The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour 3:28 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. The noble Earl claims to be more legitimate than he was when he attended the House before the recent State Opening. I wonder about that, because I wonder about the legitimacy of the electoral college which elected him.

I should like to respond to the point that the noble Earl made about Mr Brian Davies. I happen to know Mr Brian Davies quite well. The noble Earl is misinformed about him. As he is normally a fair person, I would have expected him to mention that Mr Brian Davies is also an ecologist of great distinction who has the interests of the countryside at heart in the work he carries out.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, paints a picture of farming as a declining industry in deep trouble. However, I am delighted to see that he is not downhearted--and I think that he is right. I suspect that if the noble Earl were 30 years younger he would look at the picture that he has drawn and see an industry deep in change, but full of the opportunities that change always brings: new products, new markets, new ways of doing things and new ways of satisfying changing customers.

However, I do not want to speak about farming. Nobody is more surprised that I am to find myself speaking in this debate. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, I am a city dweller. I like being a city dweller. To me, the countryside is a wonderful place to explore on foot or, even better, by bicycle--in good weather, I hope--and to leave after a suitable period of time.

So I do not want to speak about farming, nor about fox hunting; I do not want to speak about BSE or the CAP or subsidies to the countryside. I want to speak about the people who live in the countryside. I was rather disappointed that the noble Earl had very little to say about them. Some weeks ago I attended a seminar on social exclusion in rural areas and that has encouraged me to speak about those who live in the countryside.

The seminar was organised by the Smith Institute; I declare an interest as chairman of trustees. The institute drew to our attention a most wonderful set of data. The data are based on 17,000 people born in one week in 1958, and 16,000 people born in one week in 1970. Ever since, those people have been visited periodically, and almost certainly will continue to be visited. The information is now kept at the Institute of Education, and researchers are still in touch with 11,000 people from the 1958 cohort, and some 9,000 from the 1970 cohort.

The data contain a wealth of information on people's lives, their families, their education, and their work. Particularly fascinating is the pattern of the obstacles and opportunities that they have encountered in their lives from birth to middle age. During a discussion with a young woman MP, Yvette Cooper, the suggestion arose that those longitudinal studies would be particularly useful for looking at the pattern of life in rural areas.

Thanks to generous funding from the Country Landowners' Association, Professor Pynner and Professor Heather Joshi studied the data. Their task was to look at social exclusion, not poverty. Poverty is often associated with social exclusion, but social exclusion deals with the lack of participation in the normal activities of adult life. Yesterday we discussed that briefly at Question Time.

The results were very much as one would have expected. I make no apology for that because--perhaps for the first time--there is statistical data about social exclusion in the countryside. A particularly interesting point about the study was the social change between the 1959 cohort and the 1970 cohort. Of the first cohort, about two-thirds had left school at the age of 16, and in 1974, when they entered the labour market, almost every one of them moved into some kind of job. The 1970 cohort, who left school in 1986, entered a very different world. Many found themselves in training schemes, many of which never led to work. Some just lived on benefit until the 1988 Act restricted that possibility for young people.

The nature of their employment is also interesting. Of course, agriculture ceased to be the mainstay of rural employment some years ago. Very little farming is labour-intensive these days. The seasonal work that can be picked up may ameliorate social exclusion but will not actually end it. The studies showed, for example, that the south-west of England had the highest rate of self-employment in the country because the people there have multiple jobs--many of them casual. Children return to their family homes helping their families in the winter, sometimes after working in the seaside resorts or in other summer occupations.

All that indicates the very narrow and undemanding range of employment opportunities that are available. So perhaps it is not just a lack of dynamism that forces people into exclusion; it may also be due to a low sense of personal worth resulting from their surroundings.

Homelessness was shown to be a major problem in some rural areas. People who migrate to the countryside for retirement, pushing up house prices in rural areas, create difficulties. Transport is a major factor. The distance between the north and south coasts of Devon is the same as the distance from London to Birmingham. If there is work in another part of the county, the problems of transport become central. The vicious cycle of needing a car to get to work, but needing work to be able to afford a car became obvious from the data. I suppose that that explains why car ownership is greater among rural households is at 84 per cent whereas nationally the figure is 69 per cent.

The obstacles to participation are not simply isolation. I was interested to learn how in rural areas well-off people live in similar locations to excluded people, so aid cannot be provided by geographical location. Needy individuals have to be served rather than needy areas. That is difficult because in a village of 100, those in need can be in single figures, whereas those in need in an urban area may be gathered together in a housing estate occupying a similar geographical area as a village but they can number hundreds, or even thousands.

The pattern of migration is also interesting. Migration does not occur from the small villages to the big cities, but from the small villages to small and medium-sized towns. The smallest settlements seem to lose populations while small towns are growing quite dramatically. That seems to be the pattern of movement. That drift from rural to urban areas leaves behind an ageing population in rural communities. Naturally they will be less economically active, less likely to be mobile and less likely to be picked up by those who look at the overall picture. Urban disadvantage is readily picked up in the national picture, but rural disadvantage less so.

If the Government are to ensure that the rural dimension is fully reflected in their policy-making, the Minister's work will have to take on a much broader dimension. The problems relating to social exclusion in rural areas spread across many departments, including those responsible for education and employment, for transport and housing, for agriculture, and the DTI. That is a real challenge for joined-up government.

An important responsibility is to co-ordinate all those aspects of rural affairs and to draw them all together. I suppose one joined-up way to look at the matter is the notion of rights, responsibilities and obligations: the rights of citizens to education, occupation, opportunity, family life, housing and health; the obligation of the Government to provide them and the responsibilities of citizens to use them.

The Government know that they cannot leave such matters to the market-place. The Government have declared war on social indifference with national policies, such as the New Deal and the national minimum wage. I am sure that those factors already help. The Government have made a good start with local policies by trying to improve rural transport with the increased sums announced in the Budget to provide new and enhanced rural bus services in England.

I hope that the Government will ensure that the rural dimension is fully reflected in wider policy-making, and that in the forthcoming White Paper we shall see a co-ordinated rural agenda that will make social exclusion in rural areas a thing of the past.