HL Deb 24 July 1958 vol 211 cc216-28

5.40 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty The Queen to signify to the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Agriculture Bill, has consented to place Her Majesty's interest so far as it is concerned on behalf of the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, at the disposal of Parliament for the purpose of the Bill.


My Lords, in moving the Third Reading of this Bill, I must say that we have had very full discussions in our earlier proceedings, and I am sure your Lordships would not wish me to go over all the arguments again. But this is an important measure and has given rise to a great deal of interest and also, I fear, to some misunderstanding. I think it is incumbent upon me, therefore, at Third Reading, to take this last opportunity open to me to put it in its correct perspective, and to try to allay any lingering doubts due, as I believe, to misunderstanding, that may still remain.

What does this Bill do, and why? Subordinate issues apart, it does only two things: it repeals the disciplinary powers, and seeks to improve the working of the landlord and tenant system. First, the disciplinary powers: I made a very full statement when we considered this matter on Report, and have really little to add to it. But I must repeat that we are repealing these provisions because, in the light of practical experience and the needs of the times, we are satisfied that it is the right and, indeed, the only course open to us. We must face the facts. We are repealing these provisions on their merits, and there is no connection in our minds whatsoever with the financial guarantees which we dealt with quite separately in Part I of the 1957 Act.

The landlord and tenant have always had their rights against each other for the protection of their own interests. These rights will remain with proper safeguards, and we are taking steps to make them work more effectively in the light of experience. All concerned, whether landlords, tenants or owner-occupiers, are subject to the economic forces which reward efficiency and penalise inefficiency. What we are repealing is the State's power to intervene, whether against the landlord, tenant or owner-occupier, to try to force him to be efficient with the ultimate sanction of depriving him of his tenancy or his freehold if all else fails. Experience has shown that our advisory services are hampered and not helped by the existence of these penal powers. You cannot force a man to be efficient with threats. You must instead create an atmosphere in which he will readily come to those who have help and advice to give.

The second thing the Bill seeks to do is to make the landlord and tenant system work better. Few deny the need for this. Our landlord and tenant system, which is—I almost said was—the envy of the world, is steadily giving way to a system of owner-occupation. The private landlord is either selling up or taking the land in hand and farming it himself with a manager. The result is that young men find it ever harder to enter the industry. Acre for acre, an owner-occupier needs probably at least three times the capital that a tenant needs. So the advantage is probably always on the side of the older man with the money, against the younger man with initiative and drive.

Of course, owner-occupation has its rightful place, notably on specialist or intensive farms, on which most of the capital is farmer's capital. But that is not typical. On a typical farm the landlord's capital is a far larger contribution 10 the total than the tenant's, and it is There that the immense advantage of the system of dual partnership is found. Here express a personal view, though one which is widely held. What I think cannot be gainsaid is that the two systems should be allowed to develop and compete with each other naturally. Our aim in this Bill has been merely to remove obstuctions which have distorted the natural trend.

What are the reasons for this running down of the landlord and tenant system? There are, I think, two main causes. First, the security of tenure provisions, which were meant to protect the good farmer, have tended to make all tenants virtually life tenants. That is why I had to resist, at an earlier stage in the proceedings, the suggestion put forward by some noble Lords opposite that personal inconvenience or hardship which might be suffered by the tenant should be allowed to be an overriding factor, a bar to termination of the tenancy, no matter what other grounds might be established. That would indeed have meant life tenancies. As the Bill stands the position is fully safeguarded, not only by the proviso of reasonableness, but by the provision that in any case when the landlord bases his case on hardship the tenant is secure if he can establish his greater hardship. It is the present position which has produced the log-jam in which landlords hesitate to re-let their farms when a tenant dies.

