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Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a farmer, a landowner, a rural businessman and as chair of Somerset Strategic Partnership. Secondly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for introducing this debate.

The rural economy is a large canvas and I shall touch first on a narrow area, and then a wider one. The narrow area concerns Wheels to Work schemes. For those that do not know, they deal with a particular rural problem of getting young people to work. They have no transport to get to a job, and they have no job to earn the money to buy themselves the transport—a Catch-22 situation. The simple answer is to lend them a moped for free until they have been in work for six months and can afford to get their own set of wheels. The numerous pilots have shown that after taking part in the scheme, they buy themselves transport and thus launch themselves on to a lifetime of earning, tax paying and independence.

My point is that the cost of Wheels to Work schemes is about half the cost to the taxpayer of the jobseeker's allowance and the other benefits that those youngsters can receive by remaining out of work. In other words, if the DWP were to sponsor nationwide Wheels to Work schemes, it would instantly save money within its own department and, of course, for the taxpayer. But no—the DWP leaves the decision-making process to its regional Jobcentre Plus managers, who inevitably see a cost on their budget rather than a saving to the taxpayer. So, many of the pilot Wheels to Work schemes are ending while others struggle on—raising funds through coffee mornings and the like—whereas what should be happening is for the scheme to be universally available in England and Wales. I get quite cross about such a waste of taxpayers' money, not to mention the waste of young rural lives. I happen to know that Defra also gets quite cross about that. Maybe the Treasury should be told, as Private Eye would say. Enough said; I have got that off my chest.

My second point refers to planning in the context of sustainable development. Everyone knows that one requirement for a sustainable countryside is to have profitable and diverse businesses supporting it. Everyone also knows that agriculture is no longer the backbone of the rural economy; it now represents less than 5 per cent of rural gross value added, whereas services and manufacturing enterprises represent over 90 per cent.

There are good reasons for supporting such non-agricultural enterprises. First, since over 25 per cent of all VAT-able UK businesses are in rural areas, what is good for rural must be good for UK plc. Secondly, growth in the wider rural economy is the best way to tackle the real deprivation that exists in rural England. Thirdly, prosperous businesses are also vital in conserving and enhancing the fabric of our countryside for the benefit of all—locally and nationally, now and in future.

Therefore, planners at all levels must understand the huge benefits of having diverse rural businesses. Every community should have its non-agricultural
 
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workspace. Maybe every home should be allowed to have a small business operating from it, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was saying. In fact, recent research by the Countryside Agency called Under the Radar showed that rural dwellings are already home to nearly 700,000 businesses, which are largely ignored by business support services.

Equally, we must all understand that our countryside is part of the capital of life for us and for our children. Furthermore, since our debate is on the economy, if we spoil the attractions of our countryside we actually destroy our economic future. For instance, the countryside hosts a £15 billion per annum rural tourist industry. It is also a magnet for incoming businesses; 66 per cent of all new countryside businesses are started by newcomers. They move there and then start a business, so we destroy the beauty of our countryside at our peril.

However, my point here is that with the changes happening in the countryside, we need to change our approach. Having merely a locally reactive approach to planning, based on guidelines from the centre, is not enough. Neither will merely controlling development sustain our countryside. Regional and local planners must assist diversification more actively. For instance, local planners should get together with their own enterprise departments—and with other bodies, maybe neighbouring planning authorities or under the county council umbrella—to encourage and help businesses which want to start up, move to or expand within their boundaries.

There are still far too few regional and local rural action plans, or economic strategies, which reflect the reality of rural business. The reality of potentially healthy rural economies is swamped by too much attention to the weaker parts. Dare I mention farming, which I involve myself in, or even tourism in that context? In this way, the real economic potential tends to be ignored by urban-led policies. There are, for example, more manufacturing businesses per head in the countryside than in towns. RDAs running their dreadful "city region" policies need to recognise that "rural" means more than a pleasant landscape attracting a few tourists. Rural enterprise is stronger than urban enterprise, and RDAs need to help it.

