§ 3.5 p.m.
§ The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill 1086 be now read a second time. May I say, at the beginning, that as a newcomer I recognise that I have much to learn about this House and its ways. I am pleased, therefore, to be able to begin on what is at least partly familiar ground. One of my noble friends thought that I had moved the Second Reading of the debate on this Bill in another place and that therefore I was breaking a record today. I am sorry to say that I am not breaking that record because I did not move the Second Reading. However, I am moving it now.
I am, of course, keenly aware of the deep interest which your Lordships' House displays in agricultural matters, an interest born out of wide and practical experience. I shall therefore take very careful note of what is said about the Bill now before us. Although I was fully involved in the preliminary discussions and consultations before it was introduced in another place the agricultural aspects of the debates there were handled by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary. So I hope to approach the Bill, if not with an open mind at least with a fresh one.
The purpose of this Bill is to afford security of housing to farmworkers and their families who live in tied accommodation in England and Wales. It abolishes the farmer's automatic right to a possession order against his former worker. In its place it imposes a duty on housing authorities to do their utmost to rehouse former workers where an agricultural need is established.
Your Lordships will know that the abolition of the tied cottage system has been part of the platform of the main agricultural workers' union since its inception in 1906. It is highly significant that Joseph Arch of Barford, the founding father of the first truly national farm-workers' union a century ago, did not live in a tied cottage himself and so was able to speak and organise free from inhibition.
For over 30 years abolition has been part of Labour party policy. It has been a matter of intense disappointment that the reform sought by the agricultural workers has not reached the Statute Book in earlier Administrations. We were able, however, to give a limited measure of security in the Rent Act 1965 and to extend it in the Agriculture Act 1970.
1087 The system therefore remains. Now I do not argue that the existence of an historic campaign of itself justifies the introduction of reforming legislation, but it does illustrate that there is a genuinely felt grievance and I think everyone would acknowledge that the union have conducted their long campaign with restraint and dignity.
To those who say that farmworkers are perfectly content with present arrangements, may I recall that the Bill received a unanimous and enthusiastic vote of support at the National Union of Agricultural Workers' biennial conference in May. I attended their conference and heard the discussions. There are others who argue that the substance of the grievance has disappeared and that, whatever may have happened in the past, things have now changed. I must therefore say a word about numbers and the present legal position.
We estimate that in England and Wales there are some 70,000 cottages occupied by agricultural workers in consequence of their employment. This is about half the full time workforce. A further 20,000, much to the credit of the farmers, are occupied by retired workers and their widows. There are some 12,000 empty farm cottages, 26,000 let to persons outside agriculture and 7,000 occupied by members of farmers' families.
The present legal system is to be found in Sections 32 and 33 of the Rent Act 1965, as amended by the Agriculture Act 1970. As I said, these provisions stem from previous attempts to remedy the injustices of the agricultural tied cottage. If a farmer wishes to regain possession of a tied cottage from an ex-worker, they provide that he must first obtain an order for possession from the county court. The county court must defer execution of the order until six months after employment has ceased, unless certain special conditions are met.
The farmer's right to repossession of the tied cottage is absolute. He does not have to give his reasons to the court. It may be that he wants to sell the cottage, perhaps to provide someone with a second home in an attractive part of the country. Whatever the circumstances, the farmer can get vacant possession if he wants to. If he does, the occupier must lose his home.
1088 Under this system some 1,200 orders for possession have been granted annually in recent years. Not all lead to forcible eviction. The fact, however, remains that over a thousand people are involved in court proceedings each year, not because they have been bad tenants but merely because they are no longer employed by the farmer. And, following these cases, there is clear evidence that each year evictions in distressing circumstances take place. This has been a running sore in agriculture over the years and I believe it is in the general interest for it to be ended, both from the point of view of the farmer, farmworker and, I think, all those who wish the agriculture industry well.
It has been claimed that most of the court cases are put-up jobs, required to satisfy local authorities' rehousing criteria. This may be true in some cases, though certainly not in all or perhaps even in most. And it is hardly an argument in favour of the system to say that it results in collusion of this sort. If T may quote from the British Farmer and Stockbreeder:Don't let us kid ourselves that the present system for regaining possession of an essential service house is ideal. It is not. It is uncertain, lengthy, unpleasant and costly".That is the view of the Farmer and Stockbreeder.
My Lords, it is certainly all of those things. For as well as anxiety for the farmworker and his family the system causes distress to the farmer who is forced to reward a farmworker who has given him years of service, by taking him to court. However he tries to soften the blow, there can be nothing pleasant about the formal procedures of notices to quit, court appearances, orders for possession, warrants for eviction, and so on. The very phrases leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
The Government believe that the inherent injustices, both actual and implied, of the present system are no less real today than they have always been. The Bill proposes instead a new code which is both more humane and flexible. With cooperation, which I am sure there will be, it will be better for farmworkers, better for farmers and better for housing authorities in the rural areas. I always recognise that on farming matters there is tremendous co-operation in the countryside between farmer and farmworker, and landowner who may be farmer as well.
1089 My Lords, we have not brought forward this measure without the most careful study and discussion. Several thousand copies of the Consultative Document were sent to interested bodies and individuals. As a result we received a great deal of thoughtful and helpful comment, though not, I hasten to add, a unanimity of view. My colleagues and I and our officials also held valuable discussions with all the main organisations representing both sides of the industry and the local authorities.
In tune with that process of consultation, the Bill proposes a solution which is not doctrinaire, but practical. It gives the farmworkers security but at the same time balances the important interests of the farming industry and local housing authorities. I can assure noble Lords that I would not be concerned or involved with any step which would harm the production of a great industry such as agriculture. That is why, with good will all round, this can be regarded as a step forward in the best sense.
Discussions of the Bill in another place centred largely on the question of whether we have got that balance right, in other words on the rehousing provisions in Part IV, to which I will turn later. I will, however, just say this: in the many contacts I had with farmers—and I have had a lot of contacts up and down the country—after the Bill was published I detected no violent hostility to its provisions. On the contrary, I found a recognition, tinged perhaps with surprise, that it contains real and important safeguards.
Turning to the Bill itself, I must start by apologising to your Lordships for its length and complexity. This has proved unavoidable because of the need to set out what is basically a Rent Act code adapted to the special circumstances of agriculture. Rather than go through the details of the Bill, I will simply describe its broad structure and then mention its more important aspects. If there are other topics which your Lordships wish to raise my noble friend will seek to deal with some of them later. Others will obviously be important Committee points.
Dealing with tests to be satisfied, Part 1 of the Bill defines agriculture and deals with the various tests which have to be passed before the occupier of a tied 1090 cottage can be protected by the Bill. A person occupying the house under a contract (usually a licence rather than a tenancy) is termed a "protected occupier". A person, on the other hand, whose contract has ended and who remains in occupation by virtue of the Bill, is a "statutory tenant". Part I also provides for there to be one statutory successor to a worker protected by the Bill. This is a conscious distinction from the Rent Acts, which provide for two successors.
Part II of the Bill deals with the security of tenure which those covered by the Bill are to enjoy. This is essentially the same as the security provided by Part I of the Rent Act 1968. However Case 7 in Schedule 3 to that Act, which allows a landlord to recover possession from an ex-employee in order to house a new one, is omitted from the grounds for possession in the Bill.
Part II also sets out the terms on which a statutory tenant will remain in occupation. This is necessary because the original arrangements between employer and tied cottage occupant are often vague and informal. Clauses 12 to 16 in this Part deal with the rent payable by statutory tenants.
Part III is concerned with supplementary provisions similar to those found in the Rent Acts. I now come to rehousing in Part IV, which is a very important part. Clause 29 sets out the three conditions which must be met before a farmer's application for rehousing can succeed. These are, first, that the house must be needed for a replacement worker; secondly, that the farmer must have no suitable empty houses available himself; and, thirdly, that the rehousing must be in the interests of efficient agriculture. Clause 30 deals with the duty which falls on the local housing authority when these conditions are met, and Clause 31 with the establishment of independent advisory committees to advise housing authorities on the interests of efficient agriculture. I will return to these aspects in a moment.
Parts V and VI of the Bill contain ancillary and supplementary provisions, some of which, no doubt, we shall discuss in Committee. I am certainly going to be asked which workers are covered; I will now turn to that and will consider some of the main aspects of the Bill. First, there is the question of which 1091 workers are covered. Generally, a worker will be protected by the Bill once he has completed two years' whole time work in agriculture with an allowance for 13 weeks in that two years for unemployment, employment outside agriculture, et cetera. This two year test is included to ensure that people do not see a brief spell of work in agriculture as a short cut to housing security. The precise length we adopted was obviously a matter of judgment. The NFU and Country Landowners' Association suggested five years, whereas the National Union of Agriculture and Allied Workers would have preferred no qualifying period at all.
My Lords, the Government are satisfied that two years will provide an adequate safeguard. This is the period suggested by the Association of District Councils which represents the majority of the housing authorities which will be responsible for rehousing. Workers disabled through industrial injury or disease will qualify even if they have not completed the two years. The Bill does not, however, seek to protect casual or seasonal workers, who may be housed by farmers for short periods at particular times of the year. It has been suggested that the qualifying period should be linked to work on a particular farm, but I believe that this would have unacceptable implications for job mobility. For example, a worker near the end of such a period might be deterred from accepting a new and better job elsewhere if it meant losing housing security at the same time.
If I may now turn to rehousing obligation, this is the second and most important topic I wish to deal with. This is the part of the Bill which has attracted most attention and on which discussion has centred. Clause 30(7) of the Bill provides that, if the housing authority are satisfied that the three conditions in Clause 29 are met, they are to use their best endeavours to provide suitable alternative accommodation. This means that local authorities are required to do their utmost, within the constraints which obviously exist in local authority housing management and which are referred to in the Bill, to secure suitable alternative accommodation in these circumstances.
It has been suggested that this duty is inadequate and that only an absolute 1092 duty will suffice. The Government do not accept this. The Bill imposes a real obligation which local authorities will not be able to ignore and which, I am confident, they will act upon. The Association of District Councils themselves have said that the duty in the Bill places upon local authorities a higher obligation to claimants under the Bill than to any other categories of claimants. To make this duty absolute would unacceptably erode the responsibilities of local housing authorities.
There are many noble Lords present, like myself, who have served on rural district councils or other local authorities. I am sure they will acknowledge that these are the only bodies equipped to decide on the relative priorities of the various claimants on their resources. If effective decisions were taken out of their hands there could be instances where former agricultural workers were given an automatic priority over more deserving cases of housing need, even though the agricultural need was very slight. Hence we have to balance the important, but to some extent conflicting, interests of farmers and local authorities. I believe that Clause 30 represents a fair and acceptable balance, and that if we were to shift it either way, in response to pressure either from the local authorities or from farmers, we should risk serious difficulties for the other party.
My Lords, before I leave the rehousing obligation, I should like to turn briefly to the question of local authority resources. We have said, in the Financial Memorandum to the Bill, that the Bill may—and I would emphasise the word "may"—result in local authorities securing rehousing for a greater number of farm-workers and ex-farmworkers than is the case at present. As an illustration we have said that this might involve £5 million extra expenditure for the first five years or so. This assumes that local authorities will have to deal with some 500 extra cases each year by new house-building. It is very far from certain that the Bill will increase the demands on local authority housing to this extent, but my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has already assured the President of the NFU that in administering the control of individual local authorities' housebuilding programmes and other housing expenditure, 1093 his Department will take into account the rehousing duty imposed by the Bill.
My Lords, the third aspect of particular interest is the new machinery we have devised to give housing authorities impartial appraisals of the agricultural need and urgency involved in particular cases. I refer to the provision in Clause 31 for the establishment of agricultural dwelling-house advisory committees—ADHACs, as they may well be called; an awful mouthful, I agree.
These committees, which will consist of one representative of the employers and one of the employees, sitting under an independent chairman will, at the request of either the farmer, the farm-worker or local authority, study the facts of an application and formulate assessments of the agricultural need and urgency involved. In making plans for ADHACs we are relying heavily on the experience which has been gained over the years by the chairmen of agricultural wages committees, who will have a crucial role to play under the Bill, and whose valuable work is widely respected by both sides of the industry.
Finally I must mention the date of operation of the Bill. Clause 1 provides for it to be brought into operation by order, and for its application to full-time forestry workers to be postponed. Since the Bill is basically concerned with security of tenure, it is of course essential that it should not be unduly delayed. We very much hope that the operative date can be 1st January 1977.
The Bill's application to full-time forestry workers is postponed while we collect more information about the tied housing situation in forestry. A full survey is being carried out by the Tavistock Institute under the auspices of the Forestry Commission. When the results are available we shall decide on an appropriate implementation date for full-time forestry workers.
My Lords, it is my firm belief that the provisions embodied in the Bill, which I have attempted to describe briefly, afford a far more satisfactory system for housing farmworkers than the outdated and unfair arrangements which we have at the moment. It is the Government's view that the Bill not only abolishes the fear of homelessness attached to much farm work, but does so in a way which takes 1094 the fullest possible account of the importance of maintaining and increasing agricultural production. At the same time, it removes the necessity for distressing and time-consuming court proceedings which have generally meant a delay of six months before a farmer can regain possession of a cottage, no matter how urgently he may need it for an incoming worker. This is replaced by a system under which the farming community has direct access to housing authorities, with ADHACs available to put reasoned and authoritative advice on the farming facts to the housing authority.
The new statutory duty placed on housing authorities also means that farmers will be able to plan ahead for their manpower needs, for example, by making application for rehousing well in advance of retirement. This will help everyone concerned but it will not disturb the harmonious relationships which in the vast majority of cases exist between farmers and farm workers and which are, to my mind, so important to the success and well-being of this great and vital industry. My Lords, I have spoken at some length. This is, as I said at the beginning, a complex Bill and I appreciate that some of the provisions are not easy to understand. Nevertheless, I believe that the basic approach is a common-sense one which I am convinced will work well in the wider interests of the whole agricultural community. I therefore commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Peart.)
§ 3.32 p.m.
My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peart, for introducing this Bill and for explaining to us this afternoon how it is going to work. I hope that he will not consider it a gross condescension on my part if I say to the noble Lord that, despite the fact that he is a battle-scarred veteran of another place and knows all the tricks of the trade, we extend to him a warm hand of friendship on the occasion of his introducing a Bill in this House for the first time. I am bound to say that as an ex-Minister of Agriculture he has chosen a rather funny horse to ride as a start, but I hope that nevertheless he will enjoy 1095 it. I am glad that he is going to approach it with a fresh mind and with enthusiasm but I hope he will not be surprised that the enthusiasm which he displayed so clearly this afternoon is not entirely echoed all around the House.
The debate will also be enlivened by the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord De La Warr. His father was known and respected by many of us, apart from being himself a distinguished Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, and we look forward to the present noble Earl's contribution to this debate, on which I do not think he will be uninformed.
I must at the outset declare an interest in that I am a farmer and have some houses which will be affected by the Bill. I hope that does not affect my judgment of the Bill. I would start by agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Peart, that the Bill is not easy to understand. Nor, I venture to suggest, will it be easy to work in practice. But what is easy to understand is the reasons why those who have campaigned for the abolition of the tied cottage have done so, and I have much natural sympathy for their case. It is human; there have been injustices. The dignity of people is involved and I admit quite openly that I look back in amazement to recall that when I started my life in agriculture in earnest some 25 years ago a farm worker could be given a week's notice by his employer, perhaps just because he did not get on with him, and within that same period of time, in law if not in practice, he could be rendered homeless. Today this would be, quite rightly, both in law and in practice, totally unacceptable.
In defence of earlier times, it is only fair to enter the caveat that it is always easier to criticise past generations with the standards of the present. But the sight of people, whether in the past or the present, being turned out of their houses on to the streets with their belongings, whether this is justified or not, is to say the least objectionable and offends against the social conscience.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peart, that, rightly or wrongly, the word "eviction" has become emotive and has become a hated word synonymous with oppression. The cry for the abolition 1096 of the tied cottage therefore developed momentum and attracted an aura of respectability and indeed humanity. It was readily understood and after many years the Government have acceded to this cry and produced the present Bill.
I happen to accept many of the criticisms and, if you like, the inequities and iniquities and even unattractiveness of the tied cottage system. No system is perfect and where the tied cottage system is imperfect its imperfections are obvious. That does not mean to say that I disapproved of the concept of tied cottages I happen to approve of it. What I do not accept is that this Bill is the right answer, or a just answer, or even a sensible answer to the problem and to the criticisms. Where I find myself at odds with those who oppose the tied cottage system, and therefore with the Government. is that their complete dedication to the abolition of the system has in my view blinded them to the practical realities of what the Government propose. This Bill is not a simple method of relieving what is recognised by all to be a small number of cases of injustice. It puts a virtual torpedo right into the middle of the whole of the housing problem, which is already under stress, and the effects of this will be felt all the way round.
