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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in welcoming the Bill. I note that two of my more experienced colleagues, the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and for Stroud (Mr. Knapman), who spoke very effectively, made the point that the one thing they did not want to do was serve on the Committee. They made one or two telling and difficult points that rendered them ineligible to sit on the Committee. I note that the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) is shaking his head. Could I get away with saying that there is nothing that I would like more than to serve on the Committee? The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said that he, too, would like to serve on the Committee. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East will have made a careful note of that and, no doubt, room will be found for the hon. Gentleman.
I welcome the Bill not only as someone who takes a personal interest in farming and agricultural matters, not only as a member of the Leicestershire and Rutland committee of the Country Landowners Association and not only as Member of Parliament for a rural constituency but as the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Harborough, where agriculture is practised by farmers who work both their own land and the land of others.
Column 67As occupants of the Chair will have heard earlier this evening, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Bill has, I am happy to say, received the support of practically every organisation that has anything to do with agriculture. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) has apparently said that the Bill no longer has the support of the official Opposition Front-Bench team. It is out of step with all the people who have given the matter any thought.
I am also sorry that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has confirmed what I had heard before: that many Welsh tenant farmers are not as keen on the Bill as other farming practitioners in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a pity. I hope that, if he is fortunate enough to be selected for the Committee, and I know that he has pressed hard to be selected, he will have an opportunity to listen to the arguments advanced by Conservative Members and, indeed, by Opposition Members who did not listen, or who listened to, but ignored, the arguments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East. I hope that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will support Committee members who support the Bill.
I support the Bill primarily because its general purpose is to encourage the letting of more farmland. That purpose is good and much to be welcomed, but I echo the words of warning that were uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, and by people outside the House. We should not think that, if the Bill goes into law, acres and acres and acres of new let land will come on to the market--it will not. Some land will come on to the market. A lot more land than is now available to be let will be let, but a flood of new land, if I can mix my metaphors, will not become available.
A flood of new entrants will not come into the farming world as a result of the Bill. Of course, several new entrants will enter it--I hope that many of them will do so--but there will not be a great rush of landlords willing to open up their land to new young farmers in the way that we would all like to see. We are, however, making progress.
It is almost unnecessary to say this but I shall say it--the present law of agricultural tenancies is far too complicated; it has inhibited landowners from letting land; and it does not encourage them to do so. It serves neither landowners nor prospective tenants. If one considers the many Acts of Parliament which, in the past 150 years, have dealt with agricultural tenancies, one realises why that is so--they are all complicated. It took the half-hour speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud to point out some of the more complicated aspects of landlord and tenant law in relation to farming tenancies. With the expertise that he has, he sought to explain the intricacies of the Agriculture Act 1947 and of the Agricultural Holdings Act 1948. Since 1948, numerous miscellaneous agricultural tenancy provisions, statutory instruments and Bills have been introduced and they have further complicated the whole question. I should like to compare the present situation with that which pertained in the previous century. In doing so, I shall refer to some of the remarks that were made in another place by my noble Friend the Earl of Yarborough on 28 November 1994, in the Second Reading debate. During the course of his maiden speech to that House, he referred--I shall be referring rather than quoting, Mr.
Column 68Deputy Speaker--to what life was like on the Yarborough estate in Lincolnshire not so many years ago. He said that things had changed considerably, even in the past 50 years. When his great- grandfather owned the estate, the written contracts of all employees stated that they were to attend church. Even up to more recent times, the lease required all farming employees to walk a hound puppy. That is an admirable clause to add to all farming tenancies. Coming from Harborough, where I am the happy Member of Parliament for three packs of fox hounds, I wish that that were still considered to be a perfectly normal thing to do.
