HL Deb 27 February 1998 vol 586 cc918-44

2.4 p.m.

Lord Patten rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that their policies work to the benefit of people who live and work in the countryside.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to ask this Question. I am glad that Members of all major political parties, the Cross-Benches, and the Bench of Bishops are present to speak today. Perhaps I may begin by saying how much we look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, a notably rural diocese. I understand that beacons and bonfires were to be seen last night from north to south and east to west of his bishopric.

I am also extremely glad that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will answer the debate. I understand that he knows a great deal about agriculture and the countryside. Like all chief whips he is known for his great subtlety, and for his absolute forthrightness in speaking, and in answering questions. I know that he will seek to answer in a straightforward way what seems to be the most important question to be asked today in your Lordships' House. If all is well in the countryside why do we have tens of thousands of discontented people in the countryside? We have the promise of I know not how many people marching for the first time ever in an unprecedented gathering in the streets of the capital. They are not just from rural areas but from the cities. They are unhappy with the way in which countryside matters are being handled. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will be able to answer that question head-on in his normal much appreciated way. In the closing moments of my speech, I shall have a helpful suggestion for him.

Rural discontent is not a matter of hunting, fishing or shooting. It is not all about farming. It is not about beef bones. For the avoidance of doubt, I have no interest to declare today in respect of any of those matters. The issues go far wider. I know that others, on all Benches in this House, will pick on particular issues during the course of this brief debate.

Perhaps I may illustrate my argument from three areas where there is widespread concern, above and beyond the burning issues of hunting, shooting, fishing, farming, beef bones and related matters. I take those matters seriously, and share the concern of those of your Lordships who, in turn, share the concern of country people in relation to them. However, I leave those points to be debated by later speakers. I prefer to turn first to the obvious concern that exists in the countryside as to the rate, nature and pace of the building of roads and homes.

Country people are very sensible. They want to get from A to B, so they do not mind new roads and by-passes being built from time to time. They know that their sons and daughters will have to live in houses, and therefore fully understand that homes should be built in the countryside as much as in the town. But it is the nature and scale of much of the development that has happened in the past and is feared for the future, and its disruptive effect on sometimes fragile communities, that causes so much concern in so many rural areas. That is one theme that unites many in the countryside—and many in the towns, who wish to go out from the towns to "recreate" themselves, to enjoy the countryside and meet with country people. Townspeople and country people should not be part of two nations. They need each other, and should learn more about each other.

Secondly, there is the issue of the right to roam, which seems very much to have crystallised rural discontent. It causes concern because country people think that it is a one-way street—perhaps one might call it a one-way lane, or a one-way bridle-path. I recently asked Her Majesty's Government whether they had any intention of being even-handed on the issue of the right to roam, and whether they would provide that right for rural people in urban areas as they propose to for urban people in rural areas. I received an ever helpful reply from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, which I have taken the precaution of bringing with me. It states that the Government do not have any intention of extending the right to roam into urban areas. One cannot therefore blame country people for feeling that the very symbol, the icon, of the right to roam shows that the Government have less than even-handed intentions towards country people.

Thirdly, there is the matter of the preservation of village life in this country. The decline of the English village goes back many decades. However, it is clear that in rural areas there is severe deprivation among a small number of not very vocal people who cannot sometimes, for example, easily get to a doctor or a shop. They cannot take for granted the privilege of easy access to services which people in towns, and increasingly in suburban areas, experience. I suppose that in this country we are mostly suburban now; that is where the majority of people live. That is why so many villages seem to be dying on their feet. It is peculiarly poignant that the model of the self-supporting, self-sustaining English village community, for so long prayed in aid by observers of social policy, and indeed by the Church of England in some of its important reports in the 1980s, as the very way in which the inner city might be revitalised, should itself be slowly dying—it is death by a thousand cuts. Those are three examples of how the issue of the countryside and the fate of those who live and work there is very much more than hunting, shooting, fishing, farming, beef bones and all the rest—although I have very deep sympathy with those who are concerned about those issues.

I would say to country people that their organising of themselves has begun to produce results. We have had three important government Statements within the past week of which noble Lords are well aware. They are announcements which, had I still been in another place and full of the bad habits of another place, I should have referred to as U-turns. But I have learnt the more polite parlance of this House, and therefore say that these are welcome re-evaluations of government policy and revisions of pre-existing of government Statements in order to clarify the situation.

I shall not say that the countryside has tasted blood. That would be inappropriate. But now that the Countryside Alliance and the countryside movement generally has seen that well-organised pressure, and the careful and moderate arguing of the countryside's case, can produce these results, I hope that the countryside will continue to organise itself in the way that it has done. I believe that the manifestation of the Countryside Alliance's march this Sunday will be repeated in future years and I hope that at long last we shall see the Government take seriously rural problems.

It is on that point that I conclude, for I wish, as I promised the noble Lord, Lord Carter, at the beginning of my remarks, to be constructive. It is a matter of fact that approximately 150 different government working parties and working groups have been set up since the present Government assumed office on 1st May last year. I believe that the last body count was 147; others may have been created since that I have missed. Not one of those working parties or working groups is concerned specifically with rural matters. That seems to me an extraordinary reflection on the Government's attitude towards the countryside. I am sure that it is an oversight; it needs to be put right. It is clear that there is no one in charge of rural policy in Her Majesty's Government.

The turf wars between different ministries over rural matters have been endemic over many decades. We have the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. There is, however, no one to take charge of rural matters. That must be put right. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that he should pass on to his right honourable friend the Prime Minister the suggestion that, following the good example of the Social Exclusion Unit, the Government should immediately set up a rural exclusion unit, located in 10 Downing Street, to begin to look across government at the problems facing rural areas. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will pass on that suggestion to his right honourable friend in the constructive spirit in which it is meant.

Unless something is done, we are in grave danger of having two nations in this country: an overweening, overwhelming, over-mighty, un-understanding urban majority and a small, fragile and increasingly threatened and excluded rural minority. That would be a tragedy. We must not allow an iron curtain of misunderstanding to come down permanently between town and country.

2.15 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for initiating this more than timely debate. I too am particularly glad that the response for the Government is to come from my noble friend Lord Carter, who, I think it is fair to say, is in a very real sense acknowledged to be a true friend of the countryside.

We have five minutes in which to speak, but five hours would not be sufficient. Last night's beacons and next Sunday's march are the public displays of a crisis in our land which no one in Parliament should overlook, underestimate or try to belittle. I have never known such fear, such anger, such sadness and such frustration as I have encountered over the past year almost wherever country people are gathered together. "We feel totally disenfranchised", are words which I have heard from Wales to Scotland, from Somerset to Yorkshire, from everywhere.

The problems stem from long before the general election. This is not simply a financial crisis in agriculture, although when farming is in crisis so is much of the rest of the rural economy. There is a deeper and even more difficult crisis for the Government to face. It is one caused by pressure of population from urban Britain. It comes from those who wish to use the countryside as a recreation area, those who wish to use it as a dormitory for the town, those who wish to retire there and those who seek to change its ways to suit different urban tastes. It is that pressure, sometimes combined with intolerance, which has made those who live and work in rural Britain feel under threat as never before.