It is said by some that it is not just the few cases of injustice which it is sought to cure by this Bill but the whole principle of the tied cottage system. But, if the system as a system is bad, why do the Government seek to remedy only that part of it which relates to agriculture? There are now about a million tied cottages in the country and only some 7 per cent. of those are to be found in agriculture. If there is an injustice in the system, why is it that only the farm workers are to be relieved of it? Why are not the miners, members of the Armed Forces, bank managers, clergymen, nurses, teachers, caretakers, hotel and restaurant staff, policemen, prison officers, railwaymen, to say nothing of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister?
All those professions have examples of the tied cottage, yet no attempt is made to alleviate their problems. Agriculture alone is singled out for this advance in social justice. And if this is such an improvement, why are farm workers in Scotland specifically excluded from the 1097 Bill? I venture to give your Lordships the answer, and it is simple: The Scottish agricultural workers do not want the system abolished. The agricultural branch of the Scottish Transport and General Workers' Union rejected the idea completely because they consider that the advantages they get out of it outweigh the disadvantages.
The Government's Consultative Document said that there are 1,500 cases a year of agricultural workers who face eviction and that in 1,000 cases a year the farmer gets a court order for possession, and the inference is that those farm workers thereafter face hardship. In fact, those figures, while interesting, are I venture to suggest wholly misleading. Everyone knows that the Government, for reasons which may be entirely understandable, have so framed the law that at present a farmer can obtain possession of a cottage for a worker only by going to the court and getting a court order for possession. It was the Labour Government's Rent Act of 1965 that said, in effect, "This is what you must do ".
Everyone knows that rural housing is in such short supply that local authorities will not rehouse a farm worker unless a court order has been made against him. Therefore farmers, often with the approval and connivance of the employee concerned, go through the ritual dance of obtaining a court order in order to force the local authority to rehouse the man. And, this having been done, this is then chalked up as a statistic against the system. The majority of these cases are, of course, rehoused and very few actually, and quite rightly, reach the distressing point of eviction, largely because owners understandably flinch from doing the obnoxious. But the knowledge of their reluctance to do this gives the unscrupulous virtual security of tenure even now. And for some extraordinary reason the Government do not know the vital figures for evictions.
I would be surprised if it was as large as 50 a year, and if it is 50 that is 50 too many. I venture to suggest, therefore, that the number of cases where the present procedure, imperfect though it is, has failed to produce alternative accommodation and has thereby left the worker temporarily homeless is greater than the actual number of evictions but substantially less than the number of court orders for possession, possibly a few hundred a year.
1098 It stands to reason that if a similar number of houses were built and earmarked for agriculture to accommodate this number of people, we would have gone some substantial way towards solving the problem. The problem, of course, stems from two conflicting factors. The first is the need for agriculture to have houses to house its workforce, and the second is the shortage of housing in rural areas. This Bill does nothing to alleviate either of those. Worse, it militates against both. In the first place, under this Bill not one extra house will be built. No funds will be available to increase local authority housing, and indeed the Government are going to reduce it, and the private building of farm cottages will now stop, as nobody is going to spend £12,000 building a house to house somebody who is going to work elsewhere. In the second place, the ability of agriculture to house its workforce will be impaired because of the security of tenure given by this Bill to those not working on the farm, and in some cases to those who have no connection with agriculture other than parentage. I would suggest that the concept of "This is our house and here we stay indefinitely" can only, in any degree of justice, be satisfied either by local authority housing or by private ownership, and that means mortgages.
Of course, the trouble is that the level of agricultural workers' wages has so far not been high enough to meet building society requirements. Therefore, if agricultural workers were to take advantage of building society offers some element of subsidy would be required. What a real mark of social progress it would be, and what an asset to village life it would be, to see some new freeholding agricultural workers as permanent residents in their villages. But this Bill misses that opportunity. Instead of tackling the problem at its root source, the Government have sought to tinker with the system in an unconstructive manner, and I venture to suggest, in a destructive manner. They have in the process put up the backs of the local authorities, landlords, farmers, the National Farmers' Union and a very large proportion of farm workers who are in favour of the tied cottage system because of the benefits which they consider they have from it. I must say it must be practically unique, even for this Government, to introduce legislation of which 1099 almost all those who are going to be affected by it disapprove.
The only reason why this is being done, as the noble Lord, Lord Peart, very genuinely said, is to meet the demands of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, who have had the abolition of tied cottages as their battle-cry since 1906. But of course, things have changed a lot since then. Who is going to benefit? I suggest three categories of people: first, the most inefficient agricultural worker, who finds it difficult to get another job and therefore finds it difficult to get another house. Secondly, the unscrupulous, who is content to stay in someone else's house and work elsewhere. Thirdly, the devious, the man not employed in agriculture who, for one reason or another, has found difficulty in obtaining housing and who realises that he can now work in agriculture—not even on the same farm—for just two years and then latch on to somebody else's freehold, as a result of provisions in this Bill which were introduced to protect a section of the community of which he was, of his own choice, not a part.
The tied cottage is essential in agriculture, both in order for people to be near their job of work and to provide a career structure. Unlike industry, in agriculture the opportunties for promotion within the same business are clearly limited, and often the only way for a farm worker to better himself (and who would object to that?) is to sell his services to someone else, often some way away from his existing home. But he can only do that if there is a house available for him to move into. Jam up the farm cottages with the provisions of this Bill and you freeze the mobility of labour, agricultural efficiency will be depressed, and the first to get penalised are the efficient, ambitious, good agricultural workers who find that they cannot move about. How are dairy herds, intensive pig units, intensive poultry units, which require a 24-hour management service, to be tended if the houses which are earmarked, and often deliberately erected, for that purpose are to be occupied by people working elsewhere? There is hardly anyone, not even the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, who would deny the need for agriculture to provide good 1100 cottages for its workforce, even though only 50 per cent. of those who work in agriculture live in tied cottages.
It was the Tavistock Report, which is quoted in the Government's Consultative Document, which said that the cottage stock is worth some £1,800 million, and that 14 per cent. of all tied cottages are occupied by retired farm staff. Not many industries could better that? It also says that only 16 per cent. of farm workers were charged a rent at all and that the average rent for those who were charged was only 60p per week. If the result of that survey were projected throughout the whole country—and there is nothing to suggest that the survey was not representative—the £1,800 million of housing stock would secure an annual cash income of only £6,720. Ask any local authority housing committee to compete or compare with that. The private investment by agriculture in housing is a massive aid to the national housing problem, because it helps to remove the pressure on local authority housing, for a minimal cash return.
The tied cottage is appreciated by the workforce. Advertise for a stockman in the local paper and put "No cottage available". See how many answers yon get. The condition of the housing available frequently determines whether the applicant takes the job. The best men require good houses. Not all of them are good, but the fact that the best men require good houses makes good farmers try to provide good houses. Agriculture benefits, the nation benefits, the workforce benefits.
Now all this is to be fundamentally changed, for the sake of what is accepted by all to be, nationally, a few awkward cases. Instead we are going to have all the paraphernalia contained in this Bill, the setting up of agricultural dwelling-house advisory committees, the notification to local authorities of their obligations to rehouse, the notification to local authorities of sales of farm cottages, the proliferation of nosey parkers, and the absurd mumbo-jumbo in Schedule 5, where you learn that you can increase the rent by PRL + SE + 1/3rd of [RR —(PRL + SE)] or PRL + SE + SS, whichever is the greater. My Lords, 84 per cent. of occupiers do not pay any rent under the existing system anyhow. Not even the 1101 Ministry of Agriculture, in its least human of moments could have devised a monstrosity such as that. It has all the fusty sniff' of the noble Baroness's Department, the Department of the Environment, about it.
The essence of legislation such as this is that it should be readily understood by both sides, even by those who are not advised by representative groups. I will make one forecast. If the situation, where workers have left their employment but continue to occupy their houses, has been a problem to agriculture—and this is the nub of the whole Bill—this Bill, far from solving that problem, is going to make it infinitely worse. All the 64 pages of this Bill, and the labyrinth of devices and regulations contained in it, will be summed up by the farm worker in four words, "Now I can stay". If this is the best that the Government can do to increase social justice and the output from British agriculture, all I can say is, heaven help us!
The central core of the successful operation of this Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Peart, said, centres around the ability of local authorities to rehouse farm workers. That mast is felled "at a stroke" by requiring local authorities only to use "their best endeavours" to rehouse. What happens when the local authority says, "We've used our best endeavours, but sorry, we can't rehouse"? The machine seizes up, and the man can stay on in the agricultural house ad infinitum. This is the whole weakness of the Bill—and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peart, it is apparently in the Government's mind central to it. And if the local authority is to give any priority to this category of person—and I agree again with the noble Lord—many people might question, and with reason, why farm workers, who elect to stay on in houses of their previous employment, should be given preferential treatment over other deserving cases in the housing queue. Why should they get preferential treatment over the old, the homeless, those living in slum conditions?
My Lords, the tied cottage cannot be looked at in isolation; it is part of the overall national housing problem. The only way to make the Bill even begin to work is to provide local authorities with increased funds to match the increased 1102 responsibilities which the Bill puts upon them. But that is not going to be done. They are to get less. The noble Lord, Lord Peart, said that one of the real purposes of the Bill is not just to rehouse agricultural workers, but to remove from them and from their families the real fear and anxieties caused by the court processes for possession orders. That is a commendable reason, I agree, and would be the first to acknowledge the genuine fear and emotional stress which these processes, court orders, and official documents can give. It is a vivid reality; they give concern. But that fear and anxiety exists not just for the occupants of agricultural tied cottages who are faced with possession orders, but for anyone who is faced with a possession order.
Last week the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, told me in a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question that the number of court orders for possession granted against tenants of agricultural tied cottages in England and Wales during 1975 was 1,268. She went on to tell me that the number of court orders for possession granted against tenants of local authorities, housing associations, and New Town Development Corporations, was not 1,268 but 29,105. If there is anxiety felt by the 1,268, so there is also by the 29,105. And that, to my mind, entirely destroys the Government's whole case for this Bill.
If it is humanity that they are after—and I do not deride that one bit—why do they not seek to alleviate the pressures and anxieties in that group of tenants which is 20 times as large as that which is found in agriculture? Because they cannot. They know they cannot. The resources are not available and, what is more, there is no union to lobby for those people. Here, as we have become used to seeing, we see again today in this legislation that this Government have submitted to union pressure. The noble Lord, Lord Peart, said so. They have submitted to union pressure against all other considerations, and it has fallen to the unfortunate lot of the poor noble Lord, Lord Peart, a distinguished Minister of Agriculture, to be in charge of a Bill which, for all its humane endeavours, he must know is going to damage the interests of agriculture.
I can only say to the noble Lord, Lord Peart, that the record of this Govern 1103 ment towards agriculture has been staggering by any standards. I do not blame the noble Lord for this, because he has done his best. They have subjected the industry to capital transfer tax to ensure that, if you die or give, farms get smaller; they have subjected it to capital gains tax if you sell, to make available less money for investment; they have subjected it to the Community Land Act to prevent one from building; to the Development Land Tax to prevent one from selling; to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to ensure that there are no new tenant farmers; and now to the Rent (Agriculture) Bill to make sure that no new farm cottages are built, and, at a time of high unemployment, to make it more difficult for farmworkers to get jobs. Then they produce a White Paper saying that they want an increase in output from agriculture. It is not surprising to find that under this Government the output from agriculture has dropped by 14 per cent. I do not blame the noble Lord, Lord Peart, for this—his heart is in the right place; but one cannot fail to detect the urban tread of his Cabinet colleagues, which has left an unsympathetic imprint on the face of agriculture.
I conclude by saying that this is a Bill which was conceived from the best of motives, but which is to me utterly unrealistic in its application. It will lessen and not increase the efficiency of agriculture. It will irritate and not ameliorate relationships between employers and employees. It will exacerbate and not relieve the national housing problem. In a world where nothing is perfect this Bill will leave that part of it on which it impinges considerably less perfect than it already is.
§ 3.57 p.m.
§ Lord SWAYTHLING
My Lords, I am, as a good many of your Lordships must also be, a dairy farmer, and consequently I am one of those most seriously affected by this Bill, which, if I may say so, is one of the most unnecessary and discriminating Bills ever to be laid before this House. When I spoke to your Lordships just under a year ago about this subject I asked why agriculture had been selected by the Labour Party to be put into their Manifesto. But I got no answer on that occasion. Today the noble 1104 Lord the Leader of the House has given us an explanation. The abolition of the agricultural service house, one must realise, is an emotional subject. The belief that the agricultural worker must have security in his house sounds reasonable and, indeed, desirable but if the matter is investigated in depth it then becomes apparent that it is far from being as simple as that.
Who will gain if the present situation is altered? First and foremost, the farm worker himself will suffer because he will find that instead of living in a tied cottage he becomes "a tied worker". It will be difficult for him to change the farm at which he works, whatever the reason, because the farm to which he wishes to go will very likely not have a service house in which to house him and his family. Secondly, livestock farmers, and in particular dairy farmers, know that it is essential for the good of their stock to have the workers close at hand, especially at times when the cows are calving or are sick. If this Bill becomes law and some farmers decide they must reduce their commitments, or even close their dairy business, supplies of milk and milk products, will drop, consumers will suffer and furthermore the whole nation will suffer as it will be yet another serious blow to the balance of payments.
It may well be that the Government were persuaded to include this matter in their Manifesto by the National Union of Agricultural Workers, but your Lordships must realise that only a small percentage of agricultural workers belong to that union, and I am informed that a large proportion of those who are union members agree with the bulk of the workers who do not belong to the union, that it is greatly to their advantage that the tied agricultural service house system should remain. It is significant that the Scottish union has, as has been mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, pleaded with the Government not to abolish tied service houses, and the result of that is that Scotland has been excluded from the Bill.
The National Union of Agricultural Workers' campaign was based on the fact that eviction orders are often granted in order to obtain farm workers' houses for their successors. It is not appreciated, however, that the great majority of such 1105 orders are obtained with the full understanding, and often at the request, of the farm workers themselves or their dependants, so that they in turn can obtain alternative accommodation from their local housing authority. As has already been mentioned, the number of evictions actually carried out each year is very small indeed—a mere handful.
Another thing that would be most interesting to know is why the Government have selected the agricultural service house for abolition, when it is a known fact that only about 10 per cent. of the tied homes in this country are agricultural. The same emotional desire, as mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for abolition must weigh with the miners, the railwaymen, the police, the nurses and many others. In fact, the Government themselves and the State controlled industries continue to administer the tied service house system. I find it is particulaly frustrating that agriculture, the one industry which has never failed the community, has never had a complete withdrawal of labour, and which has been more successful than any other in its response to the Government's regular appeals for increased production at low cost, should now be penalised. I find it hard to accept that the agricultural industry has been selected for this treatment.
It has been said that the Bill is more satisfactory than was at first thought it would be because the Bill requires the duty of local housing authorities to find alternative accommodation for the occupants of service houses where the farmer wants and needs possession to continue working his farm; but there is no compulsion whatever for the local authority to provide such alternative accommodation within a fixed time. Local authorities are required only to "use their best endeavours" to do so. The Government's attitude is indeed clearly defined in a letter received by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers from an official in the Department of the Environment, from which I quote:the Bill … will mean that housing authorities are required to do their utmost, within the constraints which obviously exist in local authority housing management, to provide suitable alternative accommodation. We could not make the duty any stronger than this by using a different form of words—housing authorities clearly cannot provide alternative accommodation if they simply do not have any available".1106 This statement clearly underlines the weakness of the Bill. The obligation of local authorities to use their best endeavours to provide alternative accommodation means little, if anything at all, and no time limit is set for the local councils to provide this alternative accommodation. The matter is left completely open and vague and local councils will in many cases regard the re-housing of ex-farm workers and their dependants as being no more pressing and urgent than those of any other employee on local housing lists. This weakness in the drafting of the Bill gives the local authority the perfect alibi for doing nothing.
Money to be made available to local housing authorities to provide additional accommodation is £5 million—let us reckon £10,000 a house—and including the provision of essential services, this would enable about 450 houses to be built throughout the whole country. As there are some 600 local housing authorities this will enable each authority to build three-quarters of a house. I suggest that the sum required would be many times the £5 million. In short, there should be a statutory obligation on the local authority to re-house and in order to do so quickly they must be provided with the necessary capital resources.
It has been found statistically that 74 per cent. of full-time workers milking cows twice a day live in service houses and in the South-East it is over 90 per cent. The larger the herd size the greater the tendency is to be dependent on workers in service accommodation, and expansion in the industry flows from these larger herds. It is generally regarded in the industry, especially by the Milk Marketing Board and the National Farmers Union, whose view I share, that the legislation should place a statutory obligation on the local authority to re-house where necessary.
It is not believed that the qualifying period for protection—two years in the Bill—is sufficient, and the protection should be confined to genuine farm workers who have been employed in agriculture for a minimum of five years after the age of 18, with at least one year's service with their present employer. It must be remembered that all farm workers either have their accommodation for extremely low rents—well below the normal standard of the district—or for no rent at all.
