Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware of the Steps programme, introduced by a local authority in the north-east, to encourage women onto the local council there? Does she not agree that it is important to encourage women, particularly women from sink housing estates, not only to be involved in their local community but to be involved in local government and, if possible, central government, because of the experience that they can bring?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Earl's point. It is important that we do everything, particularly at the local level, to encourage women to play a proper role. As the noble Earl may be aware, it is the Government's aim to have 50 per cent of public appointments going to women. For example, in the National Health Service I am pleased to say that we have already reached 49 per cent in terms of appointments to NHS boards--a 10 per cent increase since we took office.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, what are the Government doing to encourage women into science, engineering and technology? My noble friend Lord Trefgarne, through the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, runs the insight courses. The previous government set up within the Department of Trade and Industry the Women's Development Unit for Science, Engineering and Technology. The Equal Opportunities Commission, together with the Engineering Council, set up the "Wise Buses", which have helped hundreds of thousands of young girls in schools to have experience of hands-on technology. Those programmes are now coming off the road through lack of money. Fifteen per cent of undergraduates in engineering are now women, but we have a long way to go. If we do not make a greater effort, we shall move backwards. What can the Government do to help?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness about the need to maintain a gender focus in this area. There are particular needs around what one might call the new technology in ICT, e-commerce and those areas where women have not necessarily been the ones who have taken up the opportunities in further education. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Education are looking closely at the development of the curriculum in this field. I have personally been in conversation with Professor Susan Greenfield about ways in which outside organisations, like the one she heads, can be involved in giving a lead in science education.

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1669

Arable Area Payments and Wildlife

3.25 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that the new rules under Part I of the Arable Area Payments Guide will be beneficial to wildlife.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, we are concerned that the clarification to the rules on field boundaries set out in Part I of the latest edition of the Arable Area Payments Guide should not be detrimental to wildlife. The guide urges farmers that, if they need to adjust the width of a field boundary, they should seek advice on minimising any environmental impact of such a change.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Does she not agree with the RSPB, which last weekend said that these subsidy changes are out of step with the Government's environmental objectives as they will reduce the important areas for wildlife, such as field margins, and may even lead to the greater destruction of hedges? Surely that is something the noble Baroness will not wish to see.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we would certainly not wish to see those kinds of detrimental effects. We have advised farmers who face a problem that we do not want them to cut back their hedges, some of which may be legally protected, too severely or to plough right up to the base of the hedge. In some cases, the answer may be to adjust a claimed area. That goes back to the ruling about being able to claim these payments only for cropped areas. In other cases, it may be possible to enter the land into set-aside or into an agri-environmental scheme. So there are some alternative courses of action.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, do the Government intend to issue a detailed memorandum on the document that is mentioned in the Question--Part I of the Arable Area Payments Guide? If the arrangements as set out in Part I are carried through unamended, by how much will the individual payments to farmers deteriorate and by how much will the cost to the Exchequer therefore increase?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is difficult to give the precise figures for which my noble friend asks because at the moment we do not know exactly how much land will potentially be affected. I understand that on a sample of around 5 per cent of arable land perhaps 4 per cent of fields within that would be affected. It applies only to land that is used for the cultivation of cereal, oil seed, peas and beans. It is highly unlikely that pasture and forage fields will be affected. Crops such as potatoes and sugar beet are totally unaffected. My noble friend asked for a detailed memorandum. I shall certainly check on the usual procedure, but the document referred to is an

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1670

explanatory guide that is published on a two-yearly basis and updated every year. It is in the form of guidance notes to farmers to help them to fill in their IACS forms. I am not sure whether it is therefore appropriate that it should be subject to parliamentary procedures.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the regulations will be retrospective?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I do not believe that the regulations will be retrospective in looking at claims made for past years. The Court of Auditors and EU visits have considered the IACS scheme in some detail. As the noble Earl is probably aware, in this country farmers have been able to claim on the basis of fields recorded in the Ordnance Survey, but there has always been an understanding that that is a surrogate for cropped areas and that within that no more than 2 metres of uncropped areas should be the subject of a claim. We are responding to the concerns raised by the auditors to ensure that there are no improper claims, and it is prudent for us to do that to protect the taxpayer and individual farmers.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, will the Government ask MAFF to make an assessment of the impact of these regulations on wildlife? If that assessment discovers that there will be particularly big problems for wildlife, what are the opportunities to review the decision and their time-scale?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is not a decision to review the situation. What we have done is to clarify the regulations for payments to be made under the arable area payments scheme. As to the main question put by the noble Baroness, both arable field margins and species-rich hedgerows are priority habitats under the UK biodiversity plan. MAFF is the lead partner with responsibility for increasing those habitats, and we must monitor what is going on. We have grant-aided over 5,600 miles of hedgerows. The additional funding for country stewardship schemes which has been announced will allow us to do even more, which means that we shall increase the number of hedges and field margins through other schemes.

Business of the House

3.32 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House to know the dates of the Easter Recess. Subject as always to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Easter Recess at the end of business on Maundy Thursday 20th April. The House will sit at 11 a.m. that day. The House will return from the Easter Recess on Tuesday 2nd May.

I have also received a number of representations from all sides of the House on the subject of a half-term break. Like all Chief Whips, my opening position on

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1671

all such proposals is to say "No". That is a stance which tends to firm up during negotiations. However, in this particular case I am conscious that because Easter is very late this year it is a long run from Christmas to Easter. Accordingly, I am happy to announce it has been agreed through the usual channels that the House will rise for half-term at the end of business on Wednesday 23rd February and return on Monday 28th February. The House will sit at 11 a.m. on Wednesday 23rd February. This half-term break is not a precedent for future Sessions.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his announcement about Easter and the so-called "half-term break" of one extra day. I wonder whether the half-term is necessary. However, if the Government's stamina is such that they need a break, so be it. I trust that when the Government run into timetable problems in the summer, they will remember that this gratuitous extra day was offered by the Government and not demanded by the Opposition.

As to the Easter break, can the noble Lord confirm that Easter this year is almost as late as it is possible to be? Can he also confirm that whenever it has been as late as this in the past, the break has been taken in the week before rather than after Easter? Can the noble Lord also confirm that some local education authority schools in England and all those in Scotland go back immediately after Easter, and, therefore, those noble Lords with children, or--dare I say?--grandchildren, are likely to see very little of them over the so-called "Easter break"?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page