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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it has been an enormously wide debate, reflecting the range of issues that are involved, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, when we conjure up an image of the countryside. We have dealt with a great many matters agricultural. But, equally, we have dealt with matters of social deprivation, the environment, education, transport and crime. That emphasises the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, that this is not an area in which we can or should polarise or suggest that the interests of one group of people are diametrically opposed to, are different from or do not coincide with the views of their fellow citizens who may live in different parts of the country.
I was thinking about how I would respond to the right reverend Prelate on the issue of market towns. I am sure that that issue will be touched on in the rural White Paper because of the importance of market towns to the rural economy. But, equally, they are urban areas and the urban White Paper, which has been developed in tandem and in parallel with the rural White Paper, must recognise how we can make those thriving urban centres ones to which the rural population can relate.
Perhaps I may deal with one or two of the minor matters. I feel that I should reassure the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I was worried about his protected rabbit warren when I first heard of it. I am reliably informed that the proposal from English Heritage--it is only a proposal--is to designate a medieval structure built by
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I thought the noble Earl was going to say that it would have spoilt his joke if he had admitted what he had found out yesterday. As far as concerns the Newbury snails, I can draw on past experience. The noble Earl made a wise decision in the snails' benefit because, as I understand from my time as Minister with responsibility for roads, they were relocated and have thrived in their new location and are breeding better than ever.
While I am on the issue of roads, perhaps I should respond to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, who referred to the dualling of the A.1. I know, again from a previous incarnation, that that is a matter of great concern to him. He will appreciate that specific road schemes are not now within my hands or purview, but I have some sympathy with him on the accident record on that stretch of road. I shall take the opportunity to ensure that my noble friend Lord Whitty, whom I am sure the noble Lord has lobbied anyway, is made aware of his concerns on that area.
Another matter that is not in my hands is the future of MAFF, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Byford, made reference. I shall repeat the mantra that it is a matter for the Prime Minister. But that is not to say that it should not be debated in this House or that Members of this House should not express a view on it. It is just rather difficult for MAFF Ministers to express a view on it. I hope that noble Lords will understand that. Equally, it is difficult for MAFF Ministers to express a view on matters of taxation, which are for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The issue of a pesticides tax was raised today. Noble Lords will be aware that we understand the concerns of agriculture and have made clear that those will be well considered in any government decisions in that area. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham referred to VAT on church repairs. I shall ensure that my right honourable friend the Chancellor has his attention drawn that issue.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked whether MAFF staff and civil servants appropriately understand farming, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, also has views on that subject. In all areas of government it is important to ensure that people who are involved in advising Ministers about policy have some experience and vision of the areas concerned. When I have donned my green wellies and gone out, the farmers to whom I have spoken have been very appreciative of MAFF, particularly of the regional service centre staff, and feel that they are very involved regionally and have an understanding of those areas.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we are doing a great deal in terms of the Modernising Government initiative in having that kind of valuable interchange of ideas. That interchange of ideas and the recognition that those of us who spend most of our time in the city but enjoy some time in the countryside, and likewise those who spend most of their time in the countryside but enjoy some time in the city, must understand the other's view point are extremely important. Indeed, the polarisation that crept into some of the contributions made in the debate is not helpful to anyone.
In relation to the West Midlands, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield reminded us how important the countryside is for his urban parishioners. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and other noble Lords drew attention to the services that are provided in the cities and by city dwellers within the countryside. As one who was brought up in Wolverhampton, I certainly related to the way in which the rural areas in the right reverend Prelate's diocese provide not only leisure but a completely different perspective on life for those who dwell in cities. To some extent I disagree with the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that one may make the distinction that either side does not have the right to contribute to debates on the future of the countryside or of the town. I believe that such problems are better solved when a range of perspectives are brought together. We should not exaggerate the differences between town and country but rather we should understand the common causes, while not in any way jettisoning the perspectives of those who have long experience of a certain area.
We need to protect the rural environment while ensuring that we continue to enjoy the countryside. The grave problems facing the farming industry must be recognised, while at the same time--this point has been made by several speakers--the perspective of customers and consumers has to be clearly understood. Only by doing that will we ensure the future success of the industry.
Many speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Plumb, pointed out that this debate is taking place at a time when the farming industry is facing the most severe difficulties. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, used the word "despair". It is true that enormous personal and family problems have been caused by the current widespread depression in farming. Last year, farm incomes were already very low, and this year the forecast suggests that the situation will be similar. Telling figures were given by several speakers in the debate. After a period of relatively good incomes in the early 1990s, in real terms farm incomes have now dropped back below the levels of a decade ago.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, noted that the depression has now spread widely among the different farming sectors and that it is no longer a matter of one sector thriving while another struggles. We are seeing a much more widespread situation of depression. Concern for those affected has been demonstrated in contributions from all sides of the House. Noble Lords recognise that this not only affects the individuals directly involved in farming but impacts on related businesses and businesses ancillary to farming. Indeed, the consequences are potentially worrying for the landscape, the environment, animal welfare and a whole range of other related issues.
The Government are taking the situation very seriously. In September my right honourable friend the Minister announced a major review of the regulatory burdens on agriculture. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Rotherwick, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, made the point that those constraints are keenly felt and that this is an important issue. The three major working parties covering the priority topics of meat hygiene, the IACS scheme and inspections and the intervention system are reaching the end of their work. We hope to receive their reports this month. I can assure the House that the Government are committed to rooting out unnecessary red tape.
Equally, we need to look at exactly what regulation is unnecessary. We must recognise that some constraints need to be in place, especially in terms of the legal framework under which we operate--often a European framework. While there is no desire to gold-plate, we cannot under-implement and then complain about other countries' implementation.
Having said that, I see a major problem when UK governments take regulations emanating from Europe and then add bits onto them, sometimes verging on the edge of legality. This fault applies not only to the present Government. Our side was just as bad. Can the noble Baroness make a great effort to ensure that this is stopped?
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