In this, my maiden speech, I should like first to pay tribute to my predecessor Lord Lyell, a Peer much loved and respected in this House. It is a great privilege for me to have taken his place. I also thank all those noble Lords who so generously elected me as a hereditary Peer, and who have greeted me warmly and with much encouragement, including those whom I had not had the previous pleasure of meeting. In particular, I should like to thank my noble friend Lady Chisholm, who has been mentoring me, for her guidance and counsel, as well as the officers and staff of the House, who have been generous and patient with their time, not least when, in my early confusion in attempting to navigate the byways and corridors, I have found myself having to ask them the same question more than once.
As a hereditary, I owe a debt to a forebear, in my case my great-grandfather, who was president of the British Bankers’ Association and chairman of the committee of London clearing banks, positions he retained throughout the Second World War at the request of the coalition War Government. He was on the honours list of Churchill’s caretaker Ministry, and his nomination was endorsed by the incoming Labour Government.
I have frequently been asked the same two questions since I first swore the oath. The first, “Have you been here before?”, made me ask myself whether reincarnation was the subliminal message. I have understood subsequently that it was a reference to those hereditaries who had sat prior to 1999, and no, I am not of their number. But in one sense I have been here before: it was in 1972, with my grandfather, when I sat on the steps of the Throne. On that very day, the other place was debating Common Market membership, and it is a strange coincidence of timing that I shall now be privileged to bear witness to our withdrawal from the same.
The second question I have been asked is, “On what will you speak?”. Here I feel on dangerous ground. When asked the same when embarking on my year as High Sheriff of Kent, I replied with unwarranted confidence and, diverted by the number and variety of interests put before me during that year, I singularly failed to stay on script.
I know that in your Lordships’ House, there are a meaningful number of noble Lords who are experts on those subjects where I have a passing knowledge, but there are two areas where I hope to be able to make a contribution. I have spent the last 30 years recruiting in the financial services sector. Much of this has been in and for City of London-based institutions, and it has included a variety of firms located in other major global financial centres. I have been fortunate enough to bear witness to the great successes that were born from deregulation at the time of the big bang, as well as the self-destructive powers that were born from the same. As we move towards Brexit, passporting rights and other employment issues relating to the competitive position of the City, with its meaningful balance of payment contribution, will be an important part of the negotiation, and there will be much sparring with continental financial centres. I have negotiated with them happily over the years on employment matters, and I look forward to helping maintain the City’s pre-eminence in whatever way I can.
The second area where I have been engaged is the rural sector, which presents a Rubik’s cube of issues as we approach Brexit. I must here declare an interest, as president of Kent County Agricultural Society, the chairman of a working agricultural charity and a partner in a family farming enterprise. We have allowed an extraordinary situation to develop, which would not have been allowed in any other commercial sector, whereby many rural business models are viable only as a result of subsidy payments. The rationale has been that subsidies protect those disadvantaged geographical areas that we wish to continue to be populated and farmed, and in addition farmers can be paid to support conservation and environmental initiatives.
As we move towards Brexit, the quantity of and qualification for these payments will no doubt be questioned, but I suggest that the discussion should take place against another background. The New Zealand model is referred to as a demonstration of how its farming industry, and its dairy sector in particular, coped with the abrupt closure of the UK market to it. But the opportunity for us, and indeed our responsibility, is to ensure a smoother transition over the next two years than New Zealand experienced, which will minimise the stress and tribulations to which our farming communities will be exposed.
There is always a sense when engaged on the land that you are battling with the divine as well as mankind. I say this with feeling as, having been in the eye of the 1987 hurricane and as a hands-on farmer who has recently suffered losses to Schmallenberg disease, as well as seeing the immediate landscape changing as a result of ash Chalara, I have experienced it all too immediately. But we should be able to address some of the bigger questions over which we have control, such as: does it matter that as an island we are now only 60% self-sufficient in food, and can we ensure that our farmers do not suffer the double blow of export markets closing at the same time as our domestic market is subject to increased imports from competitor countries with lower welfare and hygiene standards?
Twenty percent of our population live in rural areas, very few of them are directly employed in the rural sector, and those who are are ageing fast and their numbers are falling annually. Automation is not a panacea—nor should it be—and those dependent on seasonal labour, and the current uncertainties associated with their temporary work permits, which is a very real current concern for the vegetable and fruit growers of Kent, will tell you that the development of suitable machinery is some years away anyway. We must not take for granted an industry that is now extremely vulnerable.
To summarise, I bring two parallel careers, in financial recruitment and farming. There have been times in each when I have been unsure which is the sublime and which the ridiculous, but I feel privileged to have participated in both at times of exciting change, just as I feel privileged now to be a Member of your Lordships’ House.