1107 I would further ask what the Government propose when planning permission for a house is given provided it is used for an agricultural worker. If it is occupied by a farm worker who has left his employment and is no longer in agriculture, what is his position? I must mention the disease risk to stud farmers and intensive livestock units which would result from non-farm staff occupying the premises on their holding and which would be very real and might result in a catastrophe—particularly so if an ex-employee took up a position in a slaughterhouse, refuse collection centre or even on an adjacent farm, and this risk of disease is particularly applicable to the Milk Marketing Board or private A.I. centres and other cattle breeding units. The Ministry of Agriculture lay down the most stringent regulations covering safety, disease risk, et cetera, and if these centres are not able to obtain immediate possession of one of the houses, in the event of one of their staff leaving, there would be an obvious and immediate contradiction between the Ministry's regulations and the new security of tenure. Why have the Ministry of Agriculture been left out of the Bill and thus discrimination is shown against other A.I. centres?
Concerning the advisory committees that are to be set up I should like to refer to Clause 31. This clause states that the committee should consist of three members, an independent chairman, a member representing employers and a member representing workers in agriculture. Subsection (7) says that all three members of the committee must be present at any meeting of the committee and no meeting should be held during a vacancy in the membership. Circumstances might arise that if there was a difference of opinion in the neighbourhood between the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the farming community, instructions might be given that the member representing the workers does not attend a meeting and therefore the committee could not function and the whole matter would be held in abeyance, possibly indefinitely. I should be grateful if the Government would tell the House how such a situation might be overcome.
I should also like to draw attention to Clause 10 which deals with the case when 1108 there is a sub-tenancy. This Bill throughout purports to apply to dwellinghouses but the last two lines of page 9 read:in this subsection 'premises' includes an agricultural holding within the meaning of the Agricultural Holdings Act 1948".Why, may I ask, is an agricultural holding included in Clause 10?
The Bill requires that notification to the local authority should be given if a farmer wishes to dispose of a service house. This seems to me an entirely unfair and unnecessary provision. The farmer should have freedom to sell a house which he finds to be no longer necessary for his farming business, as indeed can any other owner of property. However, if the farmer has applied for and obtained re-housing for the occupant of the service house under the terms of the Bill, it would certainly be fair that he would have to notify the local authority, but only in those circumstances.
To sum up: Without a guarantee of immediate accommodation on the farm for any incoming employee, many farmers will abandon or reduce the size of their livestock units. This, in turn, will reduce the productivity of British agriculture and will require extra imports with the consequent effect on the balance of payments, and it will increase the price of food. Without freedom of movement the workers themselves, whom this Bill sets out to protect, will have reduced opportunities for advancement.
I am convinced that this Bill if passed by Parliament, even with considerable amendment, will in the long term be against the interests of farmers, farm workers, farm pensioners, consumers and the national economy. It may well sow the seeds of discontent within an industry which has been relatively contented, progressive and economically viable and is one of the great assets this country possesses.
§ 4.10 p.m.
Earl DE LA WARR
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for the kind things he said about my father and, by that token, I must of course declare my interest as a landlord and farmer. Having said that, I must tell your Lordships that I find myself in some difficulty because I am making a maiden speech which requires—and I greatly 1109 respect this—that I should say nothing contentious on a Bill of which I do not approve at all. However, I will do my best to comply with the convention and in the interests of brevity I will simply say that I agree with everything that the noble Earl said; I agree with his arguments and, by and large, with his conclusions.
I suppose it must be common ground between all of us in this House that to a greater and greater extent an efficient agricultural industry is absolutely vital for this country's survival. But when we talk about industry we tend to think of big companies, and it is well to remember what we mean when we talk about the agricultural industry. We mean thousands and thousands of tiny companies employing one man, sometimes five. To employ 10 these days would mean that one was a very large farmer, and there must be few in the country employing more than 20. We are therefore dealing with many little businesses, businesses that are chronically under-capitalised and are, by that token, greatly susceptible to the cold winds of change when they blow too hard on them.
I would pick out two aspects in the context of the Bill which I believe to be of fundamental importance for the efficiency of—I will not say agriculture—a farm. First, I believe it to he extremely important that when there is stock on a farm—and farming in this country is not by and large stock farming—it is extremely important that the man responsible should live right on his job and therefore be able to fulfil his responsibilities completely. Secondly, I would instance the need for mobility, which means that when a man wants to change his job—because he does not like it, because he wants to move to another part of the country or because he wants promotion or more pay—he can do so in the certainty that he will find accommodation waiting for him at the other end. It must be added that when a farmer wants to get rid of a man because he is not suitable or because the farmer is changing his way of farming, he must be able to offer the new incumbent a cottage at the earliest moment.
Having made these points, I want to tell your Lordships that I have for some time had considerable doubts about certain of the human aspects of the tied cottage. 1 believe it all stems from the fact that 1110 one has a curious dual relationship; there is the employer and the employee and the same two people are landlord and tenant. This can make for distortions and frustrations in the relationship between the two. Very often neither side appreciates this, perhaps because they have been with it for so long. But worse than that I would say is the problem of chronic sickness and, even more, the problem of growing old knowing that one is becoming less and less able to cope and wondering what is going to happen.
Very frequently the event turns out to be a non-event, but it is not the event or non-event that counts; it is sometimes the years of anxiety that precede it, and anxiety in itself can be called a real hardship. I believe, therefore, as I have believed for a long time, that there is need for a review of the system, but if it is to be the right sort of review it must look for fairness—and by fair I mean fair to both sides—and it must look to make sure that it retains efficiency in agriculture but, above all, it must be the sort of review that covers the whole spectrum of rural housing and not confine itself to tied cottages alone.
Last year the Government put out a Consultative Document in which they asked for submissions from interested parties. Apart from the CLA and the NFU, which properly put up their cases, there were other, perhaps more objective, bodies which made contributions. They were Shelter, the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Affairs, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the J. Arthur Rank Centre. Shelter majored on the whole strategy of rural housing. The Grubb Institute produced a rather more novel solution of an agricultural housing association which would have statutory powers to control all agricultural occupancies and power to build agricultural houses in those parts of the country where they were needed. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors said very clearly that they regarded a pool of housing as more important than legislation.
The J. Arthur Rank Centre, in a document which was written by somebody well known to noble Lords on both sides of the House, Miss Moira Constable, dealt among many other things with the question of selective licensing and suggested that there should be the selective 1111 licensing of strategic cottages with the rest left to the existing Rent Acts, unamended in the way suggested in the Bill, and if legislation there must be then I would regard that as a sensible suggestion and one worth following. Those people all had something in common; to a greater or lesser extent they were against this particular form of legislation though in sympathy with much that was behind it. They were all to a greater or lesser extent positive and made suggestions, but each and every one of them made the point that there must be a complete review of the rural housing situation in this country before legislation was even contemplated.
My Lords, I am driven inexorably to the view that what we are really discussing is a distortion in the operation of the laws of supply and demand, that this distortion is very variable in different parts of the country, whereas it is being dealt with in a blanket situation. I ask, even at this late stage, that the Government should consider a review of the whole rural housing situation before they finally make up their mind to proceed with the Bill in its present form.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Baroness PHILLIPS
My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to he the first of your Lordships to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, on his very thoughtful and—for a non-controversial speech—very subtle first contribution in this House. He spoke as one who has considered the problem and as one who is concerned as a farmer and a landlord and I am sure that I echo all your Lordships when I say that I hope we shall have the pleasure of further contributions from him very soon. I know that it is tiresome to be reminded of one's father, although it seems to be a custom in this House, but I would say that on one occasion I shared a platform with the noble Earl's distinguished father and that I drove back to London with him. He said to me, "Will you please keep talking to prevent me from going to sleep?" As we were on a journey from Banbury to London that gave me ample scope for something I have never found difficult!
I should like also and with some humility to congratulate my noble friend the Leader of the House on the splendid way in which he introduced this complex 1112 Bill. There is no question of his knowledge nor of the affection in which he is held by the people in the farming industry, whether they be employers or employees. It is a great privilege to be the one to say these few words to him. I hope that we shall hear much more of his silver tones: it is a delight to listen to him.
Although the Bill is concerned with the agricultural worker, I have cheated a little in interjecting a note on behalf of some other workers. At one stage, I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, was going to make my speech for me but, as usual in his delightful speeches—not one word of which I agree with—he appeared at one stage to be embarking on a speech which I suspect might have been reminiscent of when the Truck Acts were introduced and workers were told of the great disadvantage of not having to buy their goods from the employers' shops. We are now in a very different century, as the noble Earl himself acknowledged. My appeal to the Government is that they should appreciate the position of other workers affected by tied accommodation. This is in no way to diminish the case for the Bill before your Lordships' House. I had the privilege of living on a farm among farm workers for six years and I returned with the highest admiration for this group of skilled people who, in my view, are very undervalued and undersung.
§ A noble Lord: And underpaid, my Lords.
§ Baroness PHILLIPS
My Lords, I did not mention such an indelicate matter. That is taken for granted. Most workers are underpaid. The figures given to me for the number of tied dwellings are astonishing. Agriculture accounts for 135,000 houses, as we have heard today; hospital staffs total 97,000; the Coal Board has 96,000; the hotel and catering industry, 70,000 and Church of England clergy 13,000. If we add to all these the Armed Forces, the teachers, caretakers, prison officers, firemen and ambulance workers in the public sector, we have a very large section of the community living in tied accommodation. In the private sector—and this was the group which approached me through a trade union—the workers in the licensed trade are heavily involved in tied accommodation. The numbers are very 1113 difficult to estimate, but would appear to be in the region of 5,000.
Why should there be tied housing in this section? Indeed, why is there tied housing in any section of the working population? First, because it is a matter of convenience to the employer to have his employee easily on call. It is an advantage which can sometimes be gained by giving such accommodation rather than paying higher wages. There seem to be certain factors that are common to all tied accommodation. Generally speaking, it is tied to lower wage employment, to insecurity of tenure and often to substandard accommodation. The obvious remedy would be the provision of suitable low rent accommodation or cheap housing for purchase. The absence of these attracts the worker to the tied cottage in the first place. It is, of course, easy for those not in this situation to say that the job was taken with full knowledge when the worker entered the commitment. Indeed, this is a favourite expression used by employers when seeking repossession. I feel that it is important to realise that very rarely this kind of employee will wish to take up tied accommodation; he will want to move into other housing quickly. There has been some reference made to the fact that the worker in tied accommodation move for promotion: in that event there would clearly be the same problem as there is with any other workers who moves for promotion.
The main reasons for losing jobs are the usual ones—illness, disability, redundancy, retirement or, let us face it, a personality clash between employer and employee. Then follows the whole distressing situation which, certainly, many employers try to mitigate and to which my noble friend the Leader of the House referred in introducing the Bill. There is the notice to quit, the appearance in court for an eviction order and—in the case of a worker outside agriculture, certainly—the notice rarely exceeds a month and failure to move by the end of the period results in a possession order. That is intended to give a breathing space to the unfortunate employee who has to find other accommodation, but we must remember that at this time he will also be looking for a job. What is the advice of the local authorities in such a case? They have to classify these people into 1114 four groups in order to find accommodation; that is, families with children, the elderly, the chronically sick and disabled. That leaves a large section outside. They are recommended for what one might call bed and breakfast accommodation or anything else available. It all comes back to the local authority in the end.
It seems to me that if all tied accommodation could be registered and licensed by the local authority we should at least have a starting point to sort out this strange and muddled situation. It would also mean that all the accommodation would have to be in a fit state for the employee to live in and it would be useful to have the duties of the workers linked to this. It would also be useful for the accommodation to be excluded from the Rent Act, so that the worker could therefore be certain of the protection we have seen referred to this afternoon.
Finally, anyone living in licensed accommodation who was retired, made redundant or was obliged to leave through illness or injury or who was a widow of the worker would be legally entitled to permanent rehousing by the local authority, as distinct from homeless family temporary rehousing. The suggestion from those outside agriculture has been that they must have been in the employment concerned with the tied housing for a period of five years. May I appeal to the Government to look again, in the next Session, perhaps, at the whole question of some of the other workers who are concerned with tied cottages. In wishing the Bill a speedy passage through your Lordships' House, I would beg the Government to put right the iniquities from which other tied workers have suffered for far too long.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord WISE
My Lords, may I first add my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, on his superb non-controversial maiden speech on a subject on which he feels very strongly. I am sure that we shall all look forward to hearing him again when he can speak in a controversial manner. I also must declare an interest, I suppose, because I am farming, albeit in a modest way compared, I am sure, with many noble Lords. But as I talked to my various farming 1115 friends it is very evident that this Bill as it now stands is causing grave concern and apprehension and I think that these fears are well founded. For I think that the Bill could cause even more problems to the detriment of the industry and consequent loss in food production. Nevertheless, provided it is suitably amended, I am certainly in favour of it.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, touched on several points where there are problems and I am sure, in view of the number of speakers in this afternoon's debate, that every point will be adequately discussed. However, as other noble Lords have said, the main weakness is Clause 30 and the wording within that clause. It seems that the wording, the local authoritiesshall use their best endeavours to provide suitable alternative accommodationis so loosely phrased that it must be almost meaningless and places no real obligation upon the local authorities. Who is to decide what are "their best endeavours"? Furthermore, it seems that the application could be placed at the bottom of the housing list and drag on indefinitely. It could also be argued: Why should the local authorities be responsible?
I think that agriculture is a special case. By the very nature of things, it is imperative that a stockman lives as near as possible to the animals in his charge. But there is no reason why he should not give up his job if he does not like it or for any other reason and go to work in a local town or wherever he wishes. But surely it must be unrealistic for him to remain living indefinitely near the animals which he has been looking after previously, thereby preventing anyone else from doing his job and looking after them. Such a system must have serious repercussions. I think it unfair that a farmer should be placed in that position to the detriment of his business. If the worker goes to work in a factory, why does not the factory provide housing for him? Why should the farmer have to provide a cottage? Therefore, the local authorities must become responsible; but they must assume an absolute obligation to rehouse within a reasonable period of time. So I think that the clause must be altered.
My Lords, I am a little worried as to what happens if a worker should leave 1116 and go to work somewhere else within the area of another authority. Who becomes "the authority"? Is it the authority where he is living, or is it the authority where he goes to work? There will be enormous problems for local authorities but they will be no greater than the problems for the farmers. I hope that the Government will not be forced by our present economic situation to reduce the finance available for new council house building. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling, that finance must somehow be made available. But there will still be a movement of workers from farm to farm, inevitably, and consequently houses will be available for them. Even as they are now, there will still be vacant houses on farms because workers will move from place to place.
I think that, provided local authorities play their part—and we must make certain that they are under the strictest obligation to do so—the situation will probably be far more easily resolved without the unpleasantness and distress which sometimes take place now. Agriculture has a fine industrial record of which everyone connected with it can be justifiably proud. Labour relations are probably better than in any other industry; but for as long as I can remember the tied cottage controversy has been the one feature which has marred the whole of the relations between employees and employers. Therefore, my Lords, I hope that you will give this Bill a Second Reading in order that we may improve it during the later stages to make it a piece legislation which will maintain this industrial record and which will maintain and improve the wonderful human relationships and good will as workers go into an era of greater security in their homes.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Lord GISBOROUGH
My Lords, I should like to start by adding my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, on his excellent speech. He approached the Bill from a new direction and steered a fine course for a maiden speech. It is interesting to note that the abolition of the tied house is not wanted by the farm workers in Scotland and judging by the letters in the Press, a large number of farm workers in England do not want it either. They see a system going 1117 whereby they can better themselves by being able to change jobs and walk straight into conveniently situated houses for their future jobs. Instead of free housing, they will soon have to pay rent to the farmer.
That is likely to be one of the consequences of this Bill and one worker summed it up like this. He said that he would have to pay £5 for rent, £3 extra for the tax for the extra wages, £5 for commuting to work and £5 will be lost in value to the farmer in not having a man on the spot for 24 hours a day. In addition, to some £18 cost per man to agriculture is the cost to the councils for having to provide extra suitable houses and the cost to the homeless of having farm workers jumping the housing queue in front of them. Farm workers already have greater legal security than other classes of tied cottagers and usually have six months to leave unless a court decides that certain conditions are met to need their earlier departure. This Bill alters the whole system and will almost certainly do far more harm than good.
The key factor of this Bill is the phrase, "best endeavour" that councils must use to rehouse all the outgoing farm workers. Some councils may take this to mean top priority, others may take it as a priority subject to the needs of the homeless and the other most deserving cases. There may be some who are not agriculturally minded and who will take it as meaning little more than putting the workers' name on their list of applicants. It might be possible to sue such a council, but the cost and delay of challenging a council's interpretation of the phrase would rule out the procedure. Many councils may wish to help but, with long waiting lists and perhaps a shortage of land, particularly in the green belt, they may be unable to find houses up to the standard of acceptability.
