My Lords, I begin by doing two things. First, I declare my interest as a farmer. Secondly, I add my warm congratulations to my noble friend Lord Ferrers on introducing this timely debate and on his extremely fine opening speech. He frequently used a word which I had intended to use several times; namely, "despair". I believe that there is real despair in the countryside now which I have never seen before in my lifetime and have only heard about from my elders with regard to the years between the two world wars.
Yesterday the press published the annual forward "leak", as I believe it is known, with regard to farm income figures for the past year. We read in the press that the average net farm income in the less favoured areas in the United Kingdom--my noble friend Lord Ferrers mentioned this--has now sunk to £2,000 a year. This is in spite of huge subsidies which are paid to the less favoured areas each year. There has been a worsening of the situation for many years whereby the subsidies paid to those in the hill areas amount to more than the income that is gained. These farmers now have an average net income of £2,000 per farm per year. Farming is not like any other business because in almost all cases income has to cover compensation for the effort of the farmer, the hours he has put in, and interest on his investment.
As I say, the situation is extremely bad in the hill areas, the less favoured areas, but I am also particularly concerned about those farmers in marginal areas. Their land is still poor but it is slightly too good to qualify for hill farming subsidies. Many of them are small, tenant businesses. The farmers do not have the value of the land to fall back on as a cushion. In the old phrase, they do not have much fat on their backs.
When I had responsibility for these matters years ago I was able to find a small amount of money for the marginal farms. But I suspect that the very alarming figures for the hill areas which we read about yesterday in the press shroud a much worse situation in the marginal areas which cause me so much concern. I have felt over the years that those farmers who did not receive hill subsidies had a harder prospect than their friends and colleagues who farmed a little further up the hill.
One of the most alarming things that we read yesterday in the press was that more than 20,000 farmers and workers have quit the industry over the past year. That is a highly worrying situation. We must hear from the Government what they intend to do about that.
What I am about to say has been said before in this debate, but it is important to keep saying it. Agriculture is the powerhouse of the countryside. If it is doing very badly indeed, its plight filters down to all the ancillary businesses which live off the farming industry. At the present rate of progress my fear is that we are only a year or two away from seeing derelict land in this country which no one wants to farm. I can remember only once in my life seeing derelict land in the United Kingdom and that was when I visited Northern Ireland many years ago. I do not know how many noble Lords have seen derelict land. It is not a pretty sight.
I am sure that many speakers in this debate will suggest matters which the Government could take up and actions which they could take to stem the decline, despair and bleak prospect which face the countryside at the moment.
I conclude by saying as strongly as I can to the Minister that there is one thing which the Government should not do and that is to dismantle MAFF at this time. I have been hearing persistent rumours in the recent past that on 1st April next year, when the Food Standards Agency begins its work, a very large chunk of MAFF's activities will be removed to that agency; and that the Prime Minister has it in mind to swallow MAFF into the Department of Trade and Industry. I warn the Government that if they were to do that they would be demonstrating in the clearest possible way their lack of interest in the countryside. Dismantling the department would add hugely to the despair and cause confidence to decline more steeply from its present low level.
If the Government want to boost the morale of country people, they should reorganise MAFF, bearing in mind that responsibilities for food standards are being taken away. It should be reorganised as a department covering all countryside matters as well as agriculture and fisheries. Responsibilities for the countryside now lie in other departments, particularly in the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is much too big. The department could easily absorb those responsibilities. If MAFF were to be swallowed up into the DTI or some other department, it would put the Minister in charge of agriculture and fisheries on the level of the Minister of State. In my time in the Council of Agricultural Ministers I do not recall any agriculture Minister who was not in the Cabinet in his own right. I am sure that it would very much downgrade the influence of the United Kingdom in the Council of Agricultural Ministers if the United Kingdom were represented in those circumstances by only a Minister of State. Above all, I believe that the downgrading of the department--which I believe and understand to be a very real prospect at this time--would depress even further the current despair in the countryside.