HL Deb 29 April 1987 vol 486 cc1556-64

8.40 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill was successfully piloted through another place by my honourable friend Mr. Gerrard Neale. As is so often the case with agricultural matters, particuarly in your Lordships' House, my honourable friend had the support of all the political parties and also the Government, so I hope that your Lordships will be able to give the Bill the same help in order to get it on to the statute book as soon as possible.

There can be no noble Lord present this evening who is unaware of the changing circumstances that face agriculture today, and because so much food is being overproduced there is a vital need for the industry to diversify. It is for that reason that this Bill has been promoted by my honourable friend with the full support of the Agricultural Training Board.

The Bill has two main objectives. First, it will enable the Agricultural Training Board to provide courses in non-agricultural skills, so helping the industry to diversify. Secondly, it will enable the Agricultural Training Board to provide courses in amenity activities to those outside the industry. These provisions will mean that the Agricultural Training Board will be able to offer courses on subjects such as food processing, bed and breakfast accommodation, leisure pursuits, small craft enterprises and ecological and conservation subjects.

Perhaps I should draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 1(2) which adds to the 1982 Act, and in particular to Section 5A(1)(b), which will allow the board to offer courses to those outside agriculture in amenity skills. I should point out that the board will not—indeed, it is not empowered so to do—instruct those outside agriculture in agricultural skills. Therefore your Lordships have no need to fear that there will be courses for those outside agriculture on, for instance, how to grow a four tonne crop of wheat and so add to our surplus. The courses and facilities will be as defined in new Section 5A(2)(a) of the Act which will be for sporting, recreational and environmental work and in paragraph (b) for courses for the rearing of animals including birds and fish. However, again I must draw your Lordships' attention to the words in brackets: (excluding the training of animals for any such purpose)". That will mean that the board cannot become involved in the training of racehorses, homing pigeons, greyhounds or indeed circus animals. I am sure that that will please the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

New Section 5A(3) obliges the board to consult the Minister before providing courses which will act as a reinforcement to the consultation required under 4.1(bb). That provision requires the board to have regard for any courses or facilities otherwise available. This is a commonsense provision because no one wants to see the Agricultural Training Board running identical courses to, say, CoSIRA. Subsection 5A(4) imposes a duty on the board to act commercially with the aim of meeting its costs from revenue raised and it must maintain separate accounts and records. This, in effect, means that the Bill will not increase public expenditure. Perhaps I should add that the initial funding for those new courses will be met from the board's own finances, and it is anticipated that after a suitable settling in time the new courses will show a profit. If they do not, Ministers are empowered, under existing legislation, to terminate involvement in the proposed new activities.

Finally, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the Agricultural Training Board. I remember very well that it had a somewhat difficult start. Indeed, I have a nasty feeling that I refused to pay its levy under its initial funding methods in 1967–69. However, since then I, my farm staff, and the agricultural industry have benefited enormously from the courses which they have and which they continue to run for us. The standard of instruction is first class. I should like to put on record my thanks not just to the board but to their instructors, and for the voluntary work put in by farmer groups.

I am sure that these new provisions will enable the board to go from strength to strength and to provide a much-needed new service not just for farmers but for the rural well-being. I commend the Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time—(Lord Stanley of Alderley)

8.47 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I should like to say at the outset that we on these Benches welcome this Bill as a valuable addition to the activities of the Agricultural Training Board. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, not only for introducing the Bill but for the succinct and clear way in which he explained to those few of your Lordships who are still present the importance of the Bill and what it attempts to achieve.

As the noble Lord said, the Agricultural Training Board has already carried out a valuable service and has proved its worth. It came at the time when there was undoubtedly a certain amount of opposition to it. Many farmers asked: what is the need for it; we have got on very well in the past; we have a highly skilled labour force so why do we need a new board? That has been proved to be wrong.

