HC Deb 10 December 1986 vol 107 cc672-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

4.16 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is in his place looking very spruce and energetic despite the fact that the House has been sitting for almost 24 hours. I also apologise from this place to a number of my constituents whom I should have seen this morning, as I was due to present awards and trophies at a winter fatstock sale in Chelford market in my constitutency. I apologise to the partners of Frank Marshall and Company and to the many people who were expecting me to be there.

I would like to raise the case of Mr. Eric Stanhope of Park House farm, Gawsworth in Cheshire, in my constituency. Mr. Stanhope's position is both a personal tragedy and one in which the spirit of moral justice has been denied by Cheshire county council through its practical insensitivity and its insistence on the application of the letter of regulations and the law. I cannot fault the county council in its strict legal interpretation of its position. However let me give a little of the background of this sad case.

Park House farm, which for 40 years has been the home of the Stanhope family, is a smallholding of just under 40 acres, which is owned by Cheshire county council and was first let to Mr. Stanhope's father as long ago as 1942. When Mr. Stanhope senior died, his wife—Eric Stanhope's mother—succeeded exceptionally to the tenancy in 1966. Since then, Eric Stanhope has worked the dairy farm, first for his mother as tenant and latterly for himself, albeit no tenancy has been granted to him by the county council. Following the death of Mrs. Stanhope in March 1982, a notice to quit was served by Cheshire county council on Eric Stanhope and his sister, Miss Rosemary Stanhope, allowing them 12 months to quit the smallholding.

Since the death of his mother, Mr. Stanhope has struggled to maintain the farm, despite the crippling effect of milk quotas inflicted on the industry in 1984—a burden which Mr. Stanhope, despite his desperate and serious situation, was not spared. In my view, Mr. Stanhope's ability and motivation to farm his holding properly has been severely and adversely affected by Cheshire county council's reluctance to grant him a tenancy in 1982. I must tell the House in all sincerity that it is my understanding that Mr. Stanhope's position, financially and in other ways, has deteriorated since then. In short, Eric Stanhope, who is now in his late 40s, has spent his entire working life on Park House farm working beside his father in the early years and then managing and working the holding for his mother until her death.

Mr. Stanhope has spent years—in fact, all his working life—at Park House farm, only now to see all his hopes dashed by the county's decision to refuse to allow him to achieve a tenancy. As justification for this decision, the county council cites the fact that it had reviewed the boundaries of all its farms under the provisions of the Agricultural Act 1970, a measure that encouraged the creation of more commercial units on smallholdings through amalgamation. At Gawsworth, it was decided to amalgamate the land, then tenanted by Mrs. Stanhope, with adjoining holdings when that became possible. That decision was notified to and confirmed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, the council accepts that the tenants concerned were not notified at that stage of this decision—the impact of which on Eric Stanhope's whole way of life was not to become apparent until many years later.

Court proceedings for possession were commenced in the autumn of 1983 and the case was finally heard in May this year. The council, in agreement with Eric Stanhope, undertook not to enforce the order for possession until 14 August. Mr. Stanhope continues to reside at the farmhouse but is now awaiting the fulfilment by the council of its promise to enforce the order for possession which it has already obtained.

Such is the letter of the law. A court has sat and decided that the council is acting within the law in pursuing the course which it has chosen and that it is within its rights to deprive Eric Stanhope of his home, his livelihood and his way of life, should it so wish. That is the law, but, in my opinion, for the county to enforce its rights in such a manner is far from just or moral.

Many questions need to be answered. First, why were the tenants not notified of the decision taken in 1972 to amalgamate smallholdings in Gawsworth to increase the size of adjacent tenancies by adding to them sections of Park House farm?

Secondly, the Agriculture Act 1970, under which this decision was made, was enacted to cover circumstances in a very different economic climate in the dairy industry and agriculture as a whole. At that time, there was a need to encourage county council landlords to amalgamate small farms so that they could establish larger, more profitable, viable holdings and so to improve the efficiency of the dairy industry and agriculture. The situation now is so very different. The agricultural sector is over-producing in the EEC and our own dairy farmers are suffering the results of severe milk quotas, with further quota reductions still to come. We are having to strive to reduce dairy output and not increase it. Why should this decision be enforced on economic grounds to which it runs counter?

Thirdly, the county has given assurances to Mr. Stanhope that it would seek to assist him in his desire to remain within the farming industry. Why, then, is it depriving him of any of the value of the milk quota which is attached to his holding? Without a share of the quota, he cannot even dream of remaining in the dairy industry. Why has Cheshire county council overlooked its promise to consider further aspects of the milk quota attached to the holding? In normal circumstances, should not the council consider allocating to Mr. Stanhope 25 per cent. of the value of his current quota in accordance with the Government's own formula—worth, if my arithmetic is right, some £3,000 to Mr. Stanhope?

