Order. It would be convenient if we discussed with this Amendment 62, in page 79, line 1, leave out paragraph (iii) and Amendment 63, in line 20, [Clause 20] at end insert—
(3B) If at the end of any such period of suspension as is mentioned in subsection (3A) no other suitable accommodation has become available the local authority shall make such accommodation available.
This Amendment and the others grouped with it deal with the vexed question of the agricultural tied cottage. For many years all those committed to the cause of the agricultural worker have campaigned for the abolition of this system. In the spearhead of the attack has been the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, and its predecessor, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) is the most distinguished President.
The policy of the union is that no farm worker should be evicted from a tied cottage before suitable alternative accommodation has been made available. This policy has been accepted by the T.U.C. and the Labour Party.
In 1963, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) stated that a Labour Government would ensure that no occupant of a tied cottage would be evicted before alternative accommodation had been provided. Clause 96 is designed to improve the position of workers by giving a six month period during which workers will not be evicted, subject to certain conditions specified in the Clause. Unfortunately, this is not enough. The exemptions relieve the owner of the cottage, or anyone else, of the necessity to provide a worker who is to be evicted with alternative accommodation.
Amendments Nos. 61 and 62 strike out the two conditions which are laid down, namely, when the owner of the cottage is deemed not to find it practicable to carry on his business unless an order for possession is granted, and when it is claimed that greater hardship would be suffered by not implementing the order than by implementing it. Amendment No. 60 goes further and strengthens the first condition on which the six months period would be waived by substituting the words "no less suitable" for the word "suitable".
An owner who is seeking to secure possession of a tied cottage may be able to procure alternative accommodation which is considerably inferior. The Clause as it stands is not sufficiently strong to prevent occupants of tied cottages from being driven into sub-standard accommodation. Those who have had experience of this will know that this is not hypothetical but has occurred in the past.
My most basic objection to Clause 96 is that it merely postpones the day of eviction. When the occupant has to vacate a tied cottage he must find alternative accommodation. He will not normally be able to buy a property, as he will be unable to obtain a mortgage. In most parts of the country he will be unable to find privately rented accommodation, and his only hope lies with the local council. Many councils will not consider rehousing an evicted person until the court order for possession has been made, and, therefore, the six months period merely postpones the evil day. This uncertain prospect may cause considerable mental stress to people who are evicted.
Amendment No. 63 imposes on the local authority the responsibility for rehousing an occupant of a tied cottage if no other accommodation has become available after the six months suspension.
One can say that there are defects in such a provision. There is a danger that a tied cottage might be used as a lever to obtain a council house. There is the argument that no other houses may be in the possession of the local authority. But it is invidious and obnoxious to turn out a family merely because its breadwinner has to change his employer, and, if the State deems that that is possible, a duty must be laid on the housing authority to rehouse anyone subjected to the process.
I do not believe that a half-way house would be regarded as suitable alternative accommodation and, in that event, the Amendment would preclude a family from being put into that type of accommodation.
In recent years, it is fair to say that the number of evictions from agricultural tied cottages has fallen, one of the reasons for it being the legislation introduced by this Government in the shape of the Protection from Eviction Act, 1964, and the Rent Act, 1965. There is no doubt that those Measures have done a great deal to protect agricultural workers. However, one must recognise that many farmers regard eviction as quite obnoxious and undesirable. I know of cases in which farmers have only been willing to obtain court orders as a last resort, and they have done so with extreme reluctance. Certainly I do not attack the general run of farmers. I believe that the system is very unfortunate from their point of view as well.
In my own area of West Essex, the situation has improved in recent years. But I can recall a number of evictions taking place in the past. A member of my constituency Labour Party was elected to the executive of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers. In due course, his employment was terminated. I understand that the reason was that he was unable to spend sufficient time on his job, in the eyes of his employer, because he had to attend meetings. His employment was terminated because he was doing this form of public service—[Hon. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."]—and subsequently he was turned out of his house. It is all very well for hon. Gentlemen opposite to sneer, but this is a very serious matter for the people who are subjected to this sort of treatment.
