The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 4:30 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention. However, I shall go on to detail and substantiate why I make the points that I do. I return to the point which I was making.

The mad cow crisis was only the culmination of a bovine philosophy, inflicted on the land, which promoted estrangement at the expense of the community in our rural areas. In the 1980s, as chairman of Cheshire County Council's countryside committee and as a member of Cheshire Rural Voice, I witnessed the fraying of the ties that knit communities together. First, I saw the stamping out of rural post offices, then the early closing of small schools on financial, not educational or social, grounds. There followed the illiteracy of scaling down library services to our small towns and villages, and the derailing by privatisation of the trains and buses that might carry the people from field to town to obtain the services now expunged from the countryside. Even then, rural shops and pubs had their last orders called early by the then government, who claimed to be the farmer's friend. That was "rural vice", not "rural voice", perpetrated by the party opposite.

No wonder that in the countryside today people are living lives of quiet desperation because of those desperado deeds. And no wonder that it is now Labour, not the Tories, who are farming votes in Britain's countryside, as recently evidenced in the by-election in Eddisbury, which I proudly represented in Europe for 10 years. If William Cobbett were to retrace his steps in the countryside today, he would indeed assert that the British people had been taken for a "rural ride" by the previous administration.

I should like to say a word or two about who should speak for the countryside. I confess that I am a fully paid-up, brick-built townee. However, in my years on Cheshire County Council, and latterly as an MEP with a vast rural constituency, I hope that I made an effort to learn about the countryside. Indeed, I was most grateful to colleagues in the CLA and in particular in the NFU for taking me out on a regular basis to look, learn and listen to their countryside yarns of hopes and fears. Indeed, I have come to the view that there are advantages in being an outsider. Sometimes you see things more clearly with no mud on your shoes or boots and from the other side of the farm gate.

Similarly, I believe there is a danger that country people and those who represent them may believe that they have a unique and a decisive grasp of country lore and life. I was never more irritated as a county councillor than when some of my agricultural colleagues queried my right to speak and vote on country matters simply because I was a city dweller. Imagine the green wellie boot being on the other foot; imagine those of us who represent city constituencies debarring our country cousins from speaking on town matters on the ground that they lack urbanity on matters urban. Indeed, the lasting impression I have of those who live in Britain's rural areas is that they feel thrown together because of their isolation. They believe themselves to be misunderstood and mischaracterised. I think that they have a point. That is why I am proud that since their inception this Labour Government have made strenuous efforts to respond to the changing needs of the countryside, not just in the area of fox hunting, although that debate has at its heart the refining sensibilities of the British people regarding animal welfare.

Incidentally, I am moved to remark on the unfortunate event that saw seven foxhounds crushed to death by a train in Hampshire last weekend. In the 1980s when I was responsible for leading the political pack on banning fox hunting on Cheshire County Council land, one of the arguments which persuaded me to vote in favour and to encourage drag hunting as a safe alternative was the evidence of a Cheshire train driver. He experienced the danger to trains and their passengers presented by unsupervised hounds recklessly crossing rail lines in pursuit of a fox, imperilling the lives of train passengers.

I ask the Minister to take into account two other aspects in formulating and developing the Government's modernising rural programmes and policy. After all, we must look to the future. The first concerns the European Union and small businesses. The Government have shown themselves a present and past master at negotiating within the single European market for the benefit of Britain, especially with regard to lifting the beef ban. No one will forget the shrill trumpeting on this issue of the party opposite when in government. When they were in charge of the mad cows, they demonstrated very ably how to lose friends and fail to influence people in Europe. As to the beef on the bone ban, they have gone from being bone idle to being bone headed.

Can the Government now build on the good work of adopting and adapting sensible European programmes like LEADER and PRISMA, which aim to help small firms--often high-tech ones--to take root in Britain's countryside? The wonder of the Internet and related technologies miraculously have made SMEs natural grazers in today's countryside. The opportunity to supply worthwhile jobs in our rural towns and villages through such schemes and technologies must be harvested with enthusiasm.

The second aspect, again related to the single market, concerns the single currency. Many traditional industries like agriculture, where many farmers have opened euro accounts with the enthusiastic support of the NFU, and many newer industries like tourism, where the foreign tourists of the future will bring the euro as well as the pound to spend in the countryside, require us to prepare for the eventuality of the euro in the lanes and villages of rural Britain. Will the Government give thought, perhaps in conjunction with the NFU or the Countryside Alliance, to preparing an impact assessment of the euro on our rural life. That is a piece of work which would never be wasted, whether Britain joins now, next year or never.

Such initiatives would be consonant with the Government's desire to prepare their people for the future. After all, however much we might regret it--pace to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who stated that agriculture was the powerhouse of the countryside--we have to recognise that farming is no longer the pre-eminent industry in the countryside.