Tuesday 10 May 2016
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to see the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) in his place, replacing my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is away on maternity leave.
The aim of this short debate is to draw to the attention of colleagues and the public the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Apart from the maintenance of war cemeteries and memorials of two world wars, the commission is crucial to all the commemorative ceremonies for the first world war. I should declare an interest at the outset: I am one of two parliamentary commissioners represented on the commission. The other is the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is in the Chamber and hopes to catch your eye, Mr Streeter.
In many respects, we are enclosed by history. Today, for example, at this very moment 76 years ago, the Labour party, meeting in conference, was deciding whether or not to support Winston Churchill as the leader of a coalition Government. One can imagine the atmosphere among parliamentary colleagues on 10 May 1940, with Nazi armies invading the low countries and France. We are here to look at another anniversary. Almost 99 years ago, on 21 May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission, as it was called then, received its royal charter, which established its remit and gave it sole responsibility for graves and memorials to the then dead of the imperial British forces in the first world war.
Nothing was preordained about the establishment of what became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Its creation was largely the work of a formidable, motivated man called Fabian Ware—a man who had been working with Lord Milner in South Africa, who was an intellectual, who became editor of The Morning Post and who had a wide range of friends and contacts in the British establishment. In 1914, too old to serve, Ware commanded an ambulance unit in France and became aware of the sheer numbers of casualties, on a scale that Britain had never faced before. The British armed forces lost approximately 3,500 men at the battle of Waterloo —one of our biggest losses. We had suffered about 80,000 casualties by Christmas 1914.
Ware was concerned about what was going to happen to the dead, and he persuaded the general headquarters of the British armed forces in 1915 to establish the Graves Registration Commission, which he was to run. He made certain that the dead were buried or commemorated as near as possible to the battlefields where they fell and, most significantly, not repatriated. There was enormous pressure, particularly from the parents or families of reasonably wealthy people, to bring—where they could be found—the bodies of their sons, husbands or cousins back home. That was going to be impossible on such a scale. He was only too aware that many of the dead, when they could be found, had no means of identity whatsoever.
During the course of the first world war, and in the establishment of the royal charter, Ware negotiated with allied and enemy countries for land where the dead were to be buried. Most significantly of all, he established that there was going to be no distinction by rank. Crudely speaking, pre-Victorian army officers got individual burials; other ranks were dumped in a great big pit. The only distinction was going to be by religion—Christian, Jewish or Islamic. That would be marked on the headstone. Of course, those of the Islamic faith would have their own cemeteries carefully laid out.
There was a lot of opposition to that, mainly from the families, and there were heated debates here in Parliament at the end of the first world war. Ware outmanoeuvred them all. In the establishment of what we all know now as the cemeteries and memorials that are so distinguishable for the British and Commonwealth experience, he used a whole series of distinguished experts: Edward Lutyens; Herbert Baker; Reginald Blomfield; Rudyard Kipling, who had lost a son, Jack, and was deeply traumatised, and who established much of the terminology of the commemoration; and Gertrude Jekyll, who advised on the landscaping and the gardens.
The final thing I will say about Ware is that he placed a great deal of emphasis on the fact that it was the Imperial—we would now say Commonwealth—War Graves Commission. It was not just about the British; it was about the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Canadians, the South Africans and, above all, the Indians, who made the biggest commitment to our cause in two world wars. I am part of the commission, and our work today is supported by member Governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and, above all, the United Kingdom. Each of those countries contributes a sum in proportion to the number of graves it has. The United Kingdom contributes 78%, which comes from the budget of the Ministry of Defence. The annual budget is approximately £70 million, which works out at roughly £40 per commemoration per annum.
I pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the commission’s approximately 1,300 staff—most of them gardeners and masons, and most of them locally employed—who care for this vast range of memorials and gardens. Many of them are the second or third generation who have worked for the commission. Many of them continued to maintain those sites under the most appalling difficulties in the second world war, and more recently in war zones. I will come to that in a minute.
The work of the commission is vast. We commemorate 1.7 million individuals and maintain their graves and memorials at more than 23,000 locations in 154 countries across the globe. That is a vast scale. We also have to pay tribute to the host countries. Some, such as Belgium and France, willingly gave land. Others are the inheritors of the old British and French empires. We have to imagine, at times, how we would feel if we had vast cemeteries within our constituencies of Egyptian, Iraqi or Nigerian graves from a war that had been fought over our territory. There is an important sensitivity here.
My right hon. Friend rightly references the symbolism and sensitivity of some of those cemeteries. There is also the extraordinary Commonwealth war graves cemetery in Gaza, which I think I am right in saying has been tended by the same Palestinian family since it was put up, now presumably almost 80 years ago. It contains Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Hindu memorials. It occupies a large amount of land in a tiny place that is very short of space. During Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli tank broke through the walls and damaged some grave stones. Eventually, construction materials were allowed back there, and the first thing they were used for was the reparation of those grave stones. It is a great testament to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which he serves so well.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which leads on to the fact that, even as we speak, the commission is working in Iraq—it used to be able to work in Syria—rebuilding cemeteries that have been destroyed by either war or ISIL/Daesh extremists, who see them merely as symbols of Christian occupation.
Indeed—if I may use what the Army used to call a visual aid—I have two photographs taken in Beirut. The first, from the 1980s, is of the cemetery almost completely destroyed; the second is of the cemetery lovingly rebuilt to the previous standard. We should remember, as I am sure all colleagues do, that at the end of the day we are dealing with individuals, either with a known grave or with their names on a giant memorial like those at Ypres or Thiepval. The memorials are for the families and also, now, for people who merely have an interest—I know that many colleagues are fascinated by the people behind the names.
We should also remember—in the words of Michael Caine, not a lot of people know this—that more than 300,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two world wars are commemorated here in the United Kingdom. Their 170,000 graves are to be found at over 13,000 locations. In addition, some 130,000 missing Navy, Merchant Navy and Air Force casualties are commemorated on the great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede. A forgotten element is that nearly 30,000 men and women of the Merchant Navy, unsung heroes and heroines, were killed. Most naval people, of course, have no known grave.
May I commend the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Shorncliffe military cemetery just outside Folkestone? It contains the graves of 550 servicemen. Of those, 471 are from the first world war and 300 are the graves of Canadian servicemen. The Canadians’ sacrifice is commemorated by the people of Folkestone on Canada day every year.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The old military historian in me makes me think that the Canadians are the least boastful of the British empire and Commonwealth contributors to the two world wars. We tend to forget that one in four members of Bomber Command were Canadians and that most British Army battalions in Normandy had Canadian officers and NCOs on loan because we were so short of experienced people.
Here the commission is trying to do a lot of education through local communities and schools. Many of the 130,000 people who are remembered in the United Kingdom are not in major cemeteries. Sometimes they are at the end of a municipal cemetery, but many are in the cemeteries of largely Church of England graveyards. For example, my county, Norfolk, has 471 graves from two world wars and my market town of Reepham has three graves, two from 1918 of Reepham-born soldiers, who probably died from Spanish influenza, and one from 1941 of an RAF volunteer reserve sergeant from Great Yarmouth.
I commend the commission, which, over the last five or six years, has established a really superb website, which is idiot-proof. I am an analogue man, as my son frequently reminds me, but I can use it. People can look there for individuals and locations, and it is possible for colleagues who are interested to trace people who may be buried in their constituencies.
The commission is supported by the United Kingdom Government. I pay tribute to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We have to work closely with the Department to help to deliver on many of the anniversaries—for example, the Jutland anniversary at the end of this month and that of the battle of the Somme at the enormous memorial at Thiepval at the beginning of July. The commission provides equal support to our Commonwealth friends in Australia and New Zealand who served at Gallipoli, our Canadian friends who served at Vimy ridge and our Indian friends who served on the western front.
The commission goes out of its way to provide a high-level service all year round. Because people are impressed by the quality of that service, maintaining it is very arduous. People expect to go to a cemetery and to see the lawns beautifully tended with all the horticulture laid out. There is a massive programme to replace some 12,000 individual gravestones a year as they are degraded by wind, weather, sand and sometimes military action.
We will shortly remember two big battles. One is Jutland at the end of this month. The memorials to Jutland are on land, although the overwhelming majority of seamen who died went down with their ships. Some were injured and brought to the United Kingdom but died in hospital. There is the memorial at Thiepval for the battle of the Somme. The ceremonies on 1 July are but the entrée—the battle lasted another three to four months. It is symbolic because that was the day people think the British Army suffered its greatest losses: some 19,000 men were killed in action and another nearly 40,000 wounded. In fact, we suffered worse casualties on 21 March 1918 when the Germans broke through, but that has been lost as part of our memory.
When people go to look at the Somme cemeteries, as many colleagues have, they know it is not just about the individuals who are buried there; it is about the reflection of British and empire society at the time. People look at the regimental cap badges and the memorials to the Canadians, the Australians and the New Zealanders. The overwhelming number of soldiers who served on the Somme were volunteers, either pre-war regulars or Territorials. A number, not all, were in pals battalions. They were recruited from factories and businesses in Sheffield, Exeter, Glasgow and Liverpool and wore those parochial British badges with great honour. It is important that the commission delivers the best quality of remembrance at the commemorations, recognising that its cemeteries and memorials are usually the centrepiece for the commemorations that follow.
The commission is doing a lot of continuous work dealing with what we call the memories of forgotten soldiers, particularly and rightly, the role of the Indian armed forces in two world wars. A pilot project, “India Remembers”, is important not only in its own right but because we are only too well aware that young people under 18 may not know what happened. I remember the first world war, not that I was there; my two grandfathers talked to me about it. However, if you are 18, it is as far away as the wars of the roses. We must recognise that many children from the Indian subcontinent whose parents now live in the United Kingdom are detached from the contribution of the Indian armed forces in two world wars, not least because those forces were seen as much as a weapon of repression as armed forces defending democracy. A lot of work is rightly going into recognising that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does not take a view on the interpretation of history. It tries to present the facts and the opportunities for others to look at.
Behind every headstone and name on a memorial is a person. I was lucky enough, in the early 1970s, to be able to go on visits with first world war veterans and then, in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, with second world war veterans. When I was working with the British Army, it used battlefield tours—or, as they were known, bottlefield tours—as a teaching method. One that I have never forgotten was to Normandy in 1995-96, when we took a whole series of middle-ranking young, thrusting Army officers on a battlefield study of the breakout from Normandy. We had two veterans with us. Major Bill Close, MC, was a pre-war private soldier, commissioned on the field of battle, who participated in Operation Goodwood, the attempt to break out through the German lines at Caen. At the time of the visit, he was aged about 88. Also with us was Oberstleutnant Freiherr Hans von Luck, who had been commanding a Panzer Grenadier regiment and trying to kill Bill Close outside Caen.
The most moving aspect was when we took those two old gentlemen, first, to the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. Bill Close stood in front of the graves of his tank crew, who had been brewed up—11 tanks were brewed up under him in the course of the second world war—and we could see that he was looking not at gravestones, but at men’s faces. Half an hour later, we went to the German cemetery, where Hans von Luck stood in front of the grave of his adjutant, whose wedding he had been to in Paris; he was recalled to arms when the allies attacked. Once again, he was looking at that.
I therefore commend the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Frequently, its staff are the worker bees. I know that they are appreciated by hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, but I thought it right and proper that we should draw attention to the work of the commission at this time of anniversaries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group.
I join the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) in praising the work of the employees of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but I also want to touch on some current issues. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the commission cares for the graves of 1.7 million casualties of the first and second world wars in cemeteries and memorials at more than 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries; two of them are in my constituency of Glasgow South West. It employs just over 1,300 staff worldwide, and approximately 250 of those are on UK-based contracts. I understand that negotiations are ongoing with the Ministry of Defence to include non-war-related graves in the work of the commission.
The staff of the commission take pride in attending to the war graves. It is not just a job, but a way of life—a vocation. Many are from families who have worked for the commission for generations, and many spend their whole working lives in the service of the commission. Jobs at the commission range from gardeners, maintenance people and stonemasons to administrators, supervisors, managers, archivists and historians. It is not uncommon for staff to progress through a variety of those roles in the course of their career, retraining and adapting as necessary to the needs of the job. There is often a large element of foreign travel; indeed, the work often entails working and living abroad for years and even decades. That requires staff to uproot families and learn new languages in order to adjust. That can also have a financial impact if spouses are unable to pursue careers as a result.
