§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Statement is as follows:
§ "I am pleased to present to the House today the Government's Rural Strategy 2004. As in the rural White Paper 2000, our vision for rural communities is based on delivering genuinely sustainable development, with economic and social strategies consistent with our aim of protecting and enhancing our natural heritage for future generations. So Rural Strategy 2004 presents an ambitious set of policy priorities for rural communities and the countryside, coupled with radical reforms to the delivery of those policies.246
§ "Fresh evidence we commissioned confirms that there is relative prosperity in rural areas. For example, measured in terms of average household income, 55 per cent of households in rural areas are above the median.
§ "But the evidence also confirms that this picture is by no means uniform across rural England. Rural society is changing in ways that are blurring the distinction between urban and rural. Farming remains at the heart of rural society, an important focus of rural policy. But employees in rural businesses are now more likely to be employed in manufacturing, tourism or retailing. And within the overall picture of relative prosperity, there are pockets of economic and social disadvantage.
§ "This evidence shapes our approach to delivering sustainable communities and so puts a premium on policies and on delivery mechanisms that focus on that deprivation. My reform agenda sees the devolution of decisions and delivery to get help to the areas and people that need it most. And to ensure that they are able to access this help, I will ruthlessly streamline the funding support we provide. The present 100 rural, agricultural and environmental funding schemes will be reduced to three major funding programmes linked to strategic priorities, allowing us to both sweep away unnecessary rules and simplify application processes.
§ "Our policy has three main planks: first, while supporting prosperity across the board, taking action to help the minority of rural areas that are lagging economically. I want rural businesses to have the support they need. This year I will put an extra £2 million into the Business Link network, to improve support and assistance to businesses, especially in lagging rural areas. I want all rural businessmen and women to know that they can turn to a service that understands their needs, including agricultural businesses and businesses diversifying from agriculture, and a service to help them through the existing maze of services and grants available.
§ "I will devolve decision-making and funding for economic regeneration to the regional development agencies, to allow decisions better to reflect the needs and pressures in each region. I am increasing the funding Defra provides to the RDAs' single pot from £45 million to £72 million next year. To ensure it is spent in the most effective way, each region is to put in place arrangements to facilitate rural prioritisation within a strong partnership structure. I shall not impose a single structural form—I want to encourage maximum simplification and streamlining, so that regional delivery partners are set free to focus on doing, not talking.
§ "Local authorities have a vital role as community leaders in joining up and delivering quality services. I therefore intend to look at innovative mechanisms for devolving delivery even closer to rural communities. Over the course of this year we will set up a pathfinder in each region, to explore practical ways of providing more joined up and flexible approaches at local level in rural areas, including to join up services and funding at the point of delivery.247
§ "The second plank of our policy is to tackle rural social exclusion wherever it occurs and achieve fair access to services. Access to transport, affordable housing and to broadband help to underpin both economic prosperity and social justice for rural dwellers. Last week the Government announced more money for sustainable housing. My department will act as guardian, to ensure that this money helps to address social disadvantage in rural areas.
§ "I will devolve money for building capacity in the voluntary and community sector to each region, to be managed through the government offices. It is this sector that can truly understand local need and provide innovative solutions.
§ "But I want to be sure we get an independent assessment of results. I see the need for a rural advocate as being as strong as ever. So I will create a small and well-focused new countryside agency by next April, initially within the legal framework of the existing body, to act as expert watchdog and advocate on behalf of rural communities. Its priority will be rural disadvantage, and it will act as a think tank and futures body, drawing on its monitoring of progress and best practice to suggest innovative solutions to government.
§ "The third plank of our policy is to protect and enhance the natural environment in rural areas—and our green spaces in towns and cities—and that of our seas, coasts and rivers. A healthy and attractive countryside not only brings social benefits such as tranquillity, but also economic benefits—over 300,000 jobs depend directly on it and rural tourism brings around £13.8 billion to the rural economy each year.
§ "Rural England is also a treasure trove of diverse and wonderful landscapes and wildlife. Its natural beauty is an asset to be cherished and enhanced. The countryside provides us with the essentials of life: improving its health is the most valuable inheritance we can leave.
§ "Our woodlands, for example, help mitigate the effects of climate change—one of the most serious environmental problems the world faces. Visiting the countryside does much to improve our quality of life, provides recreation, better health, and a source of education and learning.
