HL Deb 24 February 1984 vol 448 cc1015-30

2.50 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill he now read a second time. On 17th March 1976 I was privileged to initiate a short debate on allotment gardens and home food production. Time and time again in the debate the need for up-to-date legislation on allotments was stressed. A particularly emphatic speech was made by the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, who pointed out the urgent need to implement the Thorpe report, the recommendations of which have been accepted and praised by various governments but unfortunately never implemented.

The late Professor Harry Thorpe was present at that debate in 1976. He was delighted with the unanimous support of noble Lords and their speeches, and subsequently used the Hansard report as the basis of an address to an international conference in Luxembourg very shortly afterwards. The then Minister, my noble friend Lady, Birk, showed enthusiasm and even indicated that legislation could come along in due course. But—alas!—it never did. However, that is not unusual. Similar promises have been made since 1971: Mr Graham Page, MP, on 28th July 1971 and 5th May 1972; confirmed in a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, to Mr Toby Jessel MP, dated 14th November 1972; the noble Baroness. Lady Young, in a letter to Mr Toby Jessel dated 27th July 1972; and Mr Tom King. MP, speaking in the House of Commons Standing Committee D at col. 46 of Hansard on 12th February 1980. It might interest noble Lords if I quote what he said: I quote from col. 46 of that Standing Committee on 12th February 1980. I do this particuarly because my noble friend who will speak for the Opposition was involved. Mr King said: The hon. Member for Edmonton asked what we intended to do about the Thorpe report. At present, we are considering comprehensive legislation to take in the Thorpe report. There has been in the background of the Government's thinking for some time what is called a recreational gardening Bill, familiar to both Administrations. The 1969 Thorpe report Ills not been jumped upon by either parts with great alacrity. This is the point I want to stress: This reforming, radical Administration is looking at it seriously, but I cannot give any commitment about it". I am now looking to the radical reforming Administration for a little moral support.

To sum up the matter in a few words, nothing has happened, and so this Bill is presented in good faith and. I would stress, with great goodwill. Allotment legislation is out of date mainly because of social changes in Britain. No more is it a provision for the poor, but it is now a healthy and productive recreation as a result of which many thousands of men and women enjoy fresh air and honest down-to-earth labour, and it provides fresh produce to the further enhancement of their and their families' health. In addition of course Allotments Acts need to be brought up to date to line up with much recent local goverment legislation.

Great effort has gone into the preparation of this Bill, thanks to the London Association of Recreational Gardeners of which I have the honour to be president, and their enthusiastic secretary, Mr. Tom Hume. I have also to declare an interest as my daughter is joining the increasing number of women who have taken over allotment plots, and I have not the slightest doubt whatever that I shall be involved in the family plot.

As quickly as possible, I shall now outline the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 is designed to give local authorities precise directions as to their duties as allotment authorities; namely, to provide sufficient allotment gardens to satisfy, the demand for them. The clause will supersede Section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908, and accordingly Section 23 is included in the repeals in Schedule 2. The reason is that experience has shown that there is a lack of positive legislative direction as to the provision of allotment gardens.

Allotment provisions has not received the consideration recommended by Her Majesty's Government. Allotment gardening is statistically the most popular and satisfying of active outdoor recreations provided by local authorities, and it is felt that Government exhortations now need to be reinforced by a statutory duty to require allotment needs to be met. The effect of Clause 2(1) will require allotment authorities to keep separate accounts of their receipts and expenditure with respect to allotment gardens, and provides that allotment monies may not be transferred from the allotment account to be used for other purposes unless the district auditor is satisfied that allotment needs have been met. These provisions will apply not only to allotment gardens directly managed by allotment authorities but also—where management is devolved, for example—to an allotments organisation. At present allotment authorities are not obliged to keep separate accounts in respect of allotment gardens.

The net income—if we may, call it profit—from allotment gardens can be automatically transferred to the general rate fund, when it may be used for purposes other than the allotment service. The first call on allotment garden rent monies should be the improvement of existing sites to bring them up to an appropriate standard with respect to fencing, water supply, access, et cetera. When statutory or permanent allotment garden land is sold, the first call on the proceeds of the sale should be the provision of alternative land for the displaced plot holders, or the improvement of existing land. This was confirmed on behalf of the Government on the 14th February 1980 in Standing Committee D. and the reference in Hansard is col. 102, but I shall not deal with that in detail unless requested later.

