HL Deb 03 December 1984 vol 457 cc1129-38

4.17 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill, as now presented, is in effect a No. 2 Bill. The previous Bill, although it passed all stages in your Lordships' House, did, as I forecast at Third Reading, run into dangerous waters in another place. Eventually, therefore, I took the decision to return to home port for a refit. In a speech at the 1984 annual conference of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners Limited, the noble Lord Lord Skelmersdale, in what, I say sincerely, was an excellent speech, made reference to my previous Bill and stated that, there is a plague of greenfly surrounding local authorities". Whether or not they originated in Whitehall, he did not say, but he did say—this encouraged me very much—that "the Bill's roots are sound". Armed with details of Government objections to the Bill, kindly supplied by the noble Lord, I am persuaded to try again. In any case, my family motto is "Even unto the end"; so the noble Lord can look out.

In view of the soundness of the Bill's roots, in the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I have, following consultation with my allotment friends, carried out some careful pruning. But, in one case, the previous Clause 3, now Clause 2, appears unamended at the moment. I wish to make it perfectly clear, however, that it is intended at Committee stage to delete the instruction to publish an annual statement of the numbers and the area of allotments provided under the Allotments Acts 1908 to 1950, and to provide for recording of statutory allotments which, although not legally defined, are generally regarded as those provided under Section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925. I am not quoting my opinion. I have written confirmation in certain correspondence that this is the opinion of the Department of the Environment. Therefore, I would suggest that when we get to the Committee stage this amendment will be of great importance, because the point is that you have to define a statutory allotment because a statutory allotment must not be cleared and used for any other purpose without the consent of the Minister. The problem up to now has been: what is a statutory allotment?

In the last Session we had a good debate on the Bill. It is on the record, and therefore I do not intend to go over the issue again in great detail. Apart from amendments in Schedules 1 and 2, which update Allotment Acts in certain important respects, the main purpose is to establish in legislation that allotment gardening is in fact a recreation. It has been so decided in one case in the Court of Appeal, but I feel it should be in legislation. I would add another important issue which has now arisen. The eventual amendment of Clause 2 will also be vitally important, and I hope that in that sense I shall have the cooperation of Her Majesty's Government.

Not all local authorities regard allotment provision as the provision of a recreation. Some—I am bound to stress that they are a small minority—regard it, I am sorry to say, as a nuisance and a threat to the environment; but it would be unfair and wrong of me to label all local authorities as such. The London Borough of Bexley, where I live, does a great deal to encourage people to take on allotment plots, and goes even further by providing a demonstration plot in one of its parks, with expert advice and guidance available to all those wishing to start. I would add—I do not want to get too political in this—that the London Borough of Bexley is under Conservative control. In that respect, as a ratepayer I would pay sincere tribute to them for what they are doing.

I now come to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 merely means that when a council receives an application for an allotment plot it is recorded or registered, whether or not the council is providing allotments. Many councils, of course, do this already where plots are provided. Others do not, and the clause simply ensures that a record of demand is kept. Eventually that could be of great help to local councillors who, in a democratic fashion, wish to see allotment provision made in their council area. In our previous debate the Government made very heavy weather over this, alleging bureaucracy and so on. But, quite simply, no bureaucracy whatever arises. It is a simple job for a junior clerk to record these applications, and the time taken would be of an absolute minimum. A young child straight from school could do that job without any problem whatever.

I have referred to Clause 2 and, as I promised, this will be drastically amended at Committee stage. Clause 3 is a key clause and adds allotment gardens to the standard list of recreational facilities contained in Section 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. It is true that successive Governments have accepted allotment gardening as a recreational pursuit, but it is time the unchallenged acceptance of such was given legislative effect.

Clause 4 removes the disability on councillors from speaking or voting, if they are the tenants of allotment gardens, when allotment issues are before the council, provided that interest is disclosed. Such disability is contrary to the recognised recreational status of allotment gardens. A councillor playing tennis or bowls or taking part in other recreational pursuits, using facilities provided by the council, does not have to declare an interest. Clause 5 gives statutory effect to amendments in Schedule 1. Clause 6 contains the usual technical provisions common to all Acts of Parliament.

