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Earl Howe: I have listened with great interest to the reasons of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for wishing to make these amendments to the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986. Indeed I have also listened with care to my noble friend Lord Middleton. I have noted all the points that have been made and I do not doubt that the amendments have been drawn up with some care. Notwithstanding that, however, I hope that the noble Lord and the Committee will not mind if I reply very briefly and in general terms.

Throughout all the discussions leading up to the Bill, we have made it absolutely clear that the new legislation would not be retrospective and that we would not amend the 1986 Act. I am sure that every Member of the

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Committee could come forward with a list of desirable amendments; I myself would have quite a number of suggestions, but that is not the purpose of the current legislation. We wish to stick with the principle of making no changes that relate to existing tenancies, because that would be the start of a slippery slope. Without questioning the motives or merits of this particular amendment in any way, I think I can safely say that there are many Members of the Committee who would like to alter the provisions relating to succession but in an entirely different direction. In my view, the safest course is to leave well alone. I mean no discourtesy to the noble Lord in not responding to the amendment in detail, but these are matters which in principle we feel should not intrude into the Bill. I hope that the noble Lord will understand our position.

Lord Carter: I can certainly understand it but I do not agree with it. That seems to me an extraordinary statement. We all know from the practitioners what the situation is. For example, under the 1986 Act there was a provision—it is not contained in this amendment, but I refer to it as an example —to require certain regulations to be laid regarding the forms which are used in agricultural transactions. I believe that all those regulations have not yet been laid and the practitioners are having to use old fashioned and out of date forms just because the Government have not got round to improving the Act or to fulfilling their obligations under the Act.

This is a Bill which—as the Long Title states—can be used to improve the 1986 Act. We have checked this out. The Government are saying, "Even if you show us that it is badly drafted, that it is unjust, that it makes omissions and that it is bad law, we do not intend to make any changes to it". That seems to me extremely unfair to the large number of tenants who will spend the rest of their working lives bound by the 1986 Act. Possibly their sons or daughters or their grandsons or granddaughters will spend their working lifetimes bound by the 1986 Act. We do not accept that view and we shall press to change it. Where we are informed and advised by practitioners outside this House that there are weaknesses in the 1986 Act, we shall try to improve them.

On the related ancillary point I accept that the wording is perhaps too wide. The important point is whether we accept the principle. The example that I gave shows that succession is not working as it should because of the way the Act is drafted. If the Act is to be improved to meet the points that were made from the other side of the Chamber —which I accept—we have to decide whether it is the wording or the principle that is at fault. I have already dealt with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, about the obligation imposed upon the tenant.

The Minister and I have an excellent relationship, but for once I have to tell him that I do not find his last answer in the least satisfactory. It is not good government. If it can be clearly shown that an Act of Parliament which governs the livelihoods of large numbers of people includes weaknesses of drafting and an Agricultural Tenancies Bill is before Parliament providing an opportunity to put those right, it is not

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good enough to say "We are not going to do it. We are drawing a line". That attitude has overtones of a certain triumphalism which we used to see in the party opposite a few years ago. I thought that that had changed, but it seems that in this respect it has not. It is not good enough, and I can tell the Minister that we shall return to the issue. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 35 agreed to.

6 p.m.

Viscount Addison moved Amendment No. 81:

After Clause 35, insert the following new clause:

("Conservation: codes of guidance

.—(1) The Ministers shall, from time to time, after discussions with such interested persons or bodies as they consider appropriate, prepare codes of guidance to local authorities, the Ministry of Defence, the Crown Estate and other Government Departments or public bodies which own or occupy agricultural holdings to which this Act applies, containing advice and information relating to the conservation of flora and fauna.
(2) In this section "the Ministers" means the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for the Environment acting jointly.").

The noble Viscount said: The proposed new clause in Amendment No. 81 will require Ministers to issue a code of guidance to local authorities, the Crown Estate and government departments which own agricultural holdings.

The proposal is intended to ensure that advice and information is available to county councils and other public landlords to guide and encourage them to include specific management practices which are likely to benefit nature conservation when drawing up farm business tenancies under the Bill.

County councils in England and Wales own more than 360,000 acres, involving more than 5,400 tenants, on agricultural land much of which is of potential value for wildlife. Since modern farming practices driven by financial incentives have caused the decline of once common plants and animals it is essential that, where possible, opportunities are created to reverse the declines in wildlife.