The phrase "best endeavours" must be more clearly defined so that it is clear just what priority is to be given to the agricultural worker and, consequently, how much agriculture is to suffer. There may be particular difficulties in a district such as Langborough, where I live. If a farm worker is given notice he may he offered a local authority house but this house could be in the industrial area where the demand 1118 is low compared with the high competition for houses in the areas adjacent to the countryside where he is living at the time. He may well refuse the offer arguing that he wishes to stay in the country area and hoping to win his case with the ad hoc tribunal. If he fails, and has to vacate, the local authority will have been under no obligation to have held the house for him and he may then be classed as homeless and be eligible only for whatever house the local authority may wish to offer, however meagre. He could be worse off than under the present arrangements.
Another case may well happen, indeed is likely to happen. A farm worker leaves farming to work in nearby industry and stays on in his tied house. This would be quite possible in my area with industry so close. If an order for possession was applied for, even though he would be earning an industrial wage, the council would appear to be obliged to give this man priority of housing, even over others who might be as much or more in need of a house and far less able to provide for themselves. Indeed, people may do two years in agriculture in order to get a council house. The two years should be increased to five to avoid this danger.
There will inevitably be cases where for long periods farms will suffer for lack of a vacant house for a new worker, and it is essential that planning laws should enable farmers to provide caravans on their farms as temporary alternative accommodation. The industry finds it difficult to understand why this Bill applies only to agriculture. This has been raised by more than one speaker in your Lordships' House. If there is hardship to agricultural tied cottagers having to move when they cease working for their employers, then surely there must be equal hardship to all other tied cottagers whether they work for public authorities, the Forestry Commission or whatever; so why does this legislation apply only to the 20 per cent. of tied cottages that are occupied by agricultural workers?
This Bill has already reduced plans for the building of new tied houses. The Government are making quite sure that no one will want to build another tied cottage for their workforce, and this is for the sake of stopping evictions now running at the rate of only 20 per year. In the first quarter of 1975, there were 1119 15,502 possession orders made against tied cottagers. Of this, only 329 applied to agricultural tied cottages. Surely a few hard cases do not justify the introduction of such a rigid system to agriculture. Against this, I take the point of the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, that sonic alteration is required to reduce the worry of tied cottagers about to retire, even though the numbers of hardship in this category are almost certainly very small indeed. Just as many houses are kept empty now because of restrictive legislation, so will many tied houses in future be allowed where possible to remain empty rather than have them occupied by workers who may subsequently prove impossible to remove.
The need for a supply of empty houses is exacerbated by the possibility of having to seek possession under Case 1 of Schedule 3. There is a great danger to an industry when there is too much use of the stick and not enough of the carrot. Until recently (we now have CTT and other hindrances) the agricultural industry has been left alone and encouraged by grants and other means, and this has resulted in the development of one of the most efficient and highly productive agricultural industries in the world and certainly the most successful industry in this country. That represents the policy of the carrot which has been most successful. Compare housing where landlords have had the stick, through rent controls, protected tenancies, and so forth, for years. As a result, there has been a continued shortage of houses; many houses are kept empty and scarcity has raised prices.
No one now builds houses for renting out, except the local authorities. But local authorites have inadequate resources to build enough. Yet private resources that could build so many are severely discouraged from doing so. If they were encouraged, there might be no housing problem. The Bill now belabours the farmer with the stick of further controls and rules over his own houses. The policy of the stick always requires ever increasing application as those affected find ways round the law, and more controls have to be applied.
To sum up, this Bill is neither necessary nor desirable and is altogether irrelevant 1120 to the overwhelming problems of the country. It may—only may—help a few outgoing workers, to the detriment of far more as free tied cottages become more scarce. I fear it will spur a rise in wages without benefit to the recipients who will spend it on rent, travelling and in tax. I fear it will harm agriculture through greater costs, less efficiency and lead to higher food prices, and that it will dry up the supply of new agricultural cottages. It is just more application of the stick. The of the stick. The policy of the carrot would be so much more rewarding.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord BALERNO
My Lords, if it is not impertinent, I should like to say how good it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Peart, in this House. He has always been a very good friend to British agriculture. He has done a lot of good, not least in the help he gave to the late Tom Williams in his notable agricultural reform. When 1 returned from the last war, I went to a very sagacious old farmer whose judgment I trusted implicitly. I asked him to what I should give priority in my farm operations, to which I had returned. Without hesitation he said: "Cottages. Build cottages". I asked him what the second priority would be, and he said: "Build more cottages". That was at the time when there was acute national shortage of houses over the whole land.
I went away and built the cottages. I sunk the whole of my gratuity and more into building farm cottages. I remember being extremely impatient because it took more than four months to build these cottages, but we erected them successfully. When they were nearing completion I received my first taste of post-war bureaucracy. A large Daimler car—pre-1939 of course—which obviously consumed a great deal of petrol, drove up to the house and three little men came out. One went into each house. They stayed in the houses for about three minutes and then came back into the big car and drove off. Of course they had no complaints, with the local authority inspecting the houses, because these houses were built to a better standard than houses at that time being erected by the local authority.
As the years passed, we remodelled those houses and rebuilt them. We brought them more or less completely 1121 Up-to-date. Has the local authority brought the houses that they were building at that time up-to-date? Unless a farmer can provide decent cottages for his workers, he has the greatest of difficulty in getting them. If the farmer does not provide decent cottages, his workers will not stay with him. No farm worker will stay, and no farm worker's wile will allow the worker to stay if the cottage is not right.
This is a supreme case of the law of' supply and demand working out as it should. I hate to quarrel with the noble Lord who has made his maiden speech today—a most excellent speech—but I quarrel with him on that point, at any rate in Scotland, when we are celebrating Adam Smith this year and the Wealth of Nations. The law of supply and demand is working out not too badly at all. The big question—and most speakers put their finger on it—is housing the worker who is about to leave.
My experience of housing such people who leave as a result of old age—some of them after 20 or 30 years' service with us—is that you should go along in good time to the local authority and ensure that the worker's name is put on the housing list but not brought up to the top of the list until such time as, by reason of age or infirmity, he requires the house. We have had no difficulty about that at all.
The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, spoke of sickness, and there is also the tragic case of a worker who dies or, even more tragic, who is killed at work. I have had expereience of some of those events, and I know of no case which was not treated with the utmost sympathy. In the country one simply cannot get away with being unsympathetic—you would be hounded out yourself if you did not treat those people with the greatest sympathy. Your local authority or the county council would soon be after you.
There is certainly one case which could lead to difficulty—the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips put her finger on that—where we talk of personality clashes. I agree there can be major difficulty arising when there is a personality clash, but I do not think it requires all the paraphernalia of this Bill to deal with a simple personality clash. Such things happen every day of the week in industry.
1122 This Bill does not, thank God! apply to Scotland. It is completely irrelevant to the problems of today, but I reckon it would be most cowardly of me if I did not speak in support of my noble friend Lord Ferrers. I do congratulate him on the gravity of what he said. I shall not delay your Lordships by going over the points he made, but I should like just to say that there is no other industry in the United Kingdom that has increased production to the extent that agriculture has in the past 30 years or so—and it has done that simultaneously with a massive reduction in manpower. The output of the British farmworker is an example to all other workers, and it has been achieved through all this period of "injustice" of the tied cottage, if I may say so. This Bill will only put difficulties in the way of increasing production. A much better incentive, my Lords, would be the stabilisation of the pound and a narrowing of its gap with the Green Pound.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Lord COLL1SON
My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, on his maiden speech. I thought it might have been difficult for me to congratulate someone with whom I might completely disagree, but that has not proved to he the case. It was a thoughtful speech and I hope we shall hear the noble Earl many times in the future. I should like also to say to the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, that it would be a good thing if agricultural workers put their names on the housing list rather early. I also entirely agree that the noble Lord is right when he tells the House that the agricultural worker has done such a magnificent job in increasing food production in the interests of the country. However, these things are a little irrelevant to the debate today. I was quite surprised to hear the sweeping condemnation of the Bill from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and from other noble Lords on the opposite Benches, particularly as the noble Earl in particular sounded quite sympathetic to the idea at the start and then he turned round and swept the whole thing away as a nonsense.
It is not as easy as that. There is certainly a problem, and I will deal with it in a moment, if I can. The noble Earl also talked about the situation which 1123 would arise if the tied cottage was abolished, perpetrating that misunderstanding of what is meant by the union and others in talking of the abolition of the tied cottage. Again, I will talk about that in a moment. The other point on which I must take issue is the rather hysterical statement that there will be a complete block on agricultural workers who want to change their jobs as though all the cottages were going to be occupied by workers who were ill or who had lost their jobs and were remaining in cottages which were required for the proper working of the holding. Quite frankly, that is a gross exaggeration. It simply will not be like that. There might be an occasional problem, but one has to balance that against the undoubted injustice that is done to so many agricultural workers who find themselves in danger of eviction at the end of their particular road with their particular employer.
Obviously, I do not need to declare an interest: my interest is well known. I welcome the Bill. As my noble friend the Leader of the House said in opening the debate, the abolition of the tied cottage has been the desire of the Agricultural Workers' Union since its foundation in 1909. Again, as you have already heard, the point was taken up much earlier than that by Joseph Arch in 1885. So this is not a new thing and the demands for the matter to be dealt with have been constant and, if I may say so, sincere over all these years. Am I now being told that there is nothing in it? I think that again needs to be looked at very carefully indeed. I must say that I was a little taken back when the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling, said there was a danger that the Agricultural Workers' Union would instruct their representatives not to attend the committees which are to be charged with looking at the urgency of problems arising in the case, for example, of a worker who is in a tied cottage. If I may, I will resent that on behalf of my old union. They would not behave like that and I think it is invidious to suggest that they might. They would certainly want to see the machinery working properly, as I am sure the farmers would also, and they would certainly go along and do their best to see that everything worked properly.
It has been argued that the majority of farmworkers want to stay in tied cottages. 1124 They have said they like the system. I will concede that there are farmworkers who say that they like the tied cottage and would like to stay in it, but these views come from farmworkers who have never experienced what can happen to a worker in a tied cottage when he loses his job or wishes to change it. The truth is that the farmworkers who are knowledgeable about these matters—and these are the ones who read the union's journal and see when they read the back page the number of cases which the union defends in court every month—realise just how difficult the problem is. People who really know and understand are opposed almost 100 per cent. to the tied cottage situation. These represent the 50 per cent. of agricultural workers who are in the union. These people are not goaded to this attitude by the union but they know from their own experience and from what they have read about what can happen in certain circumstances.
A number of motions which emanate from union branches, and which are discussed at union county conferences and indeed at the national conference, clearly indicate that the view of the agricultural workers is that of course the matter should be dealt with. It has also been argued that the number of evictions—figures have been quoted, but no one really knows—of up to 50 is so small that there is no need for action to be taken. As I have just said, the NUAAW deals with hundreds of cases every year and at the moment 600 are pending. Someone mentioned earlier that 1,200 cases go through the courts each year, and as the NUAAW has 50 per cent. of the membership the figure of 600 is therefore about right.
But the problem does not stop at the eviction that takes place. The distress caused to the agricultural worker and his wife and family goes very much deeper. There is the worry about what will happen and whether the union will get an extension of time. Sometimes getting an extension requires a number of visits to the courts. Anyone who is in the position that I had in the past, who knows how farmworkers come and bring with them their wives, who are in tears and worried to death about what may happen, cannot possibly condone a system such as this.
It has been pointed out that there is sometimes collusion between the employer 1125 and the worker to go to the court to get an order to ensure that the local authority takes action. We know, and the farmer knows, that this is true. But surely it cannot be right that in order to get something done one must connive at action of that kind. Surely, that is most undesirable. On top of that, there is the threat hanging over a man in terms of his individual freedom of action, if he knows that his employer dislikes something that he wants to do. I want to make it clear before I go on that I know the farmers as well as I know my own people, and I am not suggesting that all of them are little dictators and bullies, who will not allow their men to have minds of their own. But this can be the case, as I know from personal experience, since I suppose I am the only person here who lived in a tied cottage.
I come from the farming industry. I was working with a relation at the time of the last depression, and it was impossible for the farm to earn enough to support all of us—my cousin, his wife, myself and two children. So I got a job outside and in that sense I suppose I was on the other side of the industry, associated with employers rather than with workers. My new employer had trouble on his farm. I had specialised in poultry, and his poultry had fowl paralysis. Birds were dying by the dozen every day and he was at his wits' end. I asked him to let me try to do something. I had read as much as I could about the disease, and I thought I knew what was the trouble. So I simply changed the method of feeding from dry mash constantly before the birds to two feeds of wet mash morning and afternoon, and the trouble disappeared like magic. Of course, my employer was very pleased. I was then living in the house of one of his other workers who had four children. I wanted to read, but I found that I could not do so because of the noise all around me. I said, "I cannot go on like this. I need to be quiet". So he converted a stable for me, because he appreciated what I had been doing. Incidentally, I worked all the hours God sent—stupidly, I think now and possibly to the detriment of other colleagues in agriculture. One has to maintain principles about overtime and so on, but I did not know that then. I enjoyed working like that, and I still love poultry and everything connected with the industry.
1126 I started a union branch, because one of the youngsters on the farm, who had a cleft palate and was thought to be a little simple, came to me and said, "I am being asked to come back at weekends to build a dry stone wall"—a highly skilled job, as anyone from Gloucestershire knows"—and I am not being paid for it. Don't you think I should be?" I replied that I thought he should be paid and said, "I will talk to the old man about it". I went to him and he said, "This is none of your business", but I thought that if it was not my business then it was somebody else's. It so happened that I had been to school with Ted Fletcher, who was then secretary of the Economics Department of the TUC, and I rang him up and asked what I should do about it, to which he replied, "You want a union." So I got the union along and I started a branch.
As I look back, I see that there was humour in the situation. My employer said, "Harold, you are silly doing this union work. You do not get paid for it", and I did not. He said that the Conservative Party in a certain village wanted a secretary who would be paid. He said that I did not know what I had lost. But I replied that I had been brought up as a Christian Socialist and that was not my cup of tea. Two or three weeks later, he came to me and said, "Harold, your work on the farm is deteriorating. You cannot do these two jobs, and you will either have to give up the union work or go". Then I got cross and I told him that what I did in my own spare time was my business and I was going to continue.
The trouble blew over, but I was in a tied cottage which he had converted for me from a stable. If I had been married—and I was not—with a wife, and possibly children, knowing my action could mean that I would lose my accommodation, would I have been able to stand up for myself, right though I was? I do not know. So these situations can arise, although I reiterate that I am not implying that all farmers are rogues and bullies, because I know very well that they are not.
That brings me to my other reason—and it is a very real one—for welcoming this Bill. We are very fortunate in agriculture. The industrial relations situation in what I still call "my industry" is very good indeed. Somebody has already mentioned the co-operation between the 1127 worker and the farmer, and we could be quoted as an example to industry generally. However, since I served on the Royal Commission on Trade Unions I have come to the conclusion that, to get good industrial relations, communications must be as perfect as possible. In farming we have that situation, because the farm-worker knows exactly what is being done on the farm, and why. If there is a change in the production technique, he and the farmer can discuss it. They are close and they also talk about domestic matters; so in that sense there is a perfect relationship, and it shows. That is not to say that the farmworker and the farmer are better men than others.
We are lucky that we happen to have a situation where there is a spontaneous, almost perfect system of communication. This is true, despite the fact that the conditions which farmworkers apparently enjoy compared with what they could enjoy in terms of rewards for their skills in other industries are still questionable. Sometimes it can be unpleasant to work on a farm—go and pick kale in the snow in winter—but despite the conditions we have good industrial relations. I am glad of it, although some people believe that this is because our people are prepared to co-operate and that they are not as militant as they ought to be. I do not go along with that view. I believe that we shall go further by getting right our industrial relations.
In that happy situation there is one sore which stands out and causes unhappiness in the industry—one subject about which people speak strongly and sometimes viciously. If your Lordships had seen, as I have, a farmworker and his wife put out on to the roadside with nowhere to go and having to spend the night under a tarpaulin and if your Lordships had also seen farmworkers evicted, which meant the splitting up of families, with the husbands going to one set of relations and the wives to another, they would get a little vicious, too, and angry. I do not care where noble Lords sit in this House; they would be angry about it and would want something to be done about it. The Bill proposes to do something about it.
When farmers talk about the abolition of the tied cottage system I feel that there 1128 is great misunderstanding about it. Some people say that it means that tied cottages will be knocked down and that they will disappear from the countryside. Nothing of the kind will happen. The union have made it clear right from the beginning—certainly during my time because I took pains to do so—that by the abolition of the tied cottage we mean to ensure that no farmworker can be evicted unless there is suitable alternative accommodation for him: either another house or, as now proposed, a local authority house. The speeches made against the Bill have been exaggerated and have gone even further than the National Farmers' Union would want to go.
