House of Lords
Thursday, 7 October 2010
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.
Human Rights: Spending Cuts
My Lords, we are committed to protecting human rights and restoring civil liberties in the UK, but all our priorities will have to be addressed in a very difficult fiscal context. We will make decisions about how we will achieve our aims after the results of the comprehensive spending review are known on 20 October.
What I would have liked to have heard from the Minister is a clear undertaking that human rights internationally would not be affected. This represents, does it not, an invaluable initiative of the late Robin Cook. Can they not see that the protection of international human rights is part and parcel of our security? Is it any small wonder that charities and many MPs of all parties are furious about the possibility that this will come under attack? Is it not right to contrast the way in which the Labour Government supported human rights with this coalition’s comparative indifference?
My Lords, I think that I can give no better answer than to quote a speech by the Foreign Secretary on 15 September—a speech which I commend to all Members of this House. In it, he said:
“There will be no downgrading of human rights under this Government”.
My Lords, given the speech of the Foreign Secretary at Lincoln’s Inn—I welcome what he said there—will the Minister, as he looks at the comprehensive spending review, also examine the excellent proposals of the Conservative Party’s commission on human rights, which were published a few months ago? It detailed some very good proposals, including creating a designated Minister, rather than one who has nine or 10 other responsibilities, to deal specifically with human rights.
Ministerial responsibilities are of course for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, but one of the refreshing things about the coalition Government is that we have been able to draw on thinking in these areas from both parties that make up the coalition and, indeed, from the work that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, did when he was in office and the review that was undertaken just before leaving that office. Our approach, certainly, will be to draw on good advice from many sources.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if the division of the national cake were to be determined by human rights, the UK budget would end up being settled by the European Court of Human Rights, the quality of life of this country could well be shattered and a lot of very deserving people would end up with very few crumbs?
I hear what my noble friend says, but in fact the budget of this country will be decided in the first instance by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ably aided by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and then by the views of Parliament, mostly in the other place.
I turn to the human rights of the citizens of the United Kingdom, particularly those of Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members of Parliament, which were breached by Andy Coulson and the team at the News of the World newspaper. What assurances can we have that the police will have not only the funds but the determination to carry out a further investigation into the allegations that have now been made in the documentary by Peter Oborne?
My Lords, would the Minister agree that human rights have a practical role to play in an era of austerity? Looking at expenditure cuts through the lens of human rights would save us from damaging services for the most vulnerable. If he agrees, what steps are being taken now to ensure that this is happening?
My Lords, I agree entirely that human rights are not a matter to be judged by expenditure cuts. What we can do—and I think that this is already taking place in all departments—is to ensure that, when the inevitable cuts take place, they are tested against protecting human rights, with a strong emphasis on protecting the rights of the most vulnerable.
Does not the Government’s cutting of the £30 million grant to local authorities for building sites for Gypsies and Travellers deeply affect their human rights, not least the rights of thousands of Gypsy and Traveller children to education and access to health, as well as a place to live in without the terror of eviction?
We are trying to operate the policies towards Gypsies in the context that they live among us and are protected by our laws and human rights. As with other expenditures, there will be cuts and difficulties, but, again, as I said to the noble Baroness, we are looking at those cuts and policies with a strong emphasis on trying to protect the most vulnerable.
My Lords, we already know that older people and people in care homes are, sadly, very vulnerable to human rights violations. Given the cuts in budgets that are inevitable in these areas, will the Government be able to take positive steps to protect this group of people from further such violations?
Will the Minister ensure as best he can, given his strong support for the human rights agenda, which is appreciated, that his Government do not arbitrarily remove financial support from the institutions and bodies that protect human rights in this country? Further, would he confirm, as alleged in a recently published booklet, Common Sense: Reflections on the Human Rights Act, that at the post-coalition Liberal Democrat party meeting, a big meeting held in Birmingham on 16 May, he threatened to resign if the Human Rights Act was repealed by this Government?