Many county councils are already conscious of the need to include conservation practices in tenancy agreements. Indeed, the Association of County Councils together with the Association of District Councils support my proposed new clause. The provision of guidance encapsulated in the amendment will assist county councils in deciding the type of management practices which should be agreed upon with new farm business tenants.

Perhaps I may illustrate that with an example. The Committee will be aware that the use of pesticides and herbicides has resulted in the decline of wild flowers, including shepherd's needle, corn buttercup and corn marigold. Similarly, game birds, including grey partridge, have suffered enormous declines due to the lack of wild food, including leaf beetles, weevils and sawfly larvae, which have disappeared due to crop spraying. Research by the Game Conservancy has shown that avoiding the use of chemical sprays along

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field margins and headland creates a mini-habitat for invertebrates and wildlife higher up the food chain, particularly for birds.

The county councils could therefore include specific clauses in a farm business tenancy along the lines of the following: requiring tenants to trim hedges every other year and keep to a maximum height of 2 metres; not to spray within a metre of hedgerows or "beetle banks"; to create a six metre conservation headland at the edge of a crop.

Of course the code of guidance proposed in the new clause should not have to contain such detail, but the guidance needs to indicate the desirability of having specific conservation clauses written into tenancy agreements in order to reverse the declines in wildlife.

Similarly, the government guidance could include advice to county councils on the benefit of setting conservation objectives and targets for the life of a farm tenancy. That would encourage county councils to include specific clauses which provide, for example, that the length of hedgerow shall be increased by 20 per cent., or that unworked land in field corners should be planted with woodland trees or shrubs.

My proposed new clause indicates that the code of guidance should also apply to the Crown Estate, Ministry of Defence and other government departments which own agricultural holdings.

For completeness, the new clause includes the definition of "the Ministers" to mean the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for the Environment acting jointly. I commend the clause to the Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Carter: I was very glad to add my name to the amendment. As the noble Viscount has moved it so clearly I can be brief.

Perhaps I should declare an interest as a tenant of the Ministry of Defence, which tends to carry out conservation obligations despite all the difficulties involved with military training.

The amendment contains an excellent suggestion for a code of guidance. If the public sector cannot give the lead on such matters, who can? I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment.

Earl Howe: I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing the amendment. However, I confess that I am still a little unclear as to how the amendment relates to the Bill.

As I have mentioned in earlier debates, the Bill provides much greater opportunities for landlords to draw up tenancy agreements in which environmental aims are furthered. However, I am not sure that it is appropriate in this context to require the preparation of guidance containing general advice and information on conservation matters aimed only at public bodies. I should have thought that the furtherance of conservation objectives by private landlords was, if anything, even more important than by public landlords because of the greater area that they occupy.

More importantly, I am unclear as to what new advice or information the guidance is supposed to contain. I say that because guidance on environmental matters is not

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in short supply. For example, MAFF itself publishes separate codes of good agricultural practice for the protection of air, the protection of soil and the protection of water. It also produces numerous booklets on good upland management, straw and stubble burning, heather and grass burning, farm waste, nitrates, pesticides and various other conservation-related matters. All of those items are available free of charge to public bodies as well as to the general public. Therefore, for the moment I need a little more persuading that there is a gap in the guidance which we already issue that needs to be filled by imposing a requirement such as that envisaged in the amendment.

Of course, if it is the case that what is envisaged should take the form of some new obligations rather than advice then that would give rise to different questions about whether such obligations were appropriate and whether they could be applicable to all the cases in which they would apply. However, my understanding is that the amendment does not propose such obligations.

I should perhaps add that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has begun work on preparing guidance for general use by all in the agricultural industry on matters which may be covered by agricultural tenancy agreements. I hope and expect that such guidance would include a section on environmental matters, which may help to fill the need perceived by my noble friend.

I invite my noble friend to reflect on what I said and to consider what the objectives of any guidance would be and whether he therefore still believes it is necessary for it to be mentioned in the Bill.

I hope that my remarks have not been entirely negative. They are meant to be constructive, in response to the concerns that my noble friend expressed. I hope that he will feel reasonably content to withdraw the amendment.

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