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Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. There is some disquiet on our Benches about the opening of the noble Lord's speech. I believe that it was totally unjustified. Is he suggesting that my noble friend Lord Ferrers should hide his head in shame for introducing today an extremely important debate? Although it is not a political point which I would normally make, when I look at the lack of people sitting on the Benches opposite and at the list of speakers, I am taken aback by the tone of the opening of the noble Lord's speech.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention. However, I shall go on to detail and substantiate why I make the points that I do. I return to the point which I was making.

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The mad cow crisis was only the culmination of a bovine philosophy, inflicted on the land, which promoted estrangement at the expense of the community in our rural areas. In the 1980s, as chairman of Cheshire County Council's countryside committee and as a member of Cheshire Rural Voice, I witnessed the fraying of the ties that knit communities together. First, I saw the stamping out of rural post offices, then the early closing of small schools on financial, not educational or social, grounds. There followed the illiteracy of scaling down library services to our small towns and villages, and the derailing by privatisation of the trains and buses that might carry the people from field to town to obtain the services now expunged from the countryside. Even then, rural shops and pubs had their last orders called early by the then government, who claimed to be the farmer's friend. That was "rural vice", not "rural voice", perpetrated by the party opposite.

No wonder that in the countryside today people are living lives of quiet desperation because of those desperado deeds. And no wonder that it is now Labour, not the Tories, who are farming votes in Britain's countryside, as recently evidenced in the by-election in Eddisbury, which I proudly represented in Europe for 10 years. If William Cobbett were to retrace his steps in the countryside today, he would indeed assert that the British people had been taken for a "rural ride" by the previous administration.

I should like to say a word or two about who should speak for the countryside. I confess that I am a fully paid-up, brick-built townee. However, in my years on Cheshire County Council, and latterly as an MEP with a vast rural constituency, I hope that I made an effort to learn about the countryside. Indeed, I was most grateful to colleagues in the CLA and in particular in the NFU for taking me out on a regular basis to look, learn and listen to their countryside yarns of hopes and fears. Indeed, I have come to the view that there are advantages in being an outsider. Sometimes you see things more clearly with no mud on your shoes or boots and from the other side of the farm gate.

Similarly, I believe there is a danger that country people and those who represent them may believe that they have a unique and a decisive grasp of country lore and life. I was never more irritated as a county councillor than when some of my agricultural colleagues queried my right to speak and vote on country matters simply because I was a city dweller. Imagine the green wellie boot being on the other foot; imagine those of us who represent city constituencies debarring our country cousins from speaking on town matters on the ground that they lack urbanity on matters urban. Indeed, the lasting impression I have of those who live in Britain's rural areas is that they feel thrown together because of their isolation. They believe themselves to be misunderstood and mischaracterised. I think that they have a point. That

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is why I am proud that since their inception this Labour Government have made strenuous efforts to respond to the changing needs of the countryside, not just in the area of fox hunting, although that debate has at its heart the refining sensibilities of the British people regarding animal welfare.

Incidentally, I am moved to remark on the unfortunate event that saw seven foxhounds crushed to death by a train in Hampshire last weekend. In the 1980s when I was responsible for leading the political pack on banning fox hunting on Cheshire County Council land, one of the arguments which persuaded me to vote in favour and to encourage drag hunting as a safe alternative was the evidence of a Cheshire train driver. He experienced the danger to trains and their passengers presented by unsupervised hounds recklessly crossing rail lines in pursuit of a fox, imperilling the lives of train passengers.

I ask the Minister to take into account two other aspects in formulating and developing the Government's modernising rural programmes and policy. After all, we must look to the future. The first concerns the European Union and small businesses. The Government have shown themselves a present and past master at negotiating within the single European market for the benefit of Britain, especially with regard to lifting the beef ban. No one will forget the shrill trumpeting on this issue of the party opposite when in government. When they were in charge of the mad cows, they demonstrated very ably how to lose friends and fail to influence people in Europe. As to the beef on the bone ban, they have gone from being bone idle to being bone headed.

Can the Government now build on the good work of adopting and adapting sensible European programmes like LEADER and PRISMA, which aim to help small firms--often high-tech ones--to take root in Britain's countryside? The wonder of the Internet and related technologies miraculously have made SMEs natural grazers in today's countryside. The opportunity to supply worthwhile jobs in our rural towns and villages through such schemes and technologies must be harvested with enthusiasm.

The second aspect, again related to the single market, concerns the single currency. Many traditional industries like agriculture, where many farmers have opened euro accounts with the enthusiastic support of the NFU, and many newer industries like tourism, where the foreign tourists of the future will bring the euro as well as the pound to spend in the countryside, require us to prepare for the eventuality of the euro in the lanes and villages of rural Britain. Will the Government give thought, perhaps in conjunction with the NFU or the Countryside Alliance, to preparing an impact assessment of the euro on our rural life. That is a piece of work which would never be wasted, whether Britain joins now, next year or never.

