HC Deb 22 July 1976 vol 915 cc2135-41
Mr. Rossi

I beg to move Amendment No. 30, in page 2, line 35, after 'dwelling-house', insert' 'other than a dwelling-house occupied by a person or persons employed in farming operations as seasonal workers'. We regard this as an important amendment. It is similar to one we moved in Committee, on which there was a Division and on which the Committee divided evenly. It was negatived solely, in accordance with precedent, by the casting vote of the Chairman. Therefore, it is a matter upon which there is a fair balance of opinion.

The amendment is directed to Clause 2, which seeks to define a dwelling-house which is the subject matter of the Bill and which may become subject to a protected tenancy and eventually to a statutory tenancy as a result of the measures contained in the Bill.

We seek to qualify the definition of "dwelling-house" by excluding from the definition any dwelling-house occupied by persons who are engaged as seasonal workers in farming operations. I should like to explain the reason. Many farmers employ seasonal workers to carry out seasonal operations. Fruit-picking is an obvious example. Farmers keep accommodation available for such seasonal workers, and when the workers finish work on the farm in question they move on to another farm and do something else appropriate to the season.

In Committee it emerged from statements made by many of my hon. Friends who have practical knowledge of farmers and who themselves farm that it is important that there should be this mobile force of workers moving around the country to carry out seasonal farming operations. It is also important that farmers should be able to keep accommodation available for them. It became clear during our discussions that these mobile workers were in the main single young people who would not normally qualify to be rehoused by any local authority under the majority of housing and points schemes operated by local authorities.

The fear expressed in Committee was that unless the qualification contained in the amendment were included in the Bill young single people could use the Bill as a short cut to local authority accommodation. They could obtain jobs as seasonal workers, move around the country and ultimately, after fulfilling the requisite number of days in the requisite number of years, finally lodge in accommodation from which the farmer could not remove them because they would have become qualified workers. The farmer would have to apply to the advisory committee, which would give the necessary certificate, and the workers concerned would immediately become qualified to apply for local authority housing. That was one aspect of the measure that gave the Government considerable anxiety. In their consultative document they said that they were anxious not to allow the Bill to be used as an easy way into local authority accommodation.

We are considering a particular class of people who would normally be excluded from local authority accommodation. There will be a temptation for them to use the Bill as a means of acquiring local authority accommodation. The Bill will simply become a vehicle for that purpose, because the Government have imposed upon local authorities a duty to use best endeavours to rehouse any occupants of a tied cottage that the advisory committee certifies is required by the farmer for the purpose of the efficient running of his farm.

In the interval which has elapsed since the matter was raised in Committee, the Minister will have had an opportunity to study carefully the remarks of my hon. Friends who have deep practical knowledge of the way in which the farming industry works, the way in which seasonal workers are used; the way in which they move around and the way in which they can become qualified as qualifying workers under the Bill. Having had that time for reflection, I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment, upon which the Committee was evenly divided.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Strang

As the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) reminded us, we had a long debate in Committee on an identically-worded amendment. Hon. Members then expressed fears that seasonal workers moving around the country to do short-term jobs as and when the need arose could conceivably clock up 91 weeks' qualifying work in two years. While I accept that that is feasible, we took the view that it was unlikely.

However, we have now made an amendment, No. 29, which specifies that work in agriculture must be done under one or more contracts of employment amounting to the standard number of hours. The hon. Gentleman had suggested in Committee that there was a case for including the concept of a contract of employment. We carefully considered the matter and agreed that to introduce the contract of employment was a helpful way of getting round the difficulties. It is most unusual for a seasonal worker to be given such a contract rather than a contract for services.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the young single worker who moved around the country. We are not familiar with such workers in Scotland, but I gather that there are some in England. The hon. Gentleman said that such workers, who are not eligible for the housing lists in most local authority areas, might be able to use the Bill as the means of obtaining a house. It is hard to imagine that any farmer would unwittingly take on such a worker under a contract which would enable him to qualify and give him accommodation of which he had exclusive occupation. I hope that, in the light of these formidable hurdles to prevent seasonal workers from becoming protected occupiers, the hon. Gentleman will seek to withdraw the amendment.