Of course, country people want many of the same things from their government as do those in the town: they want affordable houses, jobs, good education, good healthcare and security from crime. In short, they want the opportunity to enjoy their lives to the full. Policies and attitudes to meet those requirements which are appropriate for the town may often be harmful when applied in the same way to the countryside. To give one example, measures to limit car use may be good for the town but may result in there being no affordable means of transport and loss of jobs in the countryside.

This debate is about government policies. As the noble Lord fairly conceded in asking his Question, three major steps forward for the countryside were taken last week. The Deputy Prime Minister's announcement on housing development on Monday, the Minister for the Environment's announcement on access on Wednesday and the new package of assistance for the very hardest-hit livestock farmers announced by the Minister of Agriculture deserve universal acknowledgement and the gratitude of rural Britain. The Government have clearly begun to listen and respond to those worries. So far, so good. But I echo what the noble Lord opposite said. What is needed is one government department to speak for the rural minority and to ensure that all government policy takes account of their very different needs and problems.

On Sunday country people, frightened for their future, will come to London in their thousands. There will be many different priorities, many different reasons for their being there, but they will be united by one thing—their opposition to the current Bill to ban hunting which is before Parliament in another place.

A vast amount of money—an estimated £2.5 million—has so far been spent by supporters of that Bill in mounting an advertising campaign, political lobbying and public relations designed to whip up hatred in our largely urban population against a rural minority in the name of animal welfare. Ironically, those on the receiving end of the abuse and vilification are those who own and care for most of the animals and look after the countryside and its wildlife for all to enjoy.

The feeling of unity, anticipation and hope which was felt throughout our country in May this year when many rural areas elected Labour MPs was severely damaged by the vote at the Second Reading of the Bill. Our Government—I pay tribute to them—have not given support to that measure which many of us believe would be bad for animals, bad for people, had for freedom and in the long term disastrous for our countryside. Let those who disagree try to persuade others by force of argument. But do not try to pass legislation to send those to prison whom you fail to convince.

The very diversity of our nation is its strength and richness. We ask our Government to protect that diversity and lead the way in tolerance of minorities, of which rural people are perhaps the largest in our land. Tolerance means tolerating things we may not like. Give us, both town and country people, the chance to do more with our lives. Do not spend your precious time in government passing legislation to restrict, control and ban. The countryside wants you to succeed; let us work with you.

2.21 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury

My Lords, I am glad of the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate and am grateful to the noble Lord who introduced it for weaving into his remarks a reference to Salisbury. He will understand if I speak from experience of that rural part of the world which is the southern part of Wiltshire and Dorset, but I speak also out of the Church's commitment, which it shares with government, to build strong communities.

In my part of the world rural communities feel under threat. Their integrated way of life, with its close links between land use, housing, schools, shops and transport, does not feel understood or appreciated for the contribution it wants to make. Let me rehearse one or two of those concerns.

First, there is real poverty and deprivation in many of our rural areas. The picture of the countryside as a rural playground protected for the wealthy is unreal. In real life it is the smell of slurry that competes with the roses over the cottage door. There is a village in our diocese, which is not untypical, where one-third of the population earn over £40,000 per annum but another third earn less than £6,000. The average income figures paint a rosy picture but conceal a real poverty. To build strong rural communities in England, we need a realistic picture of our rural and social economy.

Secondly, the question of housing arises. Some recent government changes seem welcome—the recent announcement of the reduction in the total number of houses to be built and the shift in the balance towards building on brownfield sites. But in our diocese there is an enormous lack of brownfield sites and those that exist are often expensive to develop. Recently a village in Wiltshire wanted to build just 12 houses on one of those sites. It had been used for waste infill. It cost more than £250,000 to prepare the site for building and that put the cost of each house up to a level beyond the reach of many of those in the local community. Where there is no brownfield site available, the imposition of VAT on greenfield sites will make village development much more expensive.

What makes this worse is that regulations prevent district councils from specifying a proportion of affordable houses on small scale developments. But it is this small-scale development that we most need in our village communities—affordable houses that could be bought or rented by the young first-time house owners or by people in later life coming back to their rural roots, not the executive-style properties that are so often built and sold to wealthy weekenders or commuters. That is why our diocese has a policy of releasing glebe land for social housing. We have housing developments in villages, mostly with houses or flats to rent or for equity sharing, most of which are only six or at the most eight houses. All tenancies are made to local people and it is part of the scheme that covenants on those houses can control their future use.

If there is no affordable housing, young families on low incomes cannot get into the villages and school numbers fall. Pride in your local school is an important factor in generating a sense of being part of a community that has a future. With so many signals of uncertainty about the future of the farming industry, institutions that represent a commitment to the future are immensely important for morale.

The issue of rural transport is key. Both the young and the old are particularly hard hit by a lack of it. It also affects who can shop where. A recent report showed that 83 per cent. of villages in Wiltshire and an astonishing 88 per cent. in Dorset have no bus service at all. But where there is a bus service, it is very important that it is integrated and is one that meets the needs of local people. I came across a village near Devizes where the locals could get into town by bus on market day but could not get back in time to meet their children out of school. It is a question of co-ordination. Without incentives like this, people will continue to use their cars. I know that many are concerned about the reported intention of the Government to raise petrol prices by a substantial amount. That may help control urban pollution but it does a grave disservice to the country.

I am telling your Lordships what it feels like to work in a largely rural area where we want to encourage the Government to appreciate the distinctive contribution which the rural way of life offers. In the countryside our lives are constrained by a variety of natural factors, from the seasons of the year to the vagaries of the climate, from the geophysical structure to the inherited patterns of land use and management. We in the countryside need the chance to develop our distinctive contribution and then to contribute to the national agenda on the crucial question of what makes strong community.

A major part of the Church's task is to create community, models of people in relationship with one another. We are willing partners with a government who seek to build community at all levels. But strong community needs social policies to back it. What the life of the countryside reveals is that such social policies need to be integrated, not contrived piecemeal and developed unrelated to one another; and to have integrated social and economic policies, you need a vision of what community means. That vision springs out of the conviction, which I believe the Church shares with the Government, that neither dependence nor independence is the key, but interdependence. Interdependence is what life in the countryside models. So I hope we will cherish that vision which the countryside offers as its contribution to our common life.

2.28 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. Time will not allow me to pay as much care and attention to his many attributes as I would like, but certainly the feelings he expressed for his community are well appreciated by your Lordships. We look forward very much indeed to hearing the right reverend Prelate again in the future.

I thank my noble friend Lord Patten for initiating this debate. I think it is too early to tell whether the Government's policies are having an adverse effect on those who live and work in the countryside, with the exception perhaps of beef on the bone, which was quite frankly a bad mistake. I think the Government now appreciate that. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, indicated, there is real hostility building in the countryside. People do not like what they see. They do not like the pointers that are coming from the Government on rural issues.

In new Labour we have a government who appear—for the time being at any rate—to have shed the profligate images of their predecessors. But one cannot help feeling that in their attempt to placate their Left wing the Government are eyeing up the countryside as what they see as the soft belly of privilege and traditionalism, which is there to be dismembered purely on the back of political dogma. I believe that that would be dangerous and foolish. I hope that those prognostications do not turn out to be true.

New Labour has few rural roots. That is not a criticism, but simply a fact. There are, of course, exceptions and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is a very good exception. We all know that his rural credentials are as good as anybody's. But it is for that very reason that I believe that this Government should listen and learn from the countryside if we are to have a government, as the Prime Minister has said, that is going to govern for everybody and not just for their chosen few or chosen many, as the case may be.

