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Column 29The tenant has the right to demand arbitration if the landlord refuses consent for a proposed improvement-- other than planning permission--or if there is disagreement after the end of the tenancy on the amount of compensation to be paid.
Finally, the Bill sets out procedures to be followed for the resolution of disputes arising under the Bill or under the terms of the farm business tenancy. The provisions provide unilateral access to independent arbitration, which represents a simpler and cheaper alternative to the courts, while at the same time leaving room for the parties to make use of an alternative disputes resolution procedure of their own choosing, if they so wish.
I have described the main features of the Bill, which is welcomed by all parts of the industry, although there are some dissidents, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale pointed out. Sadly, the Labour party does not seem able to shed the legacy of the past and to bring itself to support the Bill. Perhaps we shall hear differently today.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): May I take the Minister back to what he said about planning permission? What will be the position if a tenant who seeks to apply for planning permission is refused the necessary permission by the landlord? What will be his or her right of redress? I was under the impression that certain assurances were given by Ministers in the other place that the matter was being actively reconsidered. What is the current thinking on it?
Mr. Waldegrave: We may want to discuss the matter in more detail in Committee, but I think that a landlord should have the right to say to a tenant that he does not want the use of his land to change without his permission. However, he could then find himself in the odd situation whereby he might be deemed to have agreed to a planning permission that he might wish to oppose on other grounds. We must look closely at whether there is room for arbitration in such disputes and, if so, how it could be handled. It is a special and interesting area and the hon. Gentleman was correct to raise that point.
The Labour party does not seem to have adjusted or modified its attitudes on those matters. It produced a document on tenancy reform last September, which had some sensible things to say, but they are largely embodied in our proposals. On compensation, the Labour party document proposes that a landlord must pay
"compensation equal to the increase in value of the farmland brought about by the activity of the tenant".
That is precisely what part III of the Bill achieves. The Labour party document goes on to say--and this addresses the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale--that "it will be in the landlord's interest to keep tenants on for the full term of their tenancy agreement, thus both boosting the tenant's security and encouraging the tenant to improve the environmental aspects of the farm".
That is exactly right and the Bill provides for it. If we combine the greater freedom to set terms that are agreed between the two sides with a strengthening of the tenant's rights to compensation, the balance will be right. The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) was correct when he intervened earlier to say that we should seek an exact balance. If the tenant is to be repaid for his investment, the landlord will seek a reasonable length of time--it will vary according to the
Column 30type of holding and so on--to ensure that the investment has been made. Equally, the tenant will be certain that, when the tenancy ends, he will receive proper compensation for his investment. The Government--and, more importantly, the industry--believe that that balance has now been set correctly.
On rent, the Labour party document proposed a system of rent assessment to prevent tenants from being exploited and it claimed that
"upward-only rent rises are enshrined in the Tory plan". That is wrong. As I explained, the Bill gives the landlord or the tenant the right to demand that an arbitrator should set the rent on an open market basis, which clearly could not be an upward-only review.
Lastly, the Labour document mentions the fiscal system. It is fair to say that here it has been overtaken by subsequent events. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced last week that we shall introduce the level playing field between vacant possession and tenanted land for which the Labour party called. However, we are doing that by lowering the inheritance tax on tenanted land, not by increasing it on owner-occupied land, as I suspect Labour's rather opaque commitment meant.
As hon. Members know, we have decided to extend the 100 per cent. relief from inheritance tax on agricultural land to all new tenancies granted on or after 1 September 1995--the date when I hope that the Bill will come into force. I join my right hon. and learned Friend in hoping that the Labour party will at least feel able to welcome that measure, since its document states that such reform will be "very beneficial".
Mr. Mark Robinson: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. The Opposition are always telling us about the importance of new jobs, and the Bill will be important to new entrants to the industry. Surely that is a good reason for the Opposition to support the Bill in the Lobby tonight.
Mr. Waldegrave: I genuinely believe that that is so. I hope that, even at this late stage, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East will show a willingness to listen to the debate. I do not know precisely what his position is, as we have yet to hear from him.
Many of the reasonable objectives set out in the Labour document have been achieved. The fiscal change is the icing on the cake, which is intended to help the revival of the tenancy sector and make it easier for people to enter the industry, to support the family farm and to increase jobs.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): In my county of Wiltshire there are 12,500 acres of county council tenancies, which are occupied by about 126 farmers for an average length of more than 20 years. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Bill will apply to county council tenancies? If it will, does he believe that it will breathe new life into a system that is not working at present?