The union are worried about one or two points in the Bill. There is the question of the two-year period. I think that this period is about right because a man who has stayed in the industry for two years has shown that he is a bona fide agricultural worker. As farmers see it, there is the problem of the requirement placed upon local authorities to use every endeavour and about it not being strong enough when they are asked to make every endeavour. Were it possible to forget that local authorities have problems, too, and that there are other people who may need housing very badly, then I should go along with your Lordships. It would be so easy and there would be no problem whatever. However, good trade unionism means that you think about other people, too, besides your own sectional interests and I do not mind saying that in the present circumstances trade unions should understand this. One cannot demand that an absolute requirement should be placed on local authorities without considering their responsibilities and the situation which could arise if they had families on their waiting list who required houses even more desperately than farmworkers.
There will be the establishment of committees, which your Lordships must not decry, to which either the farmer or the farmworker will go. Local authorities are required to look very carefully at the points made to them by the committees. Why are noble Lords saying that the system will not work? In a place where I know many people and which I admire for its democratic qualities and the courtesy shown to everybody, I feel that on this 1129 occasion the violent opposition to the Bill is born of the desire to hang on to something which some of your Lordships regard as nearly feudal rather than to find a solution which is fair both to the farm-worker and to the farmer. I believe that the Bill has found it and I hope that it will be seen in that light. May I ask noble Lords to have a little faith in the proposed machinery and not to damn it before it starts. Already local authorities are showing willingness to help and I am sure that they will continue to do so. May I therefore ask all of your Lordships to give your support to the Bill and to vote for its Second Reading.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ The Earl of ONSLOW
My Lords, the sacking or dismissal of the noble Lord, Lord Collison, from his job in the 1930s would now, I suspect, be illegal. Under those circumstances he would have the right to sue for unfair dismissal. The present tenancy arrangements for agricultural workers are completely different from those in the 1930s. Therefore, with the greatest of respect to the noble Lord I have a suspicion that his experiences then are irrelevant to the problem we are now discussing.
I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Peart, in your Lordships' House. We have already witnessed the noble Lord's tactful handling of possibly a marginally stroppy House under difficult circumstances. However, speaking as a farmer I believe that his moving to the Second Chamber is a disaster, not because he is moving it but because from my personal experience I know that he understands agriculture and that in an urban and Treasury dominated Cabinet he has fought hard for an understanding of our problems. I say this because I am a farmer and have tied cottages. I regard it not only as my duty but also as in my own interest to provide as high a standard of farm cottage as possible for the people whom I employ. I do so in order to ensure good accommodation for them during their working lives and also to provide for the day when they or their wives drop down dead. This is not only because I think it is right but because it happens to benefit me. I know that if I do that I shall get out of them the best possible service.
1130 I regret to say that I do not have the same faith as has the noble Lord, Lord Peart, in his successor. It is perhaps harsh to judge Mr. Silkin but his track record so far does not fill one with an overwhelming sense of confidence. It has been argued that the Bill which the noble Lord has brought before the House today has the effect of codifying the present practice. Let us be honest about this.
Despite all the talk about the abolition of eviction, eviction is still possible under the Bill. Its whole success or failure hinges upon the "best endeavours" clause. If it represents only the codifying of the present practice, then despite the unnecessary expense and the increase in what are now fashionably known as quangos, ADHACs, committees and God knows what else, and extra money being charged to local authorities to run the system, then perhaps we should not argue too strongly against it. I agreed with, and listened with care to everything said by, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, but I think his eloquence would have to be disregarded if it put an end to the uncertainty and the discussion and the chat that we have had since 1880 or 1906 on what has happened.
But before we go on to dismiss the collusion with agricultural workers in regard to court orders I should like to give two examples. One from my own personal experience was of a man who had served my father for a long time. He lived in a tied cottage and wanted an old people's house in Guildford. I tried my best to help and one of the people on the local authority said to me, unofficially, "You will have to evict him and then we can act". Luckily it did not come to that and he got his local authority house, which was a better house and more convenient to his needs.
I know a man well who had a similar experience and he had a letter from the local authority saying, "You will have to evict if this gentleman wants to he re-housed". They went to lunch together, they went to the court together, the man was evicted and this gentleman has sent the local authority a solicitor's bill for the eviction order because he said he was acting on their instructions. So I think the figures for court orders should be taken not with a pinch but with a Siberian quantity of salt.
1131 As I have already said and as the noble Lords, Lord Wise and Lord Gisborough, and several others have said, if the best endeavours of the local authorities are not good enough then there will be a logjam in farm labour mobility. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said—absolutely correctly—that it is very difficult for promotion prospects on a one-man or two-man or even a five-man farm because there tends to be long service in agriculture, which is something that I think both employers and employees appreciate. It is probably only too easy for a second man to get promotion by going to another and superior job. If that logjam of inability for people to be moved from one house to another arises that man's promotional prospects will be hindered. And if that happens farmers will suffer, the agricultural workers will suffer, customers will suffer and that means the public will suffer.
I hope that the two aspects we shall concentrate on most during the Committee stage are getting the wording "best endeavours" absolutely right, and I hope we can do this not in a situation of Party argument but putting together the considerable wisdom that there is at the disposal of your Lordships' House and getting it absolutely right. The other aspect, as has already been mentioned, is the qualifying period and perhaps when the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, replies to the debate she will comment on the position of a man who leaves to work in another industry and perhaps his house is not essential for agricultural purposes. That house has been built subject to the condition imposed by the planning authority that it shall be used only for agricultural purposes. I believe that so far this has not been mentioned.
§ Lord GEORGE-BROWN
My Lords, if the noble Earl will permit me to interrupt him, I am afraid I rather missed the point at which I should have arisen. As I understand it, he was arguing that if you keep the tied cottage then the fellow who should be promoted and can only be promoted on another farm is thereby denied promotion. May I just ask the noble Earl this. If he thinks about it, would he not agree that he was arguing himself out of his argument? It seemed to me what he was saying was that the 1132 fellow is not going to be promoted because there is no cottage into which he can go. Therefore, would it not be better to end the tied cottage arrangements so that he could be promoted?
§ The Earl of ONSLOW
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, has put his finger exactly on the problem. If there is no cottage for a man to go to he cannot get promotion. If that cottage is not there because the other person, who may—for one reason or another—not have moved, is now possibly being given too much protection by this Bill, then that promotion is blocked. I do not think that is an argument for the abolition of the tied cottage; in my view it is an argument for the retention of the tied cottage.
§ The Earl of ONSLOW
My Lords, if we do not get this Bill right then the most efficient of all British industries will suffer and the present Government, in spite of the endeavours of the noble Lord, Lord Peart, will deserve condemnation.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has already referred to other things that Her Majesty's Government have done to harm this industry, all of which are true, all of which I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Peart, acknowledges in his heart of hearts because, as I have already said, he fully understands farming and its problems. Let us remember, as several noble Lords have said, that had the rest of British industry done as well as British agriculture since the war we should have made the Germans, the Swiss and the Swedes look poverty-stricken. Please will Her Majesty's Government learn this lesson and help—and not hinder—British agriculture!
§ 5.28 p.m.
The Earl of CAITHNESS
My Lords, may I join in congratulating my noble friend Lord De La Warr on his very good maiden speech. I think it was the noble Lord the Leader of the House who referred to, "walking a tightrope". My noble friend Lord Onslow has alluded to the point, but has it not occurred to the sponsors of this Bill that what we are led to believe is that their main aims and objectives have largely been more than adequately legislated for already in the 1133 form of the Employment Protection Act of 1975? The case described by the noble Lord, Lord Collison, would certainly have been covered by that Act. Tribunals have the power—and are increasingly exercising that power—of reinstating any employee who in their view has been unfairly dismissed. Thereby such employee's accommodation is also secured if that person occupied tied housing. This Bill therefore appears to be aimed at securing accommodation for those who have been fairly dismissed, and more reasonably for the widows and dependants. So far as the latter are concerned the reports that we have had placed before us show the industry to have a remarkably good record in the housing of those persons, at least comparable to any other major industry's.
With a large amount of legislation requiring us to sit until the early hours during this spill-over period I fail to see the necessity of this measure at this stage. None the less, my Lords, we have this legislation before us and I recognise some of the good intentions of the Bill, but I doubt whether this burdensome legislation is the correct vehicle to cater for the problem. It might, however, satisfy the Socialist's dogmatic view that tied cottages are "outmoded, unacceptable and unjust". Besides being difficult to understand, it is obvious that the Bill has been hastily drafted by those who have no experience of the rural housing situation, and that the Government have not allowed enough time for discussion on this matter.
The Arthur Rank Centre Survey states:In the ordinary course of events, much more time would have been allowed for the preparation and publication of this survey.Furthermore, the report was speeded up due to:…the very short time allowed by the Government for submission of views. It confirms the need for a much more extensive survey at Government level to discover the actual support of bona fide farm workers for the abolition of the tied cottage, also the need for more information on the true housing situation with particular regard to retirement in the next ten to fifteen years.My Lords, we have been told a lot about the size of the problem, and are led to believe that there are only some 20 or 30 cases of actual eviction a year. We do not know what is the actual turnover of agricultural workers, or how the figure of 1,000 court orders is constituted. Where and how are these people housed and, more important, what proportion of 1134 those court cases are collusion cases? In my experience, I would estimate less than 50 per cent., or about 500, contain an element of hardship. These cases cannot be dismissed without due regard, but this legislation magnifies the problem out of all proportion and has caused, and will continue to cause, many more problems than those it resolves. It must be only right for the interest of the few to be balanced against the interest of agriculture nationwide.
If precedent is any guide, local authorities will not interrupt their housing list except in the case of court orders, and under this legislation no court orders will be available. It is certainly presumed by the farming community at large that only in a minority of cases will the local authorities re-house. Good domestic accommodation, available when necessary, is the lifeline enabling farmers to become ever increasingly more efficient, and any loss of control of their housing could have disastrous effects on their business. It is interesting to note that the largest and most efficient farms, such as those of the Cooperative Wholesale Society, have the most tied cottages and therefore, their production will suffer the most.
Already progressive farmers are indicating that they are not prepared to embark on labour intensive, high productivity farming because of the extreme uncertainties arising from the Bill. It is evident that many schemes for improving agriculture by capital investment will be abandoned altogether if very considerable safeguards in favour of the farmer are not written into the Bill. Difficulties relating to housing will, no doubt, cause many farmers to employ local workers, who might be less qualified but who can house themselves, rather than looking to the open market.
The very least that can possibly satisfy the agricultural community is the designation of tied cottages into priority and non-priority housing. The former category would include such housing as dairymen's housing, where any interruption in labour would inevitably have a devastating effect. From the animal husbandry viewpoint, it is essential to maintain the present high standards. This can be done only if the man is on hand rather than five miles away. I am sure the Government would not encourage 1135 nurses in charge of a labour ward in a maternity hospital not to be at hand when on duty. It is inconceivable that even the extreme abolitionists cannot see the necessity of the present system in this context.
In the case of priority housing, there must be an absolute obligation on the local authority to rehouse forthwith priority cases, if the Agricultural Dwelling-House Committee determine that in their view the cottage is required, "in the interests of efficient agriculture". In the remaining cases, the local authority should use their best endeavours to rehouse within a time limit, as amended, if necessary, and as specified by the ADHACs. There is no point in setting up a Committee and creating more bureaucracy for the sake of it by not giving the Committee any powers. At the moment, an ADHAC is a toothless tiger whose recommendations need not be implemented by the local authority. Only by incorporating these minimum assurances can irreparable damage be avoided, and a degree of confidence returned to the agricultural community.
I realise that in certain circumstances, the imposition of a housing direction could be onerous on the local authority. But this will be no more so than a court order at present and, indeed, it could be largely overcome by increased registration on the council housing list and a better knowledge of the tied cottages in the area. Precautions must be taken to ensure that workers are not rehoused in an area they do not know and in which they have not worked, and that the agriculture industry does not attain a worse reputation as the quick way into council housing. Bearing in mind the stated intention of the Government to abolish all tied housing, with the resulting consequences, it is of vital importance that the housing list of the authority is structured so as not to be unduly disrupted, and that agriculture and similar industries do not suffer as a result.
Turning to forestry, what are we to say here? In agriculture, although we had a number of reports and documents, we still do not know the size of the problem before us. We are discussing a Bill which will apply to private forestry, but the Government have not yet published their 1136 report on this subject. It might be that considerable objections will be lodged as a result of the report, and that areas of the Bill will require revision. Without any report, I believe it is wrong to legislate against an industry, particularly one so widespread and unsettled as that of forestry.
To me it is obvious from the surveys on the question of the future of tied cottages that the system is not "outmoded, unacceptable and unjust". Indeed, it has contributed to the country's high standard of farming and farm structure, which is the envy of Europe. I hope the Government will take away the Bill for further thoughts on the subject so as to lessen the worries of an already troubled industry. However, if they do not, which I fear will be the case, they must accept reasonably constructive Amendments, put forward in the interests of all concerned to make the Bill more easily understood, more workable, and thus, heal part of the breach they have created by their inflexible attitude to date.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Lord MONK BRETTON
My Lords, if I may pursue the analogy used by my noble friend Lord Ferrers at the beginning, may I say to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I hope he will not mind my assisting in endeavouring to vet the horse he is riding for the first time here, and that my efforts to do so will not spoil what I believe we will find to be a considerable common interest in agriculture. I would also like to congratulate my noble friend Lord De La Warr on his maiden speech, particularly as I come from the same county as he does, and have known and greatly appreciated his father for many years. I believe this afternoon we saw a sign of that same wisdom and understanding that has come from the family of my noble friend before now.
My Lords, the reason I wanted to say a little today is that I farm in the South-East, and I thought it as well to talk a little about our area in the context of the proposals in this Bill. The area in which I farm is a livestock area. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors commented that they felt it right that the Bill should be judged in the context of the worst conditions prevailing. They identified the likely worst conditions as being 1137 where there was a high proportion of tied housing, many competing demands on manpower, and where housing was scarce and expensive. I fear that my area has just those qualities. There are considerable difficulties, I think, in really ascertaining how quickly rehousing is going to be possible supposing this Bill were an Act now. There seem to be problems of interpretation.
Does the Bill mean that best endeavours, plus urgency, plus having taken into account competing claims, give the same degree of priority to the person involved as would be in the case of being on a priority homeless list, for example being homeless within 28 days? I am not a local government expert. I believe that this would he H.1 homelessness in the correct phraseology. More precision about these definitions would, I think, help to establish what the local position might turn out to be.
I talked to a housing officer who said that he thought that in the case of extreme urgency such as an injured cowman—something of that sort—it would probably be three months processing the application and then a further two months' wait, and that would be the best. It would also be very much dependent upon particular circumstances. I spoke to two housing committee members who said that they thought it would he only prudent in the case of a tractor driver having gone off to work in a local factory to expect that the problem would take three months plus a year, and that one would be optimistic to expect less. So this is fairly disturbing and I think there is considerable gloom in our part of the world.
I feel that there is probably a lack of knowledge about the assets and liabilities that this Bill will give local authorities to deal with. It really requires a lot of study. The ages of the people in the houses, probable retirement, the number of dependants they have, the known problems there may be on farms—all those things must be considered. I think there is a disturbing lack of information there and I wonder very much whether the Government can clearly pinpoint where the problem areas are. I very much hope they can, but I do not believe that half as much is known as would be a good thing.
To return to this business of the assets and liabilities of what is being taken over, 1138 one of the principal liabilities the local authority is taking over is the problem of housing livestock workers urgently and very near their work. It has a severe location angle to it. Under the present system we have struggled to keep a certain number of houses empty when we have seen danger about to threaten. We have already gathered that there are 8 or 9 per cent. of tied houses empty, not merely for that purpose but for building work and so on, as well. The local authority wants all the time, quite reasonably, to treat all urgent cases equally on their merits whether they be agricultural or not, and the difficulty is going to be that if there are no empty houses available, again bearing in mind the location problem, it may very well not work quickly enough. One thinks of the problem of a man who dies in harness. I have twice had experience of a man becoming ill suddenly, with absolutely no notice at all, and never being able to resume the job again.
In this context I should like to speak up particularly for the cowman. I do so with some feeling because I tried my hand at that job as a mud student and I well remember what it was like in the winter when I had to do a stint that lasted for five months without a day off because all the time there were difficulties, or somebody was ill. Things are easier these days, I should hope: they certainly should be. These people are of immense importance to us. They are a rare breed, and little wonder. It is a very exacting and resonsible task that they carry out. They need time off, they need a civilised life. Their hours are long anyway.
