HC Deb 07 April 1971 vol 815 cc484-96
Mr. John E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 3, after 'livestock', insert: 'including for the purposes of this Act hives used for the keeping or breeding of bees'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

It would be for the convenience of the House to discuss at the same time Amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 28, after first 'building', insert: 'other than a building used in connection with the keeping or breeding of bees'. also standing in the name of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill).

Mr. Deakins

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When would it be your intention to take Government Amendments No. 6 and No. 8, which have a bearing on some later Amendments put down by the Opposition—No. 5 and No. 7—regarding the definition of the word "railway"?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We shall get to them in due course. I hope that it is convenient to take No. 3 and No. 4 together at present.

Mr. Hill

These two Amendments refer back to a short debate in Committee, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler), in which he emphasised the vital importance of bee farmers to agriculture, not so much through honey production but in stimulating and assisting the production of pollen. My hon. Friend wanted to make clear that ancillary buildings owned by bee-keepers and used for honey extraction and hive maintenance and the like should have the benefit of the provisions of the Bill and not be rated.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture's records, there are no fewer than 33,000 bee-keepers in the country with less than 40 hives. I do not believe that many of them are likely to be rated. But the 300 or so who have 40 or more hives are finding themselves rated somewhat haphazardly at the moment because the law is somewhat obscure. If an Amendment is not made to the Bill, it is probable that valuation officers will move in to rate the larger bee farmers.

My hon. Friend the Minister acknowledged in Committee that this was a worthy objective, but the difficulty is one of drafting. He pointed out that the habitation in which bees are kept and breed—the beehive—is not a building fixed to land but a chattel necessarily moveable to wherever the honey and the pollen are. There is the further point that, in the nature of bee-keeping, it is unlikely that ancillary buildings would be attached to five acres of agricultural land.

Since I put down these Amendments, my hon. Friend has written to me saying that it is not acceptable for the purposes of the Bill to suggest that a bee hive should be deemed to be a building. He said this regretfully and I acknowledge his legal correctitude in resisting the Amendments. He said that he hoped to introduce a suitable Amendment at a later stage in another place but that drafting difficulties were holding matters up. My purpose now is merely to ask the Minister whether he would convert that hope into an assurance for the reason that I have given—that if the Amendment is not made, the Bill will clearly put bee keepers into an even bigger difficulty than hitherto.

Mr. Graham Page

The Government are sympathetic to the bee farmers as food producers and bona fide agriculturists of very long standing. The undertaking which I gave to my hon. Friend in Standing Committee and in the letter which I wrote to him to consider bringing the buildings they use within the scope of the Bill has not been overlooked.

My hon. Friend's Amendment is ingenious. It deems a beehive to be a building so that we may exempt those buildings ancillary to bee-keeping, buildings where the honey is stored and where honey as we know it when we eat it is made. However, I am advised that it is technically unsound. This is because the circumstances of bee-keeping do not correspond to the circumstances of livestock rearing as covered by the Bill, and it is therefore not possible to provide this simple answer.

However, it is hoped to be able to deal with the matter during the passage of the Bill in another place. If my hon. Friend would be good enough not to press his Amendment today, I assure him that we propose to leave the bees to be dealt with in another place.

Mr. John E. B. Hill

I thank my hon. Friend for that assurance and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 29, leave out from 'section' to end of line 42 and insert: 'if situated in a built-up area as defined in section 1(1)(a) of the Road Traffic Act 1934'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It may be for the convenience of the House if with this Amendment we take Amendment No. 7, in page 4, line 27, leave out from 'section' to end of line 43 and insert: 'if situated in a built-up area as defined in section 1(1)(a) of the Road Traffic Act 1934'.

Dr. Mabon

The authorship of the Amendment stretches across the Floor of the House from the Minister to my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) and all I can modestly claim is that I am proposing it. I do so hoping that the Minister will say that the Government's Amendment No. 6 is not contradictory to what we suggest. I hope that he will say that he is willing to look at this matter yet again.