There is an article in the current edition of "The Land Worker" which deals with the case of a Mr. Preston who has been evicted from a tied property in Buckinghamshire. He is married with five children aged between 5 and 9 years. The worker had become redundant, and the judge ruled that no further extension could be granted as it would cause hardship to the farmer—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentleman opposite appear to be amused at this. That is quite disgraceful. This is a serious matter, and we should devote just as much attention to it as we have to certain other Clauses in the Bill.
I accept that there are many cases in which the farmers are not to blame, but neither are the workers to blame. I can think of cases in my constituency which have arisen in the last couple of years in which the workers concerned were certainly not at fault. In one case where a man was unable to lift heavy loads without injuring himself, as a result of which he had to give up his job, the farmer had to seek a court order. Another case concerned a worker who had quarrelled with his employer and had his employment terminated. A further case involved a worker who wanted to change his employment after nearly 20 years in the same job.
These cases still arise. Over the last four or five years I know that the N.U.A.W. has taken up a number of cases. We should recognise that this is a totally unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is absolutely degrading to a worker to be tied to his job.
I am certainly prepared to bear that in mind. But there have been hundreds of cases involving court proceedings where eviction has been avoided only at the last moment. During the proceedings the worker concerned and his family have been subjected to considerable stress, not knowing whether they would be among the unlucky families.
This is more degrading than in the past, first, because today there is a considerable housing shortage which makes it difficult for workers to find alternative accommodation and, secondly, because industrial conditions have improved considerably. The agricultural worker is a skilled man who is entitled to be accorded proper dignity in our community. Eviction can mean the break up of a family. Hon. Members who have dealt with the problem know that I am not exaggerating.
The provisions of Clause 96 do not go far enough. In Committee the Opposition opposed even this moderate improvement. It was disgraceful, and I hope that agricultural workers will take note of it. The Clause is far too weak. The National Union of Agricultural Workers has already sent out a circular which is the start of a new campaign to try to improve the position. I believe that something should be done. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to accept the Amendments, or at least promise that the Clause will be strengthened in another place.
In this matter I pay tribute to the part played by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North in fighting this issue. In what I am seeking to do tonight, I hope that I have been of help in the struggle which his organisation has been carrying on in many parts of the country for many years.
We all know the emotion which can be engendered on this subject. I know how strongly my hon. Friends the Members for Epping (Mr. Newens) and Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) feel about it.
These Amendments have been put forward, and my hon. Friend's remarks have been made, on the basis of doing away with the tied cottage, but the Clause which my hon. Friend is seeking to amend will help Section 33 of the Rent Act, 1965 to give more security to farm workers in their cottages. I have listened carefully to the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend, but I must tell him quite frankly that my right hon. Friend and I cannot accept them.
If my hon. Friend considers the matter carefully, he will realise that the first Amendment would provide that the alternative accommodation should not merely be suitable, but no less suitable. No less suitable than what? Presumably the existing accommodation, but all that matters in this context is whether the other accommodation offered is suitable. Whether it is more, or less, suitable than the existing accommodation will be a matter of opinion in each case, and not a matter upon which we can usefully legislate. A cottage which is no less suitable than the existing accommodation might well be unsuitable, and I think that my hon. Friend made this point himself. The Amendment would create confusion and difficulty and put an obstacle in the way of finding alternative accommodation. It might even discourage improvements to tied cottages.
The second Amendment strikes at the root of the tied cottage system. In many of the discussions which I have had with my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North and his colleagues, they have been adamant that they do not want to do away with the tied cottage system. They merely want to give their members greater security.
Tied cottages are provided to enable farm workers, and particularly stockmen, to live on the job. If possession cannot be obtained when it is really necessary, this will discourage the provision of these cottages. This part of the Clause was looked at very carefully before we decided on this form of wording. If the Amendment were accepted, a widow, or an invalid farmer, particularly in a remote district, would be unable physically to continue on the farm.
My hon. Friend said that we were not against the tied cottage system. That is not true. My hon. Friend knows that we have said that we do not want to see the cottages pulled down or anything like that. Our policy—and it is the policy of the Labour Government and of the T.U.C.—is that suitable alternative accommodation should be provided before any farm worker is ejected from his farm. That is my union's policy, and my hon. Friend knows that the argument can be reinforced by facts which have been submitted to him time and again, in spite of his opposition.
I agree. My hon. Friend says that his union is against eviction from the tied cottage, and I am coming to that.
