HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc783-6

'In section 31 of the Criminal Law Act 1977

  1. (a) in subsection (4) (which among other things provides for maximum fines of £200 on summary conviction of offences under certain byelaws and, in paragraph (c), specifies among the byelaws to which it relates byelaws relating to the burning of straw or stubble made by a local authority under section 235 of the Local Government Act 1972)—
    1. (i) after the word "exceeding", in the first place where it occurs there shall be inserted the words ", except in the case of byelaws to which subsection (4A) of this section applies,"; and
    2. (ii) for the words "such byelaw", in the first place where they occur, there shall be substituted the words "byelaws such as is mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (c) above which is"; and
  2. (b) the following subsections shall be inserted after that subsection—
  3. 784
    1. "(4A) Byelaws to which this subsection applies may provide that persons contravening the byelaws shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £500.
    2. (4B) The byelaws to which subsection (4A) of this section applies are byelaws such as are mentioned in subsection (4)(c) of this section which are made after the coming into force of section [Byelaws relating to the burning of straw or stubble] of the Criminal Justice Act 1982.".'.—[Mr. Mayhew.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Mayhew

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause increases from £200 to £500 the maximum fine available for offences in byelaws relating to straw and stubble burning. Control over stubble burning is primarily enforced by local authorities under byelaws made under the Local Government Act 1972. The maximum penalty for offences under these byelaws was increased to £200 by the Criminal Law Act 1977. Straw and stubble burning is not only a perfectly proper agricultural practice but a 'valuable one. It must, however, be carried out properly and safely, or danger and annoyance extending over a wide area may result.

A code of practice, drawn up by the National Fanners Union in 1965, is already in existence. It forms the substance of many of the relevant byelaws. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) for bringing to our notice the representations of the National Farmers Union—or, I should perhaps more strictly say, giving them added emphasis—and of the Association of County Councils, and for pressing, as he has done insistently, /Or stiffer penalties for infringements.

My hon. Friend has argued the case persuasively and with great persistence. He has brought representatives of the National Farmers Union and of the Association of County Councils to see me and my noble Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The reason is that widespread damage and nuisance was caused after last year's harvest that followed a particularly dry season, not least in Cambridgeshire. Only a small minority of the fanning community is responsible either locally or in other areas. But the National Farmers Union which is conducting a forceful campaign of education within its membership and which is launching a new film this month on the subject is convinced that a much larger financial penalty is needed than the present maximum fine of £200. The Association of County Councils agrees.

Accordingly, the Government have thought it right to provide for an increase from £200 to a maximum of £500. I recognise that some may have wished the amount to, be higher immediately, but the new maximum fine will be eligible for uprating, together with all fines deriving from the 1977 Act, as soon as the present Bill is passed The Bill, as the House will recall, contains provisions for uprating by statutory instrument to take account of changes in the value of money.

There is, therefore, the prospect, within a relatively short time, of a further increase if so advised. I am grateful to the NFU, to the Association of County Councils and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge for making their representations in such a timely and clear way. I am satisfied that this is an important new clause and that the amount should be increased. The new clause will go a long way to meet the anxieties that have been expressed.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I should like to thank my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State for tabling the new clause.

My interest in this matter began at the end of last August and the beginning of September. Circumstances around Cambridge and in Cambridgeshire caused a volume of correspondence and anxiety among my constituents which was fully shared not only by myself but by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) who, like me, was very much involved with the National Farmers Union in bringing this matter to the attention of the House, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Home Secretary. My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that I had proposed, with the support of the National Farmers Union, a Private Member's Bill which would have gone rather further than the proposals in the new clause. It would have included fines of up to £1,000 for each offence, the imposition of national regulations and the possibility of banning stubble burning after repeated offences.

Following the meetings with my hon. and learned Friend and the Home Secretary, I became convinced, as I believe did the NFU, that the Government's proposals met our primary concern to impose a deterrent fine that will affect the small minority of farmers who have been grossly in breach of the code of practice and—it is important to emphasise this—in breach of the Clean Air Act and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, under which they can be fined £1,000 for each offence. My hon. and learned Friend also emphasised that the fine of £500 can be uprated. I should have thought that it almost certainly will be.

The deterrent effect that the NFU and I wish to impose will be met by the new clause. A clear warning has now been given to that small minority of farmers who have caused immense harm to the relationship between inhabitants of the towns and villages and the farming community that under the byelaws the situation will not be tolerated in future.

I briefly quote from one of the hundreds of letters that I received from my constituents last September: Vast clouds obliterate what little sun we get; the smell is all-pervasive; it is bad for health to breathe; but most of all, the daily descent of carbon is disastrous—windows must be kept closed on hot days, it covers the furniture.… and ruins the washing". One of the advantages of living in one's constituency is that I was also a recipient of all those effects. I felt so strongly about the matter that I brought forward a Private Member's Bill, with the full support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire. Some of his constituents were involved in the difficulties that we had in the city.

5.30 pm

I am truly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to the Minister of State and to everyone involved in this matter. It has been another example of how, whatever party is in office, the concerns of ordinary people can be met. That happened when the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) was Minister in a Labour Government and I introduced a Private Member's Bill that was eventually successful. It is enormously encouraging for Back Benchers when their anxieties are met in this way. I thank the Government most warmly.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

I was intitially mystified by the new clause. Most of us do not suffer from the effects of stubble burning, or even know what stubble is. Having listened to the debate I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). One of the enjoyable features of Parliament is that a constituency problem can eventually result in a Bill being changed. We all approve of that. I am the last person to say whether the Minister is right or wrong, but this time he seems to be completely right. I know that a Labour Government did not bring forward such a measure but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the last to make a party point about that. The Opposition welcome the new clause.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

I should not like the occasion to pass without saying that although the new clause is of great advantage to Cambridge, the Thanet farmers find no difficulty in burning their stubble without causing offence. Possibly the superb Thanet air enables the smoke to disperse rather more rapidly than in the low-lying Fens of Cambridgeshire or the operation is more ably carried out by the Thanet farmers. I should not want it to be thought that every county suffers from the problem. I have not had complaints from Thanet or East Kent.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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