As someone who lives, works and owns land in the countryside, I appreciate the wonders of the countryside, but I also understand the difficulties, such as poverty, crime and—something which I feel strongly about—the imbalance that exists at the moment between agriculture and the environment. But whether we like it or not, the countryside has been, and will continue to be, shaped by those who live, work and invest there. The Government must work with those people if they are to gain their confidence.

I believe that what those whose responsibility it is to manage the countryside object to most is the criticism that comes from those who have no practical experience of rural matters. They are what one might term the armchair critics; those who venture out from time to time and then try to tell us how we should run our affairs. Every sector of society has its ways and traditions and some of those associated with the countryside may indeed seem strange. But, generally speaking, there are very good reasons for these traditions. They have been born out of trial, error and practice by good, honest citizens and not simply devised on the back of some whim or by some spin doctor. So what we seek is tolerance and understanding. We expect people to find out about things before they start condemning the countryside.

An example of that is that it is no coincidence that two of the recent chief executives of the League Against Cruel Sports have changed their attitude towards hunting having separated the emotional from the practical, the fact from the fiction. Hypocrisy, too, clouds our thinking and I suppose it is fair to say that we are all guilty of that to a greater or lesser extent. I find it difficult to understand, for example, those who condemn field sports, but at the same time keep cats. Killing is part of the field sports ethos for there is a net gain for the countryside through habitat management, employment, and so on. Yet in a recent report by Mick Fox, I see that there are 9 million cats in this country which account for the indiscriminate death of at least 88 million birds and 164 million mammals annually. Many of those deaths are hardly instantaneous: I suspect that they are rather cruel and lengthy. But we do not ban cats for the simple reason that we are tolerant towards those who get pleasure from them.

In conclusion, Sunday's March—which, I suspect, is really why we are discussing these issues at the moment—is not anti-Government: it is pro-countryside. But it is not the sanitised theme park-type countryside that some would envisage. We are talking about the real, living countryside. The march is about jobs and communities' traditions, which many of us feel very strongly and passionately about. It is about farming, forestry and field sports, but above all it is about freedom and liberty.

Let us not forget one thing. Perhaps not all those marching on Sunday—however many they be—participate in hunting. But they will be there because there is an anti-hunting Bill in the other place at the moment, and all of those people marching on Sunday see hunting as part of the fabric of the British countryside which they wish to preserve.

2.35 p.m.

Lord Dulverton

My Lords, it is with much trepidation that I rise to address this august House and I must ask your Lordships' indulgence for my maiden speech. I was intrigued when I learned that I was to speak after the noble Earl, Lord Peel. I do not know whether he knows that my grandfather succeeded to his seat in Parliament when his grandfather was elevated to this House.

I started farming on my own account 25 years ago, having first attended agriculture college, and then spent a year and a half in a City merchant bank to broaden my perspective. It is poignant with regard to today's debate that the ex-farm price of corn is now the same as it was then, 25 years ago. How many people and their products could compete on the basis of such prices?

I am now more involved with industry than agriculture, and my remaining farming interests are run by professional advisers who farm on their own account. I am chairman of a Warwickshire-based firm of leading manufacturers to the construction industry.

Today, those who live and work in the countryside make up less than 10 per cent. of the population. Those in agriculture make up 2 per cent. of the workforce in employment. Against that background there has to be, by definition, far fewer people who can understand the predicament of farmers today. Theirs is indeed a perilous one. Out of a total of about 200,000 farmers, nearly 30 per cent.—or 60,000—face the possibility of losing their livelihood; of those, half are at risk from the borrowings that they undertook in order to better their farms; the others are at risk from the fact that their farm is of an uneconomic size.

Perhaps I may take a local farmer as an example. His 300-acre farm used to support three families, yet his son now wonders whether the farm will be viable in the future for his family alone. No grass has been ploughed for 50 years. The farm uses little chemicals. The farmer works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and he last left his farm for a holiday 24 years ago. In the past 12 months he has seen his income fall by 50 per cent. He wants no sympathy. He merely wonders whether, when his time is up, anyone will be willing or able to take on that land.

That farmer is based in the more prosperous Midlands. How much more serious must the situation be for those hardy folk, the upland farmers? Do we want those farms turned into a wilderness area? They look as they do today because they have been cared for by succeeding generations for hundreds of years. Many upland farmers must be wondering how long they can carry on.

In the past few days, we have heard of the new initiatives being implemented by the Government pledging £85 million to aid livestock farmers. I fear that more will be required.

The situation in the countryside today is very serious. Sadly, with fewer than one person in 10 now living in a non-urban environment, few people can comprehend that fact. Let us hope that a caring government will be able to resolve the situation by their initiatives. It occurred to me as an afterthought that perhaps the £800 million Dome should contain a model of a real hill farm, which will perhaps one day have a tomb on it with "RIP hill farmers" engraved upon it.

2.40 p.m.

Lord Annaly

My Lords, it falls upon my shoulders to congratulate on behalf of the whole House—I do it with pleasure—the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, on his maiden speech. In the few minutes allowed to him the noble Lord displayed his knowledge and depth of experience of the countryside. I hope that in the months and years ahead we in this House can put the noble Lord's experience to great benefit, if we are still here.

This is a timely debate, for which I thank my noble friend Lord Patten. It follows a night when over 5,500 bonfires were lit across the full length and breadth of the country and before the countryside march in London to be held the day after tomorrow. It is very likely that the numbers of people who descend upon London on Sunday will exceed the 120,000 who attended the countryside rally in Hyde Park on 10th July. Surely, this carries a strong message to the Government from many who live and work in the countryside. It is simply: listen to us, listen to us.

There is growing concern among many thousands of people, albeit a minority in national terms, that their way of life and in many cases their livelihoods are under threat. While there are many issues of concern to people who live and work in the country—to farmers it is the strength of the pound and the fall in their incomes, but there are also issues such as transport, education, housing and development in the countryside, all of which are areas of great importance—it is the Foster anti-hunting Bill which is about to reach its Report stage in another place that has been the catalyst to bring together country sportsmen, farmers and others who feel threatened and frustrated by the Government's attitude to them.

After the Hyde Park rally last July the Government indicated that they might include an anti-hunting amendment as part of a government Bill at a future stage. Britain has always prided itself on its freedom of speech and tolerance of minority groups and interests. Surely that is something for which some of your Lordships, and for some of us our fathers, fought and won the last war. There are at last some encouraging signs that the Government are beginning to listen to some of the concerns of the country dweller and worker. In their recent consultation document Access to the Countryside the Government have stepped back from legislation on the right to roam in favour of voluntary agreements. This must be the preferable route to go down. It would be quite wrong to enforce public access. If the Labour Party truly believes in voluntary access, it should drop the threat of coercion. Voluntary agreements between landowners and government agencies have been responsible for creating new opportunities for access to over 250,000 acres of land since 1990, according to the Countryside Commission survey. A recent Gallup poll of 5th February published by the CLA showed that, while a large percentage of the public would prefer to see greater access to the countryside, nearly two-thirds preferred to follow way-marked paths rather than choose their own route.

