HC Deb 30 June 1965 vol 715 cc744-58

Amendments made: In page 16, line 33, at end insert: (2) In this section "the occupier", in relation to any premises, means—

  1. (a) the tenant under the former tenancy; or
  2. (b) the widow or widower of the tenant under the former tenancy residing with him at his death or, if the former tenant leaves no such widow or widower, any member of his family residing with him at his death.

In page 17, line 9, after "land" insert: or the efficient carrying on of any agricultural operations".—[Mr. Crossman.]

Sir M. Redmayne

I beg to move Amendment No. 120, in page 17 line 12, to leave out paragraph (c) and to insert: (c) whether suspension of the execution of the order or its execution without suspension or further suspension would cause greater hardship to the occupier, or to the owner or to a person whom the owner employs or intends to employ and for whose occupancy he requires the premises. You were good enough, Mr. Speaker, to agree yesterday to select this Amendment because my hon. Friends wanted to express on the Floor of the House points concerning agricultural tenancies. Since you were kind enough in that respect, we have had a long and arduous time. I understand that an arrangement has been made between the two Front Benches that the House might rise a little earlier tonight than last night. I myself could not regard any such arrangement as having any significance, because it would never have been my habit during the last five years to think that it should. At the same time, I should like to do what I can to expedite matters by being brief and I do not doubt that my hon. Friends, although they must make their case, will do the same.

It might also save time if we discussed also Amendment No. 124, in Schedule 1, page 29, line 43, at end insert: (4) The following shall be added at the end of that Schedule:— (i) the dwelling-house is reasonably required by the landlord for occupation as a residence by a member of the agricultural population, and the court is satisfied that—

  1. (a) prior to the letting the status of the dwelling-house was that of an agricultural dwelling-house within the meaning of subsection (2) of section 2 of the Rating and Valuation (Apportionment) Act 1928, and
  2. (b) the person to whom such dwelling-house was let was not a member of the agricultural population, and
  3. (c) it was a condition of that letting that the landlord shall be entitled to resume possession on the expiration of the six months written notice given by the landlord to the tenant for the reason that the landlord required possession of such dwelling-house for occupation by a member of the agricultural population.
This Amendment deals with a separate point, but I think that the two Amendments fall under roughly the same head.

Mr. Speaker

If the House agrees, so be it.

Sir M. Redmayne

At the same time, perhaps we might reserve the right to divide on the second Amendment if that should seem to be desirable.

Mr. Speaker


Sir M. Redmayne

It seemed to me, Mr. Speaker, that as you put the Question on Amendment No. 61 the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General was about to rise and make an extremely accommodating remark. Subject to your approval, I am sure that in due course that remark will be in order on this Amendment, and I trust, therefore, that I can expect a favourable reply on that matter which is related to the Amendment.

Even if one wants to be brief, it is difficult, if one has not sat through the Committee stage of a Bill of this sort, to avoid being tedious, and I do not want to be so. Although we as an Opposition, are interested in the issue of the agricultural tied cottage, we have put down very few Amendments dealing with that topic, but it seems to me that this Amendment is sufficiently wide to enable us to try to bring home to the Government, even at this late hour, that we are not satisfied that the considerations offered to the court in the matter of hardship are wide enough.

I have studied carefully the debates on the various stages of the Bill, and it seems to me that although the atmosphere on the Government side has improved in respect of the agricultural industry, they started out with some strange and old-fashioned prejudices in the matter. If that remark should be resented, I would quote only one of the two interventions made in all these debates by the Minister of Agriculture. When I say "all these debates", I mean the debates on this Bill and on the previous one, the Protection from Eviction Bill.

The right hon. Gentleman said—this was the interesting one; the other was not— We have been committed to this for many years, and we are very proud of it. Why should we not do something about it?".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1964; Vol. 702, c. 1590.] That seems to be a little bit prejudiced in its approach, and I think that the Ministers concerned with the Bill have shown themselves to be a good deal more forthcoming, although not as forthcoming as I would wish.

The right hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. MacColl) put the thing in a nutshell during the Committee stage when he was summing up on Question that the Clause should stand part of the Bill and he set out very fairly the considerations which were involved. He said that three parties were involved. First, there was the farmer. He had special and difficult problems arising from the nature of the industry, the nature of the farms, the nature of his responsibilities for his stock, and from the difficulty of getting labour, and so on.