The second Amendment could, in many cases, destroy the livelihood of an elderly or invalid farmer who relied on a tied cottage, with help in it.
The third Amendment would prevent a court from taking any account of hardship to an incoming tenant. I have thought this over. On my farm in Lincolnshire a young bachelor took a job with a tied cottage for his mother to live in. The family furniture was moved into the cottage, and then his mother died. He gave up the job for another in Lincoln, where he took digs. It was no hardship for him to give up that tied cottage. If the Amendment were made no amount of hardship for the incoming tenant would count for anything, even if he were forced to leave his family and go into expensive furnished accommodation.
The fourth Amendment would oblige local authorities to house ex-farm workers who could not get alternative accommodation. This is the essence of the pledge given in 1963—that no occupant of a tied cottage should be evicted unless suitable alternative accommodation was provided. That was a statement of our aims, but I cannot accept that it could be taken as a categorical commitment. The Clause goes a long way by providing more time to find alternative accommodation, but we cannot legislate on the basis that in the last resort local authorities will invariably provide it. They are already doing well. Since the 1965 Rent Act there have been only four or five evictions a year. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North says that that is too many, and I agree with him but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping agreed, the position has improved considerably in recent years. That was one of my main points in the debate in Committee. There has been a tremendous improvement in the last 30 or 40 years.
If my hon. Friend agrees that the few continuing evictions are too many, will he undertake to keep a continuing check on the evictions that continue under the new legislation and give an undertaking that if the position does not improve he will review and strengthen the legislation at a later date?
No. I shall keep an eye on the number of evictions that take place, as has been done since the 1965 Act, but I cannot give a guarantee that no evictions of any farm worker will take place. I stressed in Committee that there is a difference—because of the personal relationship and the position of the house, and everything else—between evicting a person from a farm cottage and evicting him from a council house. Evictions take place all over the country for various reasons, in other forms of housing—council houses and other houses. An hon. Member says "Downing Street". That is wishful thinking.
I could not possibly give a guarantee that if there were any evictions we should re-examine the position. We want to see evictions down to the absolute minimum. We think that what we have done in the six months' suspension period will help. To give time under the Clause would decrease the number of evictions, but legislation will not provide houses where no houses exist, or give ex-farm workers absolute priority, whatever their circumstances, over all other classes of people on housing lists—people who may be in far greater housing need. Nobody could argue for that. Such legislation would discourage initiative to find alternative accommodation.
People would become farm workers to jump the housing queue, and that would be bad social and agricultural policy. We have gone as far as it is possible to go, reasonably and humanely, and I trust that my hon. Friend will think carefully about what I have said and ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
These Amendments, although well intended, are impractical. If the hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Newens) had read the debate on the issue in Committee—one would have thought that he would do so—he would have realised that the Opposition tried to frame their speeches so as not to inflame the situation once again. I have known the area where the N.U.A.W. is strongest all my life and I have the greatest sympathy for its work. In my youth this matter was a burning issue almost every week. Everyone living in the countryside deplored the fact that there were evictions from farm cottages. I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that I am as sincere as he is on this matter.
Nevertheless, whatever may be said, this is not a burning issue. It is, of course, brought up at N.U.A.W. conferences. It is one of the matters which have to be kept alive to keep members, but it is not a burning question.
If the hon. Gentleman went among farm workers as much as I do—and I have as much experience as he has—he would realise that it is unnecessary to bring the matter up. It is quite impractical to say that farms in certain cases can be run without key workers and without houses adjoining them. Again, the length of notice which has been given recently has been about five or six months.
When I became a Member of this House, I wrote to the N.U.A.W. saying I would like to help in any way it saw fit to take me into its confidence. I was told that the Labour Party was quite capable of looking after the union, and of course I accepted that. But it was in my constituency that the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) made the speech that is so often quoted now in Norfolk. In Swaffham on 17th July, 1963, he stated that there must be security of tenure for all. He said:
We will ensure that no occupant of a tied cottage is evicted until alternative accommodation is provided.
It is that speech which has continually upset relations all the way through this business of the tied cottage. I am sorry that he is no longer present in the Chamber to call upon the Government to carry out that promise.
If it were a practical proposition, it would be a good thing to carry out Amendment No. 63. It would be splendid if local authorities could provide housing for anyone likely to be evicted, but there are just not enough houses available in the countryside for that to happen. There are waiting lists and it would mean that anyone in such a position could jump the queue ahead of a young married couple who had been waiting perhaps two or three years for a council house.
