Consequential Amendments

Part of Orders of the Day — Agricultural Tenancies Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 5:53 pm on 19th April 1995.

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Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East 5:53 pm, 19th April 1995

I am not sure about the distant echoes of 1976, given that I am closely associated with the Agricultural Holdings Act 1976. I shall refer to that later in my speech.

The Labour party has opposed the legislation and we stand four square in our continued opposition to it. My hon. Friends and I have put our case on a number of occasions in the House and we have taken that position because we are fundamentally committed to security of tenure for tenant farmers. We are concerned that the legislation will lead to inadequate security of tenure for tenant farmers. We regard that as, first, socially unjust and, secondly, not in the long-term interests of agriculture.

I do not need to restate all the arguments—indeed, I touched on some earlier this afternoon in relation to monitoring. We believe that we should be united in our desire to encourage long-term, secure tenancies. People who wish to move into farming should have a proper opportunity to make a profit, build up capital and provide an honest living for themselves and their families. That is why we are committed to the family farm.

We do not wish to stratify the industry; there may be a role for contract farming. As I said in the Second Reading debate, some people begin farming with contract farming companies and then enter the industry in their own right. We have set out our proposals for encouraging new entrants to go into the industry which I believe will prove extremely constructive.

We have tackled the issue of milk quotas which is a real barrier for young farmers entering the industry. Often in the past, people entered that type of farming because of the regular milk cheque. We have tackled the issue of the way in which county council holdings have ceased to provide a stepping stone into the industry. There are many reasons for that, for which I not blame the present Government. [Interruption.] I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) for his intervention.

I blame the Government for the fact that many Conservative-controlled councils have been selling those holdings and we are concerned that that will continue if there is further reorganisation of local government. We have already touched on our attitude to tenure and taxation and the prospect of taking advantage of European Union legislation on retirement for farmers—many of whom continue farming into their 70s, if not later—to create the opportunity for a son, or daughter or an outsider to enter the industry. I do not think that we need any lessons or lectures—to his credit, the Minister has not sought to deliver any—about encouraging new entrants into the industry.

Earlier this afternoon, I referred to the Northfield committee report, which contains a lot of viable material. The committee had a balanced membership—I think that is to the credit of John Silkin, who is no longer with us—which was certainly not loaded in favour of the Labour party. I shall refer to its report later.

I shall deal with the question of security of tenure most constructively by referring to the remarks of the Minister of State in his winding-up speech on Second Reading. He was challenged by me on the issue and said: I was interested in a press release that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East issued on 18 November 1994, in which he said:`Security of tenure is essential for the family farm' —as though that was a newly-discovered truth, which had not dawned on the Conservative Benches for many a long year. I was surprised that neither he nor his hon. Friends mentioned the construction of the Bill in clauses 1, 5, 6, 7, 16, 23, 24 and 25, all of which concern various aspects of security that are central to the subject of agricultural tenancy". The Minister went on to say:

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman shows an inability to distinguish between the period of an agreement and the security embodied in that agreement. The Bill is drafted in terms of the definition of farm business tenancy: willing partners come together, in mutual interest, to define their rights and responsibilities, and to make very clear one with another the length of time that they agree a tenancy should run. The Bill gives precise legal protection on the ending of a tenancy. Once agreed and signed, it is cast iron and copper-bottomed and provides excellent security of tender. That is the whole basis and construction of the Bill."—[Official Report, 6 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 105.] It may be that there is a difference in language, but the phrase "security of tenure" is explicit, in my view, in that it does not refer to whether a contract will be honoured, nor to how much money a farmer might get if the contract is terminated prematurely. It does not refer to how copper-bottomed a five-year or 10–year tenancy may be. It is either about lifetime tenancies or about long-term fixed tenancies. In relation to the individual farmer and his family who are running a farming business, the phrase "security of tenure" relates to the security that he has to go on farming.

The legislation will transform the position of new lettings, and there can be no argument about that. The new farm business tenancies will come into operation on 1 September 1995 and, for the purpose of shorthand, I shall describe these as Tory tenancies. Already in place—and, as the Minister pointed out, not interfered with by the legislation—will be the traditional tenancies governed by earlier legislation, and for shorthand I shall call them Labour tenancies.

Within the group of Labour tenancies, two types of tenancy operate. The first group are the tenancies governed by the Agricultural Holdings Act 1976, which is still operative in relation to some tenancies and about which the Minister feels strongly—as, I am sure, do many other owners of land. My local newspaper described his speech on the matter at the Conservative party conference last year as a personal attack on me. I am not sure whether that was a fair judgment, but the right hon. Gentleman certainly articulated his bitter opposition to the principle that a son or daughter of a tenant farmer, who has worked perhaps for the bulk of his or her life on the holding, should have a qualified right to succeed to the tenancy.

Nothing that has been said in the debate has altered my view on the subject. The Minister may accept that something should be encouraged on a voluntary basis, but I believe that there is a case for encouraging a working son or daughter on a tenant farm to have the opportunity to succeed, and we enacted legislation to give a guarantee of that. There is a Scottish tradition in that area, and I accept that it has not existed for the same duration in England.

The second type of Labour tenancy is the tenancy governed by the Agricultural Holdings Act 1984, which the Government enacted to remove the succession provisions. The tenancies are governed either by the 1976 Act or by the 1984 Act, although there was a consolidation of the legislation in 1986. Basically, the new Tory tenancies will be in place from 1 September 1995. We also have the Labour tenancies, within which are two groups—those with succession rights and those without.