HC Deb 07 April 1971 vol 815 cc471-84

4.20 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 22, leave out subsection (3) and insert: (3) In this Part of this Act 'livestock' includes any mammal or bird kept for the production of food or wool or for the purpose of its use in the farming of land. The underlying intention of the Bill is to exempt from rates all buildings which a farmer uses to produce food from his land. To put that intention into legislative form and to cover all food-producing buildings without including also some processes of farming outside food production was a formidable task. It seemed to us at first when the Bill was drafted that this could be achieved by describing the buildings as "livestock buildings" and by defining "livestock" as it is defined in the Agriculture Act, 1947. But in that definition there is the inclusion not only of food production but of the production of wool, skin and fur. It is true that in the past these have been considered as agricultural operations and are considered as agricultural operations in many spheres of agricultural law. But in debate, both on Second Reading and in Committee, there was much discussion about confining the exemptions granted by the Bill to the production of food and excluding these other items, wool, skin and fur.

Some livestock are bred for production of both food and, for example, wool, or food and skin, and it is an essential element of the exemption from rating granted under the Bill that the building in which the production occurs shall be used solely for the agricultural purpose. That word "solely" is modified a little in the Bill itself, but the purpose of the exemp- tion is that the purpose of the production shall be food. There is a danger that if one excludes production of wool, fur or skin, from the definition of an agricultural process or operation, one may get the difficulties of excluding the building itself from the exemption.

I came to the conclusion that perhaps no one would mind very much if we were giving some exemption to wool producers, because wool is generally recognised by the ordinary public as being an agricultural operation, and it is so connected with the production of lamb and mutton that it is very difficult to divide up the process. In the case of the production of skin, for example, if the pigskin or cowhide is merely a side production of the production of bacon or beef the whole process would receive the exemption. But on a consideration of the debates which we have had, I thought that if the sole purpose of the operation was to produce pigskin or cowhide for shoes or handbags, and not to produce food, the House would not wish to give that process the benefit of exemption from rates given by the Bill.

One matter which, perhaps, neither the Opposition nor I or my right hon. and hon. Friends could stomach was that we were extending the intentions of the Bill to give exemption to the production of such articles as mink, chinchilla and silver fox, and so we have tried to bring in, in the Amendment, the exclusion of that sort of production from the exemptions to rating. If the Amendment sweeps the humble Angora rabbit out of the exemption, I am afraid that he is one of the legislative casualties for which one cannot provide without very great legislative complications.

At any rate, the intention of the Amendment is to exclude from exemption the buildings in which no food is produced but merely fur, such as the fur which I have mentioned, mink, chinchilla or silver fox, which seem to be the three categories mainly concerned.

4.30 p.m.

There are bound to be some inconsistencies in the Amendment. We have, for example, retained the exemption for the keeping or breeding of animals used in the farming of the land, which are strictly not for the production of food but so ancillary to the production of food that the exemption must be retained. The only animals covered there are horses, and sheepdogs perhaps.

The Amendment also excludes fish and so-called fish farming. The words used are "mammals and birds" which deliberately exclude fish and fish farming. I do not think anyone would conceive that they came within the Long Title of the Bill and, generally speaking, fish are produced in buildings only for sporting purposes. The definition in the Amendment also excludes bees, but there is a later Amendment down to deal with that.

The intention of the Amendment is to achieve the restriction of the exemptions given by the Bill to buildings in which food is produced. If we have to go a little outside that to include wool, and if we have to tighten it a little to exclude fish, I think it serves the purpose for which the Government are committed by their promises.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

The Minister and I have crossed swords on a number of occasions in Committee, but, on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself, I thank him sincerely for having met us in this Amendment, which bears the hallmark of having been drafted by him. We have got rid of the mink, chinchilla and silver fox, as he says, and I cannot find that any duck-billed platypuses are included—I was never quite certain whether they were mammals or birds, but they are not used in the farming of land.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 26, at end insert: (5) This section shall have effect for any rate period (within the meaning of the General Rate Act, 1967) beginning after the end of March, 1971.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

It would be for the convenience of the House if we took also Amendment No. 11, in page 7, line 24, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Page

The purpose of Amendment No. 2—and Amendment No. 11 is ancillary to it—is to ensure that Part I of the Bill, which relates to England and Wales, will have effect for the current rate period notwithstanding that the Bill has not been passed before the beginning of that rate period on 1st April, 1971. Part I of the Bill assumed that the Bill would have passed both Houses and received Royal Assent before 1st April, and Clause 9(2) was inserted with that in mind. Had the Bill received Royal Assent before that date it would automatically have applied to the rate year 1971–72.

