Countryside and Rights of Way Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 1st November 2000.

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Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative 5:45 pm, 1st November 2000

My Lords, I listened with great interest to the previous debate. It seems that the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, and I are approaching a similar problem, but for different reasons. I must first declare an interest as a farmer who, for the past four years, has benefited from one of the earliest agri-environmental schemes.

I am afraid that there was a slight difficulty in compiling the Marshalled List. Last night, I asked for the term "agri-environmental" to be introduced into the amendment. As a result of some strange state of confusion, the term was not actually included. My amendment should include not merely "environmental", but "agri-environmental" in order to focus it more closely.

These schemes enable the Government to give financial assistance to farmers for the management and improvement of areas in natural and environmental terms. They can be of particular assistance to organic growers. These can be old hay meadows or downland, heather, hedgerows, water-meadows, sand dunes, and so on. The regulations governing the schemes sometimes include a requirement for the exclusion of livestock at certain times of the year. The schemes also give assistance in the maintenance of walls and hedges.

Any farmer entering into one of these schemes has to sign up to a management agreement which, in most cases, can be for 10 years. During that time he will receive the appropriate annual payments, which are generally in the region of £2,000 to £5,000 per annum. Both the farmer and his successors are bound by the agreement.

Quite a number of farmers are glad that their land is not included in a nature reserve; they find that that restricts their activities in ways that they may not fully appreciate. But at the same time, they do not have the safeguards, referred to by the Minister, which are available to people whose land is in a nature reserve for the control of the public when a conservation issue arises.

The legal basis of the scheme is laid out in a statutory instrument--the Countryside Stewardship Regulations 1998. The problem that my amendment attempts to address is that, if a farmer is in breach of any of the conditions subject to which the grant was made, the Minister is liable not just to withhold future grant but to recover any grant already paid to him, with a possible penalty of 10 per cent over and above that sum. If access has had a detrimental effect on the conditions laid down in the management agreement--and that may only be discovered, say, six years after the scheme was put in place--the amount that could be reclaimed could total £33,000.

Access may damage some of the primary purposes of the scheme, but many of the secondary purposes are aimed at the encouragement of wildlife and rare species of plants and insects. Access could also have an effect in that area. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, referred to the problems that can arise from access within nature reserves. In these areas, the situation might be the same. At present, the farming press speaks of the amazing recovery of the stone curlew in East Anglia due to improved farming practices. It would be a great pity if any of that benefit, which involves public investment, were lost. The other aspect is that the MAFF may want to take this loss of benefit into the argument of eligibility for grants, especially when considering new applicants. I beg to move.