I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
We are now moving downwards, as it were, from matters of great moment to the comparatively simple question of the terms on which the recovery of possession of a dwelling-house occupied by a person primarily engaged in agriculture shall be governed by the Bill.
The new Clause was discussed in identical terms in Committee, when it was disagreed to only by the Chairman's casting vote. My hon. Friends and I are, therefore, grateful that the matter should have been selected at this stage for further discussion.
The object of the Clause is very limited. It is to enable some spare farm houses which are temporarily not needed for agricultural use to be leased as dwelling-houses until such time as they are needed again for agriculture. The 1965 Rent Act did this for the spare farm cottage; that is to say, the house previously occupied by someone employed as a farm worker. The manner of drafting this essential exception to the statutory restrictions on repossession did not cover the spare farmhouse, the house previously occupied by the employer or the farmer running a farm business. If the exception had been drafted on the basis of any dwelling-houses rated as agricultural dwelling-houses this distinction and difficulty would not have arisen.
The farm house is not just another dwellinghouse in the total of property but is an essential and expensive item of capital equipment without possession of which it is not normally possible to farm the land attached to it as a separate business on its own. There are many cases today where one farmer is actually farming two or more farms simultaneously so as to have a bigger business but without any intention or certainty of permanent amalgamation of those farms as is provided for on a permanent basis by the Government's grant-aided amalgamation schemes.
If a permanent merger of farms were contemplated, the surplus farm house could generally be sold freehold. This amendment is needed to cover those cases where the farm house must be kept in the same ownership as the land so that at any time, through choice or necessity, the farmer may be able to give up one farm—sell, lease, or transfer it to a relative—whereupon it becomes essential that the spare farm house should be available for the new farmer's occupation along with the land and farm buildings.
As the law stands at present, possession of such a farm house would be regained only if it had been let furnished for a fixed term, which is not very practicable, or had a rent of less than two-thirds of its rateable value, which usually is uneconomic. In Committee the Joint Parliamentary Secretary suggested a peppercorn rent; but that would be even less economic. Otherwise an unfurnished letting would create a regulated tenancy which would be subject to all the security of tenure provisions of the Rent Acts. The result is that a number of farm houses have to be left empty on legal advice. Here I declare an interest because I have been advised not to let a farm house which I do not need for some years. That is bad for the structure of the house, it deprives someone of a potential home for a limited period, and it is not good for a rural society.
Having studied the Parliamentary Secretary's replies in Committee, I think that he was making our proposal seem much more sweeping than is our intention. We are not wedded to the words of this Clause, and I am sure that his advisers could perfectly well devise a method which would remove this legal anomaly without its being the thin end of a thick wedge. The hon. Gentleman said that this provision
would allow repossession from an ex-farmer or his widow.
The Country Landowners' Association, which supports this proposal, has pointed out that without it it would be inadvisable for an owner to allow an outgoing tenant to remain on in the farm house, assuming that it was not needed, for the period of a year, or whatever was agreed to enable the outgoing tenant to find some other home of his own.
In the same speech the Parliamentary Secretary expressed anxiety about the effect on grant-aided amalgamation schemes where it is part of a scheme that one farmer giving up his farm altogether should remain in his dwelling-house. It would be perfectly possible to make it a requirement of any such permanent amalgamation scheme that the farmer should have full security of tenure of the house.
The Parliamentary Secretary's attitude was best expressed when he said:
the right of repossession is one that ought to be given sparingly with due regard for the needs of occupiers to feel secure in their homes.
He also said:
the Clause sweeps away the time limits within which the rights of repossession may be exercised. It is reasonable that the owner should have a period he can use in which to make up his mind whether he will need his house or not, but for houses which have not been tied cottages it is not reasonable that he should be able to exercise that right indefinitely—against the occupiers who would, of course, with the passage of time, tend to regard the house as probably a permanent home."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 10th March, 1970; c. 1080.]
I do not believe that that accords with the reality of the situation.
The hon. Gentleman has overlooked the numbers of would-be tenants who do not need or seek a permanent home in the country. There are quite a few people, such as representatives of firms, Service personnel posted for fairly short periods at defence establishments and wanting pleasant married quarters, and people whose careers generally require them frequently to change their homes. Many of those people like to live in the countryside, even if they work in a town.
There are people returning from abroad or retiring from a town who would like, with their furniture, to occupy a house in the country for a limited period while they find their ideal house to purchase. One would like to have a situation in which this essential item of capital equipment could be leased under an agreement for a term of years varying with the requirements of the parties.
It would be perfectly possible to limit the number of these cases. Any agreement should be quite explicit. It could recite the agricultural contingency to be provided for. It could identify the land normally going with the farm house. If the Minister so desired, although I would think it unnecessary, any such farm house, or agreement in respect of it, could be registered with the Ministry. Perhaps the neatest Amendment would be to draft a parallel to Case 12 in the Third Schedule to the 1968 Rent Act, which has now consolidated Section 16 of the Rent Act 1965.
I want the Parliamentary Secretary to realise that neither I nor my hon. Friends wish to press this new Clause in its present form. We would like him, with his advisers, to reconsider this problem remembering that the Minister of Housing and Local Government said on a previous occasion that this was a matter for an Agriculture Bill. We now have an Agriculture Bill, and I hope that he will consider how to make a way around this quite small but acute difficulty at a later stage.