§ "Much of the quality of our landscape and its biodiversity depends on how it is managed by farmers and others. The changes we are introducing as a result of CAP reform will enhance the positive and reduce the negative impact of farming methods and land management on the environment.
§ "And, as recommended by Lord Haskins, we will establish an integrated agency to deliver our policy objective of a healthy countryside valued and used in a sustainable way. The new agency will be a powerful, independent statutory NDPB, building on the world-class strengths of English Nature, the Countryside Agency, and the Rural Development Service. Its remit will be the integrated management 248 of our natural heritage that the challenges and environmental threats of the 21st century demand. That will include biodiversity, landscape and sustainable use of the countryside, including recreation and access. It will have a remit to carry out its functions within a sustainable development context. It will work closely with the RDAs—and elected regional assemblies, if established—to ensure that the natural environment is taken into account in regional policy-making and activity.
§ "Formal establishment of the integrated agency will require primary legislation. I intend to bring forward legislation next year and to publish a draft Bill as an early step. In the mean time, while each of the three bodies will remain responsible for their own statutory duties, they will come together into a confederation of partners by April next year. To help that partnership work, I will move the Rural Development Service out of the policy core of Defra and give it the autonomy that befits a major delivery body.
§ "This package of policy and delivery reform is aimed at delivering services in a more streamlined and customer-friendly way, through radical devolution to regional and sub-regional partners, as well as to our own delivery agents. And the significant streamlining of our funding should make things easier and simpler for our customers.
§ "These arrangements are aimed at improving effectiveness in the delivery of our three policy priorities within an enduring framework of sustainable development. They will also deliver efficiencies, exploiting operational synergies and removing duplication. They have been developed in an inclusive and transparent way. They will build on the excellent work being done across the country by those working for Defra and its family, and beyond Defra. They will provide greater freedom to staff, to get on with delivering what our customers need from government. I am confident our people will rise to the challenge.
§ "I want these reforms to be workable, but sufficiently flexible to meet future challenges and changes. I commend the approach and its implementation to the House".
§ My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating a Statement made in another place earlier this afternoon. We too are pleased with many of the aspirations set out in the Statement, and that the Government recognise there are areas of deprivation within our rural communities—a matter on which it has taken a little while to persuade them.
However, we do not agree with the Government that these matters and hopes are best resolved by working through local regional government development agencies. We believe that such decisions should go through elected county councillors, district councils and parish councils. In that context, the Statement refers clearly to wanting to get decisions made locally.
249 We as a party do not believe that regional development agencies are local enough and we fear that some of those decisions will not be taken with the best regard to the needs of very rural areas.
We agree with many of the recommendations in Haskins. The Statement deals only very briefly with it. I hope the Minister will forgive me if I raise four points with him because we will not have the advantage of a Statement and questions tomorrow on the broader aspects of Haskins. So, if I may, I should like to turn to that.
I think that we would all agree with the Haskins report that at the moment Defra is "overblown and inefficient"—I use the words of the report, not mine—and therefore there are great opportunities to make savings and better use of money, both in manpower and time, to improve services for everybody.
We accept that rural policy must be driven by government Ministers and therefore formulated in Whitehall, but we view Defra as being overblown and inefficient. It has 12 in-house delivery agents, 15 inspectorates, six executive agencies, 20 executive non-departmental bodies, 20 non-executive non-departmental public bodies, two public corporations and representation in eight out of the nine government offices. There is definitely room for doing something about that.
I turn to the four points I want to raise and ask the Minister to comment on them. On recommendation 16, which is the drawing up of this new integrated agency, we are very concerned that English Nature should retain its independence to advise government, whatever the government of the day may be. It is to be merged with part of the Rural Development Service and some of the Countryside Agency. That, as the Minister said, will need primary legislation. What will happen in the mean time, because obviously the agency will develop? Who will be the lead person until the new legislation comes through?
In addition, we are told that a strategic group will be set up above those three agencies which will also include the chairs of the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission. Can the Minister tell us more about that? Will he comment on why the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, did not look at the Environment Agency? It employs a lot of people and its responsibilities interact directly with those providing rural services. The Haskins report also mentions the levy-funded organisations. Will the Minister comment on those?
