HL Deb 22 January 1970 vol 307 cc249-51

4.25 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome which was given by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, to this Bill and also for the remarks which were made by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. I was very pleased indeed to hear about the influence which the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, believe I have with members of the Cabinet. I should be even more pleased if I thought that they were right. But even if they are right, I would suggest to them that in these matters it is better not to strain your luck too far.

The noble Lord, Lord Balerno, and the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, both spoke of what they regarded as the needless complexity of the Bill, and I should like to tie up my reply to them with the remark made by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, who reminded your Lordships that my noble friend Lord Beswick had credited him with a delight in looking back. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, spent a certain amount of his time in looking back to the circumstances of the 1956 Act. I agree with the noble Earl that there are lessons to be learned from looking back, and sometimes all of us would make even greater mistakes than we do if we did not from time to time look back and try to learn from the experience of the past. But, my Lords, it is simply because Her Majesty's Government have looked back to the 1956 Act that they are persuaded that it is necessary for this Bill to be a complex measure.

In 1956 the Government of the day adopted a simple solution to what seemed to them to be a simple problem. They decided that farmhouses would pay full rates and that all buildings used in connection with the land would be derated. That is simplifying still further the actual wording of the Act. Because of the very simplicity of the solution which was adopted in 1956, from 1963 to 1968 the courts decided that the simplicity of 1956 did not in fact cover what the legislators of 1956 thought they were doing. This was not because it was a Conservative Government and they were unduly simple (although that is a point which I would not lightly disregard), but simply because in 1956 intensive farming did not exist to the extent we know it now, and because of the way in which the courts interpreted the simple language of 1956.

We now have an exceedingly complex problem, and it has been decided that the right way to solve it is in the rather complicated language of this Bill. I am not offering to your Lordships any guarantee as to how the courts will necessarily interpret the Bill. What we have tried to do is to make it more difficult for the courts to say that what we mean is something other than what we are saying. I have the support of my noble friend the Lord Advocate, who says that he is not prepared to predict what the courts will do with any piece of legislation. All we can do is to try to make it as clear as possible to the lawyers that this is the way it should be done. Beyond that I cannot go.

The best offer which I think I can make in comfort to your Lordships is that the National Farmers' Union of Scotland have no doubt at all what this Bill will do for their members. I have not the slightest doubt that they will bring it to the notice of everyone who has been, or who may be, in danger of having to pay full rates on buildings, to make certain that they get the benefits of the new legislation. I think the unkindest thing I could say about Scottish farmers would be to assume for one moment that they are incapable of extracting the last possible penny that this Bill will make available to them.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.