On the first part of that question, all the groups will have to see what happens in the public expenditure review. On the second part, I did say that if at the end of this Government’s term there was no Human Rights Act, there would be no Tom McNally—but I also suspect that if that were the case, there would be no William Hague either. We are both determined, as the Foreign Secretary said, that there will be no downgrading of human rights under this Government.
My Lords, Sir Philip Green has been appointed by the Prime Minister to lead an external efficiency review into government spending across all central government departments. Sir Philip will report before the end of the spending review to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Conservative Ministers have been very loud in their condemnation of benefit cheats but rather quieter about tax avoidance and tax evasion. Does the Minister really think that Sir Philip Green is the right man to study the efficiency of HMRC? Will he assure me that if there are to be cuts in HMRC’s expenditure, they will not impact on that department’s tax evasion and tax avoidance machinery?
My Lords, Philip Green was appointed by the Prime Minister on 13 August to review spending inefficiencies across all departments, not specifically HMRC, but of course HMRC is included in the sort of areas of government that he might be looking at. There is no question of Sir Philip Green having access to personal tax information or data. The view of the Government is that he is the right man for the job.
My Lords, I have had some past dealings with Sir Philip Green. When I was chairman of Marks & Spencer, Sir Philip, or possibly his wife, Lady Tina, in conjunction with Goldman Sachs’ offshore fund’s bid for M&S, told the Guardian that he would like to give my head “a good (expletive) kicking”—clearly the right man to conduct such a review. I was intrigued as to how he would carry out this review, so I sent a freedom of information request to the Treasury. It replied on 28 February that it had no records of Sir Philip Green’s involvement in an expenditure review, and said, “Why don’t you try the Cabinet Office?”. On 4 October the Cabinet Office said that it had no records of this review. Will the Minister confirm that when the review is published on Monday it will be subject to full NAO review and 12-monthly reviews thereafter, as we did with previous spending reviews when we were in government?
I cannot assure the noble Lord that it will be published on Monday. The subject and the content of the review to be published are matters for Sir Philip Green himself. The review will of course be subject to proper scrutiny by both the Government and Parliament. The report will go to the Cabinet Office, where the Minister for that office deals with efficiencies across government. It will also go to the Treasury, where Danny Alexander is responsible for the framework of the spending review. I think all noble Lords appreciate the need for efficiency in government and I hope this review has their support.
My Lords, should we not have high expectations for improved efficiency in HMRC’s tackling of tax evasion and avoidance, given that Sir Philip obviously understands the subtlety with which one can so organise one’s affairs as to minimise a contribution to the nation?
My Lords, just as good buyers create efficient suppliers, so good government commissioning should create efficient government and value for money. That, I am sure, is what all noble Lords seek. I am sure the House will endorse the setting up of this review and applaud the outcome.
Health Protection Agency
The Health Protection Agency is one of many resources used by the Government to prepare for emergencies and pandemics. We propose to abolish the HPA as a statutory body but its functions will continue as a key part of the planned public health service. The Government continue to prepare and strengthen the UK’s resilience to emergencies, and we will ensure that this is maintained both before and after the HPA’s functions are incorporated into the public health service.
I thank the Minister for that Answer but I am not sure it offered the reassurance that I was seeking. I raise the issue of the independent expert advice of the HPA, which from time to time might be uncomfortable for Ministers to hear. How will the Government ensure that the independence of the HPA is guaranteed, and will the scientific advice be made publicly available? For example, scientific advisory committees such as the one on dangerous pathogens are obliged to publish their agendas, minutes and papers and to have a dedicated website. If these committees are subsumed into the department, will they lose their independence? This is a very important matter and the Government need to provide some clarity.
My Lords, transparency is one of the aims of our proposals. As regards independence, the Government will continue to rely on their scientific advisory committees, the members of which, as the noble Baroness knows, are drawn from the foremost experts in their respective fields. The fact that the scientific secretariat to each committee is provided by experts formerly within the department, instead of within the HPA, will not prevent the committees reporting as they judge to be appropriate.