In regard to Schedule 1, paragraph 1(1), at present only county or district councils may assist in making grants to allotment associations. The amendment will update the Act by enabling parish and community councils, London borough councils and the GLC to assist and make grants to allotment associations. I included the GLC, and there I am in some degree of difficulty because I do not know what is going to happen to the GLC. I am quite willing, if the Government get sensitive on the issue, to delete the GLC until we see what happens. I do not want to upset them. I am all good will and graciousness towards them, and I hope they reciprocate.

Schedule 1, paragraph 1(2), will give further encouragement to the practice of devolved management. To some extent this is something right in line with Government policy on privatisation. The actual arrangements for devolved management are a matter between allotment associations and the local authorities. They would come to an agreement and an association, under that agreement, would carry out a great deal of a council's work, constituting over the years quite considerable financial savings. They would have a personal stake in preserving and keeping the amenity of the area, and, as I said, would do a lot of the council's work, where savings can be made.

Schedule 1, paragraph 1(3), will empower the Sports Council to make grants, if they so wish, to allotment associations. At the moment this does not come within the council's powers of reference, allotment gardening not being regarded and listed as a recreation.

In regard to paragraph 2 of Schedule 1, I would point out that at the moment, on quitting his allotment, the tenant is entitled to receive compensation for crops growing and for any fertiliser on and applied to the land. The amendment adds entitlement to receive compensation for any structure, fencing or other improvement made at the allotment tenant's expense.

Schedule 1, paragraph 3, brings the maximum fines for criminal damage in line with Section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. Paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 brings the definition of an allotment garden in line with present-day requirements. It sets out objectives to be achieved wherever possible and where conditions permit. It is a guideline, if noble Lords would consider it on those lines. Schedule 1, paragraph 5, provides that the statutory safeguards on the disposal of permanent allotments will apply to allotment land acquired by deed of gift or legacy. The effect of Schedule 1, paragraph 6, is that allotment rents must reflect the recreational status of allotment gardening.

In Schedule 2, the first repeal is that the appropriate section of the 1908 Act is replaced by Clause 1 of this Bill. The second repeal removes the need for Treasury consent to Government grants paid to allotment cooperatives. As far as records can be ascertained, no grants have ever been paid, anyway.

The third repeal under Schedule 2 provides that Section 28 of the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 will cease to have effect. That section creates an artificial distinction between allotment land and open space land. This repeal would enable allotment land, for which the demand is reduced, to be used for open space purposes, and when the demand for allotments revives it would permit open space to be taken for allotments without formality. This dispenses with the bureaucratic controls contained in Section 28. I now come to the final repeal under Schedule 2. At present, if a prosecution is to succeed under Section 19 of the Allotments Act 1922, a notice must be displayed. This repeal accords with the modern requirements of the criminal law as exemplified, for example, by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.

That is the main purpose of the Bill. I repeat: this is not an unimportant Bill. Contrary to what I was told previously, it is not an unnecessary Bill. It is also important from the social point of view because years ago allotments were provided for the poor to provide their own food; now they have been upgraded. There are many people of all classes—the middle class and even higher than that, including one or two noble Lords—who are taking on allotment gardens. My daughter is a deputy headmistress and she has taken on an allotment. So allotments have gone up the social scale and there is a demand for them. What could be better in these days of housing development when houses are built with pocket handkerchief gardens, than to provide some opportunity for people to grow their own food as well as a few flowers for their wives as well—why should she not have them?—and in so doing give themselves healthy recreation and provide the family with good, fresh, healthy food? My Lords, I beg to move.

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

4.32 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I rise briefly on behalf of the Opposition Benches to give a very warm welcome to the Second Reading which has been so capably moved by my noble friend Lord Wallace of Coslany. My noble friend began his remarks by saying that on mature reflection he had taken the Bill away and had, in effect, sailed into port where there had been a refit. From listening to my noble friend I think that there has also been a rethink. What my noble friend has done very carefully as a politician is to recognise the realities, and the Bill that we now have before us contains the maximum good that the previous Bill sought to achieve.

