HL Deb 30 April 1984 vol 451 cc397-403

7.10 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is a great pleasure for me to attempt to pilot through your Lordships' House a Bill which has been successfully piloted through the House of Commons by my honourable friend Mr. Edward Leigh, the new Member for Gainsborough. I need not take up much of your Lordships' time on this Bill. It simply amends existing legislation in two minor ways which I will try to explain.

Clause 1 extends the scope of Section 64 of the Agriculture Act 1967. That section allows grants to be paid by the Minister of Agriculture, if the Agricultural Credit Corporation has to meet guarantees given as security for bank loans to farm businesses; and farm businesses in this context include co-operative marketing businesses. To be eligible for a guarantee, a co-operative association must consist of members directly engaged in agricultural or horticultural production.

But, since the original legislation was passed, co-operative marketing businesses have developed a more complex structure. There are now some whose members are themselves co-operatives or which are a mixture of co-operatives and individual farmers who are not members of a co-operative—a sort of hybrid affair. They have acquired the name "federal", although as a modest student of constitutions I do not really know why. But one can understand more easily another expression used to describe them. They are called "second-tier co-operative societies". Strangely enough, I am told that there may be third- or even fourth-tier organisations, but I must confess that my imagination boggles at that possibility.

A number of newly formed first-tier co-operatives under the original legislation have benefited from the provisions of the Act, and have been able to obtain bank loans because of the guarantee arrangements when they could not have done so without them, because they did not have sufficient collateral security to offer. The Bill would, of course, extend those operations to those other co-operatives that I mentioned; and it goes without saying that those other co-operatives might also find themselves in the similar difficulty of obtaining the requisite collateral for a bank guarantee. The change in the law in Clause 1 would enable the Agricultural Credit Corporation guarantees to be given on loans to them in exactly the same way as at present for first-tier co-operatives.

Your Lordships will naturally wish to know whether this Bill will increase Government expendiutre, although your Lordships have no control over Government expenditure directly. But I can assure you that any costs which arise from extending the scope of the loan guarantees will be contained within the present financial ceilings set for the scheme, which have not been fully used and have not been extended—it is rather remarkable—for the past 17 years since 1967. Similarly, the costs of administration will be contained within existing levels; in other words, the present method of administrating this will take this small extension in its stride. So much for Clause 1.

Clause 2 is quite different. It deals with agricultural statistics and makes two small but important changes to the current arrangements for the collection of statistics relating to farming. As to subsection (1) of Clause 2, I should tell your Lordships that the committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, examined trends in agricultural land acquisition and occupancy as they affect the structure of the agricultural industry and they published their report as long ago as July 1979. That report stated that the information collected about land ownership and occupancy was not adequate and more information was needed to be made available.

I wonder whether I may interpolate here a personal reminiscence which will perhaps refresh the memory of the noble Lord, Lord Walston. In the Fens, which formed about a third of my previous constituency of Huntingdonshire, one found that it was an awful nuisance not to be able to find out who owned the privately owned smallholdings, of which there are a great many in the Fens. Because of the difficulty of finding out who the owners were, although the occupiers were generally known, it became difficult to obtain contributions from owners who had an obligation to provide them for improving the Fen droves, and sometimes major drains in the Fens, also. It was simply this lack of information which was an inhibition.

The present law prevents that information from being obtained, because the Minister's powers are limited to obtaining data relating to the names and addresses of the owners and the occupiers of land. I must confess that it would seem from one's experience that even the present law is not proving effective to provide the information.

What is proposed in Clause 2(1) of the Bill is to extend Section 1(1) of the Agricultural Statistics Act 1979 in a way that would enable more information to be sought about the owners and occupiers of agricultural land, and—this is important in relation to the Agricultural Holdings Bill, which is now going through the House and about which we had such controversial discussions to which my noble friend Lord Belstead, who I am glad to see on the Front Bench, valiantly replied—would enable the terms on which the land is occupied to be ascertained through the statistics. I really think that there are great advantages, therefore, in subsection (1) of Clause 2.

The next proposal in this area is that subsection (2) of Clause 2 should repeal Section 1(5) of the Agricultural Statistics Act 1979. That gave powers of entry by officials to agricultural businesses to check on statistical information. At first sight, when I realised that that is what it did, I had some doubts about it. I wondered how the statistics were to be effectively checked and verified unless there was a power of entry. But a review of all the statutory powers to enter business premises has been undertaken, and this is one of the pieces of legislation which that review indicated should be repealed. Naturally, one goes along with anything which preserves the sanctity of people's premises. If those in power feel that this is something which we can do without, so be it. It is not, therefore, for me, as the promoter of the Bill, to protest. Indeed, I go along with it and submit it to your Lordships. Having said, I hope, all that is needed to give this modest Bill a Second Reading, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Renton.)