This is perhaps the one part of the Bill on which both sides of the House are agreed, but they could agree more wholeheartedly about this than about any other part of the Bill. It is most significant, and it is a cause for concern on both sides of the House.

Hon. Members who did not serve on the Standing Committee and who have not read the reports of our proceedings closely will not know that at one stage the Minister gave us high hopes that he would amend the Bill, but later he did not do so. Some of us were depressed by the fact that he was not willing to take the matter a stage further. The Amendment gives him the chance to suggest that he is willing to abandon his definition of agricultural land, which involves five acres and is complicated and likely to give rise to the anomalies and difficulties mentioned by my hon. Friends particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Mackie), who is unable to be with us at this moment. The Amendment is an earnest effort to provide a definition to ensure that industrialised factory farming does not occur in heavily populated areas.

5.15 p.m.

Both sides are agreed about that principle. We have struggled with the definition. We insist that the present definition will permit intensive factory farming in towns and other built-up areas. In Committee we suggested that the limits should be the boundaries of boroughs and cities, but that idea was rejected on the sound advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford, who said that there were areas of boroughs and cities which were agricultural, so that our suggestion would be self-defeating.

I have taken the Minister's advice and gone to the Road Traffic Act, which defines a built-up area. If he shoots me down with the argument that this is a technically bad Amendment, I hope that he will not regard that as a conclusive argument. I do not regard that as a fair argument for Ministers to use. When I was a Minister, I did not use it against an adversary, and I trust the hon. Gentleman will not do so. If it is technically defective, he should allow me to withdraw it and bring forward his own technically perfect Amendment to the same end.

If he knows another and better way in which to meet our intention, I will withdraw the Amendment so that the Government may make their proposals in another place. We are all unhappy with the present definition which is intended to ensure that factory farming occurs in the countryside and not in heavily populated areas.

That is the burden of the Amendment and I hope that in that conciliatory and constructive spirit the Minister will agree, if not to accept the Amendment, at least to look at the matter again.

Mr. Deakins

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), I sincerely hope that the Minister will reconsider Clause 2(4). We all agree that intensive livestock production should not take place in built-up areas and if it does, should not get the benefit of derating.

However, there are two difficulties in the wording of subsection (4) and they are not overcome by the Minister's minor definition of what is a railway. The first concerns the definitions of "road", "railway" and "watercourse". In Committee, the Minister admitted that the definition of "watercourse" could be so wide as to cover a tidal estuary, and that might lead to certain anomalies.

The second difficulty is that subsection (4) could allow an intensive livestock production unit to be established within a built-up area and to get the benefit of derating. For instance, an intensive livestock unit could be on the edge of a town and separated from surrounding agricultural land by a railway—a genuine railway which the cattle could not cross—or by a river, or estuary which the cattle could not cross. The cattle could enter and leave the premises and feeding stuffs could be brought into the unit and slurry could be disposed of in such a way as to affect the built-up area and not be in connection with agricultural operations on the surrounding land, which, although technically surrounding it under the wording of subsection (4), was not in any way directly involved with the operations of the unit.

I sincerely hope that the Minister will look at this matter again, because we are all at one in wanting to ensure that the benefits of the Bill are not extended to such units. But technically and theoretically as the Bill stands it is possible for such units to be established within a built-up area and to be derated.

Mr. Graham Page

The hon. Member for Greenock (Mr. Dickson Mabon) said that I gave him high hopes in Committee that we would be able to discover a better subsection than the one we have in the Bill. I gave myself high hopes too. I was quite carried away with my idea until I sat down with the parliamentary draftsmen to see how it could be brought into operation. I have some sympathy with the intention of this Amendment, which as I understand it is to substitute for the present condition for exemption in the Bill that livestock or ancillary buildings must be contiguous with a continuous area of agricultural land of not less than five acres this idea of the built-up area, the buildings must not be in a built-up area.

