HL Deb 28 April 1959 vol 215 cc1106-21

5.27 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading, I am afraid I cannot claim any great credit to myself for this useful Bill. It was introduced in another place by Mr. Marcus Kimball, the Member for Gainsborough; it was supported on all sides of the House, and it also has the support outside of the National Farmers' Unions. As your Lordships know, grants of 50 per cent. are paid under the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts towards comprehensive and I emphasise that word—schemes of improvement for hill and upland farms, to make it possible for such farms to yield a reasonable return to the farmer and the landowner, and to help the farmer to farm well and to obtain a reasonable living. Farms which are too small to provide a reasonable living do not come under the Bill.

The primary object of the Acts is to encourage a sound system of farming based on the maximum production of store sheep and cattle at minimum cost. The grants are not intended, and are not available, to help farmers in the production of milk or fat stock or in the growing of cash crops. The improvements which may be included in the schemes for the rehabilitation of livestock rearing land include the erection and improvement of farm buildings and farmhouses, the making and improvement of roads, fencing and a number of other items which your Lordships will know are included in the First Schedule of the Hill Farming Act, 1946. At present, these Acts provide for the grant to be calculated against the actual vouched cost of the work to be carried out.

The object of this Bill is to provide statutory authority for the Agricultural Ministers with the consent of the Treasury to make regulations to permit—and I emphasise this—at the farmer's option the payment of grant calculated on standard costs; that is, on a fixed stated cost for a particular item of work instead of from actual costs. The Bill also gives authority to apply standard costs to grants under certain other legislation which your Lordships will find mentioned in Clauses 3 and 4 of the Bill. This would enable regulations to be made for standard costs to apply to grants for drainage and water supply and measures against pests. I must point out that it may be possible to apply standard costs in these cases, but this is still being examined. This Bill will, however, allow for their introduction in those cases where it is found suitable, without any further legislation.

This system of standard costs was first introduced just over two years ago in connection with the payment of silo subsidies, and it worked very satisfactorily for the limited range of work covered by that scheme. Subsequently standard costs for a wide range of work were introduced under the Farm Improvements Scheme in April, 1958. They have already proved an outstanding success and at present one third of the proposals now being approved under the scheme, and one fifth by value, are under this arrangement of standard costs. One must remember that standard costs have been in for only a comparatively short time, but £3½ million worth of improvements have been approved under that scheme to be carried through by standard costs. As your Lordships know, the Farm Improvements Schemes are a very large thing; in fact over £30 million worth of work has been approved. I think it shows, certainly in that case, that standard costs are popular and are working well.

Under the two Acts, the Hill Farming and the Livestock Rearing Acts, work to the value of more than £40 million has been approved, but less than half of this has been completed. This slow progress is thought to be partly due to the fact that in remote hill farming areas contractors are scarce and costs tend to be higher than average. The introduction of standard costs should enable farmers to save money by doing the work themselves, and this should speed up the progress of these schemes, which I am sure we all want to see.

There are several advantages of the standard cost system. It enables the applicant, first of all—and I think all your Lordships would agree with this—to dispense with a great deal of paper work, all the documents and receipts and everything he has to provide to support his application for grant under the present system. It also indirectly enables a farmer to get grants for the work that he does himself. He cannot charge the actual hours that he spends on a job and it does not enable him to claim if he is being paid on actual costs; that scheme does not enable him to get any payment for his own work. But if the job is done under the standard costs method then it does not matter who does it. Whether he does it himself or gets somebody else to do it, it comes to the same thing; he gets paid for the job. It also should speed up the payment of grant, as there will be much less paper work to do in checking all the receipts and vouchers, though it will impose a certain amount of extra work on the staff of the Agricultural Land Service who will be called upon to go in many cases to inspect these schemes and see that they have been carried out.

These standard costs are calculated on rock-bottom prices, on the cost of labour and materials alone. The prices of materials are based on new materials of the minimum standards laid down, and labour costs are based either on the agricultural workers' minimum wage plus normal allowances for holiday pay et cetera, or on the minimum trade rate for casual labour, plus again any slight additions for insurance and things of that sort. Standard costs make no allowance for overheads or profits which naturally would be implied if the scheme was carried out by a contractor, though they can allow for a certain amount of professional advice.

