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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, everything has to die.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, everything has to die, as the noble Earl says.

However, I thank the noble Earl for introducing the debate, as it has turned up a number of extremely good speeches. I mention the contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield and the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, which we have just heard. I thought that speech was an extremely important contribution to the debate as a whole, although I do not necessarily go along with his final endorsement of free trade.

I agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said: that the countryside is important and that it is not the countryside unless it is the home of farming. I do not

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pretend that that is an axiom; I merely say that, almost without exception, those of us who have lived in a healthy working countryside will recognise it as an important truth. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, was absolutely right to say so. As I told your Lordships in a recent debate, recently I travelled through New England. I did not travel through countryside but through forestry or suburbia or both, made from good farmland by the evils of free trade. To help the countryside, one needs to help farming.

This weekend I went to a farming world conference entitled "Farmers--Are they an endangered species?" Except for an NFU economist who pointed out that a few clever, imaginative farmers could survive by diversifying, the answer was yes, they are endangered. Not only are they endangered but, in fact, they are committing suicide by the score.

The countryside is for producing food--but food that is healthy, palatable and does not have to be taken long distances, but feeds its own hinterland. I believe that it is time that we started reversing the move towards extreme free trade--almost all extremes being bad. The first and most important step would be to take agriculture and food production back from free trade into the area of food security. Many noble Lords have lived through a period when food security was very important to this country. In a difficult world, however much globalisation we have, that will not go away. I should not like to live in a country where there was not a certain amount of food security. Indeed, in some places like Tanganyika there is a move towards area food security. That means ensuring that local farmers are able to feed the people who live around them and that the people produce the food in return for a living wage. That would not, as is falsely suggested, harm developing countries because it would not encourage or allow dumping.

I found the recent debate on the CAP distressing. It seemed to me that the only reasonable speech was that of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, because she did not emphasise monetary income as the measure of efficiency. Of course, monetary income is important. This debate, to a large extent, has been about monetary income and in no way would I detract from that. We have to ensure the monetary income of our farmers. But what about efficiency as regards the conservation of our soils and the welfare of our animals? Plenty of other efficiencies must be put on an equal par.

In that debate, speaker after speaker said that we have subsidised inefficient farmers. However, the farmers referred to were efficient producers and conservers but were being driven out by the big boys, by the farmers who sit in offices in the City and who have the time that small farmers do not to sit on NFU committees and to resist modulation on behalf of the small farmers.

The Green Party, which I represent, asks for a number of matters to be considered in agricultural policy. I shall list five: safe, healthy, nutritious food seen as a basic human right; sustainable, smaller-scale, organic farms encouraged, creating more local jobs;

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financial support and education for farmers converting to organic farming; taxes to discourage the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers; and natural, free-range, low-drug animal-rearing practices encouraged. I should have thought that few countrymen would quarrel with those points. We need them. They are all sensible and essential.

We have had a good, valuable debate. Unless we can make the Government take rather drastic steps to protect our farms and our farmers--especially our small farms--we shall lose the countryside as we have known it all our lives; we shall lose a lot of hardworking worthwhile citizens from the land, and we shall lose a long tradition that we should preserve.

6.6 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, the countryside, as we comprehend it, is the product of centuries of development and dedication. In medieval times England and large tracts of Scotland and Wales were heavily forested. In order to see for miles one had to find a clear day and get above the tree line. In succeeding centuries trees were chopped down both for housing and for ocean going ships, particularly oaks for fighting ships, pasture land was enclosed with hedges and walls and the spaces between the trees became larger and more frequent.

In this century we have seen an extraordinary increase in the building of houses. A questionable 1 million new houses are now sought in the south east by the Government. On top of that, today I read that this year there has been an influx of around 400,000 migrant workers and a larger increase in the number of asylum seekers than before. Coupled with the number of refugees, that figure rises to half a million people. I question where they will all find their houses. Along with the building of factories and industrial units and enormous road-building programmes to allow for a tenfold increase in car numbers, the demands on the countryside have been enormous, resulting in an irreversible erosion of farmland hectares.