Salaries at the commission have been very modest. That was recognised in the recent global grading and pay review, which found a need to uprate salaries. Although that is welcome, it nevertheless reflects the fact that salaries over the years have not been commensurate with the job. However, despite some of the sacrifices, staff at the commission remain committed to delivering a high level of service. Most recently, the first world war commemorations, as touched on by the right hon. Member for Broadland, have required staff to work over and above their normal commitments. However, that commitment has, in the view of many staff, not been rewarded.
Long-serving staff have seen the closure of the final salary pension scheme in April 2016 and a dramatic reduction in their pensions as a result. Trade unions are in the midst of pay negotiations with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and argue that staff should get an enhanced pay offer to take into account the special circumstance that staff have been put in this year. The Public and Commercial Services Union requested that the CEO of the commission meet Ministers to make that case, and the union offered to lend assistance by attending the meeting. That offer and suggestion has been dismissed by the commission.
Considering the considerable loyalty and commitment of staff, the downgrading of their pensions and the extra pension contributions that they will be paying this year, it had been hoped that they would receive a decent pay offer as some form of compensation. Instead, it seems that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is relying on, and exploiting, the good will of staff.
To recognise the special nature of the job, the loyalty of staff and the financial sacrifices that staff have made over the years, the commission had a final salary pension scheme, ensuring financial security in retirement for staff who had spent their lives in dedicated service to the commission. The terms of the scheme were good, with a low employee contribution, a spouse’s pension, a death in service benefit and lump sums based on final salary; it was a 40/60ths scheme. That reflected the fact that the pension had traditionally been one of the most important conditions of service, recognising years of dedication and loyalty.
The effects on the staff of the decision to close the final salary scheme should not be underestimated. Long-serving staff have put up with great sacrifice and disturbance to their family lives, such as having to move to foreign countries. Spouses and partners have often been unable to have careers as a result. The pension that staff accrue should recognise that.
Approximately 60% of those affected by the changes are 50 years old or over and likely to retire in the next 10 years. Staff within a few years of retirement now have little time to adjust their financial planning for retirement, as the alternative group pension plan will not deliver anything like the benefits of the final salary scheme. The closure of that scheme will cause significant detriment to the future pensions of UK-based staff and will cause considerable unrest among employees at a time when all employees are working hard to further enhance the reputation of the commission with the work on the 1914-18 centenary commemorations. That approach of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission seems to have been mirrored in recent pay talks, in which it has been unwilling to stand up for its staff and request additional funding from the Ministry of Defence.
My view, like that of the right hon. Member for Broadland, who spoke very eloquently about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is that its employees do tremendous work. I hope that today the commission will reflect on the views of the staff and address the issues of pay and pensions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing the debate. I declare an interest as one of the two parliamentary commissioners for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Holding that post is a great honour. The right hon. Gentleman has described not only the detailed work that this organisation does, but the high esteem in which it is held by the public. It is clear that today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a national institution that people recognise, not only for its high standards but for the dedicated work that it does in commemorating the 1.7 million individuals who lost their lives in the two world wars.
That was not always the case. Like many British institutions, this organisation came into being almost by accident, as the right hon. Gentleman said, thanks to the determination and, I think, ferocity of Fabian Ware. This work was not being done at the time. It was clear at the beginning of the first world war that the War Office, as it was in those days, had not thought about what it would do with the casualties that would be left on battlefields across the world. It was only because of Ware’s dedication and the fact that he took it into his own hands to record the sites of the graves that the process began, in that the Government then decided that they needed a grave registration commission to take care of those graves and note where they were. Ware was an incredible individual who was determined to ensure not only that people had a lasting resting place but that the families could visit those graves in future years. Clearly, his contacts with the then Prince of Wales helped to secure the commission’s royal charter in 1917. It did not stop there.
Today, the proposal for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission—in those days, it was the Imperial War Graves Commission—would be straightforward. However, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the debate in the House on 4 May 1920, when an order was laid to agree the funding for the new Imperial War Graves Commission. Remarkably, it was actually opposed by some hon. Members, including the Conservative Member for Holborn, Sir James Remnant, who moved an amendment to reduce the amount by £5 to ensure that the debate took place.
There were two issues. One issue, as the right hon. Member for Broadland mentioned, was the great debate about whether the remains of the dead should be brought home. Sir James Remnant said:
“The dead are certainly not the property of the State or of any particular regiment; the dead belong to their own relations, and anything that savours of interfering with that right is bound to create opposition among the inhabitants certainly of our own Empire.”
At the same time, some local newspapers said that the state was nationalising death.
The other great debate was whether the relatives should be allowed to put their own memorials up in the Commonwealth cemeteries. Sir James Remnant’s argument was that families should be allowed, if they wished, to put their own memorials up, rather than having one imposed by the state. He said that
“the relations of the dead should have the right, within properly defined limits, as to size, taste, design, expense, and even of material to be used, to erect what headstones they like as representative of the personality of the individual, and as a personal tribute of affection to their own dead.”—[Official Report, 4 May 1920; Vol. 128, c. 1930.]
That would have led to quite some controversy.
In the same debate, Herbert Asquith, who lost his son Raymond in 1916, said:
“These men, be they officers or rank and file, who fell, died with the same courage and the same devotion and for the same cause, and they should have their names and their services perpetuated by the same memorial.”—[Official Report, 4 May 1920; Vol. 128, c. 1947.]
That goes to the root cause of a very clever idea that Ware came up with: that no one should get a bigger or different memorial because they were of higher rank or their family were able to pay.
The best example of that in this country must be Hollybrook memorial in Southampton, which is a memorial to those who have no known grave or were lost at sea. It includes the 823 members of the South African Native Labour Corps, who were lost when the SS Mendi sank just off the Isle of Wight following a collision with a steam packet ship. Alongside those names is the name of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who was lost at Scapa Flow in 1916. The memorial, which I visited a few years ago, includes that long list of 823 names alongside that of Lord Kitchener. That sums up the commission’s approach that there is no special treatment for rank.
I have the great honour of being on the commission, and it is something of a tradition in my constituency to be a commissioner. One of my predecessors was Jack Lawson, the Member of Parliament for Chester-le-Street—now in my constituency—from 1919 to 1949. He was on the original Imperial War Graves Commission. Like a lot of people who were involved in the early work of the commission, he was directly affected by the great war as his younger brother, William, was killed in 1916 and was buried at the Chester Farm cemetery in Belgium.
The work of the commission is complex, with a variety of sites in about 23,000 locations across 150 countries. Everyone sees and is rightly proud of the cemeteries in Belgium and northern France, but the standard everywhere in the world is the same, whether it is France, Belgium, Gaza or Egypt. A few years ago, I had the privilege of going to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where there is a beautiful cemetery, and others are located in Sri Lanka. Ensuring that standards are maintained is incredibly difficult but they are, and that is down to the dedication of those who work for the commission. They ensure not only that standards are maintained, but that the ethos of the commission, which was laid down in its early charter, is maintained for future generations.
When I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I was honoured to be involved in the delivery of the newest commission cemetery at Fromelles in France, which opened in 2010. That showed that the work of the commission never really stops because we are still discovering casualties around the world. I pay tribute to the men and women who work for the Ministry of Defence in the casualty recognition department. They go to great lengths to ensure that, where possible, we can identify casualties. That is not always possible, but the commission says that it is important that the names of as many casualties as possible are recorded in perpetuity.
Everyone knows the fantastic cemeteries of northern France, but many people do not realise that half the commission’s sites are in the UK. The commission is trying to ensure that they get recognition so that people know that they are in local communities and local cemeteries and that, whether they are commission headstones or private memorials, they are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
I urge hon. Members to visit some of the sites. The commission has a programme to put up green signs so that people know where the sites are located. The next phase, which will happen next year, is to get volunteers to help people with identification and to assist them when they visit. The work goes on. People should visit their local cemeteries and take school groups. The commission does important work not only on the first world war, but on the second world war. School groups are showing a great interest and the commission is rightly putting a great emphasis on education and awareness. I urge everybody to visit the commission’s excellent website if they want to know more about its work.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has previously raised the issues he mentioned today. I chair the remunerations committee of the commission, and I have said that he can meet the head of personnel and others at the commission to discuss those issues. Decisions on pensions issues are difficult. Similar decisions have had to be taken by trade unions, including the Public and Commercial Services Union. I, along with the other commissioners, recognise the valuable work that all our staff do—not just in this country, but internationally.
The centenary of the commission is in 2017. It will be important not just to look back on the work that has taken place over the past century, but to look forward to ensure that we maintain the graves and memorials. We must ensure that the legacy and memory of the individuals who died in defence of the freedoms that we take for granted in this country are not lost for future generations.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this debate. I hope that my short contribution will go some way to meeting his objective of recognising the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s valuable contribution to upholding the memory of those who died in the service of their country during the two world wars and other conflicts.
Appropriately commemorating those who died in service, the majority of whom were younger than most parliamentarians, is the least that we can do, and I pay tribute to the commission’s staff, who work so tirelessly in maintaining the cemeteries and memorials. The scale of their work, as everyone knows, is enormous, with memorials situated in more than 23,000 locations in 154 countries, commemorating more than 1.7 million members of the Commonwealth forces who died. It is testament to the expertise and professionalism of the staff that those memorials are kept in such good condition.
More than 1,275 sites are maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff in Scotland alone, and there are eight such cemeteries in my constituency of West Dunbartonshire to mark those from my community who died during conflict. The local community has a strong and deep link to those cemeteries and memorials, and it regularly pays tribute to the members who lost their lives, and to their families, either through official engagements or through personal moments of reflection.
The sheer numbers of those killed during the conflicts brings home the horrifying fact that every family would have been affected by loss and that every community would have lost generations. Such loss not only has a psychological impact; the physical loss of so many young people led to the decimation of local communities. Ensuring that the memorials are properly maintained not only is a mark of respect to the fallen but provides a lasting historical legacy for generations to come. It is only through providing future generations with a connection to the past and to the impact of war that we can hope that they will never experience the trauma of war.
When discussing the impact of war and how we can learn from the past, it is also fundamentally important to remember the civilians who lost their lives, as well as the service personnel who died on active duty. In this Parliament I was recently given the honour of marking the 75th anniversary of the Clydebank blitz and of commemorating the 528 people who lost their lives over two nights. It was the first time that the Clydebank blitz had been acknowledged in this place, and through such events future generations are given a more rounded education of where we have come from and where we are going.
We must always look to link the past with the present. I hope that this debate will go some way to raising awareness of the remit and dedication of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to provide a long-lasting legacy for the fallen. With that in mind, I welcome the commission’s work and its attempts to engage with local communities, thus ensuring that schools and community groups across these islands physically visit the memorials. Although that is important, I am impressed by the commission’s efforts to engage beyond the physical memorials by using new technology and applications on its website to educate children and to keep up with the new generation.
I pay tribute once more to the staff of the commission for their invaluable work. They are the guardians of the past, for which we should be eternally grateful.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on his graphic and detailed presentation of the case, which we appreciate. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is as relevant now as it was when it was founded, which is testimony to the hard work and determination of those involved.
Neither a soldier nor a politician, the commission’s founder, Sir Fabian Ware, was, at 45, too old to fight, but he became the commander of a mobile unit of that fabulous organisation, the British Red Cross. Saddened by the sheer number of casualties, he felt driven to find a way to ensure that the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever. His vision chimed with the times and has continued to this day. Under his dynamic leadership, his unit began recording and caring for all the graves it could find, and by 1915 its work was officially recognised by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission. That work continues today, and Sir Fabian Ware’s vision is now a reality. The initial aim of ensuring that the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever has been successful.
