HL Deb 01 April 1943 vol 126 cc1061-5

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Duke of Norfolk.)


My Lords, before this Bill is placed upon the Statute Book—and it is, your Lordships will remember, a war-time measure which tends to smooth out many administrative difficulties—I feel bound to call attention to certain features of it affecting obligations of agricultural landowners which indicate a trend of Government policy which, I submit, in the national interest I and many of my friends of varying political attachments regard as unfortunate and as calculated to affect adversely the fortunes of what is, after all, our most vital industry. This is best illustrated by reference to Clauses 4 and 15 of the Bill in the form in which it was originally introduced in another place, which throw upon landowners, in addition to their own onerous burdens, certain obligations which have been hitherto by contract or by custom the recognized obligations of farm tenants, one of them being to clean out watercourses on their holdings and the other to re-sow with herbage seeds ploughed up permanent pasture w here it is consistent with the rules of good husbandry to do so.

The House will perhaps forgive me if I refer to the Central Landowners' Association, an organization which was inaugurated thirty-five years ago by the late Lord Onslow (who was then the Chairman of Committees in this House), and of which I am myself the sole surviving founder. It is, and has always been, a constructive and a progressive body which has always put national needs above sectional interests, and, with the passage of years, has grown considerably in both numbers and influence. I think I am right in saying that every county in England and Wales has a branch and these branches contain not merely rent-receiving landlords but a very considerable number of occupying owners. No Parliamentary Bill in recent years has caused greater uneasiness in the minds of members of the Central Landowners' Association than this Bill has, mainly owing to the trend in Government policy which it appears to indicate and foreshadow. It is to be remembered, what many people forget, that two-thirds of the whole of the capital embarked in the industry of agriculture, and represented by farm buildings and fixed equipment, belong to the landlord, and admittedly, through growing impoverishment consequent mainly upon agricultural depression, much of this farm equipment is in a serious state of disrepair to-day, and far from being up-to-date or well suited to the exacting requirements and changed conditions of modern husbandry.

Of course estates, as your Lordships know, are changing hands. They are passing steadily and gradually out of the hands of the old squires of this country into the hands, very largely, of wealthy persons who have built up their wealth in some other much more prosperous industry than agriculture, and who perhaps are not so thoroughly in touch with the rural population or, indeed, with the processes of agriculture as some of us whose families have for many generations been connected with the ownership of agricultural land. I do not deprecate this change of ownership. It is inevitable. It has at different times in our history occurred following periods of agricultural depression. All I want to urge is that, if you are having fresh capital brought into our oldest and most vital industry, do for goodness' sake give some confidence to those who own agricultural land, buildings and fixed equipment, and some inducement to do what they can to maintain their estates and that fixed equipment in a manner which will conduce most to the development and prosperity of the industry. Never, if I may say so, was it more necessary, if individual or private ownership is to continue, to create in the minds of agricultural landowners a feeling of confidence and a sense of security which will induce them, so far as their resources permit, to carry out repairs and improvements on their estates so as to enable agricultural operations, with a larger measure of public sympathy reflected in Parliament than has existed for at least two generations, to be carried out with optimum efficiency, economy and success.

What I want to put to the Government is this. If agricultural land is to be nationalized—and we have heard threats of it during the last few years—the State will of course assume all the landowners' duties and financial responsibilities, and it therefore will matter little to landowners whether they receive encouragement or discouragement in the meantime from the Government. But if not, I submit there can be no surer means of stabilizing the agricultural industry than to stimulate landowners to carry out their own proper and heavy obligations rather than require them to shoulder some of those which are incidental to, or appertain to, the task of the farmers themselves. I know it is often said that a large proportion of agricultural landowners are mere rent receivers. I may perhaps tell your Lordships that when, thirty-five years ago, the Central Landowners' Association was formed and I was then its first and honorary secretary, with the help of the Surveyors' Institute and the Land Agents' Society we took some pains to ascertain what was the average return that landowners were receiving upon the capital invested in their estates. We had returns from a very large number of estates of varying sizes and the result showed that something between 2 per cent. and 2¼ per cent. was all the return that any good landowner, who carried out his obligations, could possibly obtain from his agricultural estate.


Subject to the then taxation.


Yes, and taxation is, of course, now very much heavier. What I want to indicate is that there is not an industrialist in this country who would embark his capital in any undertaking that is going to yield only 2 per cent. or 2½ per cent. I think I am right in saying that it is generally agreed that, unless there is a fair prospect of something like 8 per cent. at least being obtained from any industrial undertaking, it is a hazardous business to embark upon. After all, the maintenance of buildings or other equipment on an estate necessarily depends upon the rents received unless the owner has outside wealth obtained from other sources than the estates. I submit to your Lordships that, if agriculture is to be a really inherently sound proposition in this country, then it should be possible for those who own the capital embarked in that species of property to be able, at least, to maintain that property in efficient condition without having to look to outside sources of wealth to do so. Agriculture, in fact, should be a really sound proposition self-contained in this country, as it largely is in other countries, within the limits of its own proper resources.

I am not pleading for the bad landowner. Neither I nor any of my colleagues in the Central Landowners' Association have any sympathy with the bad and inefficient landowner, still less with the land speculator. But I might say in passing that I know nothing more calculated to induce speculation in so-called agricultural land than to have a large body of owners of land with no reasonable prospect of being able to get anything like a sufficient return from it, or being able to maintain it in such a way as to conduce to the prosperity of the industry carried on upon it. I would say to the Government, why halt ye between two opinions? After all, the prosperity of this country and of the Empire has been built up upon private enterprise and initiative. If the ownership of land is contrary to public policy, then legislate against it and let us know where we are. If it is not, then stimulate it into the requisite activity rather than make it continuously apprehensive of official disfavour and ultimate nationalization.

In that very remarkable broadcast which the Prime Minister gave us last week, he said: It is absolutely certain we shall have to grow a larger proportion of our food at home. During the war immense advances have been made by the agricultural industry. He went on to say: The position of the farmers has been improved, the position of the labourers immeasurably improved. The efficient agricultural landlord has an important part to play. If you want him to play it, give him some sense of security and some confidence that if he pulls his weight the Government will not let him down.


My Lords, the noble Viscount was good enough to inform me that he intended to say a few words on the Third Reading of this Bill. If I understood him a right, he divided his speech into two parts. The first part, I think I may say, was a slight protest against the line of legislation which this Bill is taking, and the second part dealt with general policy, looking to the future. As regards the Bill itself; I have really nothing to add to what I said at earlier stages of is passage through this House or to what was said in the very full discussion which it received in another place. As to the second part of the speech, I am sure the noble Viscount will not expect me to enter into debate now on policy which naturally is still under discussion. I thank him, however, for the remarks he has made and assure him that they will be brought to the notice of my right honourable friend, as are all the remarks which he makes on this important subject.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.

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