I will try to explain, was an exception, for particular reasons. During the last two years or so we have had suggestions that the Regulations are unduly restrictive. The main complaint relates to the closing date of 31st March for the permitted period. It has been suggested to us that in some of the upland areas in Northumberland and Durham the regular arrival in the county agricultural executive committee offices of applications for special licences for April prove that that month, or part of it, should be included in the permitted period, not for the whole country, but for the upland areas of the North-East, where climatic conditions are much like those in Scotland.

Scotland has its own code of law on this subject. There, heather burning is permitted up to 15th April, but it can also go on until 30th April if the permission of the landlord is obtained. That is the differentiation between the two halves of April in Scotland. For land of more than 1,500 ft. above sea level there is provision for further extension. In consequence, it can happen, as indeed it did this year, that a farmer with land on both sides of the border may be burning legally on one part and illegally on the other, and that the police may take him to court in one country and not in the other. I realise the feeling on that point, and that is a matter which we are considering very carefully.

As to the 28-day period for applications for special licences, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham attaches considerable importance, realise that it is irritating to farmers who cannot make their plans very easily so far ahead. But I would ask my hon. Friend to face the position. It is not easy to see how the period can be shortened materially, because, as I reminded him, seven days' notice has to be given for other interested parties to give notice of objection. That is a quarter of 28 days gone straight away. I do not think that we can cut that down. The remainder of the period is left because we have to arrange for meetings of the county agricultural executive committee to deal with the applications. If a number of applications come in on successive days, it can be seen that it is difficult to have a much shorter period than 28 days, because one cannot reasonably expect a committee to meet continuously on different days. Therefore, there must be a few days in between. It might be possible to make a small reduction in this period, but I think that it would be difficult administratively, and we have to face that fact.

I believe also that this particular irritant would not be so great if we were able to deal with the other side of the question, in other words, give a general licence. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree. In view of that, we have entered into consultation with the interested organisations, and have also consulted the Nature Conservancy and the Hill Farming Advisory Committee for England and Wales, which is responsible for advising the Minister on the exercise of his powers under the Hill Farming Act, under which these Regulations were made.

Apart from the farmers who made the original suggestion and whose position is clear enough, any idea of extending the date was not received with any enthusiasm. Still, now that we have the views of those concerned, we are in a position to consider whether a change ought to be made. The matter is not, of course, immediate, as the argument is about what is to happen in April, 1958, and it would be only right to use the time at our disposal to assemble what scientific data there may be and generally to give this question mature consideration.

On the experience of the years before 1957, it might well have been possible to conclude that in Northumberland and Durham at any rate, the prohibition on burning, say during the first fortnight of April, was not really worth keeping. Unfortunately, 1957 proved a test case for the utility of the Regulations. The winter was wet and warm. The wet weather made burning difficult in permitted periods, and the warmth had the well-known effect of advancing the nesting of game birds. As a result, although there were many applications for special licences for burning in April, the effect of granting them would have been to destroy an unusually large number of nesting birds, because the nesting was taking place unusually early.

The two county committees independently decided that the proper course was to refuse these licences. The decision naturally went against the grain with the farmers, but bearing in mind that the committee members are first and foremost agriculturists, I do not think anyone can seriously doubt that they were acting objectively and that their decision was probably the right one.

Mr. Speir

No doubt the members of the committees were agriculturists, but I doubt whether many hill farmers were on the committees when these decisions were taken.

Mr. Godber

My hon. Friend probably knows the composition of the committees more closely than I do, but they were local men and I should have thought that they would have some regard for the feelings of the hill farmers—but I take his point.

The main point I wish to make in this connection is that this experience has shown that any new regulations relaxing the control over burning in April will need very careful consideration indeed. Had less restrictive regulations been in operation this year, the wild life might have suffered grievously. We cannot assume that the weather conditions were unique and could never recur, and we must bear in mind this important possibility when considering what changes, if any, are to be made.

We are still working on this problem, and my hon. Friend will not expect me to announce any conclusions tonight. The best assurance I can give him is that, while we must keep a balanced outlook on this matter, I have a great deal of sympathy with the point of view which he has expressed so persuasively tonight. We have got to look at this again and see whether it is safe for us to relax, in the form of general licences, for these counties for at least a little of the month of April. If we feel that we can make some relaxation, from the agricultural point of view we would be most anxious to do so. We will endeavour to find some means of satisfying the desires my hon. Friend has put forward. I am grateful to him for raising what is, I know, an important matter to his constituents. I hope he will accept my assurances.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.