Another issue of concern to many people living in the country is the threat of development in the countryside seemingly at an ever-increasing pace. The countryside is a scarce resource and once it has been developed we cannot get it back. This is why I am concerned by several recent decisions by the Government, one of them being the development of up to 10,000 homes on the green belt between Hitchin and Stevenage. The new measures announced by the Government on 23rd February regarding 60 per cent. of new development in the countryside being on brownfield sites are certainly a step in the right direction, for which they should have full credit. I would, however, like to see the 60 per cent. increased to at least 66 per cent. Some so-called brownfield sites might be set in unspoilt countryside. If they were to be developed all the upgrading to the roads in the area and the increase in traffic, not to mention the light pollution, would totally change the character of the area for the worse. Can the Minister confirm that there will be a halt to the adoption of further county structure plans until the Government's new policies have been clarified?

2.45 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, in joining noble Lords who have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for introducing the debate, I should declare an interest. I live in a national park; indeed, I own all of two-thirds or three-quarters of an acre. I also join noble Lords who have expressed reassurance that my noble friend Lord Carter is replying to the debate. It is difficult to think of anyone with a more convincing commitment to and knowledge of the countryside and its needs.

Reference has been made to the forthcoming demonstration this weekend. I am afraid that one characteristic of the demonstration which concerns me is the confusion, manipulation and emotionalism which surrounds it. I believe that the Ministers who are preparing to identify themselves with the demonstration need to be very careful. They need to be careful about what they are standing for in going to the demonstration lest they end up being associated with things in which they have no interest whatever.

With characteristic candour, my noble friend Lady Mallalieu referred to hunting. We all know that concerns about hunting have been central to the motivation for the demonstration. But I must say to my noble friend that there has been too much confusion about the issue. Many are, like me, totally convinced that wildlife must be managed. The argument as we see it is about what is the most decent. humane and civilised way to achieve that without pandering to baser and on occasions sick elements in human character, not least among morbid, bloodthirsty spectators.

Another characteristic of the demonstration which concerns me is its social divisiveness. I ask myself where was the concern of those involved when the technological revolution, asset stripping and the de-industrialisation of Britain were decimating living urban communities and causing grave physical and mental health problems for hundreds of thousands of displaced workers and management and their families? All that change was justified in the name of economic progress from which many landowners were able to benefit and upon which many farming communities depended for their subsidies.

The truth is that there is a complex inter-relationship between urban and rural life. I think also of the nightmare of accumulating waste and its disposal, or of pollution and its implication for the climate. It is clear to me that the market alone will never find the solutions. Government, as always, is about intervention for the common good; establishing the central strategic balance between market forces and the long-term benefit of sustainability for society as a whole.

I will have good friends and neighbours participating in the demonstration, but there are very many rural dwellers who will not be there. I refer to the rural poor and underpaid; the frail and elderly in their isolation; the rural unemployed, not least the young; and the rural homeless. I hope that my noble friend will have something convincing to say about them. There are other urgent needs—

Earl Peel

My Lords, what makes the noble Lord believe that the rural underpaid will not be at the march on Sunday?

Lord Judd

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl will agree that even more rural underpaid people will not be participating in the demonstration on Sunday.

I think also of the need for reliable—and it is even more important than frequent—public transport and of housing for indigenous rural populations as distinct from overspill housing for people from the cities, which leads to the continuing decline of urban communities. We are glad to see that the Government are now tackling that.

There is the whole issue of the nonsensical counter-productive subsidies with their emphasis on set-aside and all the resentment that causes, and in relation to stock there is the consequent over-grazing, particularly in marginal hilly areas, which results in serious degradation of the environment.

If there is one justification for the emotional outburst this weekend, I believe it to be the absence of a convincing, positive, integrated strategy for the countryside; a strategy which recognises both the countryside's interdependence with urban society and the needs of people who live and work in the countryside; a strategy which sees the countryside as literally the indispensable lungs of the nation as a whole, hence, incidentally, the crucial importance of the integrity of remaining open spaces; a strategy which establishes the priority of resources and subsidies for the qualitative and positive management of that precious national asset—for example, by the redevelopment of skills like dry-stone walling, hedging, ditching, coppicing, thatching and managing moorland and by the preservation of pathways and the prevention of erosion.

I, for one, hope that we can celebrate the new millennium by the imaginative reassertion of the priceless significance of the countryside as a vital part of the nation as a whole. It is an asset which all can enjoy and in which all can take pride. It is by the generation of a sense of involvement and responsibility in the nation as a whole that the wellbeing of the countryside will best be protected.

2.50 p.m.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, I should declare an interest as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks. The high environmental quality of the national parks is dependent on the nature of human interaction with them. People have lived in the areas now designated for thousands of years. Successive governments have made it clear that there is no incompatibility between conserving and enhancing our national parks and their remaining as living and working communities. For example, Circular 12/96 says that: the qualities for which the Parks have been designated are as much the products of man's hand as of nature. It is in the interests of the conservation of those qualities that the National Park Authorities now have a duty to work with and for their local communities". Data collected by the Council for National Parks during its major National Parks for Life project on the sustainable use of national parks shows that across the parks the percentage of the male population of working age which is economically active is 79 per cent. The research project showed that the employment structure of national parks, perhaps not surprisingly, showed a great reliance on the tourism, service and agriculture industries. This reliance strongly suggests that protecting the environment of national parks may be significant in protecting the social and economic well-being of park communities.

Good quality countryside also attracts inward investment by way of high technology industry. Development of modern communication systems has enabled individuals and small companies to set up new computer-led business opportunities in several national parks. Location in such an environmentally attractive area is undoubtedly a factor in attracting customers.

Agri-environment schemes provide an important boost to the local economy. This is clearly demonstrated by the Tir Cymen scheme in Wales. A socio-economic evaluation of Tir Cymen, undertaken by ADAS in 1995, revealed that the scheme supports not only farm incomes and employment but the wider rural economy with benefits to contractors, suppliers and new enterprises. The ADAS study showed that Tir Cymen had generated about 200 casual jobs within the three pilot areas. Twenty-nine out of the 35 businesses surveyed reported an increase in demand for their businesses as a result of Tir Cymen. We hope that this success will be repeated when the all-Wales agri-environment scheme comes on line in the summer.

The relationship between environmental quality and social and economic well-being is recognised by the Government. For example, PPG 7 states that, wealth creation and environmental quality are increasingly interconnected. The appeal of the countryside is central to its economic prosperity, and healthy economic activity in rural areas facilitates investment to protect and improve the countryside". The consultation processes that underpin planning in the parks also help to ensure local participation. National Park local plans and the new tranche of management plans are all subject to extensive and open consultation with local people. For example, the Planning for Real exercise in the Brecon Beacons National Park saw officers hold local workshops all over the park to gauge the views of local people.

Section 62 of the 1995 Environment Act places a duty on national park authorities to seek to foster the social and economic well-being of their local communities in ways that are compatible with their pursuit of national park purposes. That new duty reinforces the need for the authorities to take a positive view of the well-being of their local communities.

National park authorities have made a clear commitment to working with people through the Local Agenda 21 process. For example, in 1995 the Peak District National Park Authority agreed to set up a Local Agenda 21 project at Tideswell village. The project is a partnership of county and district councils, the Rural Development Commission, East Midlands Electricity and North Derbyshire Health Authority. By kick-starting this Local Agenda 21 initiative, the Peak Park Authority has demonstrated a key role for national part authorities in working towards a more sustainable development.

