HC Deb 14 July 1981 vol 8 cc985-9 3.57 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to improve the security of tenure of farmworkers and others who occupy agricultural tied houses in Scotland; and for connected purposes.

Whatever the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) may tell us, I should like to say at the outset that this is not a particularly revolutionary measure. Let me emphasise two points. First, it would not abolish the tied housing system altogether, but it would reform it in a constructive manner. Secondly, it would not lead to the imposition of cash rents on farm workers.

Since 1977, the tied cottage system in England and Wales has been radically reformed by the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. Farm workers have been given rights similar to those of other tenants, and only if two sets of circumstances apply do they need to give up their homes. Those circumstances are, first, that the farmer can prove to a balanced advisory committee, consisting of employers' and workers' representatives under an independent chairman, that there is a genuine agricultural need for him to repossess the house and, secondly, that the worker must have been offered suitable alternative accommodation, either by the farmer or by the local authority. Unless both those conditions are fulfilled, there should be no question of eviction proceedings in England and Wales.

Consideration of genuine agricultural need is important. In some cases there is no real need for a farm worker to live in a cottage on the farm. Men working regular hours as tractor men can have accommodation several miles away from the farm without their efficiency being reduced in any way—just like any other industrial worker.

However, shepherds and other stockmen, particularly on remote farms, need to be permanently on the spot, because they need to be in a position to look after the stock in their charge in all weathers. That is where the Agricultural Dwelling House Advisory Committee comes in in England and Wales. If a stockman were to retire or die and if it were vital for a new worker to move into his house, the committee could examine the case quickly and, if necessary, issue a certificate requiring the local authority to rehouse the worker or the widow as a priority case. What the committee will not do is to arrange for anyone to be rehoused just because the farmer wants to let the house as a holiday house, because that is not a genuine agricultural need.

Four years' experience show that this reformed system is working well in England and Wales. The machinery is relatively informal. It has taken the whole issue out of the courts and done away with the threat of arbitrary eviction. Not surprisingly, farm workers in England and Wales have welcomed the reform because, among other things, it has rescued them from an arrangement with its roots in the feudal system.

Perhaps more significantly, there is evidence that farmers now see merit in the new procedure from their point of view. The fact that housing authorities now take into account agricultural needs along with other industrial needs should make for better housing management in rural areas.

The 1976 Act does not apply to Scotland. Scottish farm workers can still face eviction if farmers want to repossess their cottages for a wide range of reasons.

I do not want to overstate my case, because actual evictions may be relatively uncommon. There is an informal arrangement between the Transport and General Workers' Union and the National Farmers Union of Scotland and some housing authorities, which works well as far as it goes. It stands to reason that evictions are rare, because farm workers are only too well aware that they face this risk. Nobody in his right mind waits until he is thrown out on the streets with his family and furniture.

I have been unable to find statistics for legal proceedings against tied cottage occupiers in Scotland, because the Scottish Office apparently does not keep the figures. We know that there are 15,000 tied cottages on Scottish farms and that during 1974 the Tavistock Institute study showed that there were about 200 cases of threatened or actual evictions.

It might be interesting if we could look at the question from another point of view. During my brief career as a farmer I was once compelled to go through the motions of obtaining a court order to accommodate a new employee. There was never any intention to evict the widow concerned, but under the present system in Scotland that is the only way in which to get the local authority to give the likes of that widow priority consideration so that an essential incoming worker can be housed. How much more civilised it would be if people such as that widow could stay in their own home and the new worker could have a council house in a nearby village.

The tied housing system in Scotland is degrading for all concerned. It is not necessary in many cases, and it means that 15,000 workers are still living under unjustifiable threat, regardless of how seldom that threat may be carried out. Both sides of the farming industry in Scotland have expressed concern about the increasing housing difficulties caused by the Government's building cuts and their policy of selling council houses Mr. Henry Crawford, secretary of the Scottish farm workers section of the TGWU, who has in the past opposed reform of tied housing, has now changed his position, in view of the pressure on the rural housing stock in Scotland. He has told me and a number of my hon. Friends and Shelter that he now supports reform, and he has specifically endorsed the Bill.

The NFU of Scotland, on the other hand, is predictably hostile, just as the English NFU was before it saw the light. The NFU of Scotland yesterday issued an extraordinary press release opposing my Bill and claiming that the TGWU also opposed it. The NFU of Scotland has no right to make any such assertion on behalf of the TGWU. It is plainly not true, as was confirmed by the TGWU this morning. The NFU has over-reacted to my modest and constructive approach to the problem and is seeking to confuse the issue in a mischievous manner. In its press release it refers to isolated and unfortunate examples of eviction which could be satisfactorily resolved by the Unions". I do not know how it can say that the evictions are isolated, because the Scottish Office does not know how many there are. As for the unions resolving these matters, fewer than half the 15,000 tied cottage occupiers in Scotland are trade union members.