My noble friend has tried to present this House—and at a later stage another place—with a Bill which, if there is good will, ought to receive a very safe passage at the end of the day. The House must be well aware of the persistence of my noble friend Lord Wallace who reminded us when he moved the Second Reading of a comparable Bill earlier this year (at col. 1015 of Hansard on 24th February) of the history of the 1970s. I know that the Minister and I acknowledged that this was not a party matter stemming from the recommendations of Professor Thorpe and the Thorpe Report. Governments of both complexions during the 1970s had paid lip service—and that included the Government of my own party—to the desire to make progress, but they were unable to find the time. Money has never been a major factor as regards progress; time has been the major factor.

However, on 24th February I was heartened when my noble friend Lord Wallace drew attention to the remarks of the Minister's honourable friend, the then Minister for Local Government in another place, when he was speaking on the Local Government (Planning and Land) Bill in which I had the pleasure of participating. The Minister in question, Mr. King, now holds a different high office. However, at the time the Minister said: This reforming, radical Administration is looking at it seriously"— that is heartening, my Lords, is it not? However, he went on to say: but I cannot give my commitment about it". Unfortunately, that has been the tenor hitherto of ministerial or governmental reactions to a very sensible and laudable Bill.

I would also remind the Minister that at col. 1028 of Hansard on 24th February the Government's and his reaction were accurately summed up when towards the end of his remarks he said: The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, feels that the Government exhortation should be reinforced by legislation. I could not disagree more. The Government's policy is that recreational gardening is a matter of education and not legislation; and on that the Government's case rests". During the months of February, March, April, May and June of this year—the last Session—although the Minister was always quite firm in indicating what he was not prepared to support, at the end of the day the Government and the Minister simply said,"We are not prepared to oppose the Bill"; I believe that the Minister and his friends knew exactly what was going to happen to the Bill when it went to another place. I believe they knew that it would die. Anyway, here we are back with it again.

I honestly believe that the Minister and his colleagues have an opportunity at this stage of making real progress in a matter which affects millions of ordinary people. I am not prepared or inclined to make any detailed comment on what I call the new Bill which will clearly undergo some radical changes in Committee. However, the general thrust of what the Bill seeks to achieve is still the same as it was earlier this year. Indeed, the general thrust is contained in the Bill itself on page 1 where, before we reach Clause 3, we find the heading, "Status of recreational gardening". What we are about is increasing the status of allotments, the status—to use the new terms—of recreational gardening.

From my experience in local government the pleasure and the joy which is brought to millions of ordinary people not only needs to be seen to be believed but, I believe, is seen. As I travel home from this noble House to Enfield I pass a number of allotment sites and it is a source of satisfaction to realise how many ordinary people—people from all walks of life—enjoy the opportunity of fresh air and the opportunity and the satisfaction of producing their own produce. We must also remember the politics of the allotment world, and this of course is not a party point. I am referring to the deep interest which the management of the allotment societies create among their members. I speak from experience in the London Borough of Enfield. Some of the keenest participants in looking after their club, their society or indeed their life are the allotmenteers. They used to write to me very regularly on matters which concerned them. They may not be articulate but they are very knowledgeable about the law and what is going on.

I can understand the Minister and his colleagues blanching at some of the duties that could be placed upon local authorities. We know that the Government would rather reduce the number of simple jobs for junior clerks than give a simple job to a junior clerk, as my noble friend has pointed out. However, if we want to create the ambience and the environment in which we shall see flourish the allotment world, then that would be quite a small price to pay. Of course we are involved in statutory allotments, voluntary allotments and in allotments which are owned by charities and allotments owned by councils. It is a complex world. What this simple Bill seeks to do is to try to elevate the matter, particularly when my noble friend brings forward provisions to ensure that allotment gardens have at least the same status as other elements included in Section 19(1)(b) of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. It is all laudable stuff. It is the kind of stuff that this House ought to encourage. From these Benches I give this Bill a warm welcome.

Lord McNair

My Lords, on the last occasion that this Bill was debated at Second Reading my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley gave it his general support, but he had one reservation. Although I must not commit my noble friend, I rather think that in its new form the Bill would get round what was his objection on that occasion. In general from these Benches we are very much in favour of allotments. Many noble Lords spoke about the surprising quantity of food which comes from them.

There is also an important health element. I believe that it is impossible to prove scientifically that the vegetables or fruit you get from your own garden are actually better for you, but there is no doubt that the effort you put into growing and harvesting them does wonders for your appetite. We salute the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, and wish him better luck on this occasion than he had last time.

