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Lord Haskel: My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, I put it to him that we gain absolutely nothing from categorising the French in rather a derogatory manner. I believe that that is out of place in a debate in this House.
The Earl of Liverpool: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, takes that view. I referred to reports that I have seen in newspapers. I know that it is completely "off message" to say that my wife is French and that I obtained her approval to make those remarks in your Lordships' House today.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest. My family own land on the borders of Wales and Gloucestershire where we conduct various countryside businesses including farming, and particularly dairy farming. For a sizeable part of this debate I was detained in a committee room in your Lordships' House and therefore I apologise if, more than usual, I repeat points which other noble Lords have already made better.
Although this debate is about the countryside and not merely farming, as many noble Lords have said, one cannot disconnect the two. I suggest that it is a complete fallacy for people to say that, because fewer people are now directly employed in agriculture, agriculture, in which I include forestry, horticulture and so on, is no longer the essence of the countryside. Agriculture remains vital to the prosperity and the viability of countryside communities and to the physical and visual state of the countryside. That point cannot be emphasised too strongly.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, to whom we are all grateful for introducing this debate, and many others have given cogent figures to illustrate the appalling state of farming. The most frightening one that I heard the noble Earl mention was of a Scots farmer's income of £1,700 a year; that is, £35 a week. If a farmer is expected to live on £35 a week because he is in business on his own account, how does that accord with the Government's concept of a minimum wage?
As a dairy farmer, I shall give your Lordships one statistic. In the past four years the price of our milk has fallen by 30 per cent in a high cost activity. My farm has all the advantages in that it is situated on a main road which is convenient for deliveries and collections. We have enough land to enable us to expand if we want to. We have managed to find the capital to modernise our plant. But what business activity with high costs can stand a drop of 30 per cent in the price of its product? How much worse is the situation of the small, remote family farmer whose farm is situated at the end of a long lane in Wales and who is unable to expand? He suffers cost differentials with regard to the price for collecting his milk and is unable to obtain bulk discounts. He may have no capacity to expand either in terms of space or money.
I fear that there is no prospect or reason why this situation should improve. Many of your Lordships have spoken of farming being a cyclical business. I confess that I am unable to see any reason why this cycle should pan out, rise or do anything else. It is quite frankly unrealistic to assume that farming in this country, with its limited area of land, its relatively high cost of labour, and its mass of regulation, of which so many of your Lordships have spoken, can compete with the prairies of America--as mentioned by the noble Countess--or the areas of the world where pay is low. It is a constant surprise to learn how ignorant of the truth of this situation are so many of our population. I believe it is largely the fault of people who live in the countryside. In the past we have always assumed that people would realise how the countryside worked; that there would be many Members of this House and of the other place who had a country background and therefore there was no need to educate. That situation has gone. We fail at our peril if we do not teach people how the countryside works.
That ignorance is widespread and was well demonstrated by the first speaker from the Government Front Bench, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, who told us that the farming industry was full of opportunities. I would like to see the noble Lord
Lord Haskel: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Viscount of the context in which I said that. I was referring to the fact that, if the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, were 30 years younger, instead of seeing farming as a declining industry, he might see it as an industry in change. As we all know, when an industry is changing it presents difficulties and opportunities at the same time. That was the point I was trying to make.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord would like to visit the group of farmers I postulated and tell them what changes could be made to remedy the situation. I shall be interested to receive a copy of his speech to them.
There is constant talk of diversification. There is a limit to which one can do that. God forbid, but let us suppose that we double the number of golf courses and caravan parks in this country. They would take up a minute proportion of the area being farmed and benefit very few farmers.
What is frequently forgotten is that farming now produces so much more food than it used to because after the war a very deliberate decision was taken that this country would never again be as dependent on imported food as it was during the war. At that time this country was very nearly brought to its knees not through military defeat, but because of the sheer difficulty of importing food. It may be thought that that policy is out of date. I have never heard any government say that they have consciously resiled from it. They would be brave to do so.