Recommendation 27 refers to the whole farm approach. The Minister has clearly said as part of the Government's response to the report that it is not possible to accelerate that programme. Why is that so? What is holding us hack? Is it the fact that the IT systems required to integrate those services are not in place? Alternatively, are there other reasons which were not disclosed in the Government's response? Clearly, anything that will reduce red tape, regulation, costs and the numerous on-farm visits will be welcomed by those within the farming community. Will the Minister also tell us whether the farm management plan, as proposed, will be a condition of cross-compliance or is it to be a separate issue?
250 Recommendation 31 deals with the funding streams. As the Statement said, there are currently 100 schemes. The Government say that they will sweep away any unnecessary rules and regulations in the current schemes to leave just three major funding programmes. It is obviously recognised that there is a huge wastage in the current system. Will the Minister tell us how quickly those three new funding programmes will be set up?
The Statement said that an extra £27 million will be given to the RDAs. Will the Minister confirm that that is for one year only? Will that £27 million be divided equally between the RDAs or are any priorities envisaged? Will that money be ring-fenced for rural activities, as opposed to being swallowed up by other RDA responsibilities? As the Statement refers also to rural areas, will the Minister define his interpretation of "rural" as accepted across all government departmental divisions?
The Statement mentioned the importance of transport, of affordable housing, of broadband and of rural access. As the Minister will know, those are not uniformly available. Will there be any improvement and how soon will that be? Will the new IT systems which will be set up within the new agency and others be compatible? In other words, will they be interchangeable? We do not want information to be given and not then to be accessible.
Finally, the Statement refers only briefly to farming. As the Minister will know, farming represents only a small proportion of rural employment, but if it is not profitable, the rural changes which the Government wish to see will not take place. Although farming is a small but vital part, will the Minister address an issue which time does not permit me to dwell on longer? Will the Government grant us the courtesy of a fuller debate on the Haskins report?
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and also for having sent me the Defra document, Rural Strategy 2004, with an explanatory letter. It was very helpful to have that at the same time as the Statement. Indeed, having read the Statement, it was perhaps essential to the have the document. I may come back to that if I have time.
First, I welcome the Statement's recognition of the vital role that local authorities play, not only as deliverers of quality services, but also as community leaders. It is important that that is recognised. However, the Statement adopted a slightly different tone from that of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—whom I am glad to see in his place today—in Recommendation 14. It states that local authorities and local partnerships should assume the main responsibility for the delivery of schemes and services to rural communities. I shall not go further into that recommendation due to lack of time, but the Statement seems to lay more emphasis on the regional development agencies, although I recognise that that was in the context of economic development.
251 However, if the development is to be sustainable, the Minister will appreciate that the regional development agencies are not well-placed to undertake the local social or environmental development. For instance, they have only one rural member as of right on the board and as yet their emphasis in all regions has not been sufficiently rural.
Secondly, the Statement mentions voluntary and community sectors with which local authorities will work closely. It goes on to say how essential they are—a sentiment with which I fully concur. It also mentions that the money for this sector will be managed by government offices. Surely, that will introduce yet another strand of funding while the statement talks of reducing the 100 strands to just three. I had cause to worry about a few inconsistencies.
Thirdly, we welcome the integrated agency. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, for initially identifying the fact that land should be managed not only for biodiversity, but also by taking into account environmental and economic issues. An integrated agency dealing with all land management issues is much better placed to do that.
The Statement talks in specific terms about the value of our seas, coasts and rivers, but I am concerned that the integrated agency is to address only land. However, as the Statement indicates, seas, coasts and rivers are very important. The Environment Agency has specific responsibilities under the water framework directive—for example, for eels and salmon—yet English Nature is left as the marine conservation body. Will the Government consider a more coherent approach for the near-shore coastal waters and estuaries?
The Statement makes no mention of young people. Indeed, the complete rural strategy mentions them only briefly. The Government, in the first instance, need to place a greater emphasis on the role that young people will play in retaining and developing the life of rural areas.
