HC Deb 19 April 1995 vol 258 cc231-41

`—(1) The Secretary of State shall, annually from 1st September 1996, collate information on the actual amount and type of let agricultural land in England and Wales and publish a report containing this information, a copy of which shall be laid before Parliament.

(2) The report made under subsection (1) above shall in particular, though without prejudice to the generality of the requirement of that subsection, list separately land let under this Act and tenancies let under earlier Acts.'.—[Mr. Martyn Jones.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Martyn Jones

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

The prime reason for the Bill, as stated by the industry, the Government and the Opposition, is to get more people into farming. We wish to give an incentive and impetus to new, younger farmers. We, the Opposition, believe that the Bill will not deliver the goods. It will do nothing to ease the life of the small tenant farmer. The Bill is clearly a licence for large farmers to become larger.

We need an independent annual report that shows clearly where the Bill is working, where it is failing and where it needs improving. Such a report needs to include records of people who never had a tenancy before, and of people who had a former tenancy. The report should make it clear what type of tenancy was held previously. We should also know through the report what new land has been tenanted out, the number and size of lettings to corporate tenants, and the length of term of new farm business tenancies.

The annual tenanted farm survey of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, although excellent in its own way, provides little of the information we seek. As two other organisations will be able to draw up tenancies, it is clearly the responsibility of Government to monitor what is happening.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Has the hon. Gentleman made any estimate of the amount of time and money that his extraordinarily bureaucratic proposal would take? Forms are not popular with farmers—indeed, they are not popular with anybody. His proposal would require a massive amount of paperwork, to little effect.

Mr. Jones

I disagree entirely with the hon. Lady. She will get the reply she requires if she listens to what I have to say.

The Ministry's figures on land use are at present based on a sample of farms, which is rounded up to form percentages. We need totals, absolute figures and percentages of the whole to ensure that the Bill is doing what it should do.

The Bill could be seen as a landowners' Bill, and we are not going to be so naive as to swallow all the nonsense figures on new lettings which will be released over the next few years. The new figures will be produced by a range of interested parties, all with their own slant on the figures. As we have seen this month, with the reporting of the Government's figures on unemployment, their methods of statistical collection and analysis can be highly creative, to put it mildly—or to put it less mildly, totally untrustworthy. However, their data will be better than nothing, a good starting point and easily analysed.

It is not a huge and expensive project that we are asking for. As the Bill stands, only members from three organisations are allowed to draw up the new agricultural tenancies: members of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, fellows of the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers, and fellows of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. With a tiny bit of planning, it would be possible to get the figures needed at a low cost and with the minimum of time. The whole cost will probably come to a lot less than what has been wasted by the Ministry on ties and wellies with logos for the new Meat Hygiene Service.

The only reason why anyone would want to oppose the new clause would be if they wanted to keep something hidden. What the Government want to keep hidden is the fact that most of the new tenancies under the Bill will go not to first-time tenant farmers but to existing large farmers and to large corporations.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

If the qualifications that the hon. Gentleman is rightly identifying are met and the information is as accurate and as comprehensive as he clearly requires, and if it proves that new tenancies will be coming forward between now, and when, perhaps, he is on the other side of the House, will he give an undertaking here and now that the Labour party will not repeal the proposed legislation?

Mr. Jones

We shall be giving assurances later, when we have had time to debate the Bill completely. The assurances that the hon. Gentleman wants have been asked for by industry, and we have been considering them. In due course, the hon. Gentleman may well get those assurances. At the moment, we are debating the need for the figures to assess what any future Government will need to do about tenancies, and whether the Bill has the effect of creating new business tenancies.

It is clear from the announcement this month of the introduction of a new orchard fruit survey that the Minister is not averse to new surveys. There is already an annual report to Parliament on smallholdings in England, and the 44th will be published in November. We are not calling for a radical, costly new imposition, but an easily collectable, and therefore cheap, but very important bit of research.

The Government want to say that they are supporting new entrants into farming, when all they are doing, we believe, is supporting landowners and big businesses. If the Minister denies that, he should support the new clause, and allow the effect of the Bill to be measured.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

On Second Reading, or at some time when the Bill was being considered in Committee, the Minister said that he would be looking closely at the way in which the proposed legislation would work. I support the new clause tabled by the Opposition, as I believe that it would not entail a' great deal of work.