7.21 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for putting the Bill before us. A few days ago I met him in the corridor and said to him how important the Bill was. He said "It's a fiddling little thing and will go through in a minute or two". The noble Lord has taken rather more time than the one or two minutes which he suggested to me! I am pleased to look again at the Agriculture Act 1967. I spent many hours in Committee helping to pilot that Act through the other place.

I see the necessity in Clause 1 of making sure that one-tier, two-tier or three-tier co-operatives are able to use the collateral that they have. The noble Lord said that there are co-operatives within co-operatives and that there are farmers in the co-operatives who are not members of the co-operatives. This clause will give them the right to provide the collateral in order to take up money which, I was surprised to hear the noble Lord say, has not been taken up since 1967. It is not like the farming community to miss anything of that nature. Therefore we give Clause 1 of the Bill our blessing. The noble Lord said that the cost of administration will not create difficulties.

Turning to Clause 2, it is interesting to note that the promoter of the Bill is interested in the information which we have about land ownership and land tenure in general. We all know that the Northfield Committee suggested that this information should be obtained if there is to be any help, as the noble Lord so well put it, under the Agricultural Holdings Bill which, I presume, will come back to this House soon. It is interesting that the promoter of the Bill wants to amend that part of the Agricultural Statistics Act 1979 which relates to access in order to check statistics. The noble Lord asked, who was he to quarrel with this point?

How will statistics be checked? Last year I was in the United States of America and examined the payment-in-kind programme which they are carrying out. I was invited by a federal agent and a county agent to look at the system. It was a simple, not an elaborate system. They had plans of all the farms. Those plans were beautifully filed. They also had maps. They can fly over the ground in a helicopter and take infra-red photographs. If any photograph shows that there is a crop where none should exist it is checked as easily as that. This scheme is operated in a big county in Minnesota and a large staff is not required. Anything which helps us to obtain information about land tenure and land ownership will be of great help. We give this small Bill our blessing.

7.24 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I had not intended to detain your Lordships by speaking on this Bill, but I cannot resist the temptation to speak on an agricultural Bill where I find myself in agreement not only with the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, but also with all noble Lords opposite—all three of them. This is a good Bill. It is not a big Bill, but it is a useful one. Anything which can be done to encourage co-operation of any kind among farmers is good. Many attempts have been made by many governments. None of them has had the success which it deserved. If this Bill will encourage more co-operation, particularly in marketing, which is one of the most important aspects, it deserves all our support.

Turning to the statistics, when the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred to me in his speech I thought that he was going to say that it was very important to get hold of the owners of the land in the Fens in order to obtain contributions for, I thought he was going to say, his party in the general election of 1945, in which he roundly defeated me. However, the noble Lord told us that the contributions are to be made for a much more laudable purpose than that. We in this country are very backward over the collection of statistics, not regarding cultivation of the land but regarding land ownership. The Bill will make the gathering of that information more effective and will give us more information. For that reason alone the Bill should be supported.

I do not feel very strongly one way or the other about the checking of statistics. I do not believe that there is any need to check this type of statistic. Not many people will lay claim to a larger amount of land than they own because they might find themselves having to pay drainage rates, or some other unpleasant impost. Nor do I believe that any landowner would deliberately pretend that he owned less land than he did, because then he might receive less rent for it than would otherwise be the case. So there is a self-checking mechanism. If the responsible authorities do not require any kind of check, well and good. I would not press for them to retain the powers they already have but do not use. Therefore I join the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, in supporting this Bill, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for introducing it in such a knowledgeable, simple and relatively brief way.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, during my noble friend Lord Renton's speech in introducing this Bill my noble friend explained that the Minister, with the approval of the Treasury, is empowered to make grants towards the cost of fulfilling bank loan guarantees to agricultural and horticultural businesses. My noble friend went on to explain how Clause 1 will enable grants to be made to a wider range of co-operative marketing businesses. For the purpose of this scheme the Minister recognises the Agricultural Credit Corporation as an appropriate body to provide guarantees.

There is just one point which arises at this moment from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. He said that he was surprised that the farming community, who can always recognise a good thing when they see it, had not had to take up very large sums of money. My noble friend Lord Renton will put me right, if need be, when he closes our debate but, as I understand it, it is not that the farming community have forgone these amounts of money but that, owing to the very good administration of the scheme, the guarantee has practically never had to come into play. My figures show me that since 1967 the loan guarantee scheme has guaranteed £16 million to the farming community. Therefore the noble Lord is absolutely right in his thesis about the business acumen of the farming community. However, out of that amount, only £500,000 has had to be paid over the years by way of grant on all the loans guaranteed by the Agricultural Credit Corporation. It was that to which my noble friend in introducing the Bill was referring.