Mr. MacColl

Perhaps I might point out to the right hon. Gentleman that I am not right hon, nor am I the Member for Wigan, otherwise he is accurate.

Sir M. Redmayne

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I am always regarded as the Member for Rushden, so we suffer from the same difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman fairly stated the farmers' case in this matter, but he then went on to make his second point and said: But never, throughout this debate has there been any recognition by the Opposition that there is any problem at all from the point of view of the agricultural worker."—[OFFICIAL REPORT Standing Committee F; 3rd June, 1965; c. 895.] That scarcely shows the usual fairness and justice which the hon. Gentleman shows in these matters, because it is obvious from reading the proceedings on these two Bills together that my right hon. and hon. Friends have put their arguments on farm workers' problems with full honesty.

A particular point which I think has not been sufficiently often made in these debates is that the problems of the incoming tenant of the tenancy may be just as pressing in a certain sense as those of the outgoing tenant, and that the fellow workers of both have an interest in the matter. This is why we have chosen to draft our Amendment in this form.

Almost throughout the whole of these debates the argument has concentrated on the outgoing tenant. It is he who would be homeless. The suggestion was made by a Liberal Member that a situation might arise in which his new house would be burnt down and he would be homeless on that account. I ask the House to consider this point carefully. Although, in the same degree, the incoming tenant may not find himself homeless, he is equally keen to get settled into his new house, and so is his wife—and his wife is the driving force in this matter.

Further, behind the incoming tenant there is another man with equal problems, and behind him another man again. The whole thing sets up a chain reaction. At quarter day in the farming industry the general post is more widespread and lively than it is in the situation which arises from one vacancy, which we have discussed in these debates.

Hon. Members opposite are right to express special sympathy for any specific case of hardship. We would all do that, and so would every employer, or as near every employer as makes no difference. The right hon. Gentleman has admitted that labour relations in the agricultural industry have greatly improved in the last ten years. But in our enthusiasm for the individual case we should not forget the anxieties of all the others who are involved in the chain reaction which is set up by one case of hardship.

It is not confined to the outgoing and incoming tenant. There is also hardship in varying degree for the fellow-workers of the outgoer. There may be two tractor drivers on a farm, and if one goes out the other may have to do all the work. That consideration can be applied throughout the whole pattern of employment on one farm. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. George Y. Mackie) made a moving speech in Committee relating to relative hardship, and I am sure that he would agree that hardship is not simply a two-way traffic; it can be a three-way traffic, including the owner, a four-way traffic, including the stock, or a five-way traffic, including the other men who may be affected in certain circumstances.

The only other argument is that which was produced at an earlier stage by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) concerning the mobility of labour. Strangely enough, the tied cottage system has created in agriculture a mobility which ought to be the envy of other industries—a mobility which has obtained, in truth, with little hardship and with hardship which has been dealt with very fairly and adequately, and will certainly be so dealt with under the Bill.

This mobility is of great value to the industry, as it would be to any other, and it is, therefore, important that while justice must be done the conditions under which a tenant remains in his cottage must be seen to be fair and just, and to allow the industry the greatest possible latitude in resolving local problems as they arise.

This is the case that I put in support of the Amendment. It is desirable that the court should not only take into account the three considerations set out in the Bill, but should also be reminded that although we have every sympathy with the hardship of the outgoing tenant—if hardship arises—and although the court must take into account questions of the efficiency of the industry, there are many other considerations which ought to be brought to the mind of the court and which, if they are not brought to mind by the Bill, will be neglected simply because they are not referred to in the Bill. That is the whole difficulty of writing these matters into the Bill in this way. I therefore press on the right hon. Gentleman the need for the acceptance of the Amendment.

I will not say a word about the other Amendment which is coupled with this, except that I know that one of my hon. Friends will speak to it. To me, it seems absolutely common sense that there should be this ability and freedom for an agricultural cottage to be let to a tenant who is not employed in the industry and to be taken back in hand perfectly freely, as set out in the Amendment, if that cottage should be required for agricultural puposes. This is a commonsense view. It is my belief that the right hon. Gentleman, for all his other faults, certainly does not lack common sense and will see the purpose and necessity of this proposal.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

Although I consider Clause 27 as drafted unsatisfactory in many respects, not least in the interests of the farmworkers themselves, I want to confine my remarks to Amendment No. 124, which I am grateful to have discussed with this one. I think that this will avoid confusion because although—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Proceedings on Government Business may be entered upon and proceeded with at this day's Sitting at any hour, though opposed.—[Mr. Harper.]