As a farmer and land manager I have studied the words of some of the great and the good of our time. First, Richard Wakeford, chief executive of the Countryside Agency, said:


    "A countryside without farming is unthinkable; farms need to provide good incomes, which in turn sustain many secondary businesses".

His boss, Ewen Cameron, Chairman of the Countryside Agency, said:


    "Agriculture amounts to less than one tenth of the rural economy and an even smaller percentage of rural employment. But its true significance is much greater because farmers are the stewards of four fifths of our landscape".

Those 50,000 rural businesses are involved in farming, forestry, water resource management, environment land management, and so on. This year agricultural incomes in the UK are expected to total less than £2 billion compared with £4.8 billion in 1996.

That dramatic fall has been caused in part by the beef ban, the strong pound hitting other exports, the collapse in the price for pigs, milk, beef, lambs, arable

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produce and so forth. Government influence many of those factors. This government influence could have been more beneficial to farming. For example, the beef ban was an unnecessary ban to appease our European Union partners that could have been lifted a month or so ago. But we had to wait for Scotland and Wales to agree. This Government enabled the tail to wag the farming industry.

The reliance on imported products is alarming both from the point of view of the continuation of our own agriculture industry and from that of the advisability of handing the feeding of our people to overseas countries. As our farming industry's competitiveness is eroded by the EU and government laws, much of our imported food is produced under regulations less stringent than our own high standards. Many of our imported meat products are produced in ways less kind than under our own higher welfare and environmental standards. This year has seen a 23.5 per cent increase in pig meat imports. That means that 23.5 per cent of pigs eaten in this country now are reared under less favourable conditions.

Unfortunately, many of the countries in the world are busy reducing their growing medium by covering it in buildings, by exhausting its goodness, by spoiling it with chemicals and so on. As recently as spring 1998 the chief executive of Britain's Natural Environment Research Council, Professor John Krebs, talking of the effects of global warming and climate change wrote that,


    "In the case of food supply, a predictive model might show that past gains (that is, in agricultural productivity) had been made at a price that could not be paid at an increasing level into the future".

We must take the long view. Our countryside is the result of hundreds of years of change and more recently of the care and commitment of generations of farmers and land managers. They have planted and tended the hedgerows; built and repaired walls; dug the ditches; ploughed and harvested the fields and filled the pastures with livestock, producing that outstanding countryside that has encouraged people to visit it. The farmers recouped their costs from the price commanded by their arable and livestock products. But for how long can they continue to subsidise the beauty of the landscape when the money they earn is falling steadily and the costs heaped upon them by a series of British and European laws and government stealth taxes are rising just as steadily?

The British countryside is a huge national asset but it is a fragile asset. We must take our time in deciding what, if anything, to do with it to meet the aspirations of those who maintain that, because it is a national asset, it should be suitably accessible to all those who wish access to it. It must not be used as a political football to advance the careers of would-be or nearly has-been politicians, as my noble friend Lord Peel said.

Farming is in crisis and the Government must not talk rhetoric but take action to influence the rebuilding of this great industry and its return to profit. If the countryside is to remain a desirable, attractive and viable part of our heritage, the caretakers of that countryside must have the bureaucratic fetters

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loosened and their industry must be allowed to prosper. Profitable farming is the key to the maintenance of our countryside.

What steps are the Government taking to rebuild our farming industry and its profitability? What steps are they taking to reduce red tape and produce a fair market place such as that in which the farming industry has historically competed so brilliantly?

6.14 p.m.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for tabling this debate today. I must declare an interest as a specialist cheese maker, a farmer's wife and a member of the Countryside Alliance.

We need to decide what we mean by the term "countryside" and, once we have that definition, what we expect of those who are its custodians. Is the countryside the landscape that we now know and love--a backdrop for our leisure and recreation, a haven for wildlife, a green lung for our urban population and a reminder of who we are as people? Alternatively, is it the workplace for a steadily diminishing minority, evolving as the demands of consumers and governments change? Opinions seem to have become polarised, though I believe the countryside is a bit of both.

