HL Deb 16 November 1983 vol 444 cc1282-3

2.54 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they think it satisfactory to allow farm tenants of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland to buy their farms at one third of the official valuation.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

My Lords, public ownership of these estates now serves no useful purpose and, as my right honourable friend announced in 1980, it is the Government's policy to dispose of them. In order to encourage the tenants concerned to acquire their homes and land, the selling price in appropriate cases has been fixed at 30 per cent. of the open market, vacant possession agricultural value as assessed by the district valuer.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. I appreciate the need for the necessity to divest the state of being landlord to agricultural tenancies. However, does he not agree that this is an expensive way of doing it? Is it not a burden on the taxpayer because, as I am sure my noble friend must be aware, some of these tenants have received grants from the Highlands and Islands Development Board to stock their farms? Does not my noble friend agree that this arrangement will eventually dry up the availability of more vacant farms for tenancies because the existing tenants will surely take advantage of the huge profit to be made by selling their farms? Does not my noble friend also agree that the proprietors who buy these farms will not readily re-let them?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, perhaps I should explain to my noble friend that the cost of administration has now reached a figure in the region of £1 million per year. Tenants of the land settlement estates are being offered a very substantial discount in order to encourage them to buy their holdings. I think my noble friend was suggesting that because of the circumstances there might be a clawback; but I should point out to him that any clawback or any pre-emption stipulation would have quite the opposite effect. It would discourage sales when the Government's objective is to dispose of all its leasehold and landlord units.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Conservative policy over the past four years has been to sell council houses at a discount that is calculated according to the length of the tenancy? What is wrong, if that is the philosophy, for a tenant farmer who has worked his land for years having the same privilege as council tenants?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord has not quite understood the situation, which is that so far as those holdings are concerned approximately three-quarters have been bought. This represents some 700, which is very satisfactory and means that the tenants have been taking advantage of the very attractive terms which the Government have offered.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he thinks that it might be unfair to the Scots to ask them to put their hands too deeply into their own pockets?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I think that the figure I have given will assure the noble Lord that many Scots know a good bargain when they see one.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, in view of the Answer we have been given, may I ask the Minister to say whether it is the Government's intention to extend this principle to England and Wales?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am afraid that I must tell the noble Baroness that I find my remit in dealing with the Scottish Office as much as I can master at the moment; but I shall make inquiries on her behalf and write to her in due course.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether tenants can sell the farms straight away?

Lord Gray of Contin

Yes, my Lords, the tenants have the right to sell the farms immediately. There is no question of pre-emption. However, it must be remembered that the tenant sells a very substantial part of his own right to the holding when he sells, and that is reflected in the price.