Much allotment garden land has in the past been acquired by allotment authorities by deed of gift, by legacy, or under the terms of a charitable trust. When such land is sold, if the wishes of the original benefactors are to be observed, then the proceeds should be devoted to allotment purposes and not used for other purposes unless and until the allotment garden needs of the local population have been fully realised.

Then I come to Clause 2(2). This subsection will require allotment authorities to make their allotment garden accounts available to public inspection. This reflects the standard practice with regard to public availability of local authority accounts. Clause 3 is quite important. It w ill require the Secretary of State for the Environment to publish annually a limited statement of statistics with respect to the numbers and areas of allotment gardens, and the number of people who desire to rent an allotment garden.

At the moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, and others pointed out in a debate some time ago, there are very few statistics available. Up-to-date statistics of allotment gardening are essential for the following important reasons. When preparing planning statements, for example, structure and local plans and regional recreational strategy, it is essential that the demand for allotment gardens is known to enable the appropriate provisions to be made. Also they are required for use in submission at public inquiries where the facility of being able to put the allotment situation into perspective both locally and nationally is most essential.

The White Paper, Food From Our Own Resources, highlighted the need for statistical information on domestic food production which could only be assessed on information derived from allotment statistics. There is generally an increasing awareness of the importance and value of allotment statistics.

Clause 4 is a key clause. The clause adds allotment gardens to the standard list of recreational facilities which is contained in Section 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. This clause makes clear that allotment gardening has the same status as other recreation and should be financed accordingly. Successive Governments have accepted allotment gardening as a recreational pursuit and the amendment in Clause 4 is a logical consequence of that acceptance. There was a case in the High Court where the learned judge decided on a case because his view was that allotment gardening was a recreation.

Clause 5 is quite important in the sense that it removes the disability on councillors from speaking or voting when they are the tenant of an allotment garden and wish to discuss and vote on allotment gardens which are before a council, provided that a councillor discloses his interest. This disability on councillors who are tenants of allotment gardens is contrary to the recreational status of allotment gardens. If a councillor plays tennis or bowls or carries out other recreational activities offered by a local authority, he is not expected to declare an interest, nor does he have to.

Clause 6 gives statutory effect to the amendments to Schedule 1 to which I shall come later.

Clause 7 contains the usual technical provisions common to all Acts of Parliament.

Schedule 1, paragraph 1, adds two new subsections to Section 28 of the 1908 Act. New subsection (5) enables the Secretary of State to prescribe model rules which local authorities may follow in order to lay down the conditions under which allotment gardens are let. New subsection (6) permits local authorities to adopt the model rules without formality, but a local authority is required to submit the rules for confirmation if they want to vary the implementation of the model. They then have to submit the rules for variation to the Minister for confirmation under Section 236 of the Local Government Act 1972.

Experience has shown that local authorities often wish to include in the rules provisions that are contrary to the requirements laid down in the Allotments Act. Some safeguards in the interests of both local authorities and allotment garden tenants are required. The practice of submitting for confirmation only those rules which contain novel features is in line with current Government proposals for the confirmation of by-laws. Authorities will then be encouraged to save administrative costs by adopting the model rules as they stand.

In regard to Schedule 1(2)(1), the amendment made here will update the Act by enabling parish and community councils, London borough councils and the Greater London Council to assist and make grants to allotment associations. At present, only county and district councils may assist in making grants to allotment associations. As to Schedule 1(2)(2), there is a growing tendency for allotment societies—and this is quite important—to devolve the management of allotment garden sites to allotment associations. This is a practice to be encouraged as it enables allotment garden sites to be managed more efficiently, often to the financial advantage of both the local authority and the allotment garden tenant. This sub-paragraph will give further encouragement to the practice of devolved management. The actual arrangements for devolved management are a matter between the allotment associations and the local authorities. They come to agreement and then the allotment associations will carry on the council's work.

I turn to Schedule (1)(2)(3). This sub-paragraph will empower the Sports Council to make grants to the allotment associations. The Sports Council are presently of the view that the development of allotment gardens and associated facilities do not come within the Sports Council's terms of reference. The report of the Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments 1969 (CMND. 4166), the Thorpe Report, recommended that allotment gardening should be regarded as a recreational pursuit and be financed in line with other recreations. There is another important point, and at my age and time of life, it becomes very important—and this may apply also to other noble Lords. Allotment recreational gardening is often the only recreation of the 50-plus age group, who deserve just as much consideration from the Sports Council as any other group. The Sports Council's list of recreations include a number of recreational pursuits analogous to recreational gardening; for example, caving, dance and movement, hang-gliding, mountaineering, rambling and wild fowling. Why should recreational gardening be omitted?