The majority, who comprise our urban population, rightly regard the countryside as part of their heritage. However, too many of them seem to have lost touch with their ancestral origins. In their imaginations they see chocolate box villages surrounded by wild tracts of hillside and meadow over which they and their dogs can roam freely. They perceive the farmer as a feather-bedded sponger who must do their bidding because it is they who pay him through their taxes. Their rural counterparts, who must earn a living from and in the countryside, feel beleaguered in the face of rapidly diminishing incomes, a loss of markets for their products and erosion of their freedom by bureaucrats and pressure groups who appear to have no concept of the real world of farming.

As other noble Lords have said, our landscape is our heritage. It is of real value to our economy, and a vital--in the sense that it is living--part of our nation, though it appears on no balance sheet. If we want to retain our countryside, there is a price to pay. Farmers do not, by any means, capture all the economic benefits of their stewardship. The whole population is not well served by attempts to turn our agriculture into a production machine, striving to compete in an unequal world market encouraged by production-based subsidies. How can we compete with ranches in Australia and South America or with hog farmers in America? We must look at other methods.

The barley barons of East Anglia rule over a hinterland devoid of people, employment opportunities, affordable housing, schools and public transport. Upland communities have disappeared because the previously mixed economy, which once supported a small community, has been replaced by

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sheep and suckler cows. The net effect of production-linked subsidies is that they distance the producer from the consumer and encourage single product concentration. They blur the self-correcting mechanism of market distortions and force farmers to ask for more, much as the drug addict begs for another fix to ease his pain. Ultimately they are pernicious and damaging to those they were intended to protect.

British farmers are currently paying the price for a quarter of a century of dependency upon EU attempts to control agricultural production. Older farmers knew about market cycles and hedged against them with mixed farming; hence the adage, "Never put all your eggs in one basket". They kept a range of farm animals and poultry and they understood the value of rotating arable crops with grassland to maintain the structure and fertility of the soil.

The parish in which I live is interesting in that we have examples of both cultures. There is a farm shop that sells a combination of home-grown vegetables and soft fruits with goods bought in from further afield. There is an enterprising family who diversified from milk production alone into asparagus and pick-your-own soft fruits for the summer and free-range geese and turkeys for the winter. One couple has orchards from which they sell apples and pears; another sells the meat from their own Aberdeen Angus cattle as well as home-grown dried flowers, and my husband and I produce goats' milk and cheese as well as home-produced black Welsh mountain lamb. We all sell directly to the consumer either from our farms or through farmers' markets and, while we are not making our fortunes, we are managing to survive and maintain our little bits of landscape. Interestingly, we do not depend upon subsidies.

The rest of the land in the parish--several hundred acres--is either owned or rented by two very successful brothers. We always know which crops are in the high subsidy bracket because those are the ones they grow. When sheep and cattle were receiving high subsidies and high market prices, they had sheep and cattle--despite the fact that they would be the first to admit that they are not stockmen. Everything they do is on a grand scale. It will be interesting to see, in the coming years, who are the survivors.

If we want our rural landscape to remain, we must, first, accept that it will never be static. Secondly, we must support the rural economy as an integrated entity. We need to recognise that, while agriculture is the heart of our countryside, there is inter-dependency between farming and other businesses. The survival of rural society as a whole depends upon a mixed economy. This includes the village shop and post office, the local pub, the garage, the church and schools, as other noble Lords have said. Above all, it includes people; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, will be interested to hear me say that.

If people are driven away because of the lack of facilities or employment opportunities, there will be no community and no one to conserve our landscape. What tourist or town dweller will want to visit the countryside in order to admire a tangle of bramble,

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gorse and bracken, I wonder? I am pleased that moves are now in train to divert subsidies away from production. The knock-on effect this should have is that rural workers and businesses remain local, a broader economic base should encourage diversification and local producers will be able satisfy many of the needs of the local community by adding value to their products. I think very much along the same lines as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, as regards this point of view.