The Government recognise the important role that national parks play as test beds for the sustainable management of whole countryside. How wonderful it would be if this could be even more widely applied. But application needs funding. I was interested to note the Prime Minister's commitment to increased funding for the shires, as expressed in Country Life magazine on 26th February. On 5th November last, during a debate on environmental protection and enhancement, I informed the House that in 1996 national parks received funding of 16p. per acre, compared with the figure of £137 per acre for arable area or set-aside payments. I should welcome the Minister's assurance that the funding of the jewels in countryside's crown will receive as much attention as the financial needs of the shires in order that they will be adequately protected and meet sustainability objectives.

2.56 p.m.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo

My Lords, I, too, join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for introducing this important topic at a crucial time for the countryside: just 48 hours before hundreds of thousands of people will be expressing their concerns here in the capital in the clearest and most forthright way to the Government: Stop attacking the countryside. Take the trouble to understand. Listen to us!". Nothing could be clearer than that.

The elected Members of the other place have overwhelmingly voted to ban hunting with dogs, but they have failed to recognise the crucial service that is given to the care of the countryside by the landowners, the farmers and the rural communities themselves. If we are not very careful, England's green and pleasant land", to quote William Blake, will become a concrete jungle and an ecological wasteland.

Many figures and statistics have been widely misleading and misquoted. I should like briefly to put the figures into perspective by looking at a typical part of our countryside—the Border area. In particular, I wish to draw your Lordships' attention to a recently completed study undertaken for the Borders Foundation for Rural Sustainability. The report, which is entitled The Economic Contribution of Hunting within the Scottish and Northumberland Borders, covers an area hunted by seven packs of foxhounds. The gross contribution to the economy of this very rural region is about £3.5 million; £1.3 million is specific to hunting, while a further £1.2 million is spent on other goods and services such as farriers, veterinarians, maintenance, welfare and horse livery, to quote just a few of the things upon which the money is spent.

The total employment deriving from the Borders hunting is nearly equivalent to 350 full-time jobs, which will go if hunting is banned. Rural businesses are run on small profit margins. For example, if this step is taken, 10 out of the 11 farriers in the Borders would lose their business and the remaining farrier would lose his apprentice—a loss of some 11 jobs.

A traditional service provided by hunts to farmers in their hunting country has been the collection of fallen stock. This may be humane slaughter and collection of sick or injured animals or just the disposal of dead animals delivered to them. In the past a service was offered by local "knackermen" who would similarly collect fallen stock. However, recent government legislation has effectively closed the knacker trade as the cost of offal disposal soars. The whole of the Border region has now only one knacker business left.

Within the past 12 months the seven hunts to which I have referred handled over 6,000 head of stock. Added to this, from 1st April knackermen will be subjected to a further cost rise as a result of skip cost increases. The problems of fallen stock are numerous and could lead to illegal burying of dead animals. Will the Minister give us some indication what plans there are as regards the disposal of fallen stock when he replies to the debate?

The Borders Foundation report on rural sustainability concludes, That the abolition of hunting would have economic and social implications way beyond the approximate 350 jobs it currently generates". Country sports, particularly hunting, provide a focus of interest for rural communities which both enriches and enlivens them and provides the basis for cultural and traditional practices.

The Rio declaration on the environment and development in 1992—having been formulated at the United Nations conference on the environment and development—proclaims a key principle (known as principle 22) that local communities have a vital role to environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognise and duly support their identity, culture and interest and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development". Do the Government accept this principle, and do they intend to keep to it in the future?

The consultation paper, Access to the Open Countryside, is clearly giving this Government a breathing space and is a concealed attempt to force landowners to open up their property to society generally, to enable people to do whatever they want and to go wherever they want. If landowners do not comply with the Government's wishes, the paper contains clear threats of legislation to open up the countryside. This threat has already caused deep concern among those who live in and depend on the countryside for their livelihood. The very realistic fear among country folk is that if the right to roam is imposed, their rights as owners and managers will be trampled underfoot. I am concerned about the welfare of animals, which could well be affected by those who will roam by right in the future.

I note the list of consultees at annex 1 of the consultation paper which at first glance looks impressive. However, when you look more closely you can see there are many important bodies of opinion which do not appear to have been consulted. I ask the Government whether animals will be protected, and in particular breeding animals. I take two examples. As regards horse stud farms, I note that neither the British Racing Board nor the British Thoroughbred Breeders' Association appear on the list. I refer to pig breeding on open ground, which I know is a matter which interests the noble Lord, Lord Carter. What do the British pig breeders have to say? There are many questions to be answered, but it would be helpful if the Minister in his reply could give us some assurance that the welfare of animals will be properly catered for in the future.

I have highlighted just two areas in an attempt to show that the countryside is under severe threat at the present time. The Government have great responsibility not to fritter away the country's assets in high profile projects to retain public popularity. As we have heard so clearly, farmers are in desperate need of help and those in the countryside need the assurance that their livelihood and way of life are secure in this Government's hands.

3.4 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Patten for tabling this Question. As many noble Lords have said, he could not have chosen a better day for it. I add my congratulations—however improper it is for me to do so—to the right reverend Prelate and to the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, on their excellent maiden speeches.

I have to declare an interest. I live in the countryside. I used to work in the countryside; I do not do so now. We on these Benches have a great regard for the expertise, fairmindedness and good nature of the noble Lord the Chief Whip. I feel rather sorry for him in having to reply to the debate. I wish to ask him this question. When the countryside and those who live and work there are occupying such a prominent place in the media and will be, shortly, on the streets, why have they failed totally to attract the attention of those planning the contents of the Millennium Dome? As it is clear that urban dwellers are failing entirely to understand rural affairs, why not use that opportunity to try to change the situation?

Ten months ago the single overwhelming reason that the Labour Party gained such a massive majority in another place was its success in winning a large number of seats in rural areas. In my opinion, voters fell hook, line and sinker for a brilliantly executed ploy that Labour was not dangerous, it would be more efficient, and it would be fairer generally. Let us consider what has happened.

I have not heard of any of those ladies and gentlemen who so unexpectedly won those old Tory strongholds. Have they contributed to debates on rural affairs in another place? I do not know.

A noble Lord

My Lords, last week one of them did so.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I am glad that one of them has contributed.

Beef exports were mentioned by many noble Lords in the debate. They were the subject of absolute derision by the former Opposition. They derided the former government's handling of that difficult issue. They said, "Put us into power. We will soon speak to our friends in Europe and clear it up". Have they, my Lords? Is there any progress in 10 months? There is little progress. We are still in the same position as we were then.

Farmers are going through one of the worst depressions of this century. What do farmers of beef or dairy herds, sheep and others gain? They receive crumbs, talk, and some rather nasty leaked information, or speculation, on increases in petrol duty in the next Budget. That will hit those in the countryside more than anyone in the towns.

No wonder farmers are desperate. They are also furious that the Government for whom so many of them voted are dithering and ducking, and trying to sound caring at the same time.

The right to roam is supposed to have been toned down. I am not sure whether it has. I think that it is one more effort to get over this coming weekend. In answer, after her apology for the leak last Wednesday by the right honourable gentleman the Minister of State, Mr. Michael Meacher, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, twice mentioned the right to explore. What does that mean? I have read the consultation document.

Footpaths and bridlepaths are hardly mentioned. All that has changed from the Labour Party's aggressive attacks on the rights of property owners is a short delay for what I think is cosmetic political expediency. Compulsion is the core socialist word. Socialists will always come back to it in the end. Let us beware—"Mischief thou art afoot". In the meantime, 200,000 people will be afoot on Sunday demonstrating how they feel about their lives in the country.

