Earl of Dalkeith
I beg to move, Amendment No. 124, in page 52, line 25, to leave out 'two months' and to insert 'one month'.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
It might be convenient if the House discussed, at the same time, Amendment No. 125, in line 31, leave out 'two' and insert 'six' and Amendment No. 134, to Clause 50, in page 59, line 39, leave out 'two months' and insert 'one month'.
Earl of Dalkeith
That is satisfactory, although Amendment No. 134 is concerned with the planting of trees.
Amendment No. 124 is designed to shorten the period to one month, which would be a more suitable time. Indeed, I have been pressed to seek to make the period 21 days on the ground that the board would presumably be thoroughly conversant with all the relevant facts and considerations concerning any applicant in that time.
Another reason for making the change is because a farmer may decide to give up his farm—or it may be a farm tenant or an owner-occupier, perhaps one who has died—in January, February or March. It is customary, certainly in Scotland, for the change-over to take place at Whitsun. As drafted, one would have to wait for two months under the Bill, if the farmer died in January, before the board would give its decision about whether or not the land could be transferred. If the farmer died in January and one had to wait those two months, it would be March and very little time would be available in which to advertise the land to let or for sale. This could result in considerable embarrassment to the industry.
Amendment No. 125 has been Tabled because the period of two months is too short. I propose that it should be six months. This is because, if an applicant who is seeking to transfer land and who has been refused consent wishes to lodge an appeal, a considerable time may elapse 318 while he is preparing for the appeal. His solicitors may be on holiday. Anything could happen to delay the preparation of the appeal.
Amendment No. 134 relates to the granting of licences for the planting of trees. I suggest that the time should be reduced to one month because one might be left waiting for an answer at a critical time of the year, perhaps in November or December; the most opportune time for the planting of trees. If, as a result of two months' delay, one was unable, perhaps because of a severe winter extending through January, February and March, to plant the trees until April, it might be too late to do the planting. Thanks to the board not granting its licence in two months instead of one, one might find oneself with a large number of plants to be carried over to the next year, and a great deal of expense could be involved. I therefore suggest that these Amendments are perfectly reasonable, and I am quite sure that once the rural development board has been constituted it would agree that these times would be reasonable.
§ Mr. Peart
Since the noble Lord put down these Amendments we have given them every consideration. Amendment No. 124 is apparently intended to ensure that the applicant would be given a decision on his application to transfer land within one month. The purpose of Amendment No. 134 is apparently to ensure that a board reaches a decision quickly on whether or not to grant a planting licence and notifies the applicant of that decision within one month. We consider that two months is a reasonable period to give the board to consider such applications, bearing in mind that there may be a need for a board's officer to make a visit of inspection, or perhaps to discuss the application with the applicant.
I should remind the hon. Member that two months is the longest time a board is allowed to take in reaching a decision, and I would expect that in many cases it would be possible for the Board to consider an application and notify the applicant of its decision in much less than the maximum period.
The purpose of Amendment No. 125 is apparently to allow a person whose application for consent to the transfer of land has been refused more time in which 319 to decide whether or not to appeal to the Minister against the board's decision. We think that two months is a reasonable period for an applicant to make up his mind whether or not to appeal to the Minister against the board's decision, even if he wishes to take legal advice. To allow six months for a decision of this nature to be reached would unduly delay a final decision.
I know that the hon. Member has been urging that the board, which will have no knowledge of the land before an application for consent is received, should make up its mind on the transaction within one month. Is it unreasonable to expect the owner, who knows all about the land and the proposed transaction, to decide whether to appeal within two months? I should have thought that this time would be adequate. I would remind the noble Lord that under Section 24 of the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1948, a tenant farmer has only one month in which to lodge a counter notice if he gets a notice to quit. I have carefully looked at these points, but I must ask the House to reject these Amendments.
§ Mr. Hawkins
The control of the sale of land within the development board's area will put a blight on such sales within the whole area. There could presumably be a lot of land there that could be for sale, and the two months in which to apply before one starts even making preparations to sell seems to be an extraordinarily long period. It could easily put a blight on the sale of land. One cannot control the deaths of owners. One has to sell as quickly as possible, and at the right time, to ensure that one cashes in at the right time. To have to apply to the board and wait for two months before one can start one's sale preparations, not knowing whether one will receive permission or not, seems to me to be an unnecessary hamper on business activities of a normal nature on which people rely for their living, by which executors might lose a lot of money.
I do not know whether the rural development board will be responsible for any loss due to this delay, but it seems to me that there may be a big 320 loss through delay. The Government could easily have put the length of time at one month, and not two. I will not discuss the other Amendments, but I think that on Amendment No. 124 two months is too long, and I hope the Minister will think about it again.