In regard to Schedule 1(3), this paragraph provides that when an allotment garden tenancy is terminated the former tenant will be entitled to receive compensation for any structure, fencing or improvement that he has made at his own expense. At present, on quitting his allotment the tenant is entitled to receive compensation only for crops growing on the land and for any fertiliser applied to the land. As to Schedule (1)(4), at present, the maximum fine for criminal damage to an allotment site is £25. This is totally inadequate. The standard scale for fines for summary offences was introduced by Section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 and the paragraph fully accords with that section. On Schedule 1(5), this paragraph brings the definition of an allotment garden into line with present-day requirements.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us how the 500 square metres compares with the present one-eighth and one-quarter of an acre? I realise that I am very ignorant in asking that, but it would help.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, subject to correction—and I add that because I will then advise the noble and learned Lord—I assume that it is up to the standard of the 10-rod plot which is the standard size presently enjoyed. But we are in the age of metres and that causes complication, particularly to me. Anyway, if there is any change on that, I will advise the noble and learned Lord. The maximum size of an allotment garden is reduced from 40 to 20 poles, which is the Thorpe Report recommendation. It is made clear that allotment land must be suitable for cultivation, have vehicular access, fencing, a water supply and so on. Furthermore, tenants are permitted to grow flowers as well as fruit and vegetables.

There may be an argument over wholly growing flowers: that is a question for the model rules to be settled with the local authority. I have no objection to anybody growing flowers. A chap who lives with his wife and family in a flat or a maisonette with a small garden or with no garden at all will find it very nice to be able to grow his own flowers and to give a bunch to his wife to ease the burden of carrying the can for the family seven days a week without pay and without a union. So I am all in favour of giving one's wife flowers. A legislative amendment on these lines is long overdue.

Schedule 1, paragraph 6, provides that the statutory safeguards on the disposal of permanent allotments will apply to allotment land acquired by deed of gift or legacy, as they apply to land purchased or appropriated for allotments.

Schedule 1, paragraph 7: the effect of this is that allotment rents must reflect the recreational status of allotment gardening. Some local authorities mistakenly believe that allotment gardening is a highly profitable activity. This is a total misconception. The Thorpe Report states that the "average" allotment-holder spends between 400 and 500 hours per annum on his allotment. It is pertinent to ask what other spare-time activity receives as much attention from its adherents. One also has to provide seeds, fertiliser and many other things. I have my own specialised method, for example, of growing early peas, which robs the birds of a feast but I then have to pay for nuts as an alternative diet. As a result, I get twice as many peas on the average as the person who puts them into the ground in the ordinary way. Any noble Lord approaching me afterwards can, for the slight consideration of a cheap coffee, receive details of this process. There are many other special ways of doing things which are costly but they give the satisfaction of a good crop. When a family can sit down to eat, as mine did at Christmas, early peas (Little Marvel) as fresh as the day they were plucked from the plants, it gives one a great deal of satisfaction. It does not matter about cost: it is the personal satisfaction that does you good and gives you that healthy outlook on life. I will not go on further about that, otherwise I shall be holding up the House for some time.

Schedule 2, first repeal: Section 23 of the 1908 Act is being replaced by Clause 1 of this Bill. Schedule 2, second repeal: this removes the need for Treasury consent to Government grants paid to allotment cooperatives. I gather that no grants have ever been paid either by the Sports Council or by the Secretary of State.

Schedule 2, third repeal: this 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 enables allotment land for which the demand is reduced, to be used for open space purposes and, when the demand for allotments revives, permits open space to be taken for allotments without formality. The repeal also dispenses with some very bureaucratic Government controls which are presently contained in Section 28.

Schedule 2, final repeal: at present, if a prosecution is to succeed under Section 19 of the Allotments Act 1922, a notice must be displayed. The repeal removes the need to display the notice. This repeal accords with the modern requirements of the criminal law as exemplified, for example, by the Criminal Damage Act 1971. I have been very brief, I must apologise to your Lordships because all the week I have been suffering from a very heavy cold, and that has not been improved by the problems of waiting for this debate.