The noble Earl went on to say that even his grandfather, the late Lord Yarborough, who did not die all that many years ago, had especially firm views on estate management. While reading the lesson in church one day, he quoted from St. Luke, chapter 2. When he got to the bit where the shepherds left their flocks to go in search of baby Jesus, he looked up at the congregation and exclaimed, "If they had been my shepherds, I would have sacked the lot of them." I think that things have changed a little. We have much to learn from the debates that took place in the other place just before Christmas. One of the things that we can learn from the other place- -here I criticise myself--is shown in the following example. On the evening of the Second Reading debate, the noble Viscount Hampden noted that 16 speeches had already been made in under two and a half hours--it was still only 5.45 pm. Even better, by 6.33 pm, the House had adjourned, having finished the Second Reading debate. Would that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) were still in the Chamber to hear that the Jopling Committee's admonitions were taken more seriously in the other place than they are here. Let me remind the House of one odd quirk that arose during the speech of my noble Friend Viscount Hampden. He told those listening to him and, indeed, it could be claimed that he told those who were not listening to him, that his grandfather was the only Member of Parliament to have been able to vote twice on the same Bill in a different House. He had voted against the Parliament Act 1911 as the Unionist Member for Brighton in the House of Commons. Then, on the death of his father, and as the successor to his title, he had whipped Upstairs or along the Corridor to vote against it again. We do things a little differently here, except in the case of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who we know succeeded his father, and in the case of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), who succeeded his father in that seat. Things in the other place are a little different from here.
Much is to be learnt about the Bill and its good sense from the debates that took place in the other place. As I said when I opened my few remarks, a great sense exists that this sector of agriculture is in decline. I am advised by the Tenant Farmers Association: "The tenanted sector is the traditional way into the industry for those with skill and energy but who cannot afford to buy land. Yet it has been in steady decline for reasons which include owners' fears that any letting could create life tenancies under present legislation and tax discrimination against letting land. Almost no land is now freshly let on full tenancies under the present law. Agriculture, facing major economic and political pressures, needs the business flexibility that a free tenancy market can give for it to remain competitive; paying a rent rather than having to buy high priced land."
Column 69It is regrettable that that is not the view of the Farmers Union of Wales. As I said earlier, I trust that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will be persuaded that he will have heard enough in the debate and in Committee to change his mind and to allow him to return to his constituency and to change the minds of the members of the Farmers Union of Wales.
The Tenant Farmers Association accepts the need for reform. Country landowners also accept it. As the hon. Member who opted on to the committee and who represents Leicestershire and Rutland, I should inform the House of the view of the Country Landowners Association on the Bill. It states:
"Current agricultural holdings legislation serves neither landowners nor prospective tenants. It does not attract sufficient lettings, and the rented sector is in decline. In 1900, 90 per cent. of land was let. By the end of the 1980s, that figure had fallen below 35 per cent., and it continues to fall. Radical changes in the law are necessary to reverse this trend."
Mr. Enright: I yield to none in my admiration for the Country Landowners Association which is a magnificent body that represents its members' interests very well. However, does the hon. Gentleman really believe that it takes an impartial view and that it agonised before reaching a conclusion?
Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman's advocacy of rhubarb, which I greatly admire, is second to none. I am only sorry that he did not have time in his speech to commend Yorkshire rhubarb, something that he usually does when questioning any Minister on any subject. Of course the Country Landowners Association is self-evidently an association of those who own land--that is not a matter of controversy--but that does not mean that it is unsympathetic to, or careless of, the interests of all those who play a part in agriculture.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that the intervention by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) was unworthy? It took considerable time and considerable courage on the part of all parties involved in the farming industry to come up with the industry agreement and carry the bulk of their members with them. At many stages, all those organisations had to concede much more than their individual members would have wished.
Mr. Garnier: I hear what my hon. Friend says but advise him not to take the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) too seriously as he is a man with a very refined sense of humour. However, I am happy to place on record the hard work done by the leadership of the CLA, the NFU and the TFA and the many others who played a constructive part in producing the agreement. It goes without saying that the civil servants and Ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are also to be congratulated. However, I am being diverted. I was placing on record the view of the CLA and explaining why that organisation believes that there is need for reform.
In addition to citing the decline of the amount of land available to be let, the CLA said that it was essential for the industry to have a
"dynamic . . . rented sector, attracting capital, expertise and new entrants . . . as it faces increased competition. Reform will lead to an increased supply of land to let."
Column 70I said at the outset that the Bill would increase the amount of land to let but not to the extent that many of us had hoped. The CLA also states:
the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors--
"estimated that up to one million acres might come forward." My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred to the figure of 1 million. It is difficult to see how that figure was arrived at but it is clear that that will exists to bring a great deal more land on to the market.