As others have said, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does a staggering amount of work, and it has some 23,000 memorials and cemeteries in 154 countries, making it a truly global organisation. In my constituency of Strangford, we have between 60 and 70 graves that are looked after by the commission. I went around the graves with one of the commission’s officers to see its work. A young British Army soldier who died in the 1916 uprising is buried in Greyabbey, and another young soldier from the first world war, Pritchards, was lying in an unattended grave. The commission will look after graves, but it needs the permission of the families. We need to ensure that Ware’s vision can continue to be fulfilled and that war graves are maintained and looked after from Strangford to South Georgia. From the Menin Gate and the Thiepval memorial to the India Gate in Delhi and the Helles memorial in Turkey, the commission tends some of the most iconic architectural structures in the world. From tiny cemeteries containing just a handful of graves to the Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, where there are 11,000 burials, the commission ensures that the memory of all those who perished is preserved with the utmost respect.
The commission cares for the cemeteries as a whole, so conservation and reconstruction can, and often does, involve teams from different disciplines. It is not just a matter of tending graves; it is much, much more than that—horticulture, headstone carving and manufacture, and the architectural maintenance teams. They are people with skills, love, affection and commitment to their job. The cemeteries are the sum of their individual parts, and teamwork at all levels helps to maintain their overall appearance.
Even the most durable materials require maintenance, especially when they are used in constructions that are nearly 100 years old. Climate change, pollution and vandalism all take their toll. The background information mentions deliberate vandalism in places such as Libya, Iraq and Beirut, and the commission has made it its business to reinstate those graveyards, as the right hon. Member for Broadland said. Structural renovation projects can involve anything from reroofing buildings to drainage systems. Headstones, memorials and sculptures are kept in good order by a regular cycle of maintenance—a lot of good work is done. To ensure that the quality of materials and the craftsmanship remain a priority, the commission employs specialist masons and runs its own workshops, in which many of the replacement headstones are made.
Barry Edwards, the commission’s architect, was asked to construct a brand-new cemetery at Fromelles to take the remains of 250 Australian and British servicemen who lost their lives at the battle of Fromelles in July 1916. It is amazing to think that, a century on, the commission is still making a difference in the proper remembrance of those who lost their lives in the first world war.
With gardeners and horticultural experts working in 154 countries, the commission has an enviable track record of innovation and expertise. More than half of the 1,750 acres of ground under the commission’s control is given over to fine horticulture, making maintenance a year-round task for its 900 gardeners. That might mean bringing seeds from Nepal to use in Gurkha cemeteries, or bringing maples from Canada for Dieppe. Even in horticulture, the commission goes the extra mile to ensure that each nation’s war dead are remembered properly.
Today, the work continues to the highest standard with the restoration of the Thiepval memorial. I have seen the memorial and remember it well. It is a fitting tribute to the fallen of the Somme. I could not conclude my speech without mentioning the Somme, which means so much to Ulster men and women because of their ancestors’ sacrifice. It is always good to remember that the 36th (Ulster) Division fought alongside the 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions, when it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The battle of the Somme resonates. Many streets and many Orange lodges across the Province are named after the battle. The banner of my lodge depicts the battle of the Somme too. This year, the battle’s centenary will be commemorated across Northern Ireland, and people from all community backgrounds in the Province have connections to the battle. As a Unionist of Ulster, I find it hard to think of something more deeply embedded in our psyche as a people than the Somme, which is seen by many as the people’s blood sacrifice in the pursuit of our self-determination.
The final stage of repointing on the Thiepval memorial has been done, and pointing work has started on the natural stone. The new coping stones and stone garlands are being repointed with a specific mortar that is close to the colour of the stone. The memorial is now equipped with a new distribution board for all the new electrical installation, and work continues on the top roof. It has been waterproofed to ensure that it is watertight.
On 15 March, the new flags flew again on top of the memorial. To mark the occasion, Lieutenant Colonel Kian Murphy, representing both France and the UK, rendered the military salute. The next step is placing the British and French crowns on top of the flag poles and cleaning the memorial from top to bottom. It will not be long before we see the final result. We commend the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all that it has done for its workers and staff, and for commemorating battles of many years ago, particularly the battle of the Somme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for securing this important debate. If his mission was to mark the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and to educate, he has certainly done his job as far as I am concerned. I have learned a great deal already.
It is almost 100 years since the commission was established, as we have discussed, in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission. The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is as important now as it ever was. Preserving with such expertise and attention to detail the memory of the 1.7 million people who died during two world wars is a huge task, and we could not wish for a more effective organisation to take on the role.
The founding principles of the commission in 1917 are also as valuable today as they were then. They are fourfold:
“Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial; headstones and memorials should be permanent; headstones should be uniform; there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed”.
It is a testament to the foresight of those who set up the commission in the first place, as many right hon. and hon. Members have discussed, that those principles are enduring and relevant today.
Should the remains of military personnel be found that are not from either of the two world wars, responsibility for arranging a military funeral lies with the Ministry of Defence. However, personnel remains from the first or second world war are the responsibility of the commission. Further to funeral and burial proceedings, the commission maintains graves and memorials in about 23,000 locations in 154 countries around the globe, which demonstrates the enormous scale of the work that the organisation undertakes.
In Scotland alone, the commission cares for around 1,300 individual sites, ranging from local authority-run sites to churchyards of all religious denominations and to military cemeteries owned by the commission. The commission also plays a part in formulating policy relevant to its role: for example, it was represented recently in the Scottish Government’s evidence-gathering sessions for the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill. The commission offered an extremely valuable perspective, based on its experience and expertise, during the passage of the Bill.
Scotland, alongside many other nations throughout Europe and around the globe, suffered a devastating loss of life during the first and second world wars. It is worth reflecting that before the establishment of the commission, there was no organised effort to maintain the graves of war dead, at least in this country, and certainly not those of ordinary servicemen, as has been noted. The work done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures, quite rightly, that all service personnel killed in the first and second world wars are commemorated appropriately, irrespective of rank, title or social standing.
I agree. I am coming on to comments reflecting exactly that point, so I am grateful for that intervention.
As a permanent tribute to the fallen men and women who served their country and community and who paid the ultimate price in doing so, it is important that we maintain our war memorials and graves appropriately. The condition in which they are kept should always reflect the respect and dignity that they deserve. Just two years ago, we began commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. The then Scottish First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), announced Scottish Government funding for war memorial restoration across Scotland. More than £100,000 was granted to 10 separate memorials, including one in my constituency—the war memorial in the city centre—which was given £30,000 for reparation work. Prior to the allocation of those funds, the cenotaph was in need of considerable remedial work, which I am pleased to say was completed thanks to that funding.
Last year, as the newly elected Member of Parliament for Stirling, I took part in a Remembrance Day service and a wreath-laying ceremony at that same cenotaph. War memorials such as the one in my constituency, as well as individual graves, are hugely instrumental in educating future generations about the sacrifices that previous generations made to secure the freedoms that we take for granted. It is important that we commend the excellent work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and highlight the need to ensure the appropriate upkeep of cenotaphs across the country, not to celebrate conflicts but to remember the casualties and the sacrifices made. A check of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s website informs me that in my constituency, there are more than 240 war graves, each commemorating an individual from the Stirling area who fell in one of the two world wars. One of the larger cemeteries in my constituency, Ballengeich, is the final resting place of 58 such individuals.
Although I have made much mention of my constituency, it is important to recognise the valuable work carried out in this area across the whole UK and globally. Six member Governments form the Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. We should commend the fact that the UK has consistently committed the largest proportion of funding to allow the commission to undertake its valuable work. All other member Governments also make a financial contribution directly to the commission, and non-member Commonwealth nations often contribute to the cause by maintaining war graves in their own nations, as many Members have noted. Such international co-operation demonstrates the rightly determined support for the cause of commemorating our war dead. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I commend the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for securing this important debate and for his interesting opening speech. It is timely, given that so many of us are focusing on the events of a century ago and on the immense sacrifices made by so many around the world in the two great wars of the last century, among other conflicts that have secured the freedoms that we take so much for granted today. It has been interesting to hear about the personal links that remain. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have a grandfather, Ed Oswald, who made a contribution in the Royal Navy during the second world war. Such circumstances make this matter very personal for many of us.
We in the Scottish National party believe firmly that the Government should continue their support for the commission so it can continue to meet its important obligations and objectives. We fully support and commend the commission’s work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) said, it is only right that people who died while serving in our armed forces are commemorated properly, and that there is a lasting historical legacy as well as a memorial for the generations coming after. The work of the commission is also important in highlighting to those who choose to serve today that we recognise and understand the dangers inherent in the job that they sign up to do.
Scotland, the UK and nations around the world suffered devastating losses of life in the world wars. I spent many hours as an undergraduate studying those particular wars, but no matter how dispassionately and academically one tried to look at what happened, it was and remains impossible to be anything other than devastated by those young lives lost and wasted by the thousand upon thousand. The only thing that we can do now is remember those who were lost and learn the lessons from the conflicts in which they perished. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission plays a vital role in allowing us to do so.
I was interested to read on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website—I echo hon. Members’ comments about its excellence—significant reference to the Scottish national war memorial. Although the memorial is not owned by the commission, it is clear that there are strong links and a unity of purpose between those organisations that the names of each person killed in each specific locality during the first world war should be remembered forever.
I was fortunate to visit the Scottish national war memorial recently and see the care taken to remember each individual person and commemorate their life. People are named individually, and it is a peaceful, beautiful and fitting memorial. On the way out, there is a statue titled “Reveille” commemorating the end of war and symbolically looking forward to a new peaceful dawn. I was struck by that beautiful representation of the importance of looking forward peacefully as a means of remembering the fallen. I have a picture of it in my office. It sends a powerful message of remembrance.
I join the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) in commending the dedication of the founder of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Fabian Ware. A century has passed since the commission’s inception. Clearly, the 1,300 staff of the commission have cared tirelessly for the cemeteries and memorials of those who died in the two world wars. It bears repeating that the commission is working in a staggering 23,000 locations, in no fewer than 154 countries, to commemorate all those men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died. The scale of that work really is immense and the work involved in managing it must be recognised.
As the right hon. Member for Broadland noted, under its royal charter obligations, the commission is responsible not only for the care and commemoration of the graves and memorials of the members of the Commonwealth armed forces who died, but for the protection of their remains in perpetuity, where their final resting place is known. The commission commemorates those with no known grave on stand-alone memorials, such as screen walls erected in burial grounds and elsewhere. Casualties interred in common graves may not always have a headstone marking the grave, but in that case they will be commemorated appropriately, away from the burial location.
The commission continues to develop and progress its work in remembering those who have fallen, with appeals still going out today using the latest social media and web technology, as opposed to the very immediate personal appeals made at the time. I know that, because the commission office, which is not far from my own constituency, at Gartmore parish church, is still looking for the relatives of soldiers who perished a century ago, including Private James Cameron of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who died in June 1917, and Private James Graham of the Gordon Highlanders, who died in June 1918. That kind of dedication to remembering those who lost their lives is clear; it is what the commission is all about.
It is heartening that the commission is embracing technology. It is using apps and its excellent website very effectively to engage with schools and community groups to encourage them to visit the memorials, so as to bring this particular aspect of history much closer to people individually.
We have heard that legislation allows the commission to ensure that war graves and memorials are protected as far as possible. The commission clearly spends significant time inspecting and maintaining war graves via its own maintenance teams. It is a huge undertaking. There are over 100,000 war memorials in the UK. The commission currently cares for approximately 21,000 graves and memorials in more than 1,200 sites across Scotland, whether they are local cemeteries, churchyards, dedicated military cemeteries, or single graves in burial grounds.
I would be surprised if anyone here has not seen graves cared for by the commission. I remember as a child visiting Shanwell cemetery in Carnoustie and looking at the beautifully kept Commonwealth war graves. In my travels around my constituency, I see that there are Commonwealth war graves in cemeteries in Barrhead, Eaglesham and Newton Mearns, marking the sacrifice of young men and young women—and there are graves of young women, among those of the young men, who were also cut down in their prime.
Last year, it was an honour to attend many memorial services around East Renfrewshire. As well as attending the opening of an outstanding community-funded war memorial at Neilston, I was privileged to march with the Jewish veterans in Newton Mearns and to meet a veteran in Barrhead, of whom I have spoken in this House before, and who cycled to Clydebank from Barrhead during the blitz to put out the fires there. That is the kind of sacrifice that people were prepared to make and that we should commemorate.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) noted, the commission’s current Living Memory initiative, to encourage people to visit the sites in their local areas and learn more about the stories of those who are buried there, will undoubtedly lead to greater knowledge and understanding of those who died and the circumstances of their deaths. These graves and memorials can help people to connect with those who were involved in past conflicts, as well as giving us a local connection, a real human connection with history, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling said, a desire to learn very important lessons from the past.
