HC Deb 27 May 1957 vol 571 cc100-8

Amendment made: In page 24, line 34, after "Act", insert: except subsection (3) of section thirty-six".— [Mr. Amory.]

Mr. Wiley

I beg to move, in page 24, line 35, at the end to insert: unless before that date Her Majesty by Order in Council has appointed some other day to he the day on which this Act shall come into force". We had a full discussion on this matter in Standing Committee, when all hon. Members were anxious that we should expedite the implementation of the Bill. I called the right hon. Gentleman's attention to his virtue, and I will do so again. When we discussed the implementation of the White Fish and Herring Industries Bill, the Minister was very cautious, but it turned out that he was unduly cautious since he was able to implement the provisions much earlier than he had expected. I remind him of that, because I want to encourage him to be bold on this occasion.

When we discussed this matter in Committee the Parliamentary Secretary raised one or two matters upon which I expressed a different point of view. First, he said that the effect of this delay might not be as bad as we could otherwise expect because a good deal of maintenance work could be carried on before the Act came into operation. I feel that this is not a very satisfactory reply. On the contrary, I feel that a good deal of maintenance work might well be held up because there was a feeling that it might be possible to get this work regarded as ranking for grant. Apart from the work wholly held up, contrary to expediting maintenance work some maintenance may well also be held up.

The second point on which I differed from the hon. Member concerned administrative difficulties. I pointed out. as I point out again, that we should not exaggerate the administrative difficulties. because the Department has been expeditiously preparing for the implementation of this Bill ever since the laying of the White Paper. It appears to be ready to receive and consider applications.

I have reminded the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of these matters, which they raised as reasons for not being able to accept the argument made on both sides of the Committee. I hope that now, having had further time for consideration and having approached a little nearer to the date of implementation envisaged in the Bill, the Minister can tell us that he can accept the present Amendment, which is a conciliatory Amendment. We are no longer trying to bind the Minister to particular dates. We are trying to allow for the possibility that he might well be able to anticipate the date provided for in the Bill.

I concede at once that this is not altogether a satisfactory Amendment. We are moving it because we failed with our Amendments in Standing Committee. I know that this Amendment is open to some objections, but in anticipation of those objections I would point out that we are laying down a specific date in the Bill, and the objections which can be raised to leaving the date undetermined are largely minimised by that factor. I hope that the Minister will either be able to accept the Amendment or be able to give us an assurance that there is still a possibility that he may be able to do better than he thought he would be able to do when the Bill was first introduced.

Mr. Watkins

I beg to second the Amendment.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Amory

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I am in sympathy with the object of this Amendment, which is to facilitate this Bill becoming law as soon as possible. If I could see a reasonable chance that advancing the date from 1st September, as it is at present, by a few weeks or a month or two would expedite matters, I would agree that this is a sensible proposal. But here, I think, we are up against the facts of the situation. Were we to bring the date forward to 1st August, that would be only nine weeks from now.

As hon. Members know, on about 3rd May we invited proposals for schemes so that we could carry out the preliminary work of considering them, inspecting and so on. Our intention was that if we found a scheme which was eligible—and assuming that Parliament has not altered the Bill in such a respect as to make it ineligible—directly after 1st September we would be able to give rapid approval to it.

During the Committee stage proceedings, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) asked me whether on Report Stage I would give such information as I could of the response which had been made. It is fairly early yet to make any statement as the period has been only two or three weeks, but I gladly give the House what information I have. We have had numerous inquiries. We printed 20,000 copies of the details of the provisions, with a form of application attached, and that has proved a "best seller"—metaphorically speaking, because actually they were given away—and we are now printing a second edition. But that merely shows the great interest in the matter. The number of what may be judged to be inquiries giving evidence of firm proposals amounts to 3,000 or 4,000 to date. Absolutely firm applications lodged with us in the past weeks amount to under a thousand, but we must remember that it is less than a month since we commenced to receive applications.

During the past two or three months there has been little pressure from farmers to advance the date. There was a certain amount of pressure soon after the issue of the White Paper, but during the past few months the pressure has been inconsiderable. I think farmers have realised the importance of giving a great deal of thought to their proposals before embarking on them. That applies also to the leading agricultural journals, which recently have been counselling caution and urging us not to rush the starting of a matter of this importance. Were we to advance the date, on the evidence at present available, I believe that it would be a case of "More haste, less speed." Everything shows how important it is that schemes should be carefully planned and that my Department and the Scottish Department of Agriculture should step off with the right foot. The Advisory Committee has held one meeting, but it has quite a bit more work to do.