The urban view is that other industries have gone into decline and that is bad luck. Factories have to be shut and something else has to be done. One cannot shut the countryside. In many urban minds I believe there is a view of a blissful countryside returning to its natural idyllic condition, unfarmed and looking very much as it does at the moment, but with a plethora of beautiful flora and fauna. That is ignorant rubbish. If farming were no longer to take place, most of the countryside would revert to impenetrable scrub, devoid of beauty, impossible of access and very short of flora and fauna of any kind. We would then be left with a situation where farmers have to be re-employed at vast expense, and with no self-satisfaction, to keep the countryside in a manner which the urban dweller would like. That is not a possible or desirable solution. It is necessary that people appreciate these facts if the countryside is to have a future.
Lord Palmer: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, he interestingly remarked that he is receiving 30 per cent less for his milk. Can he confirm that the consumer is paying that same percentage drop for milk in the supermarkets?
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for bringing this debate to the House this afternoon. It has been very informative, not least in the way that some noble Lords have fallen into the trap of polarising the countryside debate. I believe that we have failed to recognise that a time of change for the countryside is difficult. We have turned from blaming the European Union, the last government and this one, civil servants for not going about in their wellies enough and Belgium and France. Everyone carries some blame, but this afternoon we have been somewhat short on solutions.
I particularly appreciated the speeches of the right reverend Prelates because they looked more for solutions than blame. I particularly regret that we appear to be blaming the urban population for not understanding the countryside. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, made the point that we need to educate people. That is right. I do not believe that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, appreciated the role that some people have played. For instance, he quoted the clearing of footpaths after a storm. In fact, many people from towns and villages and conservation volunteers, often from urban areas, go to the countryside to offer their time and services for badly needed conservation work and footpath clearing. Although there is much further to go in educating us as to the future for the countryside, I do not believe that we should simply blame our urban population for its ills.
This debate has quite rightly been about the state of agriculture. Many noble Lords have quoted statistics which I shall not rehearse except for one example. Agriculture is in a dire state this year. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and a number of other noble Lords said that 20,000 farmers and farm workers left the industry over the past year. That leads to the point made by noble Lords as to what should be done with land if it becomes derelict and a wilderness. Will it revert to horsey-culture perhaps, which we see developing more widely? Many noble Lords have contributed to the debate on the basis that horses provide a pleasant leisure activity. I agree. However, I do not believe that a countryside populated simply by horses would be desirable.
We need to address the fact that some areas of our agriculture can remain competitive on the world stage. But the Government must take a firm line on how that is to be achieved. I cannot better the example of the ducks given by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the red tape review that needs to take place. We on these Benches are glad that the Government have made a start on reviewing red tape and regulations with a view to cutting and simplifying the system. For instance, the Government need to address the meat hygiene service charges in order to enable farmers to compete on the world stage, if that is what they seek.
I am surprised this afternoon that we have not heard more about what we hope the Government will do in Seattle as regards upholding the requirements that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, outlined for labelling. That is a crucial area. Perhaps we could have the right to label food so that consumers can make a choice by buying British food that has been produced to high animal welfare standards. I am sure that the Government would be pleased to do that. I would like the Minister to comment on what the Government will say in Seattle on the subject.
Agenda 2000 CAP reforms will be an opportunity for our countryside, but we must define what we are looking for. MAFF still regards agriculture as one package. In its consultation document Agriculture: The Way Forward, it states that it wants farming to be,
As many noble Lords have outlined, competition and diversity sit uncomfortably together. The Government want the industry to be competitive--the industry wants to be competitive--but we as a nation want the countryside to be diverse. We should allow the industry to be competitive, but diversity comes at a price. Until now, neither the Government nor the public have been willing to pay the price for the number of other benefits that they have had on the cheap--a well cared for countryside, with hedgerows, dry stone walls, biodiversity and so on. There is never enough money to go round in schemes such as the Countryside Stewardship scheme or the organic scheme; they are permanently oversubscribed.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned particularly the situation in our upland areas. I make no apology for going into this matter in a little detail. Noble Lords will appreciate that at the moment it is of particular concern.