My Lords, one of the most important elements in dealing with emergencies and pandemics is the communication of accurate, concise and timely information to the community. The HPA website is a very good facility for providing information to professionals during the ordinary way of things but is not particularly good at providing emergency information to the community as a whole, nor is it adequate on its own. Will my noble friend assure me that when the public health service takes over it will concentrate on this question of emergency communication to the public as a whole?
My noble friend makes a good point about communications. Indeed, the idea of creating a public health service is to have in the Department of Health a joined-up means of having advice, surveillance, training and planning that will then feed out to local authorities, which will be responsible for prioritising action on the ground. An essential part of that will be to get the communications right.
My Lords, can we have an assurance from the Minister that health and safety at work will be protected? Some industries—the construction industry is one such industry—have high levels of industrial injury and, of course, it is a human right not to suffer injury, or indeed death, while at work.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know with her long experience, health and safety at work is a cornerstone of good industrial policy. Certainly, I am not aware of any plans of my department to affect the strength and force of current health and safety rules.
My Lords, I have to defer an answer to that because we will shortly publish a White Paper about our plans for the public health service. Following that the public and interested professionals will be invited to feed in their views on exactly how that service should be configured.
My Lords, I know that the Minister is always very concerned about the needs of patients. Will he assure the House how two things will be addressed: first, how the patients themselves will be protected during the inevitable turbulence of a period of transition; and, secondly, how the Government intend to deal with the possibility of the leaching away of scientific expertise during such a period of turbulence?
My Lords, I should emphasise that the functions of the Health Protection Agency will be transferred into the department. In the mean time, we intend to make it business as usual throughout the transition process, with an emphasis on the smooth transition both of functions and of individuals on whom we rely to give advice. The functions of the HPA will not be lost in the wake of its abolition. It will continue to contribute to the Government’s response to emergencies and other areas of responsibility. I assure the noble Baroness that we have her concerns very much in mind.
My Lords, it is very disappointing news that the HPA is to be abolished. I believe that it has done excellent and timely work in an independent manner. It was set up following a report by the Science and Technology Committee, which I had the privilege to chair, on fighting infection. In the debate that followed that report, this House agreed that the funding for the HPA should be totally safeguarded because of the possibility of infection occurring. Though the Minister has said that its functions will be taken over by the department, there is the danger that the independence and timeliness that is typical of the HPA will be lost. Will the Government reconsider the issue because the HPA has done such valuable work over the past 12 to 15 years?
My Lords, perhaps I can reassure the noble Lord that the decision to bring the functions of the HPA into the department is absolutely no reflection on the quality of the work that the agency has done and continues to do. This means that the Secretary of State will take personal responsibility for public health in our country, with a direct line of sight from the Department of Health right down to the local level. That should give everybody confidence that public health is high on the Government's agenda. When the public health service is formed, it will bring together key professionals who are involved in planning, advice, surveillance and strategy-making from national to local level. I do not see this as a dilution of the quality of public health work in this country.
Israel and Palestine: West Bank
My Lords, the Foreign Secretary made clear on 27 September our disappointment that the settlement construction moratorium in the West Bank has not been renewed. We view settlements as illegal and as an obstacle to peace. We remain very concerned that peace talks could falter, and the Foreign Secretary has repeatedly—most recently yesterday, on 6 October—called on the Israeli Government to resolve this issue. Officials last discussed this with the Israelis on 6 October.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that 62 per cent of the West Bank, including most of the Jordan valley, is now totally under Israeli control; that, despite the so-called settlement freeze, building has continued in some West Bank settlements during the summer; and that the annexation of east Jerusalem—if you have been there, you know—is taking place at breathtaking speed? Does the Minister agree that actions clearly are speaking louder than words, and that it is now time to put real pressure on the Israeli Government by implementing Liberal Democrat policy to persuade the European Union to suspend the EU-Israel association Agreement until Israel obeys international law?