I strongly recommend right hon. and hon. Gentlemen not to press us to advance the date. It would be open to me to accept this Amendment, or something like it, but if I did so I do not feel that I would be acting strictly honestly with the people concerned. I feel now more strongly perhaps than I did a month or so ago—the Bill has made rapid and satisfactory progress through Parliament —that I should be misleading the industry by accepting this Amendment. If I see reason to change my mind during the remaining stages of this Bill and its passage through another place, I will make a suggestion to the contrary. But having said that, and so as not to mislead the industry, I am bound to say that at present I feel it would be a mistake to advance the date.

Mr. T. Williams

I appreciate the promised explanation of the right hon. Gentleman. I suspected that between the Committee stage proceedings and now he would either have his original views confirmed or he would be willing to be forthcoming. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) feel pleased that the right hon. Gentleman does not propose to accept the Amendment. I do not wish to say that too loudly, otherwise the right hon. Gentleman might defer the date. We prefer the date to be as it is.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

My right hon. Friend has said he has had no pressure from farmers to advance the date—

Mr. Amory

I did not say there has been no pressure. I said "inconsiderable pressure"—much less pressure in the past two or three months than during the first month or two.

Mr. Turton

I will accept that. My hon. Friend says there has been "inconsiderable pressure" from farmers. In the North of England it has been quite the contrary. There has been a great deal of pressure for this date to be put forward from farmers in the North of England where there are a large number of schemes under consideration. Farmers in the North of England are very worried about how they will get building work done before the bad weather starts. In the South of England it is one matter, but in the North of England it is another.

I ask my right hon. Friend to consider this matter again, when he is aware of the progress which this Bill has made in another place. If he could alter the date to the extent of a fortnight it would make a considerable difference in the North of England. There the farmers have a lot of building of a fairly simple character to do, such as buildings for housing cattle and for storage. If the date could be advanced, together with the use of standardised buildings, the work could be done before the winter sets in.

Mr. du Cann

If there are cases where there is a special urgency, would my right hon. Friend be able to give his approval to proposals either on 1st September or as soon thereafter as possible? I have in mind a particular case in my constituency which may well be typical. It concerns a small area of about three miles square between two large villages where there is no electricity. The situation in that area is odd, because everywhere else for miles around there is a supply of electricity.

I understand that the South Western Electricity Board proposed to start work in the area, but local farmers are not anxious for work to be started until they can be certain of getting grants under the provisions of paragraph 4 of the Second Schedule. One can well understand that point of view. I am informed by the chairman of the Board that unless work is started fairly soon the construction gangs will have to be moved somewhere else, which will mean that the supply of electricity to this area would be delayed for a very long time.

The local county agricultural executive committee has rightly stated categorically that if any work is done at this stage it will not qualify for grant, and one accepts that in principle there can be no question of retrospection. One also understands the difficulty about moving the date forward. But here is an urgent case where it would he appreciated if approval could be given right away after 1st September.

Mr. Amory

In the case my hon. Friend has mentioned, I would ask that the applicant, or applicants, put forward proposals in detail as soon as possible. We will then ensure that investigations are made and. if necessary, an inspection carried out. If there are strong reasons for urgency the proposals will fall into the category of those to which we shall give priority and grant approval at the earliest possible moment after 1st September.

Mr. Wiley

I am in some difficulty in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman says that he could accept the Amendment but that if he did it might be misleading. I do not want that situation to arise. It might well be misleading, because his view at present is that he will have to hold to the date provided in the Bill. The Minister has been good enough to say that he will keep the matter under review, and that if there should be an opportunity of bringing the Measure into operation earlier an announcement will be made in another place. That is much the most satisfactory course. We do not want to mislead anyone. On the other hand, we want to leave open the possibility that the right hon. Gentleman may yet be able to advance the date.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for keeping this matter under review, and in the circumstances I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Godber

I beg to move, in page 25, line 32, to leave out "restoration".

Those hon. Members who were on the Standing Committee will recall that we had a discussion upon this point in regard to fences, hedges, walls and gates, and the view was expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) that this was somewhat too wide a provision and that we should seek some means of narrowing it. We have looked into the position carefully. We have no desire to cut out anything which should come within the terms of the Bill but we have a great deal of sympathy with the view that my hon. Friend put forward, that this provision was a trifle wide.

In particular, paragraph 6 of the Second Schedule is wider than paragraph 3, which refers merely to the making and improvement of roads, fords and bridges. We thought that if we were to take out the word "restoration" in this paragraph it would leave exactly the same sort of formula as that contained in the third paragraph. I am advised that in doing so we still leave ourselves a certain amount of room for particular restoration that is obviously necessary. This work would come within the terms of the Bill. because it would be covered by incidental operations under paragraph 12 of the Schedule.