That is an outline of this Bill. I have already stated that it is introduced in a spirit of goodwill and co-operation, and all I am asking is that the Government extend the same goodwill and co-operation as I have done. On the details of the Bill, there is not the slightest reason why we should not work together. This is a Bill which is in the general interests of allotment holders and is for the advancement of social recreation for a large number of people who have not yet had an opportunity of going in for this delightful and healthy recreation. My Lords, I beg to move.

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

3.15 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on producing this Bill. First, it gives us an opportunity to discuss a most important subject, which he has given us before in this House, and a Bill of this kind is certainly overdue. Since the passing of the 1908 Act, there have been six further amending Acts passed up until the Allotments Act 1950, as well as other pieces of legislation before and since. The whole subject has become extraordinarily complex and there is a need for the legislation to be simplified and consolidated.

The record of my party over the years in this field is a good one. We have always held very strongly to the importance of both allotments and smallholdings. We have felt that the whole movement is extremely important and that importance is not declining over the years. It is undoubtedly to the benefit of this country to be able to support ourselves as much as possible. It is not only in wartime that benefit is found. A country which is not capable of supporting its own population is in a fundamentally unhealthy situation. It is, so to speak, the basis of that country's wealth; and if the basis is not adequate, the whole economic state of the country immediately becomes rather less fundamentally sound than it would otherwise be.

We are not used to thinking of ourselves in this sense of being founded on the food producing capacity of our country, but it is important; and, in the sphere of allotments, we very much underrate the amount which allotments contribute. Certainly, it is over 10 per cent. of the food consumed in this country, according to the only serious study of this subject, which is more than most people would give credit for. Also, at the same time as concentrating on producing for ourselves, we shall probably need to rely less on imported foods from other countries.

There is a growing realisation that not only is dependence on other countries for food imports bad for us, but it is not necessarily good for them. At this moment, also, we have the problem of unemployment and the difficulties in our inner cities. Here over the years it will become more and more necessary for us to provide opportunities for people to grow their own food and to work productively when there is no other work for them to do.

The demand for allotments appears to go in 10-year cycles. At the moment, we are in the middle of a cycle where supply is outstripping demand. In 1979, there were 120,000 people in Britain waiting for land and the provision of allotments declined by 10,000 acres. For example, in Coventry there was a waiting list of 2,000 in 1978–79, yet today there are between 200 and 300 vacant plots, and the same trend is repeated nationally. However, there is one constant which is that the amount of land available for allotments is in decline. If the cycle follows its usual trend, possibly helped by our present economic situation, it is likely that within the next five years this country will again be facing a serious shortage of allotments and we should be preparing legislation on that basis.

Although I understand the reasons and certainly would not cavil at it, it is a pity that the Bill is centred on the name "recreational gardening". One of the reasons why it is problematical is that we already have, and are going to have over the next few years, growing trouble over the use of words like "work", "leisure" and "recreation". In a world where full-time paid work is probably not going to be available for more than half of the population at the most, the useful and creative work which people can do cannot just be pushed aside under terms that we have used in the past to describe matters of rather less importance. That is not to say that "recreational gardening" is not a good and accurate term, because it does re-create in many ways. Of all the various leisure-type activities, gardening and food growing can earn the title of recreating rather more thoroughly than most.

Having said how much I welcome the Bill in order to bring the legislation up to date, I have to add that my party finds one major part of it totally unacceptable. It is, I regret to say, embedded in clause 1: The council … shall maintain a register of persons … and shall purchase or appropriate to allotments' use sufficient land to satisfy the demand indicated therein, and shall let that land as allotment gardens to such persons". The Bill lays a statutory duty on local councils to provide allotment gardens. My party is a party of devolution. We believe that as much as possible should be left to local government itself. It should be able to make up its mind as to what it is to do and how it is to do it. We should be very much in favour of plenty of carrots and even the occasional stick in helping local government to do these things, but we believe that basically it is up to local government itself. We believe that it is an area where those who have allotments and those who wish to have allotments are quite capable of putting pressure themselves on local government to get the kind of action that they want. We are the first to admit that they would suffer from the electoral system of local government which does not make it tremendously easy to change the representation in a one-party area.

