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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, as regards help for rural businesses, will the noble Lord explain the Government's policy towards small and medium-sized abattoirs, dairy farmers, indeed any farmers, when all these people find their businesses collapsing left, right and centre--and not only the farmers directly but all those who support them?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, this Government and my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture have recognised that there are serious problems within the agricultural sector. Some were brought about by the BSE crisis and its knock-on effects, for which responsibility lies elsewhere than with the present administration. Some of them relate to the international situation. The Government have recognised the problems, particularly of small farmers, and have done much to provide additional income. We recognise that in rural areas, far beyond the numbers employed, agriculture is an important sector. We are seized of the problems and have done our best, in difficult international circumstances and following upon the effects of BSE, to try to support the agriculture industry. I wish that that were widely recognised in the House.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I recognise that, as my noble friend suggested, the present Government provide a high priority for rural areas. Would he care

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to remind the House that, in the 20 years before this Government were elected, we saw large numbers of village schools and village shops closed and many threats to village post offices? We saw the denudation of public transport in rural areas and a dramatic reduction in the number or proportion of rented houses in rural areas which compelled many poor people from the villages of Britain to move to the towns.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend effectively reminds the House of that position. I underline that this Government have taken steps to reverse the trends.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a problem with the different government departments? Does he think that the creation of a rural ministry will mean that other departments, such as the DTI and the Treasury, will have a more substantial understanding of rural issues than has been evident through the past several years? Some of those failings were pointed out by the noble Countess, Lady Mar.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that in the area of rural policy my department and the Ministry of Agriculture, with other departments, have established a better degree of joined-up government than has been the case in the past. As for the structure of government departments, I am advised that that is a matter for the Prime Minister.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, following the Minister's comment to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, perhaps I may agree with him that this Government have given extra help to farmers, for which they are grateful. However, it is a matter of publicising it. Of the £150 million recently allocated, only £1 million goes to farmers. The remaining £149 million goes in paying charges introduced by this Government, accompanied by all the other red tape and extra restrictions with which farmers have to comply.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not completely recognise the figures, but it is true that some of the extra help offsets charges which were in the pipeline. Nevertheless, £150 million of additional help has recently been given, particularly to beef and sheep farmers. I believe it is widely recognised within agriculture that that is a step in the right direction.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he agrees that, if a better understanding is to be fostered, it is assuredly not by a policy of overt-attrition to the interests of the countryside, not only the economic and agricultural interests but also the sporting interests?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord is leading us into a whole new minefield. We are concerned about the whole range of interests of country people, their employment, quality of life, transport systems and the

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prosperity of their businesses. I do not believe that the issue of field sports, for example, is central to the concerns of many country people. It is one on which a few people have over-excited views, but not one that defines the problems of the countryside. We believe that our policies will provide jobs, prosperity and a better infrastructure for what have often been neglected parts of our country.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, if the Government are unable to do much to prevent the gulf increasing between the urban and the rural sectors, can the Minister do something to make it decrease? Does he agree that one way of achieving that would be for the Government not to undertake the alteration of rural pursuits? I am not a participant in them, but any such alteration is likely to cause 16,000 people to become unemployed. Contrary to what the noble Lord said, those pursuits remain a substantial factor in the countryside.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I accept neither the figures nor the assertion. We were committed by our manifesto to a free vote on hunting with hounds. That will be pursued as parliamentary time permits. It is not a matter which the majority of people in the countryside see as central to their interests. I repeat that our concern is with jobs and prosperity in the countryside, not one particular small section.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, every word that the Minister has said so far has been entirely on agriculture, particularly BSE. That is understandable, but will he remember that those in horticulture are also having a rough time? They are often forgotten and do not share in any government goodies that may be thrown from the noble Lord's table.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I accept that horticulture and many other rural industries face problems. I recognise the importance of the horticulture sector and hope that our measures and those of my colleagues to help small firms, particularly in rural areas, will address some of the problems.

Disability Rights Commission

3.6 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made on the establishment of the disability rights commission and on the appointment of a chairperson.

Lord Bach: My Lords, we are determined that the commission should be up and running in April 2000. I am delighted to be able to inform the House that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is announcing today that Mr Bert Massie has been appointed chair. Currently he is the director of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, known as RADAR. As the House will know well, Mr

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Massie is a widely respected figure and I believe he will make an excellent chair. Now that he has been appointed, key decisions about the commission's establishment can be made.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am delighted to hear of the appointment of Mr Bert Massie? He will do an excellent job, as he always has done with RADAR.

Is my noble friend aware that the establishment of the disability rights commission by this Government is a major step forward for disabled people? While within its remit there is provision for it to try to persuade employers and service providers to comply with the law, does the Minister agree that in any cases where there is wilful and persistent discrimination against disabled people the commission should use all the powers at its disposal, including recourse to the law?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks about the new chair, or chairman.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Bach: My Lords, Mr Massie is a widely respected figure in the business world and with organisations working both for and with disabled people. His personal standing and political skills have achieved much on behalf of disabled people. The post demands a highly committed individual with strong skills in strategic leadership and a good understanding of disability issues. He is an excellent communicator and will work effectively with a wide range of external players, while bringing sound judgment to bear in a sensitive environment.

As to the second part of the Question, of course the commission will look into the matters that he raises. Once the commission is set up and running it will undoubtedly have recourse to law if there is seen to be discrimination.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I start by joining in the approval of the appointment which has just been announced. Does the Minister agree that congratulations are due to the chairman and members of the present National Disability Council? It was established expeditiously under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and has been functioning most effectively in the mean time and continues to do so.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's comments about Mr Massie and I agree with him, of course, about the role that the chairman and vice-chairman of the body to which he refers have played since the passing of the Act in 1995.

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The House will recognise that the Bill which became an Act in July, with unanimous support from this House, is probably an improvement on the 1995 Act. The setting up of the commission will, we all hope, help disabled people a great deal.


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