My noble friend puts the situation sadly accurately and with great passion, and I agree with much of her feeling about this. We regard the EU association agreement as a continuing platform on which we can discuss this issue and many others with Israel; but I assure her that there is no question of upgrading the wider EU-Israel relationship until there is substantial progress towards a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict—in the middle of which stands the obstacle of the illegal settlements that we are talking about. I understand and sympathise with what the noble Baroness says, but we must keep the association agreement in place as a means of getting the necessary message through to the Israelis.
Will the Minister confirm that one important provision of the Balfour Declaration was the need for the Jewish settlements to take full account of the presence and rights of the Palestinian population? The difficulty of achieving that has been enhanced by the scale of persecution by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but does it not follow from that that respect for the settlement freeze is of fundamental and ever increasing importance?
My noble and learned friend, as we would expect, is entirely right: this is a central issue. However, confronting it are the apparent religious arguments of the settlers, who insist that they have some sort of historical right to build. Until the matter is resolved along the lines that my noble and learned friend rightly suggests, we will be in difficulties. We continue to press on this issue with the utmost vigour.
Given the welcome reminder to the House by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, of the commitment of William Hague—and, I am sure, of the noble Lord, Lord Howell—to the importance of human rights and, indeed, universal human rights, is it not almost impossible to imagine a worse violation of one’s human rights than having one’s country illegally occupied for more than 40 years and for that occupation to be not just static but developed all the time through the continuation of illegal settlements? Surely the time has come for more concerted international action to ensure that the human rights of the Palestinians go some way to being properly recognised.
I hope very much, as I think must everyone, that that time has come and that some kind of solution can be reached. As I am sure the noble Lord appreciates—it hardly needs saying—the other side of the issue is the security of the people of Israel, who want to live in peace, and that has to be balanced against the need to move on from this ghastly blockade and the difficulty represented by the Occupied Territories. Therefore, there are problems that we cannot wish away but what the noble Lord says is of course the right way forward.
Does the noble Lord agree that, while many in this House and outside accept and applaud the Government’s attitude towards the illegal settlements, equally anathematic to the prospect of peace between Israel and its neighbours is the fact that rockets continue to be pumped into the cities and towns of southern Israel, each with the desire and hope that it will bring death and destruction?
The noble Lord puts the issue very clearly. There are the two sides. There is the question of the security of Israel and attacks on Israel, and there is Hamas, which some people urge should somehow be brought into the talks, but the question is: should it be when it is continuing provocative rocket attacks against Israel? Once Hamas takes immediate and concrete steps towards quartet principles, the matter might look different, and perhaps once it unconditionally releases Mr Gilad Shalit, ends interference with the operation of aid agencies in Gaza and ceases its rocket attacks, we might look at the matter differently. However, until then, the noble Lord’s point is very valid.
My Lords, I am sure that we on these Benches share the views that the Minister has put forward about ending the settlement freeze. However, the Foreign Secretary made another very interesting speech at the UN on 23 September, when he advocated a wider role for the UN, not only in peacekeeping but peacebuilding. I thought that that broke new ground. Do the Government have any plans to advocate the use of UN peacekeepers and peacebuilders in the West Bank?
I cannot give the noble Baroness a specific answer to that question but that indicates the trend of our thinking. Our intention is to mobilise more UN activity, just as we want to use our membership of the EU, our own bilateral contacts, our position in the quartet and indeed the role of former Prime Minister Mr Blair. All those are instruments through which pressure can be mounted. However, the noble Baroness will have to await a more specific answer.
Procedure Committee: 2nd Report
Motion to Agree
My Lords, I beg to move that the second report of the Procedure Committee be agreed to.
