HC Deb 27 May 1957 vol 571 cc37-51
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I beg to move, in page 11, line 9, after "commencement", to insert "of this Part".

This and the similar Amendment in page 11, line 40, are both paving Amendments in relation to later Amendments in Clause 36, in page 24, line 5, after "commencement", to insert "of Part I" and in page 24, line 21 to leave out from beginning to "shall" in line 22 and to insert: The period during which orders under subsection (1) of section four of the Agriculture Act, 1947, have effect (being a period which would otherwise expire with the fifth day of August, nineteen hundred and fifty-seven) shall be extended until the commencement of Part I of this Act, and any order in force under that subsection at the commencement of the said Part I". and in Clause 37, page 24, line 34. after "Act", to insert: except subsection (3) of section thirty-six". in regard to the timing of the introduction of the Bill. Presumably, it will be convenient for us to discuss that point at a later stage when we reach Clause 36. I therefore move the Amendment formally.

Mr. Speaker

I do not wish in any way to interfere with the Minister's discretion, but I should have thought that all the Amendments might be discussed together if they are inter-related. The subsequent Amendments can then be moved formally at a later stage when we reach them.

Mr. Thomas Williams (Don Valley)

I was about to make the same observation. I agree that these Amendments are closely connected and that one is useless without the other. I thought that this was the right moment when the hon. Gentleman could explain exactly what the ultimate change will involve. In that case, there might be no need for a further lengthy debate later.

Mr. Godber

Certainly, if it is for the convenience of the House and of yourself. Mr. Speaker, I shall be happy to discuss the various Amendments at this stage; then, they can be dealt with formally later.

The purpose of these paving Amendments to Clause 12 is to make way for the Amendments to Clauses 36 and 37, which are related to the timing of the introduction of the Bill. As at present advised, we anticipate that it will come into force on 1st September this year. There are certain Orders under Section 4 of the 1947 Act which normally falls to be renewed annually by affirmative Resolution.

The Orders at present in force will expire on 5th August this year and we thought that rather than bring in a special Order for the short period between 5th August and 1st September it would be for the convenience of the House to introduce in this way a means of covering that period of three weeks, so that, while the existing Section 4 of the 1947 Act will cease to have effect once the Bill becomes law, we can make quite sure that the intervening period is fully covered.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. T. Williams

I beg to move, in page 11, line 16, at the end to insert: and the Minister shall give notice of such an application to all persons of whom the Minister has knowledge of having an interest in the land". Whenever the Minister receives an application from a person or persons interested in a piece of land the right hon. Gentleman is quite entitled to consider all that is stated in it, and those points may be positive or negative. What we asked in Committee, and what we ask now, it that the tenant of any such land for which an application has been made should be made aware of what is submitted in the application if it is made by some third party. We felt that if anybody apart from the tenant makes an application, at least the tenant ought to know what the application is and what points are submitted in it, or submitted to the Minister privately by a third party.

I move the Amendment to afford the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of telling us whether he has considered what was said in Committee upon this matter, if he has had time to consider it, and of saying whatever it is he has to say about it.

Mr. Speaker

I have seen an Amendment handed in by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) on Friday, too late to get on the Notice Paper. So far as I could judge, it was covered by this Amendment. The hon. Member is entitled to address the House upon it, if he so desires, but we cannot now take that other as a separate Amendment.

Mr. W. M. F. Vane (Westmorland)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The purpose of that Amendment of mine was simply to ensure, what may prove for the convenience of everyone in the end as well as being common courtesy, that the owner of the land should be informed. The matter is covered very largely by the Amendment before the House. I realise that there may be cases where this is impossible, but I shall be happy to support this Amendment.

Mr. Amory

I am wholly in sympathy with the objects of this Amendment. I was in sympathy with the Amendment proposed at the earlier stage, and I said at that time that I would look at this matter and consider whether any special provision in the Bill might be required beyond what we had already provided. My conclusion is that it would be best not to make any statutory provision beyond what we have done.

I do not think that the Amendment would help very much. It is really only a declaratory provision, saying that the Minister should consult all those persons of whom he has knowledge. It does not say what steps he should take to find out who are all those who have an interest; it does not impose any sanctions; and the procedure would not seem to be invalidated if the Minister did not do that.