The present state of agricultural tenancy law was described by the Parliamentary Secretary in another place as a "tangle". In introducing the Bill last November, he said:
"The present tangle of agricultural holdings legislation has grown up largely over the last 120 years or so. Before then the relationship between the landlord and tenant of agricultural land was a much simpler one, governed principally by the terms of the tenancy agreement itself. In the middle of the last century, freedom of contract was held in high esteem, both in society and in legal circles. For example, in a case before the Court of Appeal in 1875 the then Master of the Rolls made the following pronouncement: `If there is one thing which more than any other public policy requires, it is that men of full age and competent understanding shall have the utmost liberty of contracting and that their contracts when entered into freely and voluntarily shall be held sacred and shall be enforced by courts of justice'."
The value of that dictum is timeless. I am only sorry that it did not receive the attention that it deserved during the passage of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993. The Parliamentary Secretary claimed:
"Although one-third of agricultural land is still rented, much of this is now rented on short-term agreements such as Gladstone v. Bower tenancies which do not have security of tenure."
Many hon. Members have spoken with feeling about that. The Parliamentary Secretary continued:
"Thus, the proportion of land that is let on protected tenancies is small and diminishing, and where such tenancies terminate it is known that only about 10 per cent. of landlords choose to re-let on a similar basis."--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 28 November 1994; Vol. 559, c. 485- 86.]
Any measure that can halt the decline, make more land available to let and encourage landowners to let land to existing tenant farmers or new entrants is to be encouraged. However, the Bill cannot do that alone. I am therefore happy to join my hon. Friends in welcoming the alteration to the capital tax provisions affecting rented land. I suspect that the relevant amendment to the Finance Bill will make more progress than this Bill alone but together the two will have an advantageous effect on the agricultural sector and the let division of it.
As the hon. Member for Hemsworth intervened on me, it would be discourteous of me not to remind the House that he made an entertaining and learned speech, although it was dotted with unparliamentary Latin. However, his private little debate with my right hon. Friend the Minister was instructive for those of us who are not so familiar with the "Eclogues". No doubt as soon as the debate is over, many hon. Members will rush to the Library to check the hon. Gentleman's references and citations.
The hon. Member for Hemsworth mentioned the farming community in his constituency. He may know that I had the honour of attempting to take that constituency from the Labour party in 1987. I was not successful but I did manage to meet people who farm in that traditionally coal mining constituency. We are
Column 71mistaken if we think that Labour Members represent only urban and industrial constituencies. It is certainly the case that many of them do but many--too many, sadly--represent constituencies in which there are farmers. I suspect that if the hon. Member for Hemsworth and his colleagues who represent similar areas were to conduct a detailed poll of farmers, landlords and tenants in their constituencies, they would find that many would be prepared to welcome the Bill.
Mr. Colvin: Does my hon. Friend accept that the health of the agricultural sector goes far beyond farming per se? I previously represented the urban constituency of Bristol, North-West which contained, among other things, docks and aircraft factories. The health of the agricultural sector was important to my constituency because grain, feedstuffs and fertiliser were exported through the docks there. In other words, agriculture has to be healthy in order to support the service industries that feed on it.
Mr. Garnier: I could not agree more. One of the sad effects of the industrial revolution was that, for obvious reasons, many people moved from the country to the cities and the affinity between them and the areas from which they came has been lost. The increase in incomprehension about what goes on in the countryside and the widening gap between the understanding of the urban population and the understanding of the rural population about what farming entails and about what country life is all about are much to be regretted.
Mr. Enright: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that farmers in my constituency, who farm what is now British Coal property, but which will be sold off over their heads in the City, are happy with the Bill? It does nothing to protect them.
Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman has corrected me. The farmers who have been contacted by the agricultural associations, including the unions, have overwhelmingly come out in support of the Bill. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has been unable to persuade his constituents of the good sense of the House passing the Bill. Next weekend, he can have another try; he may try a little harder this time. I do not want to part from the hon. Gentleman on a churlish note because his constituency is the birthplace of Geoffrey Boycott. It also has within it the greatest collection of Chippendale furniture to be found in one place in this kingdom, at Nostell priory--
Mr. Garnier: Featherstone Rovers, too. I trust that when the hon. Gentleman takes time off from talking to his farmers about the good sense of passing the Bill, he will take the chance to look at the furniture at the priory.
