HL Deb 05 March 1968 vol 289 cc1235-40

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Your Lordships will probably be familiar with the general structure of the Bill, and to save your Lordships' time I will go straight on to a brief description of the clauses of the Bill. Part I, which deals with the welfare of farm animals, follows the Report of the Committee of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Professor Rogers Brambell. The Committee reported in December, 1965, and after considering the views of interested organisations the Government announced on August 5, 1966, their conclusions on the Committee's recommendations. These conclusions did not in any way impugn the farming industry's concern for animal welfare. Indeed, the Government share the Brambell Committee's view that the great majority of farmers are fully conscious of the importance in live-stock husbandry of the well-being of their animals.

The Government's conclusions took into account the dearth of scientific knowledge on many aspects of the welfare of animals, particularly their reactions to environmental conditions. In this situation it would be wrong to enforce any standards involving capital outlay when such standards might need early revision. There are some welfare matters which could be the subject of regulations now, but the main approach will be a flexible one based on codes of practice and other forms of official advice. I shall have more to say about the codes later.

Clause 1 will make it an offence to cause unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress to livestock and provides exemptions for research. The broad intention here is to protect livestock whilst being bred or reared on agricultural land. The clause covers distress resulting, for example, from prolonged periods of discomfort. Clause 2 will provide powers to make regulations, particularly in relation to accommodation, dietary matters, and undesirable methods of restraining and marking animals or of interfering with the normal exercise of their senses and faculties. The regulations would be the subject of prior con- sultation with all interested parties, including farmers' organisations, and would require an Affirmative Resolution of each House of Parliament. Clause 3 permits the production of official codes of practice for the benefit of farmers and others concerned with looking after livestock. The Government set great store by these codes because they will form an essential part of the flexible approach which underlies Part I of the Bill. We believe that the majority of farmers will welcome the advice and guidance in them. As a preliminary step, the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, in consultation with many other experts, is compiling the draft codes and these will be widely circulated to all interested parties for comment, prior to submission to each House of Parliament for approval. Although the recommendations in the codes will form the main source of guidance on livestock welfare, farmers will be able to receive additional help and advice on the spot from the State Veterinary Service.

Clause 5 will make it possible to require the use of anaesthetics for specified operations on farm animals. The relevant regulations will be subject to prior consultation with all the interests concerned, including livestock producers. Clause 6 contains the usual provisions on power of entry for persons authorised by Ministers or by local authorities. The responsibilities of local authorities will be confined to feedingstuffs and dietary matters. All other inspection work will be undertaken by persons authorised by Ministers. In particular, the examination of livestock and the taking of biological samples will be confined to authorised veterinary surgeons. In Part I of the Bill we have sought what we believe to be an objective and flexible approach in the field of animal welfare and I trust that this approach will commend itself to your Lordships.

I turn next to Part II of the Bill, which is concerned with tenant farmers who are dispossessed, sometimes at very short notice, in order that their land may be used for development or some other non-agricultural purpose. I think it will be generally agreed that the growing demands for land for housing, roads, reservoirs and a host of other non-agricultural uses have brought particular hardships for the tenant farmer. Our population is expanding, and we cannot go on without new houses and factories and all the services which go with them. We can, however, ease the tenant's immediate difficulties during the period when he is reorganising his life and work as a result of dispossession. It is the purpose of Clauses 9 to 14 to do this, by providing for payments to be made by landlords to assist in the reorganisation of the tenant's affairs.

Clause 15 deals with a rather separate problem. It seeks to remedy an injustice arising from agricultural tenancy agreements which contained a clause allowing the landlord to resume possession of the holding, or part of it, for some specified non-agricultural purpose. Where such clauses operate, the tenant may have to leave the farm at two or three months notice instead of the one to two years which is the normal period of notice for an agricultural tenant; and as the law stands at present, he will receive no compensation for the profit he would have made during the longer period of notice. Clause 15 provides for him to be compensated for this loss.

Now I come to Part III of the Bill, which applies to Scotland only. Its purpose is to restore to the nearer relatives of deceased tenant farmers in Scotland some measure of the security which they had under the Scottish Agricultural Holdings Act 1949, but which they lost under the Agriculture Act 1958. The provisions in the Bill steer a middle course between the present position and that which held before the 1958 Act. It gives the successor to an agricultural holding a much greater degree of security than he has had since 1958, while making it easier than it then was for a landlord to regain possession of his holding if he has good grounds for doing so. I have the feeling that certain noble Lords already have points which they may wish to put on this clause and I propose not to stand unnecessarily in their way but to leave my noble friend Lord Hughes to deal with this part of the Bill, together with any Scots points arising from Part II.