Some time ago, a west country surveyor told me that he had some 25 branches throughout the west country. He was able to tell me within a matter of seconds how many full tenancies he or his firm had been involved with in the previous 18 months, so I do not necessarily see that it will mean a lot of bureaucracy and difficulty. Indeed, I would go further, and say that the facts and figures in agriculture are available here, there and everywhere, but they need to be collated in one short simple form, and it is necessary that we do so.

I do not profess to have the ultimate answer. I certainly do not have a crystal ball, any more than any other hon. Member. The Government may be right, in due course, to say that the Bill will release a great deal of new agricultural land for letting. I sincerely hope that they are right. I have definite misgivings and have made them known at several stages during the passage of the Bill. I am not necessarily playing the Opposition game. I am looking at the problem.

We may well encounter a situation in which experienced, well-established farmers again perpetuate a semi-Gladstone v. Bower situation. Further short tenancies will be taken on, and longer ones will not be needed. They will be the icing on the cake. What we need now—what I believe to be the purport of the Bill, and what I sincerely hope will be its effect—is new units for new entrants into agriculture. That is the task for the future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a long intervention. Interventions are supposed to be short and to the point.

Mr. Llwyd

I shall keep my contribution short. I thought that I was being concise, but there we are. Lawyers are not always concise.

This is a proper, good new clause, worthy of support. It is a simple, straightforward measure to monitor the working of the Bill. It will enable us to see, in 18 months or two years from now, whether the Government's assurances were correct or whether the misgivings of Opposition Members were correct. I speak in the interests of agriculture, not in a narrow political sense.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. He was making a speech, not intervening. My attention was distracted by a conversation at my side. The hon. Gentleman was in order.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I support new clause 1, which asks for an annual report of the type of lettings made under the Bill. That will not entail an enormous amount of work or bureaucracy. The questionnaire involved could be brief, simply asking for the length of a tenancy, its terms, what parcels of land are involved, and so on.

During the Bill's passage, we have heard several times about the amount of land being let having dropped from 90 per cent. at the turn of the century to just 35 per cent. of our land today. I am not sure that that is a bad thing. In a sense, it reflects the rise of owner-occupation. One would be delighted with those figures if they were for housing. Similarly, I am happy to see them for land.

However, I am concerned that the number of holdings, the number of farms and the number of people working on the land are in decline year by year. That has terrific social consequences in the areas that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and I represent. It has consequences for the Welsh language and generally for rural areas. There is a real problem in the amalgamation of smallholdings. When farms come on to the market, they are gobbled up by their neighbours, and jobs disappear from the countryside. I am concerned that the Bill allows for that possibility.

The new clause asks for the amount and type of let agricultural land to be recorded. One of our concerns is the period of let—whether it is a three-year, five-year, 10–year, 15–year or lifetime let. In Committee, we argued for lifetime lets. The statistical exercise requested could tell us the average period of let. The Bill introduces short-termism into agriculture, and agriculture, by its nature, requires long-term investment.

Such a survey would also show us the extent of fragmentation of holdings, about which we are also concerned. It is more beneficial for a landlord to let a 100–acre holding in two or three parcels and to let the farmhouse, and even the farm buildings, separately. Once destroyed, that holding will never return. In rural areas such as the one I represent, retirement, second and holiday homes are popular, and, by definition, many farmhouses are in extremely attractive situations. If a lot of farms are split up as a result of the Bill, we need to know the environmental and social consequences.

The Minister keeps telling us that the Bill will make more land available for new entrants into agriculture. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), however, I fear that not new entrants but existing farmers will take up the farm business contracts, and 15 or 20 acres of neighbouring farms.

The annual survey for which the new clause asks is a perfectly reasonable statistical exercise, reflecting the extent of the Bill's success and the possible deleterious effects about which we are more concerned.

Mr. Llwyd

Could not the few questions involved be included in the much-maligned IACS—integrated administration and control system—form? That involves tenancies.

Mr. Williams

Absolutely. During the Easter recess, I spent some time with the Farmers Union of Wales discussing the IACS forms, which farmers find very troublesome. The details required by the new clause amount to only a small fraction of the amount of information demanded by the IACS forms, and could easily be included in them.

I hope that the Government will consider introducing the modest exercise for which the new clause asks.

4.45 pm
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

As a matter of principle, the Government should take responsibility for their actions. Nearly two years ago, the Minister came in at a very late stage of the passage of the Bill to abolish the milk marketing boards. Some of the claims by Opposition Members then have the ring of truth now.