Secondly, the rent provisions which were meant, quite rightly, to protect the sitting tenant from exploitation, have tended to keep rents too low and out of line with the landlord's maintenance expenses. In the short term, this has enabled the second-rate tenant to hold on at the expense of a better man. In the long term, it has frightened landlords into selling or direct farming. And all the time it has made it difficult for landlords unless they have outside money, which cannot be assumed, to fulfil their obligations under the landlord and tenant system. This is the situation in which we have proposed what are no more than slight adjustments of provisions for security of tenure and provisions for rents, adjustments designed to cure the ills which the authors of the 1948 Act cannot have foreseen or intended, and to enable the system to function. It is surely perverse to call this a landlord's charter, or to talk of the Bills loading the dice against the tenant. It is not a landlord's charter in any derogatory sense. We are trying to save the landlord and tenant system.

To sum up. The only real change of policy and principle is in Clause 1, which repeals the State's power to evict, and this, we feel, is the course which in present circumstances is clearly right on ethical and practical grounds alike. The rest of the Bill does not change policy. It is designed in the light of experience to find better means of giving effect to the true intentions of the Act of 1948. Left to run on unchanged, that Act—meant to give the landlord-tenant system a new lease of life—might well have broken it up. Now I hope that it will be able to function properly with all the benefits that will follow in its train. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Earl Waldegrave.)

5.49 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, in moving the Third Reading, opened his remarks by saying that he intended to do what he could to ensure that there was no further misunderstanding about this Bill, and that he intended to allay any lingering doubts. I should like to assure him that he has done nothing of the kind. There was no misunderstanding of this Bill on this side of the House, and we had no lingering doubts; we had real doubts, and he has not allayed them. We started off with a feeling that this was a bad Bill designed to upset the balance as between landlord and tenant in favour of the landlord, and we remain of that opinion. There may be good reasons for it, but the fact is that it is quite wrong to suggest that it does not change the balance which has existed, certainly since the 1947 Agriculture Act.

It has changed the balance in two very material respects: first, it has taken away from the tenant the security which he hitherto enjoyed. I have no particular objection to giving a tenant a tenure for life if he is farming his land well and paying a fair rent. If the noble Earl has equally no objection, then that view is not translated into the Bill, because it is possible for a tenant who is farming his land quite efficiently and is prepared to pay a fair rent to lose his security of tenure. That is one of the things we object to in this Bill. The other is that it enables a landlord to charge an increased rent not on the basis of what is fair and economic having regard to the quality of the land but on the basis of scarcity value. That we think is wrong; we think it is the wrong criterion.

Our final objection to this Bill is that in the last resort it removes the power of supervision which enables the community to get possession of a farm which is being badly farmed, although a substantial subsidy is being paid by the community in respect of that farm. So far as the tenant is concerned, that assurance of efficiency still exists, because one of the grounds for obtaining possession by the landlord is that the farm is being inefficiently worked. But so far as the owner is concerned, the owner-occupier of a farm, this particular power is being taken away. I think the figure is that about two-thirds of the farms in this country are owner-occupied. Therefore, as regards two-thirds of the farms there is no longer any sanction against bad or inefficient farming.

Over and over again the noble Earl and others on the other side have said that there is a sanction; that the sanction is the economic one; that if you farm inefficiently and badly you lose money. But what sort of an argument is that? After all, if that were the case, if efficiency could be ensured by that means, there would be no bankruptcies. Everyone has the urge of making a profit and if that was sufficient to ensure that people were efficient no losses would be incurred, either by individuals or by companies, and of course the plan would work. But we know that, in spite of the fact that it is not good business to be inefficient and the result of inefficiency is, generally speaking, disastrous, nevertheless there is a good deal of inefficiency. Where the State has an interest in ensuring that there is efficiency because it provides a subsidy, we think that this sanction ought to continue. We certainly think it is wrong that it should continue as regards one section of the community and should be taken away as regards the other.