To add insult to injury, the NFU put into Mr. Crawford's mouth a comment to the effect that I was lying when I cited his endorsement of the Bill. It quoted Mr. Crawford as saying that the Bill would only stir up an emotional response. The emotion already exists. To name only three cases in my constituency last month. Dick Patterson, Charles McCue and George Glass and their families, all with 20 years' service on farms, experienced the initiation of eviction proceedings. I have with me one of the eviction notices, which is a cold and cruelly worded legal document. The sheriff ordered Mr. Glass to pay the costs of his own eviction.

It is not surprising that this is an emotional matter, because people's security in their own homes is at stake.

I am sorry that the Scottish NFU has chosen to react to a constructive initiative on a genuine problem in such a paranoid manner, but my undertaking to consult it as well as Shelter on the detailed proposals still stands. We have already passed legislation to overcome the problems of agricultural tied housing in England and Wales. Now I ask the House to give me leave to introduce my Bill so that we may give further constructive consideration to the problems in Scotland.

4.7 pm

Mr. David Myles (Banff)


Mr. Speaker

I understand that the hon. Gentleman wishes to oppose the Bill.

Mr. Myles

Yes, Sir.

The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) thought that he had anticipated what I would say when he said that I would describe his Bill as revolutionary. I most certainly would not; I would rather describe it as a damp squib, because it will peter out.

I speak on the subject with a fair amount of feeling, for I live in an agricultural tied house as a tenant farmer. As a tenant farmer, I welcome the Government's move—a constructive move, unlike that of the hon. Gentleman—on capital transfer tax on farm tenancy value, in this year's Finance Bill. That will help to keep farmers in their tenanted farms, which is a marvellous thing.

If I had been on the hon. Gentleman's estate I would have been evicted, because he has evicted all the tenants that were there previously—or, at least, he has been able to get rid of them by some other means. I would also have had to leave my house. It would not be covered by the hon. Gentleman's Bill, which highlights his biased approach, ignoring reality and practicality. The fact of life is that if the hon. Gentleman were to sell his farm he would be expected to vacate his house, unless it was a mansion house, and that would be unsuitable for a simple farmer to live in.

Because of the nature of farming in Scotland, it is generally vital that the worker—or, as he was wont to be called, the cotter—should live in a cotter house. There is nothing demeaning about being a cotter, as Burns pointed out in "The Cotter's Saturday Night". The worker is then on hand for stock tending and is available to take advantage of weather conditions so that work can be undertaken timeously.

Much more stock farming is done in Scotland than in England. That is why tied houses are so important. Houses on Scottish farms have been greatly improved over the years. A top-class agricultural worker can now pick and choose about the house that he wishes to live in. In addition, if he wants to move he can always be assured that a good house will be available to him with no travel-to-work expenses.

The main reason for refusing the hon. Gentleman leave to bring in the Bill is that it is not wanted. The hon. Gentleman made great play about Henry Crawford, of the Scottish branch of the Transport and General Workers' Union. His press release—

Mr. Home Robertson

It is not his press release, but the NFU's.

Mr. Myles

The press release that cites Henry Crawford as supporting the Bill is dated 8 July. The NFU press release—which is a joint press release by the NFU of Scotland and the Scottish farm workers' section of the TGWU—is dated 10 July. Henry Crawford must have had a change of mind or must have decided, on reflection, that he was being conned.

That press release states: 'We are extremely disappointed that Mr. John Home Robertson, MP intends to seek leave to introduce a Bill to alter the law on agricultural housing in Scotland…Mr. Robertson's Bill would achieve little or nothing except publicity'. I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the publicity will be bad. The press release continues: In a separate comment, Mr. Crawford referred to Mr. Robertson's recent Press Release which suggested that Mr. Crawford endorsed the Bill's aims. 'My aim is to secure the best arrangements possible for my members and for agriculture as a whole, and I know that Mr. Robertson's aim is the same'. He is being kind to the hon. Gentleman. 'The point is that I believe Mr. Robertson's approach will stir up an emotional response rather than secure any real improvement in the situation'.

Therefore, I urge the House to refuse the hon. Gentleman the privilege of walking up to the Chair, of presenting the Bill and of doing any further mischief.

Mr Speaker

The Question is, That the hon. Gentleman have leave to bring in his Bill. As many as are of that opinion say "Aye".

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

To the contrary "No". To the contrary "No"? The Ayes have it.

Question agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Home Robertson, Mr. Gavin Strang, Mr. Norman Buchan, Mr. Hugh D. Brown, Mr. Donald Dewar, Mr. Martin J. O'Neill, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. George Foulkes, Mr. Robert Hughes and Mr. William McKelvey.