I expressed disappointment at the speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East. It was in line with the current attitude of the Labour party--the so- called new Labour party--in being unhelpful to those who live outside traditional Labour areas. It was also in line with the speech we heard from the hon. Member for Leicester,
Column 72East (Mr. Vaz), the so-called shadow Minister for Inner Cities. Last week, he spent 26 minutes lecturing the House on rural England, a subject about which, as his speech made clear, he had no knowledge. It was interesting that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was able in her winding-up speech, which lasted about eight minutes, to dismiss the ridiculous remarks of the hon. Member for Leicester, East as the remarks of someone whose knowledge of farming and the countryside had been gained from the windows of InterCity trains at night. A truer word was never spoken in this House.
This debate gives me the opportunity to place on record my support, and that of the Conservative party and the Government, for landlord farmers, whether they are human or corporate, for tenant farmers and for all those who live and work in the countryside and who have concern for its wildlife. In my part of Leicestershire, over the centuries, they have made the countryside the green and pleasant land that it is today. Their daily lives and work are less and less understood by the majority of the urban population.
I have not spoken tonight about the A427 and for that you will be grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What I have done is to express my whole-hearted support for the Bill. I have expressed one or two reservations about the enthusiasm felt by many inside and outside the House about the numbers of new tenants, and the amount of new tenanted land, that will come on stream. None the less, this is a good Bill. It deserves a fair wind and I am sorry that the Labour party appears to have taken such a churlish attitude towards it. 7.13 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West): I noted with pleasure the speech of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin). He always addresses arguments in the manner of a snow plough, brushing everything aside and ploughing straight down the middle. Some weeks ago, as a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture, of which he is the distinguished Chair, I asked him whether it would be a good idea for the Committee to investigate the issue before us this evening. His reply--I am sure that he will not mind my referring to this--was, "There is absolutely no point in discussing the subject because you lot will support the tenants and us lot will support the landowners. We will end up producing two reports and then we will be exactly where we were at the start." There was some sense in that and the conversation ceased at that point.
There is, however, an area between complete deregulation, which is what the Government are about, and the status quo, which the Government want to get rid of. There is still a great deal of scope for reasonable discussion and there may be solutions less disturbing than those that currently worry many tenants and many Labour Members. That area was well covered by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) who made an intelligent and weighty speech full of interesting points that the Committee will want to consider. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare also mentioned, as have several other Conservative Members, that the Bill is supported across the industry. That is not quite so. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned his extensive visits around the country.
Column 73He cannot have made it to Wales, or at least he cannot have listened there very much, and he cannot have made it to the north-west or to Cumbria.
Mr. Tyler: As I said during my speech--as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had listened--I have paid three visits to Wales in recent months. I have also been to the north-west and the north-east. There is far from unanimity, even in the depths of rural Wales, for the view taken by the Farmers Union of Wales.
Mr. Pickthall: I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that because that is my experience too. It makes his robust defence of the Bill even more surprising. The Bill is presented as if it had monolithic support from all organisations; it does not. Many of us have had meetings. A few months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) and I met the Farmers Union of Wales, many members of the National Farmers Union from the north- west and the Farm Tenants Action Group. That group included one Conservative county councillor from the constituency of the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) who was a virulent opponent of the Bill. Until his recent sad death, Lord Derby was also an opponent of the total deregulation envisaged under the Bill. I did not hear that straight from his mouth; I did not move in those circles, but I heard it from many of his tenants.
At the end of 1993, the NFU dropped its support for a 15-year minimum tenancy. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, it would be interesting to know what deal brought that change about. At that point, the NFU tenants committee split in a way that made opposition very clear in the north-west, in Wales and in Cumberland. Perhaps the country does split along those lines; I do not know about that in detail. Farmers told us that they were angry because the provisions were not retrospective. They do not object to the lack of retrospection in itself; they would be crazy if they did. They saw this lack of representation, however, as taking the heat out of the debate.
As the provisions of the Bill are not retrospective, the tenant farmers to whom we spoke were personally secure and were thus talking out of a sense of altruism. They were worried about the future of farming and the fact that new tenants would find it more difficult to make a start in farming. They were worried about the threat to family farms and the fragmentation of farms.