For practical purposes, changes in rating law have to be made effective from the beginning of a rate period. Having regard to the undertakings which the Government had given to bring in the Bill, and the announcements which had been made, the Government could not justify deferment of the operation of the Bill until the rating year 1972–73. The Amendment has, therefore, to be made since we have passed the beginning of the rate year 1971–72.

I do not think that this is likely to inconvenience anyone. The announcements that the Bill was intended were made last autumn, apart from the statements prior to the General Election, and the Bill was introduced in good time for local authorities to fix their rates and precepts on the not unreasonable assumption that the Bill would eventually become law and apply to this rate year. It is difficult to envisage how the Amendment could cause practical disadvantage to anyone. As I have said, the Government promised to bring in a Bill of this nature last June, and the Government always carry out their promises immediately. The intention was confirmed by statement last autumn, and the Bill was printed many weeks ago and has had a thorough debate on Second Reading and in Committee.

The abhorrence of retrospective legislation, which both sides of the House share, is when it imposes a burden or liability upon an individual in respect of which he would have ordered his life differently had he known about it at the time. Retrospective legislation which gives a benefit has been accepted by the House on previous occasions. Retrospective legislation is condemned if, but only if, it creates retrospective liability, or confiscation, or a burden, and not if it awards a benefit.

The Bill gives a benefit of exemption from rating. It could be argued that the giving of a benefit to a certain section might place a liability on the remaining ratepayers, but that is always so with taxation. That may not necessarily be so, one cannot tell. There may be a saving for everyone.

I base my argument for the Amendment on the fact that, although it is to some extent retrospective, it will be passed during the rate year which it affects and places no burden on an individual.

Mr. John Silkin

The nicest thing I can say about the Minister is that he was so obviously uncomfortable in making his speech. He and I both know, and it is no secret, that what is being done here offends against the traditions of this country.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stoddart)


Mr. Silkin

If the hon. Gentleman disagrees with me, will he go to the Table and tell us that he is in favour of retrospective legislation? I have my answer. I should have thought that all parties represented in this House were agreed that it is bad. The best that can be said for it is that there are precedents for bad things in the world and sometimes they have to be done. The only similar precedent on rating that I can think of occurred about 15 years ago under a Conservative Government. I do not believe that one could find that a Labour Government or a Liberal Government had ever done it. But there it is. That is the precedent which is relied on.

Is this so vital a matter that the House of Commons must go against the whole of its tradition and introduce retrospective legislation—indeed, retrospective taxation, for that is what it comes to? The Minister says that there have been undertakings, and this Government always fulfil their undertakings. Undertakings to whom? Who was assured that the Bill would come into effect in the present rating year even though it did not receive the Royal Assent until after that rating year had ended?

Undertakings to whom—to the local authorities, to the associations? Not at all. They would be dead against it. Undertakings to whom that this had to be done now? It may have been in two or three Conservative election addresses, and it may have been in the Conservative Party's manifesto that the Bill was intended. I do not quarrel about that. But it did not have to be done straight away, and, what is more, it did not have to be done straight away if the effect would be to offend against one of the fundamental principles which govern our legislation and which, after all, govern the relationship between the two parties.

The main point here is not whether this or that individual will be badly placed as a result of the retrospective legislation. Some individuals and some councils will be. But it would not matter if not a single person or authority was adversely affected, even though they are bound to be, since, as the Minister himself said, a benefit to one must be a disadvantage to another.