Part IV deals with two problems of land drainage finance; the drainage charges levied by river authorities and drainage rates levied by internal drainage boards. First, drainage charges. River authorities obtain most of their revenue from the general ratepayer by precepting on local authorities. Agricultural land does not pay general rates, but the Land Drainage Act 1961 enabled river authorities to obtain a comparable contribution from it by means of drainage charges based on Schedule A assessments. Unfortunately serious difficulties were met in raising the charge on a Schedule A basis and these were made worse by the abolition of Schedule A tax. Consequently only five of the twenty-nine river authorities have raised a drainage charge. Clauses 21 to 29 of the Bill therefore seek to make it easier to raise drainage charges by changing the basis of assessment from Schedule A to acreage. All the interests concerned accept that acreage is the only practicable alternative. The charge is relatively small—at present rates of precept, the highest general drainage charge on the new basis would be just over 1s. per acre. But as a flat rate charge could be unfair to the poorest land, we propose to exempt rough grazing land from the charge and to charge commercial woodlands at only one-fifth of the full rate. Clause 22 also makes the general drainage charge more closely equivalent than at present to the contribution of the general ratepayer through the precept.

Clauses 30 to 36 deal with drainage rates levied by internal drainage boards. There are about 370 boards which operate in low-lying areas where there are special drainage problems. Drainage rates are also levied on agricultural land on the basis of Schedule A assessments. Since most of these assessments have not been revised since 1935 serious anomalies have arisen in the distribution of the drainage rate burden. The Bill therefore gives drainage boards powers to determine a new annual value where this is desirable in view of changes in circumstances since the last valuation. The new value will, of course, have to be in line with those of comparable properties in the district.

Finally, Clause 37 enables the Minister to pay grant to river authorities on land drainage improvements which they undertake on behalf of farmers on watercourses which are too large to qualify for a farm ditching grant but are not maintained by a river authority or internal drainage board. This will ensure that facilities are available to farmers in any part of England and Wales to secure drainage improvements with the aid of Exchequer grant. The provisions in Part IV have been welcomed by all the interests concerned. In view of the importance of drainage for efficient agricultural production I am sure they will also command the approval of this House.

I should like to mention some of the more important matters in Part V. First, there are provisions in Clauses 38 and 39 for stabilising the returns on bacon curing. These clauses give statutory effect to the proposals which were announced last April by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture. They will enable the Government to make payments to the industry when returns on bacon are low in relation to the cost of pigs, and to collect a levy when conditions are more favourable. The aim, which has been generally accepted, is that over a period payments and levies should be broadly self-balancing.

In Clause 40 we are asking for powers to pay grants on break crops for cereals. Noble Lords will recall that a grant for aiding field beans, starting with the 1968 crop, was heralded in the 1967 Price Review. A scheme will be introduced once the Bill becomes law. Some amendments are contained in Clause 42 and Schedule 5 to the existing legislation on plant varieties in the light of experience of the working of the 1964 Act and the requirements of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. The Convention, already ratified by Her Majesty's Government, is expected to come into operation by the late summer, and we must be in a position to give it full effect. It lays down an agreed system for giving rights to plant breeders, very similar to that already in force in this country, and provides for the compulsory use of the registered name of a protected plant variety.

We also seek, in Clause 43, to widen the exemptions from the restrictive trade practices legislation given to certain cooperative associations by the Agricultural and Forestry Associations Act 1962. We consider that the Act, which was in- tended to remove a possible hardship, is too limited in its application for present day purposes. We accordingly seek to extend the scope of the Act to include certain fisheries associations and any genuine co-operative associations whose object is to assist its members in their agricultural, fisheries and forestry businesses. Finally, we seek to ensure that the restrictive trade practices legislation shall not stand in the way of those who wish to co-operate in production matters.

Clause 44 follows a recent agreement in principle between the employers' and workers' sides of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales on the important question of a statutory wages structure, although many details have still to be filled in. It is proposed that the structure would provide, in addition to a basic minimum rate as now, a number of higher minimum rates applicable to workers possessing particular skills or appointed to positions of special responsibility. These premium grades would be defined in the Orders of the Board. Within this framework, provision would be made for certain marginal cases concerning the entitlement of a particular worker to a particular grade to be settled by the agricultural wages committee for the county in which the worker is employed. This function the committees are well fitted to undertake, but the Agricultural Wages Act does not provide them with the necessary powers. I am sure that Clause 46 will be of interest to all those noble Lords who enjoy and care for Kew Gardens, which is now developing its country extension at Wakehurst Place. This clause deals with regulating the admission of the public to these very lovely gardens at Wakehurst Place.

It is just an accident of the Parliamentary Calendar that we shall be having to-morrow an announcement about the most important event in the agricultural year—the Annual Price Review. In the meantime, it is my pleasure to commend this Bill—which I feel to be a useful and constructive measure—to the House with absolute confidence. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Hilton of Upton.)