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4.23 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): It is a great privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), who--like me, and others who are present today--served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill that became the Environment Act 1997. His knowledge of the countryside and the environment is unsurpassed in the House, and he will be a great loss to it.

I fear that I must be slightly ruder than my hon. Friend. What we have heard today, in the dying moments of this Parliament, is the true voice of the Labour party, and the reality of their policy on the countryside. I believe that farmers in my Northumberland constituency will have listened carefully to what was said by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), and will have been warned of what they could face in the unlikely event of a Labour Government.

The Labour party has not changed. It is still the tool of any pressure group wanting to promote an agenda. Labour will listen to it and promise to implement its proposals. The hon. Member for Deptford has forgotten the important fact that farmers have to make a living. That means that over the years they have had to change the landscape and field structures to meet modern requirements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln was right when he said that many farmers are planting hedgerows. If the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford looked at the figures properly, instead of merely taking them from the nearest pressure group, she would see that more hedgerows are being planted and that most are lost because of road construction and housing development. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for his understanding of the matter. I agree that one of the causes of hedgerow loss is lack of maintenance. We are not debating that, but it is a problem that we must address.

I welcome the regulations, although they will be a burden on farmers who planted the hedgerows in the first place. They will face increasing bureaucracy, and they already suffer enough from that. I do not pretend that I wholeheartedly welcome the regulations, but I accept that they are a sensible compromise between the needs of those who want total protection and those who want to see economic farming from a profitable countryside.

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) who took part in debates on this issue before he joined the silent ones in the Whips Office. He brokered a good deal between the interests of farmers and those of serious conservationists who wanted hedgerow protection. The result is by no means ideal for farmers, but they will accept it and honour its principles.

Sir Kenneth Carlisle: As my hon. Friend says, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey presented, I think, two private Member's Bills on the subject, and was assiduous in promoting it.

Mr. Atkinson: I agree that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey played an important part in formulating the regulations, which I hope will reach the statute book.

4.26 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for finding time at the end of this Parliament to debate this subject. Perhaps it is partly as a result of my question to him on Thursday, when I asked whether the regulations that were laid on 3 March could be debated before the close of this Parliament.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said that many hedges had been destroyed because of neglect by farmers. I do not accept his argument, but if what he says is true, one of the reasons for neglect is a rural economy in disarray. Because of the way in which the economy has been managed and improved over the past 18 years--progress that would be put at risk by a change of Government--the rural economy has prospered, and that has allowed farmers to take more care of the environment in which they work.

In my constituency there is ample evidence that farmers look after the countryside. In Leicestershire there are wonderful examples of the art of cutting and laying hedges. I invite the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish to come and see what is happening in a prosperous rural constituency in which farmers pay great attention to the world in which they live and work. Instead of always attacking the rural community and running down farmers, I wish that Labour Members could come to the countryside to see the good work that is going on. My farmers do not neglect their hedges. I see a Labour Member who looks as if he has been through a hedge backwards, as have his policies.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): The hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting that not everyone in the countryside shares the concerns of groups such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which feel that, although some farmers have, of course, done some constructive things and indeed have received grants to do so, it is a shame that this measure could not have included some of the points that have been made by very respectable groups. Those groups represent, in some cases, farming and rural interests and rural communities, which want this measure to be properly done, rather than being rushed through with gaps in it, as at present.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman displays yet again, and unfailingly, the Labour party's attitude towards any

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form of positive improvement of the countryside. I wish that the public would realise precisely what they are in for if they sleep-walk into a Labour Government.

I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), whose departure from the House is much to be regretted, on the benefits of the countryside stewardship scheme, which has allowed an increasing number of hedges to be planted and to be maintained in the past few years. The countryside is not to be viewed as something in aspic, destined always to remain the same.

To take another example from East Anglia, in south-west Norfolk, quite near Thetford, the part that I come from, there used not to be a hedge between our house and Ely cathedral 250 years ago. That position has completely changed as a result of farmers' need and desire to plant hedges, so the myth and the lies put about by the Labour party are much to be regretted, and will, I hope, be dealt with roundly.

I praise the co-operation of the Government with those interested in the countryside environment. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) was unable to understand the need for central and local government to work with parish councils and with the farming community. That is the best way in which to achieve the best results.

May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether farmers will be required to pay a fee to accompany their applications, if they should make one? If so, what is the likely level of those fees?

That is all I wish to say. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for bringing forward this measure for discussion and I trust that, before 1 June, when it comes into effect, proper and adequate consultations will be held with all interested parties.

4.31 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to catch your eye in this short debate; I will be extremely brief, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House wishes to get on to other business.

Before I say anything further, I declare my interest as a farmer and as a member of the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and other associated countryside bodies.

I too pay sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) because it was he who promoted a private Member's Bill--

Mr. Bennett: Who wrecked it?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: At that time, I was not convinced of the need. I am sorry for the need to bring these regulations before the House because a small minority of farmers acted totally irresponsibly. Having said that, all responsible people in the countryside want hedges to be maintained.

With the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who is heckling me from a sedentary position, I sat through many hours on the Environment Bill. We have fulfilled our commitment in the Bill to introduce these regulations. Having passed that primary legislation, we are now able to make these order-making

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powers. Indeed, the Labour party, which has been making such a fuss this afternoon, will now find it much easier to amend the regulations, if it wishes to, if they do not work in practice. I want them to work.

The Labour party is a single-issue pressure group party. It forgets that these hedgerows would not be there at all if it were not for the responsible farmers and landowners who planted them during the enclosures and afterwards, because they wanted country sports such as hunting and shooting to prosper. It is in hunting and shooting areas that we find the best hedges.

Mr. Bennett: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the vast majority of hedgerows were planted as a result of Acts of Parliament and in relation to getting permission for enclosures, and that Parliament laid down a condition that, if the enclosures were to take place, proper hedges were to be planted and maintained? It may be that bringing prosecutions under those old Acts of Parliament will be more effective than doing so under the regulations, but will he also admit that he was the one who wrecked the Bill of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and that it was a little hard on him?

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