But, and this is a very big "but", we also need to be aware of the dangers posed by over-prescription and a heavy-handed bureaucracy, both of which stifle innovation and growth. I recognise that public health, food safety and animal welfare should be given priority. However, as the Minister is only too well aware, I believe that regulation should be fair, reasonable and based on sound scientific knowledge--not upon ideas plucked out of the air by officials who have probably never set foot in a farmyard, or the results of pressure from vociferous and sentimental minority groups.

A former Prime Minister once said:


    "There is no such thing as society".

Unfortunately, we have been reaping the harvest of her philosophy at the cost of the bonds we used to have with our fellow citizens. I am pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, has now returned to his seat because I believe that this is what he was saying. The unlimited pursuit of private gain leads to bankruptcy of the body public. Its unpleasant manifestations are growing daily more acute--a lack of concern for the rights of others, declining moral and spiritual values, emotional stress and sociopathic crime, for example.

The countryside is an essential safety valve for the urban population for it enables them to recharge their batteries, to widen their horizons and to find their identities as people. Thus, the welfare of those who live and work in the countryside should be a matter of concern to the whole population. It makes economic sense. In the last analysis, the countryside shapes the kind of society we wish to bequeath to our children. As John Winthrop said in his City Hill speech:


    "We must delight in each other, make each other's conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having the community as members of the same body".

6.23 p.m.

The Earl of Liverpool: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Countess, Lady Mar, because it gives me the opportunity of paying tribute to her as one of the Members of your Lordships' House who has done more than most to champion the plight of the farming community. I was most interested, as I am sure all noble Lords were, in her thought-provoking remarks.

I have no interest to declare. I do not own rolling acres. However, I have lived most of my life in the countryside and many of my friends are farmers or own land as, indeed, do a number of my family.

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Therefore, I speak as one who enjoys the countryside but who has at present, quite happily, no responsibilities within it.

I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Ferrers has given the House the opportunity to have this debate today. Like him, and other noble Lords, I agree that it is no exaggeration to say that the countryside is under threat as never before in this country. Farming is, unquestionably, at its lowest ebb since the 1930s. We are told that millions of new homes will have to be built and that there are not enough brownfield sites to accommodate them. So the countryside will have to take the strain.

The ever increasing number of cars on the roads means that congestion is set to increase and, therefore, presumably new roads will have to be provided, introducing additional environmental pressures and putting millions more acres under tarmac and concrete. In the same vein, the motorist is being increasingly penalised. But cars in the countryside are not a luxury, especially in places which are not served by public transport; they are a necessity. I believe that further strains are placed on the countryside by out-of-town shopping centres that have created their own pressures, not least on the more rural traders and shopkeepers.

I believe that it is our duty to seek ways to enable all our countrymen to live in harmony--and the fragile interplay between the rural and urban areas is one of the most important aspects to make sure we get right. As the countryside adapts to its new pressures, the Government need to integrate agricultural, environmental and rural policy. As my noble friend Lord Jopling said earlier, this cannot be done if, as has been mooted, MAFF is put into the Department of Trade and Industry.

However, I believe it can be done by establishing a new department for countryside and agriculture, with a Secretary of State in the Cabinet reporting direct to the Prime Minister. I understand that this idea has not been greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the Government. That is a shame because there is certainly a full-time job there. Such an appointment would do much to make our farmers, and those who derive a living from working in the countryside, feel that they are not some forgotten breed.

With so many pressures bearing down on the countryside, it seems extraordinary to me that the only piece of legislation heralded in the gracious Speech was a Bill to create a statutory right of public access. Add to that the continuing, creeping repression of traditional sporting pursuits and I believe that noble Lords will agree with me that there is not much for the hard-pressed farmer to rejoice about.

