HL Deb 19 November 1976 vol 377 cc1624-32

33 Page 24, line 20, at end insert: (8A) Where an agriculture dwelling-house advisory committee advises that in the interests of efficient agriculture there is urgent need for the provision of suitable alternative accommodation, and the authority has been unable to provide such accommodation within three months from the date of the advice, the applicant shall have the right to use land in his occupation as a site for a caravan for agricultural worker without any requirement for a site licence under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, and without planning permission, until such time as suitable alternative accommodation is provided by the local authority.")

The Commons disagreed to this Amendment for the following Reason:

34 Because occupiers of agricultural land should not be exempted from statutory requirements relating to the siting of caravans.

12.25 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth insist on Amendment No. 33, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 34. With your Lordships' permission I will take a few moments to explain why I believe it is so important for your Lordships to insist on this Amendment rather than the seemingly far more vital Amendments which we have been discussing so far. We have been so battered and bewildered by the barrage of legislation which has been thrust upon us in such a short time by the other place that we tend to forget quite how doctrinaire and how harmful is each one of these five Bills.

There has been a slight tendency to concentrate upon the worst of these Bills: first, the Dock Work Regulation Bill—and surely this week's incidents in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Southampton demonstrate what a lucky escape the British public have had in this regard—and secondly, and to a lesser extent, the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill. So doctrinaire are these two Bills that they have somewhat masked (not so far as your Lordships are concerned but from the public at large) quite how harmful in their practical effect the other three Bills will be if they become law in their only very slightly amended state. Yesterday noble Lords of the greatest eminence in the medical profession rose in all parts of the House to testify just how harmful the Health Services Bill would be to the National Health Service and to the interests of patients—

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I was under the impression that we were discussing the Rent (Agriculture) Bill; we seem to have gone through docks, aircraft and we are now on health. I shall be very grateful, and I am sure the House will be, if the noble Lord will speak to the Motion.


My Lords, I will try to do so, but I think it is a necessary preamble to explain the reasoning behind my Motion. However, in deference to what the noble Baroness has said, I will refrain from saying what I was going to say about the Education Bill and the harm that would cause. The attitudes towards this present Bill are slightly ambivalent because there is a natural reluctance to appear to take the side of the fictitious wicked and plutocratic farmer against the equally fictitious starving tenant. It is all too easy to be misrepresented. That is why the House has, rightly I think, decided not to insist upon those Amendments which would remove security of tenure from certain classes of farm worker, however justified those Amendments may be—and I think they are justified from the point of view of British agriculture. Also, I think the House was marginally right not to insist upon imposing obligations on local authorities which they might have found somewhat difficult to fulfil (much as I sympathise with that Amendment) because of the difficulties cited by the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland.

However, this is a totally reasonable Amendment which cannot possibly be objected to on serious political grounds, or indeed on any moderate political grounds. That is a point to which I may have to return later, although I hope not. Yet it was rejected without any discussion whatsoever in another place—in other words, it was guillotined—by 21 votes. It is pertinent to point out that every single Liberal present voted with the Conservatives in that Division, and I hope the Liberals will follow me into the Division Lobby today if the Government do not yield.

I think the Commons should be given an opportunity to look again at this Amendment, to study it at greater leisure. The Amendment was moved by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, at Report stage on 11th November, and in introducing it he said: One can think, for example, of farms with only one cottage which may well be paralysed if the cottage continues to be occupied by the outgoing worker for whom there is no alternative accommodation available."—(Official Report, 11/11/76; col. 741). Speaking of livestock, he went on to say that this might render completely impossible the task of looking after the animals.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, was powerfully supported from these Benches by my noble friend Lord Robbins, but no really serious objections were advanced against this Amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Collison, from the Labour Benches, hinted that such an Amendment would "condemn" farm workers to live in caravans. For what it is worth, shortly after I was married my wife and I lived in a caravan for two months. We could not straightaway find a furnished house in the area where I was working, 35 miles north of London; we could not afford to go on living in an hotel indefinitely. I cannot pretend that it was very comfortable, but we survived, and I am here today to tell the tale. So I do not think that this is a valid argument to put up against the Amendment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, spoke of putting farmers in a privileged position where change of land use is concerned without first obtaining planning permission. With respect, I do not see that any farmer, who has had a valuable cottage removed effectively from farming use, which will take £15,000 or more to replace—let at a net rent of £100 or thereabouts—could be said to be in a privileged position.