The commission also tends a number of architectural structures, from the imposing India Gate in Delhi to tiny cemeteries containing just a handful of graves. It does that work around the globe, ensuring that the sacrifices of the very brave servicemen and women from countries all around the world are noted and remembered. I was very pleased to see a feature on the commission website highlighting service personnel from Canada, South Africa and India, among other countries. I am very pleased to hear of the ongoing work of the commission in relation to Indian families who may have connections to our service personnel in the past.
From the trenches of the western front to the deserts of Mesopotamia, over 1.1 million Indian soldiers served in the first world war. By November 1918, over 60,000 men from the subcontinent—who were diverse in culture, language and faith—had given their lives. In death, these men were treated according to their respective religions. As the right hon. Member for Broadland indicated, while Muslim soldiers were buried and their graves marked by headstones, the remains of Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated, with their ashes being scattered and their names engraved on cremation memorials around the globe.
In Eritrea, nearly 1,000 Commonwealth war dead from the second world war are buried or commemorated. The hon. Member for North Durham spoke of the astonishing range of locations all over the world. As we have heard, the member Governments that make up the commission reflect that kind of geographical diversity and the truly global nature of the conflicts that the commission commemorates. Those Governments contribute proportionately to the commission.
Clearly, there are ongoing discussions about whether to transfer the responsibility for the maintenance of war graves of military personnel who have been buried in the UK since 1948 from the commission to the Ministry of Defence. The key point is that these graves must be maintained and looked after properly, and that there is a clear responsibility for doing so. It is important that the Government continue their support of the commission and that discussions are facilitated in order that these obligations and objectives can be met.
Like the right hon. Member for Broadland, we on the Scottish National party Benches pay tribute to the very hard work undertaken by the commission’s staff in the UK and across the globe, who maintain the commission’s reputation for providing such a high standard of maintenance. He also made valuable points about the contribution of so many countries, where so many of these graves lie, and I agree with that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter.
It is vital that we remember, and that is what today’s debate is all about; indeed, it is what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is all about. I thank the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for securing this debate. This has been a very informative debate, with contributions from across the House about the importance of the commission’s work. That work is not only about maintaining the graves that we have heard so much about today, but about the way that the commission is taking history into the 21st century, by using web technology to help us look through our past and consider our own history, and of course so that we can take that knowledge and pass it on to the next generation. It is vital that we remember, and in particular that we remember the lives that were given for our freedom.
Of course, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does phenomenal work. This year, we are remembering the losses in Jutland and, as we have already heard, the losses in the battle of the Somme in July 1916. The commission’s work continues day in and day out, and we must acknowledge it.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and, of course, very grateful for the work of the commissioners, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). The contributions this afternoon have really reflected the importance of the commission’s work.
Maintaining and upgrading 23,000 cemeteries and memorials across 154 countries is no mean feat. That work includes replacing around 20,000 graves a year. Of course, there is also the important work of building on 100 years of record-keeping. It is important that we recognise the outstanding work that the commission does, and of course quality is at the forefront of all that work.
That work can only be achieved because of the total dedication of the 1,300 people who work across the world for the commission. Many of them work here in the UK but others are employed to provide vital skills and services right across the globe. Of course, the commission’s work is dedicated to the memory of the 1,700,000 men and—as we have heard today—women from across the Commonwealth who were killed. The commission’s staff work so hard to maintain the highest standards, but above that to maintain the memory and dignity of each young life that was lost—and it was predominantly young lives that were lost. The staff keep alive the memory of those who were lost, gathering more information and historical knowledge over time, to share that collective memory and collective story that speak of a Europe that was once divided against itself. They ensure that that is never forgotten.
Although we often recall less peaceful times at formal ceremonies at the memorials and cemeteries, it is the individual care that the staff show to the families and friends of the lost that causes them to stand out. They enable people to move on but also to cherish their memories. When people walk into one of the commission’s many cemeteries—as I have on a number of occasions—scan the thousands of pristine graves and start to read the names, ages and ranks of those who fell, they are taken on a journey of sacrifice: the sacrifice of parents and families, of their children and of the many young who gave their lives. It is a reminder to us, and to all who hold power—not least in this place—that our responsibility to their legacy is to find political solutions, no matter how difficult that is, to the challenges we face in our globe today.
The commission does not just keep history alive, it presents the past in such a way that we will never forget. As the commission reaches 100 years next year, we must mark its excellent work, as the right hon. Member for Broadland reminded us. But the commission is not just an organisation; it is the sum of its many parts. By that I mean the dedicated staff, many of whom have spent all their working lives there—indeed, for some of those I met, generations of their families had worked in the organisation—and make the commission what it is. Nevertheless, they look to us to provide them with the support they need when their terms and conditions and pay need to be addressed, and it would be remiss of me not to raise that today.
I have met the trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union, Unite and Prospect—and I must declare an interest as secretary of the Unite group here in Parliament and as a former national official of that union. I have also met the commission’s staff and have listened closely to the issues they have raised, and I know that they want their voice to be heard in this place this afternoon.
We believe that deals can be brokered, to give the workforce greater morale. We know that there have been difficult discussions about pensions and that pension schemes have been challenged, but the staff have outstanding questions about what happened and it is only right that we look to find solutions to the challenges that they have identified.
I thank my hon. Friend for that offer and I will certainly follow it up with him.
Commission staff have outstanding questions about their pensions, but that takes us on to the issues that are pertinent—particularly this week—regarding their pay. Over time, the staff have accepted lower rates of pay and less favourable terms and conditions—that came out in the Towers Watson global grading and pay review—and we have heard about the inconveniences to family life, whether that is taking children out of their schools or spouses not being able to have a career because of moves. The value of the jobs was also recognised in the review—for instance, the learning of a foreign language, not superficially but in a way that means being able to negotiate deals, employ staff and manage contracts. The staff’s dedication, and the quality and standard of their work, means that they should be remunerated at an appropriate rate. That is what the review says. Public sector workers are seeing a 1% increase in their pay but the commission is offering half that to its staff. We should seriously look at what the deals mean for the staff and ensure, as we enter this time when staff are working over and above what is expected of them so that the public can remember and commemorate 100 years since the battles of the first world war, that the staff’s battles today are well recognised and that staff are remunerated appropriately.
Labour wants a clear win-win solution and we believe that one can be found. I therefore urge the commissioners present and the Minister to find such a solution. We must remember that the staff are public servants and want to give the best they can, and the respect we show them will, therefore, be reflected in the excellence of their work.
As we move towards its 100th year next year, it is vital to ensure that the commission’s work and its vision for the future—building on Fabian Ware’s initial vision—is strong, including the commitment not only of its staff but of the public, in the way that it celebrates what has been achieved, and also to ensure that it continues to remember the ultimate price paid by the 1,700,000 people whose graves it cares for day in, day out, around the globe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this important debate to highlight the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and on his excellent and informative speech.
It is opportune to have such a debate when this year we are commemorating several important battles of the first world war, including those of the Somme and Jutland. I am grateful for all the contributions this afternoon, but I particularly acknowledge the speech of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and his service as a war graves commissioner.
I agree with all who have spoken that the CWGC does excellent work in ensuring that the 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. For 99 years it has worked around the world to commemorate those who gave their lives, by ensuring that their bodies are at rest in cemeteries and that those with no known grave are remembered on memorials. The CWGC cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries across the globe. The CWGC’s important work in ensuring that individuals who gave their lives are always remembered throughout the Commonwealth, and in Europe and across the world, is to be commended.
The CWGC is one of the Government’s key partners in our first world war centenary commemorations. This year we are working with it on our two national events, to mark the centenaries of Jutland and the Somme. The battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of the war. The CWGC commemorates more than 6,000 Royal Navy sailors who lost their lives in that battle, be that in war graves across the UK and Scandinavia or at memorials with the names of thousands of sailors whose bodies were never recovered.
My grandfather, Clyde Turner, served on HMS Malaya during the battle, so I have a strong association with the commemoration. He occasionally spoke about his experiences as a stoker and subsequently as a chief petty officer. He was a career naval man, and a real influence on me in my early years. He died in 1966, and I still hold his memory dear. I am pleased, therefore, to be the Minister for the first world war centenary at this time and I look forward to attending the commemorative events in Orkney on 31 May and meeting other descendants of those who served at Jutland.
To mark the centenary of the battle of Jutland, a number of events are taking place at CWGC sites. These include the event at Queensferry cemetery in West Lothian on 28 May, and national events on 31 May at St Magnus cathedral and Lyness Royal Naval cemetery. There are also Royal Navy events at the Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth naval memorials, and other events at Esbjerg new cemetery in Denmark, Fredrikstad military cemetery in Norway and Kviberg cemetery in Sweden.
On 1 July, we will commemorate the bloodiest battle of the first world war: the battle of the Somme. Fought between July and November 1916, the battle affected millions of people across the Commonwealth. Some 150,000 Commonwealth servicemen lie buried in 250 military and 150 civilian cemeteries on the Somme, and there are six memorials to the missing that commemorate by name more than 100,000 whose graves are not known. I recently went to France and visited the Somme battlefields and the many cemeteries—all beautifully maintained and cared for by the CWGC. I put on record my appreciation for the work done, and I thank those who gave me a tremendous guided tour of the battlefields. I found the trip very moving.
I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on bringing it forward. Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest tributes that we pay to our fallen is the sheer quality of the work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does, as evidenced by its workshop in Arras? Its metalwork, stonemasonry and carpentry are second to none. Does he share my hope that, in 100 years’ time, that level of workmanship will have endured?
I totally agree. We commend the work that has been done and its quality. While my hon. Friend is here, I would like to say—I am glad to see him in his place—that I am grateful for the excellent work he has done and continues to do as the Prime Minister’s special representative for the centenary commemoration of the first world war.
On 30 June—the anniversary of the eve of the battle—a service will take place at Westminster Abbey, to be attended by Her Majesty the Queen. That will be followed by an all-night vigil around the tomb of the unknown warrior. On 30 June there will also be a military vigil in France at the Thiepval memorial to the missing. Vigils will also take place in Scotland at the Scottish national war memorial in Edinburgh castle, in Wales at the national war memorial in Cardiff, and in Northern Ireland at Clandeboye and Helen’s Tower in County Down.
On 1 July—the centenary of the first day of the battle of the Somme—a national commemorative service will be held at the Thiepval memorial. The service will reflect the story of the whole battle, capturing the scale and reach of the conflict and the impact it had on all the lives of all communities throughout the UK and France and other Commonwealth countries. It will be attended by around 10,000 guests, including members of the royal family, heads of state, senior politicians, representatives from all the nations involved and some 8,000 members of the public.
Manchester will be the centre of national commemorations in the UK. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at the city’s Cenotaph, a parade through the city featuring military bands and representatives of the battalions who were present at the Somme and a commemorative service at Manchester cathedral. There will also be cultural and educational events at the city’s Heaton Park. There will be a two-day experience field which more than 1,300 school children will visit to learn about life at the Somme and on the home front. CWGC is supporting the event and helping people to reconnect with their past. There will be a free concert in the evening featuring a national children’s choir, film, dance and the Halle orchestra performing the works of George Butterworth, a young English composer most famous for “The Banks of Green Willow” and who died on the Somme. I am delighted that more than 13,000 people have already signed up to attend the concert, but some free tickets are still available.
We are encouraging communities across the UK to hold acts of remembrance on 30 June and 1 July in a way that feels appropriate. On 5 April, together with the Royal British Legion, we launched online guides providing information about holding commemorative events. An online map was also made available for event organisers to publish details of their commemorations. I am pleased that nearly 30 events have already been listed, ranging from a vigil at Holbeck cemetery near Leeds to school groups visiting High Wycombe cemetery in Buckinghamshire to learn about those who fought at the Somme and are buried in the cemetery. Many of these events will take place at CWGC sites. I urge and advise communities planning to commemorate this important centenary to add their details to the map on the Government website.