We are concerned about the principle. At the risk of wearying the House, I refer again to what I said in Committee, for I believe that it needs a wider audience. The Amendment would create a situation in which something wrong in principle was done, establishing a deeper precedent for some other Government at some other time to say, "You did it. You cannot complain if I do it". That is the real curse of the Amendment.

What is more, the Bill has been hurried. Perhaps the Minister was so keen on satisfying election promises even before his Leader wanted to, but hurried it has been, without doubt. A lot of matters which ought to have been considered will not have opportunity for consideration. They may in another place; I do not know. On Second Reading, we talked of a number of matters which called for careful thought—the treatment of animals, for example, and so on. All these would have had greater time for consideration if matters had been treated differently.

The difficulty—I put it frankly—in which my hon. Friends and I find ourselves is this. The Minister has given us a Morton's Fork. If we defeat the Amendments, the Bill will remain as it stands, with the date 1st April instead of 31st March. If, on the other hand, we do not vote against the Amendments, we may be taken to acquiesce. The course which I recommend to my hon. Friends, therefore, is that we deal with this matter now not by Division but by speeches, and then, when the Third Reading comes, we divide against the Bill, without debate—which otherwise I should not have wished to do—on the basis that it is retrospective legislation.

I should not like a future Labour Government, whenever that may come, to be committed to anything of this kind, for I should hate to hear them say, "A Conservative Government introduced retrospective legislation in 1971. We can do it now. We did not object to it then". I should not wish to be a party to that, so for the sake of precedent and for the sake of principle, I suggest that that is the way we deal with it. In the meantime, it will be speeches only, and we shall divide against the Bill for that reason on Third Reading.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I, also, am somewhat concerned, for this is undoubtedly retrospective legislation. I have been in the House now for 20 years. Throughout that time, there has been a great reluctance to introduce retrospective legislation. My hon. Friend the Minister said that it was assumed that the Bill would be on the Statute Book in time for it to take effect in this rating year. It is utterly wrong for any Government to assume that any Bill will go on the Statute Book, and, all the more, to assume that it will go on the Statute Book at any set time.

I agree that, if we were removing a great hardship from the shoulders of any particular person or classes of persons, the House would, I believe, move away from its considerable reluctance to introduce retrospective legislation. But in this case there can be no question of hardship. The Bill has one function only, to derate factory farms.

I cannot believe that factory farmers are in such a parlous state that retrospective help of this kind must be given. In Committee, the Minister himself said that this was the most economic way of farming. I cannot for the life of me understand why factory farmers should be given this precedence, while—let us be honest about it—it will be done at the expense of ordinary ratepayers, many of whom are far less able to bear the consequences of the extra rates which this change will impose upon them than the factory farmers would be to bear the consequences of not receiving the exemption.

I hope that this will not be a precedent set by this Government for the introduction of retrospective legislation of this kind.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

I agree with everything said by the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden). I, too, find any form of retrospective legislation repugnant, and I find it even more offensive here since it is for the benefit of factory farming.

Many thousands of ordinary people share the views on this matter held by, among others, the hon. Member for Gillingham and myself. In passing, I thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture for being good enough to give of his time—he is a busy Minister—to see the officers of the National Society for the Abolition of Factory Farming. I thank him sincerely for that, and for his courtesy and his endeavours to answer many of the points put to him. I am sure that he will acknowledge that the feeling held by the people who saw him was sincerely held, and, what is more, they were well informed about what was going on. They were not just starry-eyed idealists, but there were among them folk who had an intimate knowledge and a great deal of experience of what goes on in what we call factory farming.

In moving the first Amendment this afternoon, the Minister seemed for a moment to bask in the sunshine of the exclusion from exemption of chinchilla and silver fox farms. But his argument then makes his present case even worse. They have been excluded because those animals yield a particularly valuable skin. It is not out of any decent feeling, it is not because they are being raised in appalling conditions, but simply because the end product will provide a chinchilla or a silver fox for some very wealthy person to wear.

