|Back to Table of Contents
|Lords Hansard Home Page
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I was not fishing. I was paying a compliment of gratitude--which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, does not always do. However, I cannot resist commenting that those hereditary Peers who are here have more legitimacy--to use the horrible word which the noble Baroness the Leader of the House loved using--than anyone else. We have been elected. Everyone else has been appointed. I gave noble Lords the chance of being elected by putting down an amendment, but they said that they did not want it. They may have become frightened that they might not be elected. So others are appointed; we are elected. I know that noble Lords will not mind my referring to that. We were given such fearful stick in the past Session that I thought it right to get the matter of supremacy in the correct position.
I believe we all agree that, for whatever reason, we love and need the countryside. The countryside is facing the biggest crisis it has faced in the past 60 years. The prime mover for a successful countryside is a successful agriculture. When one has a successful, profitable agriculture, the countryside benefits too. The corn merchants, machinery manufacturers, suppliers to the industry and the village shops benefit. The countryside gets looked after. Hedges and woods are planted. Money is spent on the protection of the environment.
However, if one has an unprofitable agriculture, all those things tend to go. At present, every part of agriculture is under stress. During the past two years, the returns for the livestock sector are down by 60 per cent--that is the cash which farmers receive for their animals and out of which they have to pay the expenses of keeping them.
I have never understood how Milk Marque is supposed to be acting against the public interest when it purchases its milk at some of the lowest prices in Europe. I should have thought that it was the consumer who was benefiting and that it was the dairy producers who were being disadvantaged.
Sheep farmers are in despair. One told me the other day that he had sent 38 sheep to market and he got a bill--he got a bill!--for £2.40. A week later he sent another 38 sheep to market and received a cheque for £7. The third week he shot 30 sheep. But he still managed to smile and I admired him for that. The only amusing thing to come out of that incident was a Matt cartoon in the Daily Telegraph showing a farmer not shooting his sheep but shooting a jar of mint jelly.
Some of the worst hit people are the hill farmers and the small farmers. If the hill farmers are broken, a sector of our agricultural life and our national character will go. The net income of hill farmers--that is the money which, as it were, they can jangle in their pockets, use for living expenses and have available for re-investing in their business--has fallen disastrously. For hill farmers in England, it has fallen by 20 per cent this year to £4,500. In Wales, it has fallen by 37 per cent to £2,700. In Scotland, it has fallen by 48 per cent to £1,700--£1,700 for living and re-investment. It is a crippling state of affairs.
The BSE crisis may be nearly over, but it has devastated our fine herds. The one bright light is that the Government are going to remove the beef on the bone regulations. I congratulate them on that. Of course, they should never have been imposed in the first place. But we all do stupid things in our lives and Governments do stupid things, too. We must be glad that they have seen the light and changed their mind and I congratulate the noble Baroness on both those acts.
It is odd, though, is it not, that the purpose of devolution was to enable Scotland and Wales to look after their own affairs and England to look after its affairs, but when England's Ministers are advised that they can safely allow the regulations to be removed, they say that they must wait until Scotland and Wales can agree to do so too. Why, after devolution, should England have to wait for the agreement of Scotland and Wales when Scotland and Wales do not have to wait for England? That is a pretty absurd example of devolution.
A short time ago, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph was entitled "Farewell Farming". I thought that that was a hideous indictment of the agricultural situation; one which showed an attitude of total despair and which depicted a situation which I do not think will happen. Nor is it one which we should allow to happen.
In 1960 there were 3,000 million people in the world. There are now 6,000 million people. It is reckoned that in the next 25 years that number will rise to 12,000 million. For the population of the world to multiply four-fold in 65 years--with all the land which will have to be given up to houses, cities, factories, roads and so forth--there is no place for long-term despair about agriculture. Nor is there any wisdom in taking agriculture for granted. What there is a place for is short-term, very deep concern.
There is no use in the Government saying that the answer lies in the reform of the common agricultural policy. Of course, the CAP needs to be reformed for all kinds of reasons, but that is not the solution to the present situation. And, anyhow, I fancy that the Government will find that an uphill task. It has been going on for years with no very discernible results--for the simple reason that there are too many countries which like the position as it is and there are too many countries which need to agree to change but often do not wish to do so. But we have to keep on trying. Quite a lot of the problem stems from the high level of the pound. This is a common market where we are supposed to operate on a common level.
There is a mechanism which allows countries to have access to funds when they are being penalised by a distorted currency. Since 1997, in the region of £1,000 million of Community funds could have been made available to United Kingdom agriculture. But, because under the Fontainebleau formula the Government would have to pay a substantial contribution towards that payment, the Chancellor would not agree to it--other than for some £130 million. He would rather see the industry go to its knees and good people go bankrupt.
When so much is said about the cost of the European Community to this country--and especially the cost of the CAP--it is almost beyond belief that the Government will not make available that which is available.
On another tack, I hope that the noble Baroness will not say that the Government have already helped the industry to the tune of £150 million. What they have done has of course been very helpful, but all they have done is not impose charges upon the industry which they had proposed to impose. Indeed, the pig and meat industries are suffering crippling costs because of the high hygiene standards which are imposed upon them. We now have the toughest regime for meat quality in Europe. Yet meat hygiene costs are expenses which our industry has to meet, but which our continental competitors do not. So there is not much "common" about that, either!
