The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:57 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 6:57 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank my noble friend Lord Ferrers for introducing this important debate. The contributions made have demonstrated the breadth and depth of the concern that we have in the House for farming and, twinned with it, for our countryside. They go hand in hand, together. Many of us are concerned for the economical future of farming and for the well-being of our countryside. All around the House speakers in the debate have highlighted both concerns. I shall not be able to mention every contribution, but I hope that I can do justice to the tenor of the argument.

As days passed by, I found myself asking what I understand by "the countryside". Indeed, other noble Lords have posed exactly that question. I was surprised to find that it was a difficult question to answer. It is nearly an emotion--and there lies the rub of my and, I suspect, other people's understanding of the countryside.

Over the past 10 days we have had three important agricultural debates: first, the response to the gracious Speech; secondly, the report from the European Communities Committee's findings on CAP and Agenda 2000; and today's major debate, moved so ably by my noble friend. On all of those occasions the theme coming from the various speeches expressed the dire state of our current farming industry; the need for a level playing field; the increasing regulatory burdens; the effect this has had on the farming industry; and the increasing numbers leaving the industry--sadly, some 20,000 this year, as was mentioned again today. Other noble Lords have mentioned the income of farmers, which varies from the average income of hill farmers of £2,000 down to that in Scotland, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Caithness, where it is a mere £416. Those are frightening examples.

We on these Benches feel that perhaps it is time to take stock and for the Government to stand back and to stop lurching from one crisis to another. I realise that in some ways it is not easy for a national government to do that because now we all operate not just within the EU but within a global market. Therefore, this issue has great implications for we farmers here today. However, if the Government can stand back and stop papering over the cracks, they can tackle the core problems. I believe that some of the suggestions made from all sides of the House today provide good examples of the problems which we need to tackle.

I know that other noble Lords have expressed their disappointment at the outcome of the CAP reforms, which have only added to our problems. Indeed, I know that the Minister and her colleague in the other place have reflected the Government's disappointment that the reforms did not go further.

This week we have learned from Seattle that the USA and the Cairns Group see the future of agriculture in a very different way. They are not constrained by our higher welfare standards. They do not have our desire to enhance the environment; indeed, their environment is very different from ours. Their view is that if we wish to enhance our environment and to have higher welfare standards, we should arrange for that to be done, but not as part of a trading agreement. I believe that that is where the core problem lies. They feel that our Government should finance such projects from our own resources rather than expect resources to come from an overall EU or world-wide budget.

For the USA and the Cairns Group bloc, food is food; and our subsidy schemes are unacceptable. That is slightly ironic as the Americans have deficiency payments and crop revenue assurance schemes, which we would regard as subsidies. UK farmers set the highest welfare standards but, as other noble Lords have said, they do so at great cost. In many cases, that makes us uncompetitive with other countries in the global market.

While proper labelling, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, would at least help the consumer in making a choice, it is not the only answer. Personally, I welcome the Government's initiative--indeed, we give the Government credit on many occasions--in setting up the task force to consider how we can reduce our regulatory burden. I plead that that should be done urgently. As each week goes by, yet more farmers go out of business and leave the industry.

Although we have some idea of the Government's proposed countryside legislation, there are many areas where we are not sure about the detail. We on these Benches welcome the greater protection for our wildlife, but we await the detail which will be laid down in the respective Bills.

Today we have heard that the countryside is the result of constant change, assimilated over time by people whose business is the countryside. We have also been made aware that the rural scene is a workplace, as is a car factory or a solicitor's office in a city or town. I fancy that instant access to the latter would be denied on grounds of convenience, health and safety, and loss of earnings. I can see no reason why such factors should not apply when we talk of giving access to the countryside. Such issues as owner liability, compensation, shooting days, the closed 28 days for breeding purposes and the keeping of dogs on leads are all crucial to those whose incomes are derived from organised shoots. They are equally important to those who keep sheep on our hillsides. As other noble Lords have mentioned, if farmers and land managers are not allowed to be commercially viable, the very moorland that people wish to walk over will be destroyed and will return to shrubland.