I do not want to develop these arguments. I have put them forward, both at this stage and at earlier stages, I had hoped without misunderstanding and that at any rate there was no lingering doubt in the mind of the noble Earl as to what our views about this Bill were. I would conclude by saying that this Government has produced some pretty bad Bills. I have had to condemn a good many of them root and branch. I think the last one I condemned was the Local Government Bill, but I should not have said about the Local Government Bill that it was particularly a partisan Bill. But I do say it about this Bill; I say it is cynically partisan. And apart from the fact that it is a Bill which, in my view, is uncalled for and will not really work, I think it is one the Government will long regret as having created bad feeling in the farming community and the belief that they are not holding the balance as between one section of the farming community and another.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, this has been a fairly controversial Bill, and as, unfortunately I have been prevented from being here at any of the earlier stages of the Bill I certainly do not want to become involved in any agricultural controversy on the Third Reading. I do not intend to speak for more than one or two minutes.

With regard to the final objection of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, concerning the removal of the disciplinary powers in Part II of the 1947 Act to enforce good farming on owner-occupiers and so on, I am, of course, very familiar with the noble Lord's case, because it is a case which was approved by the National Farmers' Union and also by some landowners: I think that the English Country Landowners' Association decided at one time to support Part II of the Act, although the Scottish landowners were more cautious about committing themselves. I have always taken a different view, which I have expressed to your Lordships more than once. The reason why the farmers were afraid to lose Part II of the Act was not because they liked these disciplinary powers but because they were afraid that the removal of the stick might also mean the removal of the carrot; and that sooner or later tile Government might say, "We have no power to enforce good farming upon you, and therefore we are under no obligation to guarantee that you get a fair price for your products." That is what they were afraid of.

I have always held the view, however, that if, owing to a flood of cheap foreign imports, some future Government, in response to pressure from public opinion, should decide to change our agriculture policy and abandon price guarantees, the existence of Part II of the Agriculture Act, 1947, would not make the slightest difference, one way or the other, either to public opinion or to the decision of the Government. I have expressed the view to your Lordships before that the existence of these powers has had a negligible effect on improving the general standards of farming, at least in times of peace. They are powers which could be justified only by the most desperate national emergency. They are so entirely contrary to all our traditions of liberty in this country that they could never have survived so long had not the farmers been afraid that the abolition of Part II would also mean the end of Part I. The power to turn a man out of his home on the decision of a committee appointed by a Minister, without any appeal to any open court, is utterly contrary to all the traditions of freedom which we like to think we stand for in this country.

These powers were first imposed at the beginning of the war, in September, 1939. Your Lordships may remember that only about seven months later, in April, 1940, a certain Hampshire farmer. whose name I think was Mr. Walton, who lived at a farm called "Burrow Bridge" near Itchen Stoke, was ordered by the Hampshire Executive Committee to plough up four acres of old pasture and to summer-fallow it in preparation for sowing it out with wheat in the following season. I understand that Mr. Walton was quite a good farmer, but he was an opinionated man and he refused to obey this order. He was a man of over sixty, I think a bachelor, who had lived at the farm all his life, and so had his father—he and his family had been there for nearly 100 years.

Two months later the Hampshire Committee gave him notice to quit, to leave his home, because he had refused to plough up four acres of grass. A month later because he had not gone, they gave him notice, I think on July 20, that he would be evicted by force. Two days later a force of police arrived to turn him out. He barricaded his house and opened fire on the police with a shotgun. I think the battle lasted for about eighteen hours. Unfortunately, several policemen were wounded, and the farmer himself, Mr. Walton, was mortally wounded, and died a day or two later. Of course, the verdict at the inquest was one of "justifiable homicide" because he had been killed while unlawfully resisting the police in the execution of their duties. I believe that the Coroner observed that this case had excited some notoriety, but when it was all boiled down there was very little in it.

I have no doubt that this Mr. Walton was a very obstinate, probably a very tiresome and unto-operative sort of man. So, I think, was John Hampden who refused to pay ship money to King Charles I at a time when money for the Fleet was badly needed in the national interest. I sometimes think that it depends a good deal on the state of political feeling at the time whether a man of this kind is forgotten as a tiresome nuisance or remembered as a hero and a martyr for human liberty. As for the agricultural executive committees, of course, they never have spent all their time in turning people out of their homes by force. Most of them are good, kind people who are doing their best to help their neighbours and to increase production. But exactly the same can be said of all the authoritative, corporative bodies set up in any industry in any Fascist State. They are not all violent hostile people. Most of the Fascist corporative bodies maintaining discipline in an industry are well-meaning. But this system that we have had under Part II of the Agriculture Act, is nothing else than pure unadulterated Fascism, and it is a wonder that it has survived so long in our society.

