I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The legislation which provided for relief of rates on agricultural land by way of the agricultural grant expired on the 31st December last. The purpose of the present Bill is to continue the application of the agricultural grant in respect of 1976 and 1977.
The agricultural grant is paid by the Exchequer to county councils to enable them to give abatement of rates to occupiers of agricultural land. In the present financial year £36.5 million will be paid over from the Exchequer to county councils by means of the agricultural grant to reduce the rates burden on the agricultural community. This is an increase of £6.28 million on the amount of the grant in 1975.
Under the scheme of allowances provided under the Bill, a primary allowance as in 1975, gives relief of 100 per cent of the general rate in the case of land holdings the valuation of which does not exceed £20. In the case of holdings between £20 and £33 valuation this primary allowance also relieves 100 per cent of the rates on the first £20 of the land valuation and the rated occupier is liable for rates on the remainder only. Land holdings with valuations in excess of £33 again as in 1975 qualify for a primary allowance of 80 per cent in respect of the first £20 of the valuation and a supplementary allowance of 30 per cent on the remainder of the valuation.
The Bill as introduced, also provided for the continuance of the employment allowance of £17 per workman, heretofore given to farmers subject to certain conditions. However, the Government gave the matter further consideration in the course of their examination of the budgetary issues. The original purpose of the employment allowance was, I gather, to encourage the employment of workers in agriculture. It is doubtful if the allowance ever succeeded in promoting any additional employment on the land, but over the years it was argued that the continuance of the allowance was justifiable on the grounds that it provided an incentive for the employment on an all-the-year-round basis of farm workers who might otherwise be disengaged in slack periods.
I think it will be generally agreed that the allowance did not succeed even in this modest objective. The figures in the matter, in fact, show that there has been a steady decline in the numbers employed in agriculture all through the 30 year period since the initiation of this allowance. The total amount of the employment allowance expressed as a percentage of the total agricultural grant has shown a dramatic decrease in recent years. In the year 1953-54 it formed 27.8 per cent of the total grant. Last year this had fallen to a mere 1.65 per cent, and with the continued increase in the total grant, would have fallen to a still lower figure this year.
The employment allowance now seems to fulfil no real purpose and it is not surprising that in debates on the agricultural grant in this House; in recent years, serious doubts have been expressed as to its continued usefulness. I myself, when in Opposition, said that the grant of this allowance was a waste of money. In the debate on the last Bill I repeated that I had not changed my mind in this regard and indicated that the grant of the allowance would have to be reviewed. In the light of the foregoing, the Government decided that the employment allowance should be terminated. Accordingly, I propose moving an appropriate amendment on Committee Stage providing for the discontinuance of this allowance.
The purpose of section 2 of the Bill is to provide that in future extensions of county borough, borough or urban boundaries, farmers whose land may be encompassed by revised boundaries will not lose the benefits of the rate reliefs afforded by the agricultural grant; this arrangement will apply for so long as the land continues to be used solely or mainly for agricultural purposes.
I commend the Bill to the House.