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House of Lords

Tuesday, 13th July 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.

Baroness Stern

Miss Vivien Helen Stern, CBE, having been created Baroness Stern, of Vauxhall in the London Borough of Lambeth, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Dubs and the Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Lord Stevenson of Coddenham

Sir Henry Dennistoun Stevenson, Knight, CBE, having been created Baron Stevenson of Coddenham, of Coddenham in the County of Suffolk, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Dormand of Easington and the Lord Walker of Worcester.

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

2.48 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they will announce their decision on the future status, as protected areas of landscape, of areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the arrangements for the long-term funding of their management.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the Government are still considering very carefully the advice on the future treatment of AONBs in England which the former Countryside Commission delivered to them last summer.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, which is almost exactly the same as that given to me a year ago. Does the noble Baroness agree that there has been an extraordinary development in the Government's countryside policy? No decisions have been taken about the future of areas of outstanding natural beauty or sites of special scientific interest, which are of great concern to many. There is no strategy about the decline in farm incomes, which is also a matter of concern to many people. However, a decision has been taken about fox-hunting and the manner in which foxes are to be killed, whether by gassing, snaring or shooting--anything but hunting with hounds. Was that really what the Government meant when they opened the Countryside Agency three weeks ago with the slogan "Everybody's a Winner"? I can assure the noble Baroness that the fox will not be a winner for the Government but a loser.

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, as the noble Lord points out, the position is exactly the same; no decision has been taken about the process to be adopted for implementing our policy. As to SSSIs, legislation is a priority and we intend to use the first legislative slot that we can obtain to present a Bill to Parliament. The noble Lord is fully aware that there are divided opinions on the future of AONBs. Therefore, the Government wish to give very careful consideration not only to his views but to those of other noble Lords, including his noble friends, that may be somewhat different from his.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, can the Government deal with this matter with greater urgency? As my noble friend said, the situation in farming is dire. The message to anyone who lives in a rural area is that the Government do not care. How soon is soon? We have heard reference to "soon", "very soon" and "coming shortly". Can the Minister enlarge upon that?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Baroness accuses the Government of not caring about the rural communities. The substantial improvement in the provision of rural public transport is but one example of our concrete support of rural communities. We agree that, as with national parks, there is a need to ensure the protection of AONBs. The decision to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, refers is related to future status. At the moment, both are fully protected.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, how will improving rural transport help the plight of farmers?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, those who work as farmers and in agriculture need to travel. Their children need to be able to get to work; and rural communities need that transport. Anyone with the noble Baroness's knowledge of and background in rural communities will know, as I do, that one of the problems facing young people in rural communities seeking to gain employment is what happened to the bus services in rural communities during her government's period of office.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, will the Minister be so kind as to help me? I thought I heard her reply to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry that no decision had been taken regarding the implementation of government policies in this context. If I heard that correctly, will she be kind enough to tell the House why no decision has been taken, and whether it has anything to do with possibilities for renewable energy in such areas?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am not aware of any connection with renewable energy. Should I find that there is one I shall write to the noble Lord.

The proposition sounds simple when put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. However, to take one example of which the noble Lord is well aware, the Countryside Agency is seeking a statutory

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conservation board for the South Downs. Others, including the CPRE, Friends of the Earth and the Council for National Parks, hold a diametrically opposing view and support the view of the House reported in 1947. Surely we need to be fair to both sides and give careful consideration to this important issue.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, is the Minister aware that only during the past two years have the Government sought to do something about the social exclusion of rural communities? Does the Minister agree that there was social exclusion in rural communities earlier than two years ago?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, yes--the social exclusion to which I referred in my reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. There are many difficulties and much poverty within the rural community. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, is a fair-minded woman. I am sure that she would agree that those problems cannot be solved overnight.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, we were interested to hear the Minister's remarks about improvements in transport in rural communities. I do not doubt that the noble Baroness has made use of those improved facilities. Perhaps she can give some details of them to the House.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, local authorities across the country were given access to government funding to develop services. For example, in Wales there are combinations of a localised taxi service collecting people to take them to the nearest main bus connection enabling them to travel. There are new improved services serving rural and remote communities to allow people to get to the shops. Many elderly people living in rural communities do not have access to car transport and need access to rural transport.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that there are many areas of outstanding natural beauty throughout the country which currently receive temporary funding from local authorities and the Countryside Agency. They need to know from where their future funding is to come if they are to stay in being.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, yes, we are aware of that. It is for that reason that specific grants were made available to the Countryside Agency and sums were increased from £2 million to £4.5 million. As the noble Lord is aware, local authorities spend more money voluntarily. That is in addition to a 10 per cent increase in the funding available for the national parks. I am sure that the noble Lord would wish to join with others in congratulating the Government.

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Welsh Office: Ministerial Complement

2.57 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What will be the ministerial complement of the Welsh Office after the Secretary of State has resigned his office to become the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, that is a matter for the Prime Minister who will make his decisions at the appropriate time.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, is it not already clear from exchanges in another place, in particular at Question Time on Wednesday last, and as a result of the Speaker's Statement yesterday, that the role in this Parliament of the Secretary of State for Wales and his Ministers is much reduced following the transfer of powers to the National Assembly for Wales on 1st July? Does the Minister agree that it is important that, like Scotland, Wales should continue to have a voice in Cabinet to safeguard the interests of Wales and to help preserve the unity of the United Kingdom?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. It is an inevitable and foreseen desired consequence of the devolution settlement that the duties at Westminster of the Secretary of State for Wales will be reduced. Equally, I agree with the noble Lord that Welsh interests should be fully, coherently and eloquently represented here at Westminster. I understand from the "Today" programme this morning--it is always a useful source of information--that the present Secretary of State for Wales is intending to step down shortly to concentrate his formidable energies on his duties in Cardiff.

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