My Lords, a couple of years ago, in April 2008, the House agreed to new procedures for consideration of certain non-controversial Law Commission Bills on a trial basis. They involve holding the Second Reading debate in the Moses Room, with a Motion for Second Reading subsequently being taken formally in the Chamber. The Committee stage is then generally conducted by means of a Special Public Bill Committee, and then Report and Third Reading take place in the Chamber, as with other Bills. For a much fuller explanation of the procedure, I refer the noble Lord to the original report of the Procedure Committee of February 2008. I shall not go into it at length.
These procedures were successfully trialled in respect of two Bills, which both received Royal Assent. Since then, the chief executive of the Law Commission and your Lordships’ Constitution Committee have confirmed that they favour making the new procedures permanent, and that is what the House is being asked to do today.
Rural Communities: Prince’s Countryside Fund
My Lords, it is a great privilege to introduce this debate, and I am conscious of the impressive list of speakers who will follow, all of whom bring with them such wealth of experience and knowledge of rural communities from all parts of the kingdom. Many other noble Lords have expressed much support and encouragement for this debate and regret that they are not able to be present.
I should perhaps declare an interest as the deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance and a member of the National Farmers’ Union. This debate has been an exciting prospect for me as a new Peer and, I hope, for my noble friends Lady Eaton, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor and Lord Younger of Leckie, who will be making their maiden speeches today.
I had also hoped to hear from my noble friend Lord Livsey of Talgarth, who was intending to speak today and with whom I was in touch but a few days before his sudden death. His staunch support for rural communities in Wales was ever constant, and he will be very much missed there, as he will be in your Lordships’ House.
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales is a champion of urban communities as much as he is of rural communities. From the inner cities to the most remote hamlet, for more than 25 years the Prince’s work has been making an enormous difference for the better. From enterprise initiatives to the survival of the red squirrel, the Prince has led the way. He has been in the vanguard of early thinking on many subjects which are now mainstream. The Prince has a unique understanding of how the countryside ticks and is managed. It is born of years of experience and hands-on knowledge, and it is why he cares so profoundly about its future. Having attended the launch of the Prince’s Countryside Fund in July with the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and my noble friend Lord Plumb, I felt I should endeavour to draw to your Lordships’ attention its important work.
The Prince’s Countryside Fund seeks to raise money from a wide range of businesses to help rural communities directly. Grants will be given to projects which contribute to the viability of farming and rural communities and, in particular, in those areas of greatest need, such as the uplands. It is also intended to reconnect consumers with countryside issues and to support farming crisis charities.
Fifteen founding companies have together already pledged more than £1 million. These major companies represent a sizeable section of the food industry. If I may be so bold to say, it would do so much more good if other businesses in that sector, and other sectors, also played their part. It is after all in their own interest to ensure that rural communities flourish. Perhaps I may also venture to suggest that a product with the countryside fund logo on it comes from a publicly spirited company.
As in all areas of the Prince’s work, he has not just identified the problems but has brought people, communities and business together to find practical solutions to meet the challenges. This is a compelling feature of this initiative: a small investment can enable so much to be achieved by communities themselves.
The fund will have an independent trustee board chaired by Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose, with 10 other highly experienced trustees. The three initial recipients highlight the scope of the fund. It will pay for the hill farming succession scheme, via the farmers network in Cumbria, to encourage young people into hill farming. Eight young people over two years will be trained in hill farming skills and so help maintain the infrastructure of the uplands. If there is to be another generation coming into farming with real prospects of making a decent living, we must address that. If we do not, the consequences will be dire and it will be a great indictment of our generation.
The second project is a grant for Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service, which will help to provide support and advice to 450 hill farming businesses, particularly with the increasing and complex paperwork with which farmers have to wrestle. IT training will also be provided to farmers. We should in turn welcome the Government's determination to reduce unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy.
The third tranche of funding goes to Pub is the Hub’s expansion into Wales. I am delighted that that has already been warmly endorsed by the Secretary of State for Wales. This project will enable 50 pubs to be developed into service and community hubs. The prospect of combining many services will keep the pub viable and provide a community resource.