Open access nearer to one's home is favoured by the majority of people, who want to walk with easy access, take their dog for a walk, ride a bike, go on organised outings and have access to organised car parks and well-signed pathways. Those are their priorities. Although I suspect that we hear a great deal more from the comparative minority who want to ramble and have open access to mountain, moorland and heathland, they should not forget that, for the majority, that is not a priority.

Many noble Lords have illustrated graphically why our countryside must be allowed to remain a living and economically viable entity. Without that, the very thing that people wish to visit and see will not be there.

In truly thought-provoking speeches, noble Lords have reflected that not only are farmers struggling, but that local communities, too, are feeling their demise. That point was made clearly by the right reverend Prelates, the Bishops of Lichfield and of Durham. Rural social deprivation is real; isolation in many cases is acute; and suicides, sadly, are the outcome of such difficulties. At a time when, increasingly, fewer people are employed on farms, there is less opportunity for people to discuss their difficulties on a one-to-one basis. It is, indeed, an extremely worrying time. Therefore, the Government must deal with a tight balance between work, rural living and personal leisure pursuits.

I ask the Government what will happen to some of their schemes, which we warmly welcome. For example, the Countryside Stewardship scheme is over-subscribed and, I understand, will be closed for the next 18 months; the habitat scheme is also to be closed; and moneys paid to the ESAs are to be redirected. All those issues will have added implications for those who work on our land. I wonder whether the Minister could reply to that point, although she may not be able to do so tonight. We are concerned about the number of changes being made to the schemes.

I do not want to end on a totally negative note. However, I feel that there is much that the Government could do, even now, within their discretion. For example, have they come to any conclusions about assisting older farmers with early retirement packages? I know that it is possible for them to do so. Have they any plans to "pump prime" a scheme to help young farmers who wish to enter the industry? Again, I should like to add my weight to those who have mentioned the importance of young people entering our industry. Will the Government consider easing planning restrictions on farm buildings to enable those who wish to leave the industry to do so? As mentioned earlier by one of my noble friends, that point particularly concerns buildings for battery hens which will have to be upgraded. Will the Government allow farmers to make such conversions more easily than is sometimes the case? Those are practical issues which I believe the Government could, and I hope will, take on.

Many of the questions raised by my noble friends today have a direct bearing on agricultural incomes. But times they are achanging. The onrush of the world trade talks threatens to bring Europe and the CAP into opposition with others. The CAP should have been severely overhauled in the preparation for the trade round but, sadly, Berlin scuppered that. I wonder whether the Government and the European Union will have sufficient time to implement their long-term policy of securing a stronger market orientation in which our farmers can work. Those are real and important issues.

In my last few minutes, perhaps I may move back to the countryside. Many people who live and work in the countryside are not employed directly in farming but are in allied or linked industries. For many of them, the countryside is only as it is because we work it. It incorporates our fields, woods, hedges and ditches, to which many noble Lords have referred. However, one issue is of particular concern to them, as it is to parish councils. I refer to the ever-increasing traffic along country roads. Too many vehicles travel too fast on roads which are inadequate for the weight, length and power of the vehicles--a matter which causes anxiety to parents, horse riders and walkers.

I have not been able to touch on many of the points raised by other noble Lords. However, perhaps in conclusion I may refer to three issues. The first is the whole question of the SSAs, to which other noble Lords referred earlier. My understanding is that in London the SSA for an average person is £1,350 but in the shire counties the figure is £750; and that is at a time when it is more expensive for us to provide those services. Secondly, will the Government give greater thought to what they can do to help tenant farmers? Farmers who own their land at least have a buffer behind them to help them in difficult times, but our tenant farmers have great difficulty. Thirdly, I should like to pick up on the question raised by my noble friend Lord Jopling. Agriculture must be the priority, whatever ministry takes part. As I said at the beginning of my speech, without a strong farming presence, the countryside we know and love would just not be there. I look to the Minister to set out the Government's thinking in that area.