The more I have thought of it the more I have been impressed by what the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) said in Committee when he reminded us of the complexities of ownership. I am very anxious that my staff should not find the complexities of this matter beyond their power to cope with expeditiously. There will be circumstances in which those having an interest may be mortgagees or executors or creditors, or survivors who may benefit under a will.

3.45 p.m.

What I should like to do—and I hope that this will be satisfactory to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane)—is to give an absolutely clear assurance that I accept the purpose of this Amendment and that in operating the Act we shall take every possible step we can to ensure that interested parties are informed. This will apply not only in the case of a straightforward application, where, if there is a landlord and a tenant, we shall see that both the landlord and the tenant are aware of the application which has been made and, if possible, that both are in agreement with it; but also where we receive an application from persons who intend to acquire an interest in the property. Then we shall most certainly see that the present owner is informed.

I hope that that assurance will satisfy the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and other hon. Gentlemen who raised this matter. I hope it will satisfy the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Northampton. I hope, moreover, that he will feel as gratified as I am that our final conclusion has led us to look at the matter in the same way he did at the earlier stage.

Colonel Sir Leonard Ropner (Barkston Ash)

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) will accept the assurance that my right hon. Friend has given. I, for one, was in complete sympathy with the underlying idea of the Amendment, but I am satisfied that it would be a mistake to try to give legislative effect to it by attempting to define in a Bill what we want to do. I hope very much that both sides of the House will accept the assurance my right hon. Friend has given.

Mr. T. Williams

I am very ready to accept the right hon. Gentleman's promise to see that administratively our purpose is carried out. We had no doubt at all as to the fairness of the right hon. Gentlemen when he promised to look into the matter, and I am quite happy to know that he not only has looked into the matter but has come down on his own side instead of mine. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Tudor Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

I beg to move, in page 11, line 16 at the end to insert: (3) An application under this section may be made jointly by persons having interests in land and such an application may be made either by such persons jointly or by a co-operative organisation acting on behalf of such persons. We had a very good discussion in Committee on this very Amendment. I am rather surprised that the Minister has not himself put down an Amendment to make this provision to which I drew attention, for I did so, I thought, with some clarity. It will be remembered that I was concerned with joint enterprises for co-operative organisations. The Parliamentary Secretary said, I thought, that it might be possible to do something administratively about this matter. I wonder whether, in the meantime, he has had an opportunity of discussing this with the Advisory Committee, which has been set up since the Bill was presented.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill was concerned only with land. After all, a sheep dip has something to do with land. The sheep come off the land. Where there is a community of farmers it is much better that they should share a sheep dip, rather than have individual sheep dips. I think the Amendment important in that it will extend the Clause to enterprises conducted jointly by two or more farmers, and I should be glad to hear what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say about this and to have some assurance from him on the matter.

In Committee, the hon. Gentleman referred me to the interpretation Clause. I am not a lawyer, and I should like to know whether he still sticks to that view of interpretation he held then. If he does stick to that interpretation, and can assure me that it covers my Amendment, I shall have the utmost pleasure in withdrawing the Amendment.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I beg to second the Amendment.

Mr. Godber

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) moved an Amendment in Committee on which we had a long discussion. I am sorry that I was not able to satisfy him at that time. On the question of interpretation, the word "person" includes "persons." Therefore, for the purposes of any application, I do not think that there is any need to have an Amendment, in that a co-operative organisation could apply in respect of land in which it has an interest. The point that I was trying to make, in my words referring to land, was that we have to consider these buildings or sheep dips or whatever they might be in relation to the land that they serve.

There is nothing whatever to prevent a landlord from providing a communal sheep dip or some other building to serve a number of holdings within his ownership. We should know then that there would be continuity and no likelihood of wastage, but where more than one owner-occupier agrees to provide something for the convenience and use of more than one there is no guarantee of continuity.

A man might sell up and go away and there might then be a building designed to serve a certain area of land for which the need no longer existed. Public money is involved here and there must be some safeguard against that kind of thing happening. We say, "related to land" because we want it related to land continuing in one tenancy, or at least in one ownership, so that we can be convinced of a continuing need.