I am focusing on farmers. I hope that I shall be forgiven to doing so. I know that some noble Lords feel that this slightly narrows the debate, but it is the issue on which I should like to focus. Farmers have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for the past four years at least. Although there was some welcome news yesterday that the beef-on-the-bone ban will be lifted before Christmas, many of them

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simply cannot foresee a return to profitability in their lifetimes. This is borne out by the fact that over 5,000 farmers came out of the industry between June 1998 and June 1999. In fact, the overall number of working farmers and wives in the industry fell from just over 211,000 to 201,000.

I believe that that trend is accelerating. The average age of the working farmer in this country is increasing and the younger generation are now far less inclined to follow their fathers. The reasons are fairly obvious. The risks far outweigh the returns. The stress factor is enormous, as a number of noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield in a thought-provoking speech. Farmers have no confidence that the Government have the capacity to protect their interests, and the new working hours directive will inevitably create further cost burdens.

Moreover, farmers are increasingly becoming paper farmers. It is now normal for farmers to have to devote two full working days a week to form-filling; indeed, it is no exaggeration to describe farming as being in a "regulatory quagmire". The gracious Speech gave some small glimmer of hope that regulatory burdens would be reduced. We shall have to wait and see, but I suspect that, sadly, it may be too little, too late.

Farmers do not feel that the playing field will ever be level with their European partners. I am sure that noble Lords will know that if one confirmed case of BSE is found in a French herd, the entire herd has to be slaughtered. Not unnaturally, this has led to French farmers becoming extremely skilled at digging deep holes very quickly! Indeed there is a well worn joke in the farming community with which I shall burden your Lordships: French farmers do not suffer at all from CJD disease; they only have JCB disease. I am told by my friends in the farming community that in Belgium the veterinary profession has become adept at finding alternative causes of death when their farmers' stock is affected.

The BSE catastrophe will linger on, but it beggars belief that the effect of actions taken to control it have cost the taxpayers of this country literally billions of pounds and have put many farmers out of business given that the number of definite and probable cases of nvCJD in this country over the past five years totals 48. While every case is to be regretted and each one is a human tragedy for the family concerned, I feel that we must get this in context. Taken as an average this figure represents fewer than 10 cases per annum. The number of road deaths in this country exceeds 3,500 per annum. Therefore, I fear that we have got the whole matter out of proportion. However, let us hope that as regards beef we are now about to return to some kind of trading normality with our neighbours.

However, there is less hope for the pig farmer where the use of sow stalls is, I believe, still legal in many countries whereas it is quite rightly banned here. However, that increases production costs and makes it virtually impossible for our farmers to compete. As many noble Lords have already stated, at present pig farmers are losing up to £25 on each pig sold.

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Furthermore, apparently, chickens are being imported from Thailand at prices which undercut the prices charged by our farmers--and who knows on what those chickens have been fed and what standard of animal husbandry has been observed. The fact is that we are importing food produced under conditions which are less stringent than those by which we are regulated. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to this matter and sensibly suggested that specific labelling might be the answer.

We are told that we must increasingly accept that we are living in a competition-led economy. Tariff barriers are already low and are set to come down further. The reform of the CAP is progressing apace. I have friends who farm sugar beet. They are fearful that with the abolition of tariff barriers altogether they will no longer be competitive compared with cane sugar growers.

So where is the ray of hope for farmers? Is it surprising that the suicide rate in the industry is rising? In 1997, there were 59 tragic cases and in 1998 that figure had risen to 72. That represents an increase in one year of 25 per cent. The figures are not yet available for this year, but I hope and pray that when they are published they will not show a similar rise.

We need to see the finest example of joined-up government to dig ourselves out of the hole in which farmers find themselves. There is a crisis which is not only looming; it has already loomed; and at the moment it is not being properly addressed.

I return to remarks that I made earlier and ask the noble Baroness in all seriousness whether the Government might give consideration to the appointment of a Minister for the countryside and agriculture because, without such an appointment, we may be close to reaching the point of no return in our management of the countryside. We simply cannot stand idly by and allow that to happen.


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