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Such initiatives would be consonant with the Government's desire to prepare their people for the future. After all, however much we might regret it--pace to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who stated that agriculture was the powerhouse of the countryside--we have to recognise that farming is no longer the pre-eminent industry in the countryside.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, which industry is pre-eminent?

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I was about to make the point that, apart from the other industries that exist in the countryside, leisure and tourism are catching up fast.

Let me conclude by telling your Lordships that the largest public meeting I ever addressed concerned itself with leisure provision in the countryside in the form of the Conservative government's plans to privatise Delamere Forest in Eddisbury, to rob it from the people of Cheshire. Fortunately, the Robin Hoods of the party opposite were repulsed and today we celebrate the fact that the green lung of Cheshire, with which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield will be familiar, remains open to, for and used by the people in this part of England's green and pleasant land.

4.41 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I am not certain for which inner city election the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is standing. His speech was good tub-thumping stuff but I do not think it was very relevant to the debate or very accurate.

I commend my noble friend Lord Ferrers on introducing this important debate, which some of us will take seriously. If one flies over Britain today, one is often reminded of William Blake's words of "England's pleasant pastures", with its copses, hedges and stone walls. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, was right to remind us that those were all created by human beings, who have manicured nature to produce the beautiful countryside that we can see from the air. The only mess that has been made of the countryside is that one state institution, the Forestry Commission.

When one comes down from the air to ground level, one finds, as we have heard today, a very different story. It is a story of a people who have been told how to run their lives by city people who have failed to run their own lives satisfactorily. My noble friend Lord Ferrers mentioned farm incomes. Under the present Labour Government farm incomes have been cut by half. Under the previous Labour government farm incomes were cut by half. The only difference is that this Government have done it in half the time their predecessors took to do it. My noble friend Lord Jopling reminded us that farm incomes today are £2,000 per farm, which is not a very satisfactory state of affairs. But in Scotland last year farm incomes were £416 per farm. That contrasts with £4,615 per farm in

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1997-98 and £20,546 in 1996-97. My noble friend Lord Jopling was right to take this to its logical conclusion. If farm incomes drop at the present rate, one will have job losses. The countryside cannot afford further job losses. Yet between June 1998 and June 1999 we lost more than 20,000 farming jobs, and those jobs, I hazard a guess, will never come back to the industry. They will never return. They have not historically and they will not in the future.

The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, mentioned a good deal of what I wanted to say about access to the countryside. I do not have his expertise and I therefore listened to him with great attention. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said how much he appreciates the countryside. He said that he could go there when he wants to and come away when he wants to. But where were the ramblers after last year's storms? Who cleared the footpaths after the gales blew down the trees? Who opened up the bridle ways? It was not the ramblers; it was the farmers; it was the people who earn their everyday crust out of farming. By the time the people from the towns decided that the weather was warm enough and that the footpaths would be dry enough to walk on again, the work had been done by those who live there. I wish to add only one point to what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon. What really worries me about the right to roam is that it has a higher priority for some of those who wish to do it than actually understanding the countryside and the people who live there and over whose land they want to walk.

I turn to an aspect of the subject that has not so far been mentioned. I know that my noble friend Lord Peel will say more about it. I refer to crime in the countryside. A survey of farmers for BBC1's "Countryfile" showed that 55 per cent had been burgled; 45 per cent had suffered vandalism; 33 per cent had suffered verbal abuse; 20 per cent had suffered arson; 10 per cent had suffered physical abuse; and 40 per cent thought that crime was on the increase. Those are horrifying statistics. Sue Rhodes, the wildlife crime analyst for Humberside Police, commenting on the gangs of hare poachers who cause havoc in her area, said:

    "Nowadays if an officer sees a transit van parked down a dark lane he dare not open the door".

She went on:

    "People in the area are frightened to death of them".

Those poachers will not pay any respect to a government Bill that seeks to outlaw the hunting of hares by hounds and dogs. They are beyond the law. Unless more resources can be given to the police in rural areas, crime will continue to increase and people's lives will be threatened on a regular basis.

I hoped that the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, would say something about houses because he is an acknowledged expert in the south east. The Government's proposed housing policy for the south east will lead to a trail of destruction. No wonder the press had to tell us that the Prime Minister has yet again had to come to the rescue of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment,

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Transport and the Regions, Mr Prescott, when he suddenly realised that what Mr Prescott had said was in fact what he wanted to do. Mr Prescott had said:

    "The green belt is a Labour achievement and we mean to build on it".

Where will the Government put these houses? Do they know how many houses they will put in the south east? How much of the green belt will be destroyed in the process? I hope that the noble Baroness who is to reply will give me answers to those points.

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