A vibrant countryside needs jobs. Every level of government, from parish council upwards, needs to be bold and innovative in attracting new businesses. We need to plan the workspace, not just leave it to chance or the vagaries of the land market. We need to be bold and innovative in promoting the adaptive reuse of buildings, including farm buildings. We should seek high-tech, high-value enterprises.

Our rural economy has changed dramatically in recent years, with the decline of agriculture and the advent of broadband being two major factors. It is vital that we adapt our planning systems and the input of local government to positively promote a sustainable future for us all. Development control is important. At all costs, we must not damage what I call our "countryside capital". A little bit more thinking
 
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and real planning about how we are to sustain our countryside over the next 10 to 15 years, however, is an absolute must.

12.16 pm

Baroness Prosser: My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for initiating this debate. I am an urban person. I have never lived in the countryside, but developed a love for it many years ago in my days as a Girl Guide, when we used to annually go camping in what I thought of then as the far-flung reaches of the Sussex Downs. I have spent many happy and enjoyable hours since then walking and rambling and, when I was a little younger, even mountaineering.

Such activities, while healthy and enjoyable, can lead to a rather romantic view of rural life. We do not note the isolation of many rural dwellers, often brought about by the paucity of public transport which, in turn, makes it difficult to access health and education services, and constrains employment choices. The impact of the second-home culture on rural property prices particularly hits the younger generation, who are needed to remain and regenerate declining populations but are often forced out of their own environments in order to find somewhere affordable to live.

We are all familiar with these issues; they have already been mentioned this morning. I shall concentrate, however, on two aspects of the rural world of work. I declare an interest as a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, which is in the forefront of representation for rural and agricultural workers. First, I was pleased by the Government's sensible decision to maintain and support the Agricultural Wages Board structure and its protective mechanisms. There were some who said, when the national minimum wage was introduced, that the AWB was no longer necessary. However, the Agricultural Wages Board recognises careers paths and skills acquisition, and covers more than rates of pay. The availability of a statutory framework is valued in particular by employees in small farms or workplaces, where day-to-day relationships are key to survival and questions of personal pay can be tricky.

Secondly—and I shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply on this—there was much rejoicing, not only among rural workers and their representatives but from employers who play by the rules, supermarkets who did not want to be seen to gain from the abject exploitation of vulnerable workers and from the National Farmers' Union, when the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 was passed. The Morecambe Bay tragedy was the most vivid example of what can happen when greedy, ruthless characters prey upon the weaknesses, lack of knowledge and lack of rights of those who are desperate for work and money. Too many other examples exist of underpayment of wages, illegal employment of children, bonded and forced labour, illegal employment of foreign workers and breaches of the
 
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law on hours worked. Each one of those misdemeanours by exploitative, uncaring gangmasters represents a story of human misery and often of fear.

The Act is a good thing, introduced with cross-party support. Arising from the Act will be the establishment of a Gangmasters Licensing Authority, a non-departmental public body made up of key industry stakeholders and enforcement agency representatives. Part of its responsibility will be to enforce the licence conditions. What has not yet been decided are the sectors of the food and agricultural industries to be covered under the Act. There is a view in some government departments that so-called secondary processing should be excluded from coverage. If this view prevails, areas such as the sorting, cutting and packing of meat, vegetables and fruit will be excluded from the requirements to operate under licence and could be left open to the very exploitation which the Act is designed to eliminate.

An audit was recently conducted by the Temporary Labour Working Group—a body made up of unions and businesses with a direct interest in this sector—of gangmasters supplying casual labour to the food and farming industry. Two hundred gangmasters voluntarily participated and the 164 reports so far completed show a whacking 90 per cent of them were operating outside the law, including one example of a 14-year old child driving a fork-lift truck. These, I point out again, were gangmasters who volunteered to be involved, so presumably thought they had nothing much to worry about. If that is the case in what we might call the better end of the market, what is happening with those gangmasters who are not prepared to be open to scrutiny?

These are the very areas of employment which the Act was designed to protect. These are the vulnerable people—the migrant labourers or simply the indigenous rural workers with few choices in the world of work—who need the cover of legislation, inspection and enforcement to prevent them suffering at the hands of rogue employers.

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to give serious consideration to my comments so that the full intentions of this legislation can be realised.

12.22 pm


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