My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for initiating this important and timely debate. As always I greatly enjoyed his amusing and pertinent opening remarks.
In many ways I feel rather a fraud taking part today as I am a resident of Scotland, like the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, and, sadly, the Scottish countryside is now a devolved matter. But I am doing so having been born and brought up in England. I live only 10 miles from the Scottish-English border and all our southerly views from home are of England's beautiful countryside.
As the noble Earl mentioned, the countryside is interlinked with the prosperity of agriculture. As the House was told in no uncertain terms by noble Lords last Monday, and, again, last Thursday, agriculture is going through the worst crisis in living memory. Figures released this week show that the situation is far worse than many of us feared. I believe that urgent action is required.
It must not be forgotten that the countryside suddenly did not happen; nor is it set is aspic. It is the result of centuries of careful management by farmers and landowners who over the generations have dedicated much time, effort and money into producing what we have today.
I turn to greater access to the countryside, which I am sure many other noble Lords will mention. I hope and pray that before any Bill is drafted Her Majesty's Government will consult fully--and here I really mean "fully"--with all the relevant bodies, most especially the CLA and the NFU, both of whose membership are the guardians of our rural environment. It must not be forgotten that, in order to have a healthy countryside, it is absolutely vital to have a profitable agricultural industry. At the moment, I fear that Her Majesty's Government seem oblivious to the fact that farming, forestry and field sports are vital to the prosperity of the countryside. This is a point that I beg and implore the Government to take on board before it is too late.
On the contentious issue of hunting with hounds, I would like to place on record once again for the future that if a ban on hunting with hounds does become law, three things would happen. First, the life of not one single fox would be preserved. It must not be forgotten that foxes are vermin and have to be controlled. Secondly, many thousands of rural jobs would be lost; and, thirdly, the rural environment, the countryside that so many love, would not be conserved in the way it is today. Surely the Government have more important things to legislate on or, indeed, to give parliamentary time to. After the Hyde Park rally, I remember that there was the most wonderful editorial in the Daily Star--of all newspapers--which stated something along the lines of, "Let's have a Bill to ban banning". How very right that editorial was.
I have four questions to ask Her Majesty's Government, all I believe of equal importance, three of which I asked last week and to which I received no reply, despite giving the officials of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, a copy of my speech in advance of the debate on the gracious Speech. The first refers to renewable energy from agricultural crops. I make no excuse for raising this once again in your Lordships' House because I believe that North Sea oil will not last for ever. Will Her Majesty's Government give a firm commitment to spending more on research and development in this area? The amount spent at the moment is a pathetic, paltry £1.1 million per annum.
I also feel passionately about double green energy--biodiesel manufactured from waste edible oils. Europe produces half a million tonnes of biodiesel, America is also a tremendous manufacturer of biodiesel. But what about the United Kingdom? Well, it produces nothing at present. The UK could produce 90 million litres of this double green, recycled and renewable energy at a fraction of the cost of our European counterparts.
Biodiesel produced from waste edible oils offers one of the most unique packages for energy conservation in the United Kingdom. It is already extensively used within Europe and America. It is blended with low sulphur diesel to produce a cleaner renewable fuel that may be dispensed from garages without any modifications to existing equipment. Why is this environmentally-friendly fuel not being considered and promoted? If it were, we would have a serious competitive industry in the United Kingdom.
Who is going to listen? I just hope and pray that Her Majesty's Government will. I quote the late Lord Montague of Oxford in his final contribution to this House:
"I turn to a new area: the waste edible oil industry. It is stated that it has identified another interesting possibility: recovered oils and fats. Is that true? I do not know; but who jumps on it to have a look? Apparently no one has that responsibility. The Government need to have technologically specific policies to ensure that developments still in their infancy do not become overlooked".--[Official Report, 5/11/99; col. 1141.]
I really believe that the Government must do something and urgently.
Secondly, will Her Majesty's Government give a commitment that trials of GM crops can continue in safety for those growing them? Thirdly, will Her Majesty's Government agree to pay in full, as mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the agri-money compensation allowances to farmers and producers and to register well before the 31st March deadline with the Commission?
Finally, I want to make a further plea for the A1 to be dualled between Edinburgh and Newcastle. This would greatly improve access to the beautiful Border countryside. Many of us who have been campaigning for years for this dualling believe that it will save lives and that it will also save the ridiculous expense of advertising every few miles on this part of the A1 how many accidents have occurred, whether they were fatal or otherwise.
Her Majesty's Government have stated on numerous occasions that they wish to govern for the whole country. We must all hope and pray that in reality that also means the countryside. I think it would be true to say that all of us taking part in the debate today feel passionately about the countryside. We must develop a long-term strategy for the countryside, not one that will simply paper over the cracks. This strategy must involve landowners, farmers, growers, the entire food industry, all government agencies--I know that my noble friend Lord Carnarvon will mention this later--and the Government, so that British agriculture and the British countryside can flourish once again. This great nation surely deserves nothing less.