Mr. Waldegrave: The Bill will apply to all new tenancies after 1 September. Although county council tenancies have often been valuable in particular areas, I hope that the revitalisation that we shall see in the rented sector will mean that, if we can get the whole tenancy sector
Column 31moving again, it will become less necessary for local authorities to intervene in an area that is not their natural habitat.
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen): Two or three minutes ago, the right hon. Gentleman described circumstances in which the landlord and tenant would decide that it was in their mutual interests to think long term and to plan over 10 or 20 years. However, when introducing the Bill, he said that all new lets tend to be short term. Why is he confident that the industry will think long term, when the history of the industry and the free market is of short-termism?
Mr. Waldegrave: The present arrangement offers only life terms, which are too long and under which virtually no one lets, or Gladstone and Bower. With all the convenience of the latter tenancies, which are for only 18 months, people are not turned out after 18 months, but I believe roll on for 10 or 15 years--it has not been possible to make a proper survey.
Another source of evidence is Scotland. The Bill does not cover Scotland, but the different partnership law in Scotland means that there is probably no need for it there--although there have been some calls for reform. One can arrive at the same effect using Scottish partnership law. The average length of Scottish partnerships is 10 to 15 years. When there is effectively a free market, as there is in Scotland with use of partnership laws, that is the average length of tenancy. It would be wrong--and I apologise for going on so long, Madam Speaker, and must try to make myself wind up--to set a single target in the Bill because it would by definition be wrong in more than half the cases.
Mr. Foulkes: Once again, the right hon. Gentleman points out that Scottish law is a great deal better than English law in this as in other respects. I note from the schedules that the Bill amends the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991 and the Opencast Coal Act 1958, which apply equally to Scotland as to the rest of the United Kingdom. British Coal, which is a major landowner having a number of tenant farmers, is in the process of selling off its land--and unfortunately, not giving the first option to purchase to its tenants. Although this is not strictly covered by the Bill's provisions, is there any way that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry can persuade British Coal that it is in the interests of British agriculture to sell its holdings to tenants who have farmed them for a lifetime?
Mr. Waldegrave: I must not go too wide of the Bill, but I have been engaged in discussions about that matter, relating to England, with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. Steps have been taken, which largely meet the concerns that many tenants feel. Perhaps I may write to the hon. Gentleman about that.
Mr. Gill: Is my right hon. Friend prepared to give an assurance that he will consider tabling an amendment in Committee, to allow members of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers the same status in clause 34 as members of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, in terms of drawing up tenancy agreements?
Column 32matter. Perhaps it should be considered carefully in Committee, but we shall give a fair wind to discussion of my hon. Friend's suggestion.
I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East will show today that he can listen to the industry--I know that he can--and at least confirm that the Labour party will not once again damage tenant farmers with threats of retrospective legislation. Existing tenancy agreements are not affected in any way by the Bill. More rented land will become available both for existing tenants and for people who want to enter farming and get a start on the ladder. The package of reforms is workable and fair and is supported by the main industry organisations. It provides a flexible framework, which will create opportunities for new entrants, encourage investment and benefit the rural economy. It will also put British agriculture in a stronger position to adapt to the inevitable changes that lie ahead. The measure carries through an explicit commitment that my party included in its previous election manifesto. It has the warm and active support of the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs, the Tenant Farmers Association Ltd., the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union. It is the right thing to do and I commend it to the House.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East): The legislation that should govern the relationship between a landlord and an agricultural tenant is a matter that the House has addressed regularly for well over a century. Indeed, in years past--certainly in previous centuries and at the beginning of this century--that relationship was a large factor in major social developments. I refer to the enclosures, the highland clearances and the development of crofting, where people were driven off their land and moved to other areas of land. I think even of the Irish question, where that relationship has been an ingredient in Irish history over the past century.
The number of people directly involved in those matters has fallen dramatically over the decades. The number of landowners and farmers is relatively small, but that does not alter the fact that the proposed legislation is important to them and, indeed, to agriculture and the countryside generally.
As the Minister said, there have been major changes in agriculture, in the ownership and tenure of land, throughout the century. At the beginning of the century, there were more than 1 million farm workers in Great Britain; now the figure is down to well under a quarter of a million. At the turn of the century, there were more than half a million agricultural holdings; the figure is now down to well under a quarter of a million. As the right hon. Gentleman said--I do not disagree with him--at the turn of the century, some 90 per cent. of agricultural land was tenanted, whereas the figure now is probably less than 33 per cent. Those figures refer to England and Wales, because the Bill applies only there.
