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My suggestion about how the matter could be implemented and enforced by the police so that it would not be abused as at present would be less bureaucratic and easier to enforce than the present arrangement.
May I make a final plea to the Minister? I understand that the Department of Transport is carrying out an investigation into which agricultural vehicles should be subject to the MOT and what provisions should apply to them. It is ludicrous to suggest that combine harvesters should jam up MOT testing stations which are not big enough to cope with them in any case. I hope that my right hon. Friend will make representations to his colleagues in the Department of Transport to ensure that those types of agricultural vehicles will not be subject to the same testing and plating regulations that currently apply to commercial vehicles.
representations that I have received from my constituents about vehicle excise duty have led me to believe that the Government have made a big mistake in not accepting the opposing arguments that have been advanced. Following tonight's debate, I hope that they will begin to listen both to their own Back Benchers and to the Opposition.
Farmers throughout the country are saying, "What has the Tory party got against the farming industry?" At the end of last year, the Government announced that hill livestock compensatory allowances would not be increased, even though hill farming incomes had declined by more than 20 per cent., and they also cut grant aid for pollution measures. That shows that, for some reason, farmers are not particularly popular with the Government.
As several hon. Members have said, the Government should have consulted widely before introducing the proposal to remove farm vehicles from the exemption from duty. We are not talking just about tractors or heavy goods vehicles; Britain has a successful, specialised farm sector and the farm engineering industry has produced an enormous range of vehicles to service it. One has only to visit agricultural shows every summer to see the enormous range of specialist vehicles that are now available to farmers.
Most of the vehicles are designed to perform a specific function and cannot be used for any other task. Recent developments with large bales of hay and silage require the use of extremely specialised vehicles and there is no question but that such vehicles can be used only on the farm to perform legitimate farm business.
In order to run a successful enterprise, farmers must own a great variety of farm vehicles--these are usually well maintained, although sometimes, sadly, they are not. Because of the Government's move, the introduction of MOT and the licensing of farm vehicles as HGVs may impose enormous costs on farmers.
The Paymaster General has said that the measure was introduced not to raise revenue but to address certain anomalies in the system. As I said earlier, I am sure that he could have addressed those anomalies by consulting with the farm unions and the Country Landowners Association and coming up with some more favourable, concrete proposals.
Several Government Members have made very sensible suggestions about how those anomalies could be addressed and, at the same time, how the Government could reduce the size of the bureaucracy and solve enforcement problems. I urge the Paymaster General to listen not just to what the Opposition are saying but to his own Back Benchers and to bring forward a sensible amendment to solve all our problems.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I must declare an interest in the debate as I am a farmer and I have to cross a road in order to get to part of my land. It is outrageous to suggest that I should have to license my farm vehicles in order to do so; and many of my farming constituents are in a similar position.
I do not wish to annoy my hon. Friend unduly, but I must point out that small farmers such as those I represent often do not buy new machinery--we rely on wealthy
Column 768farmers like him to sell us their second- hand machinery. Therefore, we are the ones who will be clobbered by the MOT; his vehicles are new.
Mr. Clifton-Brown rose --
Such an imposition would be disastrous. Some farmers use combine harvesters that are 20 years old. That machinery could not be expected to pass the MOT test, yet it does a perfectly good job of bringing in the harvest. The same applies to silage-making machinery--it may not be new, but it works. To insist on MOT testing would be outrageous. I ask my hon. Friend the Paymaster General to temper the wind to the shorn sheep. It would be difficult for some farmers to go through all that rigmarole, and I hope that my hon. Friend will think again.
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden): I emphasise the comments of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and welcome the indication by my hon. Friend the Paymaster General that he is prepared to re-examine the issue. He did so in sufficiently open terms to satisfy the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce).
Mr. Malcolm Bruce indicated dissent .
Mr. Haselhurst: The hon. Gentleman is not as reasonable as he presents himself to the Committee. My hon. Friend said that he is prepared to consult. I find that satisfactory, and I am sure that that is true of the farmers in my constituency.
As my hon. Friend said, it is not primarily a revenue-raising matter. I wonder whether it is such a burning issue that it must be resolved for the purpose of removing an anomaly. In so far as there has been an increase in diesel and petrol duties, any extra mileage covered by such vehicles will cost farmers more in any case--so additional revenue will be raised if there is the supposed abuse of the present system.
The point has been made well that certain vehicles are used so little that it would be unreasonable to impose on them the panoply of taxation and regulation. I hope that a common-sense solution can be found. We should be attempting not to remove anomalies but to find a sensible answer relevant to the needs of the industry.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am fully persuaded by the Committee that there is a good, strong case for trying to find a way of responding to the case for agricultural vehicles that occasionally cross public roads or travel short distances along them. The present system is administratively too complex, and more or less impossible to enforce. In the pursuit of good government and administration, we must find a better way of granting exemptions, and one that is easy to understand and possible to enforce. Together with the industry and other hon. Members, I shall seek a way forward over the next few weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) and others raised the question of MOT testing. It is my understanding that no requirement exists for tractors or harvesters, but vehicles such as lorries that are used on public roads even for short distances must meet MOT test basic safety requirements. My hon. Friend's former Department, the Department of
Column 769Transport, is examining the whole question of vehicle testing. It may even be that he started that review, given that the good that Ministers do is generally harvested by those who succeed them. I undertake to draw to the Department's attention the remarks made by members of the Committee this evening.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce: The Minister seems a little confused. He accepts that the matter should be reconsidered but places the onus for devising alternative options on hon. Members and farmers' representatives rather than on the Government and civil servants, who have the resources and responsibility for doing that. When a Minister says, "I accept that this matter needs to be reconsidered," he usually accepts also the amendment to remove the measure in question, so that he can return with revised proposals after consulting. The Minister has introduced a measure granting exemption across the board to all-terrain vehicles. They are precisely the kind of vehicles whose owners can abuse the system--yet they are to be entirely exempt.
A farmer who keeps a combine harvester, however, will in future have to pay tax, as will farmers who keep balers or hayrollers on their farms. The Minister has acknowledged that that is unreasonable. His hon. Friends have said that they are unhappy with the idea, but they have more confidence than I do that the Minister will come up with an answer.
Mr. Bruce: As I said earlier, farms are increasingly divided by public roads, or farmers need to use roads to gain access to other fields, separate from the farm. It is extraordinary that a rule which has worked perfectly satisfactorily for 70 years should suddenly be abolished without notice or consultation.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind the fact that some farmers, such as those with farms along the A1, have chunks of public roads through their farms, and thus find that they have to move combine harvesters from one field to another along busy dual carriageways, as well as bearing a tax burden for doing so. If the Government think that farm vehicles can be moved about the farm without going on public roads, they do not know much about farming.
Mr. Bruce: I agree. A number of farms in my constituency, for instance, are divided up by a railway line. Until the Government decided to privatise the railways, the farmers were allowed free access across the line, but British Rail now refuses to grant that access. Farmers are thus forced to go many miles around to get to fields on the other side of the line--and the Government now insist that the vehicles used for such journeys pay VED.
Column 770My main point is a simple one: the Government and the Minister have said that they accept that there is a problem. The Minister has admitted that wide consultation has not taken place. He has said that he is willing to hear alternative proposals. I suggest that he accept the amendment, consult and then consider the position. If he is not prepared to rise to his feet now and do that, we shall have no hesitation in pressing the matter to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:--
The Committee divided: Ayes 229, Noes 277.
Division No. 56] [9.22 pm
Column 770Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D N
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)