The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 5:13 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. I wish he could have continued for the next few minutes as well, because we all know of his great experience and personal interest in world agriculture. It is a privilege to speak in this debate and I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for the opportunity to have another beef!

That aside, the farming news is still grim. The economic weather forecast seems continually bleak and farmers are already looking ahead to the deficits of the coming season. Every year, I wonder whether my farming friends and neighbours in Dorset will still be there in 12 months' time. Every year I am relieved and delighted that somehow they have remained, and yet many of them are the marginal farmers whom the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mentioned.

Destitution is never far away and there are already small signs of change: a downward rent review, sold off grass keep, a farm worker laid off or a new source of income off the farm, taking up the opportunities for change mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel.

So why do things apparently stay the same? The first reason is the outstanding quality of our farmers. The second is the pride we all have and which has been described in preserving our countryside, including the churches, schools and fabric of village life.

As a nation which seriously expects a dwindling farm industry to pick itself up, look beyond the farm to alternative forms of income, welcome more visitors and become caretakers as well as tillers of the soil, we are asking a great deal. We are lucky to have farmers at all after those demands. It is an almost impossible task in a normal year, let alone another one of falling prices, incomes and investment. The NFU has reported a 20-year low in investment and a 62 per cent fall in real income over the last three years, as the noble Earl said. It is a crisis that would defeat most small businesses. Yet farmers are still being asked to carry heavier burdens as regards food standards, access and field sports and at the same time to care better for the countryside. They have not ceased to care for it. As the substantial employer, they already know that they have a wider duty to the community through their management of the countryside. In fact, while they suffer hardship, they have made sure that hedges and fields and paths are looking as good as they ever have.

The take-up of environmental schemes like countryside stewardship and organic conversion has been impressive. I hope that, when the Minister confirms this, she will explain why there is so little money available for a myriad of small schemes and diversification schemes which the Government have rightly identified as inevitable and which yet seem to attract farmers into a maze of financial culs-de-sac. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned one important future source of income: renewable energy and biofuels. I hope that the Minister has prepared an answer for him.

Farmers well know that their future depends on wider and still unanswered questions like European Union enlargement and world trade. In my experience, they have a more developed global view than that of the general population. It was farmers in Britain, after all, who responded so quickly to the Africa famine appeals, and joined in the send-a-tonne and send-a-cow campaigns. It was not only East Anglian and Sussex farmers sitting back on their intervention prices who responded, it was all farmers, those in the West Country and Scotland. I know farmers who travelled to countries like Ethiopia and the Sudan when it was thought that our food surpluses were the solution. They turned out to be part of the problem. Those farmers now support longer term development projects and organisations like Farm Africa and SOS Sahel.

I believe that farmers, however conservative they are in their budgeting and accounting, still have this wider sense of responsibility. Many would like to contribute to a new world order. They would never demonstrate at Seattle, but they can see the way free trade winds are blowing in the World Trade Organisation. They would like to see fairer restructuring of world agriculture and agricultural trade, including more initiatives to reshape the common agricultural policy. They recognise the importance of the environment in today's world. They have demonstrated their eagerness to adapt to new environmental conditions. They do not accept the watery provisions of Agenda 2000, which, as the House of Lords Committee reported in May, seem only to postpone the inevitable decisions to restructure agricultural support and do away with the massive subsidies in preparation for the juggernaut of enlargement.

I take seriously the observation of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, about competitive agriculture and his suggestion last week about guaranteed average income instead of subsidies. These solutions should be given serious consideration. The Government are making the right noises and have made some minor improvements. I grant that rural transport is changing. In our part of the west of England we now have some bus services. But in my view the Government are not emphatically on the side of farmers. If they do not want to be judged in future as the Government who abandoned the industry to the free market--surprising as it seems, that is a real possibility--they need to make significant proposals before the next election above all to convince the people of the countryside.