We also deplore—and we deplore it when used by any party—the over-caucusing of decisions, which sometimes makes it difficult for electors to put pressure on their immediate local representative. Nevertheless, we believe that as much power as possible should be given to local government to support matters in their area which are not ones of vital, central, national importance or of civil rights. Allotment gardening, important though it is, does not come under either of those two headings. It is a matter quite properly for local government itself to deal with.

It is very much our hope that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, and those who are helping him put forward this Bill, will, in the course of its passage, be able to find ways of amending it so that we can change it from being a Bill which enforces various actions on local government to a Bill which encourages actions by local government. We will do our best to make such changes. If we are unable to make such changes, I regret to say that we will not be able to support this Bill. But there is a great deal that is good in it, and I hope that we will be able to make the changes which are necessary.

3.26 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for allowing me to slip into the gap on the speakers' list after I had inadvertently failed to put down my name, but I must not abuse his courtesy. I also share with your Lordships' gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, for putting forward this Bill, giving us an opportunity of discussion, and for his very clear exposition of the Bill's provisions. I notice, however, that he shares my own woeful inability to translate the old measurements into the new.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, as it seemed to me, made out an overwhelming case for legislation. We all of us like to promote our own enthusiasm and interests, and this is an interest that I share with the noble Lord. In addition, he has given me a most interesting gardening gadget which puts me further under his obligation—although that is not why I give him my general support today.

The allotment system is, of all the outside activities referred to in Clause 4, the most beneficial—for both the health of a very wide spread of the population when one considers them in age, and because the allotment system, as I understand it, makes the most productive use of land both horticulturally and agriculturally. Perhaps the Minister will be able to help us on that point, as he himself, as we all know, is a notable horticulturist.

Having said that, and, like the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, sharing in the general objectives of this Bill, I. too, have some hesitation about it. My hesitation is not exactly the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. As I understand the situation at the moment, the duty of local authorities is with only one exception already mandatory. Perhaps the Minister will put us right on that. I have always understood that there was a duty on local authorities, with the one exception, to meet demand for allotments. The one exception I know of is the inner London boroughs. I very much doubt whether it is right to make that duty mandatory rather than permissive so far as they are concerned.

My second objection is that I shall be very sorry to see legislation with this vast apparatus of bureaucracy. I hope that the Minister will be able to make encouraging noises towards this Bill; will undertake to bring in legislation; and will hold out hopes that the objectives of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, can be carried out a little less cumbrously.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I should like to begin, as indeed others have, by congratulating my noble friend, Lord Wallace of Coslany, not only on the opportunity that he has today—his good fortune—but also on his dedication to this particular subject over many years. Those of us who have not had the benefit of being in your Lordships' House a long time—and I am one of the privileged newcomers—read up in preparation for the debate, and of course we looked at the 1976 debate, which has great significance. One begins to sec that today perhaps is a red letter day in my noble friend's legislation and parliamentary career. Whatever happens to the Bill after today—and we can be hopeful from what has been said up to now—to actually get to this stage is an achievement.

I believe each four years there is a notable achievement; 1976 and 1980 were mentioned by the noble Lord and now we are into 1984. I hope that he has a better reward for his endeavours on this occasion than in the past. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and the noble Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who paid tribute to the lucidity, the clearness and the care of my noble friend's exposition, and in fact he has served the House well because none of us needs to go through the detail as much as he did.

I should also like to join in special tribute to the London Association of Recreational Gardeners and particularly Tom Hume their tireless secretary. I can recall when I served on the Committee on the Local Government (Planning and Land) Bill in 1980 in another place. The Government then took the opportunity to interfere and intervene in the allotments sphere, but were unable to accept the suggestions which were put to me, and which I happily put to the Government at the time, that it was about time that the Thorpe Report recommendations should be acted upon. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, drew attention to the words of the Minister in Standing Committee D, but in effect they were more or less precisely the same as the words of his noble friend and mine, Lady Birk, who had the honour and privilege of being the Minister in 1976. What she said then—and I think it is important to have it read again into the record—was: But when Parliamentary time permits—and I cannnot say when that will be—we shall be introducing further legislation on allotments to rationalise the existing complicated legal code which is contained in the various Acts from 1908 to 1950."[Official Report, 17/3/76; col. 261.] Then when she was chided by Lord Sandys in that debate that in fact we had the opportunity, the noble Baroness said (in col. 261): Yes, my Lords, but I am always ready to use a good idea produced by somebody else". This is what we are discussing this afternoon. I think that the Thorpe Report, which was being discussed then, certainly is at the very least a good idea, and provides the Government with an opportunity to assist a great many people.

