HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc123-9

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown in consequence of any compensation scheme made under the Act.—[Mr. Hill.]

10.14 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On these occasions, I always say at the beginning of my remarks how unfortunate it is that the Minister never seeks to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, to set out—however briefly—the reasons behind the money resolution. I say that because it would be helpful to the House. It might even avoid the need for speeches, during the brief 45 minutes that we are allowed, if the Minister were to do the courtesy of setting out for the House the reasoning behind the money resolution.

Even in our rather full Second Reading debate, we were unable properly to explore the financial implications of the Bill. Tonight's debate gives us a chance to do so. In the absence of any explanation from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I shall simply ask a few questions so that the House may judge whether it wishes to approve the money resolution.

The resolution is intended to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown in consequence of any compensation scheme made under the Act. That is fair enough as far as it goes. The Bill does, indeed, in clause 5, make provision for a compensation scheme, and sets out in helpful detail its likely nature.

I do not want to dwell on that because one or two of my hon. Friends wish to concentrate on the specific nature of the compensation scheme. Given the brief nature of the debate, I certainly do not want to take up too much time.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)

Why not?

Mr. Forth

So that my all hon. Friends may speak. Whether the House will wish to divide on the matter will of course depend on the Minister's replies.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

During my time dealing with private Members' Bills, I have always been led to believe that they are not allowed to be primarily for the purpose of spending money. My right hon. Friend has referred to the compensation scheme, on which, it seems to me, the Bill depends. Would my right hon. Friend give us his views on that point?

Mr. Forth

I hate to disagree with my right hon. Friend, but my reading of the Bill is rather different from his. I am reasonably satisfied that the main purpose of the Bill is to ban the practice of fur farming, although, as I said on Second Reading, I do not agree with that. My right hon. Friend has made an important point, however, about whether the ban comes before the compensation or vice versa.

I cannot imagine that the Government wanted to provide compensation and therefore introduced the ban in order to do so, which is almost what my right hon. Friend suggests. However, we need a clear explanation from the Minister of the nature and basis of the compensation regime and the mechanism that he envisages for paying compensation. At least one of my right hon. Friends will pursue just that point in a moment.

I read out the words of the resolution a moment ago to show that it refers only to the compensation mechanism. Yet, when I read clause 5(3) of the Bill, I found that it talked about the mechanism by which to resolve disputes, stating: Any dispute as to…entitlement to payments under a scheme…shall be referred by the Minister to, and determined by the Lands Tribunal.

It strikes me that it is entirely possible that the extra burden of work that may be laid on the Lands Tribunal could give rise to additional expenditure by the tribunal, possibly on additional staff or training, or even on a further appeals mechanism. We must know whether the Minister agrees that that is so, and whether the money resolution may therefore be defective.

Can the Minister give an absolute guarantee that the Lands Tribunal will incur no additional expenditure in fulfilling the responsibilities laid on it? My view is that either the resolution may be defective or the Minister must give that guarantee. Then we will be able to watch carefully to see that the use of the Lands Tribunal by those who find themselves in dispute over compensation takes place within a tight financial regime, because the tribunal may not be able to spend any more money. There is a possibility of real difficulty owing to inadequate drafting of the money resolution.

Those are my main points. I am anxious to give my right hon. and hon. Friends time to raise further matters before we decide whether we wish to agree the resolution.

10.20 pm
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

I am grateful that this issue is being discussed. I fully support the Bill to ban fur farming, but I am extremely concerned that people who have been carrying out what was a legitimate occupation should be adequately compensated. In the past few years, they have had an extremely difficult time. They have had to spend a great deal of money to maintain the security of their premises, to protect not only their livelihoods but the environment from the irresponsible actions of some animal welfare activists. Fur farmers have been spending money—

Madam Speaker

Order. We are dealing with the money resolution, which is very narrow, not the Bill.

Dr. Brand:

I fully appreciate that, Madam Speaker. The importance of the money resolution is that it will allow the Minister to make a statement on compensation before Third Reading. It is important that, before we vote on Third Reading, we hear from the Minister what compensation arrangements are being put in place.