This comes within the test of the prudent landlord in the Bill, because a prudent landlord would not provide equipment to serve land over which he had no control. One might well have a white elephant left in relation to one part of the land. That is the danger. We would accept fully the justification of the Amendment where land is in one ownership. Where it is not, we do not feel that we can accept the Amendment; and where it is in one ownership there is no need for the Amendment. I am sorry to be discouraging, but it is a fundamental point on which it would be difficult for us to find any means of meeting the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor. The points made in Committee about roads and bridges were right, but they, in the very nature of things, are available to more than one farmer as a matter of permanence. We judge the matter on that basis and it is on that basis we feel that the Amendment falls down.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

Will my hon. Friend deal with a point which I raised in Committee? We expect that there will be legislation in future making common land cultivatable. If commoners agree to cultivate a common, can they go in for a scheme to provide a sheep dip or a building, just as the ordinary landowner can do, or will they be outside this grant just as they are outside the grant for marginal land? A body of commoners should have protection so that they would be entitled to secure a grant just like anybody else.

Mr. Sidney Dye (Norfolk, South-West)

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said that this is a matter of fundamental importance and he has laid down a principle that where it is a question of land ownership the landlord who has a number of tenants comes within the provisions of the Bill and should be entitled to a grant for the benefit of his tenants, but a group of small occupying owners must be treated differently. The hon. Gentleman says it is a matter of fundamental importance that these small occupying owners shall not be able to join together in a co-operative scheme for the purpose of obtaining equipment that can be jointly used by them.

Will the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend go to Herefordshire, Wales, or Norfolk to say that a Conservative Government are not in favour of owner-occupation? Is the hon. Gentleman now saying that owner-occupiers will be differentiated against under the Bill, merely because they are small owner-occupiers, but that if they choose to sell their land to a big landowner or to a big company in London, who will have no more interest in the land than in what they will get out of it financially, they will be entitled to a grant? That does not sound good enough to me.

What will the head office of the Conservative Party be able to write in the leaflets which it will distribute in their thousands about the Bill? I have a copy of one such leaflet. Will the head office now write a special leaflet which will say to owner-occupiers, "The Tory Government look upon you with distrust. They cannot trust you because if you make a bargain one of you might break from it and leave the land and someone of similar inclination will not take it up."?

The hon. Gentleman is saying that he cannot trust the small owner-occupier, who has put his life savings in his land, because he might break the bargain, but the hon. Gentleman really means that the Government might break these owner- occupiers in the next few years and the scheme would fall down. He does not mean that the honest people in Mid-Wales and other parts of the country cannot be trusted. He means that he has no faith in the Government's ability to carry out an agriculture policy that will enable these people to borrow money for a scheme like this and make the scheme pay, and that there will be bankruptcies and the like. That is not a good enough answer to give to hon. Members. The Government are discriminating against the small man, in favour of the big man whom they want to see as their principal partner in agriculture.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

I support the Amendment, but not entirely for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye). I understood the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to be basing his argument on the contention that the Government were prepared to approve a scheme advanced by a landlord which covered two or more tenancies, but were not prepared to approve a scheme which involved two or more owner-occupiers. They claim that if there is a scheme involving two owner-occupiers and there is a change in one owner-occupation it might work detrimentally to the whole basis of Clause 12. That applies equally in the ease of a landlord who obtains approval to a scheme relating to two separate tenancies, because there is nothing to prevent a landlord from disposing of one tenancy and thus bringing about precisely the same position as if the scheme had been put forward by two separate owner-occupiers.

4.0 p.m.

It may well be that, to approve a scheme put forward by more than one owner-occupier, there would have to be a safeguard—for example, in the case of sheep dipping facilities—that they should be in joint ownership. I fail to see, however, that it is impossible to make arrangements to give these advantages to owner-occupiers who wish to put forward a scheme, just as it is intended to give advantages to a landlord who wants to put forward a scheme in respect of separate tenancies.

Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)

During the Committee stage, I listened to the arguments advanced by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and I was as unimpressed on that occasion as I am today. I wonder why the Government take such a dismal and pessimistic view of the future of co-operative organisations? Why should it be argued that the weakness of this proposal is that if we give a co-operative organisation this right it may disintegrate subsequently?

I recall that recently the Minister attended a dinner to celebrate the inauguration of an organisation which seeks to encourage the growth of cooperative organisations among farmers. On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman said some kindly things about them. This Amendment gives him an opportunity to translate some of his kindly wishes into practical legislation, and I am surprised that he is not seizing this opportunity with both hands.

