Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

5.35 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I rise with a number of apologies to make. First, I must apologise to the Minister for the fact that I shall not be present when he winds up the debate. Needless to say, that is for the usual inescapable reasons, which overtook me against my will. I grovel. It is a practice I deplore, but I feel that I may not be missed.

Secondly, I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I advised my noble friend that she did not need to listen to every speech, that it was permissible to go out for a cup of tea and that only Ministers have to listen all the time. She was prepared to stay but sensibly accepted my advice.

I have read the gracious Speech, and I find that I have an excuse for everything that I have to say. If I say something for which there is no excuse, there is the great phrase:

to which one can add, "or not".

First, I should like to welcome the Agricultural Tenancies Bill. It is a useful measure and will bring a little more land into conventional tenancy, which is socially very desirable. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is a brutal, nasty man. He told the truth about what is happening, and he laid out the facts extremely well. It is true that a great many able farmers are taking over from landlords who are not noted for their competence in business, and are operating agreements which give them a great deal of land, and they manage it extremely competently. We are rapidly moving towards a situation in which competent people will find land to let under some form of agreement to suit them. In living memory—in mine certainly, but I am an old, old man—landlords were desperate to find tenants who would farm their land. That situation may be recurring in a different form. However, I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who knows all about these matters, will go into detail on the subject.

The next point which I want to raise, which is not mentioned in the gracious Speech, has already been addressed competently by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer.

23 Nov 1994 : Column 319

I should like to correct the noble Lord on one point. He said that perhaps I had gone many miles for a pint of milk. I have gone many miles for a pint of something else, but not for a pint of milk. What the noble Lord said about hill farms is perfectly true. The Government behaved miserably. Because hill farmers had had a better year, which did not bring them up to anything like the standard enjoyed by the vast majority of people in this country, the Government took £50 million in two years from the 60,000 hill farmers of this country. I trust and hope that they will reverse that policy.

They ought to do so for many reasons. One is that I do not know what you do with the hills unless you farm them with sheep and cattle and keep the population there—the crofters of Scotland and the hill farmers of Wales and elsewhere. If you do not do so, you have removed an economic stay which keeps the population there. In the highlands of Scotland one would leave nothing except sporting estates on which one would encourage many rich people to come and shoot grouse; and where would one get the people to manage those estates? Such farming is an integral part of the maintenance of the beauty and the use of the hills and their outlet for the ordinary people of this country.

It is absolutely essential that the Government think again on the policy of reducing the support which hill farmers receive to make their hard life tolerable, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, said, and, more importantly, to give them a standard of living which will encourage their children to continue to farm. At present there is no inducement to do that.

My next point concerns the CAP. There was reference in the gracious Speech to the issue. It must be strongly in the mind of everyone who has anything to do with the CAP. As it stands, the CAP is in great danger. The critics are becoming increasingly confrontational, saying that the policy is an absolute piece of nonsense. When considering the different devices that we use to seek to make the policy work, one realises that the critics are right. The situation has reached an extraordinary stage.

Sweden, Finland, and possibly (but only possibly) Norway, will be coming into the European Union. Those are countries with high cost agricultural support. With regard to Norway, the policy is purely social because without it large areas of the country would not be populated. We have a problem with those countries which is easier to address than in regard to the next batch of obvious entrants. I refer to the most advanced Eastern European countries: Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. It is absolutely natural, right and proper that they will seek entry. However, at present we are doing such countries enormous harm because we are pushing heavily subsidised grain and other products into their market. We have increased exports to them while their exports have been reduced in proportion. Therefore we have in that respect a tremendous problem. In the view of most people, it is absolutely essential that those countries enter into the Community. They have great stretches of very good land. They have competent people who with training will be able to farm extremely well, and their production will come on to the European market.

23 Nov 1994 : Column 320

Those countries also have a great advantage: they do not have a CAP. I have cited the figures previously, but they are useful. A tonne of barley in the East European countries fetches about £70 to £80. The wage for a month for a man on the land is about £20. Therefore a tonne of barley will pay a man for three or four months. In this country a tonne of barley will pay a man for about three days, or perhaps four if one does not pay him much. That situation places the current CAP of the European Union in grave danger. The situation must be addressed.

I have no doubt that the Minister has been thinking about the situation and will have had sleepless nights about it. It is right that that should be so. However, I must congratulate a committee of the English and Welsh NFU on producing a document entitled Real Choices. I have no doubt that the Minister has seen it. It puts starkly the choices before this country and the European Union. There are two real choices. One is completely to decouple: to allow prices to fall and pay direct area payments, payments per head, or whatever it may be, to farmers. The other has great attractions: it is to buy out farmers, leaving them totally without support in a free market system. I refer to buying them out by means of a bond which could be paid for 10 years, and sold on the market if necessary, which would provide support for a period of change-over.

