§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (EARL DE LA WARR)
My Lords, I do not think I need detain you very long to-day on this Bill. It comes up from another place, having been dealt with there with the friedly co-operation of all Parties. It is supported by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, by the Farmers' Union in Scotland and by the 1031 Farm Servants' Union. Clause 1 and Clause 3 contain the two main principles of the Bill. The first of those principles or purposes is to adjust the individual relations between various owners and occupiers of land. The second is to give the Government the funds and the power to undertake large schemes of arterial drainage for improving land that is in a bad state of drainage, and for the prevention of existing flooding; also to give the Government power to levy charges on the owners and occupiers for carrying out such work.
Clause 1 really embodies no new principle. As far back as the year 1847 there was an Act applying to land drainage in Scotland that gave certain powers to an owner or occupier to interfere with another owner or occupier if the state of the drains on a given piece of land was interfering with his own land, but the powers were very limited, and the machinery was very cumbersome and expensive. I believe that that Act has never really been used during the last fifty years. It is, therefore, completely out of date, and it has been rendered even more out of date than it was before the War owing to the break-up of estates. To-day there are actually 10,000 more owner-occupiers in Scotland than there were before the War, and, therefore, you have not got the large units of great estates, with the landowner to adjudicate between the interests of the various occupiers. Under this clause power is given to the owner or occupier of a piece of land to serve a notice on another owner responsible for flooding that is injurious to the former's land.
This may at first sight sound a somewhat strong power to give to a man, but if your Lordships look at subsection (4) you will see that there are adequate safeguards. There is a right of appeal to the sheriff and the sheriff must be satisfied that the land owned or occupied by the applicant is in danger of being injured by this bad flooding; that the person on whom a notice has been served is unreasonably refusing to remedy or prevent such injury; and that the cost of carrying out any operations necessary to remedy that injury may reasonably be borne by the parties. Your Lordships will agree that those are very adequate safeguards. If it is decided by the sheriff, or the expert adviser whom 1032 he appoints to look into the matter, that the cost of carrying out the operation is not such that the parties could be reasonably expected to bear, he shall report the matter to the Department of Agriculture, and, by doing so, he will make it possible for the Department to deal with the matter under Clause 3 of the Bill.
That brings me to the second portion of this Bill. Clause 3 provides for the carrying out of schemes of arterial drainage by the Board of Agriculture in Scotland. As your Lordships know, there are no ad hoc drainage authorities in Scotland as there are in England. I believe there is, in fact, only one in the whole country. These schemes shall be either for the improvement of land or for the prevention of flooding. Once it has been decided that the scheme is to be carried out, that scheme will be compulsory on all the owners and occupiers who are affected, subject only to an appeal to either House of Parliament. The scheme will have to lie on the Table of both Houses of Parliament, and will be able to be held up by an Address from either House. The basis of the cost of the scheme to the owner shall be assessed according to the benefit received. Supposing a scheme on a particular piece of land is to cost, say, £100, and the benefit to that particular piece of land is only £75, then the owner shall only have to bear the cost of the scheme to the extent of £75, the remaining £25 being borne by the Department of Agriculture. In assessing the benefit the owner receives, the Department shall take into account both the actual improvement to the land and the deterioration which might be expected to occur to the land if no such drainage works were undertaken. If the owner is dissatisfied with the assessment of the benefit that he is supposed to be going to receive from the carrying out of the scheme, he can appeal to the Department, and an arbitrator can be appointed by any Lord Ordinary of the Court of Session.
That very briefly states the main purposes of the Bill. I have not gone into any details because I think they can be more suitably dealt with in Committee, but I would say on general grounds that this Bill is one which it is essential to carry through for the benefit of agriculture in Scotland. At the present moment 1033 there is land amounting to hundreds of thousands of acres actually losing value or even going out of cultivation all over Scotland. This Bill attempts to tackle this particular problem from the point of view of owners and occupiers who are not themselves responsible for the position in which they find themselves. Separate grants entirely are being provided for ordinary field drainage. This Bill deals simply and solely with the situation where an owner or occupier of land is finding that his land is deteriorating either because his neighbours are not fulfilling their obligations or because there is no over-riding authority in the form of any drainage authority to deal with questions of arterial drainage. The object of this Bill quite simply is to deal with these two situations. It will increase very largely the productivity of great areas of land in Scotland, which should prove of immense assistance to farmers. It is also of interest to the Government and to us all in that it will provide employment on the land for many people who cannot now be employed there because the land is too wet and sour to pay to cultivate, and it will also provide work in carrying out the scheme. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl De La Warr.)