When I turned to find out what a built-up area is in accordance with the Road Traffic Act, 1934, I discovered that the Act has been repealed. For the purpose of the record the provision is now in Section 72(1) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act, 1967. I found the definition of a built-up area in the 1934 Act to be: …a length of road shall be deemed to be a road in a built-up area—

  1. (a) if a system of street lighting furnished by means of lamps placed not more than two hundred yards apart is provided thereon, unless a direction that it shall be deemed not to be a road in a built-up area is in force under this section; or
  2. (b) if a direction that it shall be deemed to be a road in a built-up area is in force under this section;
and not otherwise. What the Act defines is not an area at all: it is when a road shall be deemed to be in an area. It defines the road only.

The purpose of the Amendment is identical with that of the formula we already have in the Bill. It seeks to deny exemption to buildings in what would commonly be called built-up areas. Superficially the Amendment has advantages. The first is that it states directly the purpose of the condition instead of indirectly as does our formula and secondly it achieves the purpose better in excluding from exemption buildings on the perimeter of the built-up area which the condition in the Bill does not do in general.

I have some sympathy with the Amendment and I have studied it carefully to see whether it could possibly fit the Bill. The definition derived from the Road Traffic Act illustrates the difficulty of attempting to define a built-up area. The existence and spacing of street lamps along a road provides a very workable definition for imposing speed limits on those roads but it does not follow that it would work properly in trying to define what we mean by a built-up area for agricultural purposes. If we accept any form of this phrase, "built-up area" cer- tainly as defined by the Road Traffic Act we would get into greater difficulties.

Mr. Burden

Would it not be possible to determine this from localised speed limits? For instance, if there is a speed limit of 30 or 40 miles an hour, it could probably be assumed that it was a built-up area because of that restriction.

Mr. Page

My hon. Friend is describing a road and not an area. It is all very well to say that the road shall be deemed to be in a built-up area but how far back in the hinterland from the road do we go? What is the area? This is not at all satisfactory. It does not really meet the point which both sides have been trying to meet in Committee. I have to admit defeat on this because the phrase "built-up area" cannot be properly defined. If we leave it without a definition, merely to individual judgment without there being a precise term, it is merely an invitation to litigation. I have to return to the formula in the Bill the advantage of which, however ungainly it may appear, is that there is very little exercise of judgment in applying it.

The five acres are measurable, the disregards are apparent, the question of whether land is agricultural land and the occupancy of the land for buildings are matters within the ordinary range of rating. I find that although I have tried hard to express the condition in ordinary language which everyone will understand I have come to the conclusion that the formula in the Bill has the advantage of being precise and capable of being applied. For all its faults Clause 2(4) will work. It can be applied easily and it substantially achieves its object. No other suggestion which has been made, including this Amendment will be more effective for that purpose.

Mr. John Silkin

I hope I may rely on the tolerance of the Chair a little because it is difficult to discuss this Amendment without at least a glancing blow at the following one. I noticed that the Minister did this because he talked about what he called the disregards, that is the road, railway or watercourse. Basically we are in agreement that whatever this Bill shall apply to it shall not apply to a building in an area which is not agricultural. As I say that I suddenly find that I have made a definition. It seems extraordinary that the intellectual powerhouse that is the Minister for Local Government should, after these weary weeks, be left with the same sad definition as was in the original Bill. It is not even precise.

The Minister has learned many things in Committee. He has learned that a watercourse may be tidal, a piece of information which I hope he will carry with carry with him to the greater benefit of the community for all time. He has learned too that it is possible that there can be a building on one side of a stretch of water—I think we agreed on the Severn Estuary, we were in some difficulties about the English Channel—and on the other side there might be five acres of agricultural land belonging to someone totally different. As a result the building in which factory farming, to which all of us object, is taking place would be treated as an agricultural building for the purposes of the Bill because of the disregards and because of this Clause.

If this is being precise then the Minister has to re-learn his geography. This is a bad way of doing things. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) in talking about a built-up area is using the phrase which appears in a number of Acts. It must therefore, even to the Minister, have a meaning. I suggest that the meaning of a built-up area is an area which is built up. That simple definition is very precise. The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), thinking quickly and shrewdly, pointed out that in such an area he and I are liable to be fined for travelling at 31 miles an hour. At least the police seem to know what a built-up area is. Whether it is a question of the road on which a person travels the Act refers to an area that is built up. My hon. Friend's definition, subject to a slight change to deal with the amending legislation—what is 33 years among friends?—would really meet the point. If not it would surely be sufficiently precise to say that a building is not an agricultural building unless it is placed in an agricultural area. I do not think that there is any judge in the country who would be bothered about that definition.