It is perfectly true that in the old days farm workers were extremely skilled. They learnt their skills if not with their mother's milk at least from their father's feet and sometimes at their father's fist. They became a highly skilled labour force. With the advent of modern types of agriculture something more was needed and the Agricultural Training Board filled that gap in an admirable way.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, has rightly pointed out, agriculture is going through a very difficult transition. Whereas in the old days, in any village in almost any part of the country 90 per cent. of those who were gainfully employed were engaged in agriculture, today it is rare to find villages where even 10 per cent. of the people are engaged in agriculture. The number of people so engaged is diminishing slowly but steadily. If we are not to have our villages denuded, and some are already suffering from that, it is essential that agriculture should diversify. That has been accepted by all those who are concerned with this matter. If it is to diversify, clearly those who have worked in it or wish to do so—those who live in the villages and those who would like to live in them—must learn not only the old-fashioned or semi-old-fashioned arts of driving combine harvesters and using milking machines but also entirely different arts connected with rural life, of benefit to the rural community and of course also to the urban community who want to come and enjoy, if only temporarily, some of the more comfortable aspects of country life.

This Bill will enable that to be done. For those reasons I add my commendation to your Lordships that this Bill be accepted and implemented with the greatest speed possible.

8.50 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I should like, first and foremost, to congratulate my noble friend (if I may so call him) Lord Stanley, who, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, said, explained the position so succinctly and clearly that it could be understood by all your Lordships who have stayed to listen to the debate on the Bill. We are very grateful to him for what he said.

I should also like to confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has just said about skills in agriculture. Thinking back to my youth in the mid-twenties, there was very little training at all: simply experience and nothing else. But of course that was what was required. You could not learn to plough with a pair of horses and a high cut of plough, as we called it in Scotland, except by long experience. But today there is a great difference: there is new machinery, chemicals and everything else, so that training is absolutely essential. And of course that has to be done quickly. A boy leaving school and wanting to go into agriculture simply cannot get a job unless he has these skills and is prepared to go on courses where he can learn them. However, the courses do not provide everything and there has to be experience as well.

From all quarters—I need not go into them in great detail—we have been told to diversify to help our incomes—and, my goodness, our incomes need help. You cannot pick up an agricultural paper or go to an agricultural meeting without hearing about all these things. Listen to any speech and the matter comes up. The suggestions cover a very wide area indeed, from tea and coffee mornings, as the noble Lord mentioned, to artificial ski slopes and from bed and breakfast to clay-pigeon shooting. The variety is legion.

The noble Lord specifically mentioned the training of animals. We are asked to develop our shooting and it would be a pity if we could not get any instructions on the training of dogs in respect of that shooting. Perhaps at the Committee stage the noble Lord might manage to introduce a shooting dog in connection with the training of these animals.

On the question of amenity, it is important that the industry should be given some instruction about this. Many people need it, I would agree. I live in a very nice area just on the edge of Epping Forest, with a beautiful view over the Lea Valley—for that matter, I can see St. Paul's over the top of London. But that does not pay dividends. I think it is important to remember that on the amenity side there are no dividends. Someone might say, "You can charge people if they want to walk through the farm". Unfortunately I have four public footpaths right through the farm and people can get all they want for nothing; so I cannot do anything about the amenity side.

When I told my wife that I should be late tonight she asked why, and I explained about this important Bill we are dealing with. She asked what it was about and, in trying to simplify my answer, I said that the Government were now prepared to send somebody out to teach the farmer's wife how to provide bed and breakfast. I think that hurt a little and she said, "I can do that without any government interfering". So, my Lords, the address is Harold's Park, Nazeing, Waltham Abbey; and the price will be unreasonable!

The whole question is very important indeed from the economic point of view. I tried yesterday morning to sell some oilseed rape forward and found that I had to take a price of exactly £40 per tonne, which is about £60 an acre less than last year. That makes a very big difference indeed and of course it applies not only to oilseed rape but to a whole lot of other products. Although the cereal market has held up well this year I do not think it will continue to do that next year; so there is the necessity for diversification.

If we do not get that diversification—and it is happening now, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, pointed out—a number of men will be paid off because of the economic situation. We do not want that to happen. The number of people leaving agriculture and leaving the villages is too high in any case and we must hope that if farmers can get this diversification we shall be able to keep people in the countryside.