The upland areas are frequently our most beautiful landscapes--they bring in tourists--and they are areas to which the new access legislation will apply. To farm there is very hard because of the physical constraints. But farming in upland areas has created the very landscapes that people enjoy. In the past the balance between environmental concerns and viable farms led to the hill farmers compensatory allowance scheme. That was based on headage and so drove up the stocking rates. It is right that MAFF should be making an effort to introduce a scheme which is less environmentally detrimental.
The aims of the scheme are to contribute to the maintenance of the social fabric in upland rural communities through support for continued agricultural land use and to help preserve the farmed upland environment by ensuring that land in less favoured areas is managed sustainably. Those are worthy aims. The scheme is out to consultation and I should like to mention some details. There is still an
Can the Minister tell me whether I am correct in understanding that, for example, in the south west, if livestock numbers from the 1998 less favoured areas are used, when the new scheme is implemented by 2003, the HFA payments will have fallen by some £500,000, which would be about 12 per cent?
Interestingly, the scheme makes no links with the fact that there will soon be another added complication and cost for farmers who farm open access areas. When the legislation comes in, undoubtedly they will have to put more time and effort into farming those areas. I wonder whether we should not have a scheme which aims to promote the farmed upland environment and which links the fact that there will be access to those areas, rather than the complicated enhancement schemes proposed.
If the main aim of the scheme is to help small family farms to go on farming in their traditional way in difficult places, the enhancement offered under the scheme should be kept simple, perhaps a fixed amount per hectare, with a higher rate for the first 50 hectares to favour the small family farms. It is apparent from the consultation and the responses that at the moment the enhancement criteria are complicated. I am short of time and I cannot go into the way the stocking rates are looked at; but, quite frankly, it is another bureaucratic nightmare. We should not be getting into another bureaucratic nightmare at a time when we are trying to get out of them.
Lastly, perhaps the Minister can say what will happen to the many farms that straddle lowland and less favoured area boundaries? What of the stock on those farms. Farmers will have a nightmare working through the paperwork about which animals are kept on which bit of land and when.
Before moving to some of the other crucial issues concerning the countryside, I should like to recommend to your Lordships a book I have been reading which is in the Library. It contains the selected writings of Richard Mabey, with whom many of your Lordships will be familiar. He has been writing about the countryside for many years. These are his writings over the past 30 years, defining the views and politics of the countryside and so on. I found it inspirational.
As to post offices, at the moment the Post Office is spending substantial sums on automating its systems. It is regrettable that at this point the DSS is bringing in the automatic credit transfer which may well threaten rural post offices, not necessarily because people will not be using them to collect their benefit, as in the past, but because people used to do their shopping in the rural post office when they collected their benefit. That has not been sufficiently appreciated.
The right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Lichfield and the Bishop of Durham and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned the sparsity factor in local government settlements. That is a long-term and unjust burden that local authorities in country areas have had to bear. They have had to deliver services. They want to deliver services to the same standards as elsewhere--they are being judged on those standards--but they have not had the money to do so. I believe that the settlement this time for other services--which include tourism, economic development and supporting projects such as farmers' markets--has been reduced because the Government have focused extra money on specific service areas.
Finally, I urge the Minister to consider the Government's commitment to providing adequate match funding for the rural development regulation. I do not expect her to comment on the point made by many noble Lords--including the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool--about the reorganisation of MAFF into a rural affairs ministry. But I have asked the question a number of times and I have been told that it is a matter for the Prime Minister. That is a matter of regret. It would be interesting to debate how and in what way MAFF should be reorganised.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank my noble friend Lord Ferrers for introducing this important debate. The contributions made have demonstrated the breadth and depth of the concern that we have in the House for farming and, twinned with it, for our countryside. They go hand in hand, together. Many of us are concerned for the economical future of farming and for the well-being of our countryside. All around the House speakers in the debate have highlighted both concerns. I shall not be able to mention every contribution, but I hope that I can do justice to the tenor of the argument.