I find the argument against accepting the Amendment inconclusive. The thing to do, by this and other methods, is to give co-operative organisations of farmers every encouragement, to give them practical jobs to do. and to give them legal rights, as this Bill would do. That would make their organisation more secure and practical, and it would not lead to the insecure future which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary appeared to forecast for them.

Mr. Vane

Although I do not go as far as either of the two hon. Gentlemen opposite, because I do not think that this is a political issue or that this Bill is intended to provide equipment for farmers' trading organisations of a cooperative nature, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has in mind and of one of which or more many of us are members. I think it is intended to provide fixed equipment for agricultural land.

It may be that the Amendment goes wider than one which the Minister could accept. I cannot imagine that there will be many cases where several farmers owning neighbouring land will want to get together to ask for grant aid for a building which might serve them all. However, there may be cases, particularly concerning roads and bridges, where this might be practicable. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will say that he will look at this again before the Bill comes back to us from another place, to make sure that such cases are not ruled out.

I do not think we can press for farmers' trading organisations to be included, but I can see rare cases of small farmers in a group who might want this benefit and it would be a pity if they were ruled out.

Mr. Willey

May I join with my hon. Friends and with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) in pressing this Amendment on the Government? I appreciate the logic of the Parliamentary Secretary's reply, but I do not think it is adequate. When he talked about fundamental importance I at once smelled a doctrinaire approach, because when one talks about fundamental importance it is bolstering up the case too much.

I have said that I can appreciate that approach and the reference to the prudent landlord, but I cannot see why we cannot envisage circumstances in which one should not look to the prudent landlords. The Parliamentary Secretary has anticipated that to some degree, because he said he would allow that this would be justifiable in the case of common ownership of different holdings. But, of course, he cannot guarantee that those different holdings will remain in the common ownership, so that he at once said there was a possibility of an exception to his approach on the grounds of fundamental principle. I point that out because the hon. Gentleman is conceding that in some circumstances he envisages State aid being given.

I share the view of some of my hon. Friends that we should seek to encourage co-operative enterprise amongst farmers. The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that last year I said a good deal about recommissioned mills. I noticed the suggestion made recently that this is a matter on which there should be common enterprise; that facilities could be provided on co-operative grounds where they could not be provided individually.

I should have thought the same approach could be made towards some farm building. Putting it no higher than that, I hope that the Government will look at this point again, and say that this is not a matter upon which they should draw lines on the grounds of fundamental doctrine, but that it is a matter of common sense. There is no difference between the two sides of the House on the encouragement of co-operative enterprise and this would seem to be the occasion for providing for it.

I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will go beyond saying that he would allow a co-operative organisation to make an application on behalf of an individual, and will envisage the possibility of farmers collectively providing some capital building, so that it would be wise to provide in the Bill a subsection which will allow the Minister to do so.

Mr. Godber

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) was worried about the use of the words "fundamental importance". I am sorry about that. I was trying to use them in connection with my interpretation of this Bill, which is that all these improvements must be related to agricultural land and that one must see continuity. That is the fundamental point, and I am sorry if my use of those words disturbed the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the need for a continued common ownership. If there were a continued common ownership then the scheme would come within the Bill. If there were divided ownership, he wanted it to be brought in. That might be possible in certain cases, such as those concerning roads and bridges, where there is a clear link and where undoubtedly there is a continuing permanence. In regard to anything else, while we could administratively perhaps agree that a scheme qualified, it could only be where we had a reasonable guarantee of a continuing demand. For instance, perhaps an agreement could be made between adjoining owners, enabling a building to be erected, which would be for a long enough period of years to make sure that the money was not wasted. That is all we are trying to do.

As I understood the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins), he was thinking in terms of a considerable number of smallholders, where it would be somewhat difficult to get such an undertaking and guarantee. That was why, perhaps, I was less helpful to him than he thought I should have been. It was because I could not see how we could get that continuity which is so necessary if the risk of wastage and failure is to be eliminated.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye) saw all sorts of dangers and difficulties in what we are doing and thought that all that we wanted to do was to get back to the big landlord. I can assure him that it is not any part of our intention in the Bill to try to destroy the existing arrangements of owner-occupiers, and I would remind him that most of the owner-occupiers are very well able to put up schemes of their own and do not wish to amalgamate with others.

In the main, I should have thought that that would have been the case. The owner-occupier usually wants to provide for his own particular holding and he is fully covered and able to do so. As I saw it, only marginal cases were included in the Amendment and certainly not the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West seemed to visualise.