5.30 p.m.

I ask the Minister to think hard and to disregard the parliamentary draftsmen because, if they have had a hand in the Bill, they have made a terrible mess of it. I rely on the Minister's drafting ability. He and I have had to draft matters in the past in other existences.

Mr. John E. B. Hill

How would the right hon. Gentleman define farms which are in built-up areas? There are quite a few of them, with buildings.

Mr. Silkin

I am dealing, not with farms in built-up areas, but with intensive animal production. Furthermore, in saying that "built-up area" is a better definition of a built-up area than the definition in the Bill, I am merely stating the exact truth.

It is not up to me to draft all the Government's legislation for them. I will willingly do it, but I think that the Minister would find the whole tenor of it changed. It is up to the Minister to ensure that the legislation is right and makes sense. This Bill does not make sense. After ten months of Conservative Government thinking as represented by one of their more intellectual members, we have a provision that says that a railway remains a railway if the tracks are taken away.

The Minister has time before the Bill goes to another place to meet the point which we all have in mind. We do not want industrial processes to be applied to the rearing, keeping or breeding of animals. There is time for further thought, and I hope that the Minister will give it.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

With permission, I should like to say a few words.

I am naturally distressed that the Minister has been unable to find a new formula. If I am obliged to withdraw the Amendment, I shall do so. It is technically defective. It refers to legislation which has been repealed. I shall not press the Amendment. But if an Amendment is not to be proposed elsewhere, the Minister drives us back to a discussion about what the Bill says. The definition in the Bill is a very bad definition. The disregards are even more difficult to follow.

The Minister talked about the negativeness of the Clause. It refers to what is not an agricultural building and includes agricultural buildings in the disregard. It defines something that is not and proceeds to refer to a disregard of something positive which is not being defined. What is so lamentable is that hon. Members on both sides of the House are agreed about this matter. There is no argument about it. We are fumbling for some technical expertise outside the Chamber. Inside the Chamber, we are trying to find a satisfactory formula. We have tried very earnestly, and perhaps the Minister would show some acknowledgment of that.

Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Minister to devise another formula. We are told that he is always thinking. Perhaps he will think about this matter and see whether the provision can be rephrased in another place. If he will nod his head to show that he is willing to think about it, I will withdraw the Amendment. He does not nod his head, but I shall, in fervent hope, being a permanent optimist, beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 6, in page 2, line 42, at end add: (5) In this section "railway" includes the former site of a railway from which railway lines have been removed. The Amendment is a definition of the meaning of "railway" as used in the Clause. It is a small and minor Amendment. It does not raise the major points raised by the last Amendment. The purpose is merely to make clear that the term "railway" in the Bill means a disused railway as well as one where the tracks are retained. If the track has been pulled up, it remains a railway for the purpose of the disregard in the Bill. I have been assured that the Amendment is necessary to include disused railway tracks in the disregards under the Clause.

Mr. John Silkin

It is with very great sadness that I direct my mind to the Amendment. I admire the expertise of the Minister for Local Government and Development. He was able to make his remarks with a perfectly straight face. I am not as good an actor as he is. The result of all the thinking which has been done is that a disused railway from which the tracks have been removed, or possibly a railway from which the tracks have been removed by sabotage, is a railway. The Minister feels that this is an important consideration in the Clause. By the same token, we should define a disused road. Certainly the Minister should tell us that watercourses, in being disregarded, should be nontidal. But he has chosen disused railways.

This highlights the total absurdity of the whole Clause. There is not one hon. Member who does not agree that it is absurd. The best that the Minister can say is that he has thought very hard but cannot think of anything better. On that basis, it would perhaps be better to scrap the Bill and start again—disregard the railway lines, disregard the Bill.