I think that they are pretty worried about the danger of all this not being so easy if we cannot deal with emergencies quickly enough. If there is going to be a breakdown more frequently, and a return to the seven days a week slog without any relief, with the anxiety about getting ill and there being nobody to fall back upon, the farmer will be worried enough but the herdsman will feel that perhaps the best thing to do is to find a different occupation. We shall lose these people and it could seriously alter the farming map. I would emphasise that I do not believe that morale is very good, because they do see this difficulty.
Another thing I would mention particularly is what happens when these people retire. As things are at present we have 1139 usually been able to try to do our best for the long-serving employee. If he wanted to go for a council house, we knew what he should do and we could help him to do it. We knew the procedures. There is that unfortunate business of the court case, which I have never liked as a procedure. But there are many of them who do not want to live in a council house at all—it is the last thing they want—and those are the people to whom I have always felt that priority should be given as regards those houses near the farm, in the country, that we have, and that we can spare for retired people. I feel that in the future it may not be they who get them; it will be the people who come in, change their job, and then hold the cottage that way. That is rather sad because it does not look after the people who really deserve the most looking after. I do not know quite what the solution is at the moment, but I would hope that matter might be borne in mind.
I could speak up a lot for the owners, mentioning that not all landowners own broad acres and are enormously wealthy. I should say, I think, that many of them will see this Bill as an extension of local authority housing resources but provided at the expense of the farming industry. From this comes the damage done to the motivation to repair and the motivation to build new houses. I am not sure whether something should be done about this, whether there should be some limit upon the ability of a local authority to go on indefinitely using a very large proportion of a certain farmer's houses in that way. I think the owners are worried also about the appeals procedure that is proposed in the Bill. There is a feeling that this is going to be expensive and that it is somewhat liketaking arms against a sea of troublein that it is difficult to prove precisely whether or not the local authority is breaching its duties.
One goes on to the general question, how would it work, and my comment would be that it probably would, provided there were adequate resources. I listened with interest to the remarks about provision of approximately 500 houses a year. I am sure that is extremely good news. I would prefer to reflect, but if asked straight away for an opinion on that I would say it is a step in the right direction but probably not enough. The 1140 success of the proposals will require much good will. I believe it will invariably be slower. I am sorry to see the old personal element given a back seat, because I believe, as my noble friend Lord Balerno said, that it is something we have been able to rely upon in the country; there always have been, and will be, very close ties indeed between employer and employee. As I say, I believe it might work, given these conditions, but there are deep anxieties in my mind, and not only in mine.
The solution definitely is either that enough money must be made available, or alternatively, which I think is what I would prefer, that the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and possibly myself, have a go at another proposal altogether. I think this Bill is only abolishing the tied cottage in name and it may substitute a not very satisfactory procedure which is not a great deal better than the one we now have. With that thought I will sit down.
§ 5.53 p.m.
My Lords, perhaps it might be of interest to some of us to recollect what has been happening in recent years with regard to the protection of tenants of houses and with regard to the general position of others who occupy them. A large number of Acts have been passed which have sought to ensure that people who are occupying a residence and have been occupying it for some time shall not be arbitrarily ejected. Some of us have participated in the debates which have taken place since early Bills were introduced during the last 30 or 40 years. It is not the person who is part and parcel of the general occupants who needs to be protected; it is the exceptions. We have had some very interesting comments. I refer to the interesting remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for example, and I certainly refer to my noble friend Lord Peart's contribution. I have not detected a real alternative to protect those who would otherwise be made homeless unless this Bill's protection is afforded to them.
I am a person who deals with exceptions. As your Lordships are aware, I happen to be in the legal profession, and there we get, of course, not the general case but the person who is actually 1141 affected, not in the generality of people who would not have that kind of problem to deal with. Noble Lords of course may have some Amendments to suggest, and I rather gather from what we have heard today that there will be a number of Amendments, some of which possibly will be acceptable. But I think many of the speeches are really dealing not with the principle of the Bill itself but with Amendments which might be introduced at a later stage.
I have listened very carefully today. I admit that I have little knowledge of the farming industry. But, after all, we have had a noble Lord speaking here today, the noble Lord, Lord Collison, who would not want to endanger the farmworkers' position and who tells us that his union represents some 50 per cent. of the workers. It could very well be that the other 50 per cent. are contented, that they have splendid relationships with the employer; and I rather gather from what we have heard today from both sides that there is that splendid relationship. But obviously there must be some thing worrying those who are in his particular union. What is that something? It is similar to the kind of worry that the unprotected tenant has had right through the last 40 or 50 years when we have been dealing with the problem.
Rent Acts have been passed to protect the tenant, also the Leasehold Reform Act. The whole idea was to see to it that a person who resides in a house—and some have resided there for many years—should feel that it is his home. I am also talking now about the tenancy in the agricultural industry. He should feel that this is his home, that this is a place which he is occupying not only because he happens to work near there but also because it is his home. He has built up that home. I think the average layman really believes that when he has lived in a property for a large number of years, or even not for a very long period, it is his home, he wants to keep it. We considered this problem with the Leasehold Reform Act; that was the nub of the whole proposal, that people wanted to retain their homes and to ensure that their widows and families should be able to continue to live there.
Remember, too, that an agricultural worker, in most cases, will have worked 1142 in the industry for years. Not only is, there the question of his employment, but there is also the question of keeping human contacts, the social amenities of a particular district, the friends he has, the neighbours he has. He cannot wrest himself away from all these thing without considerable heartbreak. That is the kind of problem we have to face up to here.
It seems to me from what I have heard today, and what I believe to be the case, and judging from the manner in which these matters have been said by employers and also by my noble friend who spoke from behind me, that the relationship between employers and employees is excellent. What have the employers to fear? Do they really think that there is going to be a big rush away from the industry because some of their former employees are protected and because they will know that without good reason they cannot be turned out for reasons which are outlined in the Bill, and which perhaps some noble Lords will consider should he amended? Neverthless, I think that everyone in this House will agree that something has to be done to ensure security for tenants.
This is following the kind of policy—I do not want to make a Party issue of this; it is perhaps difficult not to—that existed during and at the end of the first World War. Do your Lordships remember during the first World War in 1915, when the first legislation was introduced to protect wives and families in their homes, against exceptional landlords? Far be it from me to suggest that all landlords are bad. That would be wrong, of course. But there were the exceptional persons who did not treat their tenants properly. I am not talking merely about the farming industry but also in many other directions. The whole object has been to have regard to the human element, which is tremendously important. I emphasise the fact that in any profession you do not get the general cases, but the exceptional case, and from my professional observation I think that this protection is necessary.
I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Peart on his excellent speech, and I think the whole House would accept that view. Indeed, I should like to congratulate the maiden speaker, Lord De La Warr. He said he spoke 1143 uncontroversially. I have heard many maiden speeches. I would not say that every one of them was uncontroversial. Occasionally one gets an element coming in which could not be described under that heading. However, the noble Earl certainly made a moderate and acceptable speech. I did not agree with all he said, of course. Nevertheless, I am sure every one of us would want to hear him again because he put his case in a modest and I think very acceptable way.
I do not want to detain noble Lords for long, but the position is such in my view that we must have this Bill. My noble friend Lady Phillips wants to extend it. All right, but I think step by step we can go far. It has taken many years, from 1915 until today before we have brought it in. I am talking about a time when legislation was pretty active in a similar direction. We had not brought this Bill forward, and yet there has been a need for it, as we have heard. I think the Government are perfectly right in dealing with this problem. I have looked at the terms of the Bill. They are not so hard on the employers. A person has to be in the industry for a couple of years. Even if he has not been in the industry with the same employer, he has got to be in the industry for that time. But if there is this good feeling, as we have been told there is, obviously he will forego possibly even other advantages in order to remain in the industry with the same employer. Therefore, the situation is not as bad as all that.
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from very long experience of many Rent Acts. Would he not agree, as a professional adviser, that the accumulation, the detritus, which has attracted itself around these many Acts makes for exceeding complications and interpretation which is counterproductive?
My Lords, I am terribly sorry but the noble Lord is now really dealing with a Party issue. I entirely disagree. I can tell you that there are hundreds of thousands of tenants in this country who today are blessing the fact that they have been protected by Rent Acts, otherwise they would probably have been homeless themselves; so please do 1144 not run away with an idea that is quite wrong. On going round the country and listening to people who have had to avail themselves of the Acts, I think the noble Lord will find he has come to a wrong conclusion. He does not very often come to wrong conclusions—except on political matters. Apart from that he is very good. I know that from personal experience.
I think that the Bill is a good Bill. There are protective measures in it, and I think they are very reasonable. Perhaps we shall be persuaded that in some way there might be all this talk of a council and all the rest. We are told that there are very few cases, and the way in which it is being presented is as though the whole thing was an enormous problem, that councils were being called to give priority to other people. It is not so big a problem as that; but it is essentially a problem of principle, and certainly a problem for the exceptional cases who need it, as has been admitted here. Unless and until we can satisfy ourselves that we are doing the right thing, not only for the majority but for the minority who feel that they are in a difficulty, then I think we are not acting as we should. Consequently, I think we, the employers and employees, should support this Bill wholeheartedly, and that we should see to it that if there is any additional method by which the matter could be made, if you like, more even-handed—personally I do not feel there is any need for that—let us discuss it at Committee stage, but let us pass this Second Reading unanimously as being an essential advance in the buildup of our social reforms.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ The Earl of NORTHESK
My Lords, I should like first to add my sincere congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, on his truly excellent speech. I think he spoke with real feeling and understanding of the problems of the country and the problems of country people, and I agree with a great deal of what he said. Since I am a tenant farmer and an owner-occupier, although very shortly I shall no longer be at least in England or Wales, any interest I am obliged to declare at this time will be very short-lived. I am also a working farmer, for want of a better expression; that is, I can not only farm from a Land Rover or 1145 from an office, I can, and sometimes do, as is necessary, all the jobs on a farm which produce milk and beef, lamb and grain. I might add that for many years I was a farm worker. Therefore, I know some—not all, of course—of the purely very practical problems of agriculture; I would suggest that whoever devised this Bill does not. So it is from a very purely practical point of view that I should like briefly to make one or two points.
To start with, I believe this Bill is going to make less accommodation available to the farmworker actually on the farm where he works, and I believe it is going to spoil the very satisfactory relationship that exists in agriculture today. Furthermore, the farm that is going to be most affected, whether it is owner-occupied or tenanted, is the smaller farm, the farm that employs, say, fewer than three people. Today, that is the farm that can least afford any extra cost or expenditure, which undoubtedly this Bill will produce, because these are the farms where every worker is a key man.
Agriculture is unlike any other industry, for many reasons, but two basic reasons which are interconnected, which we have to contend with, are two elements over which we have no control. I think everyone would agree that we cannot control the weather, but perhaps not everyone would agree that we cannot control life or growth, for in practical terms, although we can plan and hope that a cow will calve or that the grain will he ripe on a certain day, in fact it very rarely does or is, and it is for this reason that it is absolutely necessary for the farm worker to live close to his job in order to be on call for the ills or whims of the animals he is in charge of or to sow or gather the crop, depending on whether it is dry or, under recent conditions, wet enough, and from this results the close community which in turn produces the team spirit, the pride in the job, the possessiveness which is so essential for an efficient agricultural workforce.
For many years now the farming community has organised very satisfactorily its own housing requirements. Farmworkers expect a house to be provided for them on the farm. It is part of the job and one of the things the farmer expects to have to provide for the benefit and convenience of both, and because of this a close-knit and compact community 1146 has developed which is on call as required, for emergencies and for the necessary extra work that is often essential due to the vagaries of the weather. In this close-knit community in which we have to live and work, which in itself produces pride in the job and the teamwork required, there develops a certain code of behaviour or way of life. People have respect for each other, so that when difficulties arise, as of course they do from time to time, people help each other and the problem is solved.
I believe this completely satisfactory relationship will be spoiled, because I believe this Bill will take the allocation of farm houses out of the control of the farming community, that is, out of the control of those people who know the particular and individual problems, and a great number of farmworkers will find themselves living many miles from their work; the essential compact and close-knit work force will be destroyed. I believe also that a considerable amount of hardship may be caused by moving people out of an environment in which they have lived all their lives. My Lords, what I am trying to suggest is that the farming industry has for a long time managed its housing very satisfactorily. We, and by that I mean both the farmer and the farm-worker, have had the freedom to do what is necessary and expedient in any circumstances. Why, then, must there be more legislation that can only be detrimental?
If this Bill is passed and it does what I expect it to do, and what in fact I am quite sure it will do, one wonders whether the extra cost and inconvenience that will undoubtedly arise have been considered. For instance, how is the farmworker going to get to his job, and who is going to pay for it, if he has to travel 10 or 20 miles every day? There is not likely to be any public transport if, as a cowman, he has to be at work at 4 a.m. Even if he has his own transport it will mean extra expense, but in many country areas there is no school bus or bus service, and his wife will often require the car to get the children to school or to do the shopping. Perhaps the farmer will allow his employee to take a farm machine home for breakfast or dinner, or in the evening, all of which entails extra cost, time and inconvenience. But can you imagine the reaction of his neighbours in a housing estate, or of the local district council, to a tractor and muck-spreader or a 14-foot combine 1147 harvester travelling back and forth every day or parked outside his front door?
It may be thought that all these trivialities will cause little hardship or concern, but these are practical problems, the sort of problems that the farming community will have to overcome but which the creators of this Bill cannot possibly have considered. Neither can they possibly have considered that the majority of farmers try to arrange that most of their cows calve during the autumn. The price structure for milk makes it economic to do so, and there are other technical factors that make it right, and the good cowman will always want to be on hand when his cows calve and, like most females—or at least the best ones—they invariably turn out to be the most awkward and will calve at the dead of night. If he has 90 cows to calve, he has to have a house within walking distance of his job. To attempt to do it from 10 or 20 miles away is simply not possible. The same could be said of a shepherd who will be lambing 400 to 500 sheep in about six weeks.
But that is not the end of the job for a good conscientious stockman. Animals get sick; they have to be looked after at all times of the day and night. They have to be watched when they have a change of diet or move to a new pasture; and, because all animal-based food that we produce depends on reproduction, this has to be seen to be effectively done and recorded. Living close to the job also applies, though to a lesser extent, to the tractor driver, because a lot of the work that he is responsible for depends on the weather and, therefore, it is necessary for him to be available when conditions are right for harvesting or for sowing and planting. In farming now it is a question of conditions being right not on a particular day but at a particular hour.
So essential is it for the stockman to be close to his job that if the farmer is going to have to contend with the possibility of not being able to move a man who for some reason or another has left his employ, or if he is going to have to contend with what I understand is the hereditary factor that is built into this Bill, or if he is going to have to rely on a council that already has a critical housing shortage, I can foresee that, in the unlikely event of any of his houses becoming 1148 vacant, he is going to be sorely tempted to allow that house to remain empty to cover any eventual emergency. But more probably what will happen is that in the event of a farmer's requiring to employ a new man he will be unable to obtain the person he wants, or the person who wants to take the job, because he has no house available; or he will be forced to employ a man who will have to travel 10 or 20 miles every day from his existing accommodation, with all the problems and difficulties I have already explained, which can only add extra cost and make agriculture less efficient.
One other aspect of the Bill that I object to on, if you like, humanitarian grounds, is that if a farmer requires a new employee to replace one who is retiring, the farmer can—and in fact will have to, for he will no longer have houses over which he has control—apply to the local authority to rehouse the retiring man. Much has been said about the hardship of retiring people, but it is not always acceptable for a 65-year-old man and his wife to be moved from the country community in which they have lived all their lives to a council estate in some completely strange urban area. There have been some heartfelt letters in the agricultural Press about this, one of which concluded:Justice and democracy are of poor quality when at the end of our working life we are to be passed over to local authorities like refugees from the environment to which we belong ".Surely the fact that 20,000 farm cottages are at present occupied by pensioners indicates that we look after our own satisfactorily. In fact, we have looked after our own for years. We have made our own arrangements for our retired workers, sometimes of course with the aid of local councils under their advanced warning schemes, but usually by being allowed to have sufficient accommodation to move our workers and dependants from house to house as circumstances make that possible. I can see no reason for altering this, unless for some reason it is considered unfair for a part of the community to have some freedom of choice.
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is not really arguing that, in his own sphere, the only persons who are likely to be affected are 1149 those who have employers who do not come within the reference he has made? Are not they the people who have to be protected?
§ The Earl of NORTHESK
My Lords, I did not quite follow the noble Lord's question, but perhaps it will be possible to deal with it later. I have stated what I believe will happen as a result of the Bill, and for these reasons I cannot support it. Despite the many problems we in agriculture have to overcome, it is a highly efficient industry and I ask the Government not to add further frustrations and difficulties but leave us a little freedom and let us get on with our job in the best way we know how.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Baroness SHARPLES
My Lords, I wish first to add my congratulations to those which have already been expressed to my noble friend Lord De La Warr. We have known each other for very many years and I listened with great interest to his most positive contribution to the debate. Like many of your Lordships, I am a farmer and, like others, I have always tried to have enough dwellings in which to house my workers and, if possible, to provide for their retirement. At the moment I have several men who live close by in their own cottages. This means that I have to keep some of my houses empty and I want to preserve the right to keep them empty, first to meet the case if one of the men who now has his own house leaves the farm and his replacement needs a cottage and, secondly, because accommodation should be available for those who retire and have no wish to be forced to live in a town—my noble friend Lord Northesk referred to this—away from their lifetime friends.