However, farmers must not rush into things rashly: we farmers are rather inclined to do that sometimes. That is why the powers now to be given to the training board will be so helpful to farmers; and they must take that help because otherwise a lot of money could be lost. I heard only this morning of money being lost by somebody who had rushed into something they knew little about, and so I welcome the suggestion as being very necessary and very helpful.

However, I think the situation, quite frankly, is becoming critical. I have had letters from the Scottish NFU and from Wales, and it seems that in some areas matters are very parlous economically. To delay this would be a pity. I have no real criticism of the Bill itself except for the point about the dogs and one other to which I shall refer later. It was given a fair ride in Committee in another place and an interesting point was raised. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has now left the Chamber but there was the question of hunting with dogs. I am talking about hunting deer with dogs: I think you hunt a fox with hounds and I am never quite sure about the difference between a hound and a dog, in my ignorance of these matters. One would need to be careful about this question of hunting, particularly hunting deer with dogs, because it will raise hackles in certain places.

The noble Lord mentioned the problem about the cash and that the board will have to raise the first lot of money from their present finances. I hope they have got that money, because otherwise it would cause delay. The Government want the industry to raise it themselves ultimately. That might be all right, but at the present moment I hope the board have got enough money so that there will be no delay in giving farmers help in connection with their diversification problems. I think that if the money is not available the Government should finance the schemes to begin with and, if necessary, get the money back later. I understand, however, that when a Private Member's Bill is concerned government money cannot be involved. I am not sure about that point and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, will be able to help us there.

I want to raise one point and I must declare an interest. I farm in the green belt and it is quite extraordinary how difficult it is. I have been discussing with my neighbours the difficulties that we have in getting the local council—the district council in our case—to give way on their rigid attitude to the green belt. I made an application to it. The council's objection to my application was stated on one page as being that it would create a precedent, but on the next page it stated that everything would be judged on its merits. If ever there were a contradiction of two things, that is it. Although the council denies it, it was a blanket refusal. It insisted that if I wished to take the matter further I had to appeal.

Appeals cost a lot of money and something should be done about this. When I told my district council what Mr. Baker said when he was in the Department of the Environment and what the present Minister, the Minister of State, Mr. William Waldegrave, and the Minister of Agriculture had said, I was told that those were just personal opinions and had nothing to do with the clause in question in the Bill on the green belt. I appeal to the Government to see what they can do on this matter.

I now wish to mention the case of farm workers who wish to set up a business. I have a foreman with a very good wife whose family is growing up. Would she be allowed to start a bed-and-breakfast business? My immediate neighbour, a small farmer, had to wait three years before he was allowed to do that. It is important that farm labourers, as well as farmers, should be brought into the picture in this regard. The workers' section of the TGWU is very impressed with the Bill, but it has expressed some reservations on that point.

I could add other remarks, but I shall leave it at that. We give our blessing to the Bill, but we hope that some of the points we have raised can be dealt with in Committee in due course.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am honoured to have been asked by my noble friend Lord Belstead, Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to speak on his behalf on this matter as he is engaged in other business and is unable to attend today's proceedings. I start by saying how grateful I am to my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley for introducing the Bill to this House and for giving such an able and eloquent presentation of the Bill's aims and merits. As my noble friend has already mentioned, this measure has attracted all-party support in another place and I very much hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading here tonight.

I was most interested in the comments both of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, and of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and I shall try to answer some of the points raised. I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Walston, particularly put his finger on the pulse of the Bill by saying that it will facilitate change. Change there must be in the countryside and the opportunity to, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, "keep our men", depends on our finding new ways to provide employment not only for those who are in agriculture today but also for their children. As we are all so well aware, in the past the children of those who worked on farms used automatically to assume that there would be a job for them. We shall not be able to do that without diversifying our industry.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, asked me on two occasions about dogs and hunting and the difference between gun dogs, dogs in pursuit of deer and hounds in pursuit of foxes. The ATB will not be involved in dogs of any kind. I am sure that the noble Lord will be pleased to know that it can train the families of those who are working in agriculture. He gave the example of a foreman working for him. The ATB can help that farmer, or his wife, who wishes to find another extension of agricultural activity.