I hope that the new clause will be accepted. The Government claim that they want to put new land on the market and to create new entrants; they must now show that they mean it. I have always been sceptical about their claims: I believe that, although new land will come on to the market, most of it will go to established farmers and landowners, and there will be few new entrants. I also fear that there will be very short tenancies, rather than the 10, 15 or 25–year tenancies that would encourage capital investment. That will not be good for the industry. I hope that the survey required by the new clause will also examine rents, which I fear will become very high.

In Committee, we pressed the Minister about the sale of British Coal land. I acknowledge that the Minister was helpful throughout our discussions, but I remind him that, some weeks after the end of the Committee stage, problems remain.

I know that allotments are close to the Minister's heart; I hope that the first annual report will state clearly what has happened to British Coal allotment holders. I am not confident that the promises by Ministers in other Departments have the ring of authenticity. Nothing has happened yet, but I hope to read in the first report that allotment holders maintain their plots.

I also hope that the survey will reveal what has happened to larger pieces of land. Issues involving Crichel Down remain to be resolved—for instance, the question of tenants taking contaminated British Coal land and being indemnified. Large parts of the country are being blighted where the rural aspect coincides with the industrial; the sooner we get rid of that blight the better.m

I hope that the new clause will be accepted, and that the first annual report shows that the decent thing has been done for British Coal tenancy holders.

Mr. Jack

This has been an interesting exchange on the question of monitoring the effects of the Bill. My hon.

Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) was right, in her sage intervention, to remind us of the question of cost and complexity when people seek information. I shall say more on that later.

The opening exchanges have shown us that Labour Members still have an underlying suspicion about the Bill, and do not fully endorse and rejoice in the benefits that it will bring to the world of agriculture. No doubt we shall hear more about that in due course.

I wrote down what the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) said, because I thought it quite interesting—that the Bill was a licence for big farms to get bigger. Clearly he has not read the latest parliamentary briefing sent out by the Tenant Farmers Association, which is an avowed enthusiast of the Bill. The conclusion to that eminently readable document states:

Many owners no longer wish to farm. Family farms offer the opportunities to expand and others wish to enter the industry. That is a succinct way of pointing out that the Bill has the potential to benefit all sorts of agricultural activity, whether large or small. It may well provide an opportunity for the younger farmer—perhaps the son of an existing farmer—to develop his own business on the existing farm by being able to take advantage of the additional amounts of new tenanted land that the Bill will bring on to the market. That deals with the point made by Labour Members on that matter.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West also said that the Bill was seen as a landowners' Bill. I wonder where the hon. Gentleman was during the Committee stage. I seem to recall that organisations like the National Farmers Union, the Tenant Farmers Association and the Young Farmers were cited on many occasions as supporters of the Bill. Therefore, I rebut the hon. Gentleman's claim that it is a landowners' Bill; it is not.

The hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) were, each in his own way, supportive of a measure to monitor the Bill's effects. The hon. Member for Carmarthen suggested that the IACS form could be used to collect data. Not everyone has to participate in schemes covered by IACS, so there could be a technical hole in that argument.

I want to come to the heart of the matter, and comment on the question of monitoring the uptake of farm business tenancies in the coming years. It is in the Government's interests, as it is in the hon. Gentleman's, to see what happens when, I hope, the House passes the Bill into law. As the hon. Gentleman said, in reply to a parliamentary question from him, I said that MAFF regularly reviews its requirements for statistics, and is considering how best to monitor the new farm business tenancies. Indeed, my officials were starting a review of the information currently available when the hon. Gentleman tabled his question.

As part of the review process, we shall be consulting professional organisations such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, which conduct their own invaluable informative surveys, to ensure that there is no duplication of effort leading to unreasonable burdens on farmers and professional advisers. I hope that that point satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster.

We will take careful stock of what needs to be done to put in place sensible arrangements for monitoring, and we will publish the results of that exercise.

Mr. Tyler

Could I put to the Minister the obverse of the challenge that I put to the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones)? Will he give an undertaking to the House that, if the careful monitoring proves to the Minister and the Ministry that the success of the Bill, should it become an Act, has been less than he hoped for, he and his right hon. and hon. colleagues will review the legislation again?

Having raised the expectation of real improvements in access to new land for new entrants and those whom we all want to ensure have a first step on the ladder of agriculture, it would be damaging if those expectations were thwarted in practice.

Mr. Jack

It is nice to see the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) now participating in our proceedings. He gave a new definition to the expression "awayday" during the Committee proceedings.