We are, therefore, not wholly prohibiting restoration in every sense; we are prohibiting it only as a general rule. We think that it will lead to greater clarity. and it may well reduce the disappointment of intending applicants, if it is made clear now that such restoration as would normally be the result of tenants' neglect. and which tenants themselves should put right, will be excluded from the terms of the Bill. We have therefore introduced an Amendment in line with the suggestion put forward by my hon. Friend. I thank him for bringing the matter to our notice.

Mr. Baldwin

My recollection is that I also attacked this provision in Committee. I am not happy about it, because it seems to me that it will enable many unworthy works to rank for grant. Under the terms of paragraph 6, it appears that anyone who has neglected his fences, hedges, walls or gates will now receive assistance by way of a grant from funds which were really provided for the permanent improvement of buildings. If a man has neglected his fences, walls and gates, and they cost£100 to repair, he will receive a grant of£33.

Mr. Amoryindicated dissent.

Mr. Baldwin

The paragraph says: Making, restoration, and improvement of permanent fences (including hedges), walls and gates. If laying a hedge is not an improvement I do not know what the word means. The provision should have referred to the making of permanent fences, walls and gates. Let us have something permanent.

If we are to assist a man who has neglected his walls, we shall be using this money for the wrong purpose. There is only a limited amount of money to be used, and it should not be used for those who have neglected their farms. I cannot see why a man who has not laid fences for a considerable time should receive a grant in respect of laying them. As the wording of the provision reads at present, that would appear to be the effect.

Furthermore, there will be a different interpretation of the provision from one county to another. In one county there may be a weak agricultural officer who will pass a scheme for carrying out ordinary repairs, while in an adjoining county it may well be that such a scheme will be turned down. I would prefer my right hon. Friend to cut out not only the word "restoration", but also the word "improvement". The provision should refer to the making of permanent fences, walls and gates.

Mr. Speaker

That would involve another Amendment, which is not before us.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Vane

I thank my hon. Friend for moving the Amendment. I am sure that the provision will be a much better one with the word "restoration" omitted although, as my hon. Friend has said, it may still be possible that some people will be left with the idea that they can get Government money to help make good past neglect. That is what we must avoid. Where a farmer is embarking upon a substantial improvement and new work, such as that which may be necessary in the case of some arable farms where, for generations there have been no fences, or where some rough land has been taken in and is now to be farmed much more intensively, grants should be made.

But we must guard against cases where, for example, a couple of rotten gateposts need to be replaced, or gates have to be provided. It would not be fair to use the taxpayers' money for such work. I believe that my hon. Friend said that to attract grant the cost of the work must be£100 or more. What I want to be sure about when considering fences is that£20 worth of fencing will not be added to the cost of another job to make up a total of£100 or more. Can my right hon. Friend make that point clear and explain whether fencing will be treated as a job on its own, or whether it can be thrown in with anything else as a makeweight? I do not want anybody to be disappointed about this matter.

Mr. Amory

It is possible for a number of schemes to have a collective effect; if there is£20 worth of fencing,£20 worth of something else, and so on, if the total is about£100, it would rank for consideration—but only for consideration. That is the safeguard in this case. We should not give a grant in cases where the work involved was merely the repair of neglect. That is the point about which my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) was so keen. I am grateful to him for the way in which he welcomed the restriction that we are making to the terms of the Schedule.

He wishes us to go a little further, but at least we have gone some way towards doing what he wants. I can assure him that the case which he instanced—of the man who delays repairing his hedge and seeks to do it later—would not rank for grant under the Bill. The provision refers to making and improvement, and the word "improvement", as I define it, would mean providing something definitely of a higher standard than that which existed but had fallen into neglect, certainly in the tenant's period of occupation.

These matters must be looked at individually. The intention of my Department is to see that no unfair advantage shall be taken of the public funds which are available. I would remind my hon. Friend that this work will be done by the Agricultural Land Service, which keeps a very even balance between the counties, so he should have no fear upon that score. The Amendment restricts in a useful way what can be done under the Schedule itself, and I think that it should be helpful.

Mr. Paget

I find the Minister's interpretation a little odd. How, in any ordinary use of language, can one say that to cut and lay a ragged fence is not to improve that fence? I fail to understand how that can be. I do not see why all this concern arises. Is there one item in the Schedule that may not be necessitated and for which the need may not arise by reason of past neglect?

Amendment agreed to.