Lord Hawke

My Lords, I do not know how my noble friend is going to receive this Bill. In view of the ever-increasing number of middle-aged and elderly people who are being thrown out of work, with no possible hope of getting any further job in their lifetime, the Government ought to do everything in their power to encourage local authorities to spend money on providing recreational facilities in the shape of allotments, bowling greens, golf courses, and everything of that sort. That would lessen the awful burden of all these people who feel that they have been rejected by society and that there is no hope for the future.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has given the House a dissertation—including some cracks about myself and the department I seek to serve—from what I hope I may be allowed to call "Old George's Gardening Kalendar", which, in passing, I hope I might persuade the Official Report to spell with a "k". I do not complain about that. It is a treat which the House enjoys, as it did last year and during his Wednesday debate in. I think, 1976. He is an expert in his field, and the House is rightly proud of its expertise in practically every subject that could be raised. Noble Lords opposite have already alluded to the noble Lord's fitness to speak on this subject, and I should like to associate myself with those comments. However, this debate is not about the noble Lord, but is about the Bill which he has introduced to your Lordships, the Recreational Gardening Bill.

The House will be grateful to the noble Lord for explaining his Bill so comprehensively. This Bill could, perhaps, be best described as an F2 hybrid, having started last Session in a much fuller form and being pared down by Third Reading to take account of some of the points I and other noble Lords put to the noble Lord while it was in this House. As he has said, it failed to leap the hurdle of another place last Session and so the noble Lord is exercising his right to introduce it again.

The F2 is, I must say, an improvement on the F1, which was substantially different from its parents as originally introduced. However, in the Government's view it is still not necessary at all. I stick by my off-the-cuff remark, widely reported in the gardening press, that the original Bill had "sound roots". So does this one. How, my Lords, could it not when it comes from the allotment movement itself and is proposed by the noble Lord with all his—I cannot think of a better word—roots in that movement? The trouble is that the Bill has a cancerous stem and withered leaves, which, in the Government's opinion, no amount of legislative pruning or parliamentary pesticides can cure.

Clause 1 of the Bill suffers from the major defect that it seeks to place a further statutory duty upon district, parish, community and London borough councils to maintain a register of people desiring to rent an allotment, and to take into account the number of persons on such a register in exercising their duty under the Allotment Acts 1908 to 1950. Why, my Lords? My researches have revealed that there is a gut feeling among members of the allotment movement that not enough allotments are being provided to fill the demand for them.

We are of course debating the Bill as presented. However, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has told us of his intention to amend Clause 2 at Committee stage. Since I have not quite got to grips with his argument there, having heard about it only this afternoon, perhaps he will allow me to make my original speech.

The Government are not prepared to approve legislation based on gut feeling—there must be evidence that the situation is as it is stated to be. Clause 2 seeks to elicit that evidence. If ever there was a case of putting the cart before the horse, this is it. Parliament is being asked to approve a Private Member's Bill for which the need will be established only after it becomes law. My Lords, this is not generally accepted practice in your Lordships' House.

Clause 3 provides what I call the leaves of the Bill. This seeks to clarify the status of allotment gardening as a recreation by adding "allotment gardens" to the standard list of recreational facilities contained in Section 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaenous Provisions) Act 1976, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has said. Bearing in mind that part of the joy of an allotmenteer is in the toil and sweat which is inevitably involved, allotment gardening could well be regarded as much a sport as swimming and golfing and the other activities referred to in that section.

Like these other activities, it is undoubtedly a recreation, but, as the noble Lord knows, my department has long urged local authorities to regard the provision of allotments on an equal basis with the provision of other recreational activities, and it is not clear how allotment gardeners would be likely to benefit from having "allotment gardens" added to the list of outdoor facilities referred to in that section. Because of the effects of the Allotment Acts, allotment holders are already better off than participants in other recreational pursuits, in that local authorities are generally obliged to provide allotments, but only may provide recreational facilities under Section 19(1)(b) of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976.

My noble friend Lord Hawke asked what the Government were doing to encourage allotment holders. The answer is that we are of course doing all that we can and we are seeking to persuade local authorities voluntarily along some of the courses of action that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has suggested in his Bill, but the Government really do not feel that this encouragement should be put into legislative force, into statute law. It is on this really that we rest our case.

