HL Deb 21 March 1963 vol 247 cc1224-36

3.13 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be again in Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord St. Oswald.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AILWYN in the Chair.]

Clause 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Dissolution of Agricultural Land Commission and Welsh Agricultural Land Sub-Commission]:

3.14 p.m.


moved to leave out Clause 18. The noble Lord said: I know that, to anticipate a sympathetic reply from the noble Lord in charge, I should have to be as optimistic as the fellow who went out searching for lodgings with a trombone under one arm and a saxophone under the other. For, as the noble Lord reminded us on Second Reading, the Government decision of nine years ago that all land in Government possession had to be sold was, of course, a bit of Conservative law. The Conservative Party have always had a sort of pathological hostility to the nation's owning any land, for reasons that it is very difficult to discover—except, perhaps, their traditional belief that every private landowner is a potential Conservative voter. I think there is a good deal of substance in that belief. From a purely political point of view they may be right, but from a national point of view it is neither good business nor, I think, good morality. At all events, I regret what can be described only as a very doctrinaire, narrow conception, just as much as I regret the decision to abolish the Land Commission.

I think it is agreed on all hands, by those who have taken any note of the Land Commission's activities in these past fourteen or fifteen years, that they have done a very good job. Noble Lords will recall that in the early part of the Labour Government's tenure of office £50 million was set on one side so that those landowners—or, indeed, others—who wished to pay in terms of [and, in lieu of death duties, were able to do so; and this was the case in at least one or two areas. I imagine that the thought in the Government's mind at the moment is that there will be no more Glanllyn Estate cases, where an estate has been neglected for 20, 30 or even 40 years. The reason for this, apparently, is that there is an agricultural policy which enables farmers to be reasonably prosperous and to pay decent rates, so that the landowners can keep in repair and renewal all that fixed equipment for which they are responsible. I can only say: "Thank you very much for your testimonial to the value of the 1947 Agriculture Act."

I realise that the position has changed during the past sixteen years, and the area of land in possession of the Commission now, as the noble Lord said, has been reduced to about 100,000 acres. But when the Glanllyn Estate is ultimately disposed of, the area will be further diminished. I never agreed with the decision to dispose of the Glanllyn Estate and I think it was a wrong policy for the Government to pursue. For here was an estate of 35,000 to 37,000 acres on which for 30 or more years, scarcely a penny had been spent on repairs, renewals or modernisation; and it was a tragedy to see the decay and dilapidation in every part of the estate. Finally, the estate was taken over by the Government in lieu of payment of death duties and placed in possession of the Land Commission, who were made responsible for rehabilitation. They must have done their job very well indeed, and they were very happy and content to go on as they were until the Government issued their ultimatum, either that the tenants must buy up their farms singly or collectively, or they would be sold over their heads—a very unpleasant thing to do, and, I think, almost indecent.

I visited this estate and saw houses and buildings in every stage of decay and eruption; houses which had actually fallen down; others which were halfway down and utterly uninhabitable. But perhaps the greatest tragedy of all on the estate was the fact of its depopulation, for no young men or young women could be persuaded to remain on that estate in such appalling conditions. Thanks to the Land Commission and the capital made available to them, the estate has really been brought back to life. Tenants were reasonably content, until this ultimatum was issued either to buy their farms or to have them sold over their heads. Perhaps some of these tenants are anxious to borrow money to purchase in the consortium their farm on that estate. But it is my view that it would have been far better, rather than sterilising their borrowings by purchasing the land, if the liquid capital they could lay their hands on had been devoted to providing them with machinery and equipment in order further to increase efficiency on their farms.

I think that this is a very sad story indeed, but I do not wish to dilate upon it. It is a very sad story from the point of view of both Government activity and private enterprise, too, for we never should have had possession of those 35,000 or 37,000 acres had it not been for the absence of an agricultural policy and the inability of the private landowners to maintain the fixed equipment so that farms could really remain reasonably prosperous. I am inclined to feel that, did I want to waste the time of your Lordships' House, I should enter my protest in the Division Lobby against what I think is a very reactionary step that the Government are taking by abolishing the Agricultural Land Commission. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Leave out Clause 18.—(Lord Williams of Barnburgh.)