Question again proposed, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hill

Although the physical subject matter of Amendment No. 124 overlaps part of that of Amendment No. 120, the two are otherwise quite distinct. The object of Amendment No. 124 is to enable spare farm cottages and farm houses which are temporarily surplus to the requirements of agriculture to be let as ordinary dwelling houses until they are needed again for agricultural uses. This problem was touched upon in Standing Committee when, in response to a slightly different Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), the Minister said: … the problem which the hon. Gentleman mentioned is certainly genuine—the problem of a farmer who wants to keep a cottage for agricultural workers but to use it in between for something else."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F, 2nd June, 1965; c. 838.] Unless the principle of this Amendment is accepted, many cottages and farm houses will remain empty as a direct result of the Bill. An example of this is a small farmer who employs one worker in one tied cottage on the farm. If that worker lives, as he might do, in his own cottage in the village, his employer will not want to use the tied cottage. On the other hand, he cannot possibly give up the right to possession of it because, should his present worker leave and he needs to engage a new one, he will require the cottage again.

A larger farmer may have more farm cottages on his farm than his present system of farming requires, but he will not dare sell them off because either a change in his labour requirements or a change in the farming system may make it necessary to attract new workers. If he should start a dairy herd, for example, he would certainly need one, possibly two stockmen.

Then there is the case whereby farmers in a larger way of business may be farming two or even more farms, each of which by itself would be a perfectly viable unit. Therefore, there is no question of amalgamation, but even so the farmer can live in only one farm house. Therefore, so long as he is running two or three farms jointly, he is likely to have one or more farmhouses surplus to his requirements. But the farmhouses cannot be sold off or permanently disposed of because the occasion may arise unexpectedly when these farms go back into separate tenancies or ownership.

Likewise, most agricultural estates probably have on them spare cottages and farmhouses which perhaps could be let off but which are never likely to be sold off. Some cottages are usually kept empty against future demands, such as for single workers who may marry and want to make their homes in them. After this Measure has become law farm cottages will have to be kept empty to provide a pool of alternative accommodation.

Any sensible person must wish to encourage people to occupy good rural housing, including some of the best farmhouses, because the limit of rateable value under the Bill of £200 a year will include most of the farmhouses in the country. Indeed, I understand that in Scotland it will include everything except about five castles. Unless we do something there will be a waste of accommodation at a time of shortage.

It is better if houses are lived in. It is bad for the rural areas if houses are kept empty. It is preferable that people should occupy homes in villages, even if they do not work in agriculture. In some cases that is extremely valuable because such people add variety to these areas. Empty property of this kind is bad for local authorities, because, in respect of rates, they will have voids and indirectly have an additional burden placed on their housing lists.

Unless the Amendment is accepted there will be needless disappointment to many people who are prepared to be tenants with limited security, such as local people who want temporary accommodation or people visiting the district for an uncertain period, such as agents and sales representatives, as well as people who might wish to be newcomers to a district and who want temporary accommodation while they are looking for and acquiring a permanent home. To acquire such a home might take a year or two.

There are many people who move about the country and need temporary accommodation as part of their employment. It might even be a newly elected Member of Parliament, who suddenly finds himself representing a rural constituency and needing immediate temporary accommodation while he has a chance to look for something more permanent.

The National Union of Agricultural Workers acknowledged this difficulty on page 710 of its recently published polemic, "Farming for the Future", in which it stated: At the present time there are hundreds of tied houses standing unused, many of which are structurally sound and could be turned into decent homes. But … farmers refuse to let them on an ordinary tenancy … The union recommended that councils should requisition them. That seems a manifestly absurd solution of this problem and a quite unnecessarily costly one. The difficulty could be met if only the Government would not interfere too much with the ordinary freedom of contract in this respect.

