Home Page

Column 19

Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): Madam Speaker, I wish to raise a point of order of which I gave you notice earlier this afternoon. You will have read reports that Lord Lester QC has submitted evidence to a Committee in the other place, in which allegations are made that hon. Members of this House received money for asking questions and promoting commercial interests. Is any action being taken by appropriate Committees in this House to invite Lord Lester to submit any evidence that he may have in support of those allegations to Committees of this House, and to invite him to amplify any evidence that he has submitted to the other place in support of those allegations? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am conscious of the allegations that have been made about Members in this House by a Member of the upper House. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) can take action himself. He can refer the matter to the Select Committee on Members' Interests. I hope that he will do precisely that.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Following the inadequate answers at Question Time, have you had a request from Ministers to make a statement about the great public concern that exists about the Government's proposals to slash expenditure in relation to airport security?

Madam Speaker: No, I have not had such a request.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the most unsatisfactory and misleading nature of the reply that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, may I give notice that I wish to seek an Adjournment debate on the topic of Cambodia and non-governmental organisations?

Madam Speaker: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can put it that way as he did not have the substantive question, but no doubt he will apply for an Adjournment debate in any case.

Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have the Government given notice of their intention to make a statement following the extraordinary and loutish behaviour of the Under- Secretary of State for Scotland, who is responsible for industry and local government, during an incident yesterday when he allegedly attacked a demonstrator with a pickaxe and was subsequently interviewed by Strathclyde police? That behaviour was unbecoming of a Minister. Are we entitled to a statement in the House?

Madam Speaker: I have not received any indications from the Government to the effect that they are seeking to make a statement of that nature.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will of course be aware that on Friday the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), who is the parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, effectively obstructed any discussion of a Bill designed to protect calves. He was not in his place today for the

Column 20

questions that he had tabled and I assume that he had not the guts to respond to the points that would undoubtedly have been raised. Would you deprecate his discourtesy to you in that he did not even notify you that he would not be attending and did not withdraw his questions, although he had the time to come here on Friday and, with the connivance of the Secretary of State, obstruct a Bill?

Madam Speaker: On the hon. Gentleman's second point, a number of hon. Members are extremely discourteous to me and to Ministers by not informing us that they will be absent. They are always reprimanded. I was not in the Chair on Friday afternoon, but I followed Hansard carefully. Nothing untoward took place. The hon. Member to whom the hon. Gentleman refers certainly spoke for something like 25 minutes on Friday, but I noticed that an Opposition Member spoke on an earlier Bill for 30 minutes. I therefore think that it was even stevens.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. This matter seems to be giving rise to points of order with which I have dealt. We have urgent business before us.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. Sit down. Points of order concern breaches of the procedures of the House, not political matters or point scoring. If breaches of the House's procedures are involved, I shall hear points of order.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It would have been apparent to anyone watching the BBC news on Friday evening that the appearance was given that the Bill under discussion had been talked out--

Madam Speaker: Order. I have dealt with that matter. Whatever the appearance given on television, it has nothing to do with me. My concern is only for what happens in the House.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you assist by telling us what would be the constitutional repercussions, which would almost certainly be serious, if an organisation that is now £17 million in debt, which has only one asset valued at £9 million, which was about to sack a third of its staff and whose head was the Prime Minister, became bankrupt? What would be the constitutional position--

Madam Speaker: Order. I am not prepared to deal with a constitutional question of that nature across the Floor of the House without further information.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. Sit down. It is a total abuse of points of order.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. One at a time.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. About a minute ago, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson) attacked the reputation of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not

Column 21

present to defend himself. Can it be said that the Under-Secretary said clearly on the radio at 1.30 pm that he had picked up the pickaxe--

Madam Speaker: Order. It is nothing whatsoever to do with me who said what on radio or television. I have enough to contend with, dealing with what happens in the House.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sure that you are aware that I am a co-sponsor of the Building Societies (Joint Account Holders) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French). I am sure that you are equally aware that the Bill, which has support from all quarters and from many widows, including some in my constituency, was objected to by Opposition Members on Friday. Do you have any powers to restore the Bill to its former position on the Order Paper?