During our Second Reading debate the noble Lord, Lord Champion, afforded us a flourish or two on Clause 18, and he forecast some "typically trenchant comments" from his noble friend Lord Williams of Barn-burgh. Typical and trenchant those comments have been, and none the less typical and trenchant for having been brief; but I think the noble Lord himself acknowledged, or implied, that his doughty blade was biting the air. Like his noble friend Lord Champion, he accepted, as I understood, that the dissolution of these two Commissions was inevitable in view of the circumstances—and this, after all, is the sole purpose of Clause 18, which we are debating. The clause has been inserted as a logical conclusion to the Government's longstanding policy of disposing of State-owned land, and that policy has proceeded unchallenged by noble Lords opposite for over eight years, until to-day.

I have been told of no criticism of that policy, or of any individual disposal, until to-day. The result is that we have a situation to-day, as recognised by the noble Lord, very different from that when the 1947 Act was passed and the two Commissions were set up. For reasons which no longer obtain, large areas of land came into Government ownership during the late 'forties and early 'fifties. By 1955, the Commission and its Welsh Sub-Commission were managing, and managing very efficiently—and there is certainly no dispute between us over this—over a quarter of a million acres. But now that has all changed. The disposal policy was announced by my noble friend Lord Crathorne in July, 1954, and it has been the Government's policy ever since.

I do not know, and I have not gathered to-day, whether the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, would like to see the State again acquiring and owning a lot of land, but that, in any case, as he knows and recognises, is not our policy. Our policy is to dispose of the land in State hands as rapidly as possible. We may be philosophically opposed in this. Your Lordships may agree that it is rather late in the day to call this policy into question purely because the remaining acres are no longer sufficient to call for management by these high-level Commissions; and the more one admires the personalities, the members, of these Commissions, the more I think one must recognise that they are not suitably or worthily employed on the management of the present acreage. Nobody, I think, with the noble Lord's celebrated common sense would seriously argue that we should retain such organisations after they have outlived their intended purpose.

All this has been recognised for some time. In April, 1956, Sir Arton Wilson's Committee on the organisation of the Ministry had this to say: The land held is being reduced and the most controversial management issues now likely to arise are over the selection of individual tenants and consideration of detailed expenditure. It is not in dispute that the immediate work of management can be safely entrusted to the Agricultural Land Service. In Scotland, for example, a far larger acreage is managed wholly by professional officers reporting direct to their Ministry. The Arton Wilson Committee therefore recommended that the responsibility for the management of properties should be withdrawn from the Agricultural Land Commission and transferred to the Agricultural Land Service. More recently, we have the Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, and perhaps I may remind your Lordships of what they said: Your Committee consider that after the disposal of Glanllyn Estate, there will be insufficient justification for the continued existence of the Welsh Sub-Commission and perhaps also of the Commission itself. Legislation would be required to abolish both bodies. Your Committee accordingly recommend that after the sale of Glanllyn Estate, the Minister should review the future of the Agricultural Land Commission, and in any event seek power from Parliament to abolish the Welsh Agricultural Land Sub-Commission and to transfer its functions to the Department. I have mentioned Glanllyn, as the noble Lord did; and he made some criticism of the way in which that land had been passed over to a consortium. The Government, in fact, did not tell the tenants that they would have to buy their own holdings individually: the Minister offered to sell to the tenants acting collectively. We now find ourselves in precisely the position—


Before the noble Lord passes from that point, may I ask: Did the Minister not state a time limit during which period tenants had to make up their minds to buy as a consortium, and that otherwise the estate would be sold? Was a timetable put down?


That may well be; I do not know. But that would be a normal condition, a normal proviso, I should have thought, in the circumstances. The noble Lord is not suggesting that that was unreasonable, is he?


I am suggesting merely that the Minister's decision was a firm one: that if the tenants failed to buy the estate by a certain date, then it would be offered to the first willing buyer.


