The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of The Earl of Liverpool The Earl of Liverpool Conservative 6:23 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Countess, Lady Mar, because it gives me the opportunity of paying tribute to her as one of the Members of your Lordships' House who has done more than most to champion the plight of the farming community. I was most interested, as I am sure all noble Lords were, in her thought-provoking remarks.

I have no interest to declare. I do not own rolling acres. However, I have lived most of my life in the countryside and many of my friends are farmers or own land as, indeed, do a number of my family. Therefore, I speak as one who enjoys the countryside but who has at present, quite happily, no responsibilities within it.

I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Ferrers has given the House the opportunity to have this debate today. Like him, and other noble Lords, I agree that it is no exaggeration to say that the countryside is under threat as never before in this country. Farming is, unquestionably, at its lowest ebb since the 1930s. We are told that millions of new homes will have to be built and that there are not enough brownfield sites to accommodate them. So the countryside will have to take the strain.

The ever increasing number of cars on the roads means that congestion is set to increase and, therefore, presumably new roads will have to be provided, introducing additional environmental pressures and putting millions more acres under tarmac and concrete. In the same vein, the motorist is being increasingly penalised. But cars in the countryside are not a luxury, especially in places which are not served by public transport; they are a necessity. I believe that further strains are placed on the countryside by out-of-town shopping centres that have created their own pressures, not least on the more rural traders and shopkeepers.

I believe that it is our duty to seek ways to enable all our countrymen to live in harmony--and the fragile interplay between the rural and urban areas is one of the most important aspects to make sure we get right. As the countryside adapts to its new pressures, the Government need to integrate agricultural, environmental and rural policy. As my noble friend Lord Jopling said earlier, this cannot be done if, as has been mooted, MAFF is put into the Department of Trade and Industry.

However, I believe it can be done by establishing a new department for countryside and agriculture, with a Secretary of State in the Cabinet reporting direct to the Prime Minister. I understand that this idea has not been greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the Government. That is a shame because there is certainly a full-time job there. Such an appointment would do much to make our farmers, and those who derive a living from working in the countryside, feel that they are not some forgotten breed.

With so many pressures bearing down on the countryside, it seems extraordinary to me that the only piece of legislation heralded in the gracious Speech was a Bill to create a statutory right of public access. Add to that the continuing, creeping repression of traditional sporting pursuits and I believe that noble Lords will agree with me that there is not much for the hard-pressed farmer to rejoice about.

I am focusing on farmers. I hope that I shall be forgiven to doing so. I know that some noble Lords feel that this slightly narrows the debate, but it is the issue on which I should like to focus. Farmers have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for the past four years at least. Although there was some welcome news yesterday that the beef-on-the-bone ban will be lifted before Christmas, many of them simply cannot foresee a return to profitability in their lifetimes. This is borne out by the fact that over 5,000 farmers came out of the industry between June 1998 and June 1999. In fact, the overall number of working farmers and wives in the industry fell from just over 211,000 to 201,000.

I believe that that trend is accelerating. The average age of the working farmer in this country is increasing and the younger generation are now far less inclined to follow their fathers. The reasons are fairly obvious. The risks far outweigh the returns. The stress factor is enormous, as a number of noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield in a thought-provoking speech. Farmers have no confidence that the Government have the capacity to protect their interests, and the new working hours directive will inevitably create further cost burdens.

Moreover, farmers are increasingly becoming paper farmers. It is now normal for farmers to have to devote two full working days a week to form-filling; indeed, it is no exaggeration to describe farming as being in a "regulatory quagmire". The gracious Speech gave some small glimmer of hope that regulatory burdens would be reduced. We shall have to wait and see, but I suspect that, sadly, it may be too little, too late.

Farmers do not feel that the playing field will ever be level with their European partners. I am sure that noble Lords will know that if one confirmed case of BSE is found in a French herd, the entire herd has to be slaughtered. Not unnaturally, this has led to French farmers becoming extremely skilled at digging deep holes very quickly! Indeed there is a well worn joke in the farming community with which I shall burden your Lordships: French farmers do not suffer at all from CJD disease; they only have JCB disease. I am told by my friends in the farming community that in Belgium the veterinary profession has become adept at finding alternative causes of death when their farmers' stock is affected.

The BSE catastrophe will linger on, but it beggars belief that the effect of actions taken to control it have cost the taxpayers of this country literally billions of pounds and have put many farmers out of business given that the number of definite and probable cases of nvCJD in this country over the past five years totals 48. While every case is to be regretted and each one is a human tragedy for the family concerned, I feel that we must get this in context. Taken as an average this figure represents fewer than 10 cases per annum. The number of road deaths in this country exceeds 3,500 per annum. Therefore, I fear that we have got the whole matter out of proportion. However, let us hope that as regards beef we are now about to return to some kind of trading normality with our neighbours.

However, there is less hope for the pig farmer where the use of sow stalls is, I believe, still legal in many countries whereas it is quite rightly banned here. However, that increases production costs and makes it virtually impossible for our farmers to compete. As many noble Lords have already stated, at present pig farmers are losing up to £25 on each pig sold. Furthermore, apparently, chickens are being imported from Thailand at prices which undercut the prices charged by our farmers--and who knows on what those chickens have been fed and what standard of animal husbandry has been observed. The fact is that we are importing food produced under conditions which are less stringent than those by which we are regulated. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to this matter and sensibly suggested that specific labelling might be the answer.

We are told that we must increasingly accept that we are living in a competition-led economy. Tariff barriers are already low and are set to come down further. The reform of the CAP is progressing apace. I have friends who farm sugar beet. They are fearful that with the abolition of tariff barriers altogether they will no longer be competitive compared with cane sugar growers.

So where is the ray of hope for farmers? Is it surprising that the suicide rate in the industry is rising? In 1997, there were 59 tragic cases and in 1998 that figure had risen to 72. That represents an increase in one year of 25 per cent. The figures are not yet available for this year, but I hope and pray that when they are published they will not show a similar rise.

We need to see the finest example of joined-up government to dig ourselves out of the hole in which farmers find themselves. There is a crisis which is not only looming; it has already loomed; and at the moment it is not being properly addressed.

I return to remarks that I made earlier and ask the noble Baroness in all seriousness whether the Government might give consideration to the appointment of a Minister for the countryside and agriculture because, without such an appointment, we may be close to reaching the point of no return in our management of the countryside. We simply cannot stand idly by and allow that to happen.