The hon. and learned Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) referred to the possibility of a sheep dip under joint ownership. It could well be that a sheep dip made on the juncture of two holdings could, if a satisfactory arrangement could be arrived at for some continuity, come within the terms. Administratively, we might be able to do that. But I am advised that we do not need the powers of the Amendment to enable us to do that, if we could be sure that it would come under the test of what a prudent landlord would provide. I think that a considerable number of things which hon. Members want covered could come within the terms; but I do not think that it would be wise to widen the scope beyond what we have already done.

I hope that in the light of my further remarks, the hon. Gentleman may be more satisfied and feel that while we are not able to give him all that he desires, perhaps administratively we can go some part of the way, provided that we can be sure of the long-term continuity of use. I must not say that this is the "fundamental" basis or the hon. Gentleman will get worried, but it is the basis on which we see it. If we can be sure that public money will not be wasted in this way, I think that we shall be meeting the wishes of the House.

Mr. T. Williams

Before we come to a conclusion on the Amendment I should like to make one very brief submission.

The Amendment reads: An application under this section may be made jointly by persons…or by a co-operative organisation… All that means is that an application may be made. It does not, of course, imply that an application will be approved. If I understand the Parliamentary Secretary aright. he does not want to approve a joint scheme where disagreement among neighbours may arise and thus have white elephants left about all over the country. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. But if he will look at the Second Schedule he will see that among the improvements that can be made, paragraph 2 states: Provision of means of sewage disposal other than from dwelling houses. It is quite conceivable that a joint scheme for a sewerage undertaking could be applied for and obviously that would be a permanent institution once a joint scheme had been prepared. I am sure that he will agree that decent, respectable sewerage undertakings are quite good things.

4.15 p.m.

Paragraph 3 states: making and improvement of roads, fords and bridges. Two paragraphs include the sort of undertakings which owners or adjoining tenants might very well agree comply with Clause 12 (3, c)—those that a prudent landlord would undertake.

It is clear that unless the joint owners felt that it would be worth the expenditure of the Government grant plus 66 per cent. found between the applicants, they would not apply for schemes even for roads, fords or bridges. Paragraph 4 states: Provision or laying-on of electric light or power to farms for agricultural purposes. Clearly, the joint owners would feel that this was a scheme which would obviously become a permanent one. Once the electricity was laid on to the farms for agricultural purposes it would be permanent. It could not ultimately be a white elephant. It would be serving two or three farms if an application were made for a grant. Therefore, under paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 all these items would quite clearly become permanent and would not be white elephants.

Since the Amendment only asks that an application may be made jointly by persons instead of a person, or by cooperative organisations acting on behalf of persons, I do not see how the Government could be let down or would be wasting money so long as the joint applications were for such items as those I have mentioned which are embodied in the Second Schedule. They could either be approved or rejected, because the Minister has power to approve or reject. If the hon. Gentleman cannot at this moment accept the theory I am now advancing, I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will feel that there is some substance in the case and that it is well worth his looking at it again.

Mr. Godber

After such a persuasive speech from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) it is very difficult to resist what he says. But I am advised that it would not be necessary to insert these words to enable part of what he wants to be done. As regards the three items in the Second Schedule, I have instanced roads and bridges and the others fall into exactly the same category, except that in some of these items, electricity supply, for instance, it may be that while a scheme is approved as a whole to supply electricity to a number of farms each individual would prefer to deal with his part separately.

Mr. T. Williams

Then they would not put in a joint application.

Mr. Godber

That is my point; it does not arise. Where it does arise we should be able to cover it under the Bill as it stands and, therefore, there would be no need to bring in this Amendment. Naturally, we will look at this matter again in the light of what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I do not think that there is any need to make any change to do what he and the Government want to do.

In reply to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin)—and I apologise to him for not replying when I spoke earlier—who asked me a specific point about common land, it could well be that there might be some case, but I think that we must await the Report of the Royal Commission on Common Land. Undoubtedly, if there are recommendations made there legislation relating to them will be required. I think that it would be wiser to leave it to that time. Any proposals for dealing with common land should, I think, come within its own separate legislation, and it is for that reason that I cannot accede to hon. Gentlemen's wishes in the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: In page 11, line 40, after "commencement", insert "of this Part".—[Mr. Amory.]