HL Deb 15 March 1984 vol 449 cc859-62

3.18 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what changes they propose to make to the present system of grants to the farming industry, with a view to providing effective protection of landscapes and wildlife, as well as meeting the needs of agricultural production.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, our present capital grants arrangements already provide for conservation and wildlife considerations to be taken into account. In addition, the Ministry's Agricultural Development and Advisory Service provides advice on how best to achieve a balance between agricultural and conservation or wildlife objectives.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for that Answer, will he accept that I do not feel particularly encouraged or impressed? Is it not abundantly clear that the provisions for protecting environmental interests under EC structural directives for agriculture, our own Countryside Acts and under his Ministry's grant policies and indeed advisory services, are proving woefully inadequate to prevent serious and lasting damage being done to landscapes and to wild life habitats?

Is there not incontrovertible evidence of this provided by the chief scientific officer to the Nature Conservancy Council? Does not the opportunity now arise to amend the new regulations which will replace the existing structures directives so as to correct the serious imbalance between agricultural and environmental interests? Finally, was the noble Lord correctly-quoted in a letter in The Times of 20th February, from the director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, as having said to a deputation from that body that his Ministry. has no intention of moving willingly towards accepting amendments that would build conservation into farm planning?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I well understand the concern of the noble Lord. Lord Hunt. But if I may say so, I do not think that the noble Lord sufficiently recognises all that is being done and. I agree, needs to be done and has to be done. For example, the notification arrangements for grant applications in national parks and SSSIs anticipated the Wildlife and Countryside Act; then the 1981 Act built safeguards upon that, and I believe that those safeguards are having an effect. The noble Lord in his second and third questions asked me about the structures proposals in the European Community. Those proposals are still under consideration. I should like to make crystal clear my attitude, on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, to these proposals in answer to the noble Lord's last question. The proposals certainly contain more references to conservation than in the past, and I am absolutely delighted that that is so. We shall certainly continue to work to this end in the negotiations which are still taking place.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, am I not right in thinking that the Government are now giving a grant, or are going to give a grant, for the replanting of hedges? Perhaps I am wrong.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, on 1st December last year we increased grants to 60 per cent, in the less favoured areas for wall, hedges, fences and tree shelter belts; we ended the very last vestiges of grant-aid for hedge removal, and we also ended grants for land reclamation in the lowlands—and that was at a time when we were having to cut £30 million off capital grants.

Baroness White

My Lords, has the noble Lord the Minister had an opportunity to study the recently published report, mentioned by the noble Lord. Lord Hunt, produced by the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council, which indicates the very considerable degree of loss in habitats and similar areas in recent years? Has he also had an opportunity personally to study the commitments entered into by Her Majesty's Government in February 1983 and reaffirmed at the Stuttgart summit subsequently, which indicate that agricultural policy should be closely integrated with policy for the environment, particularly in relation to agriculture and forestry?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, as regards the last question asked by the noble Baroness, the position is as I gave it just now in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. So far as the report of the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council is concerned, of course I take very seriously what the NCC says because it is the Government's adviser on conservation matters.

As regards the removal of hedges. I hope that I have made clear in my answer to my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard where the Government's heart lies in that respect. So far as the reduction in area of broad-leaved woodland cover is concerned. I must remind the House that the Forestry Commission census of woodland in England and Wales revealed that there has not been a reduction in total in broad-leaved woodland over the years, even though the mix of species has changed to some extent; and it is true that there has been some reduction in what is known as "ancient woodland".

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, in view of the consideration given by farmers and landowners over hundreds of years to the conservation and appearance of the countryside, and to the build-up of the countryside that we now like so much, will my noble friend do his best to kill the knocking of farmers and landowners by often ill-informed, self-appointed "towny" conservationists?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the best answer to my noble friend Lord Gisborough is that I am happy to be able to report to the House today that I understand that there are now branches of the farming and wildlife advisory groups in every single county in England and Wales—and. I believe, in Scotland also. I am not making a slighting reference to matters north of the Border; it is just that that part of the country is not my right honourable friend's responsibility, and I am not quite so sure of my ground on that point.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that over the next five years £3.5 billion will be available under the CAP by way of farm grants? Will he and his right honourable friend ensure that part of that money is allocated to be spent on nature conservancy as well as on obtaining more efficient agricultural practice?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord is that nobody knows how much money will be spent under the structures proposals because the negotiations are still continuing. But in case we forget what I endeavoured to say to the House earlier, let me point out again that there are more references to conservation in the structures proposals as they are presently being negotiated then there have been in the past. On behalf of the Government, I am delighted about that, and we are certainly going to work to that end.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether he is entirely satisfied with the workings of the compensation arrangements under the Wildlife and Countryside Act? Are we not beginning to see that the warnings that were given by a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Onslow, at the time of the passage of this Act, were correct? Those warnings were that if we made provision by which people were going to be compensated for doing things that it probably would not have occurred to them to do in the first place, we would be liable to find a substantial rip-off of the Treasury. Is that not now precisely what is happening?

Lord Belstead

No, my Lords, I do not think that it is happening. There are, indeed, many cases where management agreements have been accepted by the farmers concerned at lower levels of compensation than the full loss of profit—and it is right that I ought to say that. On the other hand, my noble friend is raising a difficult and important point. Yesterday my right honourable friend's department and the Department of the Environment met with the Broads Authority and, as the newspapers have reported today, we are trying to work out something a little different in that area—particularly Section 41 designation of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which we believe might be a way forward in that particular area.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, will the noble Lord inform his noble friend Lord Gisborough, in case he cannot hear me, that I, for one, have no intention of knocking the farming industry? I am not a member of the "environmental Militant Tendency", and the wording of my Question surely makes it clear that I spoke of harmonisation. Is it not clear from these exchanges and, indeed, from the copious correspondence and articles in the press in recent weeks, and from three Questions in another place on 1st March, that there is widespread and growing public concern about this matter? Is it not the responsibility of the Government to create the conditions at the highest level for the harmonious integration of the two interests, both of which are of great interest and importance to the nation? Will the noble Lord take this into account when the report of the sub-committee of your Lordships' Select Committee comes before him?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, harmonious integration is possible provided it is clear what the structures proposals are supposed to do. It is accepted by all the member states of the Community that those proposals are supposed to give help, where it is needed, to agriculture. I repeat: there are stronger references this time round to conservation than there have ever been previously. I give an assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that this is most acceptable to the Government, and we will try our very hardest to ensure that those references firmly remain in the proposals.