Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question? Is he satisfied that a local authority can be capped against money it has raised which does not come from central government? Can capping apply to that?

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. A little later in my notes I have: "assume intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls". However, he rose rather earlier than I expected. The answer to his question is: yes, local authorities can be capped and they are capped on the amount of council tax that they can raise from their electors. I hope that that satisfies the noble Lord and that I may now delete the assumption of an intervention from him.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, the noble Lord must not swank because he has an answer!

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I return to what I was saying. On top of all that —capping and the standard spending assessments—we have what is politely known as "local government reorganisation". I say "politely" because in practice I believe that the whole exercise is little more than a shambles. Scotland and Wales—where there is no conceivable Conservative majority —have had a new structure of local authority imposed on them by what, in my part of Wales at least, they call the "English Parliament". England, on the other hand, has had the continuing rigmarole of the Banham Commission which has led to the most bitter disputes, many of which were led by noble Lords opposite. They seem to me—and I confess that I speak somewhat as a Welsh outsider—to have more to do with sentimentality and party political advantage than the efficient organisation of local services.

So there it is. That is the crisis in local government. I believe that it is a sign of the Government's acute embarrassment over the whole procedure that the future of local government found no mention either in the gracious Speech or in the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater.

Noble Lords will be aware that our debates during this Session on the environment, local government and agriculture may be matters of some controversy. This will particularly be the case with the Environment Agencies Bill—both what is in the Bill and what is not.

23 Nov 1994 : Column 293

That is as it should be. But points of controversy should be openly and honestly debated in this House, and decided accordingly.

I have to say to your Lordships that in this respect I have noted a marked change which occurred in the spill-over period of the last Session. I am not sure why it was, but it seemed that there was a kind of "reserve army" of noble Lords opposite who appeared on those occasions when they were called in. I believe that in certain parts of the press they are known as "backwoodsmen". But why? Why "backwoodsmen"? Is it a new environmental agency? Where are the backwoods? Are they camps in which those noble Lords live and have their being, only to be let out to trudge through the Government Lobby under the lash of the Whip? Is there perhaps a gulag out there, somewhere in the north or in Scotland, with elaborate systems of control?

If so, my message to noble Lords of the gulag is simple but clear: relax; take it easy. Life in the gulag is good. It is much better than sitting around in the Library or in one of the bars, in constant fear of prowling Government Whips. Let those who do the daily business of this House get on with it without being submerged from time to time by a sea of strange faces blinking in an unaccustomed light.

We now know that there may be fewer opportunities in future. We are informed that the Government will do all that they can to consolidate to avoid controversy. Conservative Central Office appears to be suggesting a news blackout on the NHS. Perhaps it will go a little further, with a news blackout not just for the NHS but for some other little local difficulties as well: perhaps on the activities of some former members of Westminster City Council, the Scott Inquiry, or reports from the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

I gather from the reaction of many noble Lords opposite that they think what I am saying is distasteful and vulgar. In answer to that, I would say that they in their turn do not realise that Mr. Maples was right: their Government is regarded by the people of this country not merely as distasteful and vulgar but as corrupt, uncaring and incompetent. The sooner noble Lords opposite recognise that simple fact, the sooner we may get some sensible government. And if they cannot get it into their heads, they should stay at home and let others get on with running the country.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is he saying that Members of this House, who probably know most about the environment and who play a huge part in creating and managing the environment of this country, should stay at home and not attend the House when that is the matter under discussion?

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am not saying anything beyond that those who come on a daily basis—and the noble Baroness is a regular attender at this

23 Nov 1994 : Column 294

House—should participate in debates. I have made my point. I think the noble Baroness understands fully what I am saying, and I leave it at that.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, we have today a rather shorter list of speakers than on the other days of the Queen's Speech. It is nonetheless a very distinguished list, and we look forward to a very interesting debate. We look forward not least to the two maiden speeches—from the distinguished scientist, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, and from my noble friend Lady Thomas, who has immense experience in local government and knowledge in the field of transport.

The future of the British countryside needs to be ensured. Nowhere can that be more effectively argued and fought for than in this House, where, if the role of the hereditary peerage in the legislature can be defended at all—and I repeat "if"—it is surely in this area, where so many of their roots lie.

It would seem that there are three things which we, the people of this country, need to do. Each one of them has its roots deep in the past, and each one has added urgency today. The first is the preservation of the ecology of the countryside and, as a subset of that, the superficial parts of it which we tend to label "the environment". The second is the repopulation of the countryside, stimulated by the supply of suitable jobs which will serve to make the provision of services for those who live there considerably easier. The third is the preservation of a native, healthy and humane agriculture. None of those things is easy in today's climate. It would be foolish to pretend that they do not sometimes get in each other's way. But all three are essential.