If your Lordships wish to see how they work in the examples under the Farm Improvements Scheme, I would refer you to the Order made under the scheme in April last year. In the Schedule there it gives in great detail exactly what can be done and the exact cost of it. For example, if you are going to put up fencing, the cost for three line wires, per yard, is 2s. 6d.; and for woven wire fence, cattle, per yard, it is 3s. 9d. It goes into great detail of the costs. Another example is a Dutch barn, for which the cost per square foot is 6s. if you are not having professional advice, and 6s. 2d. if you are. As you will see, it goes into great detail, and I think that in approving this scheme the Ministers have gone into great detail to work out the costs. In the case of schemes which are already approved under the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts, this will allow the Minister where necessary, where part of the scheme has been started, and where there are items which have not already been started, to pay standard costs. In those cases where the final actual starting date has not been approved the applicant will be able to opt whether he gets paid on the actual cost or on the standard costs. Of course, he has to opt before he starts the job and he cannot change his mind halfway through.

There is just one other item I should like to mention to your Lordships, although it does not really concern us so much in this House. It is not expected that this Bill will involve much, if any, addition to the expenditure under these Acts, because while the simpler method of these standard costs may encourage more people to carry out schemes, against that the actual schemes will cost less and therefore the subsidy will be less, and in that way there will be a saving on the cost of the schemes to set against any possible increase in the number of schemes. My Lords, I have tried to tell you what this Bill is all about. I think it is a useful Bill and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Amherst of Hackney.)

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, it may be convenient if I intervene for a moment at this stage, not only to thank the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, for the able, full and clear way in which he has introduced this measure, but to indicate that this Bill has the support of the Government and to wish it well in its passage through your Lordships' House. It has been supported by all sides of the industry. It is enabling legislation which, as your Lordships know, enables regulations to be made under the Negative Resolution procedure. The noble Lord has stated that it does not introduce a new principle because the principle of standard costs was first introduced by the Silo Subsidy Act, 1956, and was found so applicable to that kind of work that it was carried on in the 1957 Act under which the Farm Improvements Schemes are carried out. Now something like one-third of all the applications we are getting under the Farm Improvements Schemes relate to standard costs procedure.

The noble Lord has described how the primary object of this Bill is to deal with the Livestock Rearing Acts and Hill Farming Acts, and that we have taken the opportunity, in Clause 1 (4), to include these other Acts, so that if at any time it should be found desirable and feasible to introduce this standard costs procedure for water supplies, drainage and certain pest destruction work, legislation will be available in order that regulations can be introduced, and no new legislation will then be required.

I have nothing further to add. I commend this short and important Bill for the farming industry to your Lordships, and hope that it may have a fair wind through your Lordships' House.

5.42 p.m.


My Lords, from this side of the House I want to say at once that with what the noble Lord. Lord Amherst of Hackney, and the Minister have said, we do not disagree in any shape or form; and it is my pleasure therefore to say a few words concerning the practical application of the Bill. I had intended to ask several questions of the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, on various points, but he has ably covered many of those points, and for that reason my remarks will be quite brief.

It seems to me that the Bill simplifies, both for the Ministry and the farmer, the working out of the various costs of the improvements, and if it helps in that direction I believe that the Bill is well worth while. It is obvious, I think, that in the long run there may be a saving to the Treasury by adopting the standard method rather than that of actual cost; but if the farmer is satisfied that it is a simple method upon which to base his figures, then nobody else need worry about it. That is all to the good.

There is, however, one point upon which I should like to ask a question. I notice that in Statutory Order No. 627 of 1958, to which the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, referred, certain standard costs are set out. I conclude that the new standard of costs which is to come into operation by reason of this particular Bill, will be based on current prices. These prices are now a year old—they were set out in April, 1958. I conclude that the new standard of prices will be in accordance with any rise in labour or material costs which have occurred since; and that if, in the future, the same point arises year by year, the Government will amend their Order accordingly, so that the farmer does not have to be satisfied with certain costs which at that time may not bear a true relation to the actual costs which he has incurred. I therefore commend the Bill to your Lordships, and hope that the farming industry will gain by its later application to the particular Acts which it seeks to improve.