I genuinely have no idea of the attitude of the Government on this particular matter. I very much hope they will recognise that there is a time which comes in a great many issues, and I think the time has come for the Government to act. Undoubtedly these are difficult times—and I do not refer only to finance but also to time pressure, priorities and lists—but I hope they will look kindly upon this Bill and give it a fair wind. Allotment gardens, statistically, are among the most popular and satisfying of outdoor activities provided by local authorities.

When I served the London Borough of Enfield on the allotments committee it was always enormously satisfying to feel that On the margin, which is all it can be as a councilor, one was helping to provide for so many people the opportunity of a satisfactory means of exercise. As has been said—and my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley in an effective speech said this for us—over the years allotmenteers have served the nation well. In effect, he said that if any nation was unable to make provisions of this kind properly—and what we are about is to provide a better legislative framework—and could not properly provide food from its own resources, there was a great question mark. So far as I am concerned, we need to do what the Thorpe Report and this Bill are asking us to do.

We are making the provision of allotments, if not more respectable, certainly visually more attractive. I only know my own area, but I travel about the country and I should think that over the past 20 years many councils have taken the opportunity of spending money—ratepayers' money, of course, but money well spent—on tidying up what could he looked upon in the had old days as simply an allotment site. We are now seeing all over the country—I speak particularly of my own area of Enfield—allotments that are tidy, well-fenced, well-watered, well-provided with paths and with neat, tidy little sheds in which gardening tools are kept. I certainly want to say nothing disrespectful about the efforts of councils in the past, but we are seeking to make sure that literally hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy using their allotments can feel satisfied and more secure that the interests of allotments and allotmenteers are better looked after.

I certainly picked up when I read of the intention to ensure that any monies realised from the sale of allotments is returned to allotment purposes. That is very important. When changes in the stature and designation of allotments happen and councils decide to get rid of land—I make no political or party point—I imagine that some councils would be under some stress and strain, particularly over the next few years, when they are forced to find some other means of increasing their income or decreasing their costs. Some might he tempted to realise allotment land or what might he seen from a committee decision as allotment land that is not needed or suitable for allotments and try to capitalise on it. Simply put, we are seeking to protect the interests of allotmenteers in the future.

I certainly share the views of my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley who said that the Bill is not flawless. He was frank enough to say this on a very basic point: the strengthening of the duty of councils to make provision to interfere and carry out an activity that they themselves may not he too enthusiastic about. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, quite properly queried whether that was necessary and whether there was not at the present time a mandatory duty laid upon councils. So we are going to have an argument and a discussion. I certainly agree with what my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley said in his constructive speech. We are in the business—by compromise perhaps and having to accept that there will be some things in the Bill that may not necessarily he included at the end of the day—of bringing to fruition, hopefully in 1984, the aspirations of many people, not least those of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Coslany, and peace of mind to thousands of people who are looking to us to provide a legislative programme. From this side of the House I certainly give the Bill a very warm welcome on what is quite clearly a tentative stage, Second Reading, and I hope the Minister is able to do the same.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, has made clear in this Bill his interest, concern and goodwill for the allotments movement in this country. Indeed, how could it not be so? He is the distinguished president of the Association of Allotment Gardeners. I, too, welcome this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's support for the thousands of allotment gardeners in England and Wales. As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary wrote in this quarter's edition of The Allotment and Leisure Gardener: We recognise the value of allotment cultivation both for recreation and as a source of fresh food. It is fun, it keeps you fit and it produces something valuable and useful. It is important for old and young. It is one of the pastimes which is worth while for many disabled people. And if you don't like food grown with additional fertilisers and sprayed with pesticides, your allotment lets you have your vegetables just as you want them". The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, obviously agrees with this, but he did ask me to educate him, so perhaps I should tell him that a rod is the same as a pole, which is the same as a perch, which is five and a half yards or approximately five metres. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred earlier to the average size of plot, which is 10 square rods.

It seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the Government are at one in having at heart the best interests for the future of the allotments movement. Where we differ is that we feel that Parliament has placed the responsibility for the provision of allotments on local authorities and not on the Secretary of State; and that it is right and proper that each authority should be free to decide for itself what proportion of its resources it is prepared to allocate for allotment purposes. It is the Government's view that the proposals put forward in this Bill are not the best way of tackling the question of adequate allotment provision.