We remember that the battle lasted 141 days, up to 18 November. There will be a daily service of remembrance at the Thiepval memorial hosted by the Royal British Legion and the CWGC throughout the 141 days. A range of events will also take place at CWGC cemeteries across the region throughout the period. Regimental associations, communities and descendants can therefore participate on a day particularly significant to them, and they should check the CWGC website, which contains the relevant information.
I also mention the recently launched CWGC Living Memory campaign. More than 300,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two world wars are commemorated in the UK. In fact, one is never more than 3 miles from a war grave anywhere in the country. Many graves lie in local cemeteries, and CWGC has launched the campaign, which calls on communities to rediscover their local site and remember the lives of those within the graves. The project encourages people, whether young or old, to discover and learn about war graves and their heritage. It is particularly important that the young learn through education about the sacrifices and events of the first world war.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mentioned those who are buried in British churchyards. In my constituency, Private William White was buried in the churchyard of St Paulinus in Crayford. He was wounded at Ypres. He came back. He was a Crayford man. Sadly, he died at home from his injuries. That is an example of how we should commemorate in local communities individuals who served. It is a wonderful project that the CWGC wants people to get involved with. I encourage everyone to locate war graves near them and to learn about those who lost their lives.
I again thank all those who contributed today, in particular because it is an important commemoration and an important time to give thanks for the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend for securing the debate and for all his work, which benefits from his knowledge and experience as a historian. As a Commonwealth war graves commissioner and a member of the DCMS first world war advisory group, his knowledge and advice have been and remain invaluable. I conclude by paying tribute to all those who lost their lives in or were affected by the two world wars. I also pay tribute to the dedicated staff who do such a fantastic job at the CWGC. As we heard, many of them are gardeners, stonemasons, administrators and the rest. Together, they ensure that those who died will never be forgotten.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for the way he wound up this debate. Like him, I thank all colleagues who participated. I merely remind colleagues that I brought this debate forward to put front and centre the role and work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in providing so much of the backdrop and front of stage for many of the commemorations of the first world war.
I also secured the debate to emphasise that it is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—the Commonwealth countries that are members have a view and make a contribution; it is not an outpost of the Ministry of Defence. We have a budget, and like all budgets it is under enormous stress and strain. There is an understandable reluctance among all the contributing countries to make a bigger contribution. Two colleagues expressed concerns about staff pay and conditions, and I hope the invitation from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) will be taken up. He has done so much hard work in this area.
I am very grateful to all who participated in this debate. I am sure that the staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will thank them for their tribute, not least because colleagues from all the nations of the United Kingdom have contributed. In their different ways, they want to commemorate their communities and their communities’ roles in both world wars. I think it has been a fitting tribute.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Housing in Newcastle
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered housing in Newcastle.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have secured this short debate on a subject that is so critical to my constituents.
I am sure that everyone present is an avid reader of my website, chionwurahmp.com, and so will know that I publish pie charts that summarise the issues that constituents come to me with. At the moment, March’s pie charts are up, showing that I dealt with 36 housing issues that month—just behind the 37 benefits issues. Since I was first elected six years ago, housing has consistently been in the top three issues in Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and often No. 1, which is why I have secured several debates on housing and related issues, including on empty properties in 2012 and on local authority funding settlements and holdbacks in 2013.
Earlier this year, I held a ward summit in Blakelaw in my constituency that was attended by local councillors, residents groups and other organisations. The minutes are on my website, and show that, again, housing was the No. 1 issue. Late last year, I held another ward summit, in Benwell and Scotswood, where housing was also the No. 1 issue. Just last week, I held an informal surgery with the Sisters Study Circle group at the Tawheed mosque in Elswick, and housing was of great concern to them.
Why, I was asked, is it now next to impossible to get a council house in Newcastle? I tried to explain that there are 6,000 households on the waiting list, of which 4,000 are actively bidding for properties, but only 185 properties become available each month. I also explained that much of the council housing stock has been sold off and that, really, it was now available only to those with the greatest need. “Why did the Government not build more houses?”, they asked me. “Did they not realise the impact bad housing has on health, crime and education? How can young people focus on studying or getting a job if they haven’t got a decent roof over their head? How can parents give children the support they need if they are worrying where they are going to be living next week?”
After some time, I grew tired of trying to explain the Government’s logic while at the same time thinking, “I myself don’t understand.” My job is not to justify the Government but to hold them to account. I am sure the Minister agrees that my constituents are right to be concerned about the lack of housing in Newcastle. I applied for this debate to find out from him exactly how he believes Newcastle City Council can overcome the barriers preventing it from building more houses to improve the lives of the thousands of people in my constituency who need a decent home.
Last year, the Government presided over the building of just 9,590 homes for social rent, compared with the 33,180 delivered in Labour’s last year in office. Last year’s was the lowest level of affordable homes built for more than two decades. Having knocked on a great many doors over the last few weeks—indeed, over the last few years—I know that they bear testament to the last Labour Government’s investment in our housing stock. Labour could, and should, have built even more homes, but the decent homes programme—visible in new doors, windows, kitchens, bathrooms and the very fabric of so many homes in Newcastle—effectively renewed the existing stock so that it could last for another generation.
That programme contrasts with this Government’s record of cutting investment and of building just one new social home for every eight sold off through right to buy—a Government whose use of the term “affordable rent” is not recognisable to most people; who thought up the unfair bedroom tax, which has affected half a million households; and who have overseen a 22% rise in private rents in Newcastle since 2011, when incomes have barely risen at all.
Newcastle is a growing city. It is estimated that by 2021 there will be 16,200 more people living in our great city, and the Government have a duty to ensure that local authorities have the means—both the funding and the powers—to provide the homes that local people need. Newcastle needs 16,400 new homes between now and March 2030: around 1,000 new homes per year, not including student accommodation for those studying at our world-class universities. Residents quite rightly do not want to lose any of our fantastic greenfield assets in and around Newcastle, so much of the land available for building these homes for Newcastle is brownfield, with high clean-up costs.
Providing the homes required in such circumstances is already a huge challenge for the council, given the ideologically and politically driven extent of the cuts to central Government funding, yet the Government seem insistent on piling on further pressure and putting further barriers in the way. The 1% cut in social housing rent over the next four years will leave a hole of £593 million in the council’s 30-year financial model—that is £0.6 billion. That investment was earmarked for building the homes that the city needs and for investing in the city’s stock. Although a 1% cut in social rent may seem a good thing for social tenants, it is the council that pays for it, not the Government. It will take money away from the capital investment needed for repairs, improvements and, critically, new homes.
If the Government were so concerned about saving social tenants’ money, they would abolish the grotesque bedroom tax. By the way, the Government are actually the greatest beneficiary of this rent cut, because the housing payment bill for the Department for Work and Pensions will fall considerably. It is the Government who will benefit from this cut, not social tenants.
It is not hard to see that when housing authorities’ incomes are cut, they will have less to invest—more than half a billion less, in the case of Newcastle City Council. Trampling over locally elected and accountable councils’ planned infrastructure investment in such a way deserves its own debate. But there is more: that hole in the city’s investment plan will be widened even further by the Government’s forced sale of higher-value housing to pay for the new right to buy. Building a new home in Newcastle costs a minimum of £120,000, but the result of the much criticised Housing and Planning Bill will be the selling off of homes at an average price of £80,000—so, £80,000 in income versus £120,000 to build them. Even if all the income were reinvested, at best we would replace only two thirds of all homes sold.
I hope the Minister is aware of the analysis published by Shelter last month, which showed that Newcastle will need to sell more than 400 homes every year to raise the £52 million annual contribution to the Government’s policy. That £52 million contribution must be paid for by selling off homes. That is 100 more homes than are built each year now, before the Government’s housing Bill bites, with its inevitable knock-on effect on investment.
My constituents who are on the lowest incomes already find it much more difficult to buy homes, even at the lower end of the market, than they would in other parts of the country. The council has done some brilliant work in recent years: delivering much needed specialist house building; building more affordable homes; returning vacant private sector properties to the market, which is very important; and working to reduce homelessness. But it is under attack from a Government who seem determined to dismantle our social housing stock from Whitehall. I simply cannot see how the council is supposed to meet the needs of local people, given the straitjacket that the Minister is putting them into. Those I have spoken to in Newcastle believe, as I do, that Government locally and nationally have a duty to provide homes for people. I want to see a healthy mix of tenures. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister is looking on his mobile phone to see how that can be achieved.
The actions of the Government and the housing Bill will throw up more barriers to building homes that, frankly, seem designed to destroy social housing altogether. Will the Minister tell us what role he sees for councils in building and providing homes, and how much discretion they should have in fulfilling that role? What modelling have his Government done on the effect of the 1% cut in social rents on investment in Newcastle and across the country, and will he publish that modelling? Does he not agree that decisions on rent should be with the local authority, and that if central Government want to cut rent—a laudable aim—they should provide the money to pay for it, rather than punish future generations? What modelling has he done on the forced sale of council homes to fund his right to buy policy? Does he agree with the analysis that Shelter has done on this and, if not, will he publish his own sums?
On the subject of the right to buy policy for housing associations, I wrote to the Minister last year about constituents of mine who are unable to sell their properties because the freehold is owned by the St Mary Magdalene & Holy Jesus Trust, which refuses to extend the leases. In his response, he said that my constituents should write to the advisory body LEASE, which they did, to no avail. There are three different housing Acts that affect three different types of properties and the rights they enjoy. The Minister said he would consider this further as part of the Housing and Planning Bill. Has he any hope, or indeed any clarity, to offer my constituents on that issue?
What would the Minister say to my constituents who cannot get a council home and cannot afford the rising rents in Newcastle? Does he think that his housing Bill will enable Newcastle City Council to build enough homes in the next 30 years and can he explain how? If it will not, how does he expect the private sector to fill the gap at affordable prices for different types of tenure? Finally, will he take a leaf out of the book of the new Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and commit to ensuring affordable housing in Newcastle?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing the debate.
I do not recognise the Shelter figures. I have said openly that they are out-of-date figures based on a false premise, so the Government have secured data from local authorities to make sure we are working on up-to-date figures. Some 16 million pieces of data form that information. The hon. Lady might want to look back at the Housing and Planning Bill and what is actually in it. There have been discussions over the past couple of weeks, including in the House yesterday and in the Lords, and she will see that quite a lot of things will be coming through in statutory instruments during the summer. However, we have garnered 16 million pieces of data to make sure we have the correct information.
While we are doing policy formation, they are not, but they will be in the public domain in future.
The hon. Lady mentioned the issues that Newcastle has in building houses; I think Newcastle should build houses. I visited recently and saw some of the excellent work being done up there with housing associations and private developers in Newcastle, but local authorities have a part to play in building different tenures of housing that are appropriate for their local areas. I would encourage them to make use of the £3.4 billion worth of funding that is available within local authorities for that specific purpose, before we even touch on the almost £23 billion worth of reserves that local authorities have got, which they could choose to use. Indeed, Newcastle has got £161 million before we even get on to the housing revenue account borrowing, which is £3.4 billion that they can use.
The hon. Lady will have to ask Newcastle City Council. It is its money and its reserves. She might want to have a chat with the leader in Newcastle about how he chooses to use his reserves. Also, before we even reach the housing revenue account, local government has £3.4 billion that it can use. Indeed, we created more headroom 18 months or two years ago for local authorities, but there is more than that as well. We want to ensure there is good quality affordable housing for everybody. We are determined to increase home ownership: 86% of our population want to own their own home. We are also making sure that we deliver an increase in the housing supply.
The hon. Lady will hopefully take note of the fact that there was a 25% increase in housing supply last year alone, coming from the lowest level of house building that this country has seen since the 1920s, a situation we inherited from the now shadow Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who oversaw just 88,000 homes being built. We are now up to 181,000 new properties created last year. In Labour’s time in government, for every 170 homes sold under right to buy, only one got built. Under the reinvigorated scheme that this Government have introduced, it is one for one, and under the extended scheme that we are now rolling out to the housing associations, it will also be one for one. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), in London it will be two for one.