There have been important changes in the industry. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman referred to not only the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976 but the Agriculture Act 1947, which, in some respects, is probably more important, not least because it has been in operation longer. Both Acts had the effect of holding in tenure land that might otherwise have gone out of tenure. The other side of the argument, which the Minister regards as a great concern to the industry, is that the existence of that
Column 33security for tenant farmers has been a major disincentive to landowners to let new land, and I shall address that issue. It is helpful to think about our objectives. Let us take a broader view, because, after all, it is a Second Reading debate. The first objective that I suggest--I do not put them in any order of importance--is agricultural efficiency. We want a farm structure and legislation that are conducive to increased productivity, investment and efficiency. Over the decades, many hon. Members, especially Labour Members, have argued that security is a factor in the productivity of tenant farmers, because, even if compensation is to be paid, security will be needed for investment purposes. The second objective is what I would describe as the defence of the social fabric of the countryside. That generalisation includes support for rural communities and the maintenance of rural employment. I have made the same point more than once in the last couple of years, but Labour has changed its stance. In the 1960s, a Labour Government used taxpayers' money to encourage farm amalgamations, but we no longer wish to do that; we want to encourage the maximum number of people to secure their living from the land. Most will be farmers, but we want as many farm workers as practicable, as well.
If that objective is to be fulfilled, farming decisions should be made locally. We do not want huge operations and huge estates farmed from hundreds of miles away, with few people in the community working on the land or directly involved with it. We do not dispute the fact that some big farms provide a career structure: because of the current high capital values, one way for employees to enter the industry is to obtain jobs in such farming companies. That may be easier than entering it through a holding. We want the farming pattern--the size of farms, for instance--to adjust to technological advance and market forces. That factor must be taken into account, but it is not the Holy Grail.
Our third objective--again, let me stress that I do not list them in order of importance--is social justice. The Labour party believes that the relationship between landlord and tenant is not equal, and since 1947-- despite the number of Conservative Governments between then and now--the House has accepted that principle. Legislation has been needed to protect tenants, and since 1947 tenant farmers have been given security of tenure. We stand by that: we think it unjust for people to enter into tenancies without such security. Farming is a business, but it is more than a business; it is a way of life. People are investing their money in the land, and living in farmhouses. That is not just a business relationship. The Bill, however, takes us back to the days when it was treated almost as just another business transaction--almost, although not quite, a contract. The Minister made some important points in this context, however, which we support.
"to end security of tenure for tenant farmers"?
Column 34As those who have tenancies will keep them, and as the tax disadvantage of letting over a longer term will be removed, how can the hon. Gentleman possibly deny that there will be increased security of tenure in the letting of farms of this kind?
Dr. Strang: I was referring to tenancies under this legislation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, if the Bill becomes law as it stands, all future agricultural tenancies will be governed by it and there will be no minimum term. That will mean that security of tenure will not be a statutory right. Some landlords will, I hope, choose to continue to let their farms on the basis of a tenancy that extends throughout the working life of the tenant. There will be no legal requirement for that; far from it, because the provisions are designed to discourage it. That is what I meant in my press release to which the hon. Gentleman kindly referred.
Dr. Strang: That is an interesting point. Conservative Members may laugh, but I suspect that the Tenant Farmers Association agreed with the National Farmers Union four years ago when the NFU was certainly arguing for minimum fixed-term tenancies. I do not think that the Tenant Farmers Association attacked that position, but I am happy to be corrected on that if the hon. Gentleman wishes to do so. There is not a jot in the Bill about fixed-term or minimum-term tenancies. The NFU also argued for compensation for disturbance, but there is not a jot about that in the Bill.
I hope that Conservative Members understand what compensation for disturbance means, because it is a significant issue. It applies when a tenancy comes to an end prematurely, for various reasons. There is no compensation for abandoning it in advance of the end of a contract. My next point is arguable, but it could have been addressed in a way that did not encourage the fragmentation of farms from the farmhouse, a point that the Country Landowners Association made in its briefing on the Bill. I believe that the NFU advanced the point about security of the family in the farmhouse, but I do not know whether the TFA supported that.
My question to the TFA and the NFU--but not to the CLA, because I understand the position that it has taken from the beginning--is why were those guarantees worth obtaining four years ago but not worth obtaining in the final agreement?