Then we have the proposed pesticides tax. That would be an added penalty for an already distressed industry and it would be grossly unfair if it were to be imposed on United Kingdom agriculture but not on that of our competitors. It seems unbelievable that the Government could even consider that, and I hope that the noble Baroness will tell us that they have dropped the idea.
I hope that the Government will also be able to do something--and by "something" I mean quite a lot--to lessen the bureaucratic burden which is placed on agriculture and on the countryside. It is easy enough to add to red tape, but, as your Lordships well know, once there, it is fiendishly difficult to remove.
The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--in which I once had the happy privilege of being an ornament--loves organising and controlling everything. I had the dreadful privilege of moving the last business of the previous Parliament, which was the hedgerow regulations. I have told your Lordships previously that I simply hated it! The regulations were completely incomprehensible to me, even with the help of the officials who had drafted them. I tried to stop them, but, as usual, my views did not count for too much, and they were swept along in a tide of pre-election euphoria.
Now, I gather that the Government are considering controlling the planting of Cupressus Leylandii because they can grow too big and be offensive to one's neighbours. I hope that, on reflection, the Government will consider that to be absurd and will have none of it. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves having to get a licence to plant a daffodil and another licence to pick one! You really cannot impose such strictures on the countryside. And anyhow, it is not the Government's business to mess everyone else about.
Yet they do. Now they want to ban fur farming. Mr Elliot Morley says that this is justified on the grounds of public morality. I do not know from where he draws such weird ideas. I do not wish, for choice, to have my morals drafted for me by Mr Elliot Morley any more than I would wish, for choice, to have them drafted for me by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House--nor indeed by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition. Heaven knows where that would take us! It really is not the Government's business to talk about morals and then to take public action. What about the Canadians, the Muscovites, the French and the Swiss? Are they all morally beyond the pale because they wear furs? I have never understood why it is that to put the skin of an animal on one's back or on one's head is morally reprehensible, but to put the skin of an animal on one's feet, as everyone does, is perfectly acceptable. Perhaps it is simply a question of placement. Or perhaps it is simply the Government getting into one of their intellectual tangles.
And what about all those noble Lords who have been queuing up like people at a bus stop to come to your Lordships' House? What is the first thing which they do when they come in? They don their parliamentary robes, all covered with ermine, or, if that is too expensive, with rabbit. Is that wrong? Is that going to be stopped too? Or will it all be replaced with seersucker? Perhaps your Lordships do not know what seersucker is, but I have no doubt that the Minister knows all about it, and I fancy that she would not think much of it.
Why do the Government have to carry on this myopic crusade against the sports in which they do not happen to participate but which others are perfectly happy to enjoy? I wonder whether it is because the Labour Party has received financial support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Before the election they received £1 million from the Political Animal Lobby, which is a pressure group attached to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has an annual income of £32½ million. It is not, as one might expect, a charity. It is a private company. It raises money from all over the world and it dispenses it wherever it pleases for so-called animal welfare causes. Mr. Brian Davies, who founded the fund, is a Welshman who now lives in Canada. He was paid £1 million on parting company with the organisation.
That organisation, or its offshoot, has provided the Labour Party with £1 million and an additional £100,000 since the election. Perhaps that explains why the Government feel obliged to ban not only fox-hunting, but fur farming too. It looks rather like Formula 1 all over again, with cash for legislation.
However, I congratulate the Government on doing away with the fuel duty escalator which automatically increased annually the fuel duty by 6 per cent above the RPI. It was yet another example of how the United Kingdom put itself at a commercial disadvantage with our competitors in Europe. A 1,000 litre tank of diesel costs £610 in the United Kingdom, but only £325 in Belgium.
Another example of the absurd bureaucracy with which we are involved is the protection of cormorants and other such birds. Once a bird gets on to the list of protected species, no power on earth--not even a Minister, because I tried it--can remove it. "Research"--another fine-sounding word which is often a waste of money--must be undertaken to see whether the numbers of the birds have now recovered and whether it is therefore no longer justified to describe the species as endangered. That costs about £5 million and takes about five years, during which time the birds have, of course, increased even further in number and have meanwhile hoovered up all the fish from the rivers. Of course, the fish are not "endangered", only the predators. We really ought to be more careful about what we sign up to. The regulations are supposed to be a benefit.
I mention that because we really are in danger of becoming absurd. There is a rabbit warren at Blaby in Leicestershire which has been designated by English Heritage as a scheduled monument. A rabbit warren! I really wonder sometimes whether we have not all gone completely mad. You cannot see it because it is all under-ground. You cannot dig into it because it is a scheduled monument. But what you can do is to have an archaeological dig--an archaeological dig on a rabbit warren. What happens if the residents expand their premises without planning permission? Do they get fined or sent to prison? The idea is absurd. But why should human beings be punished in a way in which you would not punish rabbits? Before long, someone will have the idea of designating a wasps' nest as an ancient monument.