With regard to the comments of the noble Lord concerning planners, the green belt is something to which the Government are dedicated. He will have to deal with his local planners and I fear that he may have to go to the expense of an appeal. However, the Government have already, with the help of CoSIRA, tried to encourage the conversion of buildings and to assist with diversification.

The noble Lord also raised the point of funding for the ATBs. The government grant for the current financial year will amount to about £7.75 million, but, as he also rightly pointed out, there is no Money Resolution to the Bill and to press the matter could endanger what is an important, and we believe useful, piece of legislation.

The Government fully support the intentions of the Bill and believe that, if enacted, it will result in considerable benefits not only for the farming industry but also for a whole host of non-agricultural workers involved in land-related activities.

The intent of the Bill, as my noble friend has said, is two pronged. The first main provision relates to diversification training to aid the farm business. As the House will know, the Government attach great importance to the encouragement of diversification of enterprises and the role that such diversification can play in sustaining farm incomes in the difficult times which are faced by the industry.

The other main provision of the Bill is in some ways more far-reaching in that for the first time the ATB will be able to offer training beyond the farm gate. In other words, it will be able to train non-agricultural workers in rurally-related subjects. This is obviously a major departure for the board but it has been made desirable by the changing needs of society. Increased leisure time and a heightened awareness of the environment have led to greater demands on training facilities for land-related skills. Some facilities are already available but more are needed. The ATB is eminently placed to offer this training.

I am sure I need hardly remind your Lordships why the board is so well placed to offer this training. It has over 20 years' experience of training those in the agricultural industry in skills related to land-based activities. Over that period it has built up a system of training based around local groups of like-minded employers who organise the courses themselves. What the board does centrally is to devise the course content and to train the trainers. These training groups to which I have referred have been enormously successful and now number some 650 throughout Great Britain. This local organisation of training, together with the board's particular expertise and experience, works very well for agriculture. I am pleased that the Bill proposes that others may now also benefit.

Quite rightly there are safeguards in the Bill which are intended to help avoid unnecessary duplication with other agencies. There is the requirement before a course is considered to have regard to existing courses which are already available. There is a requirement to consult Ministers before diversification courses are offered. Finally, there is the catch-all provision in the 1982 Act that Ministers may issue a direction to the board; that provision remains.

One very important part of the Bill is that all the new training activities, whether diversification or amenity skills, must be run on a fully commercial basis. This means that all costs incurred by the board in the development and execution of a training course must be fully covered by the final price paid by the trainee. There will, therefore, be no additional cost to the public purse and those likely materially to benefit from a centrally provided service will be seen to pay for it. Finally, I should once again like to thank my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley for bringing this Bill forward and I commend it to this House.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, did I hear him aright that government funding this year will be only £7.7 million, because last year it was £19.1 million? Is that just an initial sub?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Lord was right that I said £7.75 million.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Walston and Lord John-Mackie, for their very warm support. Both pointed out how different agriculture is today from what it was, say, 30 years ago or indeed only 10 years ago, and the vital need for skill training as opposed to learning by following Dad. I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Hesketh for his support and for answering some of the awkward questions about dogs and suchlike.

I do not think—and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, will agree with me—that this is the moment, and certainly I am not qualified so to do, to talk about the rights and wrongs of country sports. Suffice it to say that such activities are within the law, and certainly in my area they have brought in a lot of money and have given employment, which I certainly welcome.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, spoke about planning. He initiated a debate on planning not long ago and it seems that the same problems are going along. I do not know whether I am entitled to say so, but the Under-Secretary of State for Agriculture, Mr. Thompson, in another place, gave very sound advice (at col. 1164 of Hansard for 23rd January) on this Bill, which I am sure, knowing the conscientious manner of the noble Lord, he will have read. I have also had problems over planning very similar to those of the noble Lord, and all the advice I can give is for him to try and try again. I am sure that in the end he, like my friend, will succeed. Once again, it is a pleasure to see all sides of the House pulling together to help try to solve the agricultural problems that we face today.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, and with the leave of the House, I should like to amend an error. The sum of £19 million is correct; the £7.75 million is the direct grant component.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.