10.22 pm
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Two out of the 11 remaining fur farmers in this country are in my constituency. They will be affected by the Bill if it is enacted. Therefore, they have a keen interest in the terms of the money resolution.

In my initial remarks, I shall deal with one point of concern. The resolution invites Parliament to agree to effect payment in consequence of any compensation scheme made under the Act. That would give the Minister broad scope to invent whatever compensation scheme he felt was appropriate.

Fur farmers are worried because many of them hoped that the compensation scheme covered by the resolution would be sufficiently flexible properly to compensate them for the losses that they will inevitably incur if the Bill is enacted and their present legitimate form of business has to cease.

I want to know from the Minister whether any discussions have been held with the Treasury about the amount of money that could be agreed under the terms of the resolution. The House is invited to agree the payment of money out of funds provided by Parliament, but that is almost an open-ended commitment. We do not know whether the Treasury has agreed a cash-limited sum with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that it can use in framing the scheme. Estimates of about £400,000 were suggested in the explanatory notes that were issued in connection with the Bill.

The Minister has made it clear in discussions that he is contemplating a minimalist regime to compensate farmers solely and wholly for the loss of assets. That is his opening proposition. I hope that he will explain in his reply whether that is the opening position, the only position, or whether there will be opportunities for further discussion with fur farmers, who face the end of their legitimate trade. They want to know whether the terms of the money resolution can give them comfort to discuss the way in which the Minister might approach the powers that it will give him—namely, being able to use "any compensation scheme". I hope that that would give the Minister the flexibility to design a fair compensation scheme because the measure would end what is currently fur farmers' legitimate activity. When they consider the estimates that have been published so far, many of them may think that £400,000 is a grossly inadequate sum of money for the losses that their businesses will occur.

Mr. Forth

Does my right hon. Friend have any sense at this stage of whether those people who are involved in their currently legitimate trade are worried more about compensation for loss of revenue and profits in their on-going businesses or about the possible loss of asset value? Are they concerned about compensation on the capital side as well as on the revenue side? Does my right hon. Friend have anything to say about that?

Mr. Jack

My right hon. Friend asks the question that fur farmers themselves are asking. They are concerned about the compensation for business assets to which the Minister referred, but they are equally concerned that it seems that no further money will be available for consequential losses when they have to cease trading, or to give funding to enable them to re-establish businesses in other agricultural operations. Many of those farms are located in sparsely populated areas where other activities might be hard to get off the ground.

The farmers would like to hear some certainty on compensation from the Minister when he winds up the debate. I should like to know—and I am sure that the fur farmers would like to know—how the Minister calculates the figure of £400,000 which is put about. Is he willing to consider further representations on that matter? Those issues will determine the fate of the principal Bill in its passage through the House. My duty this evening is to represent the interests and concerns of those fur farmers. They have had some indications of what their future might hold, but it is only right that, if Parliament takes away the legitimate livelihood of that group of people, there should be proper compensation. I hope that the Minister will give them some satisfaction.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Why did those considerations not apply under the previous Government when head de-boners were put out of business and received no compensation whatever?

Mr. Jack

That may be a perfectly legitimate point to raise. However, my task is not to discuss yesterday's business; it is to discuss the terms of compensation under this measure. We are discussing that, not a previous event.

10.27 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Unless I am seriously provoked, I do not intend the detain the House for long. However, the fact that my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Fylde (Mr. Jack) have come to the House to speak on the measure this evening shows that it is one that needs a few moments' consideration.

If I attempted to revisit the arguments made on Second Reading, you would rightly pull me up, Madam Speaker, but I think that I am entitled to make the point that in the Bill we are dealing not with the suppression of an illegal activity, or even the curtailment of a legal activity, but with an activity that was once legal and that will be removed at a stroke. In that context, the case for proper rates of compensation is overwhelming.

