The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:35 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Viscount Bledisloe Viscount Bledisloe Crossbench 6:35 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I start by declaring an interest. My family own land on the borders of Wales and Gloucestershire where we conduct various countryside businesses including farming, and particularly dairy farming. For a sizeable part of this debate I was detained in a committee room in your Lordships' House and therefore I apologise if, more than usual, I repeat points which other noble Lords have already made better.

Although this debate is about the countryside and not merely farming, as many noble Lords have said, one cannot disconnect the two. I suggest that it is a complete fallacy for people to say that, because fewer people are now directly employed in agriculture, agriculture, in which I include forestry, horticulture and so on, is no longer the essence of the countryside. Agriculture remains vital to the prosperity and the viability of countryside communities and to the physical and visual state of the countryside. That point cannot be emphasised too strongly.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, to whom we are all grateful for introducing this debate, and many others have given cogent figures to illustrate the appalling state of farming. The most frightening one that I heard the noble Earl mention was of a Scots farmer's income of £1,700 a year; that is, £35 a week. If a farmer is expected to live on £35 a week because he is in business on his own account, how does that accord with the Government's concept of a minimum wage?

As a dairy farmer, I shall give your Lordships one statistic. In the past four years the price of our milk has fallen by 30 per cent in a high cost activity. My farm has all the advantages in that it is situated on a main road which is convenient for deliveries and collections. We have enough land to enable us to expand if we want to. We have managed to find the capital to modernise our plant. But what business activity with high costs can stand a drop of 30 per cent in the price of its product? How much worse is the situation of the small, remote family farmer whose farm is situated at the end of a long lane in Wales and who is unable to expand? He suffers cost differentials with regard to the price for collecting his milk and is unable to obtain bulk discounts. He may have no capacity to expand either in terms of space or money.

I fear that there is no prospect or reason why this situation should improve. Many of your Lordships have spoken of farming being a cyclical business. I confess that I am unable to see any reason why this cycle should pan out, rise or do anything else. It is quite frankly unrealistic to assume that farming in this country, with its limited area of land, its relatively high cost of labour, and its mass of regulation, of which so many of your Lordships have spoken, can compete with the prairies of America--as mentioned by the noble Countess--or the areas of the world where pay is low. It is a constant surprise to learn how ignorant of the truth of this situation are so many of our population. I believe it is largely the fault of people who live in the countryside. In the past we have always assumed that people would realise how the countryside worked; that there would be many Members of this House and of the other place who had a country background and therefore there was no need to educate. That situation has gone. We fail at our peril if we do not teach people how the countryside works.

That ignorance is widespread and was well demonstrated by the first speaker from the Government Front Bench, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, who told us that the farming industry was full of opportunities. I would like to see the noble Lord being brave enough to say that to a group of farmers. He would be lucky to escape with his life. It would be amazing if he had his trousers on when he left.