I suggest to your Lordships that English Heritage is making a complete fool of itself by behaving in that way. The trouble is that, whichever party happens to be in power, there are those who feel that the more sites and objects which are protected indicates our dedication to the protection of the environment. I suppose that in some ways it does. I am afraid that I take the view that the increase of those regulations and restrictions indicates that we have distanced ourselves from reality and from common sense.
There are so many issues to be discussed under the subject of "the countryside". I wish to refer to only one other; that is, genetically modified crops. I believe that the way to deal with such issues, which can whip up such a fury and frenzy of anxiety, is to test them to see whether they are dangerous or safe. They can be tested only by growing them and putting them under scrutiny. It does no one any good to go, as Greenpeace has, under Lord Melchett, on the altar of publicity, to trespass on other people's land and to cut down their crops.
Agriculture and the countryside are important to all of us. The countryside is not merely a recreation ground for townsmen, a haven for wildlife or a haven for protected species of beetles and plants as well; nor is it merely a workplace for food production. It is of course all of those things. But, above all, it is a living, changing entity which is home to a wide cross-section of,
It is all too easy, wherever we go through life, to find that our lives are ones of complaint, of discontent or of envy. But there is more to life than that. Life is actually wonderful. It is full of good things too. If we are not careful, we spend our time dwelling on the things that have gone wrong and taking the things that have gone
Lord Haskel: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. The noble Earl claims to be more legitimate than he was when he attended the House before the recent State Opening. I wonder about that, because I wonder about the legitimacy of the electoral college which elected him.
I should like to respond to the point that the noble Earl made about Mr Brian Davies. I happen to know Mr Brian Davies quite well. The noble Earl is misinformed about him. As he is normally a fair person, I would have expected him to mention that Mr Brian Davies is also an ecologist of great distinction who has the interests of the countryside at heart in the work he carries out.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, paints a picture of farming as a declining industry in deep trouble. However, I am delighted to see that he is not downhearted--and I think that he is right. I suspect that if the noble Earl were 30 years younger he would look at the picture that he has drawn and see an industry deep in change, but full of the opportunities that change always brings: new products, new markets, new ways of doing things and new ways of satisfying changing customers.
However, I do not want to speak about farming. Nobody is more surprised that I am to find myself speaking in this debate. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, I am a city dweller. I like being a city dweller. To me, the countryside is a wonderful place to explore on foot or, even better, by bicycle--in good weather, I hope--and to leave after a suitable period of time.
So I do not want to speak about farming, nor about fox hunting; I do not want to speak about BSE or the CAP or subsidies to the countryside. I want to speak about the people who live in the countryside. I was rather disappointed that the noble Earl had very little to say about them. Some weeks ago I attended a seminar on social exclusion in rural areas and that has encouraged me to speak about those who live in the countryside.
The seminar was organised by the Smith Institute; I declare an interest as chairman of trustees. The institute drew to our attention a most wonderful set of data. The data are based on 17,000 people born in one week in 1958, and 16,000 people born in one week in 1970. Ever since, those people have been visited periodically, and almost certainly will continue to be visited. The information is now kept at the Institute of Education, and researchers are still in touch with 11,000 people from the 1958 cohort, and some 9,000 from the 1970 cohort.
Thanks to generous funding from the Country Landowners' Association, Professor Pynner and Professor Heather Joshi studied the data. Their task was to look at social exclusion, not poverty. Poverty is often associated with social exclusion, but social exclusion deals with the lack of participation in the normal activities of adult life. Yesterday we discussed that briefly at Question Time.
The results were very much as one would have expected. I make no apology for that because--perhaps for the first time--there is statistical data about social exclusion in the countryside. A particularly interesting point about the study was the social change between the 1959 cohort and the 1970 cohort. Of the first cohort, about two-thirds had left school at the age of 16, and in 1974, when they entered the labour market, almost every one of them moved into some kind of job. The 1970 cohort, who left school in 1986, entered a very different world. Many found themselves in training schemes, many of which never led to work. Some just lived on benefit until the 1988 Act restricted that possibility for young people.
The nature of their employment is also interesting. Of course, agriculture ceased to be the mainstay of rural employment some years ago. Very little farming is labour-intensive these days. The seasonal work that can be picked up may ameliorate social exclusion but will not actually end it. The studies showed, for example, that the south-west of England had the highest rate of self-employment in the country because the people there have multiple jobs--many of them casual. Children return to their family homes helping their families in the winter, sometimes after working in the seaside resorts or in other summer occupations.
All that indicates the very narrow and undemanding range of employment opportunities that are available. So perhaps it is not just a lack of dynamism that forces people into exclusion; it may also be due to a low sense of personal worth resulting from their surroundings.
Homelessness was shown to be a major problem in some rural areas. People who migrate to the countryside for retirement, pushing up house prices in rural areas, create difficulties. Transport is a major factor. The distance between the north and south coasts of Devon is the same as the distance from London to Birmingham. If there is work in another part of the county, the problems of transport become central. The vicious cycle of needing a car to get to work, but needing work to be able to afford a car became obvious from the data. I suppose that that explains why car ownership is greater among rural households is at 84 per cent whereas nationally the figure is 69 per cent.