Hunting has been mentioned. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, described me as a bloodthirsty spectator. I am sure that in his reply the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will say that hunting is the main issue of this march. While I agree that it is the spring from which the march arose, it is not the main issue. With the little pourboires from here and there, the Government are showing all the symptoms of running scared. For once, they are not doing a very good job as regards their PR. I suggest that they make a genuine U-turn—or what was described earlier as a re-evaluation of government policy—and take the concerns of those who live and work in the countryside to heart.

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, today's short debate, so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Patten, comes at a most opportune time, just prior to Sunday's countryside march. The farming community, landowners and people who live in rural areas will be coming together to express their concern about this Government's approach to rural matters. My noble friend asks the Government, whether they are satisfied that their policies work to the benefit of people who live and work in the countryside". One sometimes wonders what those policies are. During these past few months, policies have been stated and changed; consultation has been instigated; there has been review upon review—all resulting in total confusion with regard to policies for the countryside. Farmers wish only for a fair deal, and long-term policies on which to plan their business future. They cannot do that when such a degree of uncertainty exists. They wish to be allowed to get on with running their own lives, providing food for us to eat while at the same time looking after the countryside which we all enjoy today.

That countryside is a living environment. It is not a picture postcard or a museum, but a working environment for many thousands of people. The Government must accept responsibility for the confusion that has grown up in recent months and which has brought great anxiety to many farmers and people who live and work in rural areas.

The green belt was to be protected. But in three areas recently, that has not been the case, the Environment Minister overriding the wishes of local people by granting permission for new houses on three large greenfield sites. The rebuilding of our rural services is promised. But are the Government not concerned that the proposed minimum wage could hit rural areas—as would any increase in tax on petrol? Banning beef on the bone, plus the continuation of the strong pound, all add to the difficulties faced today by farmers. Those, plus the proposed right to roam and the threat to countryside pursuits, highlight just how out of touch this Government are at times with rural communities. If fox hunting is to be banned, jobs will be lost and whole communities will be put at risk. If hunting is banned, what will come next? Perhaps fishing; maybe shooting?

As I have implied, confusion abounds, and no more so than this week when the Government launched Access to the Open Countryside. They say it is a consultation document. But is it just that? The Environment Minister, Mr. Meacher, said in a recent interview on the "Today" programme that the Government were going to increase the right to roam as set down in the consultation paper, and added: If we can achieve it by voluntary means that is by far the best way to proceed in this as in other areas, but if we cannot, then we will bring in legislation". As my noble friend Lord Inglewood remarked at the time, that is not consultation: it is an ultimatum.

Should there be any doubt, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in repeating the Statement in this House on 25th February, went on to say: We made it quite clear in our manifesto that our policies included greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside. We intend to keep to that commitment. In a sense that commitment is not open to consultation".—[Official Report, 25/2/98; col. 725] Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord, Carter, will clarify the position.

One person's rights are another's restrictions. Many smaller farmers—I declare that I was one in the past—who work land near to urban areas know only too well of the difficulties caused by those who do not respect our property. Vandalism and damage are routine problems. Gates are left open and animals are deliberately let out without regard for their safety. Trespass is a regular occurrence, litter is dumped and barns are set on fire.

While I appreciate that many members of the Ramblers' Association do not fall into that category, not everybody who walks in the countryside observes the country code and keeps to the prescribed paths and refrains from damaging property. The Deputy Prime Minister recently said that the rural environment was safe in his hands. Can he be so sure that it will be safe in the hands of the members of the general public?

The countryside march on Sunday will bring together farmers, landowners and those who work and live in the countryside, along with many city dwellers who already enjoy country life. The march will highlight their concerns, to which many noble Lords have referred today. I hope that the Government will stop and listen, have respect for the traditions of rural life and work towards restoring confidence, which has been so badly damaged over recent months. We could not have a better person to respond to the debate than the noble Lord, Lord Carter.

3.15 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on having asked this Question today. From these Benches, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, says is all right by me because he is one of my clients at Champneys!

Reflecting on the subject of this short debate, I kept returning to the central question of why there is such dissatisfaction and disquiet among country dwellers. I therefore wish to dwell on that central question.

Although the drift from the country to the major cities has been going on ever since the Industrial Revolution, I believe that until quite recently most people would have regarded this country as essentially rural. However, at some point over the past quarter of a century that has ceased to be the case and we are now clearly an urban society. Country dwellers have become a distinct minority and have taken on the characteristics of a minority. They feel resentful, fearful, hurt and powerless in the face of what they perceive to be the superior force of the urban dweller. The result is that, whether real or perceived, a huge tension now exists between the country dweller and the town dweller. I wonder how this has come to pass.

I have no doubt that it is a problem of the '80s. I believe that the single most destructive force ever let loose to wreak havoc on the countryside was Thatcherism. The vast majority of the problems facing those who live and work in the country today are a direct result of the social, economic and environmental policies which the previous government pursued through the '80s. In 1979 most rural villages still had a shop, a post office, a pub, a cottage hospital nearby, a school, a police house with a local policeman and a daily bus service. Today in many parishes throughout the land those are a distant memory.

The policies of the uniform business rate, deregulation of buses, local authority capping, reform of the NHS and pressure on budgets for health, police and education, to name but a few measures, have been a disaster for the countryside. The relentless drive to measure life purely by the two-dimensional means of the balance sheet, without any regard for the social dimension, has ripped apart the community feeling that was such an essential part of rural life. I have to say, more in sadness than in anger, to those noble Lords on the Conservative Benches who supported that government: you sowed the breeze, you now reap the whirlwind.

The noble Lord's Question today asks the Government whether they are satisfied that their policies work. I suspect that, given that the vast majority of the electorate live, work and vote in urban communities, the majority of the policies which the current Government put forth in its manifesto have never been considered in the light of the needs of country dwellers.

However, I believe that there is hope, since we are in the early stages of the Parliament and the Government are reviewing many of their policies. They have a chance to frame their policies with a proper regard for the impact they will have on those who dwell in the country, who may well be a minority but are nonetheless vitally important to the fabric of our society. Above all, like the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I plead with the Government to take an overall and integrated approach to the formulation of policy for the countryside. Economic, environmental and social policies have to be considered together; they cannot be taken piecemeal. At the centre of that integrated approach must be a recognition of the need to preserve rural communities as communities.

One of the key issues is housing. We need to ensure that there is affordable housing for local people, particularly the young. We need to ensure that villagers are linked by an adequate transport system, bearing in mind that a high percentage of rural workers are on low wages and 20 per cent. of rural dwellers have no car. Another key issue is local democracy and participation. We need to reverse the feeling of powerlessness in rural communities following local government reorganisation and we need employment to replace the loss of traditional employment. I echo the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu: we need a central department to look after those issues, perhaps even a Minister for the Countryside. If London can have one, why not the countryside?

There are a huge range of other issues affecting the countryside, but I do not have time to go into them today. Recognising from the list of speakers that there would undoubtedly be those who would refer to the march and to hunting, I used my time to speak of the central issues. But on hunting I say this. We regard it on these Benches as a matter of personal conscience and therefore my remarks are my own and not those of my party.