5.46 p.m.


My Lords, it appears from what we have heard that this is an excellent Bill. If a Bill is praised by everybody, then it is a very good Bill, and I therefore assure the members of the Government that it has full support from this side of the House. But it is not so much in its agricultural aspect, on which I am quite incompetent to speak, as in its Parliamentary aspect that I take an interest.

We have had a debate this afternoon and a most interesting excursion into history. When I saw on the Order Paper for to-day that there were two certified Bills, I remembered that it is exactly fifty years since your Lordships rejected the Lloyd George Budget; and I thought that possibly the introduction of two certified Bills on the one day was in some sense a celebration in which I should be most interested to join. Another reason why I mention the point is because it forms a new link with my noble friend the Leader of the Liberal Party, because his father and I took part, as Whips, in the conduct of the Parliament Act which, your Lordships may remember, ensued after your Lordships had triumphantly rejected the Budget. That is a general observation, and perhaps goes rather beyond the purposes of the standard costs and different things which the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, has explained in such an interesting way. But this Bill in fact sets an entirely new precedent. The Lloyd George Budget controversy was an enormous affair: it was the House of Lords fighting the House of Commons; and in the end the Bill for the Budget was passed, but only by the bringing into operation of the Parliament Act. The Parliament Act set out quite clearly what were the conditions in which a Bill could receive a Certificate from the Speaker.

As your Lordships will remember, Section 1 (2) defined what is a Money Bill in this particular and concrete sense. If a Bill is presented to him containing certain elements, and only certain elements, the Speaker acts in an administrative capacity and gives it a Certificate; and the Certificate is preserved by the promoters of the Bill—it is never mentioned except in the Minutes of our own proceedings. Hitherto such Bills have always been introduced under the auspices of the Government, the obvious reason being that a Bill of this kind would require a Money Resolution, and a Money Resolution can be introduced in the House of Commons only by the Government. This is the novelty, my Lords. This is not a Government Bill at all. It was introduced by a distinguished Member of the other House, Mr. Kimball, who I think took the seat that was vacated by the noble Viscount, Lord Crookshank, when he came here. I will give your Lordships the dates and the record of this Bill.

The Agricultural Improvement Grants Bill had its Second Reading in another place on March 6 and there was no debate. The Money Resolution was introduced by Mr. Godber, Parliamentary Secretary, on March 11; and again not a word was said. The Resolution was reported on March 12; and no debate. At the Committee stage, on March 20, again there was no debate. The Bill was reported for Third Reading on April 10, when there was a discussion but no Division. Now the Bill comes here, and there is nothing we can do about it. It comes with the Certificate from Mr. Speaker that it is a Money Bill. No private Member of the House of Commons has ever before achieved the distinction of asking the Clerk of the Commons to come to the Bar and hand to the Clerk of the Parliaments a Money Bill introduced by a private Member—not a Government Bill at all—certified by the Speaker.

What can your Lordships do? When the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack says, "As many as are of that opinion will say Content", it does not matter whether your Lordships say "Content" or "Not-Content". If your Lordships say, "Content" the Bill goes through. If you say, "Not-Content", when you go to the next Royal Commission you will hear, perhaps to your surprise, that the Bill is being passed; but there is no mention of this House. Therefore, I say that things have come to the stage when your Lordships will really have to consider whether it is consistent with the dignity of this House that you should go on having to answer six questions which are absolutely irrelevant to the making of the Statute; and whether it would not be better (although I know this is going far beyond the terms of this debate) to consider at some time whether we should have a class of Statute which is a House of Commons Statute, having the full force of law, which can be discussed but cannot be amended, and so save your Lordships the mockery of being made into puppets, just to say, "Content, Content" knowing that your word is of no avail.

Years ago Mr. Asquith was challenged about the Parliament Act. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, was in his cradle at that time but his father and I were there. Mr. Asquith was asked, "What are you going to do?" and he said, "Wait and see". Well, we have waited, and now we see.