The pattern of migration is also interesting. Migration does not occur from the small villages to the big cities, but from the small villages to small and medium-sized towns. The smallest settlements seem to lose populations while small towns are growing quite dramatically. That seems to be the pattern of movement. That drift from rural to urban areas leaves behind an ageing population in rural communities. Naturally they will be less economically active, less likely to be mobile and less likely to be picked up by those who look at the overall picture. Urban disadvantage is readily picked up in the national picture, but rural disadvantage less so.
If the Government are to ensure that the rural dimension is fully reflected in their policy-making, the Minister's work will have to take on a much broader dimension. The problems relating to social exclusion in rural areas spread across many departments, including those responsible for education and employment, for transport and housing, for agriculture, and the DTI. That is a real challenge for joined-up government.
An important responsibility is to co-ordinate all those aspects of rural affairs and to draw them all together. I suppose one joined-up way to look at the matter is the notion of rights, responsibilities and obligations: the rights of citizens to education, occupation, opportunity, family life, housing and health; the obligation of the Government to provide them and the responsibilities of citizens to use them.
The Government know that they cannot leave such matters to the market-place. The Government have declared war on social indifference with national policies, such as the New Deal and the national minimum wage. I am sure that those factors already help. The Government have made a good start with local policies by trying to improve rural transport with the increased sums announced in the Budget to provide new and enhanced rural bus services in England.
I hope that the Government will ensure that the rural dimension is fully reflected in wider policy-making, and that in the forthcoming White Paper we shall see a co-ordinated rural agenda that will make social exclusion in rural areas a thing of the past.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for introducing the debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, that the body that elected the noble Earl perhaps was not exactly a democratic one, but they were persons who showed good choice. They put at the top of the list the
I was interested in the noble Earl's criticism of the Milk Marketing Board, which was abolished by the Tory government. It held up the price of milk to a reasonable extent. Farmers prospered and the price of milk to the consumer was lower. But it was abolished. I wish the Government would think again about an organisation of that sort.
Again, one must congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on finding the £1 million given to the Labour Party from an unpopular source. That is a brilliant reaction to the terrible trouble the Tories are in at the moment. I enjoyed his speech greatly.
My only criticism is that the debate relates to "the countryside" and the noble Earl dwelt, as I will, rather too much on agriculture. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, treated agriculture with the normal contempt associated with the urban dwellers of this country. They have been urban dwellers for more generations than most of the urban dwellers of Europe and are therefore not very sympathetic to poor farmers like me and others.
As the Minister knows well--she will, however, understand why I must press the case--the countryside is in extremely poor shape at the moment. Agriculture and its associated industries are the mainstay of the countryside and the people in it. We must accept that. Of course, far fewer people are now directly employed in agriculture. But the countryside should be populated by people who have some interest in it rather than those who treat it purely as a place to stay while their money and leisure is taken in the city.
The countryside is inhabited and shaped by people. The environmentalists are keen on biodiversity, as am I. I practise it on my farm. But people are more important than peewits. The shape of agriculture is what matters. We look after biodiversity but we cannot shape a major industry in the interests of the lesser inhabitants; in other words, the peewit. It must be shaped for the economic benefits of the country. The noble Earl produced the figures relating to population; they will soon impact very hard on this country.
We view the countryside as a base and where our friends live. We must also consider the needs of our areas. We have an interesting situation in Angus. It is a beautiful county. We have all sorts of scenery and all sorts of biodiversity. But we have some extremely bad planners. And planning needs to be considered when we talk about the shape of the countryside. I can point to appalling private building sites which look like Toytown and cannot be pleasant to live in. I can point to nice houses--farmhouses--ruined by the taking out of beautiful astragal windows and the putting in throughout of one sort of double glazing.
Some of our planners are good. The planners in Fife, for example, have done good work. In Angus some good work has been done. But the best work in Angus was done at Dyke Head in the parish of Cortachy. Nine houses were built in a group. They were built in traditional style. They were spaced out and were
Socially, we must look at what happens when people are not of the countryside but are living there. If they are not members of the local church and local community in some way or other, they cannot be good for the area. If we are going to make anything of the countryside, people must have the chance to make a living there. There are all kinds of examples of how to do it and how to spread it. But the Government must give encouragement and help with the establishment of small businesses in order that the people who live there will really be "of" the country.
The Government must also look properly at marketing. Denmark has a massive, competent co-op which has been running for years. It markets, manufactures and advertises with enormous success. It is an enormous organisation whereas Milk Marque in England is being broken up. The Danes are trying to form a giant co-op with the Swedes, which will be an enormously influential body able to help--not dictate--the price given to farmers. It is important that the Government realise that and give some encouragement. They must help to reverse the process of the break-up of Milk Marque or help the bodies into which it is to be split. Either way, marketing and exploiting the virtues are absolutely essential for the future prosperity of farming.
That is the lesson we want the Government to learn. At the same time they must give attention to the fact that people are leaving farming without a penny. In the north of Scotland, where the college of agriculture works with the financial accounts of farms, it is apparent that farmers are leaving the industry without a penny to take with them. A decent retirement scheme is essential. The countryside and farming will survive; it will prosper in an entirely different way. But there must be opportunities for the small farmer to survive, whether with outside employment or with niche employment on the farm. We cannot have an agricultural industry consisting wholly of large farms.