As always, I shall do my best to respond positively to his request for review. It is almost a throwaway line, if one is not entirely certain of something, to say that it will be reviewed. I am certain that the Bill will give rise to opportunities for more tenanted land to become available. I am supported in that line of argument by the work of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which, before measures were introduced to deal with the treatment of tenanted land for inheritance tax, forecast that more than I million new acres would become available in the first five years.

I hope that I have given the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West sufficient assurances that we will establish proper monitoring of the effects of the Bill. Naturally, we want to see what will happen. The hon. Member for North Cornwall may perhaps be unaware of some of the inner workings of government, but we always keep under review the way in which a particular piece of legislation is operating. I will not give him the satisfaction this evening of giving a time scale within which some sort of review will be undertaken. We want to get the legislation in place and monitor carefully what is happening. Clearly, as always, if there were problems, matters could be looked at again.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right, but does he agree that the success of the Bill will be seen not in the maintenance of statistics, whether or not they show a huge increase in the amount of land to be let, but in the freedom of contract that it will provide between landlord and tenant?

Mr. Jack

My hon. Friend, who has much knowledge in the matter, makes his own sage comment.

Mr. Tyler

I want to be absolutely clear, and I am sure that the House will also want to be clear, that the Minister endorses the forecast by the RICS that 1 million acres will become available within the time scale referred to.

Mr. Jack

My task is to draw on the independent analyses that have been done. They give us a clear picture of how those who are informed about these matters estimate that the Bill will impact on the tenanted sector. I certainly do not wish to disagree with that.

We shall have to wait and see what the uptake is. The RICS has said that 1 million acres of land could be made available. It is my earnest hope that all those organisations which have been such strong supporters of the measure will find that their members—for example, young farmers, tenant farmers and others—will take up the opportunities provided. The monitoring exercise that I have described builds on the expertise of those organisations. We seek not to duplicate but to work with the industry on the matter. We want to make certain that all the relevant strands of monitoring are drawn together.

We agree with the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West about the desirability of monitoring the effects of the Bill. In the light of what I have said and the consultations that we wish to have with the RICS and the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers so that all that expertise can be drawn together, I hope that the hon. Gentleman might see fit to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Llwyd

It is accepted that the Bill has been some five or six years in gestation. I am astonished that the Ministry has not put something together in the way of monitoring at this stage. We have had so many years of discussion about it. Why does not the Minister have a form of monitoring ready and waiting which could be written into the Bill? That would have been preferable to leaving it on a hope basis for later.

5 pm

Mr. Jack

As I have told the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West, because we have already started an exercise to review the way in which we will monitor the legislation. It would almost be discourteous to the House automatically to anticipate that we would simply get this measure through and then start, well in advance, to prepare a monitoring exercise. We want to make certain that we know exactly what we are monitoring. Until the Bill passes all its stages in this House, that is something that we cannot do. In timetabling terms, we have found a sensible balance on the matter.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

The Minister asked whether we were suspicious of the Government, and I confess that I am now extremely suspicious, because he has not responded to the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) for information on allotment holders, which is extremely important to some of us.

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next comment. I have a personal interest, having dug an allotment over Easter. Allotment land is not subject to the agricultural holdings legislation, but British Coal and the Department of Trade and Industry are reviewing how it will be treated, in the way the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) described. Those concerned are well aware of the anxieties expressed that the land should be retained for its existing use. The hon Gentleman asked me a number of other questions, and I will ensure that he gets a definitive answer in some way, shape or form.

With those remarks, and our commitment to put in place a proper monitoring system, I hope that the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West will see fit to withdraw the new clause.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

In his opening remarks, the Minister of State said that the Opposition were not rejoicing in their support for the Bill. I can certainly confirm that. Indeed, we have been consistent in our opposition to it.

We oppose the Bill because we believe in security of tenure for tenant farmers, and we regard the relationship between a landlord and a tenant as fundamentally unequal. That means that legislation is required, and the Government have implicitly accepted that need in the Bill.

I think that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) encapsulated the argument when he mentioned freedom of contract between the landlord and the tenant. We believe that the tenant needs something more, which is why we regard this legal framework for governing relationships between farmers and landowners as flawed and unacceptable on the fundamental points of social justice and security of tenure.

The argument for the Bill has been stated, and there is no doubt about the motives of some of the participants—there is a genuine wish to encourage new entrants into the industry. Labour Members certainly share that wish, which is why we published the consultative document that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) produced. The document proposed some hard, practical and concrete proposals for encouraging new entrants into the industry, and I will return to the industry's reaction to it, but not during this debate.

