My Lords, perhaps I should I begin by apologising for the state of my voice. Despite suffering the effects of a cold, I very much welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, and to join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, on securing it and on introducing it in the way that he did. It has been frustrating that so little time has been available, but I hope that the noble Lord will at least find solace in the fact that the debate attracted such a large number of speakers, and was therefore certainly the subject of great interest.
We have been privileged during the course of the debate to listen to three very high-quality maiden speeches, and I congratulate all three new colleagues who have spoken in today's debate. Besides bringing a great wealth of experience, in particular to the rural issues that we have been considering, it was good that they come from very different parts of the country and therefore gave a good overall perspective of the important issues that we have been considering.
As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, pointed out, this debate follows and continues the themes from some of our previous debates just before the Summer Recess, including the debate on rural communities introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the debate on biodiversity in the UK introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. However, this debate rightly focuses on the new and, we hope, important element in rural and countryside affairs: the Prince's Countryside Fund. We on this side welcome the fund and agree with its aims. As the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said in introducing the debate, it is an initiative which presents an opportunity to draw attention to the very real challenges facing rural communities, and the importance of rural communities to the future economic and environmental well-being of our country as a whole.
The new fund has excellent precedents in the form of the Prince's Rural Action Programme and that other initiative of the Prince of Wales, a countrywide rather than countryside initiative, the Prince's Trust. The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, said that the Prince has trodden where Governments sometimes fear to tread. I know from my experience representing in the other House a disadvantaged urban area that the Prince's Trust was brave enough to go into areas where banks and other financial institutions had singularly failed. Its record of helping people, particularly to start new businesses, has made a huge difference to many people in many parts of the country.
It is good that this new fund is concentrating its efforts on the hardest-pressed areas. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who has just returned to the Chamber, talked about defining more precisely the areas that are most in need of support and hit the right note in that respect. It is important that the fund helps areas where help is most needed. As a north-easterner, I was very glad to see that the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services scheme is benefiting because it helps farmers with administration and making the best use of IT. Broadband was mentioned by a number of speakers. It would be good if the Minister could say something more about the rollout of superfast broadband that noble Lords are keen to see implemented. I also welcome the Cumbria and Yorkshire Dales scheme which, despite the current difficulties, looks to the future of hill farming and, in particular, to the needs of new entrants with high-quality training. A number of speakers mentioned the Pub is the Hub scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Crathorne, mentioned a pub that he felt is particularly worthy of praise, so I shall cheekily mention my local pub in Harbottle, Northumberland-the village where I have been living-the Star Inn. It is very much the village hub and, like many other pubs, plays a vital role in supporting the local area in enterprising ways and provides a range of valued services which would otherwise probably have ceased to be available to local people.
We know that problems in agriculture and in rural areas, such as outbreaks of animal disease or natural disasters such as floods and droughts, can crop up unexpectedly and sometimes with devastating consequences, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out. I am therefore glad that the Prince's fund is also channelling resources to crisis relief, building on some of the schemes we have seen and on some of the acquired knowledge about how best to deal with some of these very difficult situations.
I pay tribute to the way that we have already seen farms and rural businesses respond to challenges to diversify. I was very impressed as a Minister-quite a few years ago now-by the way farmers and others were working at adding value to existing products or using modern methods, such as the internet, to link up with customers, despite being sometimes physically far removed from them as they were based in fairly isolated areas. The recent publication by the National Farmers' Union, Why Farming Matters, underlines this point. It states that,
"some 51% of farms in England have diversified beyond their core farming activities".
I hope the Government will support and applaud this initiative.
Given that a number of wider rural issues have been raised in this debate, I shall add a few thoughts on some of the Government's recent policies and decisions in the rural sphere. There has been concern about the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities, which was mentioned in our debates in July. This chimes with one of the questions at Question Time today when we looked at the work of outside agencies being incorporated into departments. I have heard it said that because some current Defra Ministers are farmers or involved in farming, they understand these issues, but I would be very worried if decisions about the future of advisory organisations were to be taken on the basis of who happened to be Minister in a particular department at a particular time. One thing we know about government in Britain is that Ministers come and go. For all Ministers, whatever their background, we need to have good sources of independent advice.
Over the summer, the Government also announced the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. I am concerned about this because we want to see the skills of farm workers fairly remunerated and recognised, and we certainly do not want to see a drive downwards to poorer conditions or a poorer level of wages. I am sure we will revert to this issue in future. There is strong feeling on the Opposition Benches about this.
One of the aims of the Prince's fund is to reconnect consumers with the countryside. I applaud that and also applaud the involvement of various supermarkets in this initiative. I hope that they will enthusiastically embrace the idea of the supermarket ombudsman and will look closely at the price relationship between themselves and the farming community. This was referred to by my noble friend Lord Kennedy. I have never accepted the rural/urban divide in the way that some people have described it because people in both areas have common problems: making a decent living, having access to affordable housing, transport, good local services and so on and we all have a common interest in the future of our country.
I conclude by wishing the fund much success with its various initiatives and goals, and I again congratulate the noble Lord on giving us the opportunity to debate it and wider rural issues today.