HC Deb 19 October 1976 vol 917 cc1234-8

Lords amendment: No. 20, in page 31, line 43, after Clause 23 insert new Clause C— C.—(1) Save for section 16, this Part of this Act shall not apply where—

  1. (a) on or before the commencement of the tenancy, the landlord gave notice in writing to the tenant that possession might be recovered under this section; and
  2. (b) the tenancy commenced on or after 29th September 1976.
(2) Section 24(1) of the Agricultural Holdings Act 1948 (which provides for the challenging of notices to quit by counter-notices) shall not apply where notice to quit is served in respect of a tenancy to which this Part of this Act (save for section 16) does not apply by reason of subsection (1) above and at the date of the giving of the notice to quit at least twenty-five years had expired since the commencement of the tenancy, and it is stated in the notice to quit that it is given by reason of the matter aforesaid.

Mr. Strang

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Fixed-term tenancies, other than those of a short duration which are approved by the Minister, are not permitted under the agricultural holdings legislation. This new clause, which seeks to introduce fixed-term tenancies for a period of at least 25 years, therefore represents a major policy change which is to apply to England and Wales only.

A new clause in identical terms was discussed in Committee and defeated on a Division. The reasons for this, quite simply, were, firstly, that the clause would seriously limit a tenant's security of tenure, which cannot be in the best interests of agricultural efficiency, and, secondly, that it would defeat the whole purpose of the family succession scheme. No doubt hon. Members opposite will claim that the amendment has been made with the best of intentions so that the need for fixed-term tenancies can be considered. But the fact remains that the effect of the amendment would be to wreck the Government's family succession scheme.

I hope that hon. Members will not wish to dwell on this matter at length. However, they may wish to push the idea that fixed-term tenancies should be seriously considered by the Government if such a proposal can be introduced in a way which does not conflict with the family succession scheme.

In an attempt to shorten the debate, it might be helpful if I refer to a letter written on 19th August by my right hon. Friend, now the Lord Privy Seal to the secretary of the Country Landowners' Association. My right hon. Friend said: You will of course know from the discussions at the Committee stage of the Bill in the House of Lords, the reasons why we are opposed to the inclusion of the new clause. As Lord Melchett—the Government spokesman—explained at the time, fixed-term tenancies must be examined with considerable care before any decision is taken for or against their re-introduction; and he agreed with Lord Stanley of Alderley that this was something which would be better considered in the context of an overall review of the agricultural holdings legislation. With this possibility in mind I should be happy to look at any formula which you can suggest for allowing fixed term tenancies without undermining the family succession scheme. The main body advocating fixed-term tenancies is the Country Landowners' Association. That letter makes it clear that the Government are prepared to consider any proposals which do not undermine the family succession scheme. I hope that, by making this information available, hon. Members will agree that it is inappropriate at this stage in the passage of this legislation to make such a drastic change.

Mr. Wiggin

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has made clear on a number of occasions that it is not satisfied with the present arrangements for landlord and tenant legislation. Therefore, it has added its considerable and impartial voice to the request for a complete review of landlord and tenant legislation.

We have made clear from the outset—I certainly made it clear from this Dispatch Box on Second Reading last year—that we did not see this Bill as a suitable vehicle for reforming the law on landlord and tenant. The Government have introduced a substantial change. This is a major alteration to all that has gone before and it will completely alter the operation of the law on landlord and tenant in the countryside.

It would appear that perhaps some small measure of agreement is beginning to come about on this matter. Judging by the Minister's letter and other statements by the Government, it would seem that the Government are moving towards the idea of a review. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) said on 8th March: Our position on the Opposition Benches has been and still is that a review of the working of the agricultural holdings legislation is necessary and, indeed, overdue."—[Official Report, 8th March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 58.] I think I can set the Parliamentary Secretary's mind at rest by saying that we do not intend to divide the House on this amendment for just that reason. We do not wish to anticipate any review which may take place.

But we should be clear about what has happened in the last few years. Even the NFU, in its Blue Paper sent round today, admits that there has been a drying up of the market in farms to let in recent years, and it blames taxation, as many of us have done. I am in no doubt that taxation is a substantial cause of the difficulties. Equally, of course, another cause is the security of tenure given by the 1948 and 1958 Acts to tenant farmers, which makes landlords reluctant to relet farms when they become free. It was for this reason that the 25-year tenancy was proposed. The objective was to see that more farms came on to the market.

The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) quoted figures from Scotland. I do not believe that they are relevant. If he were to study week by week, as I did over many years, the number of farms coming on to the open market to rent, he would be astonished at how few opportunities there are for anyone with no connection in farming to start from scratch. It is this point which it seems impossible to get over to the hon. Gentleman's colleagues. The harder one makes it to get a tenant out, the harder it is for a new tenant to come in—and that principle applies to furnished flats as well as to farms. Surely it is time that this argument began to carry weight.

One of the aspects of the argument which has not been made much of tonight is that an agricultural tenancy is a contractual agreement between a willing tenant and a willing landlord. This aspect seems to have got lost in the argument about personal rights and human suffering. It is a contract freely entered into, and it should have a terminal date. Whatever legislation is introduced as a result of the inquiries there are to be, it is important that it should include some way of bringing such a contract to an end.

The objective of this amendment was to breathe new life into this ageing sys- tem. I do not believe that any landlord with a farm that could be let will now do so, if he is properly advised. There will be some institutions and a handful of large landlords who will do so, but the vast majority will not be so advised and will not do so in the interests of their own property. The difficulties caused by this situation have led to so many partnerships being set up, with partnership companies doing so well, just to get round the existing landlord-tenant legislation. That is the view of many independent people in the industry—not people who own or rent land. It is convenient for the Opposition that I am a tenant farmer. I got the farm from my mother because my landlord did not see why I should not succeed. But I see no reason why he should have been forced to let me succeed. I have made that position clear.

Two other matters mentioned in the original circular of the NFU have also been forgotten. The first is the question of hardship. The principle of hardship has become submerged under the rules which the agricultural land tribunals will now have to operate—in particular, the hardship to the landlord's son, who has just as much right to farm as the tenant's son. That aspect has been forgotten because of the bias of the Government. It is regrettable that the rights of the landlord to regain his own property have been ignored.

Mr. Strang

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House. The greater hardship argument can still be deployed by the landlord before an agricultural land tribunal.

Mr. Wiggin

That is not my reading of the legislation, and it will be up to others who have to interpret it to make the final decisions.

The revision of this law is absolutely urgent. The Government ought now to instigate an independent committee, or whatever particular type of tribunal they like, to look into the whole matter. If they do that, at least they will have the support of the Opposition, because without it there will be no farms to let.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.