The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:02 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative 5:02 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, first, I declare an interest. I have been involved in agriculture practically all my life, among a number of other activities. As a farmer, I have always regarded myself as being among the custodians of the countryside. Perhaps in replying the Minister will comment on that. As a custodian of the countryside, I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that leisure and tourism are certainly important; but will they be so important if we take the heart out of the countryside and neglect agriculture? We hear stories, as we did from the right reverend Prelate, about large numbers of people, particularly young people, moving away from the countryside. What will be left to interest those who visit it?

I rise in particular to support my noble friend Lord Ferrers, and I thank him for introducing the debate. It is particularly important at the present time. It is a pleasure and encouragement--indeed, it gives us great inspiration--to hear such fine comments from two right reverend Prelates. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield represents a diocese that I know well. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham represents a totally different area, one that contains many small farms and farming families, who are in extreme difficulty at present. I hope that the important statements of the right reverend Prelates will be well presented throughout the country.

In a previous debate on this subject, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells reminded us of the necessity of a level playing field for farmers. He registered the importance of that idea for the archives of this great building. Many speakers have recognised the present crisis in agriculture and the inevitable pressures on the countryside as a whole.

Over the years, many of us in this Chamber have witnessed the struggle and progress of British agriculture and its different stages: its contribution to the economy; the growth in productivity; the elimination of so many plant and animal diseases; the high-quality products that are now being produced through the advantage of science and technology; and the healthy landscape--anyone who has not noticed that when travelling through our wonderful countryside is not very observant. My noble friend Lady Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, said in opening the Royal Show that if the rest of industry in Britain was as efficient or productive as British agriculture, the economy would be in much better shape. An example has been set in the countryside by those involved in the agricultural industry.

As we move towards the end of this millennium and into the next, we are witnessing a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Farming resilience is being tested to the limit and the future does not offer much cause for optimism. At present, many farmers would be grateful for the bone from the T-bone steak that they are attempting to sell.

Many of my noble friends have mentioned the possibilities, or lack of them, for the future of young farmers. There are young farmers present today, listening to the debate. They tell me that they have the courage to face the challenges ahead. They are prepared to cut costs and to diversify, as the countryside demands. They are prepared to work hard and efficiently to keep British agriculture afloat. They want to use their own slogan; they want to put the "young" back into "Young Farmers". I shall be interested to hear the Minister's reply. She may comment on the possibilities or otherwise for their future.

Part of the crisis that we presently face is not of the Government's making. The cost of the BSE crisis may reach £5 billion overall by 2001. We have received government aid and agri-monetary compensation from Brussels, which has helped, but it is too little, too late. It could have been paid earlier, and paid in full, as every other country in the European Union has done when its farmers have been in a similar position, through the strength of their currency against those of other countries. Competing in an unfair market is impossible and unnecessary when a mechanism is available to correct it through currency exchange.

Equally, we are faced with imports produced under less stringent animal welfare conditions and the high cost of the red tape affecting farmers and those who work in slaughterhouses, manufacturing, processing and so on. I am pleased that the Government have at least accepted the need to examine the position and that a committee is reviewing the whole question of red tape and bureaucracy.

I believe that consumers are getting the message, but do they understand that growth promoters in the form of hormones are accepted in the United States and elsewhere by those who buy them? The products can be marketed here. Do consumers realise that over 65 per cent of soya produced in the United States and elsewhere is genetically modified? Of course, there are methods of checking products coming in, but it is difficult to check every kilo of soya in a 2 million tonne product that comes into this country. Do consumers realise how much junk food we consume in this country? It is £2.7 billion worth, probably coming from imported products. We consume more than Italy, France and Spain together.

As we debate the issues, policy-makers are at this moment trying to discuss a move to globalisation of trade in Seattle. In the last round, the United States made it clear--this was supported by their own Farm Bill--that they wanted to remove all subsidies. Last week, Senator Glickman, the Secretary for Agriculture in Washington, announced an emergency package for struggling farmers of 22.5 billion dollars. He said with great pride, "This is the highest in history".

So much for free trade policies. This morning on television I saw the demand by President Clinton that Europe's common agricultural policy must remove all subsidies. Of course, the common agricultural policy is being reformed; it is moving in that direction. No one will mind that, so long as we can have fair play and the level playing field which is so important to it.

It is extremely difficult for farmers to understand why we restrict production with quotas and set-asides, while other exporters talk about expansion. We know that expansion is necessary in many parts of the world where half the population is starving. In her reply, perhaps the Minister could suggest a way of survival, when regulations drive people in one of the country's most efficient areas out of business. Chickens have not been mentioned, but I mention them now because the point applies to all other products too. One producer whom I know well has been driven out because of the regulations concerning his business. All it does is to export our industry and jobs overseas, where welfare, food safety, and global warming regulations are minuscule compared with our own.

So we must be protected from what we call "cheap" food policies--unfair policies and unfair imports coming from other countries. Does the Minister accept, or is she aware, that for countryside conservation to provide what the public wants, a viable agriculture is essential? There are no medals for going bust. Low level environmental payments are no substitute for profit.

I also ask what measures are in hand to enable efficient, hard-working farmer-businessmen to make a living. They know how to farm, but if they have to cut back on maintenance and the necessary nutrients, it would be like living off our seed corn. I hope that the Minister agrees that it would be disastrous to follow the woollen industry of 130 years ago.

Finally, will the Minister encourage the Government to act on the growing problem of TB in badgers and cattle? To country people, this is a far more intractable priority, and welfare, economic and health issue than fox-hunting. I shall accept the noble Baroness's answers in writing, if she prefers to send them to me.