My anxiety is that if a worker living in one of my cottages gets a job elsewhere and refuses to leave, the local authority may be unwilling to help because in its view I have alternative accommodation to offer him for the reasons I have given. Although noble Lords have dealt with other parts of the Bill, I, in dealing with this aspect, need not delay the House further. I share the deep concern which has been expressed by noble Lord about this and other parts of the Bill and, that said, I will not trouble the House further.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Lord CLIFFORD of CHUDLEIGH
My Lords, I suppose that one should declare one's interst. I am a member of the NFU and I think that I qualify for the same description as the noble Earl, Lord Northesk. I am a former chairman and president of the county branch of the CLA and, apropros my first meeting with the noble Lord the Leader of the House, that occurred when he came to the CLA tent at the Devon County Show. That was several years ago and I hope that we entertained him adequately. I recall that as he left an ex-Gunner, a brigadier, who was there and who happened to be president of the English Shorthorn Society remarked, "He's all right; he's wearing a Gunner tie".
The Devon branch of the CLA has 2,300 members, practically all of whom are small owner-occupiers, those who fit the description given by Lord Northesk of farmers employing only one or two workers. I would not be speaking today if it had not been for the fact that at our monthly committee meeting yesterday this subject came up and I was left in no doubt but that they expected their views to be expressed. As the present chairman has a niece working in an office in your Lordships' House and as she always sends hime a copy of Hansard if it contains anything in which she knows he is interested, I have to inflict myself on your Lordships, if only briefly.
The situation concerning farmworkers and farmworkers' cottages is worrying many small farmers more than is realised by the Government. Like the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, I have been foolish enough to build seven new units of accommodation in the last 10 years, not only for my own farm but for my tenants' farms, and when one considers that of the other cottages I have on the estate some are let at a controlled rent of eight shillings a week, one will agree that it is impossible ever to get a financial return on that investment.
What is worrying the type of person about whom I am speaking is a series of events. So far as the Bill is concerned, how can we be certain, they ask, that we will get this accommodation from the local council for a retired worker? They—they as opposed to us—do not realise that there are more things in a small 1151 agricultural community than the urban mind can visualize. To give an example, I have been pestered time and again in the last couple of years by a certain family on my estate who cannot stand their next door neighbours, and it is to poor Joe Soap whom they come to complain.
In the bad old days, that was easy. My ancestors had built a cottage in a far wood called Well Cover and if we had anybody who was difficult with the neighbours or whom the neighbours could not stand we moved them there. As your Lordships may imagine, it was known as Siberia. But not everybody can do that and it is the small owner-occupier who is very worried about this position. I am hoping that the brilliant minds which will produce the various Amendments to the Bill in the Committee stage will somehow or other be able to take some of these points into consideration.
In my case, I have five pensioners living on the property rent free. The present proposals, if added to the rent restriction legislation, the Community Land Act, the capital transfer tax, the proposed wealth tax and the 101 other things that seem to have come together at this time, make the agricultural community, or that element of it to which I am referring today, ask, "Why the hell pick on us?" If, as suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, there had been some overall rural housing scheme which would have made this Bill unnecessary, how much more helpful that would have been!
Again, there are various other worries such as the agricultural workers' union passing its resolution to nationalise the land. If that is added to all these other measures and the present Bill, which seems not to consider the real problems of the small farmer, comes on top of them, that makes the section of the farming community to which I am referring today rather anxious, to say the least of it. I hope that something will be done in the later stages of the Bill to lessen some of their worries and to make them less urgent than they seem now.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Lord BURNHAM
My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and also 1152 as the owner of other rented housing which I hope will enable me to get away with the worst of the provisions of this Bill if it goes through in its present form, in that I would hope to be able to offer alternative housing myself. I think my noble friend Lord Monk Bretton is the only speaker who has mentioned the timing of the operations envisaged in the Bill. He suggested that it might take three months to get a decision from the housing authority. In my experience, that would be a very quick and efficient authority. I think that it would be four months, if one were lucky. However, it is only when the decision has been given with the benefit of the advice of the ADHAC that the housing authority will start looking for accommodation for a farmworker whose house is required for his replacement, and it is anybody's guess, and will vary enormously from one part of the country to another, how long it will take to provide suitable accommodation. Again, working on my own experience, even when I know that a local housing authority has been doing its very best to produce a house, this is not likely to take less than nine months and, if the family is a particularly large one, the search could take up to three years. So one is expecting a delay before possession can be obtained of somewhere between one and three years.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Peart, will recognise that the absence of a key man—and by definition he must be a key man because this is a case where the committee has agreed that possession is necessary for efficient farming—for between one and three years, would be very expensive to the farmer and could at worst be disastrous, depending on the type of enterprise. There has been no suggestion that the farmer should be compensated for the failure of the local authority—presumably through no fault of its own—to provide alternative housing. It could be a very serious matter for the farmer. However, I have a suggestion to make which I believe may commend itself to both sides in this matter.
There has been a good deal of discussion about the meaning of the words, "use their best endeavours". I should be very grateful if those words were changed to make it into an absolute duty, but I have the impression that the Government would be unlikely to give way on that. I 1153 therefore suggest amending Schedule 3, Case I—that is, where a committee has agreed that a house is essential. If the farmer can provide an adequate mobile home for the worker who is leaving, that would not relieve the local authority of its duty to use its best endeavours but would enable the farmer to get possession of the house. Before anyone raises his hands and talks about the horror of putting a man out of a house into a caravan, let him remember that someone is going to have to live in a caravan because, if the man who is leaving does not, the man who is coming will have to, for there will be nowhere else for him to live.
I believe that something on these lines could make the situation possible for the farmer and would cover the period while the local authority was doing its best to carry out its new statutory duty. I cannot think of any other way of dealing with the matter which would not either be disastrous to efficiency or cause hardship to someone. As so many noble Lords have said, one has sympathy with the farmworker who has no absolute right to his home.
The other problem which arises is that of the agricultural dwelling where the committee does not agree that possession by the farmer is essential to efficient farming. I am not quite certain, from reading the Bill, whether there is any appeal against this decision, but it could be said with certainty that the farmer who owns the cottage in question is convinced that it is necessary for efficient farming. If he were not, he would have sold it and spent the money in paying off his overdraft or in buying a new combine for £14,000 or so. So in his mind it is essential and I am not clear whether, if a small committee takes the view that it is not, there is any way out of that. However, the result will of course be that, if the farmer is not allowed possession, he will be subsidising the family of the worker in question for the remainder of his life, and very likely, for the life of his children. I say "subsidised" advisedly because we all know that a "fair rent" is a rent which is fair to the tenant but to no one else. In my experience the average gross return under the regulated rent system is somewhere between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent. and the net return is about 1½ per cent.; so that you are putting a fair burden on that 1154 farmer because had he realised the Committee in their wisdom were right and he did not need the cottage, he could have put it into gilt edged at 15 per cent. or paid off his overdraft and saved even more money. But those points, I believe, could be settled if my first suggestion commended itself, by forgetting the matter of whether the house is essential to efficient agriculture. It is not a matter that can be readily defined; and if a committee makes a mistake only time will show that it had done so by which stage it is far too late to remedy the error because you could have a statutorily tenanted resident who could under no circumstances be moved.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ The Marquess of SALISBURY
My Lords, may I first congratulate my noble friend Lord De La Warr on his splendid opening speech with us and express the hope already voiced that he will be taking a further part in our deliberations. Before I say anything more, I must declare an interest in the matter under discussion. I should like briefly to comment on the Bill. So much has been said that I do not propose to go into very much detail, but it seems to me, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Peart, said that he is employing a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It seems to me that practically everything covered by this Bill is already met under various other Acts and the remainder could be dealt with by comparatively small amendments. So we have an immensely complicated Bill dealing with something that could have been dealt with in a simple way. This is one of the criticisms of the Bill.
In considering dispossession, it is treating all cases as though they were similar. I should have thought that the main problem was in dealing with the retiring farm worker where the farmer has no alternative accommodation to offer him. We know that a number of local authorities allow pre-booking of this, as has been mentioned. If this was made mandatory under the Bill this would surely meet the vast proportion of the problems which this Bill claims to deal with.
Most of the others, so far as dispossession is concerned, are surely covered by, I think, the 1965 Act under which no one could be dispossessed without a court order which is supposed to give adequate 1155 protection. Indeed, if a man is dismissed he is covered both by that court order and also by the right of appeal to a tribunal and can claim damages for what he considers wrongful dismissal. So all things considered those two remedies which are open to him, cover most of the requirements dealt with by this immensely complex Bill. It also presupposes that the present situation will continue—and this may be true to the extent that it only deals with the fringe of both the housing problem and the problems of the farm—but, in fact, it seems to cut across the whole of the activities of the farming enterprise in various ways.
One that has not been dealt with is the case of an estate which owns a number of properties which are used for housing people working in the general sphere of agriculture. They involve a very substantial outlay of capital and, in my view, can only be justified if they provide either for efficient estate management or aid the farmer in carrying out his business of husbandry. Successive Acts—and this is one of a long range—are making it less and less attractive to hold these houses and their value is being eroded; so that, surely, what is going to happen is that they will no longer be held but will be sold to the highest bidder when they become vacant. They will be no longer available for use in the general sphere of agriculture. This must lead to a shortage and one wonders whether Her Majesty's Government have any plans for compensating for this when the matter arises.
There are a number of other factors which have been mentioned which all add up to making one wonder what really is the object of this Bill. One thing that little has been said about this evening is a matter of the animals themselves. Perhaps it is because, unlike some other people who have been more vocal, they are dumb and cannot state their case. It is up to us in the agricultural community to see that their interests are protected. Again I emphasise that what I am going to say is only affecting a small number of animals. So long as you have a regular stockman or herdsman their needs are attended to—and very well because these men are very dedicated to the animals they look after and we are all very indebted to them for the trouble they take. But if we continue with this 1156 Bill in its present form there will be a number of animals bound to suffer. As has been pointed out, it will not be possible to look after animals if the man responsible is living 10 or 15 miles away. He cannot be there at all hours of day or night and the suffering of the animals could be intense. If we make no provision to cope with this, we are condoning the damage and pain to the animals concerned. Is this really what your Lordships wish to do?
If one might cite one or two examples, there is the cow that has a difficult calving. It may be in the middle of the night. What happens? It needs help. If there is no one to do it, it will suffer until morning when perhaps the milking starts and the man comes on the spot. All that pain would have been eased possibly by providing a block and tackle to get away the calf. It may be that the calf is half born, with one leg sticking out for the whole night. Are these the things we wish to happen if they can be avoided? Some consideration ought to be given to the position of the animals on the farm. One would have thought that this would have been taken into account when the Bill was drafted; but as it has not been done, then I appeal, even at this late hour, to the Government to make some provision to look after these animals.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, my first duty is to have the very great pleasure of saying what a particular honour it has been to take part in a debate in which my noble friend Lord De La Warr has made his maiden speech. Many of your Lordships will have known his father well. I remember over the last 15 years his having spoken in debates in this House on a whole variety of subjects because, as your Lordships are only too well aware, in this House we cover a very full range of activities far beyond agriculture. His maiden speech, if I may be permitted to say so, was a model. It was brief, it had a whole range of very constructive proposals to offer to the Government; it was modest and, further, it was non-controversial. I wish that my maiden speech some years ago had been even one-tenth as good as his has been today.
It is also a very great pleasure, if I may say so from this side of the House, to 1157 welcome the noble Lord, Lord Peart, to the Dispatch Box opposite. Perhaps I may be allowed to say this: During an event which took place—a very great tragedy—almost ten years ago when the noble Lord, Lord Peart, was Minister of Agriculture, we acquired in the agricultural industry a very high regard for his handling of the situation arising from the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 1967–68. We may not have been with him on his visits to the stricken areas but we saw him on television. We knew him from Press reports and countless other interviews and recognised at once his high regard for the industry as a whole and, further, his deep concern for livestock and our flourishing British livestock industry. It is a pleasure to see him occupying the seat he occupies as Leader of the House and Lord Privy Seal, and as a worthy successor to the late Lord Williams of Barnburgh who used to occupy a special place of affection and respect in your Lordships' House.
I should also like to express gratitude to all those who have prepared the research which has been carried out on the documents we have before us. I take it that the noble Baroness, in replying, will address herself not only to the Consultative Document the Abolition of Tied Cottages in Agriculture, but the much wider issue of homelessness. The fact that this Bill is cast in a narrow context is one of its major defects. It has been pointed out by countless speakers from this side of the House that the Bill as drafted does not measure up to the major problem of rural housing in the United Kingdom today. I should like to name the institutes who have prepared research, the Tavistock Institute, the Grubb Institute, the Arthur Rank Centre and all the policy papers put forward by the National Farmers' Union, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers and the County Landowners' Association. These gave us food for thought both during and before the Summer Recess.
The fundamental aspect which we regret on this side of the House, as indeed do the Cross-Benches and those who have addressed attention to this subject with any great depth of study, is that the Government have failed in one substantial respect: they have failed to ruminate before legislating. In this matter we should, 1158 before doing anything else, think once again of the report prepared by Sir David Renton on the preparation of legislation. We are being offered instant legislation. I say that advisedly despite the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Collison, reminded your Lordships that this has been an issue since 1886. The issue concerns housing in the rural areas of the United Kingdom today. The research has been devoted to that end and no other. Therefore we must concern ourselves with the problem as it stands now without too many backward glances.
The two basic documents, Abolition of the Tied Cottage System in Agriculture and Homelessness, call to mind one substantial defect. If I may chide the noble Lord, Lord Peart, this relates to the preface. The noble Lord made a great error in jointly signing the preface with his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Crosland. He put his signature to the following statement:Thus we are consciously distinguishing agricultural from other tied housing. There is no other industry where the fact that unfurnished accommodation is provided by the employer/ landlord enters so extensively and so controversially into the relationship between employer and employee".Is that true or false in our experience? I leave your Lordships to judge.
I have an interest to declare: I am the owner of certain tied cottages but, speaking as we all do from our personal experience, I believe that that is not a fair statement. It is not a fair summary of the industry as a whole. Naturally, it would never have occurred to any of my noble friends to set their hand to such a statement. It is a great mistake when the Secretary of State and the Minister of Agriculture agree upon the particular point because I can see so clearly that the Secretary of State for the Environment has been more particularly concerned with the drafting of this Bill than has the Minister of Agriculture, who has been dragged into it.
Having said that, we must concern ourselves most closely with the consultation paper on Homelessness. The noble Baroness will remember a debate which we had on this subject on 25th June last year. It was on an Unstarred Question which her noble friend Lord Soper, had put down. We have debated this subject. It is in the context of the very much wider 1159 problem of homelessness that we must see the Bill as a whole. Only a few days ago the noble Baroness's right honourable friend the Secretary of State gave the following facts about the situation in the country as a whole:750,000 houses as a whole"—that includes every form of housing in public and private ownership both in agriculture and outside agriculture—are empty and surplus to requirements.Over 800,000 houses are unfit in that particular designation, which is applied to houses within the categories in the Department's knowledge. A further 1 million in the view of the Secretary of State are at the moment lacking basic amenities. This is one of the first national priorities to get right. It is a great mistake that the Government have settled on a very small factor within this major problem and have decided to legislate about it without regard to the other aspects.
We have had a long debate this afternoon and I feel that I shall not be adding to it if I quote in detail from particular speeches, but I must say this: my noble friend Lord Ferrers reflected exactly what we feel when he said that he had much natural sympathy with the aims of the Bill as a whole, but no sympathy whatever with the way in which it was drafted and brought before your Lordships' House. Once again the message is, ruminate before you legislate. I believe that we should refer to what was said in another place, just before the House rose on 20th July. For the Government Mr. Armstrong, the Member for Durham North West, said this at column 1744 of Hansard of another place:…the long-overdue recognition that farm workers have the same rights to security of tenure as those that most of us have enjoyed for many years—the separation of their rights to a home from their conditions of work—were spelt out in the Labour Party manifesto. We believe that they are in the best interests of our people and we are content to be judged by them.We are content to be judged by that as a fair statement, but when one looks at the policy document on research which has been laid before your Lordships, one sees what an enormous credibility gap there is.
In the Arthur Rank Centre statement Miss Moira Constable wrote this:5.3 per cent. of farm workers want tied cottages abolished and 83 per cent. felt that tied cottages had some advantages to them.1160 If the Member for Durham North-West feels he is content to be judged by the industry as a whole, those are the figures. If there are better figures which the noble Baroness can offer us, we shall naturally listen with enthusiasm.