I have never hunted and have no idea what it is like, but I make two points. First, the issue is not of itself the most important issue that will come before Parliament. But, taken in the light of the tension of which I spoke, it is a match that could well inflame the countryside. Secondly—an old Liberal view for which I make no apology—it is the prime duty of the state to look after the interests of the individual, even in a perceived minority. It is not good enough simply to say that we do not like something and therefore must get rid of it, particularly when, for the vast majority, it has no effect on them one way or the other.

I conclude by returning to my central theme. This Government have an opportunity genuinely to reflect on the social, economic and environmental needs of the country and frame their policies with a true regard for its wellbeing. I sincerely hope that they will do that. Above all, I urge them not to make the mistake of the last government and treat the countryside with complacent laissez-faire, but instead to develop a genuine and integrated approach.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Patten for asking this Question and I offer the congratulations of these Benches to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, on their maiden speeches.

The danger is that our attitude to the countryside is seen through the eyes of town dwellers. My noble friend Lord Marlesford reminded us on 11th February that 90 per cent. of the population live in urban areas. The challenge for the Government—I am not certain that they are yet rising to it—is to ensure that urban views do not prevail over the traditional lifestyles and values of the countryside. Of course I acknowledge the steps that have been taken, and referred to this afternoon, which have improved the situation. But it is important that urban and rural people live together easily so that each can—it is necessary for them to be able to—enjoy each other's habitat.

Of course, the countryside is not set in stone; it is a living, evolving entity. There is plenty of evidence to show that people in the countryside accept that. Rural tourism is but an example. My noble friend Lord Addison gave others. But it is important that that evolution is not to the detriment of the countryside itself and rural life. We need to remember that people live and work there. The countryside is not just a recreational resource for town dwellers, though it is valuable for that purpose.

I must declare, possibly uniquely among the speakers this afternoon, that I am an urban animal. I therefore understand the urban view. But I hope that I appreciate, by virtue of that, that I am not the best judge of what is right for the countryside. I have not been born to it, I have not worked in it and I live only on the edge of it. No doubt like many townspeople I have an idealised view of the countryside and it seems to me that we urban beings have a lot to learn about how we live our own lives before we start imposing our will on the countryside. Can we wonder at the fears of country people and landowners at what will happen to some of the most valuable parts of our heritage if rights to roam are imposed? My noble friend Lady Byford referred to that.

If we looked around our towns and cities this afternoon for a moment instead of the countryside, we would see graffiti in some of the most inaccessible places; open spaces in streets deposited with litter; vandalism and a lack of respect for property. I understand the worry of country people and the argument that has gone on about the development of greenfield or brownfield sites—or recycled land, as we are urged by the Deputy Prime Minister now to call it. That argument raged for some time. Happily, the case for brownfield sites seems to be succeeding. But it is not just because it is a victory for the countryside that that is welcome; it is also a victory for the towns. Far from being seen as depriving town dwellers of the opportunity to escape into the countryside, it should be seen as giving them the opportunity to stay within the towns where the facilities and employment are and where communications are good or at least better than in many rural areas.

It does not surprise me that in the debate this afternoon the question of hunting has been raised. As I said, I am an urban being. I have never hunted. I was once taken hare shooting by a friend. I confess that I aimed deliberately high. I do not fish, and many of your Lordships will say what a dull person he is, and not just in his speeches. But like many townsmen and women, and indeed those who live in the countryside, I am full of contradictions. I have taken my children to see the spectacle of a hunt meet on Boxing Day. I enjoy eating game and fish, but with the comfort of distance. I do not see how it gets to my plate. I do not know whether the creature died instantly or slowly. I find it difficult to contemplate tending animals in the knowledge that they are being bred for slaughter. But I buy and eat the meat and I am happy for farmers to perform that service for me. Who am I and other townsmen to sit in judgment on people who know and understand that way of life?

I understand that hunting is part of rural life. I know it is both a sport and has a purpose. Therefore, any suffering that there is is not gratuitously inflicted. And because I do not do it and I do not wholly understand it, I am not prepared to join the ranks of those who would ban it. Indeed, I use the word "gratuitously" quite carefully, because gratuitous cruelty towards animals surrounds us on a major scale, which I suspect exceeds anything in the hunting field—the wanton cruelty that any animal charity will give examples of. The abandoning of animals, be they dogs or cats, and the lack of controls on the sale of pets are a far greater blot on our civilisation than the pursuit of a fox by other animals and its subsequent death.

What is needed is a tolerance of different ways of life within our country. I cannot accept the strictures of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who blames the previous government. The volcano we are seeing exploding this weekend has occurred as a consequence of many of the doubts that have arisen over the past few months. However, I say to your Lordships that just as we preach tolerance for different cultures and peoples within and outside our country, we should preach tolerance if there is not to be a great divide within this country. The Government must act with greater care and respect for the countryside and country people than they have perhaps hitherto done.

3.29 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, like other noble Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for tabling this Question and thank him and other noble Lords for their kind words about me. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, referred to me as a good-natured Chief Whip. That is a classic oxymoron, if ever I heard one.

We have heard a great deal about the countryside march, which will be taking place on Sunday. Owing to a longstanding family engagement I shall not be able to take part in the march. Early on Sunday morning I shall be driving many miles and making a considerable effort to attend a pre-march function which, I understand, takes the form of breakfast at the Savoy, which is a suitably un-rural venue and not exactly redolent of penury.

We have had some excellent speeches in this debate and none better or more notable than the maiden speeches of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that we enjoyed their speeches and wish to hear from them again. There is genuine concern about the problems of the countryside. But they have not all suddenly come about since 1st May last year. When I listened to some of the speeches I began to think that we did not have a general election last year, but a cross between Armageddon and The Flood.

The noble Lord, Lord Patten, asked me why I thought there would be so many people taking part in the march in London on Sunday. Far be it from me to speculate on the reasons and the pressures that bring people to London. But I cannot help reflecting that with the advent of a Labour Government after a long period in opposition, it brings on an urge among farmers and others to take some healthy exercise and carry banners. When Labour won the general election in October 1964 with a majority of three, it was in very difficult economic circumstances. By early 1965, after the annual price review, the farming organisations and others had organised a "fair deal" campaign and they marched down Whitehall.

I begin with two simple propositions. Opposition to field sports does not equate to opposition to the countryside, its problems and those who live and work there. In addition, country people have just the same needs and rights as those who live in urban areas to good schools, housing, transport and health care. In my own view, it is a great shame that the field sports argument has somehow become a symbol of the many and genuine concerns that exist about the countryside. We know that opinion in the countryside itself is divided about hunting.

In turning to the Question, it is fair to remind the House that it was ACRE (Action for Communities in Rural England) which described the record of the last government on countryside matters by saying, Our main perception is one of neglect". Also, as the Opposition spokesman on agriculture and countryside matters for 10 years, I am entitled to point out that in opposition we campaigned vigorously—sometimes successfully—against, for example, the deregulation of the bus industry; the neglect and closure of rural railways; the proposals to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board; and the sale of housing association homes in small villages. As we were entitled to do, we also drew attention to the mishandling of the whole sorry BSE saga. It is estimated that about 10,000 jobs were lost as a result of BSE, and most in the spring of 1996. That is a fact which puts the beef-on-the-bone debate into some sort of perspective.

