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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I will investigate the insurance information that the noble Lord seeks and I will place a reply in the Library.

4.19 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I should like to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure—I suggest for 10 minutes.

Noble Lords: Why?

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Baroness—and perhaps while I am speaking she can take instruction—what is the reason. There does not seem to be a case for adjourning for any purpose whatever. I assume that we are to continue with the Government's agricultural Bill. Why cannot that be

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done forthwith? There seems to me to be no case for an adjournment—unless someone would like to explain what that case is.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we have here my noble friend who is to move the amendment; we do not need Ministers.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, perhaps I may very briefly reply to the noble Lord, whose interventions I always welcome, on the subject of the agriculture Bill. We have just taken a Statement and I of course welcome any intervention that the noble Lord would like to make in my particular remarks. We have taken a very important Statement on the Channel Tunnel security measures, and we will shortly be proceeding to the—I give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I wonder whether the Government would like to comment on the fact that at the start of business today we were advised that a Statement would be made "at a convenient moment" after 3.30. My understanding of that phrase is that it is at the convenience of the House that the Statement is made. The Front Benches and Members of the House have had to consider some amendments to the Agricultural Tenancies Bill which we probably had not expected to debate so early because we had the Statement at four o'clock rather than shortly after 3.30 p.m.

I wonder whether the Government could respond to the criticisms that I am sure Members of your Lordships' House will have about not only the delay in receiving the Statement but also—dare I say it?—the tardiness in resuming at the end of the Statement the business which the Government placed before the House.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the convenience of the House of course is of the utmost priority at all times. I regret to advise Members of the House that proceedings have been totally out of order because no Motion has been put. Therefore, we shall not move the proposed Motion.

Agricultural Tenancies Bill [H.L.]

4.20 p.m.

Proceedings after Third Reading resumed.

Clause 34 [Service of notices]:

Lord Gallacher moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 16, line 6, leave out from ("by") to end of line 7 and insert ("prepaid post").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment has a familiar ring to it. Indeed, I have moved this amendment and variations of it at different stages of the Bill, so that I now feel a certain empathy with Postman Pat.

Nevertheless, this is a matter of some importance which we debated on Report. Largely as a follow up to the Report stage, we thought it appropriate to table an amendment on this matter today. We are concerned

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about the manner in which documents under the Act are to be served and in particular the evidence of proof of serving such documents.

Briefly, Amendment No. 7 has been retabled to ask whether the noble Earl has concluded the consultations with industry that he described on Report (Official Report, 23/1/95; cols. 920-921) and whether he can yet tell the House what Her Majesty's Government are likely to do about the service of documents when the Bill comes before another place. May I take it from him that discussions and consultations are still progressing and that those discussions and consultations have as their objective the tabling of an amendment in the Government's name to this particular part of the Bill, in order that the matters which we have raised consistently during debates on the Bill in this House can be fully dealt with in a satisfactory manner when the Bill reaches another place? In that spirit I beg to move.

Earl Howe: My Lords, it is for me to apologise to the House for the inconvenience caused by my absence from the Front Bench. I do so in the hope that I may be forgiven and in the expectation that it will not happen again. Nevertheless, I regret any inconvenience caused to your Lordships.

When we debated a similar amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, last week, I explained that if service by ordinary prepaid post was authorised by the Bill and then a dispute arose on whether a notice had been served, the onus would be on the recipient to prove that he had not received it. That would place someone who genuinely had not received the document in a very difficult position.

The noble Lord wonders whether I can add anything to what I said last week on that point. I can assure your Lordships that we are working on an amendment to Clause 34 to clarify the rules regarding the giving of notices. However, this is a complex area on which we shall want to consult the experts in the field before proceeding with changes to the Bill. At present we await comments from industry representatives. Once we have settled on some satisfactory wording, the intention is to introduce an amendment in another place. In the light of that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Gallacher: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for what he said and for his assurance about the introduction of a suitable amendment in another place. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 8:

After Clause 34, insert the following new clause:

("Agricultural Holdings Act 1986: Review of rent

. Paragraph 4(2) of Schedule 2 to the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 shall be amended to add at the end—
"(d) Without prejudice to the particularity of the foregoing, any increase or reduction of rent other than one consequent upon a comprehensive review of the rent payable by reference to current economic circumstances.".").

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, with this amendment we return to a point raised on Report. Noble Lords will notice that the amendments that we tabled are intended to follow up the Report stage, when the Minister indicated that he was prepared either to reconsider the matter or to come forward with his own amendment.

I felt that this point was important to bring forward. It is technical and relates to an apparent anomaly in the 1986 Act. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the circumstances in which a reduction of rent is agreed, which was not intended to result in resetting the three-year time limit for rent review and which does not fall within the present exceptions, do not—as they presently would—reset the time limit for rent reviews. As I said, it is a technical point. We have discussed it before with the Minister.

