Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Brady: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. MacShane: No, I must finish my speech if I am to have time to mention other Members.

Several Members have referred to a famous speech. I should be grateful for a transcript.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is a good friend of mine, but he has only just come into the Chamber.

As I was saying, I should be grateful for a transcript of that speech. I shall send whoever transcribes it a copy of Miss Lynne Truss's remarkable new book, so that they can put the commas and full stops in the right places. In the speech, I mentioned a telephone call from a distinguished French journalist in Brussels who said "Mr. MacShane, you Brits have won. You have an Atlanticist, pro-business Commission President. You have one of the top Commission slots and English is now the language spoken. The constitution, in the view of everybody in France and Germany, was written in London. What comment have you got to make?" I said to him, "Join the Conservatives, because it is about time they got back to the real world and realised that being in Europe is good for Britain." Signing the new treaty is good for Britain, and the Conservatives will become electable again only if they become sensible on Europe again. I wish them well in that task.

Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


Rochdale Metro Link

6.26 pm

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): This petition, consisting of the signatures of 6,556 of my constituents, is prompted by the Secretary of State for
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1762
Transport's statement in July that the planned extension of Rochdale's metro link—known as phase 3, or the big bang—is cancelled. My constituents know that the spiralling costs had to be dealt with, but they regret the way in which the problem has been handled. However, they are grateful for the fact that the Government are now committed to finding a solution and they would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) and the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), for their efforts with the working party.

My constituents think that the recent local transport plan announcement was regrettable and that the Leigh and Rochdale schemes should be granted, as they are totally in keeping with the Government's integrated transport strategy.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Draycott Manor School

6.28 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The petition of Draycott Manor school is signed by 2,754 parents, pupils, teachers and governors.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

St. Mildred's School

6.29 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The petition of St. Mildred's school, Whiston, in Staffordshire, consists of 1,150 signatures.

The petition states:

15 Dec 2004 : Column 1763

To lie upon the Table.

St. John's School

6.30 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The petition of St. John's school, Alton, consists of 1,400 signatures.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

15 Dec 2004 : Column 1764

Tenant Farmers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

6.31 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): It is an honour to have the opportunity to address the House on the issue of tenant farmers. Apart from not having the security of the capital value of their land and buildings, tenant farmers are also disadvantaged in a number of ways. I shall deal with some of them, particularly with single farm payments, milk quotas, diversification and tenant farmers' personal housing needs.

For those wishing to enter farming, having a tenancy may be the only method available, so the role of the tenant sector is important to assist new entrants to the industry. I acknowledge that the issues affecting tenant farmers have been considered by the Tenancy Reform Industry Group, under the chairmanship of Julian Sayers, and I also want to acknowledge the Government's response, which was published last year.

My recent interest in the subject was prompted by two tenant farmers who attended my constituency advice surgery in Abergavenny. They are dairy producers with a herd of 95 Holstein-Friesians and they also keep sheep. They are Cathy and Nick Sprackling and they run the Ty Mawr farm in Dingestow, near Monmouth. Their concern was with the particular rules governing single farm payments and I will raise the matter briefly here in the House. Because single farm payment is based on three reference years, they were unable, for one reason or another, to submit a claim for sheep annual premium in 2000. As a result, they not only failed to receive that premium, but were further disadvantaged. They wrote to me about their problems and I submitted their letter to the Minister's office today. That was the issue that they came to see me about, and as I discussed with them particular issues affecting tenant farmers I thought of raising these concerns on the Floor of the House.

They did not have any specific concerns with their own tenancy arrangements and had a high regard for the landlord, Mr. Bosanquet, who I also know well, but they raised important issues that it is right to put to the House. We discussed the price of raw milk, the cost of buying milk quota and especially their concern about future housing. I became intrigued to hear about the problems they faced with regard to housing. Because they are tenants, they will inevitably lose the property that they live in when they decide to retire. In order to find housing, they have currently taken out a mortgage to buy a property in the town of Monmouth, knowing that they will have to let it out until the time at which they retire. They are able to secure only a buy-to-let mortgage, which means that they are being further penalised. They are not going into rented property—a second home—in order to make profit. It is all about security for the future.

I understand that, traditionally, tenant farmers often sold their stock to secure sufficient funds to buy a property, often in the countryside if that was their choice, but that possibility is now largely ruled out because of both the relatively low value of stock and the relatively high price of country properties. I was particularly concerned to hear about the way in which
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1765
they were being disadvantaged in the housing market and I wondered whether mechanisms could be introduced to help people who have difficulty getting affordable housing. Right hon. and hon. Members who represent rural constituencies know of the great difficulties in being able to live in such areas. My constituency of Monmouthshire is an area of very high property prices.

One initiative that I know about in Monmouth is called the shared equity scheme, which is being introduced by a private developer, Lovell, in conjunction with the housing association. Effectively, people buy half the house and the other half is kept by the housing association. It makes housing far more affordable. I wondered whether such schemes could be made available to people in rural areas and I was very pleased to hear that a charity called ARC Addington has such a scheme. Its strategic rural housing scheme allows applicants to choose a property and location. That property is then rented back to them, or made available for purchase under a shared equity arrangement.

My constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Sprackling, were penalised by having to secure a buy-to-let mortgage, and they tell me that the taxman will penalise them again by treating the rent from their property as unearned income. They believe that it would be fairer to treat that property as their main residence, and to regard any rental income as earned income.

There are not a great many tenant farmers in my constituency, but they do exist. To its credit, Monmouthshire county council has about 50 tenanted farms. The scheme governing county council farms was established after the first world war. It allowed local authorities to rent land to farmers as a way of helping men coming back from the war. It was a "farms fit for heroes" scheme, to go alongside the "homes fit for heroes" scheme introduced at that time.

In many rural areas, pockets of council houses were built after the Housing Act 1919 made it possible for rural and agricultural workers, and others on low incomes, to live in the countryside. That opportunity has largely been lost as a result of right to buy, as many of the properties involved have gone into the private sector.

One important function of the tenant sector is to allow new entrants to come into the farming industry. However, the Tenant Farmers Association has highlighted the challenges facing new entrants to farming, and called for policies that help rather than hinder their progress. The TFA has always championed the cause of new entrants. Tenancies are the principle mechanisms by which new tenants access the industry, and the TFA is keen to ensure that a strong supply of tenancies remains available to new entrants. Local authorities may be able to continue the traditional role of having tenant farms, but the indications are that they are more likely to divest themselves of their estates than to invest in buying land for tenant farmers.

One way to encourage more entrants into the industry would be to increase the opportunity for people to retire from it. There has been much talk about that in recent years. I well remember the crisis of the late 1990s, when I attended packed meetings with the former Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, now Lord Livesey. Many
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1766
farmers wished that they had the opportunity to get out of the industry. Early retirement schemes have been available in many other professions and public-sector occupations, and it would not be unreasonable for a similar scheme to apply to the farming sector.

As a result of the inquiries that I have made and the parliamentary questions that I have submitted to the Government, I understand that progress on this matter has been very slow. The TFA has urged the Government to implement a commitment in the new manifesto to develop a scheme allowing people to retire from the industry so that they can make way for others.

The Welsh Assembly has also discussed this matter. It was said that implementing an early retirement scheme was inhibited either by the constraints imposed by the EU, or by the Assembly's limited powers, but I hope that the Government will continue to consider the possibility.

Diversification is another issue that affects tenant farmers. The TFA has highlighted the problem that some tenants face when considering diversification. Business advisers often suggest that farmers consider diversification as an option for business development, but it is not always appreciated that tenant farmers may not be able to take advantage of diversification because of the restrictions that apply under tenancy legislation, and in their tenancy contracts.

The chief executive of the TFA, George Dunn, has said:

A survey by the TFA discovered that on traditional lettings under the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986, tenants reported that 53 per cent. of landlords had taken or would take a negative attitude to the carrying out of non-agricultural activities on let land. However, other research commissioned by the Country Land and Business Association suggests that landlords are more favourably disposed to support tenants wishing to diversify—96 per cent. of all landlords surveyed by the CLBA would grant consent if asked by their tenant, subject only to reasonable terms to protect the landlord's interest and the value of the land. Examples of diversification include cafes, boat moorings, caravan sites and Christmas tree growing. Those and other forms of diversification have been encouraged. In fact, they have been a necessity in agriculture in recent years.

Concern has increased over reports that some landlords, including traditional landlords, are taking the opportunity, where available, to bring existing farm tenancies to an end as a lever to extract concessions from tenants on any single farm payment entitlement that might be established. Where that happens, it appears to be very unreasonable. I have not personally come across any cases in my constituency, but I know that it has been a concern of those who represent tenant farmers. In order to avoid that serious problem occurring, the TFA is putting pressure on the Government to introduce a statutory code for the tenant to be able to enforce a valuation of the entitlement at the end of the tenancy if
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1767
he does not want to take it away with him. That would then be passed to the landlord for allocation to an incoming tenant in return for the compensation settled. That method would be similar to the provisions contained in legislation that provides compensation to tenants for milk quota or other end-of-tenancy claims on improvements.

Speaking to my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Sprackling, I was concerned to hear about the problems they have with the price of raw milk. They currently receive 17.2p per litre for raw milk, which is a slight increase on the average price for last year. However, they and other tenant farmers in similar situations cannot make a profit at that price. While we all acknowledge that consumers get a good deal when they go to a supermarket and buy six pints of milk for £1.24 or a little more, the worry is how little the farmers get. Several dairy farmers in my constituency have given up in recent years because of the problems faced by the dairy sector.

Together with other hon. Members, I have supported the call for a new strengthened supermarket code of practice. The current code of practice was introduced following the report by the Welsh Affairs Committee on the livestock industry. After publication, we made representations to the Office of Fair Trading that a code of practice be introduced. It was introduced, but on a voluntary basis. There is a strong argument for strengthening it and possibly placing it on a statutory basis.

I am sure that all hon. Members would acknowledge that the tenant farming sector plays an important role, especially for those coming into the industry. The Government have been active in working with all parts of the industry to ensure that the concerns of tenant farmers are addressed and that they are not disadvantaged. We must all support tenant farming and help it flourish, as well as recognising that some of the disadvantages faced by tenant farmers must be addressed.

6.43 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page