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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I am pinch-hitting today for my noble friend Lord Mackie who is unavoidably away on parliamentary duties in Paris, which I slightly regret but I bet he does not. And I feel that to a certain extent speaking on this Bill is where I came in, for my father was quite a large landowner--applying the adjective to both nouns--and I well remember growing up during the war when there was a great deal of discussion about tenants. For instance, how satisfactory the good ones were; how one got rid of unsatisfactory ones, and how to take farms in hand when one wished to farm one's own land--a prospect which had suddenly become attractive as opposed to 10 years before in the 1930s and as opposed, to a certain extent, to today.
It is in that context that I wish to extend a warm welcome to the noble Earl, Lord Yarborough, in his maiden speech. His grandfather and my father were close friends towards the latter parts of their lives and blood from the Brocklesby hounds ran strongly in the pack which my father bred in Kildare.
When I read agriculture at Oxford, most of those taking an agricultural degree intended to farm, if they possibly could --this was the period immediately after the war--the land owned by their fathers and were faced with various problems as a result.
There has always been a power struggle between landlords and tenants. In spite of my background, my sympathies have always been on the side of the tenants because, unlike the Thatcherite farmer featured so prominently in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph, I recognise a lot of truth in the aphorism that "property is theft". I believe that landowners themselves are merely tenants, a truth which the best of them would acknowledge. But I am delighted that we have reached a point where we have a Bill which is agreed by most of the major interested parties. I know that there is some opposition, and I look forward to hearing of the improvements which the Labour Party will put forward during the course of the Bill and in the Committee stage of which we shall play our full part. I look forward also to hearing about the attitude of the Welsh farmers' union, about which my noble friend Lord Geraint--who is considerably more qualified than I to speak on this matter--will have something to say when he winds up.
The second advantage which I underline is that with free bargaining there is greater opportunity to load tenancies with various ecological and environmental conditions if both sides desire them--and it is to be hoped and expected that increasingly both sides will. It is true that the Bill throws into high relief the need for certain tax reforms to make the tenancy and farming of occupational country more equitable for all concerned. But I have no doubt that the attention of the Chancellor will continue to be drawn to that problem.
Finally, it is an enormous and welcome change to receive in this House a largely popular and agreed measure piloted by the Government. If one could believe that one swallow made a summer and that this occasion heralds the end of the pattern of government Bills being both obnoxious and unworkable while all agreed measures are passed on to the Private Members' Bill circuit with all its drawbacks, we would be more than happy; we would be ecstatic!
The Earl of Yarborough: My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak here today on the Agricultural Tenancies Bill, not because I am any expert on agricultural tenancy law but because I was fortunate enough to inherit an estate in Lincolnshire where the majority of the land is tenanted. It is an arable estate and we are able to provide relatively large tenanted holdings of over 400 acres on average. We have always been fortunate in the tenants we have had. Many families have had successive generations on the same farm and they have formed the backbone of the estate.
I am very pleased that this measure is being presented and that it should benefit the rural economy. The farming industry is facing ever more rapid change and this Bill should create the flexibility necessary to adapt to those changes more effectively. Much has changed over the last 50 years, especially where I come from. Up until my great-grandfather's day, all employees had it written into their contracts that they were to attend church and, even more recently, all our tenants' leases had a clause stating that they should walk a hound puppy. My grandfather had particularly firm views on estate management and even God's wisdom was not safe from them. While reading the lesson in church one Christmas morning from Luke, chapter 2, he got to the bit where the shepherds left their flocks to go in search of the baby Jesus. At this point my grandfather stopped, looked up at the congregation and said "If they'd been my shepherds, I'd have sacked them!"
Since 1948 agricultural legislation has created a situation whereby the landowner cannot let out land for a reasonable length of time without giving his tenants lifetime security of tenure. Even in our instance of investment farming, where the land is good and a long tenure is desirable, we have found the present law too
In the past 12 years, the number of tenants on our estate has fallen by 20 per cent. That has happened for two main reasons. First, technological advances in farming have meant that farms have had to be amalgamated to provide a larger, more cost-effective acreage. These high-tech methods have resulted in the much lamented decline in the rural population but also in much greater efficiency. Most landlords have welcomed this efficiency but the social damage to life in the country has been terrible. I am sure everybody would be happy to see this trend in declining populations reversed or at least halted in some way. A decline in tenancy means a further decline in rural populations and representation. With each lease that is not renewed, not only does the potential tenant lose out but also all his potential employees. In our case, probably about 20 livelihoods have been lost by losing these tenancies.
The second reason for the decline in our tenant population is that we have opted to take land in hand in situations where neither lifetime leases nor very short-term agreements would be suitable. At present, the alternative to lifelong leases on arable land is limited to Gladstone v. Bower agreements--for over one year and under two--or a special dispensation from the Ministry of Agriculture for not more than five years. In some instances, these leases simply do not fit in with the circumstances. For example, a landlord may wish that his child should take on a farm in 10 to 15 years' time, but will be unable to arrange it so he will have no option but not to renew the lease. Even regardless of specific instances, these leases are too short for general farming purposes and leave the tenant no incentive to care for the land and buildings of his holding. By granting tenants statutory rights to compensation for improvements to their holdings, the Bill will safeguard their interests and enable them to farm responsibly on a shorter lease. If this clause can be drawn up in a way that will avoid tiresome and expensive arbitration and amending legislation, I think that the Bill can solve these problems.
Setting aside the important issue of fiscal incentive, the Bill has the widespread support of all the major farming organisations. It is a great step forward in the landlord/tenant relationship. It offers greater flexibility. It allows for diversification within the tenancy agreement. I am sure that it will give a great boost to the rural economy as a whole. Thank you.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I deem myself extremely fortunate to speak after the noble Earl, Lord Yarborough. I do not know how his ancestor got that dreadful reputation in the game of bridge, but clearly the noble Earl is better at speaking in your Lordships' House than playing bridge because he had a number of aces and kings in his hand. He made an excellent speech. He is a large landowner in Lincolnshire, which
I greatly welcome this Bill. It acknowledges, really for the first time, agriculture as a business. It treats farmers and tenant farmers for the first time as grown-ups, able to negotiate, with the help of professional advisers, proper agreements for their tenancies. From 40 years' experience as a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and as a farmer, I have seen the need for something of this kind, and I am delighted to see the Bill before your Lordships and likely to go on to the statute book.
There were, I believe, some people who feared--and perhaps there still are some who fear--that under this arrangement the only tenancies that will be granted are short-term tenancies. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' survey foretold that most of the tenancies would be five-year tenancies. I think, with due deference, that the noble Lord may have misread "five years or more". I have before me the statistics and I see that tenancies for between 10 and 15 years significantly exceed the tenancies that are prognosticated for the five-year period.
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