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Interpretation of Part Iii

Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th April 1970.

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Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East 12:00 am, 7th April 1970

I beg to move, Amendment No. 22, in page 29, line 15, leave out subsection (2).

Photo of Mr Harry Gourlay Mr Harry Gourlay , Kirkcaldy District of Burghs

It may suit the convenience of the House to discuss also Amendments Nos. 23, 25, 26 and 27.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

These Amendments are linked together and arise from misunderstanding in Committee about the level at which Clause 36 sets the upper limit for smallholdings. Subsection (2) expressed our meaning accurately, but the Committee had genuine difficulty with this because of the way in which our intentions were set out. We accordingly undertook to see if we could make them clearer. I hope hon. Members opposite will agree that we have done so.

Photo of Mr Harry Gourlay Mr Harry Gourlay , Kirkcaldy District of Burghs

Order. There seem to be too many committee meetings going on.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

Amendment No. 25 will replace the existing provisions in the Clause on the size of smallholdings. The new subsection (2) will state unequivocally that a smallholding will be within the upper limit if, in the Minister's opinion, it provides full-time employment for no more than two men. A smallholding will exceed the upper limit if it provides full-time employment for more than two men. It also makes it clear that this does not rule out some additional part-time assistance. The Clause will, therefore, provide, in a way which I hope puts the matter beyond doubt, that holdings of three-man size will be above the upper limit and can be provided only with the Minister's approval under Clause 38.

This will require a complete reorganisation of the Clauses, so we have taken the opportunity to rationalise the other references to the upper limit in this Part of the Bill. This is the purpose of the other Amendments. By bringing the Minister's powers to make regulations about the labour capacity of a holding into Clause 36, we have been able to dispense with Clause 34(2). The revised form of Clause 36 has also made unnecessary Clause 34(4). Finally, to simplify matters still further, we are doing away with the concept of a "standard" smallholding. The discussion in Committee showed that this description was not a useful one and may have added to hon. Members' confusion.

We have, as I hope hon. Members will recognise, made a big effort to meet the Committee's points on this provision. In approving the Amendments, I am sure that we shall be making a considerable improvement in the clarity of these important Clauses in Part III.

Photo of Mr John Temple Mr John Temple , City of Chester

We welcome these Amendments, because there was a lengthy debate in Committee about what should be the upper limit on a standard small- holding. However, we are being a little grandmotherly with regard to the small-holdings committees of county councils, because I think that they are in a fit and proper position to judge the upper limit themselves.

Having said that, I draw attention to the fact that the Wise Committee, which studied this matter, had three criteria in mind to determine the upper limit of a smallholding. The first was the net income. Then it discussed the possibility of acreage being a criterion. The Government decided that manpower should be the deciding factor, and certainly subsection (2) of Government Amendment 25 is much more specific than the provision which it replaces.

The County Councils Association is not clear on three points. Can the Parliamentary Secretary give an assurance that this new formula will not have an effect on existing smallholdings? If an existing smallholding is above the upper limit, it is his intention that that holding should continue?

The hon. Gentleman said that, under Clause 38(4), the Minister could give approval in certain circumstances for a holding to be rather larger. This has particular reference to the amount of equipment which might exist on a holding. Can the Minister confirm that it is his intention, where the equipment on a smallholding is of large dimensions, that the Department concerned would give authority for the holding to be retained as a smallholding?

The third point refers to the regulations which the Minister proposes to make under subsection (2) of Clause 36 prescribing the manner in which full-time employment is to be estimated. I presume that it is the Minister's intention to use the Small Farm Business Management Scheme as the basis for defining full-time employment.

It would be helpful if the Minister could clear up those points.

Photo of Mr Paul Hawkins Mr Paul Hawkins , South West Norfolk

In welcoming these Amendments, I remind the House that it was the Opposition who drew attention to the nonsense of the Government's original Clause. No one could understand it, and it looked as if we intended to make the top limit of smallholdings bigger than the average farm in the country. Even now, a fairly large holding has been left.

The Clauses concerned with smallholdings make the Government responsible for far too much. The smallholdings committees, on one of which I have had the honour to serve for 20 years, are expert bodies who know their districts and individual farms extremely well. Their land agents are professional men who do a first-class job. The amount of interference which will result from the operation of these Clauses is far too great, and too many powers have been retained by the Government. I am happy that at last some improvement has been made and we will understand what the upper limit for a smallholding is.