Mr. Jack

The document published last September contained an intriguing little phrase. The author said: If the legislation … is not working sufficiently well"— I presume he meant this legislation—

the Labour Party would consider re-introducing a minimum term of farm tenancies". Can the hon. Gentleman assist me by giving me a precise definition of what "not working well" means?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are considering the new clause, and it would be helpful if the hon. Member would get back to that.

Dr. Strang

Since new clause 1 concerns working well and monitoring the legislation when it comes into force, I want to deal with those points explicitly. Working well includes, among other things, the question of new entrants. That is the whole purpose of the Bill—well, it is not the whole purpose, as I would not grant the Government that, but it is one of its purposes.

We want to monitor the effect of the legislation, and you have reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the clause concerns monitoring. I hope to catch your eye on Third Reading, when I will be more explicit, but we want to give the legislation an opportunity to work, and do not intend, therefore, to introduce retrospective legislation.

Monitoring and whether it is a reasonable proposition in the context of this new legislation are the real issues. I interpret the Minister of State's remarks as positive on that account, and think that he is acknowledging that there is a good case for reviewing the effect of the legislation over a period of years. This is a long-term business. Frankly, it is because we regard farming as a long-term business that we are against the Bill. It will take some years to find out how the legislation is working out.

Various attempts have been made to anticipate the effects of the legislation. Many hon. Members, including, I think, the Minister of State, referred to the document produced by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, "Farm Business Tenancies, New Farms and Land 1995–97", which was a valuable report. Perhaps the House will allow me to quote from some of the key conclusions.

It is projected that nearly 900,000 acres will be let through chartered surveyors for five years or more under a farm business tenancy. This would comprise 1,166 equipped farms and 3,315 blocks of bare land…From a core of 9.4 million acres existing lifetime and qualifying succession tenancies will continue under the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 for many years. Some owners' agents indicated that they will recommend reletting on the basis of long-term traditional type tenancies when this land falls vacant. Of the 8.56 million acres of land in England and Wales where chartered surveyors may not be retained continuously and which is likely to be predominantly owner-occupied it is probable that some will come into the let sector for the first time under farm business tenancies. The survey could not identify the extent to which that might happen, and many respondents did not reply to the questionnaire. That shows that there is a case for looking at the effect of the legislation.

It was suggested, I think by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), that that might be done through the IACS form. No one is ruling that out, but the Minister of State correctly pointed out that implicit in that suggestion is an acceptance that one is going to survey every farm in the country, which is not necessary under our new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) also commented on that.

We are interested in genuinely objective information about how the legislation is working. I will give some of the key factors that we should be considering in a minute. It may well be possible to do so through good samples. Obviously, they will have to be spread throughout England and Wales. The position in Scotland is different, and the legislation does not apply there, as tradition and attitude to the issue are in some respects rather different from those of the body politic in agriculture in England. The position in Wales is also slightly different.

Surely we are interested in the extent to which more land is owned by institutions. The institutional ownership of land was a major issue, as many hon. Members will remember, and was one reason why the last Labour Government set up what was probably the best and most authoritative report on the issue—the Northfield report, which was published after Labour lost power. The then Minister of Agriculture, who later became a Secretary of State for the Environment, handled the matter, and the incoming Conservative Government did nothing.

In those days, the ownership of land by non-British or non-European Union citizens was also an issue, and to an extent it still concerns people in some parts of Scotland when they see whole islands being bought and sold every year. Although there is less overall concern about those issues now, I should have thought that we would want to keep information on what is happening in that respect.

How many new farm business tenancies, which commence on 1 September 1995, will be created each year, and how many will be created on previously unoccupied land? Will the farmhouse stay with the farm? I think that the Conservative party supports our position, which is that we want to encourage family farms and family farming.

We criticise the Bill because we believe that, among other things, it will lead to the fragmentation and break-up of holdings. We may be wrong—who is to say? But we should monitor the extent to which land will simply be let to neighbouring farmers.

Will bona fide new entrants into the industry have proper tenancies, albeit short-term tenancies? I recognise that those may be enough to get them started, build up a fairly intensive business and then move on to something else. It goes without saying that we are interested in the duration of those tenancies. We are not going down the right road if we are to end up with the bulk of our tenanted land farmed on the basis of five-year tenancies.

We welcome the Government's constructive response on this matter and will therefore not push the new clause.

Mr. Martyn Jones

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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