Madam Speaker: The answer is no.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In the light of your answer to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), and in view of the fact that all matters that arise in the House are clearly under your control, will you confirm that it is none the less in order that any procedural matters that may be regarded as bringing Parliament into disrepute can be raised with the Nolan committee?

Madam Speaker: I think that I need notice of that question. If the hon. Gentleman will permit me, I shall deal with it with all the seriousness with which it was asked.

Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your guidance in relation to another aspect of the events on Friday, when the Building Societies (Joint Account Holders) Bill was objected to by Labour Members? On Thursday, I received from Opposition Treasury spokesmen an assurance that the Labour party would support all stages of the Bill on Friday. Would you confirm my understanding that if the Bill had passed all its stages on Friday, it would not have interfered with the progress of business in the Standing Committee considering private Members' Bills?

Madam Speaker: I cannot comment on guarantees given across the Floor of the House; that is nothing to do with the Chair. What support the two parties give or what commitment they give to a particular Bill is purely a matter of the relationships between the parties concerned.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I also seek your guidance? As you know, I do not make a habit of raising points of order unless I have a feeling of genuine grievance. Would you seek a report from Madam Deputy Speaker, who was in the Chair for the earlier part of Friday? A number of hon. Members, of whom I was one, came for an important debate on the Proceeds of Crime Bill. Several hon. Members had written to say that they wished to catch your eye, Madam Speaker. We were discouraged from speaking out of a fear that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) wished to talk out

Column 22

the Bill, as he had talked out, on the previous Friday, the Insurance Companies (Reserves) Bill, which was supported by a number of hon. Members. Can nothing be done to ensure that a serious Bill, which has all-party support and which is first in the list for debate, can be debated properly over three or four hours without the danger of it being talked out by Opposition Members who seek to further the progress of their own Bills?

Madam Speaker: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not criticising my Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman raised a question about the Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair. I want to be clear about the point of order that he is putting to me.

Mr. Greenway: I was not criticising the Deputy Speaker; I was making the point that she would tell you about what happened earlier on Friday. A number of us who had written to you saying that we wished to catch your eye in that important debate felt dissuaded from contributing because we wished to avoid a repetition of what had happened the previous Friday when a Bill was talked out. This is a serious problem, which the House must address. If there is all-party support for a Bill, it is surely right that we should have a proper debate without the danger that one or two hon. Members will seek to talk it out so that they can further the progress of their own Bill. You will know that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has a Bill that will be before the House this Friday.

Madam Speaker: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The proceedings of this House rest with hon. Members themselves. I have read carefully the whole of the debate on Friday. I shall look particularly at the points that the hon. Gentleman has put to me. I shall see whether there is anything further that I need to do.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I have finished with that point; I have dealt with it.

Mr. Skinner: My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) spoke for only five minutes--

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You gave a firm ruling--almost a rebuke--some weeks ago that in debates on education, Ministers should not seek to name the schools and sons of hon. Members, thus putting their education at some risk of media publicity. Given that the gutter press is now harping on that theme, can you at least instruct hon. Members not thus to put the children of other hon. Members in the firing line for the sake of cheap political points?

Madam Speaker: I have already given a firm ruling on that matter, on which the majority of the House supports the Chair. I am not concerned about the gutter press. Questionnaires come round to all hon. Members, including me. For some of them, I have something in my office that is called a round file, and they go there.

Column 23

Orders of the Day

Agricultural Tenancies Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read .

3.43 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. William Waldegrave): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time

In doing so, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, which shows that I have an interest in a tenanted farm.

I open the debate with three facts. First, if a landowner offers an agricultural tenancy for a term of two years or more, the tenant has virtual security of tenure for life under the present law. Secondly, when agricultural tenancies terminate, it is known that, at present, about 10 per cent. of landlords choose to relet their land only on the basis of protected tenancies. Thirdly, the proportion of land that is rented in England and Wales has fallen from about 90 per cent. at the turn of the century, to about one third now. I happen to agree with Labour's spokesman in the Lords, the noble Lord Carter, that the true figure is probably lower than that.

I shall explain how those three facts are not unconnected. I shall also argue that this Bill, which has unprecedented support from within the industry, is well designed to address those problems: to tackle the decline in tenancies offered; to open up opportunities for new entrants; and to provide the flexibility for our agriculture industry to remain competitive in the face of increasing international pressures, as trade in agricultural products becomes freer.