As days passed by, I found myself asking what I understand by "the countryside". Indeed, other noble Lords have posed exactly that question. I was surprised to find that it was a difficult question to answer. It is nearly an emotion--and there lies the rub of my and, I suspect, other people's understanding of the countryside.
Over the past 10 days we have had three important agricultural debates: first, the response to the gracious Speech; secondly, the report from the European Communities Committee's findings on CAP and Agenda 2000; and today's major debate, moved so ably by my noble friend. On all of those occasions the theme coming from the various speeches expressed the dire state of our current farming industry; the need for
We on these Benches feel that perhaps it is time to take stock and for the Government to stand back and to stop lurching from one crisis to another. I realise that in some ways it is not easy for a national government to do that because now we all operate not just within the EU but within a global market. Therefore, this issue has great implications for we farmers here today. However, if the Government can stand back and stop papering over the cracks, they can tackle the core problems. I believe that some of the suggestions made from all sides of the House today provide good examples of the problems which we need to tackle.
I know that other noble Lords have expressed their disappointment at the outcome of the CAP reforms, which have only added to our problems. Indeed, I know that the Minister and her colleague in the other place have reflected the Government's disappointment that the reforms did not go further.
This week we have learned from Seattle that the USA and the Cairns Group see the future of agriculture in a very different way. They are not constrained by our higher welfare standards. They do not have our desire to enhance the environment; indeed, their environment is very different from ours. Their view is that if we wish to enhance our environment and to have higher welfare standards, we should arrange for that to be done, but not as part of a trading agreement. I believe that that is where the core problem lies. They feel that our Government should finance such projects from our own resources rather than expect resources to come from an overall EU or world-wide budget.
For the USA and the Cairns Group bloc, food is food; and our subsidy schemes are unacceptable. That is slightly ironic as the Americans have deficiency payments and crop revenue assurance schemes, which we would regard as subsidies. UK farmers set the highest welfare standards but, as other noble Lords have said, they do so at great cost. In many cases, that makes us uncompetitive with other countries in the global market.
While proper labelling, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, would at least help the consumer in making a choice, it is not the only answer. Personally, I welcome the Government's initiative--indeed, we give the Government credit on many occasions--in setting up the task force to consider how we can reduce our regulatory burden. I plead that that should be done urgently. As each week goes by, yet more farmers go out of business and leave the industry.
Today we have heard that the countryside is the result of constant change, assimilated over time by people whose business is the countryside. We have also been made aware that the rural scene is a workplace, as is a car factory or a solicitor's office in a city or town. I fancy that instant access to the latter would be denied on grounds of convenience, health and safety, and loss of earnings. I can see no reason why such factors should not apply when we talk of giving access to the countryside. Such issues as owner liability, compensation, shooting days, the closed 28 days for breeding purposes and the keeping of dogs on leads are all crucial to those whose incomes are derived from organised shoots. They are equally important to those who keep sheep on our hillsides. As other noble Lords have mentioned, if farmers and land managers are not allowed to be commercially viable, the very moorland that people wish to walk over will be destroyed and will return to shrubland.
Open access nearer to one's home is favoured by the majority of people, who want to walk with easy access, take their dog for a walk, ride a bike, go on organised outings and have access to organised car parks and well-signed pathways. Those are their priorities. Although I suspect that we hear a great deal more from the comparative minority who want to ramble and have open access to mountain, moorland and heathland, they should not forget that, for the majority, that is not a priority.
Many noble Lords have illustrated graphically why our countryside must be allowed to remain a living and economically viable entity. Without that, the very thing that people wish to visit and see will not be there.