In Newcastle, a third of all homes built since 2010 have been affordable, reflecting more than £22 million worth of Government investment. I am pleased to see the progress —I have seen some of it for myself—in public and private partnerships, which have built some 1,800 homes. That is just one part of the progress we have made since 2010. By 2010—this is an important fact—the stock of affordable homes had fallen by 420,000. We had quite a big housing deficit to deal with, which we inherited from Labour, with 1.8 million families on the social housing waiting list. Five years later we were the first Government since the 1980s to finish their term with more affordable homes than when they started. We delivered 193,000 affordable homes in England between 2011 and 2015, exceeding our target by 23,000, and on our watch councils built more homes in five years than in the previous 13.
We are now investing a further £8 billion to deliver 400,000 affordable housing starts, including 100,000 homes for affordable rent. That is the largest affordable house building programme by any Government since the 1970s. As I have said, we respect the fact that 86% of the population want to own their own home; that is why our affordable housing programme will also support home ownership, and will include a commitment to build 200,000 starter homes. Younger first-time buyers will be able to buy their first home with a 20% discount. That means that in Newcastle upon Tyne the average starter home would cost no more than £120,000. When that is linked to a 5% deposit, we are starting to see affordability—of a kind that has not been present for the best part of a decade—coming back. We are still seeking expressions of interest from local authorities who want to use the £1.2 billion of funding that the Prime Minister announced in January to deliver starter homes.
Others in the hon. Lady’s constituency might be interested in shared ownership, with a deposit as low as £1,500—part of £4.1 billion of funding that we have opened up as a route into home ownership, delivering homes for 135,000 people. Our prospectus inviting bids for that funding outside London was published just a few weeks ago, and I encourage all local authorities to look at the bidding for that. Some 600 households in Newcastle have benefited from Help to Buy, and we have extended the scheme so more can follow. We are clear that social tenants should also have the opportunity to achieve their ambition and realise their aspiration of home ownership. That is why we have said we will extend the right to buy to those 1.3 million tenants, so that they have the same opportunities. Housing associations have also committed themselves to providing an additional home for every property sold. That is in addition to the reinvigorated right to buy scheme. The maximum discount was increased in 2012 and, as I have said, for the first time ever a requirement was introduced to build a new affordable home for every additional sale, nationally.
I am pleased to say that 574 homes have been sold through right to buy in Newcastle since 2010, but I want to be clear that we are not just supporting potential home owners. We are reducing the cost of social renting, as the hon. Lady outlined. The cost of social rent has roughly doubled in the past five years; it has been moving up faster than private rents. The 1% reduction will benefit tenants and if it benefits the wider public by reducing the deficit that we were left by Labour, that is a good thing as well. Almost £400 million will deliver 8,000 new specialist affordable homes for the most vulnerable in society as well.
In the private rented sector, which the hon. Lady touched on, we will continue to boost supply, which is the best way of driving up quality, choice and affordability for tenants. That includes our £1 billion Build to Rent fund, and the £3.5 billion guarantee scheme to finance those thousands of extra homes built specifically for private rent. Tenants in the private rented sector will also be better protected thanks to changes we are implementing through the Housing and Planning Bill to target rogue landlords, including banning orders for the most prolific and serious offenders, civil penalties of up to £30,000 for certain breaches, and a fit and proper person test for landlords letting out licensed properties. That is the biggest package ever seen in the sector.
The Government were elected to give everyone the best chance of living a fulfilling and good life. That will be achieved only by improving the housing market in every part of the country. Newcastle is no exception, as I am sure the hon. Lady will agree. That is why the Housing and Planning Bill is so important. It will drive up housing supply, and I hope that later today the House of Lords will recognise that the Government have an electoral mandate to deliver starter homes and the extension of the right to buy; I hope that they will stop blocking the will of the elected House, and that the Labour party will stop blocking the will of the public, expressed through the electoral mandate, and the protocols and will of the House of Commons, which show some of the biggest majorities of this Parliament. That is our mandate and we are determined to repay the trust of the British people who elected us on that manifesto, by building more homes that people can afford, making it easier for communities to build the homes they need and, above all, supporting the aspirations of people who work hard and want to buy a home of their own.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tenant farming.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate.
As hon. Members know, tenant farming is an agricultural system in which a landowner contributes land and perhaps some capital and management, and the tenant contributes labour and the remaining capital and management. It is an important part of the agricultural industry. In my county of East Sussex, it is estimated that there are more than 35,000 hectares of tenanted land. One in three farms throughout the country are tenanted, and between 20,000 and 25,000 farmers are wholly or mostly reliant on tenanted land.
Two organisations fight the corner of tenant farmers—the Tenant Farmers Association, whose national chairman, Stephen Wyrill, is in the Public Gallery, and the National Farmers Union. I thank both for their assistance in preparing for this debate. The Government are also proud to fight the corner of tenant farmers. They have a proud record of putting in place policies to help the farming community. I want to note two in particular: first, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s announcement that farmers will be able to average their income over two to five years for tax purposes, which is very welcome and helps rural businesses to survive in difficult seasons; and, secondly, the recent decision by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to agree to move forward on recommendations to draw up a mental health strategy for the farming industry in Britain. Farmers can face immense strain, as they have to contend with the difficulties of business and climate, and they often work very long hours in isolation. It is right that proactive measures are put in place to ensure their mental wellbeing as they cope with those pressures. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on his leadership on that issue.
There is always more to do, and that is the case with tenant farming in particular. Over the past couple of years, one theme that has emerged consistently in my discussions with tenant farmers across Wealden and the organisations that represent them is the length and security of tenancies. The Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995 introduced farm business tenancies to the industry. The measure marked perhaps the most comprehensive deregulation of the agricultural let sector in its long history. Farm business tenancies are extremely widespread, although there is scepticism in the industry about whether they have helped or hindered. High rents, limited security, stretching repairing obligations, which are key to keeping businesses thriving, and other liabilities are commonplace and do little to limit the stress and instability that naturally come with farming.
The majority of tenancies run for fewer than five years, and independent surveys report that the average is less than four years. That does not give tenant farmers the security they wish for.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to that point later. Flexible tenancies and good relationships between landlords and tenants are absolutely key.
The big problem for tenant farmers is that the negotiation of tenancies is key, but they have little leverage over it. Farming is a long-term process that needs capital investment, patience, good soil management and the ability to balance the profitable years against the bad. Most recently, that problem has affected farmers in the dairy industry.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Tenancies need to be flexible but, if a tenant farmer wants to explore their industry and their business, they need the opportunity to extend their tenancy. Farmers can struggle if their tenancies are short; those things are not facilitated by short-term tenancies. I referred to the Government’s welcome move to extend tax averaging from two to five years, but it is odd that that example of good Government policy is undermined by and inconsistent with tenancy terms, which are, on average, shorter than the period allowed for averaging farm profits. Similarly, many tenants cannot even begin to think of the Government’s 10-year countryside stewardship scheme. What is the point when they cannot guarantee being there for the length of the scheme?
At the moment, landlords can offer short terms for high rents at little risk to themselves, but they leave the tenant in endless uncertainty and hold back investment and long-term sustainable land use. Such tenancies can be particularly difficult for livestock tenant farmers, who see limited returns. I spent a morning with my constituent Elizabeth Buchanan of Black Ven Farm in Nutley, testing for tuberculosis—I assure hon. Members there is no TB on her farm—and she said to me:
“It encourages short-termism of the worst sort.”
I tried to get other quotations from tenant farmers in my constituency, but they were concerned that raising them in the Chamber might reflect badly on their landlords. That is an issue as well.
Some have argued that legislation to impose long-term security on tenancies is the answer. As a free-market Conservative, I do not wish to see that kind of imposition, but we should not be afraid of providing incentives for longer-term tenancies. Landowners get 100% agricultural property relief from inheritance tax if the person who owned the land farmed it themselves, or if it was used by someone else on a short-term grazing licence, or if it was let on a tenancy that began on or after 1 September 1995—after the introduction of the farm business tenancy. For all other landowners, the level of relief is set at 50%.
What if we restricted the 100% relief to landlords who let their land for five years or more, or perhaps even 10 years or more? There are obviously disadvantages for landlords in doing that, despite the advantages for the tenants, so we could offer them something in return. For example, we could give landlords who are willing to let for a longer term the ability to declare their income as trading income for tax purposes and easier mechanisms for ending tenancies if there is a breach of contract. Other alternatives include reforming stamp duty land tax, which currently disincentivises landlords from offering long-term tenancies, to end the discrimination against such tenancies.
The Conservative party, which I and the Minister are proud to be members of, often talks about its long-term economic plan. Will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with tenant farming representatives and the Treasury on the possibility of making the changes I have suggested? How will those issues be dealt with in his Department’s upcoming 25-year food and farming plan? Let us make the long-term economic plan a reality in the farming industry and incentivise long-term tenancies to promote investment and economic security.
I am delighted to be a parliamentary representative for the Conservative rural affairs group, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I recently spoke to Richard Haddock, who has just departed as chairman of the group. He said that we must work harder
“for the working farmer, not the landlords, because the landlords have the asset of the land and can borrow against it. If a tenant farmer wants to diversify, he does the work and takes the risk, but the landlord still takes the cut.”
The farmer increases the value of the landlord’s asset, but is often cheated out of many of the rewards that are owed to him.
A couple of weeks ago, the Prince’s Countryside Fund released new research showing that half of UK farmers no longer make a living from farming alone. They have to diversify to make their businesses sustainable, but diversification is a risk. Why would they take that risk if they do not know how long they are going to stay on their land and are at risk of eviction once their tenancy lease is up—especially if the landlord takes a cut from the diversification enterprise?
In my constituency, like my hon. Friend’s, many farmers are making huge strides in diversifying their incomes, whether through farm shops or holiday lettings. Does she agree that the short-term nature of some tenancy agreements inhibits such planning and diversification? Should the Government provide incentives for longer-term diversification in farms?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is reading my mind—I hope to go on to that. For tenant farmers to diversify, which they have to in order to keep their business thriving, they need some assurances that they can reap the rewards of their investment in the land they take care of.
Will the Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to ensure that farmers have an incentive to diversify, so that they and the rural economy can benefit from new initiatives and enterprise? Also, how is he communicating the 25-year food and farming plan to local authorities, so that they may support tenant farmers and local businesses to survive?
In Sussex, in particular, the problem many tenant farmers face is that there is simply not enough land available to them. They want to expand, invest and diversify, but they cannot. Often, that is because they are out-competed by developers, who simply have more financial leverage with landlords. Understandably, those landlords are looking for the most profitable way in which their land can be sold. The most profitable way for the landlord, however, does not necessarily mean the most profitable way for the rural economy. Will the Minister describe the action the Government are taking to ensure an increase or, at least, to prevent a decrease in the availability of land to tenant farmers?
President Eisenhower of the United States once said:
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”
He was right, of course—it is easy for us consumers to take those who are striving in green fields for granted, and to expect a steady supply of meat, vegetables and dairy products at respectable prices. The food security of our country lies on their shoulders, and the role of farmers in Sussex and elsewhere in keeping food on our table in an unstable world is vital.
In January, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) led an important debate on food security in this Westminster Hall Chamber. He highlighted how, as the world’s population grows and with increasing unrest and conflict, as well as what may be considered fractured relationships between Russia, China and the United States, the ability of some regions to produce food that can be turned into affordable imports for us in Britain is not guaranteed. He also made the valuable point that every tonne we import is a tonne less that is available to other nations, which might not have the ability to produce as we can. So we must empower our farmers to produce, and not limit their capacity by withholding land, saddling them with excessive regulation or disincentivising them from diversifying and investing.
Views on the European Union within the farming community are mixed, but in my opinion the EU does itself no favours when it issues regulations about crop rotation and the size of a hedge to recipients of the basic payment scheme. Such regulations all cost time, money and effort, and do not help British farmers—already adhering to high standards—to achieve a competitive edge, especially when the basic payment scheme payments are delayed, as they have been. Furthermore, landlords are known to take advantage of the basic payment scheme: if they know what the farmer is receiving, they can put their rent up accordingly, meaning a higher charge for the farmer before they even start producing.
Today, I have focused on tenancy security, but tenant farmers face many challenges—tax issues and incentives, tenancy succession, encouraging new entrants with loan schemes, and the arbitration process are all causes for concern. Time does not allow me to speak about those concerns in any great depth, but they and the interests of tenant farmers should be heard. I am grateful for the opportunity to have contributed in a small way, and I hope that other Members will do the same now and in future.