Fourthly, back in 1982, the county gave Mr. Stanhope a promise that it would consider an application for another tenancy from him and that, in recognising the difficulties which he faced, it would consider what might be done to assist. Why has that promise amounted in the end to nothing? Why, despite such an undertaking to assist Mr. Stanhope to find an alternative tenancy, has the council seen fit to remove his name from its own register of approved tenants? What sort of assistance is that? Mr. Stanhope is not the most efficient of farmers. He is not even typical of most small dairy farmers, and he has in some respects been his own worst enemy, but he has worked in farming all his life and he is very much part of the local farming community.

True, the council will argue that, subsequent to serving its notice to quit, it did notify Mr. Stanhope of other vacancies which became available. It claims to have fulfilled its commitment to Mr. Stanhope by considering his one application and rejecting it. It argues that it is justified in removing his name from its approved register because he made no other attempt to apply for an alternative tenancy at that stage. Was the council really justified in expecting Mr. Stanhope to apply for alternative tenancies at a time when his situation was still in dispute? Would that not have jeopardised his own case to be allowed to remain in his home—the home that he had known from his birth—at Park House farm in Gawsworth?

The council has claimed throughout this sorry saga that it is doing all that it can to assist Mr. Stanhope. So far, that assistance has amounted to very little. In the several years in which I have been helping Mr. Stanhope, I have yet to see a real and positive initiative by the council to consider the true impact of its decision. A man in his late forties, evicted from his lifelong home, deprived of his livelihood and, through the loss of his quota, of any possibility of remaining in the farming industry which has been his life—the future for Eric Stanhope is very bleak.

I cannot believe that the possibility does not exist of allowing Mr. Stanhope to retain the holding which he farmed for his mother until his retirement—which may be in just 10 years' time. I cannot believe that no solution can be found to allow him to remain in the only work that he has ever known, however badly the council believes he has performed. I cannot believe that the county cannot find some way of assisting him to remain in farming. I cannot believe that a more just handling could not be found for dealing with the milk quota, a percentage of which is Mr. Stanhope's by moral right even if not in the letter of the law.

What I can believe is that, in pursuing this cold and sad course of action, Cheshire county council has lost sight of the personal tragedy which it is inflicting. Obsessed—I use the word intentionally—by its own past decisions, it is turning a blind eye to the human effects of its policies. It has forgotten that farms are not just economic units; they are communities of people with their own hopes and aspirations—hopes and aspirations which the council has no moral right to ignore, to dash and to shatter.

It is time that the county lived up to its promises to Mr. Stanhope and genuinely sought a solution to his problems—which it is not only its moral right to do but, more importantly, just. I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to give sympathetic consideration to this sad case and the principle involved. If current legislation needs amendment, it is up to the Government to act.

4.27 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) on his success in coming first in the ballot. He said that he had cancelled various engagements to be here today to discuss this important matter. It is right that I should have waited here with him so that this issue could be discussed.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's anxiety about the issue, and especially about the circumstances faced by his constituent, Mr. Eric Stanhope. I am already aware of these concerns because of my hon. Friend's many representations to Ministers about this case. I know that his efforts have been directed to the county council as well as to Ministers.

County councils are in the best position to judge how to manage and run their smallholdings, and are free to manage them as they think best, bearing in mind all the circumstances.

We have heard the circumstances of this case from my hon. Friend and this is the right place to air the various views. Perhaps it would help the House if I explained the background to the smallholdings and agricultural holdings legislation. The provision of smallholdings is a traditional county council function. Even though I sympathise with the circumstances faced by Mr. Eric Stanhope, it has to be remembered that one of the main aims of statutory smallholdings was to provide a gateway into farming for suitably qualified young people with limited capital behind them. When the legislation was introduced it was recognised that although some tenants would stay on a small-holding for the remainder of their farming lives, others—and I stress that this latter group were expected to be the majority—would move on to a larger farm in the tenanted sector or would even be in a position to buy their own farms. The vacated smallholding would then be available to provide another young person with an opportunity of a first rung on the farming ladder. Unfortunately, the smallholdings estates have not proved as successful in providing this gateway into farming as might have been hoped.

One of the reasons for that has been the shortage of farms in the private tenanted sector—a problem exacerbated by the introduction in 1976 of statutory succession in the private sector by the Labour Government of the day. In addition, some tenants of statutory smallholdings have difficulty in building up sufficient capital from a relatively small farm to enable them to move on up the ladder. Nevertheless, the provision of statutory smallholdings at public expense can still be justified if they continue to work towards their original aim of providing a way into the industry for well qualified young people.