The comment about affordable housing is opaque:My Department will act as guardianfor the sustainable housing money. I find that hard to disentangle. What exactly does that mean? Does it mean that the money will not be spent in urban areas? Such a comment underlines some of the proposals that are well-meaning and well-founded, but at the end of the day mean little to me. I hope that the rural strategy will mean considerably more and that while I welcome the Statement I would like far greater clarity from the Government. I would welcome a debate in the near future on some of the issues we will not have time to address today.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I thank both Opposition Front Benches for the guarded welcome they gave to the Statement. As regards the delivery agents, I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was rather too hostile to the role of the RDAs. I know that the Conservative Party has not supported the RDAs, but they are our main economic regeneration 252 instrument and it is important that they have a strong rural dimension. The changes implicit in the Statement and the funding channelled through the RDAs will mean that the agencies will have to pay far greater attention to the rural dimension than has previously been the case and fit it in with the overall regional perspective.
That seems very sensible. It would not be appropriate to diffuse that concentration either by having an entirely separate rural strand or by delivering entirely through local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, envisaged a great role for the RDAs, as do we. That is not to say that local authorities will not have a role—in response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Local authorities are also important in the delivery, although probably there has been a slight change of balance in favour of the RDAs. Nevertheless, local authorities will still have a significant role.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, repeated the calumny of my noble friend Lord Haskins that Defra was overblown and inefficient. Most of those inefficiencies are already being addressed, but it is important that the core policy department is reduced in size and that the delivery section of the department is consequently brought closer to those who benefit from it. That is why part of the plan is to shift some of the delivery mechanisms out of the centre of Defra into agency status, regional delivery or local delivery. That is certainly part of our approach and that of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins.
The noble Baroness asked what will happen before we get legislation for the creation of the integrated agency. It is important that we are clear on the lines of responsibility and that English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service—the parts that will go into the integrated agency—work together closely in the period before legislation. It will be complicated because those organisations will retain their statutory responsibilities in that period, but the three organisations are already working together very closely. It is very important that an individual is in charge of the overarching body; we will appoint someone to that role.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, both asked about the interface between the integrated agency and the Environment Agency. It will be important that the two agencies work very closely together. It was excluded primarily from the Haskins inquiry because the Environment Agency has very wide responsibilities over industry in rural and urban areas. It would not be appropriate to see the Environment Agency as solely a rural delivery agency in the way that some of the other bodies addressed were.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about the whole-farm approach; we are developing it as rapidly as possible. I remember responding to a Select Committee when one of my officials had advised that it would take 10 years. I have speeded up the process substantially already; as the result of my intervention, we will now deliver it within the next couple of years. A 10-year timetable did not seem appropriate, but we need to bring all the complex systems of regulation, inspection and enforcement into line.
253 The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked what was included in cross-compliance and what was not. I am afraid that she will have to be slightly more patient: we intend to make a statement on cross-compliance very shortly. The noble Baroness also asked how the £27 million would be spent. It will be distributed between regional development agencies, not equally but according to the normal pattern of allocation.
On the timescale for the rationalisation of funding streams, by April 2005 we will have begun the simplification of schemes. We will also have provided money to Business Links to develop advice and information for rural businesses. By April 2007, we will have completed the replacement of the 100-plus current streams by the framework of three major funds.
The voluntary sector, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred, is a very important feature of rural life that we wish to continue to nurture. The schemes that will go through the government office are those that formerly went through the Countryside Agency; they will be there for capacity building. Equivalent schemes under other funding streams will be delivered by the other agencies and through the RDAs, but the capacity-building schemes will go through the government office.
One of the features of deprivation in rural areas is the lack of affordable housing to keep workers in such areas. It is important that we build on the substantial measures that we have already taken to alleviate housing pressures in rural areas. The Housing Corporation, the Countryside Agency, Defra and other partners are involved in looking at how we can improve the availability of affordable housing. That is one of many elements in the strategy and the new delivery system that will be beneficial to younger people in rural areas. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is absolutely right that young people are the future of rural areas; they need to be attracted there, kept there and given jobs in those areas. To do that, we must deal with the issue of affordable housing. That will be one of the important priorities, not delivered directly by Defra but by other government departments, that will be the proof of our commitment and also the beneficiary of tighter rural-proofing through the new Countryside Agency and the other mechanisms that we have put in place.
I hope that I have covered most of the points made by the noble Baronesses; if not, I shall write to them.
§ 5.5 p.m.