Several hon. Members rose --
Column 35choose to farm, but I would not be happy about my son or nephew going into farming on the basis of a three-year or four-year tenancy agreement.
Dr. Strang: That is a fair point. I am concerned not just about existing tenants but about future ones and their families. One must strike a balance between security and social justice for the tenant and trying to encourage the provision of more land for letting. We should address the issue of encouraging landlords to let more land. There should be some incentive and they should be encouraged to let it reasonably long term. I put it no more strongly than that. The Bill may lead to an increase in agricultural let land. Our concern is that it may not lead to a significant increase in the number of complete agricultural holdings that are let. As the House may be aware, many critics of the legislation, and especially those farmers who have heavily criticised it--I saw one of them being interviewed on television this morning--say that much of the land will be let short term, but to neighbouring farmers. I agree with that criticism. The land will be let to people who are already in farming, rather than encouraging the letting of new holdings and the whole structure of the family farm, which the Opposition support. I think that, probably, Conservative Members also support that.
Mr. Gill: I listened to the hon. Gentleman's description of the historic pattern of tenancies, and I understand exactly what he is saying. However, I am sure that he would not disagree with the idea that times have changed and that it might be instructive to look at the commercial letting sector of the economy. Traditionally, in that sector it would have been usual for tenants to have a 21-year lease, with rent reviews at seven years; now, we see more and more advertisements with easy in, easy out terms for tenants.
I know that the hon. Gentleman makes a distinction between commercial property and farm letting; so do I. However, times have changed and the change in the commercial sector has occurred because it clearly suits both parties, landlord and tenant. I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, because times have changed, there must be a new look at farm tenancies.
Dr. Strang: I shall explain to the hon. Gentleman why his argument is flawed. We cannot treat the letting of agricultural land in the same way we treat the letting of commercial property. There is a real market in commercial property: if the price is high, more is provided. That is how the market operates. That cannot happen with agricultural land because the amount of that land is fixed. As I said, my third objective is the need to maintain the social fabric, to keep as much employment as possible on the land and to allow as many people as possible to secure their livelihood from the land.
Column 36My fourth objective goes wider. I am sure that many landowners and farmers would agree with our view that they are holding the land in stewardship for future generations. During the past decade or two, we have rightly paid great attention to conservation of the environment. I am not persuaded that the encouragement of short-term lets and the insecurity of short-termism are the best ways to secure nature conservation, preservation of natural habitats and all the long-term wider countryside issues to which farmers, to their credit, are now responding; farmers are certainly much more environmentally conscious than they were in my father's day.
I want to deal with the subject of new entrants. I appreciate the fact that the Minister referred to the consultation paper drafted by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), which was issued in September. However, only a small part of that paper related to tenancy reform. The right hon. Gentleman did not deal with the paper's main points, so I shall remind the House of them. First, there is the question of quotas. It is no accident that the traditional way into the industry has been through milk. That was because of cash flow. An individual--perhaps a farm worker, a farmer's son or someone from the town--entered the industry through milk because he knew that if he worked hard he would receive a regular cheque. Dairy quotas have killed that. Frankly, because of the present milk quotas I would not encourage anyone to borrow money to become a dairy farmer. As the Minister knows, we have suggested a practical scheme to deal with that problem. I hope that the Government will respond to it, but there is certainly nothing about it in the Bill.
Secondly, we raised the important issue of the Government's refusal to implement the common agricultural policy retirement scheme for farmers. For Britain, we want the link between structure and retirement to be broken. It would be a positive step if we helped the older farmer to move out of the industry, thereby creating a vacancy for a new entrant.
Mr. Alan W. Williams: Last year, I went to a presentation by the Farmers Union of Wales, which vigorously opposed the Bill. It forcefully made the point that the average age of hill farmers in Wales was 58. Many of those farmers cannot afford to retire. They are small farmers. They cannot afford to buy houses because they do not have the necessary equity-- they are dependent farmers. Any step in the direction that my hon. Friend mentioned would therefore be a major help in relation to not only that social problem but released land for new entrants.
A third proposal in our document on new entrants deals with what have been called smallholdings; I prefer to call them county council holdings, because there is no need for them to be too small. Traditionally, such holdings were--I am glad that the Minister raised this point--an important route into the industry. I do not exaggerate their role, but it was significant. We should resurrect the role of county council holdings as a route into the industry.
