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Clause 4—(Extension Of Powers As To Drainage Schemes)

Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 2 March 1943

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I beg to move, in page 4, line 1, to leave out Sub-section (7).

Those associated with this Amendment have no desire to hamper or to restrict the Minister in the work he has undertaken. The Committee will agree that it is the duty of the Minister, in the national interest, to bring under cultivation or into economic use every possible acre of land. That is no easy task. In a public declaration just before the war, the Labour Party called attention to the very backward state of the industry and to the grave difficulties which had arisen through the inability of owner-occupiers to provide the capital to carry on efficiently. Land, said the statement, was often waterlogged, water supplies were inefficient and soil deteriorating, and there was widespread under-farming. Some may think that picture somewhat over-coloured, but Lord Portsmouth, in "The Times" on Friday, wrote:
"There are thousands of acres of alluvial land in my own county where water cannot flow off the land, as the river level during the crucial months is higher than that of the meadow drains leading back to the river."
Lord Portsmouth goes on to advocate catchment board control. This state of things should not continue. It is a duty which we owe to our seamen that every acre shall be brought under cultivation or under economic use. But the responsibility, I submit, with respect, is a national one. Clause 4, Sub-section (7), places part of the responsibility of financing these very necessary schemes on the catchment boards. The Committee will be aware that catchment boards, set up under the Land Drainage Act, 1930, have, broadly speaking, no funds of their own. They are precepting authorities. While, of course, it is true that the Minister may make loans to a catchment board, those loans have to be repaid at some stage or other. The position, as I see it, is this—I am sure the Committee will forgive me for saying that I have not yet mastered the technique of Parliamentary draftsmanship, and this Bill is somewhat difficult to understand. [An HON. MEMBER: "They all are."] That I shall probably learn as time goes on. As I understand the Bill, if the catchment board desires to make a grant towards an approved scheme, 50 per cent. of the cost of the approved scheme will be met from Government funds, and the balance recovered by the catchment board from the local authorities within the area of the catchment board.

We therefore have this very curious position. Agricultural land, as the Committee is aware, is de-rated as a result of the Local Government Act, 1929, and will not, when it is improved, make any contribution at all towards the local rates. Industrial undertakings are de-rated under the same Act up to 75 per cent. of the local rates and therefore—and I speak subject to correction—the cost of the contribution made by the catchment boards to these very necessary and desirable schemes will in the long run have to be met by the non-industrial undertakings and the ordinary ratepayers within the area of the catchment board. The agricultural industry perhaps has been sacrificed to an industrial economy, but I feel sure that the agricultural interest will not like and do not desire the cost of these schemes to be borne by ordinary working men and women out of local rates. But the Minister may say that so far as the cost is concerned, spread over a county and the county boroughs, the individual contribution of the local ratepayers would be very trivial. If that defence is put forward it will be something like the defence of the servant girl who speaking of her baby pleaded to be forgiven on the ground that it was only a very small one. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will see the justice of the case I am putting forward.

There is one further point. May I ask the Minister whether it is proposed to retain the limit of the product of a twopenny rate which is the limit of the precepting authority of the catchment board under the Land Drainage Act, 1930? If it is proposed to retain the limit, a catchment board, which has been efficient, has carried out its work properly and spent up to the limit of its twopenny rate, will be unable to make any contribution unless the Minister advances the money. There may be land within a catchment board area which requires attention and for which a draft scheme may be brought forward. Therefore if the Minister cannot agree at this stage to the deletion of the Clause from the Bill, will he agree at a later stage to take out the words to which I have called attention which give authority to a catchment board to make contributions out of their funds to a scheme, and accept the responsibility nationally for carrying out this very desirable work?

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture
(Mr. Tom Williams)

I ought, at the outset, to say to my hon. Friend the Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden) that we entirely agree with all his references to the necessity for draining the land of this country. It has been one of those things neglected on the part of our nation, and it has required a war almost to give it the necessary fillip. But the Amendment he now moves to delete Subsection (7) of Clause 4 is a very small matter, and I hope that I shall be able to satisfy him in two minutes that it is not nearly as large as perhaps he originally thought. This Sub-section is purely permissive. Only when a catchment board feel, with all their knowledge, that the scheme to which they make a grant is a scheme that will be of benefit to themselves would any grant be made.

This Sub-section and these schemes do not apply to reclamation schemes which are being carried out by the Minister, through his agents in all parts of the country. The Sub-section applies only to schemes which are carried out by the catchment boards themselves under Sec- tion 14 of the 1940 Act. Therefore, the only possible circumstances where a catchment board may wish to make a grant—and only they themselves can decide whether they shall make a grant or not—would be when they themselves have carried out a scheme and they feel that the work they have accomplished will have a beneficial effect upon their main river, or that it might save the catchment board money on any subsequent schemes; and even then it is only where the catchment board feel that they may make such a grant that any grant can be made. I can tell my hon. Friend and the Members of the Committee that the number of cases where a catchment board would make a grant to such a scheme would be very few indeed. So far we only have in mind two such cases, and my hon. Friend can take it from me that the catchment boards are so careful in disposing of their funds, collected rightly, as he suggests, in many cases from urban dwellers, that they will not unduly give away money collected from districts of that description. The fact that it is merely a permissive power means that it will be used very rarely indeed, and only when the catchment board feel that the work they have carried out will help their main river will such a grant be given. I hope that my hon. Friend will not press his Amendment. As to the question he put about the twopenny rate, there is no idea at the moment at all events of affecting the maximum of the twopenny rate which a catchment board can spend at present. In these circumstances, I hope that my hon. Friend will feel disposed not to press the Amendment.