As the noble Earl mentioned, the countryside is interlinked with the prosperity of agriculture. As the House was told in no uncertain terms by noble Lords last Monday, and, again, last Thursday, agriculture is going through the worst crisis in living memory. Figures released this week show that the situation is far worse than many of us feared. I believe that urgent action is required.
It must not be forgotten that the countryside suddenly did not happen; nor is it set is aspic. It is the result of centuries of careful management by farmers and landowners who over the generations have dedicated much time, effort and money into producing what we have today.
I turn to greater access to the countryside, which I am sure many other noble Lords will mention. I hope and pray that before any Bill is drafted Her Majesty's Government will consult fully--and here I really mean "fully"--with all the relevant bodies, most especially the CLA and the NFU, both of whose membership are the guardians of our rural environment. It must not be forgotten that, in order to have a healthy countryside, it is absolutely vital to have a profitable agricultural industry. At the moment, I fear that Her Majesty's Government seem oblivious to the fact that farming, forestry and field sports are vital to the prosperity of the countryside. This is a point that I beg and implore the Government to take on board before it is too late.
On the contentious issue of hunting with hounds, I would like to place on record once again for the future that if a ban on hunting with hounds does become law, three things would happen. First, the life of not one single fox would be preserved. It must not be forgotten that foxes are vermin and have to be controlled. Secondly, many thousands of rural jobs would be lost; and, thirdly, the rural environment, the countryside that so many love, would not be conserved in the way it is today. Surely the Government have more important things to legislate on or, indeed, to give parliamentary time to. After the Hyde Park rally, I remember that there was the most wonderful editorial in the Daily Star--of all newspapers--which stated something along the lines of, "Let's have a Bill to ban banning". How very right that editorial was.
I have four questions to ask Her Majesty's Government, all I believe of equal importance, three of which I asked last week and to which I received no reply, despite giving the officials of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, a copy of my speech in advance of the debate on the gracious Speech. The first refers to renewable energy from agricultural crops. I make no excuse for raising this once again in your Lordships' House because I believe that North Sea oil will not last for ever. Will Her Majesty's Government give a firm commitment to spending more on research and development in this area? The amount spent at the moment is a pathetic, paltry £1.1 million per annum.
I also feel passionately about double green energy--biodiesel manufactured from waste edible oils. Europe produces half a million tonnes of biodiesel, America is also a tremendous manufacturer of biodiesel. But what about the United Kingdom? Well, it produces nothing at present. The UK could produce 90 million litres of this double green, recycled and renewable energy at a fraction of the cost of our European counterparts.
Biodiesel produced from waste edible oils offers one of the most unique packages for energy conservation in the United Kingdom. It is already extensively used within Europe and America. It is blended with low sulphur diesel to produce a cleaner renewable fuel that may be dispensed from garages without any modifications to existing equipment. Why is this environmentally-friendly fuel not being considered and promoted? If it were, we would have a serious competitive industry in the United Kingdom.
Secondly, will Her Majesty's Government give a commitment that trials of GM crops can continue in safety for those growing them? Thirdly, will Her Majesty's Government agree to pay in full, as mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the agri-money compensation allowances to farmers and producers and to register well before the 31st March deadline with the Commission?
Finally, I want to make a further plea for the A1 to be dualled between Edinburgh and Newcastle. This would greatly improve access to the beautiful Border countryside. Many of us who have been campaigning for years for this dualling believe that it will save lives and that it will also save the ridiculous expense of advertising every few miles on this part of the A1 how many accidents have occurred, whether they were fatal or otherwise.
Her Majesty's Government have stated on numerous occasions that they wish to govern for the whole country. We must all hope and pray that in reality that also means the countryside. I think it would be true to say that all of us taking part in the debate today feel passionately about the countryside. We must develop a long-term strategy for the countryside, not one that will simply paper over the cracks. This strategy must involve landowners, farmers, growers, the entire food industry, all government agencies--I know that my noble friend Lord Carnarvon will mention this later--and the
The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for initiating this debate. I should also like to thank the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing and holding to this note of urgency about the situation.
It so happens that my own diocese has a population of over 2.5 million people dispersed across a considerable area of the West Midlands. The countryside in this region is among the most diverse in Britain, with patterns of life created by mixed and varied farming over many generations. We can grow anything that can be grown in Britain. We have an equable climate; we have good rainfall; and we have a profusion of habitats for our native species of wildlife. In addition, and importantly, our countryside is a green lung for communities such as Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and the Black Country, which is also within our diocesan borders.
However, additionally and crucially, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, said, the economy of the countryside is an integral part of the West Midlands economy as a whole. The countryside accounts for a quarter of our population, while agriculture generates nearly 30 per cent of the region's gross domestic product and provides 30 per cent of its jobs. Our countryside matters to the future of the whole West Midlands region. And yet, and yet, in too many places I have to report a depressed rural economy and countryside population. Indeed, in some places, we may even be looking at the abandonment of farmland, such is the seriousness of the situation.
