HC Deb 27 May 1970 vol 801 cc1925-33

Lords Amendment: No. 12, in page 87, line 14, leave out head (ii) and insert: (ii) that the efficient management of any agricultural land or the efficient carrying on of any agricultural operations would be seriously prejudiced unless the premises are available for occupation by a person employed or to be employed by the owner; or ".

Mr. Mackie

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

The House will recognise that the Amendment will weaken the protection that the Clause was intended to give to occupants of agricultural tied cottages. On 13th May, my right hon. Friend, in a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Tudor Watkins) said that we would restore the protection originally provided by the Clause. Since then, however, the Dissolution of Parliament has been announced, and in view of the time factor and the importance of getting the Bill on to the Statute Book we have reluctantly agreed not to divide the House by resisting the Amendment—but we must leave the House in no doubt that we deeply deplore this necessity.

Hon. Members opposite have argued that efficiency should be the criterion of need for possession of a tied cottage. We agree that efficiency is a good thing and is necessary. What we do not accept is that the consideration of efficiency should override the consideration of humanity. We think it wrong that one man's loss of efficiency—often loosely argued—should be another man's loss of a home, without his having time to find alternative accommodation. Evictions are not numerous, but the threat of them is always present, and the anxiety and distress hanging over many families on this account is not to be compared with temporary and/or marginal loss of efficiency, and the short-term effect on the efficiency of the individual farm is not to be compared with the long—term effect on efficiency generally of bad industrial relations.

Hon. Members opposite have pointed out that good employers will go to some expense and trouble to see that their people do not go homeless if they can help it. I agree. All that we proposed was that all employers, good and bad, should have that obligation for a limited period if, but only if, it was reasonably practicable for them to bear it.

There is a difference between the test of efficiency as it now appears in the Bill and that same test in its original place in the 1965 Act. In that Act the effect on efficiency is only one of the considerations that a court must bear in mind. It must weigh it along with the question of other accommodation and the balance of hardship.

Clause 99 is quite different in that it provides four alternative grounds for breaking the six months' security, and this could be done by demonstrating an adverse effect on efficiency. Since this is also one of the considerations under the 1965 Act, the occupant's position under that Act could be weakened. It is most unfortunate, having raised expectations of greater security, that we are now forced not only to disappoint them but also to leave the position less certain than it was before.

Although hon. Gentlemen opposite voted against the Clause in Committee, I cannot believe that it was ever their intention to make the position less certain than it was before in the 1965 Act. The responsibility undoubtedly lies with their colleagues in another place. We offered to provide an opportunity to remedy the matter, but hon. Gentlemen opposite have chosen to insist on the Amendment, and they must now bear the responsibility for it.

I do not believe that any responsible organisation in the industry wishes to see the clock put back in this way. The effect can only be to aggravate the feelings of bitterness which have bedevilled this question for far too long and which we sought to remove. Accordingly, we shall feel bound at the first opportunity, in just over a month's time, to promote further legislation to restore the Clause to its original form.

Meanwhile, if the protection of the law is weakened and workers suffer for it, it will be clear that the responsibility lies with hon. Gentlemen opposite and their colleagues in another place who have chosen to override the majority opinion in this House.

Mr. Stodart

I do not wish to argue the merits of this Amendment tonight. It is a highly controversial one. I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I regret that he has said that the responsibility lies on this side of the House.

Despite what the hon. Gentleman has said about the weakening of the situation, I cannot but recall what the right hon. and learned Attorney-General said about the wording put into the Clause by another place relating to efficient management. The learned Attorney said that they were adequate for all practical purposes and that they had been thought out after the most careful consideration. Those views are contained in the Report of Standing Committee F dated 3rd June, 1965. On the same day, when he was pressed on the matter, he said that he had had no suggestion that the construction of this wording presented any difficulty. In the course of what I thought was a very good debate in Committee, there was considerable discussion as to the effects or ill effects which resulted from the wording which was praised by the Attorney-General.

We are not now discussing the merits of the issue. The Government have done the right thing because of the understanding which was come to with regard to controversial material in legislation coming before the House prior to dissolution. However, I am sure that hon. Gentlemen opposite will realise that, with the best will in the world, we could not regard this as other than a controversial matter. People on both sides feel very deeply about it. After my remarks on this subject in Committee, it must be clear that, rightly or wrongly, I feel strongly that the Clause, as it was originally and as it has now been virtually restored by another place, is the best practical compromise in a very difficult situation.

The Government have done the right thing in honouring the agreement made between both sides on this matter, and I will say no more.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Bert Hazell (Norfolk, North)

I am extremely disappointed that my right hon. Friend has accepted the Lords Amendment in this instance. Most hon. Members know my views—they have been expressed often—on the system of the tied cottage in the agricultural industry.

I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) that upstairs we had an interesting and full debate on a matter that vitally concerns the farm workers whom I am privileged to represent.

A fortnight ago my union, at its annual conference, expressed its views on this system. The views expressed were extremely bitter. When we knew of the decision of the other place regarding the Clause, I was concerned about the situation and so were the members that I represent. Then we had an assurance from my right hon. Friend that the Clause would be reinserted at this stage of the Bill. It is extremely unfortunate that the forthcoming election has prevented the Clause being reinserted.