The obvious solution is to allow these houses to be let with recovery of possession at short notice. The methods by which this could be done are technical and largely incomprehensible to me and I acknowledge the assistance which I have received from the Country Landowners' Association in suggesting the details of the Amendment. The Amendment is designed to add to the Schedule of an earlier Measure in the chain of Rent Acts an exception in favour of this case. The ingredients of the Amendment are that the house must be an agricultural dwelling-house as defined for rating purpose, although I agree that the principle of the Amendment could apply to other houses, such as those mentioned in our discussion of the penultimate Amendment.

We say that the tenant must not be in agriculture, which means that we are not trying to get round Clause 27. We say that it should be a clear condition in the original letting, and understood from the start, that notice would be given, and be effective. Lastly, we say that the landlord should have to show that the house is wanted back for a member of the agricultural population.

I would remind the House that throughout the Schedule to which it is proposed to add this exception there is always the proviso that the court should think it reasonable in any case. I hope that the Minister will realise that this is a difficulty that ought to be met, and that even though the proposed words may not be exactly right he will implement the principle.

Assuming that the Minister agrees, I appeal to him not to make these lettings too difficult. It is very easy to deter owners from letting at all, because if the element of uncertainty comes in it may not be worth the trouble, as the lettings are not likely to be very remunerative compared with the administrative troubles, repairs, maintenance and so on. The crucial point is that if these spare houses are to be kept occupied it is essential that the two parties should be able to enter into a clear contract, and that the provisions for its termination should be duly and punctually observed.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

The problems of the general farmer have already been dealt with and I want to draw attention to the problems of the horticulturist. Most horticultural holdings are within 30 or 40 miles of our great cities, which means that any house that becomes temporarily vacant or temporarily removed from agriculture is probably lost for ever. There is a brisk market in weekend cottages. I would therefore ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the problems of those farmers who are engaged in horticulture, because of the particular difficulties associated with their nearness to the great cities.

The horticulturist has another problem. The general farm is getting more highly mechanised every day—combines get wider and machinery becomes more efficient. So it is in horticulture, but horticulture is still the heaviest user of labour in the agricultural sphere. It employs more men per 10 acres than does any other branch of agriculture. I therefore urge the Minister, when considering these Amendments, to have in mind the problems of the horticulturists along with those of the general farmer.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

I support Amendment No. 124. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) moved an Amendment in Committee to deal with this problem but withdrew it on the assurance of the Minister that further Amendments would deal with the matter. The Minister later wrote to my hon. Friend apologising for acting under a misapprehension at the time.

It is important that the problem should be dealt with in this Measure. In the Standing Committee, my hon. Friend cited as an example the tied cottage which the farmer is anxious to let when he does not have a farm worker immediately available for it. The example was given of the man with two cottages on his farm. I know that the Minister himself has knowledge of the agricultural sphere, although I am told that his experience may be a little rarified.

The problem arises in particular in remote districts. There may be two cottages on a farm, one of which is occupied by a farm worker who has two sons, both of whom are employed on the same farm. As there are the three men employed on the farm, the other cottage available to a farm worker is not necessary for that purpose. There is considerable pressure on the farmer not to let the cottage remain vacant, so he lets it to someone on the understanding that that person will give up possession when the farmer wants the accommodation for a farm worker.

10.15 p.m.

Then one of the sons of the farm worker wishes to get married and remain in employment on the farm. Is the farmer to be unable to get possession of that cottage? This is a problem which the Minister has suggested is no greater than that concerned with railway workers or social workers, but I think it is. There are so many more employees concerned. In a great many areas stockmen have to have a cottage near their work so that they can be near the stock which they have to look after. It is vitally important that the farmer should not be deterred from letting a cottage vacant at the time to someone outside the farm.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider Amendment No. 124. It would actually bar farmers letting a cottage which they did not immediately need for an agricultural purpose. This problem is different from that of the railway worker and social worker because there are so many more employees in agriculture. The farmer who wants to employ a stockman needs to be able to provide him with a house quickly. If the Minister takes no step to meet this problem it will mean that when a farm cottage falls vacant it will remain vacant until the farmer needs it for another worker. The Minister would not be acting reasonably or sensibly if he did not meet this point.

Mr. Crossman

I must again thank hon. and right hon. Members for their conciseness and brevity in what otherwise would have been a very extended discussion of this problem. These two Clauses are quite distinct. Although both concern the subject of agriculture, nothing else unites them. The second of the two Clauses is more closely linked with the problems of the manse and of the owner-occupier legally than with problems of farming.

