The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 3:08 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I was not fishing. I was paying a compliment of gratitude--which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, does not always do. However, I cannot resist commenting that those hereditary Peers who are here have more legitimacy--to use the horrible word which the noble Baroness the Leader of the House loved using--than anyone else. We have been elected. Everyone else has been appointed. I gave noble Lords the chance of being elected by putting down an amendment, but they said that they did not want it. They may have become frightened that they might not be elected. So others are appointed; we are elected. I know that noble Lords will not mind my referring to that. We were given such fearful stick in the past Session that I thought it right to get the matter of supremacy in the correct position.

I believe we all agree that, for whatever reason, we love and need the countryside. The countryside is facing the biggest crisis it has faced in the past 60 years. The prime mover for a successful countryside is a successful agriculture. When one has a successful, profitable agriculture, the countryside benefits too. The corn merchants, machinery manufacturers, suppliers to the industry and the village shops benefit. The countryside gets looked after. Hedges and woods are planted. Money is spent on the protection of the environment.

However, if one has an unprofitable agriculture, all those things tend to go. At present, every part of agriculture is under stress. During the past two years, the returns for the livestock sector are down by 60 per cent--that is the cash which farmers receive for their animals and out of which they have to pay the expenses of keeping them.

During the past four years, the price of wheat has fallen from £140 to £68 a tonne. The price of milk has fallen from 26p to 17p a litre. Yet in Ireland it is 25p a litre; in Denmark it is 25p a litre; in Germany it is 23p a litre; and in Holland it is 22p a litre. But in the United Kingdom, it is only 17p. There is not much "common" about that aspect of the common market.

I have never understood how Milk Marque is supposed to be acting against the public interest when it purchases its milk at some of the lowest prices in Europe. I should have thought that it was the consumer who was benefiting and that it was the dairy producers who were being disadvantaged.

Sheep farmers are in despair. One told me the other day that he had sent 38 sheep to market and he got a bill--he got a bill!--for £2.40. A week later he sent another 38 sheep to market and received a cheque for £7. The third week he shot 30 sheep. But he still managed to smile and I admired him for that. The only amusing thing to come out of that incident was a Matt cartoon in the Daily Telegraph showing a farmer not shooting his sheep but shooting a jar of mint jelly.

Some of the worst hit people are the hill farmers and the small farmers. If the hill farmers are broken, a sector of our agricultural life and our national character will go. The net income of hill farmers--that is the money which, as it were, they can jangle in their pockets, use for living expenses and have available for re-investing in their business--has fallen disastrously. For hill farmers in England, it has fallen by 20 per cent this year to £4,500. In Wales, it has fallen by 37 per cent to £2,700. In Scotland, it has fallen by 48 per cent to £1,700--£1,700 for living and re-investment. It is a crippling state of affairs.

A similar story can be told about pigs. The price at which a farmer can sell his pigs now is 30 per cent less than it was two years ago. And so one can go on.

The BSE crisis may be nearly over, but it has devastated our fine herds. The one bright light is that the Government are going to remove the beef on the bone regulations. I congratulate them on that. Of course, they should never have been imposed in the first place. But we all do stupid things in our lives and Governments do stupid things, too. We must be glad that they have seen the light and changed their mind and I congratulate the noble Baroness on both those acts.

It is odd, though, is it not, that the purpose of devolution was to enable Scotland and Wales to look after their own affairs and England to look after its affairs, but when England's Ministers are advised that they can safely allow the regulations to be removed, they say that they must wait until Scotland and Wales can agree to do so too. Why, after devolution, should England have to wait for the agreement of Scotland and Wales when Scotland and Wales do not have to wait for England? That is a pretty absurd example of devolution.

A short time ago, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph was entitled "Farewell Farming". I thought that that was a hideous indictment of the agricultural situation; one which showed an attitude of total despair and which depicted a situation which I do not think will happen. Nor is it one which we should allow to happen.

In 1960 there were 3,000 million people in the world. There are now 6,000 million people. It is reckoned that in the next 25 years that number will rise to 12,000 million. For the population of the world to multiply four-fold in 65 years--with all the land which will have to be given up to houses, cities, factories, roads and so forth--there is no place for long-term despair about agriculture. Nor is there any wisdom in taking agriculture for granted. What there is a place for is short-term, very deep concern.

