The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:49 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative 5:49 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, it is excellent for one elected Peer to follow another elected Peer whose grandfather was the last governor-general of Ghana.

I must declare an interest also, in that I am a landowner in Surrey; I regret to say, a much smaller landowner than was my grandfather or my great-grandfather. In the 1930s agricultural slump, my grandfather persuaded people to come from Wales to take some of his rented farms at extremely low prices.

The history of agricultural boom and bust has continued for a long time. After the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, an agricultural slump was forecast in the United Kingdom. That slump did not actually arrive until the 1870s, with the invention of the binder and the opening up of the American West and the American grain trade. That slump lasted more or less until the 1914 war. The 1914 war produced a temporary but prosperous agriculture because of the U-boats in the Channel and the Atlantic. The 1930s agricultural slump followed.

That slump was in a way reversed by the war. The war influenced all agricultural thinking beyond anything. After the war there was a really marvellous Minister of Agriculture. Tom Williams, to his eternal credit, made absolutely certain that no fox-hunting ban was passed by the 1945 Labour government. He was succeeded in the Wilson government by the late and much-loved Lord Peart. All those Ministers understood the important role played by the agricultural industry in the country's affairs.

There was also the Boyd-Orr report, which emphasised that we had to produce because the third world was going to starve. It was deeply influenced by U-boats in the Channel. To a certain extent we were subsidised right up until the mid-1980s for production at all costs. Since those subsidies ceased, the poorer areas have done far worse. The poorer areas tend to be the most picturesque areas. The people who have least harm done to them by an agricultural slump are the grain farmers in the Beauce and those in Sussex and Hampshire. They carry enough fat to withstand the catastrophic fall in prices.

As one of my noble friends said, the price of wheat was £140 per tonne and it is now £64 per tonne. I admit that the price of £140 per tonne was at a time when the Chinese harvest failed and wheat prices went through the roof, so it is not totally fair to quote that high price as the norm. However, even taking that into account, the prices of wheat, grain, cattle, sheep and pigs have gone through the floor.

I suspect that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, will talk about slaughterhouses, although I have not asked her. She signifies that she is not going to speak about them. That is a pity, because she is quite qualified to do so. The slaughterhouses have been regulated out of existence. The cost of slaughtering an animal here is astronomical compared with the Continent. The regulations specify that six people must check every single animal. That is crazy as a regulation. I accept that that is not all the fault of the present Government; the previous government set them on that way with the Meat Hygiene Service, when local authorities were doing a perfectly adequate job. However, that is another story.

Regulation on our slaughterhouses has been increased, followed by the gold-plating of EC regulations. A gentleman produces the original Aylesbury duck and slaughters them himself. It appears that the EC has passed some regulations on the home slaughtering of ducks. We have gold-plated that regulation by saying that he cannot sell his ducks dead outside his own local authority area. Your Lordships should listen to this because it is lovely. If a man from a smart restaurant in Cumberland goes to the slaughterhouse and says, "Please may I have 12 ducks?" and pays for them, he may then return to Cumberland and the ducks can be sent by post. That is because he has purchased them within the local authority area. If, however, he picks up the telephone and says, "Please, O duck killer, send me 12 dead ducks by post", they cannot be sent by post because he is outside the local authority area. That is a silly way of running anything.

The EC regulation says nothing about the local authority area. We put in that stipulation just for fun. Even worse, he cannot appoint a chum as an agent to go in with his credit card or his pounds, shillings and pence--or whatever we now use as a currency--and say, "Here is my money, please send the ducks up to Cumberland". He must come down to the farm himself, say, "Please sell me the ducks", go back, and then they will be sent to him. It is impossible to think of anything so stupid.

The hygiene regulations for slaughterhouses have become worse. There is a new regulation on hygiene for pig units and battery chickens which imposes a cost of £18,000 on a modest-sized intensive pig unit. Our competitors in the rest of Europe do not have to bear those charges. That is what is so unfair and so wrong. It has not saved one single tummy bug in a single human being. I shall be prepared to lay my bottom dollar on that. It is regulation for the sake of regulation, followed by the fun of writing regulations, followed by gold-plating them. The industry cannot be prosperous if that is how we behave.

I touch briefly on hill farming. The problem of the hill farmers not being looked after is due to the common agricultural policy, which is a problem common all over Europe and not unique to Britain. In the Massif Central and Burgundy in France there are deserted villages because the common agricultural policy has failed in its social purpose. Where do we go from here? It seems to me that we should go for free trade in food production with the minimum of sensible regulation and a major amount of subsidy, which will cost much less than the common agricultural policy, for what--for want of a better description--I shall call "gardening and game-keeping". That is looking after countryside activities which are totally uneconomic.

We have a blessed countryside. It is so varied that it changes every 20 miles. It is like English and Scots accents which change every 20 miles. I have no objection to a large amount of public access to the countryside, because if we as landowners or farmers are in receipt of a subsidy, that subsidy is a tax paid by our fellow subjects. Therefore we cannot deny them access to the land. However, it should be done by agreement and co-operation. I know very few landowners who are not totally reasonable in the access which they allow. That should be encouraged.

We are blessedly lucky in the land that we own and love. It is our duty to share it as much as possible. It is equally our duty to ensure that the countryside is not merely a farm factory. That farm factory is essential for its prosperity, but there are other activities which must take place in it. Above all, do not clobber it with unnecessary regulation and banning. I have not had time to deal with the subjects of fox-hunting and fur farming, but I shall do so at a future date.