I think that the amenity argument was not mentioned. Nobody is keener on conservation, to use a rather overworked word, than I am. In the normal way I am fervent in defence of the countryside against the intrusion of caravan sites and so on. Equally, in an emergency situation, to use another overworked word, surely there are things that ought to override aesthetic considerations—on a temporary basis, and this is only on a temporary basis.

Reverting to what the noble Lord, Lord Collison, said about the discomfort suffered by the farm worker, I believe someone on the Conservative Benches reminded the noble Lord, because we are talking about incoming farm workers, that the farm worker is not obliged to take the job if he does not like the idea of living in a caravan. Perhaps because it was not printed on one of the main pages, the noble Lord may have missed a rather chilling speech made the other day by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, speaking to a Press conference on 16th November. The noble Lord suggested that food rationing could be on the way in certain circumstances. Lord Rothschild went on to say: Unless we put our house in order food or, to be more precise, lack of it may well surpass all of the other troubles and crises that beset us". In a very small way the object of this Amendment is to try to move back towards actually helping the efficiency of British agriculture. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth insist on the said Amendment, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 34. —(Lord Monson.)


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord who has just spoken, particularly for the reason that he has just given, that the Amendment in the other place was dealt with under the guillotine and they did not give any consideration to the arguments that were put forward in this House.

The noble Lord, Lord Peart, as the noble Lord who has just spoken said, used the word "privileged"; why should these people be put in a privileged position with regard to the siting of caravans. In modern jargon, the privilege is a mini-privilege. It would only be used if there were an urgent need for agriculture, in the best interests of agriculture and because the local authorities could not provide at once alternative accommodation. It would only be used until they did so, so I cannot really agree that the privilege is of any consequence.

The noble Lord who has just spoken also mentioned what the noble Lord, Lord Collison, said about the undesirability of an agricultural worker living in a caravan. Of course it is undesirable if he can get other accommodation, but it might well be that an agricultural worker who wanted to come to a particular job would be willing to do so temporarily, recognising that it was for a short period only, in order to get the job that he wanted. I think that neither of those arguments against this Amendment, or those at the earlier stages, carry much weight, and should like to support the noble Lord.


My Lords, of all of our Amendments, Amendment No. 33 seems to me to be the one where the Government could have met us without going against any of the principles of the Bill, and without in any way damaging the interests or the security of tenure of farm workers. That Amendment was a practical way of getting a farmer out of an acute difficulty. The arguments in favour are given all the more force now that the Government have put back dairy and stock-breeding farms, as they have done this morning.

As it happens, I entirely agree with the words in the Commons Reason, that as a general rule, …occupiers of agricultural land should not be exempted from statutory requirements relating to the siting of caravans". But this Amendment No. 33 covers only the case where there is urgent need for the provision of suitable alternative accommodation. It provides for a housing authority to have had three months from the date of the ADHACs advice before the right to place a caravan arises. It provides that that right will expire as soon as the situation is relieved by suitable alternative accommodation being provided, thus relieving the stockman's house for the incomer. The Government's argument is that those three months would give time for planning permission to have been sought and granted in the ordinary way. There probably would have been time to apply and for the application to have been heard, but there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that it would have been granted. I remember on Report I referred to the case of the National Parks, where refusal would be automatic.

My Lords, this is the other leg of our argument that would provide for temporary accommodation to be considered by a court as suitable for the outgoing worker where a housing authority did not have a house. I note with pleasure that the Government accept the principle of that Amendment. In refusing to accept this leg of the temporary accommodation argument, which received wide support in the early stages of the Bill, I think they are showing a high degree of inflexibility. Theoretically—and I agree with the theory —farmers should not be exempted from the statutory planning requirements relating to caravans. That the Government can never relax that principle, even for a temporary period when a farm business, farm animals and the incoming farm worker and his family are going to suffer, and they will suffer loss and hardship in an acute case, seems to me to be totally unreasonable.

