HC Deb 26 April 1961 vol 639 cc552-6
Sir R. Nugent

I beg to move, in page 9, line 30, at the end to insert: and 'agriculture' shall be construed accordingly". The purpose of the Amendment is to ensure that the definition of agriculture is wide enough to meet the needs of the word "agriculture" mentioned in terms of the special charge in Clause 3. A river board proposing to raise the special charge must establish that it will be for the benefit of agriculture, but the House will observe that this Clause defines "agricultural land" as having the meaning given to it by Section 29 of the Land Drainage Act, 1930.

Section 29 of the 1930 Act goes very wide indeed. It includes as agricultural land plantations or woods for the growth of underwood for sale, poultry farming, market gardens, nursery grounds, orchards, and allotments. It goes very wide to make quite sure that everything that can be regarded as agricultural land is covered. Without any statutory definition, the word "agriculture" does not go nearly so widely, and, without any definition in the Bill, it presumably means what the dictionary says it means, which does not include either horticulture or forestry.

I raised this point in the Standing Committee, and my hon. Friend said that he would see whether the Bill could be improved by adding the definition of agriculture that I suggest. "Agriculture" would then have the same definition as is given to agricultural land in the 1930 Act. I believe that that is what we need in the Bill; that we want to have agriculture interpreted as widely as possible, and improve the Bill in this way.

If it is not defined in the way I suggest, the danger is that if a river board proposed a special drainage scheme in an area largely given to horticulture an objector who did not wish to come into the scheme could reasonably put up the argument that the land was used mainly for horticulture, and, therefore, by the dictionary definition of agriculture, did not benefit agriculture, which Clause 3 specifies it must do.

It is to remove that doubt, a doubt which, I am sure, we all wish to remove, that I have tabled the Amendment, and I hope that my hon. Friend will see fit to accept it.

Mr. Vane

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent) has attached great importance to ensuring that a river board will not be hindered in its work, perhaps through failure to have in the Bill a sufficient definition of "agriculture". He raised this question in Committee upstairs, and since then he has approached my right hon. Friend who has gone to a great deal of trouble to go into the point raised by my hon. Friend and to confirm that the Bill as drafted meets the needs of the case.

It perhaps seems illogical on first reading that there should be a definition of "agricultural land" in the Clause, and yet no definition of "agriculture" and that an argument should be deployed to the effect that there may well be an advantage in leaving the Bill as it is rather than in accepting the words proposed by my hon. Friend.

If I say that my right hon. Friend thinks that it is right to leave the Bill as it is, it is because he is as anxious as my hon. Friend to protect and help the river boards and not to leave them in doubt or exposed to argument about the proper exercise of their powers. The definition of "agriculture" was not left out of the Bill because of any thoughtlessness—rather the reverse.

May I try to explain to the House the reasons why my right hon. Friend has come to this conclusion? "Agricultural land" is precisely defined in the Bill, because it is on agricultural land that a charge will be made. If we hark back to the earlier discussions today, it is in the interests of the individual and for his protection that there is a precise definition in the Bill. It is to ensure that the charge falls on those people whom Parliament intends shall meet it and not on the others. I think that all hon. Members will agree with that.

My hon. Friend suggests the addition of the words 'agriculture' shall be construed accordingly. There is here a distinction with a considerable difference. What we are now concerned with are drainage schemes in the interests of agriculture. Clause 3 (1) says: Where it appears to a river board that the interests of agriculture in the river board area or any part of it require the carrying out of drainage works… The sense of the word "agriculture", which is the key to this question is very much wider than the narrower definition of the land which shall attract this special charge.

We have also made it clear in the course of the debate that in many cases a river board will propose special schemes financed by a special drainage charge covering quite large areas of the country—perhaps even the entire area of a river board. In consequence, if the definition of "agriculture" is not wide, we will open the door wide to criticisms and objections by other interests who will say that the river board is exceeding its powers. My hon. Friend has, in fact, referred to the dictionary, and he said that in the absence of a precise definition in the Bill, the Oxford Dictionary definitions might be held to be a guide. I, too, referred to the Oxford Dictionary and the third definition is "harming in the widest sense" which, I should have thought, was not the sort of definition we are here seeking.

Hon. Members who took part in the Committee discussions upstairs will remember that what we have in mind is general improvement schemes on a wide scale and often schemes which will take up village flooding problems en route. I am sure that it would be a mistake for us to hamper a river board in such a way that it could not when planning to exercise the powers under Clause 3 at the same time work generally for the improvement of agriculture and it may be deal with village flooding problems. Often it would happen that those living in the village would be basically farmers or farmworkers or people closely associated with agriculture. I suggested to the Committee that in this case we should be wise to allow the definition of agriculture to be read as widely as possible.

There are further safeguards. Where it appears to a river board that the work is in the interests of agriculture… It certainly has a definition there. Further, there is the additional safeguard that such special schemes need the approval of my right hon. Friend, and where it appeared to him that any special scheme was going far outside the general object, I am sure that he would not approve. I should have thought that the river board was better protected, if the purpose of this Amendment is to protect the river board, by leaving this definition wide rather than defining it narrowly, in that there would be much more scope for argument whether the course of action being pursued was either within or outside its power.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that my right hon. Friend has gone into this matter with very great care and that he has no doubt that the right course is to leave the definition as wide as possible.

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend has his name to this Amendment which was moved by the hon. Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent). After listening to the Minister I think that a case has been made out to leave the matter as it is in the Bill, and that to have a wide definition is the wisest thing. I know that this is a difficult matter. In all agricultural legislation of which I have had experience in this House, whenever the question of a definition of agricultural terms has arisen there has been a variation of opinion. Hon. Members can quote dictionaries, but even dictionary definitions vary. I think that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has made out his case. We are here seeking to help river boards whose point of view has throughout been represented by the hon. Member for Guildford, because he feels that their work is important.

I am sure that, with the advice of his Department about definitions, the Minister has taken the right course. The hon. Member for Guildford quoted examples, including poultry and other different undertakings, which were covered by definition in the old Act, but I still think it wise to have a wide definition so that the work of the river boards is not hampered. We shall support the Minister even if the hon. Member for Guildford decides to press his Amendment.

10.15 p.m.

Sir R. Nugent

With the combined persuasiveness of both Front Benches bearing on me I should indeed be insensitive if I did not agree that a case has been made out against the Amendment, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on the excellence of his argument. I accept the assurance, which is what I desired, that the term which governs the meaning of agriculture in this respect is agriculture in the widest sense. My object was to get the definition wide enough and my impression was that the Bill as drafted contained too narrow a definition. I accept the assurance of my hon. Friend which was supported by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart).

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.