This is an extraordinary Amendment to propose on Report to what is intended to be a serious legislative body about to go on its Easter holiday. The whole of the subsection is badly drafted, and the Minister knows that as well as I do. He should think about it again.

Mr. Deakins

I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silk in) has said. The Minister has given us an additional definition of one of the three disregards in subsection (4). It is a definition of the word "railway", which hon. Members on both sides in Committee agreed would give the courts least trouble. Everyone knows what a railway is. There was a minor doubt about whether a railway was a railway if the tracks had been torn up. The Minister has done nothing about the two major disregards which will apply in many cases, namely, what is a road, and what is a watercourse?

It is sad that the Minister has spent all this time thinking up a minor Amendment to the definition of "railway" which is acceptable to the Opposition but has left to the judgment of the courts and the wit of lawyers to decide when a road is not a road, what is a watercourse, what is a tidal watercourse, and so on? If he wishes to define the word "railway", he should look again at a more adequate definition of "road". Does it include a farm track? What is a watercourse? Does it include a ditch? Should it include a tidal estuary?

Mr. Graham Page

I am gravely disappointed that when I produce an Amendment in response to the valid points made by the Opposition in Committee it is received in this most grudging way. The Amendment is very sound. The Bill refers to railways. The Opposition threw doubt on whether it referred to railways still in operation or railways which had been abandoned and the tracks were no longer in existence. Obviously, we have to meet that very valid point. I have met it. Here is a simple clear definition, 1¼ lines long, put into the Bill. It is received in this ungrateful fashion. I am told that I should have amended the Bill further and said what a road is. Do not the Opposition know what a road is? It is perfectly simple. A road is a road.

The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) is so worried about these livestock buildings which are on the banks of the Severn. There is an estuary 10 miles wide, and the five acres to qualify are on the other side of the estuary. But why worry about that? There is the whole open space of the estuary. Is not that as good as the five acres round the building?

This is a very good Amendment in response to the Opposition's point. I hope that the House will accept it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move, Amendment No. 8, in page 5, leave out lines 1 to 4 and insert: (6) In this section— '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; 'railway' includes the former site of a railway from which railway lines have been removed. The arguments behind the two points which arise here have been adequately covered already, particularly in the last speech of my hon. Friend. In view of that, I move the Amendment formally.

Dr. Dickson Mahon

We shall not oppose the Amendment. The first part embraces the first Amendment that we discussed on Report. The second part concerns the last debate in which the Minister got so excited and so confused in defending his position.

We do not like the last Amendment. We do not want it. It only makes the position worse. The fact that the Scots are slavishly following the English into this quagmire of legislation, into a bad definition for a good purpose, is no reason why anyone should be cheerful about Amendment No. 8.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary moved this Amendment, because his great Parliamentary moment is about to come. I hope that he, after a conversation with his hon. Friend, will say that the Government are willing to look at the definition again in another place.

The Minister lectured us for being ungrateful for Amendment No. 6. How can we be expected to be grateful when we do not want it? This disregard makes a wider concession to those engaged in intensive animal production.

Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Deakins) very fairly tried to make the point in regard to a water course and a road, did not we successfully convince the Minister that there was a case to be looked at? On 4th March, the hon. Gentleman undertook to look into this. Did not he also concede the argument about the extent of a road and how taking in an intersection of a motorway could involve a considerable acreage of land? We thought that these points would be commented on at this stage. Instead, the Minister has lectured us because he has made a bad Amendment.

The fact that a Scots Minister has presented it is sad. I should like the hon. Gentleman to have a word with his hon. Friend, while I draw my remarks to a conclusion, with a view to telling us that the Government have had second thoughts and propose to deal in another place with watercourses, railways and roads and with the awkward subsection in Clause 4 in a way which is suitable to us all.

We do not disagree on any matter of substance. We disagree simply about the form of words used. It is a terrible commentary on Ministers that they cannot find a commendable version which is acceptable to the Opposition and, instead, stick to this flyblown version with which we have been lumbered and which no one likes.

Amendment agreed to.

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