HC Deb 24 February 1960 vol 618 cc411-6
Mr. Peart

I beg to move, in page 3, line 3, at the end to insert: Provided that where the appropriate Minister is of the opinion that there has not been compliance with such conditions in accordance with This subsection then he shall give to person who appears to him to be carrying on for the time being the business to which the grant relates a written notification of the reasons for his decision and shall afford to that person, and if that person so requests, not more than one other person nominated by him in that behalf, an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person appointed by the Minister and shall consider the report of the person so appointed, a copy of which shall be supplied by the Minister to the first-mentioned person. Here again, we repeat a point of view which we pressed in Committee. When considering the question of revocation of a scheme, it is right that the small producer should be safeguarded. The Amendment is designed to do that. The small producer should be given reasons for any decision which has been taken. If the individual requests to have his case considered, that should be done. That was the spirit of the Franks Committee's Report, and I am certain that it is in line with general agricultural practice now.

I hope that the Minister will accept the Amendment. It is a safeguard which we feel should be in the Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary has already revealed a constructive approach to the Bill, and I will say no more except that I hope that he will accept the Amendment.

Mr. J. Hare

As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) rightly said, this was discussed in Committee. The Amendment would provide applicants with a statutory right of appeal against a decision that an application could not be approved or that a claim for a grant had to be rejected because the conditions of the scheme had not been met. That is a brief description of the object of the Amendment.

As the Bill is now drafted, I am authorised to pay a grant only when certain conditions are satisfied, and I am in turn accountable to Parliament for the payments I make. Within those limits, I want to pay grants as freely as I can and give applicants every opportunity to show that I may properly do so.

I want to adopt under the scheme exactly the same procedure as is adopted in many other schemes already in operation. I will outline what the procedure is. Members of county agricultural executive committees are consulted in doubtful cases before an adverse decision is taken. If I find myself unable to approve an application or to admit a claim, the applicant is given a written statement of my reasons. He is then free to make representations to his county agricultural executive committee, and I assure the House that the committee takes very great care to understand the case. The applicant always has an opportunity to put his case in writing. If he wishes, he may seek a hearing in person, go to the C.A.E.C. and discuss his application. He can take a supporter with him. Very often, the committee arranges for some of its members to visit his holding and discuss the problem on the ground.

I assure all hon. Members that what they may describe as this informal procedure, but what I describe as this very human procedure, is working very well. There are many other schemes in which this procedure operates—the farm improvement scheme, the small farmer scheme, the hill farming and livestock rearing scheme, the drainage and water supply scheme, and the ploughing grant scheme. In other words, we have a vast experience of dealing with people who feel that they have a just complaint.

Last year in 474 cases representations were made to county committees under one or ocher of those schemes. In 377 cases the official decision was endorsed by the county committee. In 88 it was modified or reversed in the light of the committee's recommendations. In only 9 was it necessary for a disagreement between the county committee and the officials of the Ministry to be referred to Ministers. I am sure that the House will take it from me—

Mr. Peart

The Minister mentioned a decision of the county committee. I hope that he realises that the county committee is an executive agency of the Minister.

Mr. Hare

County committees are my representatives. They have very few executive powers. They used to have many before we did away with supervision and dispossession. Except for a few remaining powers, they are advisory and not executive.

If I can finish what I was saying I think that it will clear the hon. Gentleman's mind. The procedure works very smoothly. It is welcomed by applicants and by the committees, because its very informality offers the best chance of fully and fairly examining an aggrieved person's case and helping him as far as possible. It is unnecessary to prescribe a statutory procedure in its place. Indeed, I believe that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion would tend to limit applicants in presenting their cases rather than help them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that seriously, because it is a considered view. I should be very sorry to see a formal, hard and fast statutory atmosphere replace the very free and friendly spirit in which these matters are handled at present. I should also be very sorry to see a departure from the confidential basis on which, in general, county committees are at present able to advise me on these cases.

I can make grants only where I am satisfied that the statutory conditions have been met. The county committee in considering the applicant's case afresh is a source of independent advice to me on whether I can properly make a payment, apart from the official advice I have. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the decision is and must be my responsibility, because I alone am accountable to Parliament for it.

In those circumstances, it would be wrong for advice to Ministers to be known to interested parties. There is no question here of my acting in a judicial capacity. In this context—I think that this deals with the point which was worrying the hon. Member for Workington—the county committees are genuinely my advisers in the same way as are my officials. With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see fit to withdraw the Amendment.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Willey

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his reply, but I do not think it meets the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) had in mind. During the Committee stage we had a discussion which turned largely on revocation. The Amendment which we put forward then was resisted by the Government on the ground that it turned on revocation and that, substantially, revocation was inapplicable under the present Bill. I mention this because I think that we have in mind something different from what the right hon. Gentleman had in mind when he replied. We all appreciate the work of the county council committees and the advantage of this reference to them. I merely asked the right hon. Gentleman about this in order to be sure that this is not too dilatory a process. Now that he is dealing with applicants it would be a bad thing if we had a dilatory process which unduly delayed applications. But that is not the point which my hon. Friend had in mind.

We were concerned with what might be a revocation, or a de facto revocation. This does not involve only the expenditure of public money. Only one-third is public money and two-thirds represents the applicant's own money. This subsection deals with the proposal in question being carried out in a proper manner or within a reasonable time. If money is withheld after the applicant has incurred expenditure, we feel strongly—this has been included in previous Measures containing similar provisions—that the applicant should have the right to appeal to an independent person and see the report which is made to the Minister.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will endeavour to meet us on this Amendment, because we consider this to be a matter of principle and that such provision ought to be made. The right hon. Gentleman has not said so, but he may have some criticisms of the drafting of this Amendment by which we endeavour to meet this point. But I think that where there has been an agreement that certain work should be carried out and where the applicant has incurred expense and then there is a question of revocation or de facto revocation, there ought to be such a provision as this.

Even if the right hon. Gentleman feels that this Amendment is not the right way in which to deal with the matter, I hope he will give us an assurance that this provision will be made. During the Committee stage discussions we were disappointed, as I think the Minister will agree, because we did not get a complete reply. We were told only that there might not be so many cases such as this under the provisions of this Bill compared with previous legislation. We were not told that there would be no cases at all. We feel that here the provision is expressly made. There may be a question of work not being carried out in a proper manner or within a reasonable time and these matters ought to be subject to those safeguards which were provided for in the Report of the Franks Committee. I hope whatever criticisms the right hon. Gentleman may have of this Amendment—though he has not indicated that he has any—he will, nevertheless, give us an assurance that the provision made in previous legislation will be included in this Bill.

Mr. Hare

I think that here there is a difference of opinion. I cannot add much to what I have already said. I believe that the procedure under which we operate in so many other schemes has proved satisfactory. Complaints are dealt with, and there is no question of delay such as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) seemed to suggest. I consider that these difficult cases of doubt and so on are dealt with humanely and with reasonable speed. I would rather have the proven procedure than try some more formal procedure such as the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Willey

I thank the Minister for his further explanation. I remind him again that we have made such provision in previous legislation. I am not reflecting on the action now taken about applications being turned down and then reconsidered. I am talking about a different category of case, but I will not press the right hon. Gentleman further on this occasion. I hope he will look at this matter again before it is considered in another place.

Amendment negatived.