Is my noble friend aware of how welcome this long-awaited Statement is? It says that 55 per cent of households in rural areas are above the median household income. Does the Minister agree that it would have been equally helpful if the Statement had quoted the indices of rural poverty and deprivation that exist? Some years ago I was staggered to discover how many families in relatively affluent rural Wiltshire did not own a motorcar.
254 We certainly welcome the streamlining of the funding streams from 100 to three. My noble friend may be aware of the danger now in rural society of large numbers of people rushing around and banging into each other, all trying to lock into the plethora of rural funding schemes.
Obviously, there will be a transitional period for the setting up of the integrated agency, which we all welcome. My hunch is that it will be 2007 at the earliest before the agency is fully operational. Is my noble friend aware of the effect that that could have on staff morale in the agencies during the transitional period, when people will be concerned about their future? In particular, what steps will the Government take against the dilution of the expertise that exists in the agencies in the run-up to the integrated agency's coming on full stream?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend's point on rural deprivation. Indeed, one of the themes of my right honourable friend's Statement was that the social problems of rural areas are not generalised; they are in certain areas and pockets within otherwise affluent areas. That is why we must have delivery mechanisms that target support more closely to the communities and industries involved.
It is very important that we maintain both expertise and morale during the transitional period until we have fully legislated for an integrated agency. We are already engaged with the management, staff and trade unions in those organisations to ensure that people recognise the direction of the future structure and the importance of their role within it, so that we move seamlessly from three separate agencies with somewhat separate traditions and structures to one agency with a very wide range of expertise. The maintenance and enhancement of that expertise and the interaction of different levels of expertise will be among the advantages of the integrated agency.
§ Lord Palmer
My Lords, the Minister did not mention the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about agriculture being the profitable underpin of the whole rural scene. Will he comment on that? It is vital to a healthy rural environment.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the Statement makes clear that farming continues to be a focus of a large part of rural activity. A large part of that approach to land management is reflected through all the delivery mechanisms that we are talking about here. Farming is central to that delivery. It is important to recognise the changes that we have introduced in the common agricultural policy. Free farming means that farmers can pursue the most profitable means of using land to maximise return. At the same time, it delivers environmental benefits which will themselves create and maintain a countryside that attracts more visitors and more money and develops rural tourism and other rural businesses.
Not only will that approach play the key role in ensuring a profitable and sustainable farming sector; it will contribute to the profitability of the rest of the rural 255 economy. Our proposals recognise both those factors. The more direct and larger part of the support that the Government give to farming is, of course, through the common agricultural policy. As I indicated, I intend to make a further statement on that shortly.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, I declare an interest as having been involved in the countryside all my life. Everyone seems to have welcomed the Statement. I do not welcome it for two reasons. First, its content is wholly bureaucratic. Secondly, its tone is wholly bureaucratic. The Government seem to think that they can organise the whole of the countryside, and that if they provide policies, the countryside will react to those policies. I was surprised when the noble Lord said:Fresh evidence we commissioned confirms that there is relative prosperity in rural areas".He has only to look at what has happened to agriculture over the past seven to 10 years, and what has happened to forestry, to see that that is not so. Although he says that the profitability of farming is important, he will find that that is not what has happened.
When the noble Lord makes these Statements, could he make them in unbureaucratic language? For instance, the Statement says:The evidence shapes our approach to delivering sustainable communities and so puts a premium on policies and on delivery mechanisms that focus on that deprivation".What on earth does that mean? It seems most extraordinary. He went on to say:I therefore intend to look at innovative mechanisms for devolving delivery even closer to rural communities".That might be good Civil Service speak, and everyone in the Civil Service might understand it, but ask the average person in the countryside what that means, and they will say that it is complete mumbo-jumbo.
It is not as if it ends there, because the noble Lord went on to say:This package of policy and delivery reform is aimed at delivering services in a more streamlined and customer-friendly way, through radical devolution to regional and sub-regional partners".That is all completely divorced from reality. People in the countryside are fed up with bureaucracy and with government intervention on every scale. Will the noble Lord see if he can try and make his Statements less bureaucratic, and if he can try to cut out such bureaucracy as there is and as is increasing in the countryside?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his textual critique of the Statement. It is pretty clear to me what it means. "Sustainability" means lasting; and one of the problems has been that we have not had lasting support. "Deprivation" means poor; and it is important that we focus the support that the State gives to rural areas on those who most need it and those industries that are most deserving of it. "Innovative" means new; in other words, we intend to provide new support systems which are more understandable and deliverable. If the terms of the Statement obscure that, there is something wrong with the Statement; but I thought that it was pretty clear.