5.54 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, in his protest, and I can give a short reason why I do so. Here is a Private Bill coming from another place and the noble Viscount has told your Lordships how much discussion it has received. This is a Bill which diminishes grants to be made to certain persons by Public General Statute, which is the law of the land—although perhaps it gives other grants to other persons. Had that Bill been introduced into another place by Her Majesty's Government, it would certainly have received some discussion at every stage and been properly considered. I believe that the people who are going to receive a diminished grant by reason of this Bill, if it passes, have some reason to complain of the manner in which it was passed, exactly as the noble Viscount says.

I will tell the noble Viscount what I will do and what still remains open to us, because I do not agree with his final conclusions: if he will put his name down on a properly-worded protest after this House has risen, I will join my name to his.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that before my noble friend, Lord Saltoun, inevitably commits himself to that conclusion he will just weigh and consider some words of mine, because I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate—and that is not a mere phrase—for raising an important point in regard to the procedure of Parliament as a whole; and while I always appreciate (as he knows) his rapier thrusts, I know he is an avant-Parliamentarian of profound loyalty and will be interested in a practical point which has arisen with regard to the working of both Houses.

It was implicit in what the noble Viscount said to your Lordships that he was concerned, even if it was only in memory, with the first problem: that there should be any abrogation of a most important Parliamentary rule that any charge on the public funds should be created only with the approval, and at the request, of the Government of the day. I need not go into the necessities of that, but if the noble Viscount will forgive me for reminding him I will quote from Standing Orders in another place to make the point clear. Standing Order 78 says: This House will receive no petition for any sum relating to public service or proceed upon any Motion for a grant or charge upon the public revenue, whether payable out of the Consolidated Fund or out of money to be provided by Parliament, unless recommended from the Crown. The noble Viscount drew the attention of the House to the fact that that was done by one of the Agricultural Ministers in another place, my honourable friend, Mr. Godber. That is, of course, the governing principle and that immediately leads on to the question of what course of action should be taken with regard to Private Members' Bills. My noble friend, Lord Saltoun, made a slip of words, of course, but he is entirely familiar with the distinction between Public Bills introduced by a private Member, such as this Bill, and Private Bills. I mention that only because I wanted to get the point perfectly clear. Now with regard to Private Bills, again I will merely read from the Standing Orders—


My Lords, is the noble and learned Viscount speaking now of Private Members' Bills?


Yes, my Lords, I was drawing the distinction, and with regard to Private Members' Bills may I again quote, merely historically and of course with no criticism at all. This is not my phrase but the phrase of a Select Committee in another place when I was a Member in the Session, 1945–46. The Select Committee on Procedure said these words in drawing attention to the double danger: either that Private Members' time is used for the discussion of Motions and Bills which have the support of the Government or the Opposition and so becomes an addition to their share of time or, on the other hand, that it may be wasted on the discussion of eccentric Bills or Motions. As the noble Viscount will realise, I should never have dared to use the word "eccentric". It is from the Report of that Select Committee.


My Lords, will the noble and learned Viscount say who was the Chairman of that Committee?


I will not go into any names. After that, the Labour Administration reintroduced time for Private Members' Bills, and I think it is fair to describe the way in which the problem arose by saying that there were a number of Private Members' Bills, very useful Bills which dealt with the functions of local authorities and gave local authorities the power to spend money. Those Bills were generally approved and agreed by everyone. They were supported by the local authorities' associations and were a very useful form of legislation. As noble Lords will appreciate, that, in connection with, in those days, the equalisation grant—what is to-day block grant—necessitated adjustments which would come within the words of altering the charge; because they altered the incidence of public money.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships some examples—I will not detain your Lordships longer than I promised. Under the Labour Government there was the New Streets Bill, which was a very useful measure and introduced by a private Member. I may also take examples under the Conservative Administration. There was the Local Authorities (Expenses) Bill, which was desired by a large number of local authorities; there was (if I may give a Scottish example to my noble friend Lord Saltoun) the Local Government (Omnibus Shelters and Queue Barriers) (Scotland) Bill. If I may take one in which I myself was very interested, because it implemented one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, there was the Matrimonial Proceedings (Children) Bill, which, if my memory is right, was introduced by a Labour Member in another place and which, again, received universal support. Then only the other day your Lordships were considering the Eisteddfod Bill, and your Lordships will remember the debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Tenby.