I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw the Amendment, because I believe that the Government have gone as far as possible in trying to meet the situation, which is very difficult. In terms of carrying on a farm, it is impossible to do so without a certain number of tied cottages. I hoped that we would not have to go through this whole matter again because it is not a burning issue at present in the countryside. I believe that the problem is now being solved by co-operation between the N.U.A.W. and the N.F.U. and that any further alteration of the law would make farming impossible on many small stock farms.
May I first express my appreciation of the decision of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Newens) and his colleagues to put forward Amendments on this subject? I understand that only one Amendment is being taken, but it provides the opportunity to discuss the whole issue.
I entirely dispute the view of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) that the issue of the tied cottage is not a burning question. It has been a burning question among farm workers ever since a trade union was created for farm workers. The fact that the Labour Government by the Rent Act, 1965, mitigated some of the worst features of the system has not in any way diminished the strength of the views of the farm workers. I know this because I probably meet and mingle with more farm workers than anyone else now in the Chamber. I never go to any county but that these views are forcefully put to me. I accept that in some counties the problem is more vicious—and I used the word I used in Committee—than in others, but the problem exists everywhere.
It has been suggested that because there have been only 17 actual evictions which my union has brought to the attention of Ministers, the problem has been virtually solved. Unfortunately, we do not cater for all farm workers in England and Wales. Yet since 1st January, 1966, we have had to defend about 2,000 cottage cases in the courts. In the 11 months 1st January, 1969, to November, 1969, we defended in 466 cases.
This is not a trivial matter. It is serious when in only 11 months 466 families in rural Britain suffer all the anxieties and tribulations of the threat of eviction. It is the wives who bear the brunt of this experience. There is no greater hardship than being threatened with eviction from a cottage because of something that may have transpired at the place of work.
My union had long talks with my right hon. Friends at the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. When the Bill eventually emerged, it was only narrowly decided by my executive committee after full consideration not to oppose Clause 96. When the Clause was debated in Committee, I was asked by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) whether, if the Clause were adopted, it would be the end of the road of farm workers' agitation against the system of the tied cottage. I said that we recognised that that Clause was a modest improvement, for which we were grateful, but neither that Clause nor the one which we are discussing tonight should be regarded by the farm workers and my organisation as the end of the road. That can only come when the farm worker and his family are convinced that, if something happened during the course of their work, before they could be ejected, suitable alternative accommodation should be provided. We do not mind who provides it—whether the worker himself, the farmer or the local authority.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping for ventilating this issue once more. It is still a burning question among the farm workers of Britain.
I have already welcomed in Committee the improvements which the present Bill proposes in security for tenants of agricultural tied cottages, and I welcome the Amendments.
I assure the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) that when I groaned while he was speaking I was not implying that he did not get among farm workers as much as any of us. I was groaning to hear his opinion that this was not a burning issue. I get loads of mail on the subject, and it is continually raised at local branch meetings of the N.U.A.W. When the original Bill was published, a packed meeting was immediately called at King's Lynn Town Hall, where the feelings of members were made abundantly clear—and these feelings remain.
The Minister said that the number of evictions was too high, yet when I asked for an undertaking that he would strengthen the legislation if necessary, he said that the Bill was as much as could be humanly done. He cannot have it both ways: if the number of evictions continuing is too high, he must do more. He must undertake to toughen up the legislation in twelve months. I ask him to think again about such an undertaking.
Two arguments have been used by hon. Members opposite against toughening up the protection. One is that it is unfair to the farmer and the other is that the number of evictions is trivial anyway. They cannot have it both ways, either. If the number of evictions is trivial, the amount of hardship caused to farmers would also be trivial.
While I welcome such improvements as there have been, I will not be satisfied until the legislation is strengthened so that no family find themselves out on the road.
I intervene only briefly in this debate. I would say straightaway that my hon. Friends and I have given this matter a great deal of thought. We understand the sincerity with which Members who represent the N.U.A.W. put their case, and we always listen with respect to what they have to say.
I was rather sorry that the hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Newens) made one or two comments which seemed to indicate that we on this side consider this a trivial matter. We do not. It may have been the way he was putting his case which provoked some of my hon. Friends.