In any case, it would be difficult to accept an amendment with the word "seasonal" in it, particularly in the context of agriculture. The term is undefined, and it is difficult to obtain a satisfactory form of words. However, I think the Opposition will accept that, now that we have introduced the idea of a contract of employment, there is no risk that seasonal workers will be able to use the Bill as a means of securing occupation and the right to remain in a cottage when the farmer does not want them there.

Mr. Peter Mills

I am not sure that we can accept what the Parliamentary Secretary said as easily as that. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) raised a very important point. I was not on the Committee and therefore did not have the privilege of hearing all the arguments there, but I am not convinced by what the hon. Gentleman said tonight, because there is a growing number of seasonal or contract workers who are moving about the country doing specific jobs.

As agriculture becomes more and more complicated, with the use of more and more machinery, and as it becomes more difficult to employ a man all the year round, I think that we shall see much larger groups of seasonal or contract workers. This is certainly happening on my own farms. Hay and straw baling after the combining is all done by people from outside. In that way we have extra workers and machinery when they are needed and do not have to keep them the whole year. The pulling of swedes under contract is now a big enterprise in the South-West. For all the people involved, including students and others, good accommodation must be provided.

We should have a rather more definite assurance from the Minister, particularly in view of the current trend in agriculture.

Mr. Rossi

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) for his fresh approach to the matter and the new light he has thrown upon it. The Minister will recollect that when we came to Amendment No. 29 we moved on very rapidly to suit the convenience of the House. However, I threw him a question about whether Amendment No. 29 covered the problem we discussed in Committee in respect of seasonal and casual workers.

We are now discussing Amendment No. 30 and the Minister assures me that the object of Government Amendment No. 29 is indeed to meet the objections that we raised in Committee and that we are now repeating. Having heard the Minister's assurance, I was quite prepared to respond to his invitation and withdraw the Opposition amendment. But my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West has now placed me in a certain amount of doubt because he spoke of seasonal workers as "contract workers".

To what extent is a worker known as a "contract worker" in the agricultural industry? That is the immediate problem which comes to my mind if my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West is accurate in speaking of these workers as contract workers. Perhaps we may find ourselves in a situation where, contrary to the advice which the Minister has just given, Amendment No. 29 does not meet our difficulty.

Mr. Strang

I shall be happy to look at this, but on the advice that we have obtained those workers to whom the hon. Gentleman is referring will not have a contract of employment as defined in the Bill. I am happy to look at this point and to write to the hon. Gentleman. There is nothing between us in our intention that we do not want the typical seasonal worker to be able to qualify for security of tenure on the basis of the Bill.

Mr. Rossi

I am most grateful to the Minister. It is clear that both sides of the House are agreed in principle about what we mean. It now becomes purely a matter of drafting. If the hon. Gentleman would be so kind as to write to me, perhaps the matter could be raised in another place at a later date. On that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Armstrong

I beg to move Amendment No. 31, in page 3, line 11 leave out 'applied by subsection (1) above' and insert 'relevant for the purposes of the definitions in subsection (1) above, and which are accordingly applied by that subsection'.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may take Government Amendment No. 32.

Mr. Armstrong

I undertook in Committee to see whether it was possible to make this subsection a little clearer and these amendments are intended to fulfil that aim. They apply to Clause 2(2) which is a provision designed rather to assist the reader of the Bill than to have a substantive effect on the clause.

Clause 2(1) defines "relevant licence" and "relevant tenancy" by reference to what would be a protected tenancy under the Rent Act 1968, disregarding the level of rent and the fact that the dwelling-house is part of an agricultural holding. Clause 2(2) acts as a pointer, indicating to the reader which sections of the 1968 Act he should read in applying the test under subsection (1); but it is not meant as an exhaustive list of all the sections which are thus applied.

With that explanation I trust that hon. Gentlemen will be disposed to accept the amendments.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

It was in response to the doubts that I expressed in Committee about the meaning of this clause that the amendments have been introduced, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 32, in page 3, line 21 at end insert— 'section 6 (rateable value and appropriate day)'.—[Mr. Armstrong.]

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