The noble Lord is the last parson in the world to suggest that ministerial decisions should not be firm. At present, we have about 100,000 acres on our hands, but I must say that, so far from, as the noble Lord said, objecting (I cannot remember his exact phrase; being "pathologically opposed," I think it was) to the State owning land, once the 35,000- acre Glanllyn Estate is sold and a further 30,000 acres now in the course of disposal has been disposed of, we shall still be left with a little more than 30,000 acres in all; and we do not know how long these 30,000 acres will remain in our hands. At least one estate, the Laxton Estate, which is certainly familiar to the noble Lord, we expect to be in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture indefinitely. But, for the reasons I have given, we feel that the time is ripe for us o take these powers to dissolve the Commissions; and so, much as we respect the noble Lord, on this occasion we respectfully beg to differ from him.


Before the Minister definitely makes up his mind on this particular point, I should like to refer him to the wording of the 1947 Act. In addition to the question of managing and farming of land by the Agricultural Land Commission, Clause 68, subsection (1) (b) throws a duty upon the Land Commission of advising and assisting the Minister in matters relating to the management of agricultural land"— and this is the particular point I wish to draw the Minister's attention to— and with such other functions as may be entrusted to the Commission by or under the provisions of this Act. It goes on to say in subsection (2): The Commission shall be a body corporate by the name of the 'Agricultural Land Commission' with perpetual succession and a common seal et cetera. Is it not possible in the not far distant future for other work besides the management or selling and disposal of land to be given to the Land Commission? I can envisage that certain points may arise in the future in which the benefit of the experience of the Commission could be utilised by the Government. I should like to suggest to the Minister that, before a definite decision is come to, the matter should be looked into once again by him in relation to the question whether or not the services of the Commission may be of advantage to the Government in the future in other directions.


Of course this has been looked at, and I should naturally like to join in the implied tribute of the services which have already been rendered. But, once the management function is disposed of, we think it would be wrong to suppose that the inquiry such as the noble Lord has in mind can no longer be undertaken if there is no Land Commission. There is no lack of experienced sources upon which my right honourable friend can draw for advice on any matter concerning the management of agricultural land. He can look to professional officers in the agricultural land service, to professional bodies, or appoint an ad hoc committee, tailor-made to do the particular job that is required.

We do not need the Commission to perform these additional functions which were added to their original mandate and some of which are no longer Government policy. For example, there is now no occasion for my right honourable friend to seek reports from the Commission under Section 84 (2) of the 1947 Act, because, rather than the State's acquiring land, our aim has been to encourage and assist owners and owner-occupiers to carry out long-term improvements to their property themselves under the Farm Improvement Scheme. The success of the policy has been well evidenced by the success of the scheme and, in fact, is carried forward by the provision in Clause 3 of the Bill. This is a matter we have thought of already and, as I stated earlier in answer to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, I think that the higher one's regard for the members of the two Commissions, the more one is persuaded that they could not reasonably be kept on for lesser and diminishing work.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

On Question, Whether the clause shall stand part of the Bill?


Before we leave this clause may I put a question to the Minister? Clause 18 provides that on the dissolution of the first-named Commission any property rights, obligations or liabilities are to be transferred to the Minister. There is no mention of the staff employed by the Commission. May I ask whether the statutory instrument which will provide for the dissolution of the Commission will contain adequate provision for the staff at present employed by the Commission?


May I give a detailed reply to that question, which I agree is a most important one, at a later stage of the Bill—the Report stage? I should be grateful if I were allowed to do this.


I am delighted.

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 [Restriction on operation of notices to quit agricultural holdings]:

LORD ST. OSWALD moved to add to paragraph (a) of subsection (1): and must specify the period within which the breach is to be remedied".