Mr. Jim Heyes--a member of the National Farmers Union tenants committee until the split--farms close to my constituency. He described the Bill as a "time bomb", which would have little immediate effect, but would mean that, as tenancies ended, farms would be rented out in a new and insecure way. He said:
"The position of farmers in the community will be undermined because they will always be moving on. Currently farmers tend to be in once place for at least 25 years, bringing stability to the community."
That is the other side of the stagnation argument voiced by Conservative Members. Mr. Heyes continued:
"the law will cater for less sensible landlords and those who want to work the system".
Column 74It seems odd for me, as an Opposition Member, to be speaking on behalf of maintaining a system that has kept Jim and his family farming at Mossborough hall since the 16th century, but I am at home with that argument. He also said that the Bill would mean the "destruction of any career structure for farm workers" because of the short-term nature of their employers' business. Farm workers have not been mentioned in that context.
The Government have sought change for three main reasons: the unfavourable fiscal treatment of let land; the problems of the remaining rights of succession and lifetime tenancies; and the fact that the amount of let land is declining as a percentage of farmland, as many hon. Members have said, thus restricting new entry. In the other place, the noble Lord Carter estimated that it is now as low as between 20 and 25 per cent. Nevertheless, that is a quarter of farmland and it is not an inconsiderable amount.
The Government's announced equalisation of fiscal treatment for inheritance tax has sorted out some of the problems, but hon. Members have drawn to Ministers' attention where the tax regime is not yet satisfactory.
The original NFU policy of a 15-year minimum tenancy had some force. It answered the arguments about lifetime tenancy rights but retained an element of security that, while not going all the way to answering tenant farmers' concerns--certainly not those of the Farmers Union of Wales--at least acknowledged the need to protect continuity in law, with all that that means for career structure, the health of the land and the environmental investment of tenants.
My concern is whether the free-for-all that the Government and the CLA insisted on will create better conditions for new entry, or whether it is simply a means of increasing the value of land to the landowner--a process that will automatically follow from short tenancies. The shorter the tenancy, the greater the increase in value. Of course, that never occurred to the Church Commissioners. As we were assured, they are merely worried about flexibility and it never crossed their minds that their land holdings might rocket in value.
The Bill would create two classes of tenant--those who enjoy the present rights of security and those who do not. The former have the sort of security that can attract backing from banks to enable them to secure further rented land on a short or a longer-term lease, which might keep out new entrants, who will find that the short-term nature of their leases is not conducive to getting the financial backing or investment required. The same problem arises with larger owner-occupiers and their ability to take on extra parcels of land, and contract farming companies, which are able to offer higher rents.
It is more than possible--I put it no higher than that--that the number of tenant farmers will continue to decline and that new entrants will not get the toe-hold that the propaganda surrounding the Bill promises. We must take considerable care to deal with that problem.
The sons and daughters of farmers, who are the largest pool of future farmers, may well be discouraged from staying in the family business, or even in farming, by the short-term nature of their parents' leases. The possibility of short-term leases might encourage the fragmentation of farms. Older owner-occupiers might be encouraged by the new system to retire, retain the farmhouse and lease off
Column 75parcels of land to provide an income, which could divide more houses and farms and accelerate the demand for more building. I am concerned about that, as it might affect the green belt, and I know that the Minister of State will also be concerned.
During the debate a couple of weeks ago, I asked questions about the effects of planning policy guidance 7. The Minister did not have time to answer any questions because she spent so much time abusing my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), but she said that she would get in touch with me with some answers. That has not yet happened. As the Minister knows, PPG 7 loosens the controls on the alternative use of agricultural buildings, allowing landowners to secure planning agreements to change the use of such buildings, even if they are not redundant.
That change could be a significant means of elbowing out the tenant, by removing certain important buildings and I want the Minister to deal with that in his reply.
Tenants who want to move to bigger or better holdings will be able to do so only by giving up the security that they enjoy. They will be reluctant to do so--indeed, they would be mad to do so--which will further choke off the possibility of movement within the tenanted sector.
Several hon. Members have referred to the lack of stepping stones--I think that the ladder has been the metaphor. One of the significant rungs in such a ladder must be when a tenant moves from a small farm, or perhaps a difficult farm having made a good job of it, to a better farm and, he hopes, to an even better farm after that. He used to be able to do so with security. He is not going to move to a slightly better farm if he then suddenly finds himself without lifetime security. The total removal of the minimum term, therefore, might not achieve what the Bill's central purpose is purported to be--the increased flexibility to attract new tenants--and it could well do the opposite.