§ VISCOUNT NOVAR
My Lords, I think the noble Earl in introducing the Bill has explained its objects very plainly, but has somewhat exaggerated the benefits that may be expected to flow from it. The amount to be expended is small—a very limited sum—and the whole of it will probably be required along the course of two rivers, or three at the most. The Bill is required for these limited areas only, I think, on any considerable scale, but some provisions of the Bill will be useful to solve local difficulties as between one owner and another. In Scotland, unlike England, we are not as a rule so much under water, but the floods are considerable in the one or two areas to which I refer. The increased number of owners to which the noble Earl referred is no doubt another reason for the Bill, so many of the larger estates having been broken up under the excessive pressure of rates and taxes. This measure has been considerably improved in another place 1034 by amendment and I do not propose to offer any opposition to the Second Reading. As the Bill was originally drafted excessive powers were given to a public Department, as is not unusual.
§ VISCOUNT NOVAR
As is usual I might say, and the assessment of the benefits to be recovered from the owner by that Department after it has made its own expenditure as it pleases—and in its usual extravagant way no doubt—will have to be very carefully scrutinised in Committee. There are one or two other points which will require attention at the same time. I allude to the recovery of expenditure by the Department, because public Departments in Scotland especially know already much too well how to pass on the costs of their failures to the unlucky individual, and against that system it will be necessary to introduce every possible safeguard. Subject to those remarks I think the Bill as far as it goes is a Bill that should be supported, although at the same time I must admit that the whole policy of the Bill—which I believe is to be extended to England also—is one that does require very careful treatment in this House because it is an example of conferring autocratic powers upon a Department to which the unfortunate private owner will find himself subjected.
§ LORD DYNEVOR
My Lords, I intervene in the debate on a Scottish Bill because I think it is more than likely that a Bill applying to England and Wales may be introduced. I do not want it said that I raised no objection to the details of the Scottish Bill if similar provisions are inserted in the English Bill. I would remind your Lordships that this Bill goes much further than the Land Drainage Act of 1926, which applied to England and Wales. The costs may be prohibitive to agricultural landowners, who have little spare cash at the present time, and they will be largely at the mercy of the sheriff and the Department of Agriculture.
I notice in the Bill that the word "rivers" appears again. Your Lordships, at my suggestion, took that word out of the 1926 Act. How can Scottish landowners be called upon to clean out rivers, say, like the Tweed, the Clyde 1035 and the Tay? To my mind the suggestion is perfectly ridiculous. A heavy expense or a rate is going to be put on the landowner and the occupier quite out of proportion to any benefit that may be received. The land in Scotland, as in England, has lately been derated. Now comes along this Bill putting a new rate on the land which has just been derated. I read in Clause 3 of the Bill the words:—Where the Department … are of opinion that any agricultural land is capable of improvement by drainage works ….It is left to the Department to decide. What I ask is, what is the use of improving land for cultivation so long as the Government allow German bounty-fed oats to be dumped in this country below the cost of production?
I would also ask the noble Earl in charge of the Bill why Crown lands are exempt from the Bill? In 1927 an Act of Parliament was passed which I understood at the time was meant to put Crown land on the same footing as any other estates, and it was received with approbation by all Parties. These Crown lands belong to the State, the revenue goes to the Exchequer and they are mentioned every year in the Budget. We know that the rent-roll of the Crown lands considerably exceeds £1,000,000 a year. There is no estate belonging to a private owner in this country that has a rent-roll of over £1,000,000 a year. Accordingly I ask why it is that the richest estate in the whole country is to be exempted under this Bill and is not to be called upon to drain any land or play its part in a drainage scheme. That seems to me to be absolutely wrong. Where the State owns land it is to be put in a privileged position above all private landowners.
Why are the Crown lands exempted? I do not think that they are exempted under the Land Drainage Act, 1918. I am quite aware that in Section 19 of that Act it would appear that they were exempted, but under Section 21 they are brought into the Act. I am going to ask the noble Earl who is in charge of the Bill to look at those two sections before the Committee stage, and perhaps he will then kindly give us his explanation of them. It is true that the sections are in different Parts of the Act, and it may be that the Crown lands come in under 1036 Part III but not under Part II. I suggest to the noble Earl that the Crown lands should come wholly into this Bill, and I ask him, if he can see his way to do so, to move an Amendment on the Committee stage bringing them into the Bill.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, it is very gratifying to find that the principles of this Bill are so thoroughly accepted. Of course I will undertake to look into the matter to which Lord Dynevor referred before the Committee stage. I should like to suggest to the noble Lord that it might be to your Lordships' convenience if we put the Committee stage down for next Tuesday. I recognise that this will be a little early, but I would point out that the Bill was down for Second Reading last Wednesday and, at the request of the Scottish Peers, it was put off for a week. If it will suit the convenience of the House, I propose to put it down for next Tuesday.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.