There is no use in the Government saying that the answer lies in the reform of the common agricultural policy. Of course, the CAP needs to be reformed for all kinds of reasons, but that is not the solution to the present situation. And, anyhow, I fancy that the Government will find that an uphill task. It has been going on for years with no very discernible results--for the simple reason that there are too many countries which like the position as it is and there are too many countries which need to agree to change but often do not wish to do so. But we have to keep on trying. Quite a lot of the problem stems from the high level of the pound. This is a common market where we are supposed to operate on a common level.

There is a mechanism which allows countries to have access to funds when they are being penalised by a distorted currency. Since 1997, in the region of £1,000 million of Community funds could have been made available to United Kingdom agriculture. But, because under the Fontainebleau formula the Government would have to pay a substantial contribution towards that payment, the Chancellor would not agree to it--other than for some £130 million. He would rather see the industry go to its knees and good people go bankrupt.

When so much is said about the cost of the European Community to this country--and especially the cost of the CAP--it is almost beyond belief that the Government will not make available that which is available.

On another tack, I hope that the noble Baroness will not say that the Government have already helped the industry to the tune of £150 million. What they have done has of course been very helpful, but all they have done is not impose charges upon the industry which they had proposed to impose. Indeed, the pig and meat industries are suffering crippling costs because of the high hygiene standards which are imposed upon them. We now have the toughest regime for meat quality in Europe. Yet meat hygiene costs are expenses which our industry has to meet, but which our continental competitors do not. So there is not much "common" about that, either!

Then we have the proposed pesticides tax. That would be an added penalty for an already distressed industry and it would be grossly unfair if it were to be imposed on United Kingdom agriculture but not on that of our competitors. It seems unbelievable that the Government could even consider that, and I hope that the noble Baroness will tell us that they have dropped the idea.

I hope that the Government will also be able to do something--and by "something" I mean quite a lot--to lessen the bureaucratic burden which is placed on agriculture and on the countryside. It is easy enough to add to red tape, but, as your Lordships well know, once there, it is fiendishly difficult to remove.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--in which I once had the happy privilege of being an ornament--loves organising and controlling everything. I had the dreadful privilege of moving the last business of the previous Parliament, which was the hedgerow regulations. I have told your Lordships previously that I simply hated it! The regulations were completely incomprehensible to me, even with the help of the officials who had drafted them. I tried to stop them, but, as usual, my views did not count for too much, and they were swept along in a tide of pre-election euphoria.

Now, I gather that the Government are considering controlling the planting of Cupressus Leylandii because they can grow too big and be offensive to one's neighbours. I hope that, on reflection, the Government will consider that to be absurd and will have none of it. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves having to get a licence to plant a daffodil and another licence to pick one! You really cannot impose such strictures on the countryside. And anyhow, it is not the Government's business to mess everyone else about.

Yet they do. Now they want to ban fur farming. Mr Elliot Morley says that this is justified on the grounds of public morality. I do not know from where he draws such weird ideas. I do not wish, for choice, to have my morals drafted for me by Mr Elliot Morley any more than I would wish, for choice, to have them drafted for me by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House--nor indeed by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition. Heaven knows where that would take us! It really is not the Government's business to talk about morals and then to take public action. What about the Canadians, the Muscovites, the French and the Swiss? Are they all morally beyond the pale because they wear furs? I have never understood why it is that to put the skin of an animal on one's back or on one's head is morally reprehensible, but to put the skin of an animal on one's feet, as everyone does, is perfectly acceptable. Perhaps it is simply a question of placement. Or perhaps it is simply the Government getting into one of their intellectual tangles.

And what about all those noble Lords who have been queuing up like people at a bus stop to come to your Lordships' House? What is the first thing which they do when they come in? They don their parliamentary robes, all covered with ermine, or, if that is too expensive, with rabbit. Is that wrong? Is that going to be stopped too? Or will it all be replaced with seersucker? Perhaps your Lordships do not know what seersucker is, but I have no doubt that the Minister knows all about it, and I fancy that she would not think much of it.

Then, the Government still want to ban fox-hunting. More bans. It is funny that all those bans are being proposed, and yet only three Members on the Opposition Back Benches are taking part in this debate to stand up for those great bans. The Government are producing all those bans. The Prime Minister said that as long as he remains Prime Minister, shooting and fishing will be preserved. If I might respectfully say so, that is a remarkably naive attitude to take. First, he will not be Prime Minister for ever. Secondly, once the anti-blood sports lobby has achieved its objective of banning fox-hunting, it will then turn all its fire-power onto shooting and fishing and will try to whip up a frenzy about that too.