The noble Lord said: I think it would be to the convenience of the House if we took the next four Amendments together—Amendments 8, 9, 10 and 11—as they are all Amendments to Clause 19. Together they cover the same reference and they hang together. These are minor but necessary Amendments which I trust your Lordships will accept and indeed approve. Clause 19 is designed to remove the uncertainties that can sometimes arise where a tenant receives notice to remedy a breach of the terms of his tenancy and is not sure whether this may lead to a subsequent notice to quit. The clause embodies a formula agreed between the Country Landowners' Association and the National Farmers' Union for improving the procedure. We have now discovered that in one respect the clause as drafted does not go quite far enough. We want to ensure that the landlord will always tell the tenant the period of time within which he is expected to remedy the breach of his tenancy; and we want to be able to embody this requirement in the form of notice to remedy which we are going to prescribe under subsection (1). In order to do this we must provide for it expressly. The proposed Amendment to line 8 will enable us to prescribe the sort of form we want, and the other Amendments are consequential.

We are also taking the opportunity of making it clear that the order which will bring this section into operation will be subject to Negative Resolution. This will ensure that it is on all fours with the similar orders under Clauses 23 and 24. These are entirely non-controversial Amendments which your Lordships will be likely to approve, and without further debate I should like to move them.

Amendment moved— Page 13, line 8, at end insert the said words.—(Lord St. Oswald.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


I beg to move this Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 13, line 17, leave out ("time") and insert ("period").—(Lord St. Oswald.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 14, line 4, after ("under") insert ("the preceding provisions of").—(Lord St. Oswald.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


I beg to move this Amendment.

Amendment moved—

Page 14, line 11, at end insert— ("(6) In paragraph (d) of section 24(2) of the Agricultural Holdings Act 1948 the words 'within a reasonable time or' are hereby repealed.").—(Lord St. Oswald.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 19, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 20 agreed to.

Clause 21 [Amendment of rules as to Valuation of sheep stocks in Scotland]:

On Question, Whether Clause 21 shall stand part of the Bill?


I should like to make one comment on Clause 21, which concerns the valuation of sheep stocks in Scotland; and the same point was raised at the Committee stage in another place. The present system is based on the Hill Farming Act, 1946, and the new basis will not be a fixed price but a percentage price. This may or may not work out—one can only wait and see; but there are one or two questions that I should like to ask the Minister. In regard to wool, the stocks valued at Whit Sunday, with a full fleece, since they have not yet been clipped, are much more valuable than those valued at Martinmas, when the fleece has been clipped and the new fleece has not yet grown. Will there be specific mention of wool in the valuation? In other valuations—for instance, of machinery—there is always special mention of valuable items, such as combine harvesters and grain elevators. Wool is a very important item in large sheep flocks and I should like to know whether this point will be considered.

Another matter which appears in the new scheme is the age of the sheep stock on valuation. A gimmer, for example, is much more valuable than a three-year-old ewe, and stocks valued at irregular ages vary in price. I understand that under the Bill a ewe lamb is valued at only 10 per cent. of a cast ewe. That is a very low price, and ewe lambs are a valuable part of a flock. A figure of 10 per cent. is out of all proportion to their real value. I wonder whether that might also be looked at. These may seem small points, but when a farm which has a large sheep stock changes hands, a very small variation in the valuation can mean a large cheque one way or the other.


I should like in a few words to support what the noble Lady said. This is of great concern to Scottish sheep farmers.


I have to confess that I was grateful to the noble Lady for telling me that this was going to be a comment rather than a question, but it has turned into a question—and a question of a rather esoteric nature. The answer I give here and now will be perhaps rather studied and not very comprehensive, but if the noble Lady and the noble Earl behind her are not satisfied, I will do my best to satisfy them by correspondence or at a later stage in the Bill. By and large, what we feel about this is that it adds to the tenant's capital locked up in hill flocks, and cuts across the basic principle which Lord Balfour of Burleigh's Committee laid down: that the object of a valuation should be to arrive at the real commercial worth of a Flock as a going concern, and the means they laid down for doing so—that is, by derivation from the prices realised for individual units of the flock. At the time of the Balfour of Burleigh Report the industry was in grave difficulties owing to heavy over-capitalisation caused by abuses of the old system of valuation, which depended on the assessment by an arbitrator and acclimatisation value. This has now disappeared, and it is essential that the bad old days of inflated values should not return.