The debate is due to finish at 4.30 pm. The recommended time limits for the Front Benchers’ speeches are five minutes each for the Scottish National party and Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Two Members are standing and have caught my eye, the first of whom is Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate.
I spoke to the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) last night and asked what the thrust of her opinion and thoughts would be, which she clearly outlined for me. I have prepared some notes on farming—tenant farmers in particular—and on some of the experiences I have had in Northern Ireland.
I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union—we are the sister body, or maybe the brother body, of the National Farmers Union. I also own a small farm in Northern Ireland. We are probably a nation of fairly small farms; most of us can remember being brought up on a farm with an average size of about 60 or 70 acres. A family was reared on it and everyone did well, but they could not do that today—it would be quite impossible—because farms are now probably, on average, closer to 200 acres.
That is just an example; I now want to make some comments and to congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue forward for consideration in Westminster Hall. The reason why the debate is important has been outlined very well by the hon. Lady. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), in his place, and I look forward to his contribution and that of the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). As the Minister knows, I hold him in high esteem, and not only because he is an outer in the EU campaign. I hold him in high esteem no matter what, because he was always there for us on fisheries issues. I remember that very well and thank him very much.
The Tenant Farmers Association is concerned that those who develop Government agricultural policy unconsciously, or unintentionally, assume that all farmers are owner-occupiers and are therefore able to make their own decisions about how to respond to Government schemes and initiatives. The reality is very different. For those farming as tenants, decisions have to be made within a more complex set of circumstances. The hon. Member for Wealden, and some of those intervening on her, outlined that; other speakers will do likewise. How a tenant farmer responds to policy will have much to do with the impact of tenancy legislation, the framework of the tenancy agreement in place and the ongoing relationship with the owner of the land being farmed. The relationship that tenant farmers have with the owner is critical. Such factors need to be taken into consideration when the Government are drafting farming policy.
Under the previous Government, there were clear examples of policy developments in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs where those landlord-tenant considerations were obviously not taken into account by those responsible for drawing up the policies. Some of the concerns have already been outlined. Those policies include the development of the agri-environment schemes, such as the higher level stewardship scheme and the uplands entry level scheme; the requirements for fixed equipment within the new nitrate vulnerable zone regulations, which cause nightmares for us all, especially around the edge of Strangford lough in Northern Ireland; rural development grants for farm diversification, which the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) referred to in his intervention; and the move to flat-rate payments under the single payment scheme.
Tenant farmers are a large and too often unaccounted-for sector of the farming community. That is why this debate is so important in highlighting and focusing attention on a sector of the agri-food industry that needs help and assistance. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. This is a welcome opportunity to raise awareness of tenant farmers among all Members in this House, not just those in government.
I want to make some comments about Northern Ireland, which is of real relevance to this debate as it is one part of the United Kingdom where large estates and the traditional type of landlords were largely done away with—I am trying to get the right words: sometimes when I say that, people ask, “Has there been a revolution?” There has not been a revolution, but those landlords were done away with by legislative means. The process was cumulative, starting in the 1870s and the 1880s with rights, first, to compensation for improvement and, secondly, to security of tenure, the key security of tenure measure being an Irish Land Act, the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881.
About 40% of the land in Northern Ireland is let out on 11-month lets. In our system in Northern Ireland, owner-occupiers rent to other owner-occupiers, which is quite successful. There is the potential for incoming grazers or growers to achieve tenant rights, but in reality that does not happen very often. It is simply not in the culture anymore, because things have changed—owners know to look out for that, agents are wise to it and on the whole nobody tries to outwit them.
Interestingly, we would never hear anyone taking land in Northern Ireland being referred to as a “tenant”—the word is never used and would be inappropriate. It is not a word that is in the rural culture anymore—maybe that is what we need to be thinking about in the future—and perhaps it came to be regarded as derogatory at some point, due to the historic context of tenant farming in Northern Ireland. Some farmers in Northern Ireland almost looked across to tenant farmers in England or Scotland. They did not accept their lot as tenants and are suspicious of those who did not push for the same rights at the same time—rightly or wrongly. The children of current farmers or landowners would look at things differently. There would be a period of transition, when difficulties remain, simply because interpersonal relationships were soured in many areas—that is the case with the tenant farmer and with the person who owns the land—and that would be damaging. However, there might be occasions when the opposite happened.
In Northern Ireland, the tenants who bought out their farms in the 1920s were quite happy—I use this example as a person who is in favour of foxhunting—to continue to allow foxhunting over their land, because that was a social thing and members of the community relied on it for work. Their children did not have the same ties and in some cases quickly ended the practice. If we were to see the same rafts of changes here on the mainland, there would be a transitional period—perhaps not to the same extent, but there would none the less be a move in that direction. Some people would look to quickly deal with any potential for conflict; others would use the opportunity to assert their new status in ways that they were never able to before.
I will conclude with this comment. The other big difference in Northern Ireland was that the entire landlord class was reduced in a very short time. There was not anything cynical or murderous in people’s minds, but the Land Act enabled them to buy their land and they took that opportunity. Owing to the historic context, some people obviously remained, because they had at least some in-hand farming, forestry or other land assets. Lessons have been learned. The Land Act gave farmers in Northern Ireland a chance to buy their land and to farm and work it, as they have done.
I ask the Minister to take those points on board. I support the hon. Member for Wealden. I will be the one—there may be others here—to stand up for tenant farmers and ensure that they get their rights, as they should.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which indicates that I am both a landowner and a farmer. I held the shadow rural affairs brief in Wales for four years and now represent my wonderful constituency of Eddisbury, which has a high proportion of dairy farms.
The important word that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) mentioned was “flexibility”. I am sure that she will remember the days of the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986, when tenancies were inheritable from generation to generation. As someone who was involved with an Agricultural Holdings Act tenancy and saw the lack of investment—the second-generation farmer in that case was not farming the land at all; in fact, he had full-time employment elsewhere—I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to see the abuses of the system that occurred under such tenancies.
It was for that reason that flexibility in farm business tenancies was introduced. That flexibility led to an additional 100,000 acres of land coming up for rent. That is important; in fact, from my experience in the last five years, the biggest constraint on tenants has been rent levels. That has been the biggest pressure on the system, not the length of tenancies. In fact, a very short tenancy can offer flexibility to someone who wants to expand for the short term or to a landowner or neighbouring farmer who has spare capacity because of either disease or a change of farming method. Such tenancies allow people to offer land to a neighbour on a short-term basis and give the system important flexibility.
In my experience, many landlords, if they are asked by tenant farmers, will actually sign the indemnities that allow those tenants to claim under the higher level stewardship scheme, on the basis that they will be reimbursed. It then becomes the landlord’s risk, but if they have a good relationship with the tenant, they are likely to do that. My hon. Friend’s speech did not recognise that there is a difference between good landlords and bad ones. A farmer who is interested in their land, who wants flexibility and who wants to encourage people to come forward will want a good relationship with their tenant. That is the best way of producing a good outcome for both the tenant and the landlord.
That is the very flexibility in operation in the farm business tenancies system. For example, a farmer may die, his widow may not have short-term arrangements in place and the children may have to return to take on the farm. The flexibility in the farm business tenancies system allows that approach; it is not there in the kind of long-term tenancies that my hon. Friend proposes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: people tend to come to us as Members of Parliament with problems rather than to say that things are going well. I have some fantastic landlords in my constituency, but I held a number of meetings at which tenant farmers said they felt they did not have the right support to negotiate longer-term tenancies; they felt uncomfortable about raising that. I am here today because they do not have the time, capacity or energy to lobby that the big farmers would.
I would advise those tenants to speak to the Tenant Farmers Association, which is effective at representing its tenant farmers, as well as to the NFU and other organisations, who also provide effective representation.
I plead the cause of young farmers in particular. It is a big risk for a landowner to take an unproved tenant under 40, who may not have had their foot on the ladder before, on to their farm for a 10-year tenancy of the type that my hon. Friend argued for, but it is vital to encourage younger entrants to come forward. They have bright ideas and they want to progress, but that is a risk. The danger of the course of action that she proposes, with longer-term tenancies, is that innovation and support is stifled because the risk is too great. A 10-year commitment is also a great risk for the tenant, who will have that liability for 10 years.
My hon. Friend is in effect arguing for better representation in negotiations rather than reducing flexibility in the system. I say to the Minister that for tenant farmers in my constituency the real pressure in the system comes from the level of rents and, in particular, what has happened to dairy prices. I certainly saw livestock farmers priced out of the market when milk prices were high because high levels of rent were being asked for relatively small parcels of land, which prevented some getting on to the ladder in the livestock sector. I experienced that in north Wales and there are also high levels of rent in Eddisbury. That, rather than flexibility, is the real issue.
Diversification has risks associated with it, but again a good landlord will want to encourage a positive relationship with their tenant and the tenant will want to have a positive relationship with their landlord. When that works, there can be some really good, productive, experimental diversification programmes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when there is a positive, constructive relationship between the landlord and tenant, that can work in the long term? My father-in-law has been a tenant farmer with the Duchy of Cornwall for more than 50 years, which has worked well for both parties.
I certainly do agree. We should focus our attention on providing support and encouraging those constructive relationships to go forward rather than on legislating to alter the lengths of tenancies. Quality and support are the two issues, and a good relationship will almost inevitably lead to an extension of tenancy agreements when that suits both parties.
If we constrict the amount of time to a minimum term of 10 years, with relief available only at that time, what happens to someone who wants to renew for another five years? Is that done from the baseline of the tenancy? What happens if someone wants to bring in a partner to farm with them? Does that count as a new tenancy? In my submission, the current system is flexible. It has wrinkles, and I do not pretend that there are not problems, but I urge caution before this place passes more legislation on farm business tenancies.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the opportunity to participate in this debate. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) on securing it? I thought she made an excellent speech on the issues at play here. It is always welcome in a Westminster Hall debate, as in any debate, when constructive ideas and suggestions are put forward. This forum seems to lend itself better to that than the main Chamber, and that is something we should all consider.
The critical nature of the length and security of tenancies is emphasised by the fact that most tenancies are shorter than the Government period for averaging out profits. That speaks volumes about the need for action. The idea of bringing a long-term plan to farming made me smile. Hopefully it is a lot better than the long-term economic plan, which is clearly a work in progress. I congratulate the hon. Lady on kicking off the debate with lots of ideas, and I have no doubt the Minister was scribbling furiously.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is always a champion for Northern Ireland. I have not yet known him to get through a speech without mentioning a union. Quite often it is in my direction, but in this case it was the European Union. I congratulate him on being, as ever, a champion of Northern Ireland and giving us that important perspective as we consider what we should do.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) emphasised the importance of flexibility, and I agree. It is not necessarily a case of one size fitting all. Whatever we do, we should always consider that protection and support are needed for landlords as well as tenants. Rents are an important issue. I fear she is slightly more laissez-faire in her approach to that than I am, and certainly more than the Scottish Government are. I would like to see a lot more action from the Government.
Tenant farming plays a vital role across the UK, but in Scotland it is of particular importance. It accounts for 1.3 million hectares, amounting to more than 18% of our land mass. However, the sector has been declining for decades and has almost halved to just 24% of farmland since 1982. The new Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 is an attempt to breathe life into tenanting and to ensure that it thrives. It is also a critical component of the Scottish Government’s drive for a fairer, more equal and more socially just Scotland. According to the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association—they are not here today, but it is rather a longer journey for them—the new Act is
“the most significant reform to tenancy legislation since tenant farmers were granted security of tenure in 1948.”
A central part of the Act is ensuring fairness between tenants and landlords. The creation of a tenant farming commissioner will help with that process and, we believe, improve relations. There will also be a much fairer and more transparent system of rent reviews; improvements in end-of-tenancy compensation; a broadening of the class of relative entitled to succeed to a tenancy; and the creation of an exit route for 1991 tenants to assign their tenancies to new entrants or other farmers if the landlord does not want to buy them out. Assignations are a central feature of the Act, which seeks to protect them while accepting that it is an ongoing process that needs to be subject to regular review.