Each of these initiatives at grass roots level will be a force for much good in sustaining communities. This fund has already hit the ground running and from these acorns, many oaks should grow, but there is much more to be done. Let us be clear about the value of rural communities. They are the guardians of the countryside in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. They produce much of our food, with a requirement to produce even more in future. The countryside is a resource for energy, carbon sinks, water capture and recreation, and has the potential to do so much more. It is the place where much of our flora and fauna exist—how wonderful that we now have the largest tree cover since 1750. So many other economic interests hinge on it.
In preparing for this debate, I read an academic report which questioned financial support to agriculture on the basis that tourism is a much more significant economic factor. That entirely misses the point about how our farmed landscape is the essential backdrop for rural tourism, let alone the uncertainty which climate change is putting on food production all round the world. Our countryside is admired throughout the world, and is also a home and workplace for millions, yet those who live and work there can be forgiven for feeling at times that they have not always received the backing they deserve. Divisive politics, misrepresentation and a lack of understanding can create a sense of alienation. Rural people have all too often been overlooked. They should have equality of healthcare, service provision and decent, affordable housing. Farmers and rural businesses should be able to compete in fair markets at home and abroad. If they are excluded from technological advances such as access to broadband, how can they diversify, modernise or even complete routine requirements such as VAT returns and animal movements online? Again, to be positive, it is to be welcomed that my noble friend and his colleagues recognise that.
If British agriculture is to remain at the forefront of an international and ever-changing scene and to be able to respond to the challenges and demands of the 21st century, it is vital that the need for investment in agricultural research and education is recognised. The entire rural economy turns over £300 billion a year and employs 5.5 million people, and farming and food production are at its core. With the right infrastructure, the countryside has the potential to create the small and medium-sized enterprises that are key to future jobs and our nation's future prosperity.
The rural population has grown by more than 800,000 people in the past decade, twice the rate of urban areas. The result has been to price many families out of the communities in which they work and in which they were often brought up. Provision of affordable housing must therefore remain a priority. If it is not addressed, and urgently, many of those communities on which our countryside depends will wither.
My visit during the recess to rural housing schemes in Buckinghamshire run by Hastoe Housing Association was inspiring, and up and down the country similar schemes are enhancing communities. It shows what can be done when everyone works together, and how these small-scale developments can make such a positive difference to village communities. Affordable housing bolsters the school roll and many community assets, be it the pub, the village shop, the post office, the church or the chapel. The Government’s recent announcements on how communities can be empowered to come to their own decisions about local housing are therefore to be much welcomed.
To put the challenges facing rural Britain in context, 62 village primary schools closed between 2004 and 2008, and 200 more have been projected to close by 2014. Thirteen rural pubs close each week and 400 village shops are projected to close this year. Rural England has lost half of its entire post office network since 2000. In parts of Cornwall, I am told, every village has lost its post office. It is a bleak record, and we need to halt this decline.
However, there are huge opportunities for innovation in the countryside. A few weeks ago, I visited the anaerobic digester plant near Southwold run by Adnams Bio Energy Limited. It will be the first in the UK to use brewery and local food waste to produce gas for injection into the national gas grid as well as producing vehicle fuel. It will generate enough renewable gas to powers Adnams brewery and its fleet of lorries, and the remaining 60 per cent of the output will go into the national grid. It is an outstanding and groundbreaking initiative, and much of the plant is below ground. In both Suffolk and Cornwall I hear of plans for solar thermal panels with photovoltaic cells which also will make a valuable contribution to energy supplies. The first biobaler in the UK has just been ordered in Cornwall and will deal with invasive vegetation and produce biofuel. So these are exiting times for new technology which we must grasp and encourage. I believe that we should congratulate these inspirational pioneers.
In the challenges our nation faces in the years ahead, I am convinced that the British countryside’s contribution will be absolutely essential in responding to those two global threats of food security and climate change. We will rely on rural communities more than ever. It is our responsibility now to enable them to play their part. Devolving power to local communities is a key part of the solution—trusting people, harnessing the endeavour, resilience and voluntary spirit which are still at the backbone of rural life.