I believe that we are still possibly making this too complicated and that it would have been better left to the smallholdings committees of the counties to settle the size they think is best for their districts. Each county knows its own land best. We really cannot lay down something for the whole country applicable in each district.

1.0 a.m.

Photo of Mr Bertie Hazell Mr Bertie Hazell , North Norfolk

I also welcome the Amendment to the smallholdings part of the Bill. As has been said, there was a lengthy discussion in Committee on the whole policy of the Government's smallholding plan. Many hon. Members on both sides felt strongly that the matter of the organisation of the smallholdings was best left to the smallholdings committees. Indeed, I stressed this point. However, my right hon. Friend has drawn a new subsection into the Bill which will help to clarify what was a confused situation. To that extent I offer congratulations to my right hon. Friend on its inclusion.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

If it helps the morale of the Opposition in any way, I am delighted to give them what credit they like to take for this Amendment.

I am glad that the point has now been clarified for my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell).

I can assure the hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) that it is not our intention to require authorities to reduce the size of existing holdings in any shape or form.

I should also make clear that we do not intend to impose a rigid upper limit on all smallholdings regardless of circum- stances. The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) mentioned that the smallholdings committees are capable of doing the job, but we must give some guidance in the Bill.

On the third point raised by the hon. Member for the City of Chester, I can confirm that the proposed regulations will be based on the Schedule to the Small Farm Business Management Scheme. I think that that clarifies the point about the wording which caused so much heart burning in Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 23. in page 29, line 37, leave out subsection (4).—[Mr. Mackie.]

Photo of Mr John Temple Mr John Temple , City of Chester

I beg to move Amendment No. 24, in page 30, line 12, at end insert— (6A) In this Part of this Act any reference to agriculture or agricultural activity shall include a reference to agricultural contracting. This is a relatively small matter in the interpretation Clause, but it has wider significance. We must remember that we are discussing smallholdings and the definition in this part of the Bill. Therefore, the definition which I am seeking to import is relevant only to smallholdings. It is particularly relevant to Clause 36, which is the general aim, where we have the words having regard to the general interests of agriculture and to Clause 41, relating to lettings, where there is a reference to the prospective tenant having "agricultural experience".

The Parliamentary Secretary will know that any applicant for a smallholding who designates himself as an agricultural contractor has a rather low priority when he goes before the lettings committee. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that he will get a tenancy of a smallholding.

It will be widely known that there are a number of smallholders—and I understand that they are extremely useful—who carry out an agricultural contracting function, and today agricultural contracting is an extremely valuable ancillary activity to the farming industry. Whereas on a smallholdings estate it is usual for there to be machinery syndicates, these do not always operate all that smoothly, and I am always inclined to think that small agricultural contractors are a better proposition than a machinery syndicate. Agricultural contracting today can be fairly specialised. One is inclined to think of it in terms of ploughing, but many other much more sophisticated jobs are done by the agricultural contractor, and to the farming community the small agricultural contractor is very useful, indeed.

An applicant for a smallholding might have a particular aptitude with regard to machinery, and, just because he has that aptitude, he might describe himself as an agricultural contractor, whereas, as he has this knowledge of agricultural machinery, he might be an extremely efficient small fanner as well.

This is a reasonable Amendment which seeks to add another terminology to the number of agricultural activities defined in the 1947 Act. Things have moved on a good deal since 1947, and, significantly, the Government are using the definitions of agriculture in the 1947 Act. It is time, especially in respect of smallholdings activities, that we regarded the term "agricultural contracting" as synonymous with an agricultural activity.

We discussed this in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman asked the Opposition whether they could come forward with an Amendment to meet the point. We have done our best, but I would not claim that the drafting is perfect. It may be that the Amendment needs to be in a slightly different format, but if the Minister accepted the spirit of the Amendment we would be satisfied. I hope that I have made myself reasonably clear. The Amendment is put forward in the general interests of smallholdings estates, as it will encourage small agricultural contractors to set up their businesses. I hope that the Government will give favourable consideration to this modest Amendment.