Many successive Governments have recognised the importance of the tenanted sector as a whole as it gives the well qualified outsider a chance to get a farm of his own. The Agriculture Act 1947 introduced lifetime security of tenure to encourage tenants to plan ahead and to look after their land as well as the interests of agriculture generally. This applied equally to tenants in the private sector and statutory smallholders. However, when the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 extended this security to two generations of eligible and suitable successors it was recognised that it was not appropriate to extend these provisions to smallholdings because it was clearly incompatible with the overall objective of providing an entry into farming for young people.

My hon. Friend well knows that after 1976 there was a general reluctance by landlords to let new land because they feared they might not be able to regain possession for 100 years or so.

We decided that some change in the law was required to make it more attractive for landlords to let their land, but we realised that any change must have the support of the industry. In 1981 the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association proposed, among other things, that succession rights for all new non-succession tenancies should be repealed. This was done in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1984. Tenants on county council smallholdings are therefore in much the same position as new tenants on farms in the private sector.

However, tenants on statutory smallholdings enjoy certain advantages over their private sector counterparts. The Smallholdings (Selection of Tenants) Regulations 1970, which was amended in 1976, requires the smallholdings authority, in relation to the first letting of the smallholding after the death of the tenant, to consider the suitability of the wife or husband, brother, or sister or child of the deceased tenant if they make an application to take on the smallholding, and only to consider other candidates if the close relatives have been refused the tenancy. They can be refused tenancy. In practice this means that a relative of the deceased tenant whose standard of farming is not above the average or outstanding could have an advantage over the highly promising outsider who may be better trained and more qualified than the close relative. This does not mean that the close relative has an automatic right to succeed to the tenancy.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern over the case of Mr. Stanhope, but it is most important that tenants and their families should be aware of their legal position and that they should make adequate provision for the future on the assumption that they will not necessarily be able to take over the holding. A tenant's executors are entited to claim compensation for the tenant's improvements to the holding. Those include long-term improvements made with the landlord's consent and also short-term improvements. If the parties cannot agree on the level of compensation, the Act provides for the matter to be determined by arbitration. The executors would also have an interest in the proceeds from the sale of stock and farm machinery.

As I mentioned earlier, regrettably statutory smallholdings have not been notably successful in providing as many young people as might have been hoped with a first step on the farming ladder because few smallholders have been able to move onto larger farms in the private sector. Furthermore, over the past 10 years or so there has been a steady decline in both the number of smallholdings and the total areas of land held for this purpose. However this is in part brought about by smallholdings authorties reorganising their estates as they were required to do under the Agriculture Act 1970. Some authorities have taken the opportunity to increase the size of some of their holdings so that tenants may be able to progress from smaller to larger more viable holdings on the estate. It is possible that tenants from the larger holdings may be in a better position financially to move onto farms in the private sector if the opportunities are available.

My hon. Friend clearly considers that this is an area where the Government ought to intervene especially because of the difficulties encountered by Mr. Stanhope. I recall that my hon. Friend asked for the law to be changed, but, as the law stands, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has certain limited responsibilities under the Agriculture Act 1970 to oversee the manner in which county councils manage their statutory smallholdings estates. That does not extend to the selection of tenants. This is a matter for the council. I understand that since Mr. Stanhope's mother's death they have made certain offers to Mr. Stanhope. The council has tried to help him out of his predicament. My hon. Friend referred to those offers.

There is also the question of end-of-tenancy compensation in respect of milk quota. As my hon. Friend is aware, milk quota is attached to the land and cannot be removed when the producer leaves. There is, however, an obligation on the landlord under the Agriculture Act 1986 to pay end-of-tenanccy compensaion for milk quota to a lawful tenant of a holding who was in occupation on 2 April 1984. I understand that Mr. Stanhope was not, on that date, a tenant within the meaning of the Agriculture Act 1986 and is not, therefore, legally entitled to that compensation.

County councils are in much the best position to decide how to manage their estates in the light of prevailing local circumstances and to take into account the interests of their present tenants, well qualified outsiders who are looking for a holding to rent, ratepayers and the general rural community.

We have heard my hon. Friend's submission on behalf of his constituent. My hon. Friend has asked a number of questions, but he and I know that only the county counil can give satisfactory answers. I shall urge the council to reconsider this case with compassion and in the spirit of moral justice for which my hon. Friend has asked.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Five o'clock on Thursday afternoon.