§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Amendments reported (according to Order).
§ Clause 2 [Supplemental provisions as to schemes]:
§ LORD CROOK
My Lords, I beg to move this Amendment on behalf of my noble friends Lord Stonham and Lord Wise, whose names appear on the Order Paper. I will not make all over again the speech my noble friend Lord Stonham made yesterday. The noble Earl clearly understands the difference of our points of view. He explained that he had not understood yesterday the implication which my noble friend put upon the Amendment, and he was good enough to promise to look at it again. We are all anxious to speed the Bill on its way, and I formally move the Amendment in order to allow the noble Earl to reply.
§ Amendment moved—
Page 3, line 19, at end insert—
Provided that where the appropriate minister is of the opinion that there has not been compliance with such conditions in accordance with this subsection then he shall give to the person who appears to him to be carrying on for the time being the business to which the grant relates a written notification of the reasons for his decision and shall afford to that person, and if that person so requests, not more than one other person nominated by him in that behalf, an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person appointed by the minister and shall consider the report of the person so appointed, a copy of which shall be supplied by the minister to the first mentioned person."—(Lord Crook.)
THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD (EARL WALDEGRAVE)
My Lords, since the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, kindly withdrew this Amendment by your Lordships' leave in Committee yesterday, I have been able to give further study to its implications and to the remarks the noble Lord made when first putting it forward. I must first say that my advice remains that this Amendment would have the effect of requiring a formal statutory procedure to be followed on any occasion when my right honourable friend had to refuse an application or withhold grant.
May I explain this position, because it was not understood yesterday? Let us consider in what circumstances an applicant may feel himself aggrieved by a 1260 decision of the Minister. When he puts in his application, he has to show that his business meets the conditions of eligibility—that he has the necessary minimum of four acres of horticultural land and so on (assuming that he is a grower). That is what is called in the Bill "capacity". If our officials think that it does not satisfy the requirements of the scheme, they will explain their reasons in writing. If the applicant does not accept their view, he can ask for his case to be referred to the county agricultural executive committee. If, however, the applicant's business satisfies the conditions of eligibility, the next thing is for his proposals to be considered. Again, if the Ministry's officers think that the proposals are unacceptable for any reason, their first aim—they are under instruction in this matter—will be to try to reach agreement with the applicant on suitable modifications. In some instances, however, in the last resort they may be obliged to notify the applicant—again in writing—that his proposals cannot be approved. Again, the case may be referred to the agricultural executive committee.
I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, that he is content with the present arrangements for dealing with cases up to this point. Those arrangements are working very satisfactorily under all our other grant and subsidy schemes. Now we come to the third occasion on which there may be disagreement. Having passed the eligibility test, and having got the proposals approved, the applicant has to carry out the work. He has to carry it out satisfactorily if he is to receive the grant. In other words, all approvals are conditional. The grant may be paid only if the conditions are complied with. If the applicant does not complete the work satisfactorily, the Minister has not only the power but the duty to withhold payment. The applicant will be told where he has gone wrong, and in many cases it may be possible for him to put the matter right. He may be working, for instance, under the standard costs procedure, and doing the work himself. If the officials go down to see whether the work has been properly completed, it may be found that it is not quite satisfactory. They will point out their difficulties to him and, as I say, in many 1261 cases the matter could be put right then and there.
But if he cannot accept the official decision, or there is any dispute, again it goes to the committee. These committees take great care to understand the case. Noble Lords will know that committees consist of farmers, landowners and workers. They are not officials; they are local people who understand this kind of business and they have the confidence of the industry. They go into these matters with the applicant, either in writing or in person. I have often attended these committees and I used to be a member of one myself. The applicant may come to the committee and bring his supporter. He might bring the local secretary of the National Farmers' Union with him. He argues his case, and often the committee arrange for some of their members who know the locality and the work, to go down and see the work which is in dispute. That is how it happens.
This is an informal procedure, and it works very well for all our schemes. The procedure I have described is welcomed by the applicants and by the committees, because its informality offers the best opportunity for fully and fairly examining an aggrieved person's case and helping him so far as possible. To prescribe in its place a statutory procedure is not only largely unnecessary but, we believe, would tend to limit applicants in presenting their case rather than helping them. I should be sorry indeed to see a formal statutory atmosphere replace this free and friendly spirit in which these matters are handled at present. In a case like this a statutory body or an independent person would sometimes decide that the work had not been done properly and the fiat would go forward; "This is not done properly. That is the end of it". The applicant would be out. There would be no ques-1262 tion of an independent statutory tribunal or independent person being able to say, almost informally: "I think you had better do a little bit more to that piece of concrete". They could not act like that. It is just this informality which we value and has been valued in all these schemes.
There is one final point that may have been worrying the noble Lord, Lord Stonham. In this Bill there is no power for the Minister to require a grant, once paid, to be repaid. When public money is in certain circumstances recoverable, then it is sometimes found necessary and desirable to make specific provisions for statutory procedure. But that does not apply in this Bill, and there is no demand by the industry for any alteration in the procedure which I have outlined and which this scheme envisages. It is difficult to see how we should be helping the applicant, which I am sure is what the noble Lord had in mind. I hope that after this too full explanation—although I thought it right to explain it fairly fully—noble Lords will agree that this Amendment is unnecessary and would not achieve what they want, which is to help the applicant.
§ LORD CROOK
My Lords, may I thank the noble Earl for his reply and for the courtesy and great care he has taken in giving it to us. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House if I say that, far from speaking too long and in too much detail, he has given an excellent statement, one which we can understand fairly well now and which, when we see it in print to-morrow, we shall understand completely. I am sure it is right to withdraw the Amendment and I ask leave to do so.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at half past six of the clock.