Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:33 pm on 26th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative 6:33 pm, 26th June 2017

My Lords, I begin my remarks with congratulations to: my noble friend Lord Callanan, whom I served in the European Parliament on his ministerial appointment; to the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, with whom I was at university, on his maiden speech; and, if I may anticipate, to my noble friend Lord Colgrain, with whom I was also at university. I must also declare some interests that are in the register, some of which relate to me in a personal capacity and some to the activities that I am engaged in. I hope my noble friend Lord Callanan will not be too disappointed if I do not talk about space but keep my feet on the ground and talk about agriculture. If you are going to leave the CAP, it seems a good moment to review agriculture, agricultural policy and rural policy, because they all go hand in hand.

Clearly, as we all know, the CAP was not designed for this country, but, equally, it was not designed specifically for any other country either. It has a number of very foolish aspects to it, although of course you do not have to cross the channel to find idiotic aspects to government. It is also a mistake to parody it, as some newspapers have done, not least because in so doing they seem to parody responsible journalism. The CAP, like much else, has moved on. Especially since the MacSharry reforms, there are plenty of things we can take as good examples from the workings of the CAP. It is a pity that it played too big a part in the EU budget, but it may not have necessarily played too big a part in total levels of public expenditure. It is understandable, but a pity, that it also played such a big part in EU politics.

It is my contention that there is a serious market failure in agricultural, rural and environmental policy, which in turn is morphing from traditional agriculture much more towards traditional rural estate management. This market failure is part of the serious problem of rural and agricultural poverty. Last weekend, we were in Dorset. For a Cumbrian like me, it looks like the land of milk and honey, but underneath that thick veneer of prosperity there is rural poverty and deprivation, and it seems to be most closely associated with those who directly work on or close to the land—those who, on the continent, are called peasants. I have been called a peasant on the continent, and I am proud of it. That is a correlation that we need to think about.

What is agriculture doing in the contemporary world? First, it produces commodities, be they food or timber. Given the role that world prices have played in the CAP since the MacSharry reforms, I believe it is pretty much wishful thinking to suppose, as I have heard government Ministers suggest, that leaving the European Union will put the price of commodities up. It seems to be most improbable. Nor have I heard much consideration of the problems of the balance of payments, of the need for security of food in this country or of the costs of food, bearing in mind that it is a significant part of many families’ budgets.

Above and beyond this, tourism, leisure and general well-being are provided from what you might describe as the assets in the nation’s rural estate. In my home county of Cumbria, tourism is far more important locally than agriculture, yet tourism does not directly pay anything towards it. Then there are ecosystem services: carbon capture, flood mitigation, clean air and other things. Again, there are no direct cash transfers here specifically in respect of those. Then there is the environment more generally. It is my view that dereliction has probably caused more damage to the urban fabric of this country than the Luftwaffe did. If you do not look after things, as we have discovered in the Palace of Westminster, the end bill is a great deal bigger than it otherwise need have been.

Finally, the countryside should be a location for businesses. It is a great pity of the way the town and country planning system developed in the immediate post-war period that that has been stamped on to the extent it has. But the other side of the coin is that developing in the countryside in general is more expensive than doing it within the wider urban envelope. It seems to me that the tax system should recognise that. Then we have things such as the problems with broadband and other forms of infrastructure, which have been well rehearsed. On the basis that people should be paid for what they do, it looks to me as if a lot of urban Britain is freeloading on the back of the countryside, which is an example of the biblical maxim that to him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away.

What, if anything, can be done about it? A particular suggestion that I would like to make is that the scheduler structure of income tax legislation should be looked at, because it discourages much sensible rural diversification and part-time farming. It is a gloomy state of affairs when the current framework around agriculture is conducted by the Rural Payments Agency and a lot of the planning authorities, which are not at all efficient or competent, taken as a whole. As a Cumbrian farmer said to me rather sadly, “Voting Brexit is, for farmers, the shortest suicide note in history”. I have no doubt that the Minister will not agree with that, but I would be grateful if he could explain in general but concrete terms their approach to these matters. I request that he please not repeat the meaningless mantra about generalised opportunities becoming available. To my own surprise and my friends’ amazement, I chaired a northern manufacturing company for several years, and the business was successful. The one thing that became clear to me was that entrepreneurs are successful through their own initiative and do not respond to government instruction.

Whether we like it or not, agriculture has always operated, and at least to some extent will continue to operate, within a state-regulated framework, and having an understanding of the Government’s aspirations and basic policy, so long as they are realistic, is a necessary condition of our country’s success.