I welcome the reassurance that the Parliamentary Secretary has given tonight in this Chamber. But let there be no mistake that the situation will be worse than before the Clause was introduced. I have no doubt that farm workers will, like me, feel intensely sorry that the Government have chosen to accept the decision of Whips in this matter and not sought to reinstate the Clause.

It is difficult, in the limited scope of the debate—

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

I hope that my hon. Friend has not misinterpreted the clear speech which has just been made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. It is not that I have chosen to accept the Lords Amendment in this matter. I thought that my hon. Friend made this clear enough for my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) to have understood what has happened.

Mr. Hazell

I was saying that it is difficult, within the limited sphere of the debate tonight, to proceed in any depth on this issue. I said that I accepted my hon. Friend's assurance. I recognise that it is not my right hon. Friend's wish that the Government's decision on the matter should have been taken. But I have to recognise that I shall be meeting my people tomorrow and henceforth until an amending Clause is ultimately placed on the Statute Book. During that period I know the extreme dissatisfaction and bitterness that will be engendered throughout the farming industry from the workers' point of view. I can only hope that the time is not too far distant when we might have complete fulfilment of the promise given many years ago by the Labour Party.

I am bitterly disappointed about the decision of the Government. I can do no more than convey what I know are the feelings of those I represent.

Mr. Jopling

I remember the debate on this Clause in Committee. It was one of the best debates that we had during the whole of the Committee stage. It seemed to be a fair and reasonable debate, and one which I thought reflected great credit on the good sense of the House.

I do not want to play up, or whip up, any controversy, but I was somewhat concerned when I heard the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's speech, because I thought that he was seeking to blame us for the situation in which the Government find themselves. I thought I saw the hon. Gentleman nod, and then he shook his head. I am not sure what he means, but from his speech I inferred that he was suggesting that we on this side of the House were to blame for the fact that although the Government object to something, it is, nevertheless, to become law.

I strongly resent that suggestion, because the Labour Party is still in power. The Government are the Government until polling day. If we are to have proper government, it is up to the Government of the day to do what they think is right, and it is no good them coming down to the House and saying that because of some agreement or other —of which I know nothing—they have to accept the Lords Amendment. They are still the Government. If they do not like the Amendment proposed by their Lordships, it is up to them to delete it. If that is what they had in mind, it was up to them not to make an agreement about not having Divisions this week. The matter is in the Government's court.

The Government must have known that this was a controversial issue. They know that there was a division in another place on the Amendment. They know that we on this side voted against the Clause. The Government cannot get away with it by pretending that this is a non-controversial matter. They know that it is controversial, in spite of what I said about us having a reasonable and humane debate on this subject in Committee.

My only reason for taking part in the debate is to refute the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the situation in which the Government find themselves is in some way the fault of my party. It is not. The Government know that we have reasonable grounds for objecting to what they proposed in the original Bill. The present situation is their doing, right or wrong, and they must accept it. It is no good the Government trying to fob the blame off on to my party, because if they did not like the Lords Amendment, the remedy lay in their hands.

Mr. Derek Page (King's Lynn)

I rise to support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) who expressed disappointment at the deletion of this provision from the Bill. My hon. Friend is right in saying that this is a matter of great concern to every farm worker. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said, that the lack of security militates against efficiency in the industry because of its effect on industrial relations.

I regret, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North, that the Government did not take the opportunity, even this week, to reinsert this extra protection. I can understand the difficulties which the Government are up against, and it is only right that the main anger of farm workers, which will certainly rise now, should be vented against the undemocratic process which has been taken by the other place.

I hope that it will be absolutely clear to them where their interests lie. Although we are disappointed at not having the Clause reinserted today, I am certain that we can rely on the assurance of my hon. Friend that at the earliest possible opportunity the protection will be reinserted. We rely on him to do this, and I am sure that the farm workers will realise that they have only one possible way to react to the sheer obstructionism of the party opposite.

Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

I do not intend to delay the House for more than a few minutes, nor to redeploy all the arguments which I have heard many times over the years in the House on a subject which arouses violent controversy.

I want to say just this to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have a high regard, and to the hon. Members for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazen) and King's Lynn (Mr. Derek Page). It does them and their argument no good when they try to overstate their case. They know perfectly well that the original pledge, made by, I think, the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown), to get rid of the agricultural tied cottage could not be honoured within the compass of the present Government's housing programme.

Why try to make the case sound much worse than it is? There are about 100,000 agricultural tied cottages out of a total of 700,000 tied cottages. Of these 100,000, over the past two years there have been about 10 evictions, of which two were hardship cases. In every case the outgoing tenant was in occupation for more than three months; and the only two hardship cases were where alternative accommodation was not found right away. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North can stump the country during the election and make all these wild statements, but we all know that they are not true.

Mr. Hazell

While it may be true that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, the annual number of evictions is comparatively small, almost 500 cases have to be defended in the courts every year by my union. This is no small matter. The actual evictions are but the tip of the iceberg. It is a much bigger problem, a tremendous psychological problem that is deep in the hearts of farm workers throughout the country—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make a second speech but just an intervention.

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

I suspected that if I gave way to the hon. Gentleman that was what he would say. I beg him not to overstate a case continually by blowing up figures. He never tells us or his constituents how many months occupants of agricultural tied cottages are left there before an eviction order is sought. He must state the case fairly. If he does not, he must take the consequences.

Question put and agreed to