By taking those evolutionary and common-sense steps, the legislation will bring real and meaningful land reform, which will restore confidence to the sector, address many of the issues faced by tenant farmers and bring vibrancy and certainty. At the same time, and contrary to the claims of some, it should not deter landlords from providing new tenancies and will not materially disadvantage them.
Tenant farming and land reform will always be works in progress, but the Act is a highly positive step forward in Scotland. It will hopefully encourage investment in the sector, address long-standing concerns, build confidence and make our legislation fit for the 21st century. Tenant farmers deserve certainty, security and fairness. That needs to be embedded in legislation, and that is what we are doing in Scotland. Hopefully lessons can be learned for the rest of the UK too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) for her strong introduction to the debate. I also thank colleagues who have intervened and made contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke powerfully on tenant farmers in Ulster, and the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) emphasised the difficulty of high levels of rent for farmers, particularly in the north-west.
Tenant farmers are often the ties that bind together agriculture in the UK. They deserve peace of mind and security so that they can make their living in a fair and environmentally sustainable way. It is vital that the Government take a long, hard look at the relationship between landlord and tenant. With their upcoming 25-year plan, they could either usher in a new era for tenant farming or leave too many high and dry.
I appreciate the strong views of the Tenant Farmers Association and its campaign. It is rightly defending its members from abuse from landowners and from uncertain futures. I equally note the Country Land and Business Association’s position that some of the ideas suggested to protect tenant farmers may lead to reduced land stock. That is why the Government’s food and farming plan is so important. They must gather the evidence needed and bring in the right measures to make the tenant-landlord relationship a positive one.
The Farming Minister has said that longer tenancies for farming businesses are important to provide security, investment and growth. Will he tell us what the 25-year plan will do to help tenant farmers and landlords? For instance, county council farm estates are an increasingly painful issue for tenant farmers which the Government need to address. Herefordshire Council has become the latest to sell off its estates—land that provided a good entry point for young farmers. Unfortunately, the council has committed to selling that land, evicting 42 tenants in the process. The Landworkers’ Alliance said in April that 219 farms had been sold by councils since 2010. As the Farming Minister described those sales as a tragedy, will he detail what long-term steps the Government are taking to support and protect those vital estates and their tenants?
Another area the Government need to protect is the environment and the role of the tenant farmer as a steward. Farmers incentivised to invest will work on better land and choose long-term health over short-term gain. That is why I was pleased to see a statutory instrument passed recently that widened compensation for tenant farmers for soil improvements. If we recognise that good stewardship is bolstered by secure tenancy, why has DEFRA separated its plans for the environment from its food and farming strategy? Will the Minister assure us that those plans will be closely integrated in what the Department hopes to achieve?
One such mechanism for the good care of land is the much trumpeted countryside stewardship scheme, yet last year’s effort was branded “not fit for purpose”, with farmers complaining about large amounts of bureaucracy and an IT system that failed to deliver. Only 2,314 applications were made, but 8,000 had been expected. The Government say they have made efforts to make the scheme more attractive and workable this year, but those measures will count for nothing if there is not a vastly improved take-up. Will the Minister give us an early indication of expected take-up for the scheme and whether it will match last year’s target?
Tenant farmers need peace of mind and land tenure that helps them build their business. They need county councils that work with the TFA and the NFU to develop an estates strategy that helps young farmers get a head start. Finally, they need a Government who deliver on their promise of a countryside stewardship programme that works.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) on securing this important debate. It is an issue that I have followed closely as Farming Minister over the past two and a half years. She is absolutely right: tenant farmers have a vital role to play in our countryside. Roughly one third of farms and one third of the land we have is tenanted. Farm tenancies are a vital route for new entrants coming into the industry. They help existing businesses expand and take on new land, and they are essential because the prohibitively high capital cost of land is a real bar and obstacle to new people entering the industry.
Every industry needs new talent, fresh thinking and new ways of doing things. Farming is no exception. In our 25-year food and farming plan, we will consider how to encourage alternative models of doing business in farming so that we do not think just about landowners, owner-occupiers and tenant farmers, but look at ways of expanding some of the contract farming models that have been very successful. Perhaps farmers could progress to share farming models where they have a stake in a business and earn in the business before taking on their own tenancy and perhaps even buying land at the end.
I come back to the crucial farm business tenancies. It is important to remember why they were introduced. The deregulatory measure was taken in 1995 because there was real concern that, as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) said, not enough land was coming to the market and that was restrictive and acting as a barrier. The burdens and obligations in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 prevented land from coming to the market but, generally speaking, the Agricultural Tenancy Act 1995 was judged a success. Between 1996 and 2003, 35,000 acres a year came on to the market. That has stabilised since and things have not changed as much, but it was undoubtedly successful in deregulating and bringing more land to the market, creating more opportunities.
However, I am aware that the Tenants Farmers Association and others have expressed concerns about the average length of some tenancies. Currently, they are around three and a half years. A couple of years ago they were around three years and have gone up slightly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden pointed out, the challenge of having such short-term tenancies is clear. If someone has tenure of the land for only three years, they do not have the incentive to invest in that land.
I worked in the farming industry for 10 years and grew up on a farm. I know that if someone takes on a piece of land that has not been farmed adequately or properly for a period of years, it can take four or five years to turn it around and get the land back to its full potential by investing and putting on farmyard manure, and adding fertilisers, sand or lime to bring the soil to its full productive potential. That takes time and if someone is there for only three and a half years it can fuel short-termism, which is not good for the quality of our soils. We should be concerned about soil in agriculture because it is at the heart of everything we do and we must protect it.
We are interested in finding ways to incentivise longer term tenancies without losing the benefits of flexibility in farm business tenancies. I have had numerous discussions with agricultural lawyers and land agents, and with representatives from the Tenant Farmers Association and the Country Land and Business Association. The last two do not always see eye to eye on this issue, frankly. I recently met representatives from a selection of county farms around the country. I share the concern expressed by the shadow Minister about the potential loss of some county farms. About a month ago, we had an interesting session with representatives to discuss how to refresh that model in a way that recognises some of the pressures on local authorities.
The Government have no fixed view on the need for change to legislation or otherwise. Many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden are for the Treasury and she might want to have conversations with Treasury Ministers. The area is complex and I am mindful of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury that we must be careful when making changes that we do not create unintended consequences. Having caveated what I am going to say with those crucial points, I want to explain the context and texture of my discussions with some of the leading experts in the field and some of the ideas that we could consider.
The first thing to recognise is that although the average length of a farm business tenancy is three and a half years, there is a big division between bare land, which people rent for a short-term crop—perhaps potatoes —for a couple of years and a farm that has a farmstead, a yard and a house where people live. The average length of a tenancy of a farm with a farmstead is more than eight years, which is much closer to the 10 years that the Tenant Farmers Association is calling for.
The other thing to bear in mind is that short-term lets are important for some business models. Even in my part of the world—Cornwall—businesses often specialise in particular areas. Some may specialise in brassica crops—cauliflowers and cabbages—which can be grown on the land for only two to three years before a new rotation must come in. Often, a potato grower will follow for a period and a daffodil grower will follow that. Finally, when the land has been hammered for a few years of intensive cropping, a cattle farmer comes in and puts it into grazing for the best part of a decade. That model can work and can suit some farm enterprises.
I have had discussions with the Tenant Farmers Association about agricultural property relief. I subsequently had discussions with Treasury officials about the TFA’s proposal and I helped to facilitate a meeting between George Dunn, its chief executive, and Treasury officials to discuss his ideas further. The officials told me they will consider these ideas and feed back their thoughts to me. I am still awaiting that feedback. They have obviously been busy with the Budget recently, but I look forward to having their feedback about whether it is a good thing or not because it is a policy area for them. There is a danger that such a measure could restrict the market and that less land could come to the market for the agribusinesses that value flexibility.
A second matter raised was stamp duty land tax. Tenant farmers and landowners agree that they would like changes. Again, this is an issue for the Treasury, but the challenge is that the longer the term of the tenancy, the higher its value and the more likely it is to trip over the threshold for SDLT.
I have received proposals about considering the law on rules of forfeiture of farm business tenancies. At the moment, if there is a breach of a covenant, the only option open to the landlord is to go for full forfeiture, which is quite a high hurdle to clear in a court. That makes landlords nervous about longer-term tenancies and makes them more likely to go for a shorter term tenancy because there is less risk. One suggestion is that we may be able to borrow some of the other remedies and tenancies in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 and have options and measures that fall short of full forfeiture—for example, an enforcement notice to get a covenant in a tenancy abided by.
I have received some suggestions about borrowing elements of commercial property tenancies with a right to renew, which would stop short of longer term tenancies but might create some sort of soft presumption that someone who has been a good tenant for a three-year term should have priority to renew that tenancy—a right to renew rather than being held to ransom for a higher rent. Again, that is an interesting idea that I am keen to consider, although I have heard mixed opinions about how significant a change that would be and whether it would have much impact.
Going into more detail in these areas, I have had representations to repeal section 31 of the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995. Under the Law of Property Act 1925, there has been a statutory right for a landowner to create a tenancy on their land. They did not have to have the permission of any moneylender who had a charge over that land to do so because it was deemed important that land was kept in productive capacity and that the interests of banks and moneylenders should not be placed ahead of food production for the country. Some deft lobbying by the British Bankers Association in 1995 resulted in a change to the flagship Law of Property Act 1925, which undermined landowners’ ability to put a tenancy on their land to the extent that to create a tenancy they now need prior permission from someone with a charge on that asset if that is in the mortgage deed.
The shadow Minister referred to county farms. There has been concern about those, particularly in Herefordshire, which prompted me to set up some discussions. The Agriculture Act 1970 gives DEFRA a role to work with local authorities to help them to refine their plans and I am considering that. We cannot block them from selling those assets—they have a statutory right to do that—but we have a role to play in working with them on any plans for reorganisation of their county farms. That is why I am keen to have discussions with them about how we can try to refresh the model and make it a real option for new entrants to the industry.
I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden a chance to come back on some of these issues, but on contract farming, there are some interesting models out there that enable new entrants, who perhaps do not have a huge amount of capital behind them, to get access and set up a new business. I will give just one example of the kind of thing that we are looking at in our food and farming plan. Tulip, which is a very large pig producer that accounts for about 20% of all pig production in this country, runs a system called franchise farming, whereby it owns the units and gives access to its animal genetics. It takes care of all the marketing and gives people access to its science and veterinary expertise. But on each unit it has a franchise farmer, who basically runs the unit for a fee, for a contract per pig completed, with all sorts of performance-related pay. That is a great way to give young people who want to farm, but have no capital behind them, the first stepping stone into the industry. It is also a model that can lead to better knowledge transfer and access to technology.
My final point, therefore, is that as we think about the future of farming in this country, we perhaps need to move beyond the traditional notion of tenancies and land ownership and look at some of those other, more creative models, which may actually have far more promise for new people trying to get into the industry.
I thank the Farming Minister for his response. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for talking about diversification. Farmers do much more than till the soil on their land, and they have to diversify their businesses. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I do not think that a debate could take place in this Chamber without his support or intervention, and his passion was a delight to hear. To my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), I say that I am not proposing that we legislate for longer- term tenancies. What I want us to do—I think that the Minister alluded to this—is to incentivise landlords to offer longer-term tenancies, and make it easier for tenant farmers to try to negotiate those better deals. Quite often we talk about the importance of food security, but we do not offer support for the farmers who are providing that.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. I now need to move on and speak to the Treasury, but my local tenant farmers will be reassured by some of his comments today. I would also like to place it on the record that I have been a Member of Parliament for about 11 months and every time I have approached the Farming Minister, he has made himself available. We have had two very large meetings with the Conservative Rural Affairs Group, and he is due to meet members of the East Sussex farming business community, who will no doubt pick up all the points that he has not covered in this debate. I hope that they will challenge him and push him even further.
My final point is that I come from a delightful constituency, with a huge number of landlords and tenants farming, but I feel that there is some nervousness about raising the concerns of tenant farmers who are not new entrants into the market. They are not young people; they have been farming for quite a while and they struggle to move their business from site to site. I would like to work with the Minister on ensuring that we can provide them with as much help as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tenant farming.