HL Deb 07 April 1998 vol 588 cc611-4

2.44 p.m.

Lord Geraint

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will set up a Royal Commission on issues concerning the countryside and the agricultural industry.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the Government do not intend to set up a Royal Commission on issues concerning the countryside and the agricultural industry.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, many farmers will be disappointed by the Minister's reply to my request. Is he aware that many young farmers in this country do not realise that the Government have a policy to help them in any way, and what advice can he give those who are contemplating leaving the industry within the next few years?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we have policies to assist the farmers of Wales and the whole of the UK. We do not believe that the setting up of a Royal Commission, which would inevitably take a long time, is necessarily the best way to help them. We have a whole range of policies to assist farming. I draw the noble Lord's attention and their attention to the two most recent packages of assistance: the package of £85 million of aid announced before Christmas, primarily to the livestock industry and hill farmers, of which the Welsh share was about £12 million; and the subsequent package to assist with various charges, particularly the setting up of the new cattle traceability system which totals nearly £40 million. We are of course currently reviewing all of our agriculture and countryside policies. We are aware of the problems facing the farming industry, particularly certain disadvantaged parts of it. That includes the hill farmers, the beef farmers and the sheep farmers, not just of Wales, although many of the problems are concentrated in Wales. That is why we are also considering reconstructing the industry and looking at ways to assist with retirement.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the organic farming industry would be delighted to have a Royal Commission? Does he agree that it might take three years for anything to happen to help it, and that is taking a rather long-term view? The industry would rather see something happen immediately. In the list of farming communities being helped that the Minister mentioned, he omitted to include the organic farming industry. Does he have any views on further assistance for it?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we are concerned to assist the organic sector of the industry, which we believe has been neglected in the past. As a percentage of farming, the British percentage of organic farming is still the smallest in the whole of Europe. We are currently actively and urgently looking at ways of improving that situation. The noble Earl will find that the time he has to wait will be much less than that taken by a Royal Commission.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York commissioned a major study of the countryside which in 1990 published the report entitled Faith in the Countryside? If he is, he will be aware that that commission, which was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Prior, was not concerned just with the rural Church but with a whole range of issues affecting the countryside—economic, social and environmental? Is he further aware that the report was, and is, still widely regarded as speaking with authority on those issues, not least because of the wide range of expertise among the commission's members and the thoroughness with which it undertook its researches?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. I am indeed aware of the commission's distinguished report. It was a most impressive body, of which I believe the right reverend Prelate was deputy chairman. Faith in the Countryside is, in my view, as good as any existing publication on the problems of the rural countryside. It is extremely helpful to us in the new Government, because we are trying to re-position our ministry and its concerns more broadly than just for farming. We are looking at the whole of the countryside, where there are many problems of deprivation. Those issues were well highlighted, and we shall attempt to follow the paths there set out.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, as the Government review their agricultural policy and the structures of the department, will the Minister accept that in the territorial departments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there are already integrated countryside departments? Will he ensure that in future there is full access to European funds for those national and regional departments, so that the countryside policies in those regions within the UK provide a better framework, particularly for the livestock sector?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. The points that he made are well taken. There are integrated policies in all the territories and we are examining the position in Wales. Under the new devolution proposals, the Welsh will rightly have greater control.

At the most recent meeting of the Agriculture Council, which specifically considered CAP reform, I took as a colleague the honourable Member in another place, Mr. Win Griffiths, who is a junior Minister at the department with specific responsibility for Welsh rural affairs.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the problems of the countryside are not so much in terms of food production—indeed, hardly at all—but in terms of social deprivation? How many people in the farming industry are in receipt of family credit?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord an answer to that question. We are aware that the problems of the countryside are social. Much of the subsidy which goes into the agricultural industry is directly or indirectly diverted to assist social problems in the countryside. There are problems not only of food production but of housing, schools and access to health, in particular for people who do not have transport. We are extremely aware of the acute issues of rural deprivation and poverty.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, under the proposals for the national assembly for Wales, will the assembly be able to appoint a Royal Commission to look into Welsh agriculture without reference to Whitehall?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I cannot answer that question. I am tempted to point to my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn who in my experience has answers to everything.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the rally on rural affairs which took place in March highlighted the problems in relation not only to farming? Bearing that in mind, will the Government consider setting up a department of rural affairs? If so, does the Minister agree that there would be room for that Minister in the Cabinet? Perhaps he or she could become the 23rd Member of the Cabinet instead of Alistair Campbell.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, Mr. Campbell can well look after himself. As regards ministerial representation of rural affairs, it is well known that that is under consideration. However, it is a matter for the Prime Minister. Those of us who attended the rally were made well aware of the need for someone to have prime responsibility for issues.