12.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to address a very few remarks to the noble Baroness who is to reply. I agree substantially with everything that my noble friend Lord Middleton has said and, while I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Monson, I fear that we disagree with his stand on this particular Amendment, for the reasons that my noble friend has described. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, has of course laid emphasis on the fact that this Amendment was cut out by the guillotine. I well understand his frustration in this field. When we discussed the Amendment in your Lordships' House in Committee, we entered into the problems of the Article IV directions and the situation which would arise in particular areas. I am not quite certain whether we mentioned areas of outstanding natural beauty, but certainly the siting of caravans in particular circumstances was mentioned. In the circumstances, we hope that the Government, if they intend to issue a circular will pay particular attention to the new situation as it develops.

My Lords, the Article IV direction procedure has some adaptations and I think the noble Baroness will be able to indicate in her reply whether or not her Department intends to combine with the Minister of Agriculture in issuing a joint statement. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to give us a reply in this regard.

12.40 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I really do not want to prolong this debate because we have been through it before on more than one occasion. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for putting the matter into the proper perspective. The main point of the Bill is the question of the privileged position. When I referred to privileged position on Report stage, I was referring to the fact that as a matter of general planning policy we cannot lightly discard a planning system which has been deliberately designed and maintained to give planning authorities the job of assessing all the implications for their area of a change of land use. This takes into account the points made about the environment and places of national beauty and all the other ingredients which go into the making of a planning decision.

When I said that farmers should not be in a privileged position, this applies to any group of people, but it does not mean to say that they have no opportunity to make their case. We cannot assume that the case should be made and disregard all planning considerations. We have consistently pointed out that planning permission may be sought in advance on a contingency basis. The great opportunity afforded by this Bill is that farmers will be able to plan in advance.

Secondly, I have made it clear that in any case we shall cover the substance of the Amendment when we issue a circular of guidance to local authorities about the Bill. We shall stress that in cases where local authorities accept they have a duty—and incidentally this Amendment does not make this important point; it is essential that local authorities shall accept that it is a duty in cases of this sort$and where the ADHAC has advised them of urgent agricultural need, they shall accord priority to planning and site licensing applications for caravans if they cannot themselves for the moment provide suitable housing.

I should like to be able to confirm in writing that, as I imagine, we shall be having discussions between our Department and the Ministry of Agriculture on this matter; although, as the noble Lord knows, the housing circulars go out from the Department of the Environment, but obviously we would want that support. This is a joint effort in the same way as this is a joint Bill.

In view of our discussion on this matter before, and in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, said on this occasion—and I have read carefully what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and also the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, on Report$my feeling is that, if at that stage we had clarified the Amendment we are coming to shortly on the question of housing for a limited period, this would not have arisen; or it might have arisen perhaps as an idea but would not have been pressed quite so strongly. I would put it to noble Lords that the Amendment to which we shall shortly come, which deals with the point put forward by the Opposition—and when we looked into it carefully we found a need to clarify something already implicit in the Bill—covers the point very adequately of dealing with a situation to help local authorities where resources are very short. But it does not get us into the realm of putting so many spanners in the planning works.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, kindly explain what she means by "applications on a contingency basis"? How can a farmer apply on a contingency basis when permission for a caravan is an urgent matter which may arise all of a sudden?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the matter which will arise all of a sudden will arise all of a sudden anyway. The farmer will have to get a possession order granted, which will take some months in any case. I meant that if he knows that a worker is to retire and he wants a place for someone coming in, he can put in a planning application maybe a month or a year in advance. That is what I meant.


My Lords, I am disappointed in the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. I cannot say I am surprised because I recognise that, to a considerable extent, her hands are tied. I am as zealous in my desire that the countryside should not be despoiled by caravans as the noble Baroness and the Government are, but we are talking about practical farming, emergencies and the question of urgency. The circular to be sent to local authorities is not binding in any way. On the constitutional position, I think the other place have a right to examine the arguments at their leisure. They have not been given the opportunity so to do, and therefore I hope the House will insist on this Amendment.

On Question, Motion disagreed to.