In the first of these areas, the ecology of the countryside, the creation of an environment agency proposed by the Government cannot in itself be a bad thing. But its aims and duties must be spelt out; and it must not join the increasing clutch of matters which can be altered at the whim of Ministers without serious reference to Parliament. There are many of your Lordships—not least on the Law Lords' Benches—who I am sure will have a good look at that aspect of the legislation as it passes through this House.

Following the 1990 environment paper and the 1994 UK sustainability strategy, it is disappointing that the Environment Agencies Bill appears not to place environmental duties on all government departments. That is essential. The promotion of environmental and sustainable policies is not one governmental job among others; it is of overriding importance. In principle, it has been accepted by this Government. We now need to see its acceptance in practice.

To that end, it is vital that we work to a series of targets for individual actions: for instance, for the increase in the numbers of various threatened species and the reintroduction of others such as the pine marten, which has apparently become extinct in England since the last Queen's Speech. It is therefore, I would have thought, a great mistake to rob any body of its environmental duties, however much it is to be centralised or made more efficient. I understand that it

23 Nov 1994 : Column 295

has been proposed that the environmental duties should be taken away from the National Rivers Authority. That would be an extremely backward move.

Again on the general issues raised in this respect—I am not yet trespassing into a Second Reading speech on the Environment Agencies Bill, which after all we have not yet seen—the Government must not pursue their course of taking all power away from the people by continuing to emasculate local government. If there is one area where local government has shown its worth recently, and not least in the many authorities that are controlled by Liberal Democrats, it is in the management of waste disposal and the whole ecological field. This is archetypally a local government responsibility and ought to remain so. I have no doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will touch on this matter, as indeed may well the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas.

While I am on the subject of pollution, I should like to ask the Government what their plans are for implementing the recommendations of the Donaldson Report on shipping, safety and pollution. I have today tabled a no day named Motion to discuss the worthwhile recommendations of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution in the field of transport.

We now understand that the important Bill with which we shall deal shortly will include the long-overdue measures on national parks. Here once again we come across the need for duties to be placed on all departments to ensure that activities affecting the parks are compatible with or further national park purposes. Defence mechanisms must be erected to ensure that the parks have the highest status of protection and that development within them is allowed only in exceptional circumstances where there is a demonstrable national need and no available alternative. I am delighted to hear that there will at least be some action on hedgerows in the course of this Session.

On the creation of rural jobs, there are at least two possible prongs to the Government's attack. The first is the creation of non-farming jobs, something that is aided by the development of distance working. The second is interlocked with my third major theme—the creation of agricultural jobs. We all know that GATT is killing off diversified agriculture everywhere. If Britain is to compete in world markets and at home against world competition, we have to specialise and produce in bulk, which is ruinous to the countryside and to the environment. But for the moment we have to work within those constraints, even in agriculture. We have to save what we can from what could be a mortal blow to rural Britain and western Europe. That means that we must search diligently for the areas in which we can help and encourage farmers—especially the small and part-time farmers—without actually breaking any of the international rules that we have accepted. Perhaps in that area we have something to learn from France.

The Government will have to rethink extensively their agricultural policy, with the changes in the composition of the EC to include Scandinavia and the necessity to help eastern Europe, which is the subject on which my noble friend Lord Mackie will touch. In the area of the common agricultural policy, the Government are

23 Nov 1994 : Column 296

confronted, as they well know, with the situation that the more the squeeze is put on farmers from set-aside, quotas or bad prices, the greater is the temptation to indulge in intensive and environmentally damaging farming practices. That is an intolerable Catch-22 situation.

Far the easiest way to overcome that, and one which ought to appeal to this Government given their hatred of sticks, is to be a little less niggardly with the carrots that they offer, and in particular the carrots that they offer for organic farming, including support for existing organic producers. They must stop thinking of organic farming as an area of cranks—which it is not, as no doubt the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, will explain later to your Lordships —and realise that it offers them a way out of the intolerable situation in which farmers find themselves. It may be that the Agricultural Tenancies Bill, with its more flexible approach to the conditions of leases, will present at least a minor step forward in this field as well as being worth while in its own right.

The time will come—indeed, it is well overdue—for a strategy for the countryside which will integrate the welfare of farming and the preservation of the environment. If I properly understood the noble Viscount, he claimed that such integration already existed. To many of us and to those who work in the countryside, it is far from clear that such a thing does exist. The Government have every reason to take that to heart for the welfare of the nation as a whole, the sake of the countryside and their own sake.

The growth of Liberal Democrat representation of the countryside in Parliament, and above all in the local authorities of the shire counties, is not unconnected with the fact that the party opposite seems to have lost its one time—long ago one time—gut feeling of how to ensure and preserve a healthy countryside. For the short time that they are in power, they must try to lead us back or make way for those of us who will.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page