The Bill, combined with the recent announcement of the extension of relief from inheritance tax to new lettings, will have a major effect. Last summer, it was estimated that more than 300,000 more hectares--nearly 1 million acres of land--would be let, even without tax changes. The Bill would have revitalised the tenanted sector without the level playing field between tenanted farm and vacant possession in taxation. I believe, as does the industry, that the Bill, if enacted, combined with the tax changes, may well transform the situation for the better. As the Tenant Farmers Association said today:

"it is a major step towards a revival of tenanted farms". Since 1875, there have been more than 20 pieces of primary legislation relating to agricultural, landlord-tenant law. Of those, the most important Acts have related to security of tenure. In particular, the Agriculture Act 1947, which was introduced by a Labour Government--led by a great Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Tom Williams--heralded a major change. That was because the landlord's notice to quit was made subject to consent being given by the Minister. As such consent could be given in exceptional circumstances only, the effect of the change was to give all tenant farmers who farmed their land efficiently complete security of tenure for life. At that time, when nearly two thirds of farmers were tenants, it was believed that that would contribute to improving agricultural output--rationing was still in place and the overwhelming national interest was seen to be the increase of home food production at all costs.

Column 24

The most damaging piece of legislation was that introduced by a subsequent Labour Government in 1976. During the passage of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, they introduced a series of fundamental amendments in Committee--in itself an extraordinary thing to do--which provided security of tenure, retrospectively, for two further generations of successors to an existing tenant, subject to certain eligibility conditions. I am sure that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) needs no reminding of that fact, as he piloted the provisions through the Standing Committee. By taking the land out of the landlord's control for three generations, that legislation went almost as far as it was possible to go in the direction of security, short of confiscating the legal title from the landlord and giving it to the tenant.

Reading copies of Hansard at the time and the background that goes with them, I find it impossible to avoid the impression that that legislation was driven through as part of the internecine left-right battles then raging in the Labour party. Let us remember that the national executive committee had proposed the

nationalisation of land with support from left wingers in the Cabinet.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): The Minister is discussing legal title to land. Surely he must be aware that some of the largest landowners obtained that title through murder, rape, pillage and all sorts of barbaric means. I am not suggesting that that gives any Government any authority to confiscate--far from it--but the right hon. Gentleman should be equally even-handed, when he comments on the rights of tenants, as we are when we comment on those hereditary landowners.

Mr. Waldegrave: I cannot think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Co-operative Wholesale Society, which is one of the largest landlords in the country. I am sure that its title was based on other methods of acquisition. I accept his challenge that we must achieve an even -handed balance and will return to my explanation of how the Bill will do exactly that in today's conditions.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Co-operative Wholesale Society is one of the largest owners of farmland in my constituency, is a good landlord, treats its farm workers well, is a major member of the Country Landowners Association and should not have ascribed to it the hideous activities that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) ascribed to landlords?

Mr. Waldegrave: It was to defend the CWS against the accusations of rapine and pillage that I rose to my feet a moment ago. Be that as it may, even if those pieces of legislation were genuinely designed--I am sure that they were--to protect tenants, they have had a different outcome. The Labour Government turned out to be misguided. They ignored the crucial fact that the letting of land is a voluntary activity on the part of the landowner. The point is that the more restrictive the legislation, and the greater the security of tenure that it provides, the stronger is the disincentive to any landowners who might otherwise consider letting their land. As a result, tenants' interests suffer.

Column 25

That is not just the wisdom of hindsight. The point was put fairly and squarely to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East at the time, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), who later became a distinguished Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. On 3 February 1976, he asked the then Minister, the late Lord Peart:

"Will the Minister give an undertaking that that"--

that is, not detrimentally affecting the supply of farms to let-- "will be part of Government policy?"

Lord Peart replied:

"I believe that I can given that assurance".--[ Official Report , Standing Committee C , 3 February 1976; c. 443.]

Later, on 8 March 1976, the then junior Minister, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, said:

"A major issue, which I recognise Conservative Members have raised in good faith, is the suggestion that one effect of the clauses will be to dry up the supply of tenanted farms. I cannot agree that such an outcome will be significant."--[ Official Report , 8 March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 115.]