I brought back the amendment because I was surprised when I came to read Hansard and took in its import. The Minister said:

    "As I have just made clear, we do not wish to make retrospective changes, however meritorious a case could be made for those changes".—[Official Report, 23/1/95; col. 923.]

That seems to be an extraordinary attitude to a technical amendment to remedy a weakness in the 1986 Act. We do not often have a major Agricultural Tenancies Bill. There is a chance with this Bill—the Long Title is suitably drawn—to take the opportunity to put right such technical matters. It is not a point of great principle or a political point.

The Minister said that the departmental doctrine, whether through inertia or for other reasons, was that however excellent a case is made for a change, it has to be resisted just because it is a change in the 1986 Act. That seems to me unreasonable. The Bill gives us a chance to put right technical points, which are important for practitioners who are trying to use the 1986 Act. It is worth repeating that many tenants will be subject to the 1986 Act for a long time. In fact the majority of tenancies will be 1986 Act tenancies for a long time. We have a chance to use the Bill to put right a technical flaw in the previous Act of Parliament, but the Minister resists it, not on grounds of the merits of the case but simply because he does not wish to look backwards. That is not the best way to use the opportunity afforded by the Bill. I hope that the Minister has had time to reflect and will change his mind. I beg to move.

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord warned us at Report stage that he would want to return to his proposed amendment to the rent provisions contained in the 1986 Act. I am sure that the noble Lord will have read in full the Hansard record of my remarks last week (cols. 922 and 923). I explained that no doubt the amendment was well intentioned. But I took care to avoid commenting on whether there was a technical deficiency in the rent provisions. Certainly, I did not accept that there was an obvious anomaly (as he then described it).

The noble Lord inferred from my remarks that the Act was bad law but that the Government would not change it. No doubt the noble Lord has received advice from the leading practitioner to whom he referred at

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Report stage. However, apart from the representations made to the noble Lord, I am not aware of any real concern in the industry at large that the paragraph in question is in need of amendment.

During the consultations over the past four years on tenancy reform, I have been asked by many people to address all kinds of matters dealt with in the 1986 Act. This is not one of them. As the noble Lord will know, many parties agree not to trigger statutory rent reviews at present but settle changes in rent without reference to arbitration. They are perfectly entitled to do so. A great deal of time and trouble is thereby spared, although the party who most wants the rent review will usually make sure that statutory notice is given, to ensure that arbitration will be there as a fall back.

I remain unpersuaded that there is a serious problem. The noble Lord said that there was not a point of great principle at stake, and I agree with that. Even if I were to agree with the noble Lord—which I do not—that there was a significant flaw which could in theory be corrected, I am not satisfied that the noble Lord's amendment would necessarily improve matters. I suggest to the noble Lord that the wording of the amendment could give rise to disputes about what should be disregarded for working out the statutory three-yearly rent review cycle in respect of a specific holding. There is no requirement that rent increases or decreases agreed at a rent review should be based on current economic circumstances. I could envisage much scope for litigation on whether or not a specific rent increase had been based on a comprehensive review. Nor does the amendment deal with cases where parties themselves agree (in writing or otherwise), when a rent review falls due, that the rent for the holding should continue unchanged.

The final point that I should like to make will be a familiar one. I am particularly concerned that the noble Lord's amendment would have an impact on existing tenancies. One cannot say with certainty that the consequences would tend to work more often to the advantage of landlords or of tenants, but one effect would be clear: it would undermine the industry's confidence that any holdings legislation would be free from the risk of subsequent retrospective amendment. That is why the Government—with the industry's support—stand by their commitment not to amend substantively the existing holdings legislation.

I am sorry that for those reasons I cannot even offer to come forward with our own wording for a government amendment. I am afraid I can only invite the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to reflect on what I have said, and to withdraw his amendment.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, that answer was not wholly unexpected. The Minister refused to comment on the merits of the amendment at Report stage. He began his reply today by saying that he was refusing to comment, and then he proceeded to comment and tell me what was wrong with it.

We have made the point. The fact that nobody referred to it during the past three or four years does not mean that it is not a good point. I am pleased that we

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found a new point that the industry group somehow missed in its comprehensive review. I did not feel that the issue concerned arbitration. I understood it to be related to the setting of the time clock on the rent reviews. The comment in relation to retrospective legislation is a thin one. I have been involved with a number of Bills in this House concerning agriculture, social security and health. It is always the case, if the Long Title allows and there is an anomaly in a previous Act, that the opportunity is taken to put it right. I do not believe therefore that that is a major argument against the amendment.

It is clear that we are not going to change the mind of the Government. But I am glad to have brought to the attention of the House this extraordinary new doctrine that, even when there are merits in a proposed change, the Government will refuse to acknowledge them because of the doctrine they adopt of not looking back at previous Acts of Parliament which, though they were thought to be perfectly drafted at the time, are often found to contain anomalies. This was a chance to put a small anomaly right. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 36 [Interpretation]:

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