The Scottish Landowners' Federation, although supporting the percentage alterations, oppose all other proposals by the breed societies. Apart from the cash amounts, there is no real evidence that the operation of the rules has become distorted or unintentionally caused hardship or difficulty. If any real evidence of hardship or difficulty is brought forward, an assurance has already been given that the Government will consider any proposals I hope that that last assurance will lighten the heart of the noble Lady, though perhaps it would have been still further lightened had my noble and Scottish colleague been with me on the Bench.

Clause 21 agreed to.

Clause 22 [Allowances to persons displaced from agricultural land]:

LORD GRENFELL had given notice of his intention to move in subsection (1), to leave out "may pay to him such" and insert "shall pay to him a". The noble Lord said: Since the major part of my argument for this Amendment was submitted in evidence in the Select Committee on the Clywedog Reservoir Bill, and since that Bill has not yet been approved, I am advised that it is inappropriate for me to quote from such evidence to-day. For this reason, I am not moving this Amendment and the others in my name on the Order Paper at this stage.

On behalf of my noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney, who could not be in his seat to-day, I beg leave to move the next Amendment standing in his name. The Amendment is self-explanatory. It gives the applicant the right to know how his allowance was calculated and the reasons why his application has been refused. It is so plain that I do not think it needs any more explanation, and I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 15, line 37, at end insert— ( ) Where an acquiring authority receives an application for an allowance payable under this section by a person to whom the acquiring authority may pay an allowance by reason of this section, the aquiring authority shall forthwith consider the application and, if thereafter the applicant so requests, shall give to the applicant a written statement of the basis upon which any allowance made to him has been calculated, or, as the case may be, a written statement of the reasons why the application has been refused."—(Lord Grenfell.)


My noble friend is right. The principle of this Amendment is very plain and the Government sympathise with it. That being so, we feel that it would be undesirable if its application were limited to farmers, as it would be under the present Amendment. As the noble Lord is aware, my right honourable friend dealt with this matter in another place and undertook, on behalf of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, that a circular would be sent out to all acquiring authorities, asking them to do what is proposed in the Amendment—that is, to give their reasons, if asked to do so, for not paying allowance or for paying less than the amount sought.

My right honourable friend indicated that authorities would be asked to do this not only in cases under this clause, which applies only to farmers, but also in cases under the Land Compensation Act, 1961, and the Housing Act, 1957, under which similar payments may be made to residential and business occupiers.

In this way, we shall be doing something which we think is important as a safeguard for the rights of the citizen; and we shall be doing it over a much wider field than is covered by the present Amendment. It can be said that a circular will not have the same binding force as a statutory provision. However, I am sure that acquiring authorities will respect the Government's clear wishes in this matter. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will feel that the balance of advantage lies with the course proposed by the Government.


If local authorities see fit to disregard the circular, will my noble friend undertake to provide legislation in due course to make it statutory?


I am bound to tell my noble friend that this seems to be such a hypothetical suggestion that I would rather not take it into account.


Is my noble friend suggesting that local authorities have never disregarded circulars from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government?


Will my noble friend bear in mind that there is a pretty sharp distinction to be drawn between a Statute and a circular? He seemed more or less to assume that they were much the same thing, but no local authority need pay any attention to an advisory circular, if they do not want to. They are very different.


I think that on this occasion, as possibly on others, my noble friend does not seem to have done me the honour of listening to me. I did not ignore, I drew attention to, this distinction. I suggested that any local authority or any acquiring authority—they may be one and the same in cases, but not always—will respect the Government's clearly expressed wishes in this matter.


In view of the assurance which the noble Lord has given me, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 22 agreed to.

Clauses 23 and 24 agreed to.


I understand it has been arranged that we should not go further with this Committee stage to-day. I therefore beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved, That the House do now resume.—(Lord St. Oswald.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and House resumed accordingly.