What I want your Lordships to appreciate is the position of the Government. These Bills had two qualities, one of which is irrelevant and the other, I think, very relevant. The first quality is that they were wanted by Parliament as a whole. That, I say, is irrelevant; because if the Government, whatever their political complexion, were to abdicate from their control over initiating finance simply because Parliament wanted it, that would be wrong. It is a matter which the Government must consider in their own discretion; and if they are wrong, they must make it a matter of confidence. But the other quality of these Bills was this: the financial part of them was secondary; the primary purpose was to carry out these useful functions. Therefore it is, I think, a difficult point, which we need to consider as Parliamentarians: whether any Government should make a hard and fast rule of never providing a financial Resolution.

I would suggest for the consideration of your Lordships—because this is a Parliamentary matter—that the test should be as follows. Where the primary purpose is financial, then the Government might say, as their working rule, "We will not give a financial Resolution"; but where the primary purpose is to do some useful non-financial work, and there is an incidental change, say from the equalisation grant to the block grant, then the Government should consider sympathetically giving a financial Resolution.


My Lords—


I wonder whether my noble friend would allow me to continue, because this is a somewhat intricate point. I promise I will give way, of course. My Lords, if you are in the situation which I have predicated, and you are considering whether you are going to give a financial Resolution, one of the difficulties is that it may be only during the debate on Second Reading that you realise that a financial Resolution is necessary. If I may come from the general to the particular, my noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney said, quite frankly, that he could not tell your Lordships whether this Bill would cause an extra charge or would, in fact, save money. He gave us the two balancing factors; and according to how these factors work out, it may do one or the other.

I do not think I am being indiscreet in saving that when this Bill first came to my notice I thought it would not requite a financial. Resolution, because I thaught that it would not affect the charge on the public funds. When we examined it more closely we found that it might affect; and that, of course, is enough for the purpose. Of course, what this Bill does, as my noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney has explained, and as the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, will appreciate, is to make a variation in the incidence of the charge, and therefore it comes within the words of Section 1 (2) of the Parliament Act, to which the noble Viscount was good enough to refer us; and of course I looked at his references and I followed them.

In the case of this Bill not only was it necessary to have a financial Resolution, but the Speaker gave his Certificate. I am, of course, only reasoning as to why he gave his Certificate—that is a matter for him—but I am telling your Lordships the way it would appear to me if I were in his position. I say it with all respect to the Speaker, and I am not trespassing on his ground. But when one comes back to the realities of the Bill, one realises that the financial side is a negligible factor. The one thing that everyone is agreed upon is that it cannot make much difference one way or the other. The Bill may even save money.

The primary purpose of the movers of the Bill has always been to improve the machinery of the grants in order to help the farmers and to encourage the farmers in getting the advantage. In other words, the primary purpose of this Bill is the political purpose of making the work, and especially the paper work, of the farmers easier. I am sorry that I have held up my noble friend.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Viscount whether, in the circumstances he has depicted for us so very clearly, it would not be fair to have an ordinary uncertified Bill with privilege clauses? That seems to me very much better.


My Lords, the difficulty is that it is not for me. It would be most improper for me to do more than speculate, most respectfully, as to the reasons why the Speaker gave his Certificate. I cannot do more than that. The Speaker has certified this as a Money Bill coming within the provisions of the Parliament Act. Whether it could have been done the other way, I should like to think over.

May I, therefore, put this suggestion to your Lordships as the working rule: that your Lordships should take the view (and I put it simply as a working rule) that if the primary purpose of a Bill is financial, your Lordships will, as a working rule, deprecate the Government's giving it the facilities of a financial Resolution; but where the primary purpose is different (as I said, where it is a practical purpose—for example, that of helping the work of local authorities), your Lordships will, again as a working rule, not frown on it. But your Lordships are concerned with the procedure having gone so far as to produce a Money Bill, and you would like the Government (in this case it happens to be our Government, but it is a matter for any Government) to consider that matter further. I think that that is the way to approach it.