There are in fact a number of reasons why we cannot support this Bill. In the first place, we have declared our determination to reduce substantially the number of controls over local government activities and to give the authorities more discretion and flexibility in the discharge of their functions. In the case of allotments, we did this in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 under which some 11 central Government controls were removed, in accordance with our policy of giving local authorities just that much more freedom to manage their affairs with the minimum of interference from Whitehall, that Parliament at that time, and I still, recognise that they should have. There are, therefore, important reasons why we cannot support this attempt to reimpose such statutory duties on local authorities and central Government at this time.

The Bill, as introduced by the noble Lord, seeks to impose a statutory duty on district, parish and community councils and the London boroughs to maintain a register of persons wishing to rent an allotment, to purchase or appropriate sufficient land to satisfy the demand as indicated by the registers, and to let that land as allotments to such persons. The Allotments Acts 1908 to 1950 already place an obligation on local authorities to provide a sufficient number of allotments where the authority is of the opinion that there is a demand for them by local residents; and the Acts make provision for the acquisition, management and control by local authorities of allotment sites.

As the statutes are not specific about the extent and nature of allotment provision, it is appropriate that each local authority should be free to decide for itself what proportion of its resources to devote to this purpose, bearing in mind the availability of land and all other demands on the finite resources which are available—a point made by the noble Lord. Lord Graham of Edmonton—particularly so as allotments are unique in being the only recreational facility which local authorities have a duty to provide. Perhaps I may draw the attention of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, to that fact. I should add that an exception to that is inner London, where this duty is discretionary. In this respect I was delighted to hear the views of the Liberal Party enunciated from the refurbished lips of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, whose return to our midst I particularly welcome.

To answer again the point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, this does not mean that authorities have an absolute duty to satisfy the total demand for allotments. Any requirement on authorities to provide numbers of allotments so as to meet total demand would clearly be likely to lead to irrational expenditure, when compared, for example, with housing, which is another matter that is very dear to your Lordships' hearts. Is it rational to have allotment for all-comers at a time when waiting lists for housing remain so ridiculously long?

The requirement upon authorities to keep separate allotment accounts of receipts and expenditure would reimpose a statutory duty which was repealed by the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, as would the duty to use the receipts only for allotments purpose, except where allotments needs had been certified as having been met. The House covered this ground before, during the passage of the 1980 Bill, when the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, criticised the repeal of Section 54 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 on precisely these two points. The repeal of that section went some way towards meeting a recommendation of the Thorpe Committee, which expressed the opinion that any expenditure on allotments should fall on the general rate fund in the same way as other recreational provisions. Local authorities are still able to keep separate allotments accounts if they wish, but we see no need for this to be a specific statutory obligation.

We now rely on Section 32(2) of the 1908 Act, which requires local authorities to use the proceeds of sale of allotment land in discharging any debts or liabilities incurred by the council in respect of land acquired for allotments or in acquiring, adapting or improving other land for allotments purposes.

The Bill that we are now considering also seeks to reimpose a statutory duty under which local authorities would be required to publish annual accounts, and it seeks to impose a duty upon the Secretary of State by which, on receipt of information from each authority, he would be required to publish an annual statement of the numbers and area of allotments, together with the number of persons on the waiting lists. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. I regard that as a retrogressive step. Statements of annual allotment statistics were discontinued following representations from the local authority associations, and I doubt whether the loss of those statistics has proved a serious inconvenience. That is hardly surprising, since the information was based on returns from some 800 authorities, (out of a total of about 10,000), supplemented by information from a sample of 1,500 parish councils every fourth year. The best that could be said for them was that they provided merely an indication of the national picture. Clearly no reliance could be placed on their accuracy. I do not approve of statutory duties which local authorities would have extreme difficulties complying with.

The Thorpe Committee, whose report I have already briefly referred to, reviewed allotments policy and recommended legislative changes. The 460-page report, published in 1969, included a recommendation that allotments should be called "leisure gardens" and that gardening on such sites should in future be considered mainly as a recreation. I agree with that. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, does not attempt to implement many of the Thorpe Report recommendations, but its Long Title and its provision in Clause 4 to add allotment gardens to the many other recreations listed in Section 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (in which local authorities are empowered to provide facilities) are consistent with the Thorpe Report concepts. In other words, we have already taken that step.