In truly thought-provoking speeches, noble Lords have reflected that not only are farmers struggling, but that local communities, too, are feeling their demise. That point was made clearly by the right reverend Prelates, the Bishops of Lichfield and of Durham. Rural social deprivation is real; isolation in many cases is acute; and suicides, sadly, are the outcome of such difficulties. At a time when, increasingly, fewer people are employed on farms, there is less opportunity for people to discuss their difficulties on a one-to-one basis. It is, indeed, an extremely worrying time. Therefore, the Government must deal with a tight balance between work, rural living and personal leisure pursuits.
I ask the Government what will happen to some of their schemes, which we warmly welcome. For example, the Countryside Stewardship scheme is over-subscribed and, I understand, will be closed for the next 18 months; the habitat scheme is also to be closed; and moneys paid to the ESAs are to be redirected. All those issues will have added implications for those who work on our land. I wonder whether the Minister could reply to that point, although she may not be able to do so tonight. We are concerned about the number of changes being made to the schemes.
I do not want to end on a totally negative note. However, I feel that there is much that the Government could do, even now, within their discretion. For example, have they come to any conclusions about assisting older farmers with early retirement packages? I know that it is possible for them to do so. Have they any plans to "pump prime" a scheme to help young farmers who wish to enter the industry? Again, I should like to add my weight to those who have mentioned the importance of young people entering our industry. Will the Government consider easing planning restrictions on farm buildings to enable those who wish to leave the industry to do so? As mentioned earlier by one of my noble friends, that point particularly concerns buildings for battery hens which will have to be upgraded. Will the Government allow farmers to make such conversions more easily than is sometimes the case? Those are practical issues which I believe the Government could, and I hope will, take on.
Many of the questions raised by my noble friends today have a direct bearing on agricultural incomes. But times they are achanging. The onrush of the world trade talks threatens to bring Europe and the CAP into opposition with others. The CAP should have been severely overhauled in the preparation for the trade round but, sadly, Berlin scuppered that. I wonder whether the Government and the European Union will have sufficient time to implement their long-term policy of securing a stronger market orientation in which our farmers can work. Those are real and important issues.
In my last few minutes, perhaps I may move back to the countryside. Many people who live and work in the countryside are not employed directly in farming but are in allied or linked industries. For many of them, the countryside is only as it is because we work it. It incorporates our fields, woods, hedges and ditches, to which many noble Lords have referred. However, one issue is of particular concern to them, as it is to parish councils. I refer to the ever-increasing traffic along country roads. Too many vehicles travel too fast on roads which are inadequate for the weight, length and power of the vehicles--a matter which causes anxiety to parents, horse riders and walkers.
I have not been able to touch on many of the points raised by other noble Lords. However, perhaps in conclusion I may refer to three issues. The first is the whole question of the SSAs, to which other noble Lords referred earlier. My understanding is that in London the SSA for an average person is £1,350 but in the shire counties the figure is £750; and that is at a time when it is more expensive for us to provide those services. Secondly, will the Government give greater thought to what they can do to help tenant farmers? Farmers who own their land at least have a buffer behind them to help them in difficult times, but our tenant farmers have great difficulty. Thirdly, I should like to pick up on the question raised by my noble friend Lord Jopling. Agriculture must be the priority, whatever ministry takes part. As I said at the beginning of my speech, without a strong farming presence, the
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, like all other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for allowing us the opportunity to debate subjects which could not be fully covered in the Queen's Speech debate, when we naturally focused on areas of legislation rather than the areas of broad-ranging policy which have been illustrated today. I know of noble Lords' concern on that point.
As we have come to expect from the noble Earl, he introduced the debate in a witty and wide-ranging fashion. He even spoke about his legitimacy. I think we can probably all agree that the noble Earl is probably best designated as the primus inter impares in this House. If we did it in that way we would not have to have a contentious debate about the relative legitimacy of either set of the impares. I shall leave it at that. The noble Earl is probably in a better position than I am because I am still trying to work out from the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, whether I am an incompetent politician on the way up, which seems highly unlikely, or an incompetent politician who is clapped out and on the way down--
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