Certain hon. Members on the back benches behind the right hon. Gentleman were laughing very vigorously when I was speaking. I assumed they were laughing in connection with what I was saying, or that they did not regard the matter as sufficiently important to listen to. That is why I made those remarks.
There was apparently something else which was causing my hon. Friends that amusement and it had nothing whatever to do with this matter. It would be unfortunate if it went out from this House that my hon. Friends considered this matter as trivial in any sense. As I say, we consider this matter as one which is and must be of great concern to anyone living in the countryside. I myself have been involved in the ownership of tied cottages all my life. I have never evicted anyone, and I would go to great lengths to avoid doing so. I am sure that that represents the view of the vast majority of farmers in this country. I was glad that the hon. Member for Epping made clear that he believes farmers do go to great lengths to avoid evicting people.
One has, however, to come back to the fact that in farming it is necessary to have somebody on the spot, and this is the point which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary put so clearly. Where livestock has to be looked after, then, whether one likes it or not, there must be somebody on the spot to look after it. It was this fact which caused the creation of the tied cottage system, and as long as livestock farming exists I do not see how one can get away from that fact.
It is only fair to recall that where, in exceptional circumstances, somebody still has to be evicted—and the cases are now a small number, as the hon. Member admitted—that is for the benefit of another worker, who has to be right on the spot to carry out the work he is needed for. Otherwise, no eviction would take place. One has to have some regard to the fact that a worker who comes in to take the place of another who has left cannot effectively do the job unless he is on the spot. So this is not a matter of worker versus employer but of fair play between one worker and another who is actively engaged in looking after livestock on a farm. I do not believe that, with the best will in the world, one can avoid the tied cottage system altogether.
The right hon. Gentleman will surely agree that we are not merely concerned with tied cottages for stockmen. The tied cottage system applies to many other cases. Many of the cases which have gone to court have been about cottages not necessarily attached to the place where the stock were kept or where the work had to be done.
I think that is so, because the type of farming in arable areas has changed and now not so much stock is kept on a farm as in the old days when there were stock on every farm. But one cannot in law really differentiate between one type of farming and another, because a farm where today there is no stock might revert to stockfarming.
The 1965 Act has certainly been shown to have been of very real benefit. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) gave us some figures which showed convincingly how effective the Act has been, with 460 cases which had arisen in 11 months and only 16 evictions in the last five years. It seems to me that his figures prove that the law as it is now is an effective safeguard in all but the extreme minority of cases. It seems to me, therefore, to justify the retention of the position under the 1965 Act.
My colleagues and I resisted the new proposals in Committee because we were worried that they were eroding still further the position of the farmer, particularly the stockfarmer, in being able to get his cottage in time when there is a change over of workers. Considering the position under the 1965 Act, and since the number of evictions has been so low, it seems that what the Government are proposing goes a long way towards meeting the wishes expressed by hon. Gentlemen opposite in Committee.
We feel that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has put the case effectively and correctly in regard to the needs of farming. He had to do that, for any representative of the Ministry must ensure that farming can be carried on effectively and efficiently. It is on this basis that a provision relating to tied cottages must remain in some form or other; and we must consider this in terms of the erosion that has occurred, the impact on em- ployers and the difficulties that are caused. I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will, therefore, accept that for effective farming it is necessary to retain the tied cottage system in some form and that it would be wrong for the Government to accept the Amendment.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said it would not be practicable to legislate on the basis of local authorities being required to provide houses for those evicted from agricultural tied cottages. I submit that it is the only possible basis on which to deal with this matter. Private landlords will not make houses available for these people. I cannot imagine farmers making such provision within their housing arrangements. If they could, this problem would not have arisen.
Local authorities already provide a form of housing for tied cottage workers in that key industrial workers are provided with houses in many parts of the country. The numbers involved there are vastly greater than the number evicted from agricultural tied cottages. If there are only about five such evictions a year, that should not be outwith the capacity of local authorities.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary's next argument amazed me, for he said that to take the step proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Newens) would mean giving priority in the provision of housing to agricultural, or former agricultural, workers. Why not? The Labour Party should be seen to be giving such priority. My party came into existence for this, among other reasons, and I hope that the Government will make a stand on this basis.