I was not in the House of Commons for the length of time of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, but I was there for nearly twenty years, and I think that it is most important that Private Members' Bills should deal with practical subjects which benefit the daily round of their constituents. The noble Viscount's memory will go back, like mine, to the attack Mr. Hilaire Belloc and Mr. Chesterton made on the position of the private Member in the Party system. It is now just over ten years since Private Members' time was reinstituted by the Labour Government, and I think that Parliament can look with pride at the Bills which have been brought up as Private Members' Bills. In my own field of law reform, and the implementing of Royal Commissions such as the Morton Commission, I am intensely grateful to private Members of all Parties for the work that they have done in that way. I hope, therefore, that this House will refrain from discouraging the continuance of that activity.

My Lords, I have only one other point which I would ask the noble Viscount to consider, and that is with regard to his eloquent peroration when he came back to the attack. if he would look at Section 1 (1) of the Parliament Act, he will see that it reads as follows: If a Money Bill, having been passed by the House of Commons, and sent up to the House of Lords at least one month before the end of the session, is not passed by the House of Lords without amendment within one month after it is so sent up to that House, the Bill shall,"— and I ask the noble Viscount to look at the next words— unless the House of Commons direct to the contrary, be presented to His Majesty and become an Act of Parliament on the Royal Assent being signified, notwithstanding that the House of Lords have not consented to the Bill. There is always the opportunity for the House of Commons to direct to the contrary; and, of course, if they were—and why should they not be?—enamoured with any suggestions that we put forward in this House, it would be perfectly open for them to direct to the contrary, and, by an adjustment of their procedure, to include them in the Bill.

So, if I may go back to the powerful metaphors of the day of which the noble Viscount was speaking, we are not, in the liberal phrase "ploughing the sands"; we are watering a garden which might conceivably produce some fruit. I do not put it any higher than that, but I hope the noble Viscount will feel that the last desire that I have to-day is to make any debating reply to him. I have tried to put as it seems to me, as a Parliamentarian rather than as a Minister, a serious problem of Parliament, and I hope that he will take what I have said in that way.


Will your Lordships allow me to thank the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor in twenty words? I have been fifty-two years in Parliament, and I never thought I should hear a Conservative Lord Chancellor on the Woolsack make such a complete defence of the indefeasible Money rights of the House of Commons.


As the noble Viscount has said a few words, perhaps I may be permitted to say one further word. I think the Parliament Act contains provisions against "tacking" and I should have thought that the noble and learned Viscount's defence was a perfect description of "tacking".


My Lords, I am very grateful to the House for the way in which it has received this Bill, and also to the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor for his exposition of the Parliament Act, on which I do not intend to follow him. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, who has had to leave, asked me one question and that was whether the standard cost would be based on current costs. I can assure him that it is intended that it will be based on current costs. If there is any great variation in costs, then it can be varied; but that is not likely to happen very frequently, because each time a new order has to be laid before Parliament.

I should like to take up one point that the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, made. I do not intend to follow him into the question of the Parliament Act, but he made the point that this Bill was taking something away from farmers that they were otherwise going to get. I think he must have misunderstood the Bill because that is not the case. Under the Bill the farmer can, as now, get his grant on the actual cost of work. He provides the vouchers, and he gets paid the grant, as now. He has the opportunity, if he so wishes, of saying that he will take the standard cost. It is entirely up to him which way he gets paid. If he takes the standard cost, a small farmer who does a large amount of the work himself has the added advantage that he can include his work. He gets paid so much for the job, but it does not matter whether he does it himself or whether he pays somebody else to do it. Therefore, indirectly, he gets paid for his labour. If he is acting under the present scheme, he cannot charge for his own work.


I am much obliged to the noble Lord for his correction.


I think that those were the only questions that I was asked. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will give this Bill, which I think will be a useful Bill, a Second Reacting.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.