It is a matter of concern that, as a consequence, albeit an indirect one, of local government reform, the number of county council holdings may decrease further. We
Column 37should deal with that issue. If we are serious about new entrants, surely there should be something in the Bill on county council holdings. Again, not a thing is included.
We raised the question of tax. The Minister is right. On that issue, I said:
"Labour believes that we should look again at the tax arrangements for farm land. There is no doubt that some abuse is taking place and wealthy individuals are buying up farm land to reduce their tax liability. Labour is looking at how we can create fiscal arrangements which will encourage landowners to let their land under the traditional system of lifetime tenancies."
That quotation comes from my statement at the press conference that we held on the document, but the wording of the document is not too dissimilar to it. The Government have responded, but the right hon. Gentleman is keeping up with the tradition that his predecessors have all lived up to--if the Conservative Government can get it wrong on British agriculture, they will. The tax concession will be linked to the new short-term farm business tenancies--the Minister made it clear that that is the intention. I understand--I do not know whether this is deliberate--that the proposal may apply to succession tenancies under the 1976 Act. The Minister nods his head. The proposal, however, does not apply to other land that is held in tenure for a lifetime. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman managed to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer in relation to the proposal. It is a small advance, but, sadly, it is in the wrong direction. The Labour party wanted to consider the whole question of equalising the tax treatment of owner-occupied land and of tenanted land, but it should not have been linked to such short-termism. Under the proposed tax arrangements, a landlord has no incentive to let a farm, even for a respectable minimum term. We are interested in encouraging new entrants into farming and we do not regard the Bill as an adequate response to that challenge--it is totally inadequate. It deals only with the narrow question of making more land available for letting. Making more land available for letting does not necessarily mean that many new opportunities will be provided for young men and young women to become farmers. We must make the distinction between letting complete holdings and simply letting a few fields, or breaking up farms between the farmhouse and the wider farm. We believe that security is fundamental. Successive Governments may not have liked the 1976 Act--they were certainly fairly quick to repeal the aspects relating to new tenancies --but the Minister also made an implied criticism of the Agriculture Act 1947.
Agriculture is not only a business. It is a way of life. Tenant farmers must have security, which is also in the interests of agriculture as a whole. Until 1875, all the legislation was intended to protect the interests of the landlords, but after that date it was recognised that protection must be given to tenants. Only if they had a reasonably long outlook would they look after the land. I heard it said on BBC television this morning that one should live as if one were going to die tomorrow but farm as if one were going to live for ever. Farming is a long-term business.
We want to encourage the creation of new tenancies. It is not only wrong and socially unjust but against the interests of agriculture itself that young people should
Column 38enter into arrangements with minimum security and have an unequal relationship with their landowner, whether that landowner is an institution or an individual.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman has spoken for a long time about social justice between landlord and tenant. Does he agree that the taxation regime under the Labour Government in the 1970s, whereby landlords were taxed at 98 per cent. on their rental income, was wholly unfair? Will he pledge that, should we be unfortunate enough to have another Labour Government, they would not impose such a stringent and punitive taxation regime on landlords?
Dr. Strang: The hon. Gentleman may have noticed a certain caution and hesitancy among Opposition spokesmen about making off-the-cuff statements about public expenditure and taxation. I am happy to share that caution, but I shall say that most people believe--rightly--that a Labour Government will not return to penal rates of taxation. I would regard a rate of more than 90 per cent. as penal. That is my assessment of the general position, but public expenditure and taxation are matters for the shadow Chancellor. The Conservatives tend to think of incentives only for the better-off, but we believe that there should also be incentives for medium earners and people at the bottom of the scale.
There is a real advantage for the environment and the countryside in continuity and security. There are advantages in encouraging family farms and maintaining the social structure, for which security is needed. The problem is that the Bill will do nothing to encourage security; indeed, it implies that the Government have given up and that the land can be let for two, three, five or 10 years. We cannot support such a notion. The Bill will not result in a significant increase in the number of complete agricultural holdings let to new tenant farmers on terms that allow them to build a long-term business and to support not only themselves but their families.
We believe in security of tenure for tenant farmers, and encouraging short- termism and the fragmentation of holdings is not the right way to proceed. On the contrary, that will do real damage to the fabric of our countryside, which is why the Opposition will vote against the Bill.