§ Mr. Stodart
I ask the Minister to reflect on Amendments 124 and 134. I take his point on Amendment No. 125. If it is not being very disloyal to my noble Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North (Earl of Dalkeith), I would be inclined to think that the right hon. Gentleman has got a point, six months perhaps being slightly too long. However, I thought that the right hon. Gentleman opposed these Amendments largely on the grounds that they would not be very convenient to the board. I believe he said that it would be almost impossible for the board to operate within a month. I got the impression—perhaps one is slightly over-sensitive in these early hours—that he gave as his reason the fact that this would operate against the general convenience of the board.
I was particularly impressed by the practical arguments that my noble Friend put on the question of tenancies and—again a very practical point when it comes to replanting—the length of time that it is practicable and suitable to keep young trees. This is a point that we ought not to overlook.
I should have thought that these were two points which should be carefully balanced against the general ability of the board to carry out its inspection and other functions, and that that aspect of the matter should be carefully balanced against not only the convenience of the applicant but also these severely practical points of silviculture.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Amendment agreed to.321
Earl of Dalkeith
I beg to move Amendment No. 126, in page 55, line 5, to leave out '10' and to insert '15'.
§ Mr. Speaker
This and Amendment No. 127, in line 7, leave out '10' and insert '15', can be taken together.
Earl of Dalkeith
I raise this matter because it is customary in Scotland to have 15-year leases with breaks, and I do not know why the Government should seek to disrupt this practice which tenant farmers find to their advantage and which most of them would like to continue. I should like to know why the Minister should suddenly start talking about 10 years as being the limit and, in view of the normal custom in Scotland, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will look favourably upon this Amendment.
§ Mr. Ross
One of the first things which I noticed about this Amendment was that it applied something different to Scotland from what obtained in England and Wales, and it would seem that the convenience of the persons concerned would be reached in different ways.
In the case of Amendment No. 126, it would permit, in Scotland only, the granting of a lease of up to 15 years; and Amendment No. 127 would permit the assignation of a lease with up to 15 years to run, both without the consent of a rural development board.
I have already said that I have no plans at present for setting up a rural development board in Scotland, but if a Board should be established, I do not think that it should have any less powers than a board in England or Wales. In terms of subsection (3) of Clause 47, a rural development board may refuse consent to a transfer of land only if the board is of the opinion that the land could be used for the purpose of improving farm structure, or for co-ordinating farming and forestry, or for complementary uses, or where a transfer would result in the creation of an uncommercial unit.
The noble Earl says that his Amendment is in the interests of good manage- 322 ment. It may well be that the Board if established, would agree to allow a lease for 15 years or, in the case of Amendment No. 127, the assignment of an unexpired portion. In considering the maximum period of lease which should be entered into without the board's consent, it is necessary to find a point of balance between being too restrictive by requiring consent for short leases, and affording too much scope for evasion of the provisions of this Clause by allowing long leases without consent.
I think that we have struck a balance, and I can assure the noble Earl that there are a great many leases with fewer than 15 years to run. We think that 10 years is fair to Scotland and, bearing in mind that this is not necessarily the limit, it might well be that consent would be granted for the longer period. However, we have fixed on the figure of 10 years as striking a reasonable balance for both countries, and I hope that he will agree that he should start the New Year well by withdrawing his Amendments.
Earl of Dalkeith
The Secretary of State says he does not want to get out of step with England, but it is customary in Scotland to have 15-year leases. On the other hand, it has rarely been customary in England and there is this definite distinction between the two sides of the Border. If we change to the customary 15 years' lease, it will be unnecessary then to go through all the time wasting rigmarole of writing in order to get permission.
§ Mr. Stodart
One hears many surprising things in the House, but never anything so surprising as to hear one who used to be referred to as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock, now the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland, saying that he did not want to get out of step with England. If he did not say those words, he certainly gave the firm impression that that would be a most unwise thing to do. If anyone had dared to suggest such a thing when he was the hon. Member for Kilmarnock I do not know how long the House would have been kept sitting by way of retribution from him. Things change.
I would not say that the 15-year lease is by any means a cast-iron feature of the Scottish land system, but it is certainly a fairly well-established and fairly 323 popular feature. Therefore, I hope piously that the right hon. Gentleman will not be influenced by having to keep in step with England but will, if necessary, bring England along with him.
§ Mr. Ross
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) must not misquote me. What I am concerned about is the power of the rural development board, being pure Tartan and Scottish and the rest, in Scotland. I do not regard the inclusion of the figure "ten" as automatically ruling out anybody who seeks 15 years. But we are dealing with problem areas with special needs, and it would be wrong to go out of our way unnecessarily to lock up land in respect of which the kind of development of which I spoke might be essential.
§ Amendment negatived.