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Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St. Johns, is to be congratulated on the way in which she succeeded in persuading the Government to adopt the substance of her proposals. She said that in the course of that she had abandoned the more ambitious of her proposals. I confess that I do not think that the alternative proposal that one appointee to each agency should have rural experience is either more ambitious or preferable. I think that the noble Baroness has the right answer. The Government and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, are to be thanked for having co-operated on that point. Having had the privilege of attending that meeting, I know that it is absolutely clear that the Government have taken a great deal of trouble about both the original constitution of the agencies and the rules and guidelines under which they are to operate.
My concern, which was also expressed by the noble Baroness, relates to appointments to be made in the future when the matter cannot be considered in the same depth as at the start. It is highly desirable and a great improvement that the interests and concerns of people in the countryside will be expressly considered.
I have one question for the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He has chosen not to adopt the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, but to table his own. I quite understand that. The parliamentary draftsmen do not believe that any other hand should ever be allowed to touch a sacred Bill and that amendments must therefore be drafted by them and not by the mere riff-raff who sit on your Lordships' Benches.
However, one word in the amendment worries me. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness refers to persons who represent the "concerns" of people in rural areas. The Government's amendment refers to those who "represent the interests".
I say as a lawyer--one always becomes boring at this stage!--that "interests" is a much narrower word than "concerns". There are many cases which hold that you have an interest only if you have a financial interest or a property interest. Persons, for example, who are concerned about the conservation of birds or the amenities of the countryside but have no financial or property interest in those things might be regarded by the courts as not being within the scope of the Government's amendment, whereas they obviously would be within the scope of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay.
I am afraid that I have seen these amendments only today and therefore I have not had a chance to put this matter to the noble Lord. I am sure he will not wish to give me an answer on this occasion, but I hope he will consider that point and consider whether his amendment might be improved on Third Reading by substituting the word "concerns" for "interests".
The Earl of Arran: My Lords, I wish to support my noble friend Lord Stanley and to reinforce some of the points he made. In so doing I mention as examples some agricultural points that concern the south-west. Of the 80 separately identified regions of the European Union, only Sicily, Northern Ireland, Scotland and north Pas-de-Calais in France had a higher proportion of their land areas devoted to agriculture than the south-west of England in 1994. As a proportion of regional GDP agriculture is more important in the south-west than in any English region and is second only to Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
The south-west accounts for 25 per cent. of the United Kingdom's dairy herd and 16 per cent. of its beef cattle. Nearly 60 per cent. of local farms are in the small category with an average income of under £8,000 in 1997. However, a combination of the BSE crisis, the fall in milk prices and the impact of the green revolution has reduced farm incomes by half compared with 1996. Many farmers in Devon and Cornwall--I know your Lordships have heard this many times, but it is a fact--are facing ruin and their uncertain future has a 15 to 25 per cent. knock-on effect on sales of farm machinery and agricultural supplies as well as upon the network of industries and services supporting agriculture in the villages and market towns of the south-west.
I hear that the only agricultural businesses which are growing at the moment in north Devon where I live are those selling tyres for tractors and such like. This implies that our farmers cannot now afford or risk buying new machinery. We should therefore expect them to have even greater problems tomorrow as their ability to compete will be further reduced by a lack of investment today. I think I am right in saying that MAFF is not currently part of government regional offices throughout the country. Therefore it is even more important that strong recognition is given to agriculture within the RDAs.
I have one concern which I wish to place on record although it is not appropriate to push it further. At the previous stage one or two of us mentioned the membership of the London agency when that comes into being. We accepted that expertise in rural matters would be relevant to membership of the London agency. I appreciate that the commencement order for London will not arise at the same time as for the other agencies, and that the London agency will come into being in a couple of years as part of the new government for London. However, the amendment refers to representation of the interests of those,
Lord Bowness: My Lords, in Committee it was powerfully argued in all parts of the Chamber that the special concerns of rural areas should be recognised on the face of the Bill. I believe it was accepted that the consultation for the initial appointments would be wide and would cover all the necessary interests. However, I believe--I think this is a fear of many noble Lords--that as time goes by and pressures grow on regional development agencies for different interests to be represented, it will be all too easy for those interests to become dominated by the interests of the large conurbations within the individual regions. I welcome the Government's amendment which ensures that before any appointment is made, not just now but also in the future, those representing the interests of the rural community will be consulted. I take this opportunity to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, and to my noble friend Lady Anelay of St. Johns for the work they have done in ensuring this outcome.
Much has been said on rural interests generally. I appreciate the remarks of all noble Lords, and particularly of the noble Baroness, who was energetic and effective in lobbying the Government on this issue. We listened, both during the debate and in the meetings outside this House. We have brought forward a proposal which I believe meets the concerns of most noble Lords.
I wish to make a few points for the record. Reference was made to the original amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, described by her as more ambitious. It is important that people in rural areas understand why we have not been prepared to go along with that proposal. The Bill does not single out any board member for special areas of interest; all members of the board will be treated equally. Our view remains that we do not want to separate out the rural expertise in that way.
However, while we do not intend rural expertise to be ghetto-ised and represented by one member, we do, on the contrary intend to ensure that there will be rural expertise on the board. I cannot give an unequivocal reply in relation to London because of the role of the mayor in that respect, but on the other boards there will undoubtedly be someone appointed who has rural expertise. That is the Government's intention. We recognise that in bringing forward Amendment No. 2 noble Lords require this provision to be on the face of the Bill, and that people in rural areas require that assurance. The Bill as it stands provides a general list of people to be consulted. We are happy to add to that list the reference to rural interests; that is represented in our amendment.
In parallel with the passage of this Bill, and without pre-empting the view of this House, it has obviously been necessary for us to have started consultation with organisations on the initial appointments to the boards. Noble Lords who inquire, region by region, will know that the consultation has included identifying candidates with rural expertise. We are consulting numerous groups about board membership. In response to the noble Baroness's question, the consultation includes the Country Landowners' Association, the NFU and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. On the national list there are several more bodies with primarily rural interests. I shall be happy to let the noble Baroness have a list. Region by region, there are also local variations in those being consulted. We have received a
In addition to that, the concern represented to me in the interim between Committee stage and this stage was to the effect that that is all very well for the first batch but we need to ensure that the same will apply in future. I believe that my amendment will ensure that that happens in relation to future Secretaries of State and future appointments.
Perhaps I may explain to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, why we differentiate between the wording of the noble Baroness's amendment and the government amendment. We did not see the same distinction. There may well be more sophisticated reasons from the parliamentary draftsmen, but perhaps I may give just two. First, our amendment refers specially to people in rural areas rather than representing concerns. Secondly, the word "concerns" may be straightforward to a lawyer, but it is ambiguous to a layman in the sense that it can mean enterprises and institutions and not people; whereas we have referred specifically to people, and to those who operate businesses. As I believe the noble Baroness accepted, our wording is slightly wider than that in Amendment No. 3.
I am grateful for all the kind words directed towards the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, and myself. Congratulations are probably due more to those who have brought these matters to our attention. However, I believe that this issue can now be resolved. I hope that at least in this instance the noble Baroness will recognise that the Government do listen to the House of Lords, and that on this occasion we can all agree on my amendment.
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