I come to the suggested substitution of a third condition which the courts would have to take into account under Clause 27. I have nothing to criticise about the way in which Amendment No. 124 was moved. I do not disagree with anything that was said by the right hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Sir M. Redmayne) about the need to emphasise that in this connection three parties are concerned and there is a kind of chain reaction. By the way, I was grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) for declaring my interest in this subject. The only question which arises if we look at this matter practically is whether this particular Amendment is necessary. Wherever possible we have tried to use in the Bill the actual words of previous Acts so that lawyers will not misunderstand.

The Clause as at present drafted does not say that there is merely a choice of greater hardship between the landlord and the tenant. It says: Whether the efficient management of any agricultural land would be seriously prejudiced unless the premises were available for occupation by a person employed or to be employed by the owner; and Whether greater hardship would be caused by the suspension of the execution of the order than by its execution without suspension or further suspension. That may refer to one, two, three, four or many people. The more I look at this problem the more I believe that this provision, which has been taken from the 1933 Act in Schedule (1,h) and is a formulation enjoining on the court to take into account any hardship, means as affecting one, two or three and not merely two persons. Since this is so, I prefer the present form of words.

I turn to the quite different link wih agriculture contained in Amendment No. 124. In discussions with the N.F.U. I told the farmers' representatives that I recognised that this was a genuine problem which should be solved if it can be solved. The only thing I have to add is that there is one problem I face. It is that there was a similar enactment in the Schedule to the 1933 Act, which was repealed in 1954 because it was unsatisfactory. I am not saying that this is exactly the same. I am only saying that I want to accept this in principle, because a very good case has been made out for it. I think that it is a good deal tighter already in the drafting than was the provision which went wrong in 1954.

I want to make it absolutely clear that we wish it to be tied up so that it is used only for this purpose, which is that the farmer must need the house as an agricultural tied cottage. He must, before he let it to the new non-agricultural tenant, have given notice that it was merely for a temporary period and that he might want it back. All the other conditions must be fulfilled. I want to be absolutely sure that we do not let him do anything else. When the Bill goes to another place, I want to make sure that the Clause does exactly what we all would wish it to do. Therefore, I accept the Amendment in principle in that sense and welcome it as a legitimate addition to the Bill.

It was suggested that, if we did not do this, we would be closing down on the farmer. As a matter of fact, we are doing something positive and new to help him, because already he has this difficulty. Under existing conditions, as I well know, cottages are left vacant precisely because of the difficulty of getting hold of them. In this case we can say that we are doing something positive, good and useful which has not been occasioned by the Bill but which will remove a long-standing source of waste of accommodation in the country. If it is true, as the Union says, that hundreds of agricultural tied cottages are standing empty, this is one of the reasons why. It is, quite literally, because farmers cannot risk letting them for fear that they will not get them back. Provided that we are sure that the Bill does only that, I want to see it written into the Bill when it returns to us from another place. With that proviso, I accept Amendment No. 124.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

I am grateful to the Minister for his approach to Amendment No. 124. I understand that when the Bill goes to another place he will take the necessary steps, having consulted his legal advisers, to include something of this nature. The arguments adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) will have convinced everybody of the justice of the case.

On Amendment No. 120, in relation to the word "hardship" I accept the Minister's assurance that the drafting of subsection (4) includes the extra cases—the four or five other parties to hardship. Therefore, I understand the Minister's point that the wording of the Amendment is unnecessary. I hope that the Minister's words will be heard far and wide. This Question has caused a great deal of anxiety amongst the farming community which, as I am sure the House will realise, has not been at all happy about the drafting of the Clause. Subsection (4,c) has caused particular anxiety. I am grateful to the Minister for his assurance that in any event the existing drafting of the Clause includes—

Mr. Crossman

Does not exclude.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I take the Minister's correction. It does not exclude the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Sir M. Redmayne). In view of the Minister's attitude and his acceptance of the principle of Amendment No. 124, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

Was it the hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment?

Sir M. Redmayne

Formally, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: In page 17, line 23, leave out "and warrant of ejection" and insert: or warrant of ejection or other like order".

In line 26, leave out "damages arising from unlawful possession" and insert: compensation to the owner for loss of possession".—[Dr. Dickson Mabon.]