Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:10 pm on 16th May 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 8:10 pm, 16th May 2012

My Lords, there has been criticism that the gracious Speech lacked an agenda for growth, jobs and a stimulus for the economy. That is clearly not true, though, as others have said. The Government are indeed taking steps to free up businesses to allow them to grow and employ other people. I wholeheartedly endorse the stated priority of cutting the deficit and approve the reduction in the number of civil servants. Most of all, I support the measures being taken to reduce the regulatory burden on entrepreneurs to clean up the IT systems with which so many of the departments have been saddled, particularly those in Defra.

I wish success to the negotiations on reducing the pension burden. The previous Government, during their tenure, they increased the pension burdens from 7.2% to 14.1% on local government salaries and centrally by over five percentage points to a range of 16.7% up to 25.8% at the most recent elections. These are additional burdens that have to be met, and they are the fault of the previous Government. In the circumstances, I took great exception to the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, at State Opening, when she asserted that the coalition was unfair, incompetent and out of touch.

There is much to be welcomed in the gracious Speech. I cannot touch on everything but I am particularly glad to see a draft water Bill, an energy Bill, the reduction of regulation and in particular the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which has its Second Reading on Tuesday. That cannot come quickly enough. I am watching the death of market towns, caused mainly by the rapacious advance of supermarkets and aided and abetted, sadly, by local councils that still cannot see the damage that they do to the rural economy. I am aware that so much of the success of these mammoths is due to the stranglehold over those who grow, produce and manufacture items for sale.

Last week we were told of a further fall in the milk price, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to earlier. That is iniquitous. The prices of fuel, fertilisers, grass seeds, animal feed and machinery all continue to rise, some of them rapidly. Supermarkets, on the other hand, are making profits. In the face of recession, those profits have held up very well, and we know that the salaries of those who run the supermarkets are generous. That is what is unfair. Farmers and processors are being openly robbed and they desperately need the support of an adjudicator. We shall deal with this in greater detail on Tuesday.

I am particularly concerned about the fresh milk supply. Will the Minister carry out an exercise to reveal exactly how well supermarkets do? They sell in four-pint, two-pint and one-pint cartons. The price comparisons are all based on the four-pint model, which considerably understates the average return per pint to the supermarket. It also minimises the insult to the farmer. A single pint sells for 49p, which is almost exactly the four times the price that he gets, but the official figures are based on the four-pint model-39p to 42p per pint. We shall debate this further.

The contribution that charities and voluntary workers give to the life of this country is incalculable. It would be wrong to reduce their impact through the side effects of measures taken to deal with the control of the deficit or developments in the commercial sector. In this Christian Aid week, I am pleased that pressure to reduce our international contribution has been resisted and that there are clear intentions to encourage further volunteering and to maximise the value of charitable giving. As an aside, I understand that DfID has agreed to match-fund the first £5 million that Christian Aid achieves this week.

There is no doubt that volunteering can assist individuals into employment, which is good for them and good for the economy. The major benefit, however, must be the application of donations, large and small, to improving the quality of life for people throughout the country-and abroad, as I have indicated-regardless of colour, creed, age or financial circumstances. I hope that the charities Bill may look at ways in which gift-aiding can be simplified and the burdens there reduced.

It does not necessarily need a Queen's Speech to reflect the importance that I believe farming and agriculture play in our community today. Their role is the driving force behind so much economic activity. Between them, farming and food have 3.5 million jobs. The headline is that the total farming and food sector is worth some £85 billion, the equivalent of 6.9% of GVA. Farming is more than that, though: it is important for jobs both on and off the farm. In all, farming and food production provides 3.5 million jobs, but technology means that employment on the farm may fall. Other areas are growing, however, and in that I particularly include research and development. They will play an important role in our food security in future.

The departments have given some stimulus and help to particular areas. I am best known for my connection with rural areas. In March and April this year, a £160 million package of measures was announced to support rural communities, mostly through the rural economic growth review. Of that, £100 million is to grow rural businesses through the rural development programme for England, some £20 million of grants will extend superfast broadband to remoter areas, some £25 million will promote rural tourism and support its businesses and there will be loans totalling more than £20 million for community-owned renewable energy schemes. In addition, £2 million will help women in rural businesses to develop those businesses. Those do not feature in the gracious Speech but they make a huge difference. It is seed-corn money that makes a difference to enable businesses to start. The Government need to see ways in which they can lighten the load of regulation and red tape so that that seed corn can grow and a business can become one, two and then 10 and perhaps 20. I support the Government in the measures that they have taken in the gracious Speech.