It is the opinion of one informed observer that this last year of the present century, 1999, could be a serious watershed for the agricultural industry in the West Midlands, for the shape of our landscape, and for our rural communities, particularly in the lowland areas of our western side of England. Staffordshire, for example, has 4,643 farm businesses and there are 4,733 farm businesses in Shropshire, mainly family farms. Only 24 per cent of those farms--this is important--are of over 50 hectares, and most of these are in the livestock business. But, critically, just one-third of these larger farms account for 80 per cent of the total farm production of the region. We surely hope that these larger farms will continue to expand into the 21st century, providing a bedrock of downstream employment and competing with world markets both in quality and production.
However, I must stress that for the other two-thirds farming is bleak and stress levels are at an all-time high. My own diocese, along with the NFU, has been active in setting up rural helplines to help people in our countryside who are in great distress. Farm incomes are plummeting. Families are staring at the following bleak possibilities: the possibility of loss of business and loss of income; the possibility of defaulting on
I declare an interest here because many of the families I describe support, and are the backbone of, our rural churches. At the moment many families suffer a sense of deep failure through no fault of their own. If they stay in the community, this group of farmers will join the hidden poor of the countryside which, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, rightly emphasised, can lead ultimately to social exclusion.
It is critical that this Government take the lead and make an open and intellectual commitment to our farmers in order to restore pride, morale and confidence in this industry. How can the Government encourage young people to see agriculture and land-related industries as a good career? Why are our agricultural colleges having to fill their places with so many non-mainstream courses to survive? Why are so many fewer young people applying to such colleges in my region as Rodbastan, Walford and Harper Adams? Like many others I look forward to the forthcoming rural White Paper and to the new countryside Bill mentioned in the Queen's Speech. We watch with interest the submission this month to the European Community of the EC rural development plan.
I conclude with three questions to which I hope that the Minister may be able to respond. First, can the Government stake their claim with Europe to ensure that reformed CAP schemes for rural development will rechannel agri-environmental funding into the agricultural sector in order both to assist specialist markets and to manage the countryside? Can the Government co-fund any such funding from Europe?
Secondly, in the coming White Paper, can the Government focus on helping us to breathe new life into our historic market towns? For example, in east Shropshire a partnership of the Countryside Agency, of local and parish government and the chamber of commerce is co-operating to revitalise Wellington, Shifnal, Albrighton and Newport. The aim is to fulfil the real potential of these towns, to make them lived-in communities and hubs of the rural economy and to give them pride in themselves as places in which to live.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, can the Government's next Comprehensive Spending Review tackle the inequities resulting from the higher cost of delivering public services in rural areas? Can they do something about the distortion in the calculation of grant caused by inappropriate yardsticks of need and the lack of consideration of the kind of services, for example, recreation, which rural authorities want?
I must emphasise that these factors are having a serious impact in Shropshire and Staffordshire where police force budgets are the lowest in the country and where children in our rural schools receive hundreds of pounds less per child than any others in the United Kingdom as a result of the nonsensical formulas involved.
There are others in your Lordships' House who understand much better than I the mechanisms needed for the revitalisation of this vital part of our national life. However, may we please first put in place not only the Government's, but also the country's, firm and visible support for all those who live and work in the countryside, along with rightful pride in their contribution to our economy, to our environment and to our leisure?
Lord Jopling: My Lords, I begin by doing two things. First, I declare my interest as a farmer. Secondly, I add my warm congratulations to my noble friend Lord Ferrers on introducing this timely debate and on his extremely fine opening speech. He frequently used a word which I had intended to use several times; namely, "despair". I believe that there is real despair in the countryside now which I have never seen before in my lifetime and have only heard about from my elders with regard to the years between the two world wars.
Yesterday the press published the annual forward "leak", as I believe it is known, with regard to farm income figures for the past year. We read in the press that the average net farm income in the less favoured areas in the United Kingdom--my noble friend Lord Ferrers mentioned this--has now sunk to £2,000 a year. This is in spite of huge subsidies which are paid to the less favoured areas each year. There has been a worsening of the situation for many years whereby the subsidies paid to those in the hill areas amount to more than the income that is gained. These farmers now have an average net income of £2,000 per farm per year. Farming is not like any other business because in almost all cases income has to cover compensation for the effort of the farmer, the hours he has put in, and interest on his investment.
As I say, the situation is extremely bad in the hill areas, the less favoured areas, but I am also particularly concerned about those farmers in marginal areas. Their land is still poor but it is slightly too good to qualify for hill farming subsidies. Many of them are small, tenant businesses. The farmers do not have the value of the land to fall back on as a cushion. In the old phrase, they do not have much fat on their backs.
When I had responsibility for these matters years ago I was able to find a small amount of money for the marginal farms. But I suspect that the very alarming figures for the hill areas which we read about yesterday in the press shroud a much worse situation in the marginal areas which cause me so much concern. I have felt over the years that those farmers who did not receive hill subsidies had a harder prospect than their friends and colleagues who farmed a little further up the hill.
One of the most alarming things that we read yesterday in the press was that more than 20,000 farmers and workers have quit the industry over the past year. That is a highly worrying situation. We must hear from the Government what they intend to do about that.
What I am about to say has been said before in this debate, but it is important to keep saying it. Agriculture is the powerhouse of the countryside. If it is doing very badly indeed, its plight filters down to all the ancillary businesses which live off the farming industry. At the present rate of progress my fear is that we are only a year or two away from seeing derelict land in this country which no one wants to farm. I can remember only once in my life seeing derelict land in the United Kingdom and that was when I visited Northern Ireland many years ago. I do not know how many noble Lords have seen derelict land. It is not a pretty sight.