256 In relation to profitable farming, as I said in response to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, profitable agriculture is obviously an important part of the jigsaw. It is not, however, the main employment source of the vast majority of people who live in the countryside, or the vast majority of poor people living in the countryside. It is an important contribution to getting them out of that situation, and an important area of government support.
With all the doom and gloom that the noble Lord referred to, it is important to recognise that, although profitability was very low three years ago, since I have been in this job the average income of farmers has increased very substantially. So he cannot blame me for it. I think that there has been a mood of greater optimism in farming. Although that is more pronounced in some sectors than in others, those sectors recognise that they have a much better future freed up from the kind of tightly written subsidies under the common agricultural policy, and now also with a broader-based system of support in the rest of the Government's rural measures.
I do not think that people in the countryside want government to disappear from the countryside; they want government to give the kind of help that is actually useful in developing their businesses and enhancing the landscape. That is exactly what these policy changes are intended to bring.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Grantchester
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on a positive Statement which was ambitious and recognised what is to be achieved. It is to be applauded that the Government have clearly identified the major priorities of rural areas; namely rural businesses, rural communities and the rural environment. I welcome the increase in the Budget for Business Links, and I underline to my noble friend the good work of the agricultural colleges in helping diversification and entrepreneurship. On the funding streams, can my noble friend confirm that this will be a major priority of all regions?
The Cheshire and Warrington Economic Alliance is a sub-regional body which is the enterprise hub of part of the north-west rural areas. The Northern Way programme helps to build on the strength of the great cities of the north, such as Manchester and Liverpool. There is concern that it might overlook the significant contribution that rural areas, such as Cheshire, make to the success of neighbouring cities. Will the Minister assure rural areas that this will not cut across delivery through the RDAs, and take full account of the need to improve infrastructure, which is so vital as a gateway to the north-west as a whole?
Defra has been recognised in rural areas as their champion. There might well be concern that the changing structure will loosen that association. Will the Minister outline how Defra will improve its interaction with farm businesses? Concerning the rural communities, will he confirm that the delivery strategy through local government will fully appreciate the priority of affordable houses in rural areas?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I have already referred to the importance of affordable housing, which must be part of the wider government strategy for rural areas. On the importance of Business Links and the agricultural colleges, it is important to recognise that part of the plan is to ensure that rural businesses, farmers and others can receive advice from a single source, or at least guidance from a single source, rather than be faced with the plethora of a whole range of potential sources relating to how the Government provide help and advice to rural business. It is important that Business Links deliver a substantial part of that, but I also recognise the importance of agricultural colleges.
As to whether RDAs concentrate too much on the cities, Liverpool and Manchester are pretty important to the economic prosperity of the north-west. However, the fact that the RDAs are now being given substantial resources and a much clearer role in rural regeneration will ensure that Cheshire and other rural areas of the north-west receive equal and mutually supportive help as well.
As for the relationship with Defra, clearly there are a number of mechanisms by which Defra policies can be delivered. Not all of them are within the Defra family. Our most important relationship with farming businesses, and to some extent all rural businesses, is that we can provide a point of advice for the whole range of local, regional and national government schemes which will help their businesses rather than confuse them or impose too much red tape. As a result of the efforts of my noble friend Lord Haskins and our response in this Statement and elsewhere, we hope to go a long way down that road.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, will the noble Lord comment on whether he has any plans to do something about the stranglehold that the big stores such as Sainsbury's and Waitrose have on farmers, and the inability of farmers to fight them and to get a fair deal out of them? Unless that is tackled, farmers, particularly those with small farms—which, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, says, I think are at the heart of the countryside—will find it very difficult to survive in the future.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, those farmers, with either small or large farms, who can change with the changing context in which we are operating to make themselves more market oriented and more respectful of the environment will survive. It is not a question of size; it is a question of seizing the opportunity and meeting the challenge.