Those are both fairly brutal solutions. However, they are solutions which the Minister, this country, and Ministers in the Community must consider. The sooner they face the problems and produce some forward thinking on the matter, the better it will be for all of us. I do not envy them the task but the situation must be faced because at present no one believes that the existing CAP can last beyond the present period—that is, about three further years.

Lastly, I wish to say something on the environment as it affects agriculture. I wholly agree that we have to have sustainable agriculture. I wholly agree with the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who said that we have to have modern systems. We must have all the aids for production. Those were instanced by a scientist. I refer to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere. We must have fertilisers and methods of controlling pests. We must ensure that such methods are sustainable. It is not possible to return to the system which made my native county of Aberdeenshire fertile. It was a rigid system involving three years of grass crop, one year of oats, one year of turnips, and followed by oats and undersowing with grass. One then had a gradual build-up of fertility which turned Aberdeenshire from a blasted heath into a fertile agricultural area within 100 years. I do not think it is possible to return to that system, but some of my smart and able farming friends in the area are growing crops and working forms of rotation—ploughing back, green manuring, and so on—which appear to sustain the land. However, we need absolute scientific evidence that it is so doing. It is not enough to say that only the old systems, or organic farming, can keep up the sustainable land and can improve it. We have to consider new systems. We have to condemn systems which do not keep up the fertility of the soil. Research is absolutely essential.

23 Nov 1994 : Column 321

I refer again to my native land. I do not always agree with my noble friend Lord Beaumont and other environmentalists, but it is true that we all have to work at the situation. However, with regard to the highlands of Scotland, if the corncrakes are pushing out the crofters, then my vote is for the crofters.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Norrie: My Lords, I am one of many in this Chamber who are delighted that a major Environment Agencies Bill is to be introduced shortly into this House.

I have taken a close interest in the Government's environmental programme in recent years. I believe that I have commented on every Bill with an environmental dimension which has passed through this House since 1989. Your Lordships may know that there is a special place in my heart for national parks. My own Bill to establish free-standing authorities for all national parks in England and Wales passed successfully through this House last Session. I am therefore particularly glad that the Secretary of State for the Environment and indeed the Minister in his opening speech this afternoon both confirmed that the Government's Bill will achieve what my own Bill sought to do.

It is now nearly four years since the National Parks Review Panel published its report. We have been awaiting legislation ever since to implement its recommendations. All along, the Government have promised to act. The Edwards panel, as it is known, made a large number of important recommendations, some requiring legislation. I was pleased that the Secretary of State confirmed on Friday that the Government will be establishing free-standing authorities for national parks. I trust that the legislation will be on the same lines as my Private Member's Bill.

The Minister has confirmed today that the Bill will also revise the park purposes. I should welcome clarification that both the conservation and enjoyment purposes for which the parks were designated will be revised in line with the recommendations of the Edwards Report. But it is vital that these changes are the right changes if we are to put national parks on a sound basis for the next century. In particular, the way the parks are to be enjoyed needs to be more carefully expressed in the statutory purposes.

National parks receive 100 million visits each year. It is essential that those who do visit do not destroy the very qualities they come to enjoy. Parliament's challenge is to ensure that the parks are for quiet enjoyment, away from urban pressures and noisy motorised sports.

Further, economic activities in the parks should be environmentally sustainable. The Government have made a number of welcome commitments to the concept of sustainable development and this fact has been highlighted by the Minister today. Nowhere is this more important than in our national parks which cover 10 per cent. of the land area of England and Wales and are part of the critical natural assets of this country.

National park authorities should be able to work with those who are responsible for the social and economic welfare of the parks. These efforts must ensure that the

23 Nov 1994 : Column 322

needs of park communities are met in ways that sustain and, where possible, enhance the environmental qualities of the parks.

The Edwards panel made two other important recommendations requiring legislation, and it is not yet clear whether the Bill will include these. They are, first, that a duty should be placed on all Ministers and government departments to promote the interests of national parks; and, secondly, that a test should be applied to all major development proposals in national parks. This would permit damaging development only if there is a proven national need and there is no alternative means of meeting that need. To rely on planning policy guidance for such a test is too weak and in any case excludes important forms of development such as energy and road projects. I shall be very concerned if these measures, which are Edwards Report recommendations, are not included in the Bill.

I have concentrated in these brief remarks on the parts of the Bill which will affect national parks. But I shall also be scrutinising the rest in order to satisfy myself that the progress achieved by the Government in recent years is carried forward. I am particularly interested in whether the Government's commitment to environmental policy integration will be taken forward by the Bill. So I shall be exploring the potential for duties on government Ministers to promote the environment as part of their wider responsibilities.

I shall also wish to explore the concerns raised by environmental groups about the environment agency and to examine closely the welcome announcement that there will be measures for hedgerow protection in the Bill.

Environmental legislation rightly arouses great interest in this House and there are so many expert opinions that I foresee many long nights ahead. But there can scarcely be any legislation more important than ensuring that we leave an environment worth inheriting to our children and our grandchildren. I therefore relish the weeks ahead.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page