I rather regret the somewhat apologetic tone of the right hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary. I hoped that he was going to rebut what the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden) had said. Why on earth should not the urban ratepayer pay towards the cost of producing food at the present time? This is now a beleaguered island, where every inch of ground is required for the cultivation of food, and, instead of using apologetic terms, should it not be said that the urban dweller as well as the rural dweller should contribute to the cost of producing food?

The Noble Lord should appreciate that it would hardly help catchment boards to exercise such generosity as they felt disposed to do if words such as he suggests were uttered by a person standing at this Box. The catchment boards are only responsible for dealing with the main channel. The areas referred to in this Sub-section are areas that may be remote from the main channels in the sense that the responsible persons are either the local drainage committee, where one is in existence, or the owners of the land locally. Where the catchment board feel that they might make a contribution, we think they ought to be permitted to do so, but in the last analysis it clearly is the right and privilege of the catchment board to go into the particular circumstances of the case.

I admit that my language may have been unfortunate, but what I wished to do was to get a rebuttal of the idea, which is far too common in this House and in this country, that at the present time of great emergency the urban ratepayer and taxpayer should not make every contribution he can, even beyond what he would reasonably do, towards the cost of producing food in this country.

It seems to be assumed by the Mover of the Amendment, and also by the Noble Lord, that the only source of income of the catchment board is the twopenny rate, placed more or less upon urban people, but is it not the case that they have another source of income, which is the land in the internal drainage districts? It is taxed in order to maintain the funds of the catchment board, and in that case the land itself is paying a contribution.

In view of the explanation which has been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move, in page 4, line 35, at the end, to add:

"(11) Where the landlord of an agricultural holding has become liable to pay any sum in respect of the holding, either to a Catchment Board under subsection (4). of the said section fourteen as so amended, or to any other drainage board under the corresponding provision of the said section as so set out, or to the Minister under the Third Schedule of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1941, as applied by section six of that Act, the following provisions shall have effect, that is to say:—
  • (a) if the landlord and tenant agree, or in default of such an agreement the landlord proves to the satisfaction of an arbitrator appointed under the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1923, that any works in respect of which the said sum is payable were rendered necessary by the neglect of the tenant to comply with any obligation relating to the maintenance or repair of a water course imposed on him by virtue of the contract of tenancy, the landlord shall be entitled to recover from the tenant or any assignee or successor of the tenant interest on such amount as may be agreed between the landlord and the tenant or, in default of such agreement, determined by the said arbitrator, to be such part of the said sum as was attributable to the execution of those works;
  • (b) the interest shall be payable at such rate as may, in default of such agreement, be fixed by the Treasury, and shall be payable as from the date on which the landlord became liable in respect of the said sum, and shall be payable at the same times and be recoverable in the same manner as the rent payable under the tenancy;
  • (c) where the landlord has elected to pay any such sum as aforesaid by instalments, the whole of that sum shall, for the purposes of this subsection, be deemed to have become payable at the date when it would have been payable but for the election;
  • (d) for the purposes of any arbitration under this subsection, a certificate by the Catchment Board or other drainage board or the Minister, as the case may be, that such part of the said sum as may be specified in the certificate was attributable to the execution of works so specified shall be conclusive evidence of that fact.
  • This subsection shall not apply in any case where the arbitrator has made an award, or an agreement has been made between the landlord and tenant, before the passing of this Act under subsection (6) of the said section fourteen as so amended, or under the corresponding provision of the said section as so set out, or under subsection (2) of the said section six, as the case may be, but save as aforesaid shall apply, in substitution for the said provisions, in all cases where any such sum has become payable by the landlord of an agricultural holding whether before or after the passing of this Act."
    It has hitherto been possible under Section 14 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1940, for a landlord and tenant to agree—or where they cannot agree to have the point decided by an arbitrator—that if drainage works to which the landlord is required to pay contribution, under that Section are due to neglect by the tenant, the landlord can recover the cost from the tenant. Equally, under Section 6(2) of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous War Provisions) Act, 1941, the landlord can recover from the tenant in the same way, where the work is performed by the Minister. It has been suggested that the landlord should be given an alternative, namely, the right to recover the interest on the money because he may have to wait an unduly long time if he can only recover the actual capital cost at the end of the tenancy, which may not take place for 10, 20 or more years. We do not think, and I hope the Committee will agree with us, that it is fair that the landlord should, so to speak, have the best of both worlds and should be entitled, either to claim repayment of the capital cost, or to claim interest on the money in the shape of increased rent, and we have come to the conclusion that, on the whole, the fairest thing to do would be to enable him to claim interest on the money and remove his power to claim the repayment of the capital cost. Of course, it is always open to a landlord and tenant, by agreement, to vary it, but the legal position will be that the landlord will be entitled to claim interest on the expenditure involved.

    I should like to express appreciation of the Minister's proposal. Perhaps he has not gone quite as far as some would have liked, but I think he has met the case in a very fair and proper way.

    Amendment agreed to.

    Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

    Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.