This is a debate that affects the whole country. My intention is to highlight the compelling case for ensuring a vibrant future for rural communities and, as Country Life this week described it, for the place of the countryside in national life. The Prince of Wales has once again given us a lead. The fund is an example of what needs to be done and what can be done. The question is not if we back rural communities, but how. This is the challenge we all need to rise to and, I believe, for which we all have a responsibility.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, on securing this balloted debate. I look forward to the three maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, and I came into this House in June this year and have had many conversations on a wide range of issues outside this Chamber. There is no doubting his passion for the countryside and his support for British farming and rural communities. I very much support the aims of the countryside fund launched this summer by the Prince of Wales. It is good to note that so many leading companies have made contributions to it. I very much hope that other companies, other organisations and individuals will follow their example and support this fund and other initiatives.
Supporting farming communities and the rural economy is of paramount importance to us all. We want the communities to thrive and prosper. There have been difficult times, and we are all aware that there are difficult times ahead. Although I am a Londoner, I worked in the east Midlands for 13 years before returning to London in 2005. The east Midlands is a very rural region. There is no conurbation. It is a series of principal cities and towns in rural counties. Rural communities that you find in the east Midlands and around the rest of the UK need to be given the support to be sustainable. They must be able to have their fair share of the green jobs that we talk about so much and be able to access the fastest broadband and other cutting edge developments in the ever-changing world.
We will need to monitor closely the decision to move away from the broadband levy to a system that encourages private investment in next generation broadband. If this system does not bring the required level of investment, it puts rural communities to the back of the queue in being able to benefit from these developments. That means that government, business and local authorities have to work together to ensure that this does not happen. The Government have to review and evaluate, and be prepared to change. Working together with initiatives such as the countryside fund means that the countryside is protected for everyone to enjoy. Whether you live in an urban or rural area the countryside is for everyone. Making the countryside accessible to all is the way we ensure that it is preserved and protected.
We all want good quality food produced, bought and sold at fair prices. I support British farming in my purchases every week and in doing so support an industry that has quality as its hallmark. From the biggest farms to the smallest micro brewer in a rural hamlet they need to know that we are supporting them. But that is not enough: the supermarkets have their role to play in paying a fair price for good products produced by British farmers.
In conclusion, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. With his membership of this House we will be assured of returning to these issues many times. I have raised a number of points and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, for this wonderful opportunity to debate an important topic. I look forward to the maiden speeches, particularly from my noble friend Lady Eaton whose brilliant work in local government I am more than familiar with. With five minutes allotted, I will cut to the chase. My theme is the desperate need for affordable housing for local people in rural areas. Yes, the outlook for creating the necessary affordable housing appears bleak, but there are grounds for some realistic optimism.
I would identify the barriers to producing the affordable homes that are so badly needed in rural areas under four headings: first, fierce local opposition to development; secondly, restrictive planning requirements; thirdly, lack of funds to make homes affordable; and, fourthly, disproportionate costs and effort for organisations, particularly housing associations, to get involved. It is much easier to produce 60 apartments in an urban area than it is to build six homes in a village.
I believe that there are solutions to each of these problems and I shall take them in reverse order. First, rural housing enablers were invented by the Rural Development Commission in the 1990s with funding from the Housing Corporation after a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. These individuals can really make things happen. They are the brokers, the go-betweens and the facilitators who work with the parish council, the land owners and the planners, and they bring in the housing association when all is sorted out. That prevents the need to go to endless meetings in the village hall—starting at six and finishing at midnight—night after night. The rural housing enabler does all that for you and housing associations can bring their skills in getting the homes built and meeting all the design criteria. At the end of the day, we need more of them, and they are very inexpensive when spread over a number of schemes.