When the Minister addressed the matter briefly on Second Reading, he said in reply to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that the Government could not provide any open-ended commitment on income that could or could not be forgone in future. That is a perfectly fair point and I am sure that my right hon. Friends would accept it. However, the Minister continued: To a certain extent, we have accepted the principle of income loss. He went on: We are prepared to deal with that. I hope that that goes some way towards meeting the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point. The details will be addressed after the Bill has been passed."—[Official Report, 5 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 1378.] It is very new Labour to say that things will be addressed after the Bill has been passed, but it is not quite good enough for this House. There is a middle way; no one is asking for compensation on income.[Interruption.] Labour Members have pinched so many other ideas over the years that it is not surprising that they should have pinched that language as well. There is a middle way between open-ended and perpetual compensation in respect of income and the profoundly unfair circumstances in which people find their source of income destroyed at a stroke. Even if Labour Members cannot bring their minds, such as they are, to bear on the arguments, I want the Minister to tell the House that he is prepared to accede to the perfectly fair points that my right hon. Friends and I have put to him. The House is entitled to nothing less.

10.30 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

First, let me make it clear to the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who is the Bill's promoter, would like to have been here tonight, but she has had a tooth removed, so it would have been difficult for her to attend.

The money resolution is tabled as a matter of course once a private Member's Bill has received its Second Reading. Details of compensation and how it is to be applied have been addressed in the explanatory notes to the Bill. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) spoke about the Lands Tribunal, but it should be recognised that the Lands Tribunal mechanism is an appeal mechanism. Under the formulation for compensation, if an individual farmer feels that the compensation is unfair or has not been properly dealt with, an appeal procedure is available that is independent of Government.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Minister for pointing out the obvious fact that the Lands Tribunal provides an appeal mechanism. However, the question that I wanted answered was whether the Minister would give an undertaking that there would be no additional expenditure by the Lands Tribunal in fulfilling its role as an appeal mechanism. My point is that the money resolution contains no provision for extra money for the Lands Tribunal.

Mr. Morley

The Bill relates to a relatively limited number of people. The Lands Tribunal is already established and is funded to deal with such matters, so I do not believe that additional burdens will be imposed on the tribunal as a result of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) raised the issue of security. We had proposed and had put out for consultation a proposal to increase security measures on all fur farms as a licence condition. However, because the Bill has now been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston, I have announced that we shall defer a decision on increased security measures. Additional expenditure that could have been incurred by fur farmers has therefore been deferred.

Dr. Brand

Does the Minister agree that responsible fur farmers have already considerably increased their perimeter security in response to the risk of illegal break-ins? Should they not be compensated for such expenditure over the past few years?

Mr. Morley

We are talking about an acceptable standard of compensation for all fur farmers. It may well be that some fur farmers have implemented security measures. However, the fact that mink are now indigenous to the UK wildlife population is a result of escapes from fur farms. There is a fur farm in the hon. Gentleman's constituency; given the vulnerability of fur farms, he will appreciate the importance of proper security measures being instituted to ensure that there are no releases.

I understand the argument advanced by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) in respect of compensation; he made a reasonable case. The way in which compensation is to be calculated has been laid out. The estimate of what the overall cost will be comes from MAFF's professional advisers and is based on calculations of fur farmers' current income and their assets.

Mr. Jack

Can the Minister satisfy me on one small point? As far as MAFF is concerned, is the total sum available for that purpose cash-limited, or is it open-ended?

Mr. Morley

Open-ended is ambitious. If the right hon. Gentleman fears that the £400,000 estimate is set in stone and cannot change one pound either way, I can give him an assurance that that is not the case.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) talked about compensation for income forgone. On Second Reading, I made it clear that, because the three-year breeding cycle of mink might be interrupted by the cut-off date of 2001, in such cases, we would be prepared to consider income lost or forgone. That has been made quite plain.

Mr. Nicholls

Was the figure of £400,000 based on the assumption that there might be a two-year income loss? I cannot relate the £400,000 to the Minister's present comments; I cannot see the tie-in.

Mr. Morley

The calculation was made on the basis of a one-year income loss. However, the details can be considered properly in Committee.

Question put and agreed to.