The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:10 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 7:10 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, we are doing a great deal in terms of the Modernising Government initiative in having that kind of valuable interchange of ideas. That interchange of ideas and the recognition that those of us who spend most of our time in the city but enjoy some time in the countryside, and likewise those who spend most of their time in the countryside but enjoy some time in the city, must understand the other's view point are extremely important. Indeed, the polarisation that crept into some of the contributions made in the debate is not helpful to anyone.

In relation to the West Midlands, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield reminded us how important the countryside is for his urban parishioners. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and other noble Lords drew attention to the services that are provided in the cities and by city dwellers within the countryside. As one who was brought up in Wolverhampton, I certainly related to the way in which the rural areas in the right reverend Prelate's diocese provide not only leisure but a completely different perspective on life for those who dwell in cities. To some extent I disagree with the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that one may make the distinction that either side does not have the right to contribute to debates on the future of the countryside or of the town. I believe that such problems are better solved when a range of perspectives are brought together. We should not exaggerate the differences between town and country but rather we should understand the common causes, while not in any way jettisoning the perspectives of those who have long experience of a certain area.

We need to protect the rural environment while ensuring that we continue to enjoy the countryside. The grave problems facing the farming industry must be recognised, while at the same time--this point has been made by several speakers--the perspective of customers and consumers has to be clearly understood. Only by doing that will we ensure the future success of the industry.

Many speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Plumb, pointed out that this debate is taking place at a time when the farming industry is facing the most severe difficulties. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, used the word "despair". It is true that enormous personal and family problems have been caused by the current widespread depression in farming. Last year, farm incomes were already very low, and this year the forecast suggests that the situation will be similar. Telling figures were given by several speakers in the debate. After a period of relatively good incomes in the early 1990s, in real terms farm incomes have now dropped back below the levels of a decade ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, noted that the depression has now spread widely among the different farming sectors and that it is no longer a matter of one sector thriving while another struggles. We are seeing a much more widespread situation of depression. Concern for those affected has been demonstrated in contributions from all sides of the House. Noble Lords recognise that this not only affects the individuals directly involved in farming but impacts on related businesses and businesses ancillary to farming. Indeed, the consequences are potentially worrying for the landscape, the environment, animal welfare and a whole range of other related issues.

The Government are taking the situation very seriously. In September my right honourable friend the Minister announced a major review of the regulatory burdens on agriculture. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Rotherwick, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, made the point that those constraints are keenly felt and that this is an important issue. The three major working parties covering the priority topics of meat hygiene, the IACS scheme and inspections and the intervention system are reaching the end of their work. We hope to receive their reports this month. I can assure the House that the Government are committed to rooting out unnecessary red tape.

Equally, we need to look at exactly what regulation is unnecessary. We must recognise that some constraints need to be in place, especially in terms of the legal framework under which we operate--often a European framework. While there is no desire to gold-plate, we cannot under-implement and then complain about other countries' implementation.