On behalf of the Government I should like to pay tribute to the work of the Agricultural Credit Corporation and its staff. Its chairman is my noble friend Lord Stodart of Leaston. The corporation has a small team of highly professional and committed staff. They have worked closely over the years with the farming industry, the banks and the ministry to ensure that assistance is made available in suitable cases. The figures I have just given show that this scheme is professionally and very well run, with great skill and care.

The other main part of the Bill is concerned with the monitoring of the effectiveness of the Agricultural Holdings Bill; that is really what Clause 2 comes to. We now have the Bill; which is before another place, and, as my noble friend explained in his opening speech, we do not have very effective statistics. My noble friend explained in a very clear way, from his personal experience, how those statistics need to be improved. If I may again, in a sense, anwer a question put by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, my information is that it has never appeared to the Government that the power of entry and inspection for the purposes of collecting statistics is needed. It is a power that has never been used. If this Bill passes into law, I do not believe that we shall start to add to the census a lot of questions about statistics.

I believe that we are more likely—although this has still to be decided—possibly to add one or two simple questions to the census. But types of ownership and occupancy are detailed matters which will call for more detailed studies, which have to be directed to occupiers, to owners, and to their agents where necessary. I believe that we shall therefore need some rather more in-depth survey questions. I repeat that we have no cause to believe—possibly for the reasons put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Walston—that we need the power of entry. We are very glad that it would be removed by this Bill.

On behalf of the Government, perhaps I may say that this is a very useful Bill. It will provide guaranteed finance for marketing agricultural and horticultural produce on a wider basis than before. It will also enable us to monitor the details of land ownership in the way that we have been discussing.

I will add only one other point that has not been mentioned in this short debate. The provision in Clause 1 for additional support for more complex forms of co-operatives is a particularly welcome step at the present time, for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Walston, gave in his speech. The Government feel very deeply about this. We have set up the organisation Food from Britain, and one of its particular objectives is to support co-operation in marketing. I have great pleasure in joining other noble Lords who have spoken on this Bill in giving it a very warm welcome, and perhaps I may express the hope that it will pass rapidly through your Lordships' House.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I have a question concerning who makes the statistical return in June. Is a tenant to be asked who is his landlord? If he is dealing through an agent, the tenant may not know this. Will a landlord have to make a return? How will it work?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this has still to be decided. What I was venturing to say in my remarks was that in putting Clause 2 into effect I do not believe it will be good enough simply to add a question or two extra to the June census. To put the real intention of Clause 2 into effect—and I have not discussed this with my noble friend Lord Renton—I believe that we shall need to have rather more detailed studies and questions put to owners, to occupiers, and to their agents where necessary. I repeat that the Government do not foresee that that will in any way need the power of entry, and I repeat that I am glad that it is being done away with.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, on the last point raised by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, perhaps I may be allowed to add that the Bill as it stands makes it quite clear that either the owner or the occupier may be asked for this statistic. It may be that, on that, it will be enough to leave the Bill as it stands. Indeed, I myself rather hope so, because I believe there is a case for flexibility here. I believe that that, together with what my noble friend Lord Belstead has said, is the answer to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie.

I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord John-Mackie and Lord Walston, for their support of this Bill and for the interesting remarks they have made. I am sure all of us are grateful to my noble friend Lord Belstead for the things he has told us, which are of course of great significance in relation to this Bill. I think it is right, for the sake of clarity, that one should emphasise that it is only when there has been a default in repayment of the loan that the guarantee arrange-ments have to come into force. Perhaps I should have made that more clear in presenting the Bill.

It comes to this, really. Under the 1967 Act Parliament provided that the Minister might pay up to £300,000 in any one year in support of guarantees—that is, where there is default. To that could be added money unspent in previous years up to a maximum of £600,000. That would have meant a very large sum—£300,000 a year over 17 years—but, as my noble friend Lord Belstead has pointed out, it is very remarkable and highly creditable to all concerned that in those 17 years defaults have amounted to only £500,000 in relation to grants on guarantees amounting altogether to £ 16 million. So there is a very full justification for confidence on this financial aspect of the matter.

I was very interested in the description by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, of the man with the helicopter amplifying the statistics and information he was asked to give. It tempts one to remind the Government that everyone hopes that, one day, there will be complete land registration of all land and buildings in this country. We proceed very slowly and cautiously in this matter, and it may be that such is a long time ahead. But by making that point the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, at least enabled us to understand its feasibility. That is all that I need say, except to repeat my thanks.

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

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8 o'clock.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.38 until 8 p.m.]

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