The Goverment remain sympathic to the broad thinking underlying the Thorpe Report. We agree that it is desirable to remove the drab, charitable image of allotments to the benefit of the plotholders and the landscape alike. However, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Graham, we do not accept that all the detailed rules and restrictions which the Thorpe Committee envisaged are in any way appropriate to the 1980s, nor are we aware of any adverse effect on allotment provision as a result of the repeal of various controls in the 1980 Act.

Thus while I of course accept the principal of a better deal for allotment holders—who, indeed, does not?— this is not the way to go about it because it is in complete contrast to the Goverment's philosophy of non-interference in matters which are properly the total concern of local government. 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.

Lord Kilmarnock

; My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, and for the record, may I ask whether I heard fall from his lips the statement that he did not approve of statutory obligations that local authorities would have extreme difficulty complying with? In the light of certain legislation on the horizon, is that not an interesting proposition?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I do not think that it is, for the simple reason that if the noble Lord is referring to the current housing benefits scheme, or something of that ilk, it was widely canvassed among the local authorities before it was adopted, and a decision that they should take it over as a type of agency function was reached. So I do not think that there is anything at all inconsistent in what I have said.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

I was somewhat amused at the final remarks of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale—I call him my noble friend because we have a mutual interest in gardening but he is more of a professional than I am. However, the noble Lord did refer to the fact that the Bill would interfere with the Government's policy of non-interference with local authorities. With all due respect to the noble Lord, I found that remark completely hilarious considering the problems that we are facing with the rate capping proposals and "Whitehall knows best". That was not a very good point in his brief, but I do not blame him.

As regards the general debate, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I am glad to see him back and I am grateful for his undoubted interest in the Bill. My thanks are also due to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, whose presence to support the Bill in some degree today is very deeply personally appreciated and a very friendly gesture.

There was a Liberal objection. I thought I heard the noble Lord. Lord Beaumont, introducing an argument for proportional representation as regards Clause I. Apparently he did so. However, there was a Liberal objection as regards the local authority providing plots—

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord is unaware that proportional representation cures all ills?

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, the noble Lord will tell me next that it gets rid of greenfly, but I rather doubt it. However, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, also took a similar view of Clause 1 and my noble friend Lord Graham gave me a hint of a similar type of objection. That is fair enough. As I said at the beginning, this Bill is capable of negotiation and I ask for goodwill from the Government. I am afraid that they rather stunned me with a bucket of cold water. However, we can still progress. I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Graham, because in point of fact he is not new to these matters. He did some valuable work with his colleague, Mr. Nigel Spearing, in the House of Commons; they are experienced local government men.

When the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, started to develop his speech, my mind went back to 17th March 1976 when I was speaking from the Government side—not the Front Bench; that doubtful honour came later—and the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, was speaking as spokesman for the Opposition from this bench. He made a damning speech of delay about the Bill. He stressed emphatically all the points that I put forward today about statistics and so on. I only wish that he was present here today so that I could hear the type of speech that he would make now. On the basis of his form in the debate of 1976, he would certainly have slammed the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for six. I also heard some comment by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, about the rate burden on ratepayers. Of course allotments help ratepayers; allotment holders are ratepayers. At least if they "dig for victory" and grow a few more cabbages and so on it assists the family finances and helps them to pay the rate bill. I happen to be a very good ratepayer; I pay my rates on the dot.

I do not think that there are any further points that I need to make, because I am conscious that this is Friday afternoon and a late hour, and that there are staff here who want to get home as well as noble Lords. However, I still make the point to the Government that if certain amendments are brought forward in Committee, I ask for their co-operation. We will consider this and see what can he done to meet their point of view and that of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale.

This is not a party political debate. Far from it—it is the last debate that could be classed as political. Therefore, I make the offer that we shall give very careful consideration to the points made; Hansard will be obtained and studied, and then we shall see how we can improve the Bill. Nobody pretends to be perfect. This is the first time in my life that I have ever personally handled a Private Bill, and I have been in parliamentary life for many years. I have been used to handling other people's Bills, but there is one heck of a difference when you have to do it yourself. I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part and who have attended to listen. I beg to move.

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

House adjourned at lour minutes before four o'clock.