Minor Amendments with Respect to Statutory Succession

Orders of the Day — Agricultural Holdings Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 10:30 pm on 6th June 1984.

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'Continuing eligibility of applicant

3A. In section 20(2) of that Act, for the words "that the applicant is an eligible person" there shall be substituted—

  1. "(a) that the applicant was an eligible person at the date of death, and
  2. (b) that he has not subsequently ceased to be such a person;".'.

Earlier today the House passed some amendments concerned with eligibility. While we were dealing with those amendments attention was drawn to an example of pure tidying up, in connection with eligibility, which seemed to be worth adding to the Bill. That is what the amendment does. Its purpose is to codify a Court of Appeal ruling in the case of Jackson v. Hall. Under that ruling, to satisfy the tests of eligibility for succession, the applicant must be an eligible person at the time of the death of the tenant and must continue to be so at the time when his application is heard by the Agricultural Land Tribunal. The amendment puts that Court of Appeal ruling into legislative form.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham , St Helens South

The hour is late and I do not want to detain the House. I congratulate the Government on at least trying to make amendments in a very difficult field. There have been enough court cases on this subject over the years to make us all wary of any wording. I had intended to award the Government five out of 10 for their solution to the problem, but that might have been mean. Eight out of 10 might be nearer the mark. However, those who advise me on these matters have given me examples of possible loopholes to which further thought should be given.

One particular case comes rapidly to mind. I shall not apologise for harking back. I do so because of the way in which the amendments have been grouped. I suppose that I could have raised this matter on a point of order earlier on, but I did not wish to delay the House in that way. I am seeking, not to force a vote on this matter, but to warn the Government. I hope that the Minister will take on board my remarks.

Amendment No. 25 contains the seeds of future litigation op joint occupancy, particularly with a widow who might have an interest elsewhere which might be considered a commercial interest. There are a number of examples, and I shall not go into them in detail. The amendment relates back to others, which is why I thought it appropriate to raise my fears and those of those who instruct me.

The classic example of the problems that might arise is that of the tenant for life. Particularly where the land is settled and held under settlement terms, the tenant for life has the right to enter into it for occupation and to farm land. It remains arguable that his occupancy, if not accompanied by a formal contract of tenancy, will not count against him. In the case of settled land, it could mean that succession could be used for tenanted land in this respect. That is the first of the examples to which I draw the attention of the House.

My second example is one that merits even more consideration from the Government and the Parliamentary draftsmen, as it may open up a number of actions in the near future. It concerns occupiers who divest themselves of occupation. That may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but it is not. It is possible sometimes for a potential applicant, in anticipation of the death of a tenant, particularly when death is imminent—as the Minister is aware, there are a number of diseases where life expectancy is limited—to rid himself of the unwelcome occupancy, which could give rise to a bar on succession, of a commercial unit by granting a short-term unprotected interest for the period designed to outlast the imminent death of the tenant and the proceedings before the tribunal. Such matters should be looked at soon.

I appreciate the difficulties, as do those from the Agricultural Law Association who have been assisting me. We are anxious to cut down on litigation on this subject, and to forewarn the Government to the problems that might arise. Perhaps these matters can be looked at in the next six months before the law gets going. I am sure that everybody will agree to a slight amendment to cope with such problems. This advice is calculated, because tomorrow morning lawyers will look at the Bill, perhaps to see whether there are ways to circumvent Parliament's intentions.

I ask the Minister to look carefully at those two cases. I seek, not to be unhelpful, but to forewarn rather than to criticise.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) for the way in which he made his remarks. As I have said, I recognise that this is an extremely complicated area of law. It is the complexity of it that explains why the amendments have come forward on Report and not earlier. I do not pretend that we shall have everything right. The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to a number of problems and possible loopholes. I intended to say, if pressed, that I accept that there will inevitably be some loopholes and that it is not possible to put an end to all the difficulties. I believe, however, that we have made a considerable improvement on what existed earlier, and I am grateful to the Agricultural Law Association for its help. The hon. Gentleman said that he hopes I shall carry out a review with a view to making further changes in six months' time, but I am sure he will recognise the difficulties in doing that. I have certainly taken note of the issues that he raised.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 20, line 24, leave out from `to' to 'and' in line 36 and insert 'the holding at any time after the beginning of the period of three months ending with the relevant time apart from this subsection ("the original relevant time"), then—

  1. (a) if the direction is given within that period, the Tribunal may, on the application of the tenant, specify in the direction, as the relevant time for the purposes of this and the next following section, such a time falling within the period of three months immediately following the original relevant time as they think fit;
  2. (b) if the direction is given at any time after the original relevant time the Tribunal shall specify in the direction, as the relevant time for those purposes, such a time falling within the period of three months immediately following the date of the giving of the direction as they think fit;'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 27, 28, 38 and 62 to 64.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

These are last-stage tidying-up amendments. They stem from the secretaries of the Agricultural Land Tribunal when we consulted them on the subordinate legislation which will follow from the Bill. It seemed appropriate to make the change in the primary legislation. The amendments overcome problems which occur when the Agricultural Land Tribunal cannot give a direction until shortly before or, as sometimes happens, after the relevant time when a new tenancy would begin. This usually arises if legal matters have to be settled in court before a tribunal can hold a hearing or if one of the parties is taken ill and the hearing is delayed.

Schedule 1, paragraph 6, and schedule 2, paragraph 5, as drafted enable the tribunal to specify a new relevant time at the request of the tenant. That will still be the position after the proposed amendments have been incorporated into the Bill if the direction is given three months or less before the relevant time. If the direction is given at any time after the original relevant time, the tribunal will as a result of the amendments automatically specify a new relevant time. The definition of "the prescribed period" in section 24(2) of the 1976 Act and in schedule 2, paragraph 6(2) of the Bill is being amended to ensure that the landlord or tenant will have at least three months from the time of the direction to serve a notice demanding arbitration on the terms of the tenancy or rent.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No 27, in page 20, line 38, after `24(2)' insert— '(a)'.

No. 28, in page 20, line 40., at end insert '; and (b) in the definition of "the prescribed period" for the words "and the" onwards there shall be substituted the words "and—(a) the end of the three months immediately following the relevant time; or(b) the end of the three months immediately following the date of the giving of the direction;whichever last occurs.".'.

No. 29, in page 20, line 40, at end insert— '7. The following Schedule shall be inserted after Schedule 3 to that Act—