As for the misunderstandings which the Minister and the noble Lord opposite have referred to, I do not want to pursue them, because I think that if they are misunderstandings they will certainly be removed in the course of the next twelve months or so by events. If noble Lords opposite are right in their objections, no doubt there will be a dissatisfaction in the industry. But if, as I believe, the new provisions in this Bill about the fixing of rents are based on fairness, and that the instructions to the arbitrators are such as to instruct them to make their decisions not on scarcity value but on real and fair value, then I think that the discontent will rapidly disappear. The experience in working the changes made under this Bill, rather than the assurances of the Minister or the objections of the opponents of the Bill, will be the decisive factor in showing whether or not the Bill is justified. My own view is that the discontent and misunderstanding, if it has not disappeared now, will disappear within the course of the next year or two as we see how the Bill works.

6.6 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened to a great deal of the discussion on this Bill as it has passed through the House, and I take this opportunity, for a few moments, of expressing my complete disapproval of it. Speaking as a farmer, and as one who has taken some interest in agricultural and political affairs here for a number of years, my view is that the effect of this Bill will be to cripple, and eventually destroy, the safeguards for agriculture contained in the Agriculture Act, 1947. I sat in another place during the years 1945 to 1950, and I thought that one of the greatest achievements of the Labour Government during that time was the passing of the Agriculture Act, 1947.

I think it is true to say that the average farmer in this country has regarded the 1947 Act as a Magna Charta of British agriculture. Its most outstanding provision was that concerning guaranteed prices, and markets to farmers. The confidence that the industry has achieved, and its great achievements in production and efficiency since those days, is evidence of the great success of the Act. Why seek to destroy it? Who wants to repeal the basic provisions of the 1947 Act. Every organised body of farming opinion in this country is opposed to the Bill now before the House. Almost every local branch of the National Farmers' Union throughout the length and breadth of the land, is opposed to the Bill. Who wants to destroy the 1947 Act? I submit, as did my noble friend Lord Silkin, that it is a few people who were opposed to that Act, and who have been opposed to it all the way through, and who are now seeking this occasion and this method to sabotage and destroy it.

The main provision of the Bill now before the House—I am reading from the Explanatory Memorandum—is to repeal the powers of supervision, direction and dispossession under Part II of the Agriculture Act, 1947. The supervision and direction of agriculture is an essential condition of guaranteed prices and markets. The agricultural industry thoroughly understands and accepts that. May I remind your Lordships that the total net income to-day of British agriculture is£360 million, of which£285 million comes from direct Government subsidy. To put it another way, for every£1 of the net earned income of the farmers of this country 16s. comes from the taxpayer. A country which supports its agricultural industry so generously surely has a right to ensure that the land is properly and adequately farmed. The fear of the average farmer in this country is that if this arrangement is scrapped it will not be long before subsidies and guaranteed prices will also he scrapped.

To-day, every major country in the world fosters and protects or subsidises its agricultural industry. We here in the United Kingdom need agricultural subsidies and protection more than any other country. Great Britain is the target for every food "dumper" in the world, and without the protection of the safeguards provided for us in the 1947 Act our agriculture would be in a very bad state. I submit that not only has the time not passed for using the provisions of Part II of that Act but rather the need for that Part of the 1947 Act is greater than ever. There is still far too much waste land and badly farmed land in this country, arid far from scrapping these provisions we require to-day rather a tightening up of them and increased encouragement and supervision for good farming in this country, in order to get rid of the badly farmed land that we see up and down the country to-day. I believe that this is a bad Bill and I hope that it will be rejected.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Waldegrave pointed out that one of the objects of this Bill was to make it easier for young farmers to get farms. I want to add a little to that, and to point out that the 1947 Act has also had some effect in preventing good farmers from getting on in the world. If I heard him correctly, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said that two-thirds of the agricultural land in this country was in the hands of owneroccupiers—I hope I am quoting him correctly. I believe that the process has been accelerated by the 1947 Act. I would point out to your Lordships one effect of extending owner occupation, because while I know that from a political point of view it tends towards political stability, as far as agriculture goes I believe on the whole it is very bad.