Photo of Mr Paul Hawkins Mr Paul Hawkins , South West Norfolk

I support what was said by my hon. Friend, particularly with regard to the selection of tenants. A farm worker, or the younger son of a farmer, may move from working for a farmer into the agricultural contracting business. He may have his name on the list of the smallholdings as a prospective tenant, but once he has moved into the contracting business, either as a principal or as an employee, he moves into a lower category and has far less chance of obtaining a smallholding. I think that widening the definition will be of great benefit.

I was on a large farm on Monday, and I learned that the neighbouring farm had paid off 26 men at the weekend. This is a very serious business. Several men may have been looking for small farms, but they may well get jobs in the agricultural contracting business. More and more farmers in my part of the world are contracting out their work. Many smallholders who do not want to keep their own sugar beet or potato lifting equipment employ contractors to do the work for them.

I do not want to see a man who moves into agricultural contracting, either as an owner of machinery, or as a worker for a contractor, necessarily to be put in a lower category when it comes to the choice of a tenant for a smallholding. This has happened in the past, and I feel that in many cases it can be very unfair. I hope that the Minister will consider this carefully. It does not seem to be a large point, but it can mean a lot to some man who has excellent experience of working on farms of all types, and has therefore gained a wide experience in farming which might equip him extremely well for moving into a smallholding.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

I have listened to what both hon. Members have said, but they have failed to convince me that the Amendment is relevant to this Part of the Bill. Whatever the view of the hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) about the appropriateness of the 1947 Act definition of agriculture generally. or as applied to other parts of the Bill, I can only explain how his Amendment would affect Part III. I can tell him straight away that it is virtually meaningless.

To begin with, the phrase "agricultural activity" does not appear at all in Part III. There is therefore no point in defining what non-existent references to it shall or shall not be taken to include. Secondly, the words "agriculture" and "agricultural" are used in this Part of the Bill only in certain limited contexts; in Clauses 36 and 37, for example, in relation to authorities' general aim in providing smallholdings and preparing their reorganisation plans, and in Clause 41, where authorities must satisfy themselves as to applicants' agricultural experience.

In none of these contexts would it be sensible to include agricultural contracting. Authorities are concerned with the letting of holdings for people to farm on their own account, and to require them in doing so to have regard to the interests of agricultural contracting or to enable an agricultural contractor with perhaps very little practical experience of general farm work to apply for a smallholding would not be at all meaningful.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) has always made the point that we could leave things to committees. If a younger son or someone like that had taken up contracting to give himself a living until he had a smallholding and had gained agricultural experience, well and good. but to write it into the Clause would be completely meaningless, and I hope that the hon. Member will ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Photo of Mr John Temple Mr John Temple , City of Chester

I am extremely grateful to the Minister, but he has failed to read his own Bill. He has tried to shoot me down on a technical point, but subsection (6) refers to Section 109 of the Agriculture Act, 1947, which is the definition Section, and that Section contains a definition of agriculture. Subsections (1), (3) and (5) of that Section are linked with the question of agricultural activity. That is why I sought to bring within the terminology of agricultural activity, which is specifically referred to by way of reference in this Clause, the term "agricultural contracting".

I went into this matter with the Public Bill Office and I was advised that from a technical point of view I was correct. I must disagree with the Minister that the Amendment has no relevance to this Clause.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

My advice is the opposite to that given to the hon. Member. Whatever the view about the appropriateness of the definition in the 1947 Act, it is not relevant to this Clause. To some extent I agree that agricultural contracting is an important part of agriculture, but to put it into the Bill with reference to the letting of smallholdings seems meaningless. The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West was anxious that committees should be given reasonable powers. They can do this in the letting of farms, when they can examine the qualifications of applicants. I therefore ask the hon. Member not to press the Amendment.

1.15 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Temple Mr John Temple , City of Chester

I cannot possibly withdraw the Amendment after the hon. Gentleman's explanation. First, he tried to shoot me down on a technicality on which he was wrong. Leaving that aside, I remind the House that I mentioned earlier that the hon. Gentleman had more or less challenged us to put down an Amendment on this point. I said that I would have preferred a Government Amendment which the Parliamentary draftsman would have put into proper technical language. I therefore pass that buck right back to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman also criticised the Amendment which the parliamentary He mentioned Clause 36, which I had also mentioned and which has a general aim. I said that it was relevant. It is not, however, the first time that the hon. Gentleman and I have been at cross-purposes and have misunderstood each other, apparently. But on this occasion I must admit that I think that my interpretation is better than his. I do not wish to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.