The probability of adverse effects on the environmental work that farmers undertake is just as serious. Because many farms are of a piece and are lived on for a long time, tenant farmers have traditionally improved the quality of the land, the buildings and often the marginal environment. Their role in improving ditches, sluices and drainage is especially important in a flat, low-lying, peat area such as mine. Under a 10-year lease, which is reasonably optimistic, will there be the same natural, cumulative process of positive work on the quality of the land and the environment in tenanted areas? I very much doubt it.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which seems to have written a bible in connection with this debate, suggests that some 50 per cent. of new land let will be bare land. That connects with a question asked by Viscount Hampden on Second Reading in another place. He asked, dramatically, what one should do about houses for farmers. Lord Stockton went on to another subject and left it as a rhetorical question. I do not blame him, for it is a difficult question. The demand by new entrants farming bare land to live close to or on their holdings will increase. That is only natural, especially when they must
Column 76keep an eye on livestock, which cannot be done easily from five miles away in a neighbouring town with perhaps one or two remaining council houses, or when they have glasshouses. Pressure on the planning system to build on green belt or other sensitive areas will increase.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy asked who will house tenants evicted after five or 10 years. Where will they go? My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East discussed the Labour party's policy for freeing up entry into farming. I shall refer to just one element of that, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members this evening: county council smallholdings. Until last year, Lancashire county council, for instance, had 4,700 hectares of county council smallholdings. Once the current negotiations have been finalised, it will have only 1,750 hectares, comprising just 65 smallholdings in total. That has been brought about partly by the Government's decision in 1992 to allow councils to spend the proceeds obtained from such sales, so long as they got rid of them before December 1993, and now by the assumption in resettlement grants of ludicrous levels of capital receipts. County councils are being steadily and progressively removed from the tenancy sector and I imagine that most of them will be completely removed from it by the end of the year.
I accept that movement through the county council smallholding system has been relatively small. The hon. Member for
Weston-super-Mare gave figures on that. None the less, in one area tenancies reached 65, so there was some possibility of movement in the system. If the Government wanted to do something about that, would not it have been more logical to give shorter tenancies for county council smallholdings?
A colleague told me to look at the case of Johnson v. Moreton, which was heard by the Law Lords in 1987. I recognise that events have moved on since then. The dispute was over an attempt to evict a tenant in Warwickshire. I refer not to the details of that case, but to some of the Law Lords' judgments, which still apply. In the first sentence of their finding--they found in favour of the tenant--they discussed the 1948 Act on which their judgment was based. They said that
"it was in the national or public interest to encourage efficient farming and good husbandry by conferring security of tenure on tenant farmers, and that such farmers, because of their inequality of bargaining power, required statutory protection in the making of contracts for the leasing of land."
Mr. Pickthall: I agree that, for the Government, many parts of the Bill, such as those on compensation agreements, are immensely compromising. However, I am dealing with the overall effects of the Bill, which, the Minister will agree, is primarily aimed at freeing up tenancies to bring new people into farm tenancies. I assume that the aim of Bill is not entirely to fill landowners' pockets with money. I have been trying to explain why, in reality, the Bill could have the reverse effect. In that respect, I share the opinions expressed by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.
Lord Salmon went on to say that, if there was no such thing as security of tenure,
Column 77"there was no great inducement for those farmers to work as hard as they could, still less to plough money back into land which they knew they might well lose sooner or later.
The security of tenure which tenant farmers were accorded by the 1947 Act was not only for their own protection as an important section of the public, nor only for the protection of the weak against the strong; it was for the protection of the nation itself." I shall not bore the House by quoting extensively from that judgment, but all the Law Lords agreed and I quote only the general principles on which they made their judgment, not the details of the law.
Some of the most striking phrases came from Lord Hailsham's judgment. He said that
"since the 1880s successive Parliaments have considered the fertility of the land and soil of England and the proper farming of it as something more than a private interest . . . It takes years (sometimes generations) of patient and self-abnegating toil and investment to put heart into soil, to develop and gain the advantage of suitable rotations of crops, and to provide proper drains, hedges and ditches. Even to build up a herd of dairy cattle . . . These are not simply matters of private contracts from which the landlord can stipulate that the tenant can deprive himself . . . It is a public interest introduced for the sake of the soil and husbandry of England of which both landlord and tenant are in a moral, though not of course a legal, sense the trustees for posterity."
