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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be asked to follow my noble kinsman, as I am conscious of the amount of time that he has dedicated to the subject of the rural economy. Today, with the aid of this exemplary report, we are being asked to consider a strategy for the whole rural environment, and the committee has done a good job of assessing all the elements needed for people to function with full access to all that technology has to offer. At the same time, I think we are all conscious of the Countryside Alliance briefing providing us with a full report on the part it played in amassing all this information.
From reading the Government’s response, which we have all received, my understanding is that it argues that they have got most of the issues raised covered, but it is hard to see that it produces anything that the rest of us can understand as a strategy. A strategy still needs to come. The element that most interests me, as I have always declared on the record, is agriculture. I am very grateful that my noble friend the Minister is here today to answer our questions, because he is largely responsible in government for that issue. The most encouraging thing going on that I have come across is that, since July, the Government have been conducting an independent review to develop a national food strategy. It is perhaps too early to know what that will come up with, but it is bound to be a key kernel of any rural strategy. Can my noble friend offer any comment on how it is progressing?
If I may, I shall reflect on some of the history of the sector. Noble Lords present may well be acquainted with a marvellously descriptive book about farming at the time of the First World War by a well-known agricultural correspondent called AG Street. The book was called Farmer’s Glory. The last chapter gives the farmer’s perspective on the scene in 1931, reflecting on what he terms,
“the last seven years of depression”.
That takes us back quite a long way, but it has many parallels with what is faced by the agricultural industry today. I quote a few lines he wrote at the time. He said:
“Probably one of the hardest things for farmers to realize to-day is that they are considered unimportant people by the majority of the community … to-day the consuming public are being fed by foreign countries very cheaply”.
Is that the way we are heading? His other comment of the farmer was that,
“he is engaged in an occupation for which his country has neither use nor interest”.
I hope we have not gone that far. That is only the beginning. Agricultural memories are full of the crash in agricultural activity that followed, which continued up until the Second World War. Strangely, the only way ahead he saw in those days was diversification and grassland farming. My Lords, have we not heard of that formula once again?
Now we are coming around to the same story. A no-deal Brexit sounds like it will just repeat that scene. I know, having talked to farmers in Northern Ireland, that they are watching all the different proposals that the Government are producing for their southern border with some trepidation. Half the lamb crop there has to be exported live to the Republic for slaughter and processing. None of us knows whether the EU will wish to reciprocate our tariff-free approach, which, so far as I can understand from the Government’s announcement, will be only for one year anyway.
We have heard reassuring noises from the Government about how they undertake to devote the same finance to the rural economy as has been customary for the next two years. That is far from a rural strategy for the industry, where a significant proportion of production is tied into a three-year process. It is easy for Governments to be critical of the money put into farming. We have been offered as a starting point the statistic that 20% of farmers produce 80% of goods. It would then be easy for the economists to say, “We will cut out a large part of all the inefficient farmers”. What remains to be seen is whether the present Government’s new green approach will recognise that some of what we might call industrial production methods offer the least in terms of the green criteria. Perhaps any strategy for food will have to allow for some element of the less productive farming enterprises to be maintained.
Looking at the issue more widely, I know that the Scottish Government have opted to turn a much bigger area of the country over to forestry. Can my noble friend tell us what is the approach nearer to where we are now? Will that be part of a rural strategy for the rest of the country, and will the Government be looking at a strategy as they go forward?