I come now to the centre of the problem: the burden which the Bill lays on local authorities. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Swaythling. It is a meaningless phrase—"a perfect alibi" is the expression he used—and I endorse most warmly what he said with regard to the risk of disease, because once again the experience of the noble Lord the Leader of the House, Lord Peart, is particularly relevant. The noble Lord will remember that one of the key issues during the foot and mouth outbreak in that very dreadful winter was the risk of the spread of infection by human and animal means by persons or vehicles entering an unaffected area from an infected area. This is a major issue which should not be set aside, and I hope that the Government will open a copy of the Northumberland Report and refer to this particular problem.
A large number of my noble friends have concerned themselves with the issue as regards stockkeeping. One must remember that foot and mouth disease affects all hooved animals. This is a real, not a sham, issue. It is something which should be regarded with the greatest care and interest. Knowing full well that one of our greatest assets in the United Kingdom, as an island, is the fact that at the present time we are free of this disease is a particular attraction to stockbreeding in this country and the measure of its success in the world as a whole.
If I may I should like to refer to what the noble Lord, Lord Peart, said in regard to the Bill as a whole. He said it was not doctrinaire but practical. I think this is really where the House divides on the issue, because I believe it is the very reverse of practical. We believe that the complications of its implementation are such as to confuse and confound an industry already suffering from many problems. Perhaps I should say here that after our debate concludes this evening we shall be considering two very important agricultural matters in the European Communities. Those are matters which are so vital to the 1161 industry as a whole and which concern the industry within the context of Europe. How fortunate we are, once again, to have the noble Lord, Lord Peart, with us, whose patience in Brussels in negotiating the last Price Review gave the industry a considerable fillip during a period of deep anxiety.
I feel the weaknesses of the Bill are very considerable and I was far from happy when listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Collison. I do not wish to cross swords with him across the Chamber, but I feel that his attitude towards the views expressed from this side of the House was far from helpful. I think he said this—and I quote:Good trade unionism means thinking further than your own sectional interest.May I say that to him, in the nicest possible way, from this side of the House as well! A much broader view is required, and in my opening remarks I attempted to set the matter in the context of housing as a whole.
The question of mobility has worried many speakers. It worried my noble friend Lord Onslow and many others, and the question of promotion prospects within the industry as a whole will almost certainly be affected. Here the fact that the Government have drawn up a very rigid system has caused great anxiety to younger members within the farming community. We had the views of young farmers concerning the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, and I think they have every right to express their views most forcefully. We shall certainly listen with keen interest from this side of the House to what they have to say on the issue of promotion prospects within the industry as a whole.
The question of safeguards for farmers was raised by my noble friend Lord Caithness. He maintained it was wrong to legislate and that what was being done would incresae the worries of an already much divided and concerned industry at the present time. I believe that industry is not divided within itself. I believe that both the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the National Farmers' Union, if given a lead from Her Majesty's Government, setting the problem of tied housing in the right context and given a longer 1162 time scale, can and will work out a far more satisfactory solution. My noble friend Lord Caithness said this—and I should like to thank him particularly for bringing this point to your Lordships' attention:The Government only permitted a very small amount of time for replies to come in on the Consultative Document.This is absolutely critical. If we are to continue more of this research we must have time to ruminate.
I believe that the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Janner, who has now left us, is not one with which many noble Lords would agree, because he was speaking from the point of view of legislating for the exception. We understand this, because he is a lawyer; but surely the very worst thing that could be done to this industry, or to any other industry in the country, is to legislate for exceptions alone. I believe that one of the most important and worrying aspects of this matter is the fact that at the present moment there are, according to our researched figure—and I will willingly give way to any others that are produced but this is the one we have in front of us and which was mentioned, I believe, by the noble Lord, Lord Peart—12,000 empty tied cottages. That is a reflection of a real concern within the industry of what is going to happen.
My noble friend Lady Sharples put her finger on it very well by asking how was she to prepare for a situation where a worker left her employ and how could she rehouse a replacement. It is simply fantastic that a capital asset, worth in all probability between £10,000 and £12,000, must be maintained by the farming community in anticipation of some very one-sided legislation. On a number of farms, if not every farm, a number of tied cottages will have to be kept empty because of the possibility of such an occurrence. This is something which will concern your Lordships when we come to the Committee stage. I believe this is such a deep subject that the Government would be very well advised to say at this stage: "We entirely agree with the speakers in the House today. The moment has come to take a pace backwards, to think about the situation as a whole, and to withdraw the Bill for further consideration."
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY of STATE, DEPARTMENT of the ENVIRONMENT (Baroness Birk)
My Lords, I find myself in an odd position tonight, because in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, on his delightful maiden speech, I almost feel I am making one myself, because I can honestly say I have never made a speech before in this House connected with agriculture. It has been a fascinating and interesting, though, if I may say so, a rather rum debate. First, there was what I felt was a rather downbeat and depressing feeling about it all, except for the speech of my noble friend the Leader of the House and some noble friends behind me, together with the noble Lord, Lord Wise. I began to remember the quotation from Macbeth, when the porter heard the knock on the door and then said:Here's a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty".That is how I feel.
§ Baroness BIRK
That is the quotation which has most relevance to the debate tonight. The others may be relevant to debates later on. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, made a very good speech entirely on the wrong side. At the beginning, I felt that with a little urging he might have come down on the side of right and justice.
He was obviously concerned about his historic roots, and about the distress that has arisen and continues to arise in this area. But he, with everybody else, having paid a certain amount of what I do not want to call lip service, because it went far deeper than that, did not come up with any alternative. I feel that we are facing a number of people who, in their own right, are good farmers and are therefore judging the rest of the farming community and the industry by themselves.
When the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, said that we should take back the Bill and ruminate on it, he was—I hope he will forgive me for saying this, but I mean it in the nicest possible way—talking a hell of a lot of nonsense.
§ Baroness BIRK
No, my Lords. I shall not give way at the moment, because I have something else to say about the noble Lord. In the last two years, nine reports and surveys have appeared. In fact, there has sometimes been so much talk and consultation that I sometimes feel that one of the dangers of government by any Party is the amount of consultation and talk that takes place when, after a certain point in time, one needs decisions. We know very well that this Bill has been ruminated on and germinated over the last 70 years. The fact that conditions have improved does not in my view, and in the view of my noble friend and friends in the Government, alter the basic principle of the Bill.
If I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, again in the nicest possible way, I do not think he did his cause much good when he attacked my noble friend Lord Collison, who really knows his stuff from the workers' side, which is what we are talking about. If all farmers were like the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, and were able to keep their cottages in the proper way there might be something to be said for continuing the system. I say "something", because there is still the basic principle which we are dealing with tonight, and from which we cannot escape, that it is wrong that the questions of employment and a roof over one's head should be inextricably bound up. This is what it is all about.
§ The Earl of ONSLOW
My Lords, if the noble Baroness says that the whole question of employment should not be inextricably bound up with a roof over one's head, why is it that she is legislating only for agriculture and not for all the other industries?
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, if the noble Earl w ill be a little patient, I will get on to that point. I am dealing with the Bill that is in front of us tonight, and I am answering on that. But the fact that, as I accept and know, there are very good relationships between farm workers and farmers and that in many cases the system works perfectly well, does not alter the fact that it is a bad basis on which to run an employment 1165 relationship, and on which people should have to rely for a roof over their heads. Although my noble friend Lord Collison was talking of conditions many years ago, the shadow of losing one's home, particularly if one has a wife and, perhaps, many children, can still play its part.
Further, I would say that we have to look to the future. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, mentioned young farmers, but there are also young farmworkers. We do not want to see a decrease in the number of young skilled people who come into farming and train for it, but who are unlikely to accept an archaic system which is based on a philosophy of dependence. They do not want this. The older farmworker may be used to it, but it is not something that will attract young people into the industry, and the more skilled and technical the industry becomes, the more important it is that we attract young people into it.
The question of the 1,200 workers and their families facing court proceedings has been rather brusquely brushed aside. I think that the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, put his finger on it, when he said that it is an event which turns out to be a non-event. At the end of the day, that may be true factually, but what is important is the fact that there is a shadow over a man and his family; the fact that one is always on the brink of a precipice where something could go wrong. We have heard a lot about good farmers, but it is wrong to rest one's case on them. If a good farmer dies, sells up or retires the whole situation can change with tremendous effect upon a worker's security. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and others, have talked about collusion. I agree that it is not something which one wants to see in a difficult housing situation, but attached to that there is the fact that a number of people on both sides certainly do not want to go through that process.
I can understand why, particularly in this House, departing from deeply rooted tradition causes such articulate anxiety. But I believe that misconceptions and a reluctance to change are the parents of many fears. A sentimental attachment to the past is not a recipe for modern agriculture. We simply must be realistic. The Bill does not mean the ruin of British farming—
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, does the noble Baroness really believe that this Bill is a recipe for modern agriculture?
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, it is certainly a recipe on which to base a better relationship within the agriculture industry. Furthermore, my noble friend the Leader of the House, who was until recently Minister of Agriculture, would certainly not have gone along with any Bill which he felt was against the interests of British agriculture.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, if the noble Earl will give me a chance, I will deal with that point when I arrive at the right place, when I want to deal with it. We recognise, with farmers, that some cottages are needed for particular workers if farms are to be run properly. From a lot of what has been said this afternoon—and I have listened to practically every contribution that has been made—one would get the impression that there was no provision in the Bill for the demand that there should be housing on the spot in the interests of the efficiency of agriculture. Obviously, the degrees of urgency differ, but this must include the dairy farmer seeking to replace a cowman, which is just the kind of case we would normally expect to come within these provisions and to be dealt with as speedily as possible. I think that both the noble Lord, Lord Monk Bretton, and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, drew attention to this point. There is nothing in this Bill which will stop husbandry going on in exactly the same way.
Some noble Lords said that the two years' qualification would encourage people to go into agriculture in order to get a house. This seems to me to go into the realms of fantasy. Working in agriculture is not a very easy pen-pushing job. If you have to do that in order to get a house, frankly I reckon that if you do a good job you are probably entitled to it at the end of two years, but I cannot see that that is something which is likely to happen.
If I may turn to the question of the requirements to be met by the new duty—and I emphasise that it is a duty placed upon local authorities—this is the first time 1167 that in an Act of Parliament, as I hope it will be, a statutory duty has been put upon local authorities to rehouse any group. It is put upon them to rehouse outgoing workers where the farmer genuinely needs the cottage. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, raised the question of "best endeavours". No doubt we shall deal with this point in even more detail during the Committee stage. It is natural that farmers should press for an absolute obligation, but again this would entail farmworkers automatically heading the local authority housing queues.
Local authorities have been very co-operative, but as a one-time member of a local authority housing committee I must say that in the last resort the elected local representatives must be the arbiters of the housing claims. They will take account—and even more so now that this is included in the Bill—of the claims of farmworkers. The Bill ensures that in every case agricultural needs can receive expert consideration through the ADHACs so that they get the right priority. This seems to me to be as far as one can go. At the present time farmers who want a cottage for an incoming worker normally have to reckon upon a delay of six months before they can regain possession. Probably it was not meant, but the impression that was certainly given was that under the present system a farmer could obtain possession either voluntarily or by a court order within a matter of days or hours but that under the Bill the delays would be enormous. It will possibly work out that the situation will be the reverse because at the moment, as we are all aware, local authorities who are usually in such a difficult position so far as housing is concerned, will say to the farmer that they cannot offer anything until the person is homeless. Under the Bill there is the possibility to plan ahead so that the farmer can go to a local authority and say, "So-and-so will be retiring within a year". Therefore there is more opportunity to look at this problem in a planned and proper way without both the difficulty and the horrible indignity and all the other things which result from the collusion which has been mentioned by so many noble Lords.
Secondly, local housing authorities now cope with rehousing considerable numbers of farmworkers and ex-workers, so there 1168 is no reason to suppose that the Bill will lead to more cases of farmers seeking possession. Also there is nothing in the Bill to stop the considerate, responsible farmer who is able to do so from continuing to house the retired workers or the widows of his workers. The more extreme fears about the future for farming jump to the unwarranted conclusion that the Bill necessarily increases the problems. It does not.
So far as resources are concerned, a question that was raised by several noble Lords, it may be that some local authorities will feel that they need to build new council houses in order to meet their obligations under the Bill. Naturally there has been concern—the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, and others have reflected it—about being able to do so because of the controls which at present affect their housing programmes, But by no means will all the housing investment funds be used up on new housebuilding in the stress areas where there will be some priority and funds will be available for new housebuilding. As my noble friend pointed out, the Minister for Housing has said specifically that allowance will be made in the housing programme for these cases.
It has been put forward both here and elsewhere that a rigid time limit should be given to local authorities. First, the Association of District Councils, who will be the local authorities most concerned with the housing side of the matter, are absolutely against this—and quite rightly. They must be allowed flexibility. In any case, if a time is given and they could rehouse within a shorter period, it may well be that that time will become the minimum rather than the maximum. A decision taken by any other body, such as the agricultural advisory committee, would be quite wrong because it is there to advise; then it is for the local authority to decide within the possibilities that it has.
We ought to give the legislation a chance to work and then take a look at what is happening. To be so alarmist in advance and so certain, as many noble Lords appear to be, that nothing is going to work seems to me to be not only wrong but quite illogical without giving something a chance which has every prospect of being very much better than the present situation.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, I am going to turn to Scotland, so perhaps the noble Earl will allow me to finish this point.
My Lords, if the noble Baroness is leaving that point, perhaps she will allow me to ask her a question upon it. Could the noble Baroness explain how the local authorities can take on the increased responsibilities which the Bill gives to them when their resources are going to be decreased?
§ Baroness BIRK
First, my Lords, in some areas those resources will not be decreased. Secondly, it is a question of local authority planning and allocation of resources. In the past the local authorities will have had to take on people who came to them as a result of possession orders or evictions. Now they will be able to plan, and in some areas they will receive more help. The other point is that when the advisory committees look at this matter they will take into consideration any other empty cottages or houses on the farmer's land which nobody at the moment takes into consideration.
To turn to Scotland, and to deal with it quickly because I am well aware that we have a lot of business tonight and that my Chief Whip is sitting behind me, the pledge to end the agricultural tied cottage system applies to Scotland but the timing of the legislation is, in the first instance, a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland who has to take into account the relatively recent reorganisation of local government there. Nevertheless the commitment remains. Having said that, at this stage I am not going to delve into Scottish waters and it would be quite wrong for me to do so.
§ The Earl of ONSLOW
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would give way once again? I apologise for taking up her time. Is the noble Baroness saying that it is in no way connected with the views of the Agricultural Workers Union in Scotland that she is not introducing this measure for Scotland and that what they say is totally irrelevant, in the same way as what was said in England is totally irrelevant?
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, I do not intend to comment on anybody's views in Scotland because I am replying to the moving of the Second Reading of a Bill which is concerned with England and Wales. Turning to the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and my noble friend Lady Phillips—why deal with agriculture on its own?—it is quite true that tied accommodation exists in a wide variety of sectors. There is no intention to penalise farmers, but the Bill deals deliberately with agricultural tied housing because this is where the controversy has concentrated and where it has continued. Last summer the General Council of the TUC endorsed legislation specifically related to agriculture and it was accepted unanimously that it warranted priority.
As has been advised by my noble friends, let us go ahead with the Bill. Then there will be time to study and get detailed advice from Ministers and the industries concerned in each of the other categories about what action, if any, is required. Had we delayed the Bill while examining the other sectors, the redress promised to farmworkers would have been unacceptably delayed, and it has been delayed quite long enough. So far as the questions on forestry are concerned, I have nothing to add to what was said by my noble friend Lord Peart when he moved the Second Reading.
In conclusion, I would say only that reforms are always greeted with dismay, dispair and distrust by numbers of people and that it would be surprising if there were not a very conservative—with a small as well as a large "c"—reaction today to this measure. Everybody has talked at some point about farmworkers' needs and desires and about the bad old days, but noble Lords have been very reluctant, except for my noble friends and the noble Lord, Lord Wise, to get to the heart of the matter and to be prepared to support a measure that is designed to deal with this problem.
We have heard a great deal about the farmers and the agriculture industry but not enough about the farmworkers, who have rights, too. They have a right to security, a right to freedom from fear implicit in a situation where employment and housing are bound together; a right to dignity, as my noble friend so 1171 rightly puts it. A healthy agriculture should not depend on rotten roots and I commend this long overdue humane reform to the House.
§ Lord SWAYTHLING
My Lords, before the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, sits down, I should like to ask whether she is in a position to answer my question about what happens in the advisory committee when the members are not all present. This is the first time I have ever heard that a quorum is the whole committee. If somebody is ill or cannot be there, or even does not want to be there, which the noble Lord, Lord Collison, objected to, the whole thing cannot function and it means a long delay.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, I think this is a very small point but I will look into it and will write to the noble Lord.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.