Obviously, the same applies to Wales.
I return to the point that I made at the beginning of my speech about the clear polarities between the parties, mentioned by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. There are large areas for compromise, which I hope can get rid of many of the fears of Opposition Members and the tenant farmers with whom we have spoken in recent months. Most of the areas of compromise appear to be swept away in the Government's urge to deregulate. Ultimately, that will be detrimental to the future of farming in the north-west and the rest of the country, and to country life itself.
Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South): The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) seems to have discovered various cells of the National Farmers Union in Westmorland and Wales that are against the Bill. He must accept that, nationally, the Country Landowners Association, the Tenant Farmers Association and the National Farmers Union, after enormous discussions among themselves, reached a mutual agreement on both sides of the industry. That is a fact of life, which he cannot avoid. Of course, one can find dissidents in those organisations, as one does in all organisations, but the national situation is clear.
Mr. Spicer: I do not know about that part of the country, but the national position is clear. It is so clear that all those organisations have agreed; indeed, everyone is pretty well agreed except for, it would appear, the Labour party.
One can understand why the Labour party might oppose the Bill, because the Bill--to my mind, admirably--strengthens proper market principles with respect to the agriculture industry, and especially bases those principles on the supremacy of the contract within lettings. That has been done in the circumstances of a very sharp decline in the lettings industry due, as has been said,
Column 78to factors on both sides of the industry--the lack of security of tenants or the feeling of lack of security, and the fact that, for years, landlords have not been able to get their properties back in the way that they would want to.
That dying letting industry is in a worse condition than most of the statistics that have been pushed back and forth across the House suggest. Arm's-length tenancies as a proportion of holdings had decreased to 19 per cent., according to figures published by the Royal Agricultural Society three or four years ago, and were declining. That is a very serious matter.
The Bill, as has been said, encourages new entrants; it encourages a flexibility of approach that must encourage new lettings, although this may be difficult to quantify precisely, as several hon. Members have said.
Would that the principles of the Bill--especially the liberalisation of taxation that goes alongside the legislation--were applied to that extent in, for instance, the residential lettings market. When I stopped being Minister for Housing and Planning, the residential lettings market accounted for the smallest proportion of the housing market of that in any country in the western world, and there were very large numbers of unlet houses: 600,000 in my time. I doubt that the figure has improved much. I certainly approve of the liberalisation measure in the agricultural tenancy sector. I have one reservation, which relates to the famous "Evesham custom". I use the word, "famous", but I suspect that only you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have heard of the Evesham custom before tonight. It will effectively be abolished if the Bill goes unamended. As I have the honour of representing Evesham and the vale, and have done so for 21 years, I am likely to be the only hon. Member to bring that matter, which is very serious in my opinion and that of my constituents, before the House tonight.
The Evesham custom became law exactly 100 years ago, when it was introduced by means of the Market Gardeners Compensation Act 1895 by two of my predecessors. In those days, two Members represented the Vale of Evesham; now we have two for the price of one. The grandson of one of those hon. Members, Sir Berwick Letchmere, continues to live prominently in the constituency.
The Evesham custom was maintained in the Agricultural Holdings Acts of 1908, 1923, 1948 and, most importantly in view of the argument that I shall make, in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986. It applies exclusively to land tenanted for the purposes of market gardening. It relates, therefore, to small parcels of land--often of no more than two or three acres--on which the monitoring of improvements, and indeed valuation when there is a transaction, was regarded, and continues to be regarded, as so costly and time consuming for the large landlords that dominate our district--such as the Glebe and the Christ Church, Oxford--which tend to be ecclesiastical landlords as it happens, as to make it not worth their while to become too involved in matters that are important to the tenants.
A method was therefore devised by which tenants became responsible for their own purchases and sale of their tenancies, which carried with them a lifetime tenure. Tenancies were bought and sold, with the protection of statute, at prices that could and did include the value of improvements, the value of crops and, critically, a premium associated with lifetime security. I am told that