Part of that includes farmers collaborating among themselves and with other elements in the food chain to ensure that they get the highest value for their products and a fair and equitable share of the value of their products. One of the problems has been that farmers within the food chain have been too fragmented and lacking in focus, which was identified in Sir Donald Curry's report. Quite a lot of work is 258 now being done to bring together farmers and the rest of the food chain in order to address those market issues.
In relation to supermarkets, it is also trite that the OFT is currently looking at allegations from the farming sector and others about trading practices that disadvantage small farming and processing enterprises. I look forward to the results of that.
§ Lord Livsey of Talgarth
My Lords, can the Minister indicate how many job losses will occur in Defra? Where will the axe fall—or will there be job redeployment into the regions? Indeed, the integrated agency can surely work only with good, efficient and effective IT. My understanding is that the IT systems are not yet in place. When does the Minister expect them to be?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the noble Lord is perhaps confusing a number of different things. As regards the reduction in the total number of the Defra family, there will be two different movements. There will be a movement away from the core Defra into the delivery agencies, some of which will also be geographical as a result of the relocation.
There will also be an absolute reduction in jobs over the coming few years, the vast majority of which are related to the improved IT system in the Rural Payments Agency, which is not of course covered by the Haskins report or the proposals today. The upgrading of IT is well on stream and should begin to deliver efficiency advantages, but it will also reduce the need for some employees. The other area of reduction of employment will be efficiency gains in various parts of the department. As I said in response to my noble friend Lord Carter, we will not be losing staff who have expertise in delivering the areas with which we are concerned today.
§ Viscount Ullswater
My Lords, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, perhaps I may say that there are things within it with which I entirely concur. I support the sentiment that rural England's natural beauty is an asset to be cherished and enhanced. The countryside provides us with the essentials of life. Will the Minister therefore impress on his colleagues in other departments that producing 20 per cent of our energy needs by the year 2020, mostly with wind power, will despoil whole areas of landscape? How can the Minister reconcile the claim that changes to the CAP,will enhance the positive and reduce the negative impact of farming methods and land management on the environment",on the one hand, with the requirement for large-scale wind farms on shore, on the other hand?
Is it an oversight that renewable energy—wind turbines in particular—is not mentioned in the Statement on the Rural Strategy 2004? I have not had time to examine it in detail, but can the Minister point to where that important new development in the countryside is dealt with?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the noble Viscount is correct that it is not referred to in this Statement. But 259 it has been referred to in a number of different contexts in this House regarding various policies where the main opposition party has seemed obsessed with stopping wind farm development. Wind farm development will be a significant contribution towards meeting our renewable energy requirements. That will improve the environment for all of us and, provided they are properly sited and go through the proper planning processes, they can also enhance rural areas. The utter opposition of those on the Benches opposite to wind farms seems to be hugely disingenuous, the worst form of Nimbyism and not doing a service to our countryside.
§ Lord Haskins
My Lords, I declare an interest as the author of a recent report on rural delivery and as a director of the Yorkshire Regional Development Agency. I was very impressed by the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, about jargon. I sympathise with him entirely. However, I recommend that he reads the report in detail. Having fought a lifetime against Whitehall jargon, I was surprised at how concise and clear that is.
Obviously, one is pleased when 32 of one's recommendations are accepted—I shall come back to that point—but one hopes that the forces of darkness in Whitehall who do not want to let go will be persuaded to let go. Indeed, because the Government have accepted so many of my recommendations, I feel that perhaps I was not radical enough and that if I am getting too close to government there is something going wrong with me. However, if the aspirations that are in this Statement and the report are brought into reality, the Government will have done an excellent job in starting the process towards devolving power away from Whitehall to where the people are in this country.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his support and endorsement of much of the phraseology of the Statement, albeit that no doubt the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has identified one or two infelicities in part of it. Most of it is fairly clear. Above all, I thank my noble friend for his original report. I certainly would not concur with anyone who said that my noble friend Lord Haskins had failed to be radical enough or—in some sense is sorry to say—that he was too close to government. But I think that he has given the Government a very clear and positive steer on this issue.
Ultimately, the result will be better delivery, a better outcome for our rural areas, a better relationship between the various agencies of government and those who live in our countryside, and, above all, a better, more prosperous and sustainable countryside for all who live in it and visit it.