It turned out to be extremely significant. Having reached the position that we are in today, I very much hope, as does the industry, that the Labour party has learnt that lesson.

Although we removed the succession provisions in relation to future tenancies in 1984, it is clear that the present restrictive legislation is still gradually suffocating the tenanted sector. The supply of new full tenancies has slowed to the merest trickle and the vast majority of lettings are on short-term arrangements. If one excludes succession tenancies, 90 per cent. of new let land is let in that way. That is how the three facts with which I began my speech are connected.

Not surprisingly, almost everyone in the industry now agrees that corrective action must be taken. In response to that pressure from the industry, my Department issued proposals for reform in February 1991. There followed a long and thorough period of consultation with all the interested parties, including landowners, tenants, young farmers, land agents, valuers and others connected with the industry. In December 1993, an agreement was reached, which was supported by organisations representing all those interests, on the changes that were needed to the present system. The result is the Bill that we have brought before the House today. That consultation and continuing industry support gives us the confidence that this reform is what the industry wants and is what it so badly needs.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on bringing the industry together in introducing the legislation. At the beginning, the industry was not in agreement. There were differences between the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union but, thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues, a great measure of consensus has been established and the Bill is now widely welcomed throughout the industry.

Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend is right. It would be fair to give a good deal of the credit to my predecessor, the present Secretary of State for Education. But I hope

Column 26

that the action that I have taken since arriving at the Department with my hon. Friends has taken forward the work that she laid in hand.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale): While my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) was nearly right to say that the entire industry is in agreement on the Bill, will the Minister bear it in mind that that is not absolutely true? In some areas, particularly Cumbria, there is a certain amount of disquiet because it is felt that the proposals will not revitalise the tenanted sector. The Minister may recall that I am a tenant of land in family ownership of which I am part. I have received a letter from the National Farmers Union saying that certain tenant members of the Cumbria NFU are concerned about

"the absence of any guaranteed minimum term since they believe that as farming is a long-term business a minimum term is essential."

Although I do not believe that that is enough to cause one to oppose the Bill, I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind throughout its passage that some farmers are worried about some of the implications.

Mr. Waldegrave: My right hon. Friend is right. I intended to return later in my speech to the substance of the argument made by what I think it is fair to call "the minority" in this matter, as that argument needs to be confronted head on.

My right hon. Friend knows very much better than I do, because for several years he held the office that I hold, that it is a strange idea that unanimity ever exists in the British farming industry. I have never met a roomful of farmers who would agree wholly about anything--and if they all agreed about anything, some of them would change the opinions that they had earlier expressed, to ensure that they did not.

My right hon. Friend, who was a member, will remember a famous cartoon from the Victorian "Punch" in the Farmers Club, called "The Grousing Room in the Farmers Club". So there is always a certain amount of fractiousness in our industry. I believe that he will perhaps agree with me that "an overwhelming consensus with some dissidents" would be a fair description of the position. There are also some dissidents in Wales, and I have spoken to some of them.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): There are a few in Lancashire.

Mr. Waldegrave: As my hon. Friend rightly says, there are a few in Lancashire--another county where there are people of individual opinions. It would be very surprising to me if every Lancastrian agreed about any subject.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Would it be helpful to my right hon. Friend if I described my own circumstances? When I came to the House seven years ago, it would have suited me very well to let land, but on the present basis, I am disinclined to do so, and I have not done so.

Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend offers himself as a witness in support of the very argument that we are making, and it is a powerful witness, which is genuine.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): Mention has been made of the tremendous efforts that have been made to achieve consensus

Column 27

throughout the industry--an admirable achievement. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) today issued a press release, stating that he will oppose the Bill? Considerable apprehension has been caused throughout the industry about the Opposition policy towards the Bill. My right hon. Friend will be aware that, in framing the Bill, he has taken considerable trouble to ensure that it is not retrospective--in other words, Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 tenancies will not be included in the scope of the Bill. Throughout the debate, will my right hon. Friend ask the Labour party whether, if it proposes changes in the future, it will decide not to make them retrospective? That would create some stability in the industry.

Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. Doubtless the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East will discuss it in due course. I was going to put that very question to him, because it would be fair. On other occasions, he has said that, should he find himself on the side of the House where I am now standing, he would inquire into how any Act that we passed was working before he amended it further. I am sure that we shall listen carefully to what he says today.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Waldegrave: Perhaps for the last time; then I must proceed.

Mr. Knapman: I thank my right hon. Friend, who will be aware of the speech made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) during the 1976 debate, when he said that the Conservative party, by tradition, represents the landowners and the Labour party, by tradition, the farmers. However, in the case of the Bill, the National Farmers Union, the Small Farmers' Association and all the rest support the Bill, so surely it is reasonable to suppose that the Labour party will support the Bill at this stage.

Mr. Waldegrave: It is disappointing that the Labour party does not support the Bill. I think that the historic analysis offered on that occasion by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East was wrong. The landowners were usually the Whigs and the farmers were usually the Tories, and an element of that remains in some parts of the country. I shall now describe the main changes that the Bill will bring about. First, it will make diversification easier for tenants. Under clause 1, the parties may exchange notices before the tenancy is granted, confirming their intention that the tenancy is to be, and remain, a farm business tenancy. If they do so, the tenancy will remain a farm business tenancy if its character is primarily or wholly agricultural at the outset, and as long as the business conditions are met--that is, as long as some part of the holding is farmed for the purpose of trade or business. The effect of that will be to allow more flexibility for tenants, with the permission of their landlords, to extend their enterprise into non-agricultural areas, without calling into question the nature of their tenancy. That is useful in terms of the importance of the rural economy as a whole.

Secondly, landlords and tenants will be free to agree how long a tenancy should last. That is the key to getting more letting of land. That freedom is crucial to persuading

Column 28

landlords that it is in their best interest to let the land instead of taking it in hand or entering into contract farming, or some other arrangement. There is consensus on that point.

The Bill prescribes a minimum period of one year's notice to be given to end tenancies of a fixed term of more than two years. Unlike the present legislation, there will be no grounds on which such tenancies can be terminated with shorter periods of notice. Nor will there be any grounds for issuing notices to terminate the tenancy before the agreed date, or to resume possession of part of the holding, unless the tenancy agreement contains provisions that allow for the exercise of such options. The provisions will give tenants extra certainty as to where they stand.

On rent, the Bill will give parties more freedom than the present legislation to reach their own agreement as to the level of rent, subject to certain safeguards. Part II of the Bill allows the parties to agree on a fixed rent for the whole duration of a tenancy by stating explicitly that there will be no rent reviews at all, or they can agree that the rent should be adjusted according to an objective formula.

If the parties do not agree such arrangements, they will be able to provide for rent reviews at a frequency of their own choosing. If they make no such provision, either party will be able to demand a rent review every three years. When rent reviews take place, either party has the right to demand arbitration, in which case the Bill requires that the arbitrator must determine the rent on an open market basis. That is described in clause 13. One cannot have only upward rent reviews. The reviews would have to relate to the open market, where rents might well have gone down.

The Bill contains mandatory provisions on compensation for tenants' improvements. Unlike the present legislation, the provisions will override any agreement to pay less than full compensation, so there will be no scope for the "writing down" of the value of compensation, such as frequently happens now. That is a potential advantage to the tenant.

Under the Bill, the definition of a tenant's improvement is wider than the one in the present legislation. It includes not only physical improvements, but any intangible advantage obtained for the holding by the tenant that is capable of increasing the value of the holding. An obvious example would be planning permission, which is dealt with specifically in the Bill, and there may be other items which may add value to the holding but which are not physical structures or operations. Provided that the landlord's written consent has been obtained for any such improvements, he is required to pay full compensation for them at the end of the tenancy.

Mr. Foulkes: Can the Minister explain how that measure relates to milk quotas?

Mr. Waldegrave: Milk quotas are an extremely good example, since milk quotas--as opposed to other quotas--are attached to the land that might have been obtained by the tenant, which would be for the benefit of a holding. Therefore, the tenant would have a right to compensation at the market rent for the milk quotas at the time of the ending of the tenancy. That is exactly the sort of requirement that the Bill now allows for, and there may be others in the future where it would be relevant. The tenant would need the landlord's written consent to buy the quota.

Next Section

  Home Page