I cannot agree with my right hon. Friend's thanking the hon. Gentleman for giving at least that little crumb of comfort. It made the situation worse. We cannot say when we are talking about the real agonies and miseries of birds and animals in intensive and factory farming, "What a pity their feathers are not very rare; what a pity the hides of these pigs are not very expensive, because then they would be excluded from the Bill". A number of people who have given a great deal of thought to the matter have been appalled that under neither the present nor the previous Government has there been enough endeavour to implement the findings of the Brambell Report. Now, instead of having the comfort of thinking that something might be done, we see a retrograde step being taken. We have sought to outlaw the way in which some producers raise birds and animals, a way which millions of people find repugnant, but they will now be encouraged. That is wrong.

I believe that it is not impossible to define in the Bill those installations and buildings which come within the code of a factory farm. Even if the specialist committees investigating the matter are not quite sure, they should have been told, "Make up your minds very quickly to guide us so that these institutions, these so-called factory farms, this form of intensive farming, cannot be called the normal way of farming". That having been said, a code should have been drafted to make sure that those who indulge in that form of farming were excluded from the Bill. Such a move would have been welcomed by many members of the farming community, and certainly by the National Society for the Abolition of Factory Farming. I believe, too, that it would have given the Government a rather clearer conscience.

There is a great deal of feeling in the country on the matter. We could argue that, because of the Bill, that feeling will be intensified and more representations will be made. I am sure that that will happen. I assure the Government that the endeavours of the National Society for the Abolition of Factory Farming will in no way be set back by the Bill. On the contrary, it will be encouraged to campaign even more strongly against what the Government have done in the Bill. The Government have completely disregarded the feelings of many people who find the so-called ethics of factory farming repugnant. They have failed to make any effort to respect those feelings, and in failing they have annoyed people who will find that they must pay more in rates, because the same amount of money will have to be found. Local authorities will not say, "Because certain sections of the farming community are excluded from paying rates, we will have to cut back our programmes". They will maintain their programmes, so they must find a way of replacing the finance lost as a result of the Bill. That alone should have given the Government food for thought. Those same ratepayers who will have to pay more include many people who are concerned about the growth of factory farming, a growth which was made so clear in the Brambell Report.

I hope that by Third Reading the Government will have taken cognisance of what has been said by my hon. Friends and myself and the hon. Member for Gillingham and introduce an Amendment to meet our wishes and those of the National Society for the Abolition of Factory Farming and of thousands of people outside the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before calling the next speaker, I should like to point out that it is difficult for the Chair to continue to allow speakers to stray as widely as the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) has done. I appreciate the point he wished to make, but it would have been more appropriate on the previous Amendment.

Mr. Molloy

On a point of order. Opportunities were provided on paper for us to make representations, and then, in accordance with the current will of the Government, the Government erased them and tried to silence us. We must find ways and means of voicing our feelings.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair was merely making the point that it has been fairly lenient and hopes that hon. Members will have noticed that.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow, West)

I, too, deplore the introduction of retrospective legislation on such an important matter.

I have three questions for the Minister arising from the two Amendments. First, what is the position of a local authority having in its rating area intensive livestock units on which rates were levied in 1970–71 and on which they have been levied and collected for 1971–72? Does it have to repay the rates? Second, the obverse of that, what is the position of a farmer who has intensive livestock buildings which had been rated in 1970–71 and on which rates have been paid for the years 1971–72? Has he a legal right to recover his rates from the local authority? Third, what is the position of a local authority which has made its rate in the pound for 1971–72 on the basis that the existing law would continue for 1971–72? Has it a right to levy a larger rate now that it will be deprived of part of the rate income it was either budgeting to levy or has already received from farmer ratepayers? What procedure must it adopt to balance its books?

Mr. Graham Page

With your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that of the House, perhaps I might answer the questions raised.

The intent of the Bill was announced some 12 months ago. It was confirmed by a statement to the House last autumn, and the details of how it was to be carried out were before the House when the Bill was printed on 14th January, 1971, which is quite a considerable period before the beginning of the rating year.