I am sure that many speakers in this debate will suggest matters which the Government could take up and actions which they could take to stem the decline, despair and bleak prospect which face the countryside at the moment.
I conclude by saying as strongly as I can to the Minister that there is one thing which the Government should not do and that is to dismantle MAFF at this time. I have been hearing persistent rumours in the recent past that on 1st April next year, when the Food Standards Agency begins its work, a very large chunk of MAFF's activities will be removed to that agency; and that the Prime Minister has it in mind to swallow MAFF into the Department of Trade and Industry. I warn the Government that if they were to do that they would be demonstrating in the clearest possible way their lack of interest in the countryside. Dismantling the department would add hugely to the despair and cause confidence to decline more steeply from its present low level.
If the Government want to boost the morale of country people, they should reorganise MAFF, bearing in mind that responsibilities for food standards are being taken away. It should be reorganised as a department covering all countryside matters as well as agriculture and fisheries. Responsibilities for the countryside now lie in other departments, particularly in the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is much too big. The department could easily absorb those responsibilities. If MAFF were to be swallowed up into the DTI or some other department, it would put the Minister in charge of agriculture and fisheries on the level of the Minister of State. In my time in the Council of Agricultural Ministers I do not recall any agriculture Minister who was not in the Cabinet in his own right. I am sure that it would very much downgrade the influence of the United Kingdom in the Council of Agricultural Ministers if the United Kingdom were represented in those circumstances by only a Minister of State. Above all, I believe that the downgrading of the department--which I believe and understand to be a very real prospect at this time--would depress even further the current despair in the countryside.
The Earl of Carnarvon: My Lords, I would very much like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield whose very human speech was a very special addition to this debate, so sincerely introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. Like him, I have many interests to declare in this important debate--farming, strategic planning, houses open to the public and country sports. But today I am concentrating on one, the contribution made by country sports to the countryside.
Only last week I was chairing a meeting of the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports looking at the role of the agencies, three of which were presenting papers after Mr Michael Meacher, the Minister, had introduced the debate.
In discussing the forthcoming Bill on access, some of the fears of those who farm or who are involved in land management and forestry, were partly put to rest when we heard the Minister underline the position of woodlands which he said were not to be made accessible; and later on, when the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, expressed the need that all dogs would have to be kept on leads. Unfortunately, the noble Baroness is not in her place. She gave an excellent explanation of the work of English Nature, even though tempted by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, to get a touch of Langholme fever at odd times.
I have been a very keen supporter of access for many years, particularly when I became the first chairman of the Countryside Committee of Hampshire County Council. During those years in the early 1960s, the county council bought by agreement or leased over 5,000 acres of land of high landscape value to take the pressure off honeypot areas like the New Forest. That was a very successful exercise completed only with the help and co-operation of landowners only too willing to share their beauty spots with those who wished to visit them.
The success of this venture, which gave access to downland, waterside and hill tops, was due to a great extent to the way in which the landowners were approached by the local authority which accepted that certain areas of the estate were very sensitive to intrusion which would disturb both shooting and fishing.
Those who own and work the land are only too pleased to co-operate with statutory authorities if those authorities are understanding of the very severe difficulties that now face both farmers and landowners, large and small. Some give and take is very necessary if relationships in the countryside are not to reach breaking point. That could mean damage to the environment affecting those who live in the countryside and the visitors, and could also be detrimental to flora and fauna.
It was not clear to many of us during the standing conference discussions how closely the main agencies--English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Environment Agency--work together. It would seem that there can be conflicts between them in the emphasis that they place on particular issues and
Having listened to the presentations given by English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Environment Agency, it seems essential that they should work together towards a common objective, the management of the countryside as a whole, rather than each one pursuing its own agenda. Those of us who have to manage the countryside for farming, for forestry, for country sports, for access and for amenity, need clear messages and soundly based guidance. I hope the Minister will take an interest in those last few words.
The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, like others, I must first of all declare an interest as a farmer and as chairman of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. I also have other agricultural and countryside pursuits. I thank particularly my noble friend Lord Ferrers for his invigorating introduction to the debate. I shall follow him in the observations that he made very trenchantly about the unerring ability we have in this country to make ourselves less competitive rather than more competitive. We shoot ourselves in the foot--and that is as close as I shall get to following the country sports' metaphor.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon. Some years ago I served on Hampshire County Council with him. I can vouch that the number of initiatives he started when he was chairman of the planning committee and chairman of the county council are great beacons and examples for other local authorities.
Although it comprises a minority sector of the rural economy, agriculture still remains a highly important percentage of it. As the right reverend Prelate reminded us, it is something in the order of 30 per cent in many areas.
We still lack in this country a clear strategy of what the Government and society as a whole expect from United Kingdom agriculture. The Minister may think that that is a bit hard, but time and time again Ministers have told us their aspirations and what they expect from agriculture. For example, paragraph 5.6 of the discussion document published by the Government in February of this year, which paves the way for the White Paper that has been mentioned, states:
If we want British agriculture to be competitive, it will have to move fast to compete with lower cost production systems around the world. There is an inability to realise that if we do not have a competitive agriculture system, the rural economy will ultimately suffer.