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): I speak in my capacity as second Church Estates Commissioner. The Church Commission is the second largest agricultural landowner in England after the Crown. We currently own 148,000 acres comprising some 500 let farms averaging about 300 acres each. The value of this holding is about £210 million. As the Church Commission is in effect a parliamentary charity, every hon. Member sitting here has a stake in that gigantic agricultural land ownership. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that only one third of the agricultural land in England and Wales is now let land. I think that he and the House can gauge what a significant proportion the commissioners represent. I welcome the Bill and the support that the joint industry agreement managed, by a miracle, to impart to it but I must disagree with the allegation made by some critics that the Bill is a landlords charter. We do not regard that as a remotely fair criticism of the Bill. I believe that there is a genuine balance between the provisions for encapsulating security of tenure in the terms of a lease under a free contract between responsible and free parties
Column 39to that contract and the imaginative and generous provisions for tenancy compensation covering intangible assets, which will prove very attractive.
I must say, almost in parenthesis, that because the Church Commissioners have come in for some criticism for the extent to which they are overextended in the ownership of property, it is their current policy to sell when they are able to gain vacant possession. However, there is no doubt that the freedom within a contract, introduced by my right hon. Friend, and the flexibility and encouragement that that produces for giving new tenancies, especially perhaps to younger applicants, means that when the Church Commissioners have brought their agricultural portfolio into a slightly better balance, they will be more inclined to look sympathetically at the new flexible provision.
However, speaking on behalf of probably the largest landlord of let tenancies in England, I am bound to tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East that if the flexibility becomes circumscribed by minimum tenancy provisions of, say, 10 years, the Church Commissioners will not readily take advantage of my right hon. Friend's provisions but will tend to return to the current policy of selling whenever we get vacant possession.
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): Would the right hon. Gentleman care to expatiate on how the philosophy that he has distilled to the House matches up to the description of the early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles:
"And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."
Mr. Alison: It was also a feature of the arrangements in the early days of the Church and the New Testament that it was made very clear to the owners of property that they did not have to pool it if they did not want to do so. It was entirely voluntary and not compelled by the collective diktat of an overbearing, authoritarian, secular authority or even, in later days, by the fairly potent directives of papal power. However, I hesitate to pursue that idea.
As I was saying, if there is to be a voluntary arrangement, the option that will continually face the Church Commissioners--whether to go for a sale on vacant possession or to turn to my right hon. Friend's admirable and flexible alternative--will depend and turn fully on whether he is able to maintain the flexibility in the Bill and resist the temptation to write in a minimum term of, for example, 10 years, as the Opposition have suggested. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear that point in mind and that it will assist him in his policy of maintaining flexibility.
Dr. Strang: I would not like it to be implied that we had suggested 10 years as a minimum term. I know that the right hon. Gentleman did not mean to mislead the House; I think that he was probably talking about the
Column 40principle of a minimum term. I would not like anyone to think that the Opposition were arguing for a minimum term of 10 years.
Mr. Lord: As there remains a possibility that the Opposition might be returned to office, the fact that they oppose the Bill introduces a degree of nervousness which will seriously damage the whole purpose of the legislation. The Opposition can make their points and argue their case. It will be enormously beneficial if they then say that they will go along with, and respect, the legislation.
Mr. Alison: I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and his colleagues have heard what my hon. Friend has said. When the time comes for tabling amendments in Committee, the Opposition may table amendments aimed at circumscribing the flexible arrangements in the Bill. Those amendments may prove to be exploratory, a good debate may ensue and the Opposition may not push their amendments to a conclusion. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind the anxieties of the Church Commissioners.
When we come to the end of the necessary phase of selling on vacant possession, we shall look sympathetically at new tenancies under those flexible provisions as long as they are not too circumscribed. I hope that there will be no attempt to introduce special provisions affecting farmhouses on let agricultural land, such as residential shortholds specifically applying to farmhouses within a separate agricultural tenancy.
The Bill is a good example of deregulation. Many of the points at present covered by statute will become matters of contract. That must surely be an important step forward in a free and liberal--in the best sense of the word --democratic society which believes in the ownership of property. I warmly support the Bill.
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): I confess that the constituency of Hemsworth does not spring to everyone's mind when we are talking about matters agricultural. In fact, that is a basic error. Pit villages--the Hemsworth constituency is a series of pit villages--are surrounded by farms. Some of the farms were let out under British Coal and others were farmed by the tenants of large landlords in the area. One instantly springs to mind.
Column 41which I had the honour to contest in 1987. Of the 7,000-odd votes I managed to scrape up in Hemsworth, many came from the farmers whom he represents.