HL Deb 13 January 1998 vol 584 cc938-40

3.10 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration has been given to an all-Wales agri-environmental scheme.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced in July 1997 that he would set up a new all-Wales agri-environmental scheme. A working group, comprising representatives of farming and environmental interests, has considered the details of management prescriptions for the new scheme. My right honourable friend will take decisions on its conclusions shortly.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that, with the more adverse farming conditions we now have, an agri-environmental scheme is becoming even more essential in order to keep economic and social stability in rural Wales? It seems that such schemes are necessary in many parts of rural England, judging by the Countryside Commission's latest report which appeared today.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord's proposition; namely, that farming has not merely an economic place but an important social place in the fabric of Welsh life. I am happy to say again how much importance the Government attach to that. There is no doubt that farming conditions in parts of Wales have been adverse through no fault of farmers or those who work with farmers. Obviously that adds weight to the initiative which the Secretary of State set out last July.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, throughout Wales one finds people in favour of an all-Wales agri-environmental scheme whose standards, one hopes, will follow those of the Tir Cymen pilot scheme. The real question relates to the amount of resources the Government are prepared to put behind such a scheme. A scheme that did not cover all Wales would be undesirable, because one would have bits and pieces here and there. An all-Wales scheme is bound to need a great deal of resources. Are the Government prepared to put the resources necessary behind the scheme?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The matter needs to be looked at on an all-Wales basis. I agree that the Tir Cymen pilot scheme has produced invaluable lessons. As to funding, I cannot specify the precise allocation of funds which will be available. That depends, first, on the Secretary of State's consideration of the representations, and, more fundamentally, on the outcome of the Government's comprehensive spending review. I can, however, please at least one Member of your Lordships' House—my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington—by pointing out that we shall have 50 per cent. of the money back from Europe.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, perhaps I may press my noble friend a little further on the all-Wales scheme. It is a desirable development which I hope can be hastened. If we look back at some of the agri-environmental schemes in Wales we see them failing dramatically. We are at crisis point in Wales in terms of the natural environment, species and habitats, in particular. Can there be some examination in the announcement of the scheme of targeting towards those habitats and species which are in most pressing danger at the moment? We are close to losing many species from Wales, probably once and for all.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend has made an important point. The scheme's objective will be to protect and enhance the landscape, wildlife habitats, and historic features of the Welsh countryside by encouraging the introduction, with financial assistance, of environmentally beneficial farming practices, hope that answer fully meets my noble friend's concerns.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State has received positive advice from the Countryside Council for Wales on the need for an all-Wales scheme? Will he ensure, along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, that the level of remuneration in the scheme will be adequate to meet the current serious income crisis within the Welsh agricultural sector?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we have had useful representations from the Countryside Council for Wales as to the precise level of funding. I must rest upon my earlier answer, which is that it is dependent upon the comprehensive spending review.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that any agri-environmental scheme will be in addition to the protection given under the CAP at present?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, decisions about precise funding mechanisms, their level and how they are to be deployed must await the Secretary of State's consideration of the representations made. As is well known, reform of the CAP is a priority of the Government during their presidency.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, my noble friend was kind enough to refer to me in connection with the UK's rebate in respect of the contribution that it makes to European funds. Is he aware that in 1996 £5 million of such receipts went to five individuals (£1 million each) in this country, and that the benefits received back from the Commission are not as evenly spread as I am sure he would wish?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was aware of that figure in 1996. Plainly the regime then in power misplaced its priorities—to put it at its kindest. We aim to avoid the mistakes of our predecessors, there having been ample opportunity for us to learn from their errors.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware that a great deal of money has been spent over the past decade or so on agri-environmental schemes. Will he assure the House that he is satisfied that the level of monitoring in place on those schemes has been sufficient to ensure that the schemes have been a success, because it seems to me that there is not much point in creating an environment if we do not have the specie that should go with it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Earl makes a sound point. There has been monitoring in Wales, about which I am presently speaking. Undoubtedly the Secretary of State will bear in mind such a consideration with great scruple and care when he considers the representations that have been made to him.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I appreciate that what the Minister can say on funding is limited, but can he at least give the House an assurance that progress on the implementation of the scheme will not be held up by the Government's inability to spend European funds, because of the Treasury's intransigence?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have never before heard it suggested that the Treasury has ever been intransigent. I am quite shocked, and I shall sit down quite soon. The progress of the arrangements will depend significantly on how quickly we obtain approval from Europe, not on how quickly we obtain approval from No. 11.