However. I have listened carefully to what has been said today and I repeat what my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and I have said on several occasions. The Government are not unsympathetic to the plight of allotment holders. This Bill, however, is not the way forward for them, nor—as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has recognised—at a time when the Government are seeking to reduce the burdens on local authorities, a way forward for local government as a whole. The Government cannot therefore lend their support to the Bill.

Having said those dampening words, however, I still congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on what I know is a public-spirited and wholehearted devotion to the cause of allotments, and I pay tribute to him for his efforts to secure better provision for those on the waiting lists.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, I do not think that this noble House was listening to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, as an individual. He is of course representing the Department of the Environment and Her Majesty's Government. I am literally staggered that they have trotted out the old chestnut about the first clause in the Bill. To call this an added burden on the local authorities is too ridiculous to be true. Here you have a junior clerk employed on other duties. The council receives an application for an allotment. It is recorded in a register, and other letters come in and they are recorded. Then councillors can from time to time go to see their officers, like any good councillor should do, before they get involved in anything, and find out what the demand is. If there is a big demand, they have every democratic right. But to say that it is taking time, bureaucracy increasing bureaucracy, is the most stupid statement that I have ever heard from any Government department. The House must be frankly amazed. In any case, it is normal business practice to register letters received. The Government talk so much about consulting business people in regard to legislation, but here they are acting in the most reactionary Victorian manner that really is staggering.

So far as statutory allotments are concerned, I am prepared to help the Government provided that they play fair with me. They are in difficulty because I have in my hand here a letter from the Department of the Environment to the Chief Officer, Parks and Amenities, London Borough of Ealing, who wrote to the department on 15th August this year asking for its assistance to determine which of the sites listed in the schedule were statutory allotments. The reply was: I am afraid we cannot help you in this matter. Statutory allotments are not legally defined". It can only refer the London Borough of Ealing to Section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, which is generally interpreted to mean that if the council originally purchased or acquired the land for allotments it must thereafter be considered to be a statutory site.

The noble Lord and his department know the importance of this. If a statutory site is cleared and developed for other reasons, as when it is sold for the council, it is valuable land for housing and therefore it reduces the financial burden on the local authority, but it cannot be disposed of without reference to the Minister. However, there is nothing in statute to say that that is so. This is all that I am trying to do.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, because in this House we co-operate with each other to a great extent. I was unable to let him know about this earlier because he unfortunately had family trouble, about which I have the greatest sympathy and understanding. As the House heard at Question Time, I have also been belting around the Rock of Gibraltar in a state of complete crisis on a delegation which found itself immersed in the troubles of the frontier and all that arises from that. I arrived back only late last night, but, being a sensible Member of the House, I had written my speech before I left so I had merely to return and pick it up.

There is an important factor concerning the status of recreational gardening so far as allotments are concerned. This is a point we have to bear in mind. It is possible—as happened in one case which went to the High Court, where the allotment holders won with costs—for a council to attempt to price out allotment holders by making the rent so prohibitive that the allotments become a burden to them. It can be expensive to run an allotment with all the fertilizers and patent ideas. Because of a drop in demand, the council has every opportunity to go to the Minister for sanction to dispose of the land. Land for housing is very valuable indeed and can bring in a nice packet of money for the council. That is one of the important reasons for this Bill about recreational gardening.

I shall not make any more heavy weather. I have been completely shattered by the Government. It is rather strange that the last time I moved the Second Reading of the Bill I caught a physical cold. Now I have another one—but I am always catching a cold from the Government. Will they not relax and give me an opportunity to get this through? The only chance for democracy is here, because in another place the system for Private Members' Bills is such that when they come up for Second Reading any individual member can shout, "Object", for no reason or for any good reason, and the Bill goes to the end of the queue.

In this case, I withdrew the Bill knowing full well, having received all the Government's representations, that I should get a fair deal in this Chamber. I still hope for that because of the way this Chamber deals with legislation. I am fully prepared to meet the Government on amendments. However, I still say that this Bill is vitally necessary in spite of the attitude of the Government. Therefore, with the degree of determination that we Wallaces have, and the Scots Wallaces certainly have, I beg to move.

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