I will give your Lordships a case of which I know. A very good farm of about 150 acres was bought on the break-up of an estate, and the new owner-occupier, who was a thriving, go-ahead farmer, did well on it. He wanted to farm on a larger scale. Such a man should be able to farm on a larger scale, and had he been a tenant on the estate before he had had to buy he would have had very much less capital invested in the farm and would have been able to go to a new farm, whatever the conditions of his lease; because it is a well-known truism that no sane agricultural proprietor ever willingly gets rid of a good tenant but that no agricultural proprietor can ever retain a tenant who wants to go. The tenant can always break his lease and it never pays to try to stop him. In this case this farmer had his eye on a farm which he had the opportunity of buying, on very fine land further up country—a larger farm. He wanted to be an offerer for the farm but was prevented, because he could not sell the farm he was in and had not sufficient capital to undertake both farms. There was a man whose operations deserved to be extended yet he was hampered in them because he was an owner-occupier.

It seems to me that there is another danger attending when too much of our agriculture is in the hands of owner-occupiers. Men grow old arid die. They know they are going to die, and two things happen as a man approaches the end of his life. First, his energy flags and he is unlikely to farm his land so well. Secondly, he wants to make provision for his children, and the tendency, therefore, is for him to get all the money he can out of his farm. Then sulphate of ammonia comes into its own and the fertility of the land is reduced in order that the farmer may provide for his children. Moreover, it often happens that on his death the place has to be sold; and that also is bad. So it is not only for the sake of the young aspirant that one wants a Bill of this kind; it is also for the general benefit of the farming community as a whole.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I am really sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, still feels that he must call this a "cynically partisan" Bill, because I do not feel that it is anything of the kind, and I can only conclude that I have marshalled my arguments very badly if that is what he still thinks. The noble Lord, Lord Macpherson of Drumochter, who also disapproves of this measure, laid great emphasis on the excellence of the 1947 Act. Nobody would deny that for a moment; but it is no wish of ours to destroy the 1947 Act. We have brought in the 1957 Act which takes the place of Part I of the 1947 Act and, in our view, puts the guarantees on a longer and more secure foundation.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said, I believe rightly, that farmers originally misunderstood the position. I stress the word "originally" because I believe their opposition has very largely, in fact almost completely, died down. Originally, quite wrongly (and I believe this was the basis of the misunderstanding) they coupled Part I with Part II, believing that if Part II should go Part I would also go. But they were wrong, because the 1957 Act has replaced the previous provision on the guarantees. The relationship is not what it was before the 1957 Act. I suggest to your Lordships that justification of State eviction from a freehold home is something which a Government ought to have in its power to do only in the direst emergency, not as a normal business; and it should not be on the Statute Book but never used.

I do not believe that the new rents will be scarcity rents. I believe I can sum up in the words of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, that "time will show." I shall certainly be very surprised if we get scarcity rents and alarm and despondency in the farming industry as a result of the working of this Act. We cannot go over all these arguments again, and if I may I should like to end on a small personal note. At an earlier stage the noble Viscount, the Leader of the Opposition, who cannot be here at this time, was kind enough to say some nice things about me, which, coming from an old hand is always warming for a novice. But, and I hope I shall not be accused of "looking a gift horse in the mouth", in doing so the noble Viscount implied that I was making the best of a bad job; that I was batting on a sticky wicket. My Lords, I am afraid I cannot accept that. I do not think this is a sticky wicket. I think it is such a sound and true wicket that if I have not made runs it is entirely my own fault. I commend this most excellent Bill to your Lordships, with complete confidence.

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