In our manifesto we made the following pledges: to recognise the special needs of rural areas and communities; not to allow public and transport services in rural areas to deteriorate; to give greater protection to wildlife and to give greater freedom to people to explore the open countryside. As your Lordships know, we received massive electoral support for that manifesto.

The rural dimension is an important consideration for all government policies. Jobs, transport, housing and services in rural areas are closely linked and need considering in the round. The protection of, and access to, the countryside are equally important for the people who live there and for those who visit it. The Government's policies take full account of these needs. The article in Country Life by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made that clear.

New jobs are being created in the countryside. In recent years the growth in employment has been slightly higher in rural areas than in urban areas. The registered unemployment in rural areas is 3.9 per cent. as opposed to 5.7 per cent. in England as a whole. We recognise that within this overall picture there are obviously particular communities suffering acutely from the effects of economic change. We point out that the new deal for the young unemployed is just as relevant to the countryside as to urban areas. Its design and delivery will be sensitive to rural circumstances, the needs of rural businesses and communities and unemployed young people living in the countryside.

We shall have the obvious support of the farming organisations in our proposals on the national minimum wage, because there has been a national minimum wage in agriculture for 50 years. Low wages remain a problem in many rural communities, particularly for those employed in agriculture and tourism. They lead to pockets of deprivation and social exclusion in the countryside which are often overlooked. The agriculture minimum wage applies only to agricultural workers, so not all workers in rural areas benefit from that underpinning. The national minimum wage will provide a floor for all employees. It will help to remove the excesses of low pay and should help to tackle deprivation.

I turn to housing. Strong feelings have been aroused by the debate about national household growth and where to build the new homes that we need. As my noble friend Lady Hayman said in her Statement on Monday, we are determined to build as many new homes as possible in urban areas and to prevent, wherever possible, urban sprawl and the loss of greenfield sites. We have set a new higher target of building 60 per cent. of new homes on previously developed land. That compares with the achievement of 42 per cent. under the previous government. Our target includes providing new housing on existing brownfield sites in the countryside.

We must remember that much of the demand for new housing in the countryside is local. We need to look closely at the housing needs of rural people. That point was extremely well made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury in his maiden speech. Rural areas need much more affordable housing. I said in opposition, and I say now, that the biggest social problem in the countryside is the lack of affordable homes to rent or buy. However, we are addressing that problem by releasing £900 million of local authority capital receipts—the money that they received from selling council housing in the past—to help to provide homes in which rural families and their children can afford to live. Specific support is provided for rural areas by the Housing Corporation's rural programme. That funds social housing in small villages. The target for this year is to provide between 1,000 and 1,500 new homes. I speak as a former trustee of the Rural Housing Trust.

Turning to education, the Government are conscious of the importance of the local school to rural communities. The policies which were designed to raise standards in all schools will also apply to rural schools. The decision to create education action zones will help schools in deprived and rural areas. We have allocated £477 million extra to the shire counties to help them to raise standards, and for repairs.

A great deal has been said about access to the countryside. The consultation paper on access to open countryside was published on Wednesday. Irrespective of whether people choose to make their home in urban or rural areas, the countryside should be an asset to be enjoyed by all. We are determined to secure the objective of increased access for all those who enjoy walking and relaxing in Britain's beautiful landscape. The proposals demonstrate that we are determined to ensure that increased access goes hand in hand with respect for the countryside and those whose livelihoods may depend on it. We are proposing a new code of practice for walkers to encourage respect for the countryside.

Countryside interests have been given the opportunity to prove that their oft-repeated arguments for voluntary agreements can now deliver. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, made a neat debating point about the right to roam in urban areas. However, if the noble Lord cannot tell the difference between the Elephant and Castle (where I was born) and open moorland, I am afraid that I cannot help him.

The Government fully understand that farmers and others who care about our rural areas are anxious about what the future may hold. I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Luke, who referred to the worst recession this century. I thought that that was perhaps a little over the top. It has been calculated that in the 1990s the total transferred to agriculture from taxpayers and consumers as a result of the CAP is of the order of £92 billion. In 1998 it will be £11 billion. Between 1990 and 1995 farmers incomes rose by over 70 per cent. in real terms. However, we are of course aware of the problems in the last season.

The £85 million already committed to assist livestock farmers is a large sum of money. It is made available to livestock farmers in recognition of the particularly severe economic pressures they are facing at the moment. Farmers have immediate concerns that the Government are prepared to address. I am sure that noble Lords are aware that the Government have decided that the charges for implementing the SRM controls on cattle, sheep and goats will not be recovered from industry from I st April as previously planned. The value of that decision to the farming industry throughout the United Kingdom will be some £35 million. We have also decided that we will meet the costs of setting up the new computerised cattle tracing system and running it and enforcing it in its first full year. That is worth another £35 million.

In addition to relieving charges, the Government are conscious of the financial position of livestock producers. As well as providing agri-monetary compensation, the Government will shortly be completing the redistribution exercise arising from the special aid schemes for livestock producers introduced in 1996. The net effect of this is that we shall be redistributing some £9 million which will go mostly to some categories of beef special premium producers but also to some suckler cow producers. That is a total of £164 million in a very tight public expenditure situation.

We all know the problems of the strong pound. The freezing of the green rates is worth £400 million to farming in the next two years. We know that many beef and sheep producers face some very difficult economic conditions at the present time and want to be able to review their options for the future. We are therefore launching a wide-ranging consultation in the very near future in order to gauge farmers' interest in early retirement and other options. We hope that the results will be available by late April.

Perhaps I may turn to a few of the points made in the debate. If I do not deal with all of them I shall certainly write to noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to the 150 government working parties. He said that not one concentrated specifically on rural matters. That appears to me to be a failure to understand the central point that rural problems should be taken into account in all relevant areas of government policy. The DETR and MAFF are currently conducting a joint review of countryside policy as part of a comprehensive spending review, including a review of institutional structures. The Social Exclusion Unit is looking at rural as well as urban areas.

A number of noble Lords referred, not surprisingly, to hunting. In our manifesto we said that we would allow a free vote on hunting with hounds. That was our only commitment, and we delivered it last November with the Second Reading of the Foster Bill. The Bill is starting its Report stage in another place. The Government remain neutral on the issue of hunting. Speaking as Chief Whip in the Lords, of course I agree with the Government.

My noble friend Lord Judd made a powerful speech. We can all agree that rural poverty is real and pressing. I hope that my earlier remarks about what we hope to do by way of welfare-to-work, the New Deal, education, healthcare and the rest show that the Government take this problem seriously. Reference was made by my noble friend Lord Dulverton and the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, to the problems faced by hill farmers in the uplands. The total direct livestock subsidies to all farmers in the UK's less favoured areas are estimated to be worth about £530 million in 1998.

In only 10 months the Government have set in train action to ensure that their policies work for the benefit of people who live and work in the countryside: in planning, the green belt, housing, healthcare in rural areas, rural education, welfare-to-work, the New Deal for 18 to 24 year-olds, the national minimum wage, regional development, proposals for an integrated transport review and extra money for farmers in a very tight public expenditure situation. That has taken place in only 10 months. We want a healthy dialogue with all those who have interests in rural areas, both representative organisations and the rural people themselves. We shall continue to listen to a wide range of views as we develop our policies. We are confident that the integrated approach to rural policy that we are developing is for the benefit of those who live and work in rural areas and all those who value the British countryside.

House adjourned at seventeen minutes before four o'clock.