An example of this muddled thinking, the inability to think through what we mean by "competitive agriculture" in the face of world trade liberalisation, was demonstrated in a document from the Minister's agricultural advisory group, three members of which came from the Government Benches. The report is entitled Europe's Agriculture The Case for Change. On the whole, it is a wide-ranging and interesting discussion about the future of the common agricultural policy and it has a lot to say about rural development strategies. However, paragraph 4.3 shows where it falls into total confusion. It states:
That is very much the fashion. Everyone seems to think that commercial, and therefore intensive--a word charged with meaning--production must inevitably have lower environmental benefits or greater environmental impacts. It is open to the implication of being less satisfactory in terms of animal welfare. That may or may not be the case. The size of the unit, the size of the scale, is irrelevant. Clearly what is important is the system of husbandry. If we had the evidence, I suspect it would show that the standard of husbandry has no correlation to the size of the unit. Rather charged words like "intensive systems" or, alternatively, "extensive systems" simply confuse us.
One can imagine the astonishment farmers must feel when they read that there is something discreditable about using animals as tradable objects. That is what agriculture is all about; agriculture exploits animals. One may not like the language, but that is what agriculture is all about. I do not know whether those shepherds who were watching their flocks by night 2,000 years ago would describe themselves as "intensive"--perhaps the right reverend Prelate will tell us--but I am absolutely sure that they were trading in their sheep. So let us not have any of this nonsense that there is something reprehensible about agriculture trying to trade, and to trade competitively. If one trades in livestock, that is the nature of one's agriculture.
I am absolutely sure that we have some of the best welfare standards in the world. It is one of the areas in which we have put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. We have rightly imposed restrictions on the use of husbandry systems which are widely used on the Continent--for example, in pig meat production--and we are about to do the same with battery cages for hen production. But what has happened? We have already lost a considerable share of our pig meat market.
The consumer is delighted to hear that we have imposed those much stronger husbandry regulations--and any market research would confirm that the consumer would continue to like to have a say in this--but when it comes to making a choice in the shops, if the consumer is asked immediately after purchase, "What determined you to buy that produce?", the answer is, "Price". In other words, the connection simply is not made. That is not a criticism of the Government; it is a criticism of much of the meat industry, the agricultural sector as a whole and, by implication, the consumer. If we want to put in place systems which are environmentally benign, with strong animal welfare advantages, we shall have to carry the message through to the consumer.
I suspect that one of the reasons we do not do that is that we are rather ashamed of the fact that we are trading in livestock; that we are exploiting animals. Once we pull our punches on that, we go on to fail to draw attention to some of the fairly nasty practices adopted by other producers around the world who are in direct competition with us. We need to say so. We should simply say that we are going to go for these rather more expensive systems. If we are going to deliver these environmental benefits--which, I am absolutely clear, is part of agriculture's role--we shall have to say that our competitors are aborting their cows in order to keep a tight calving pattern; that they are using chemicals that we would not dream of using, but they do the job. They have a very tight calving pattern, which means that one can buy some very cheap butter in the market. That may be considered a dangerous practice, but we should know it.
It is not the job of British agriculture to rubbish the competition, but the Government should support consumer organisations. Let us take, for example, what happens with refrigerators. If one buys a refrigerator, one finds on the back some kind of code which tells one whether it is environmentally benign or whether it emits ozone-depleting chemicals and the like. We could do exactly the same with agriculture. We could have a code based on the agricultural regulations of our competitors which says, "This produce is likely to have been produced from an environmentally benign system" or, "a less environmentally benign system". If the country in question uses practices which we consider to be undesirable, clearly it would have a lower coding than ours.
We have one advantage in agricultural production in this country which, I believe, farmers like myself often do not acknowledge as a great advantage; that is, the sophistication of the buyers of the multiple retail outlets. They require us to have total traceability and to conform to protocols which are by no means like regulations; they are much tighter. We take that advantage, which has been forced on us, for very good reasons, and we should take it right through to the consumer. If we could label our produce in the multiple retail outlets so that the consumer is able to trace it back to a precise farm--not just to the region, but to the actual farm--I believe that we should gain a great advantage.
I should like to see consumers taking an equal interest in the provenance and quality of their food. They should point out, quite rightly, if they believe that our practices are perhaps too intensive or if there is some correlation which I do not know about between intensive production and poor environmental animal husbandry standards. By all means, they should point out those matters and agriculture should address the problems. We should be proud of the products of the British countryside. At the moment we sell ourselves short.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, I believe it is wholly appropriate that this House should turn its mind to the countryside. After all, this is the traditional Chamber of county and country. However, I am astonished that the party opposite has instigated the debate. They, after all, should hang their heads in shame for what they have done to Britain's countryside, to the people who live and work there and to those of us who visit it recreationally.
During the last war and the period of the post-war Labour governments, the British people dug for victory. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, that in the past two decades in rural Britain the Tories have dug for defeat. Their political interference in the countryside in the application of the free market economics of malign neglect and malevolent negligence has left our rural areas without direction and in disarray. The mad cow crisis was only the culmination--
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page