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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the herd in "The Archers" has a problem with TB again? He could spend a bit of the Recess helping them to sort it out. He cannot possibly be aware, so I shall tell him, that he has enabled me to half-win a bet. I suggested to a friend that I would try to get a reference to "The Archers" into our debate on Section 28, given that it is also a current issue in "The Archers". I bottled out, but he has enabled me to get "The Archers" into Hansard tonight.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am not going to join in the talk about "The Archers"; I have enough trouble with the amendments. I recognise that the Minister has given virtually the same response as we received in Committee, with which the Country Landowners' Association and others were not happy. I shall have to make sure that they see the Minister's response as he promised. We shall try to ensure by Third Reading, if necessary and if there is still concern, that I come back on the issue, but not, I hope, with exactly the same wording and detail. I thank the Minister, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am delighted to be in the House tonight to participate in the debate. Amendment No. 59F is grouped with the amendment. I listened carefully to the Minister's remarks about my noble friend's earlier amendment. I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 59E and 59F together. The amendment would establish a better definition for those who have farm network attractions on their property. The amendment is slightly different from the other amendments. I know that the wording is inadequate, but I was seeking a dialogue with the Minister about the concerns of some of the people who are in the farm attractions network business. I declare an interest as a patron of their group.
The law is sometimes interpreted in one way by one local authority and in a different way by a subsequent local authority. The amendment would bring some clarity to the law. Although the Minister has said that the issue is a matter for Defra and should be addressed by his noble friend, it is relevant in this context, because farmers are being asked to diversify. The amendment of my noble friend dealt specifically with the question of food, but some farm network attractions also have food premises. They may run visitor-centre cafes or restaurants on an informal basis. However, their difficulty is that when they apply for rate relief, some local authorities deal with them in one way and some in another. I have tried to think of words that could be added to the Bill. Quite a few farms have diversified. For example, about three years
I know that the Government are keen to encourage diversification and that is why I am moving the amendment. I have used the words "mainly to add value to". I am seeking some form of kick-start for those farmers, rather than an ongoing commitment. Will the Minister clarify whether, in the Acts as they stand, exceeding a certain value determines whether they qualify or whether it is a question of turnover? I can offer him two examples of different local authorities interpreting the law differently. My wording is clumsy, but I hope that the Minister will accept that I have tried to raise a very important issue.
If the main income of a 150-acre farm, for example, has been from land produce, and the farm has diversified to become a visitor centre, the visitor centre, in some ways, now earns more than the crops grown on the farm. Some authorities are judging the farm as a whole and that is the reason for my first amendment. The phrase "mainly to add value to" will perhaps help distinguish the farm from the shop. The shop may be selling produce from that farm or, because the farm is being encouraged to act as a co-operative, there may be others who are using the farm as a base. I know that it is a grey area. I will be happy if the Minister goes away to think about it. I am not pressing him tonight.
I understand that the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Act 2001, which followed the foot-and-mouth outbreakand I am grateful to the Government for bringing that forwardwill last for only a six-year period. The Minister will perhaps correct me if I am wrong. I understood that rating relief was given to farms and their businesses that fell within the parameters of the instructions laid down, but that it was not a long-term measure. At the end of the six-year period, which will be 2006, they will be not entitled to that kind of financial help. That is why I am putting the proposal forward.
My Amendment No. 59F is an inadequate way of defining what is small or acceptable. What size of land or business does the Minister believe would entitle people to help? It was difficult to put forward a figure, but I would be grateful for clarification. Under the present rating system, is help limited to the hectare or acreage, or to the size of the operation? Having looked back at the Acts, I cannot define it. I have tabled the amendment to try to bring an important issue to the notice of the House. It is intended to help those who are diversifying, something the Government are encouraging. I beg to move.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, before responding to the amendment, I want to reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, just in case her lobbyists look at Hansard and say, "Hang on a minute, something is not right here". I did not respond to Amendment No. 59C
I did not intend to be discourteousit was just the way in which the amendments were listed. Of course, Amendment No. 59C was not moved and before we knew it the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was in the Chamberhaving missed the previous debate, I might add, because I regret to say that I must now repeat myself.
Amendment No. 59E seeks to extend the rating exemption for agricultural buildings to any building which is used "mainly to add value to" agricultural operations carried on that or any other agricultural land, provided that it is occupied together with agricultural land. Amendment No. 59F attempts to extend the rating exemption for agricultural buildings to any buildings used mainly in connection with agriculture, provided that they are under 250 cubic metres.
The intention of Clause 68 is to amend the rating legislation to reflect modern farming practices and also to ensure that the exemption from rates is properly targeted in relation to the ancillary activities such as food processing and packaging operations where occupiers of related agricultural land control the company.
The noble Baroness mentioned co-operatives. During the brief time I was at MAFFa couple of yearsI understood that English farmers compared with our partners in continental Europe are notorious for failing to work in a co-operative way. They do not work in the same way as French, German and Spanish farmers in co-operatives. That point has always been made and I freely admit that there is no easy solution to that.
Amendments Nos. 59E and 59F are designed to give an advantage to farmers. However, the noble Baroness must accept that that advantage is over other local businesses. That is axiomatic. It naturally follows that if they have rate relief on all the premises connected with their main agricultural operations, provided that the premises are small, that could be perceived to be unfair. The first amendment does not place a restriction on size, but if the second amendment were to be accepted, a farmer occupying a shop in a village under 250 cubic metres would not have to pay rates on the property. That would put him at a competitive advantage and would be detrimental to other local shops. Those shops could be similarly affected as part of the community during problems experienced by the farming industry, such as during the foot and mouth crisis and so on.
For some time the Government have tried to encourage farmers to diversify. With regard to the point referred to by the noble Baroness, on 15th August 2001 we introduced a rate relief scheme designed to help farmers to diversify into non-agricultural activities by partly offsetting their rate bills for an initial period of up to five years.
As I said in the previous debate, the relief is available to new enterprises on farms and is aimed at small-scale businesses. As such, it gives properties 50 per cent rate relief, provided the rateable value is £6,000 or less and provided the premises were in agricultural use for at least 183 days in the year prior to 15th August 2001. Local authorities have the power to top that up to 100 per cent if they consider it to be in the interests of their council tax payers. I do not know who does and does not do that, but that is up to local authorities.
As the noble Baroness said, the overall relief is time limited and will be available until 14th August 2006. I do not know the detail of the legislation but there is provision for the date to be extended at that time if there is perceived to be a need. Therefore, while there is an end date, that date can be extended. We believe that that gives aid to farmers. It does not give them everything that everyone wishes, but it certainly makes a contribution to farmers who wish to diversify without causing other local businesses to be disadvantaged.
I freely admit that it is extremely difficult to draw up a scheme specific to farmers and agricultural land that, if they are to diversify and add to the value of the work on their farms, does not in some way affect other local businesses. But I certainly hope that farmers will take the maximum possible advantage of everything that is going for them.
I realise that there are rules to follow and I am well aware of the burden that sometimes exists. But I know that Defra and other departments are trying to reduce that burden. It is not our intention simply to place burdens on businesses, whether they are run by farmers or anyone else. But I would certainly encourage people to use every possible avenue that is available. It is only by doing so that a case can ever be made for either extending or renewing a scheme.
That point was raised earlier in the debate on sports clubs and charities. A facility, put in place in finance legislation by the Chancellor, is already available, but clubs are not taking advantage of it at anything like the rate that we expected. It benefits a person's case if he can say why he is not doing that. In this case, I would encourage farmers to take maximum advantage of the available rules. Only in that way can a case be made for extending schemes if that is considered appropriate in due course.
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