I justify the application of the Bill to the rating year 1971–72 on two scores. First, it is a reform which is beneficial; it is a relief from tax, and not an imposition of tax, and it is the imposition of tax against which it is claimed that retrospective legislation should not be made. Second, it is not wholly retrospective, since it applies to the rate period within which it will come into operation. This principle is already recognised in rating law, in that if a a proposal for alteration of a rate is made, that proposal, when decided, dates back to the beginning of the rating year in which the proposal is made. That principle answers the question raised in connection with a case in which a local authority may have already levied and collected the rates—which is most unlikely at this stage, since the Bill is well known to the local authorities—and where a farmer has paid his rates. The same principle applies here as with a proposal for variation of rates, where the matter is adjusted accordingly.

5.0 p.m.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock)

The arguments of the Minister towards the end of his short speech were rather thin. My right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) tells me that he has paid his rates as of this rating year. Of course, he is wealthier than I am. I am about to lodge with my bank my instalment as an English ratepayer, due to be paid on 28th April. It is all very well to say that there can be adjustments, but we are already in a rating year. The hon. Gentleman's argument is perhaps valid about an adjustment which a local authority can make, but it is not a valid argument to put before us in relation to this Bill.

The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) was being charitable to the Minister in the way in which he described the presumption of the Bill. This is an arrogant Bill. It is Parliamentary arrogance. The Minister has undergone a metamorphosis or perhaps a phantamagoria. From the Dr. Jekyll we used to know he has turned into the monstrous Mr. Hyde of today. He has done two terrible things. He has behaved with an arrogance of which none of us thought him capable, and he has betrayed a principle which, when he was on these benches, he defended with great zeal. His attitude contrasts rather unfavourably with the arguments we had about retrospective legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Deakins) was cavalierly treated by the hon. Gentleman. He got no answers to his questions at all. It is quite possible for a local authority to charge only half the rates—that is to say, for a second rating demand to be made some time later on in the year, when half the year has gone. Why could the Government not have put down an Amendment in those terms instead of this one, which presumes that the rateable charge is to be made on 1st April?

The Minister says that this is not a rateable charge but a relief of the rates. He should see the matter from the other side of the coin. Some of us feel that this is an unfair burden to throw on other ratepayers who will have to pay more rates as a consequence. Adjustments will have to be made in their rates. It may be argued that the amount will be small, but if their rates are not adjusted this year, then they will have to be adjusted next year. We do not like this in practice or in principle.

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity in another place to bring forward an Amendment to say that he will levy these rates later in the rating year. There is ample precedent in Scottish, if not in English, practice for this to be done. He is wrong in resorting to past precedent in quoting the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Act, 1956, dealing with the relief of rates on church buildings. That is a discretion exercised by the rating authority. It was retrospective, but it was a power which could be moderated in that the rating authority could choose not to exercise its discretion in favour of church buildings. The hon. Gentleman used the plural, perhaps by accident. If he did not use it by accident, what other precedents does he draw on? As my right hon. Friend said, what does it matter if there are one or a dozen precedents? Why should that be made a reason for acting in this way in the Bill?

The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) told us last week in a public hall in Scotland that the Government had fulfilled 63 promises. I understand, according to a recent estimate, for which I am not responsible, that there are 3,000 promises in the Conservative manifesto. That means that at the moment the Government have still to fulfill 2,937 promises.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

Over five years.

Dr. Mahon

The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) is good enough to give me my argument. He says that the manifesto is for five years. Why, therefore, must this particular promise be fulfilled this year, when it involves breaching the parliamentary and legal principle of retrospective legislation? Why is the Minister, in order to fulfill this promise, paying the price of breaching a principle which all his legal life he has maintained as important? I do not know whether we shall get any change out of him at this late stage in this House. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. and hon. Friends will take the advice of my right hon. Friend and vote formally against the Third Reading of a Bill which introduces retrospective legislation. Will the Minister not con- sider this again? Will he not in another place introduce an Amendment which will bring this provision into being in August or September this rating year, or in the next rating year?

Amendment agreed to.

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