Why do the Government have to carry on this myopic crusade against the sports in which they do not happen to participate but which others are perfectly happy to enjoy? I wonder whether it is because the Labour Party has received financial support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Before the election they received £1 million from the Political Animal Lobby, which is a pressure group attached to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has an annual income of £32½ million. It is not, as one might expect, a charity. It is a private company. It raises money from all over the world and it dispenses it wherever it pleases for so-called animal welfare causes. Mr. Brian Davies, who founded the fund, is a Welshman who now lives in Canada. He was paid £1 million on parting company with the organisation.

That organisation, or its offshoot, has provided the Labour Party with £1 million and an additional £100,000 since the election. Perhaps that explains why the Government feel obliged to ban not only fox-hunting, but fur farming too. It looks rather like Formula 1 all over again, with cash for legislation.

However, I congratulate the Government on doing away with the fuel duty escalator which automatically increased annually the fuel duty by 6 per cent above the RPI. It was yet another example of how the United Kingdom put itself at a commercial disadvantage with our competitors in Europe. A 1,000 litre tank of diesel costs £610 in the United Kingdom, but only £325 in Belgium.

Another example of the absurd bureaucracy with which we are involved is the protection of cormorants and other such birds. Once a bird gets on to the list of protected species, no power on earth--not even a Minister, because I tried it--can remove it. "Research"--another fine-sounding word which is often a waste of money--must be undertaken to see whether the numbers of the birds have now recovered and whether it is therefore no longer justified to describe the species as endangered. That costs about £5 million and takes about five years, during which time the birds have, of course, increased even further in number and have meanwhile hoovered up all the fish from the rivers. Of course, the fish are not "endangered", only the predators. We really ought to be more careful about what we sign up to. The regulations are supposed to be a benefit.

When the Newbury by-pass was built, your Lordships may remember that a site of what is called Desmolina's Whorl was found. That is a form of snail, which is only the size of a biscuit crumb. Everyone became terribly excited and said, "Change the route of the by-pass", or "Build a bridge over the snails". I said, "For goodness' sake, we can't be so absurd as to build a bridge over the snails". "Oh no, Minister", was the reply. "We wouldn't do that because the snail does not like shade"!

I mention that because we really are in danger of becoming absurd. There is a rabbit warren at Blaby in Leicestershire which has been designated by English Heritage as a scheduled monument. A rabbit warren! I really wonder sometimes whether we have not all gone completely mad. You cannot see it because it is all under-ground. You cannot dig into it because it is a scheduled monument. But what you can do is to have an archaeological dig--an archaeological dig on a rabbit warren. What happens if the residents expand their premises without planning permission? Do they get fined or sent to prison? The idea is absurd. But why should human beings be punished in a way in which you would not punish rabbits? Before long, someone will have the idea of designating a wasps' nest as an ancient monument.

I suggest to your Lordships that English Heritage is making a complete fool of itself by behaving in that way. The trouble is that, whichever party happens to be in power, there are those who feel that the more sites and objects which are protected indicates our dedication to the protection of the environment. I suppose that in some ways it does. I am afraid that I take the view that the increase of those regulations and restrictions indicates that we have distanced ourselves from reality and from common sense.

There are so many issues to be discussed under the subject of "the countryside". I wish to refer to only one other; that is, genetically modified crops. I believe that the way to deal with such issues, which can whip up such a fury and frenzy of anxiety, is to test them to see whether they are dangerous or safe. They can be tested only by growing them and putting them under scrutiny. It does no one any good to go, as Greenpeace has, under Lord Melchett, on the altar of publicity, to trespass on other people's land and to cut down their crops.

Agriculture and the countryside are important to all of us. The countryside is not merely a recreation ground for townsmen, a haven for wildlife or a haven for protected species of beetles and plants as well; nor is it merely a workplace for food production. It is of course all of those things. But, above all, it is a living, changing entity which is home to a wide cross-section of,

"all sorts and conditions of men", and women, and birds and beasts and plants. But it depends on prosperity for those objectives to be achieved.

It is all too easy, wherever we go through life, to find that our lives are ones of complaint, of discontent or of envy. But there is more to life than that. Life is actually wonderful. It is full of good things too. If we are not careful, we spend our time dwelling on the things that have gone wrong and taking the things that have gone right for granted. They might very well not have gone right. Fortunately, the beauty of nature and the serenity of the countryside should engender peace and contentment both to the visitor and to the resident. Despite our present dramas, we should never forget how lucky we are. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.