Secondly, on funding, as part of the reform of the housing revenue account, with which the Government thank goodness are pressing forward, local authorities need to be entitled to retain all the proceeds from the sales under the right to buy of council housing, and the proceeds of any other sales of land or property, and recycle those proceeds into new homes. That does not add to the public sector debt. The Homes and Communities Agency, which will not have as much money in the future as it has had in the past, should still give some priority to rural housing in the grants that it gives out. But most important, the exception sites planning policy should be liberalised. This can represent the way to raise funds that make homes affordable without extra government grants.
Let me explain this in a little detail. If a couple of homes for outright sale are permitted in a place where planning consent would not normally be granted, the landowner can receive market price for the two houses that are sold—remember that market price may be £700,000 to £1 million an acre compared with an agricultural value of £5,000 to perhaps a maximum of £7,000 an acre—and then land for perhaps six homes for affordable housing in the form of rented or shared ownership can be provided without the land having to be paid for at all. The cross-subsidy does the trick and can make homes affordable for people in perpetuity.
The contentious issue is that of local opposition. It is one of the crucial reasons why development is currently being prevented in so many areas. People in the countryside often hate change. Sometimes they fear that young families will be bad neighbours, they do not want their view to be spoilt, and they believe that more homes may reduce house prices. Yet, as I know from many years of sometimes harrowing experience in getting new rural housing schemes going, after the new homes are built the fiercest former opponents are often the first to say how much better village life has become because of the young couples who have been able to bring up their families there.
I turn to how to change hearts and minds. The Government intend to introduce two new measures which I hope will make a difference. First, the new homes bonus will reward councils that are positive about new housebuilding, providing funds which will be denied to councils that block new housing. This should strengthen the hand of councillors who show the leadership to support new home building.
The second measure proposed by the Government is the community right to build programme, giving local communities the chance to give planning consent without any of the bureaucracy and delay that is built into the system so often today. Local housing trusts and/or local people working closely with existing housing associations, perhaps helped by a rural housing enabler, can pursue these schemes. But on how to decide whether the community really wants new homes or indeed even business premises, the Government’s first thoughts were for a 90 per cent yes vote in a referendum. The Housing Minister has subsequently softened this to a 75 per cent yes vote, but others have argued that this is still a huge hurdle when we know that it is very much easier to get a good turnout for a no than for a yes vote when the outcome is uncertain. Bodies such as the Rural Coalition, the CPRE and others have suggested instead that the planning authority should still be engaged in the process and, indeed, that if the parish council is on board, the scheme should proceed. It is well worth us all getting behind more rural housing, and there are other positive opportunities to get things done.
My Lords, I must declare an interest as deputy president of the Countryside Alliance. As Prince Charles has said, the countryside is a delicately woven tapestry: start pulling out the threads and the whole will unravel very rapidly. In the Yorkshire Dales, the Cumbrian Fells and the hills of Scotland and Wales, most farmers last year made an average loss of £3,000. Farmers and farm workers have declined by 26 per cent in the last 20 years. The average age of farmers is now 58. We need 60,000 new people to come into agriculture if only to stand still at the present level. Just because a farmer cannot cope with the bureaucracy, it does not mean he is a bad farmer. In particular, I would like to see the work of the Redesdale Experimental Hill Farm expanded to add to the work already being done by the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service, which has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Gardiner.
Sheep and lamb are the mainstays of the upland areas. Lamb production is down in Ireland and France, and there is a reduction in the lamb coming in from New Zealand. The breeding flock in this country has stabilised and will increase by 2011. As proof, at recent sales the price of a cast ewe was over £100. The threat of bluetongue has receded and the tagging of 33 million sheep has been put on hold.
The wool price must be stabilised. Last year’s clip cost £1.20 to the shearer, so most farmers actually made a loss when their sheep were clipped. Luckily, because of the work that has already been done by Prince Charles, the price of wool has begun to rise; in fact it has reached 120 pence per pound. The wool industry must maintain a price that is viable to the farmers and it is vital to educate the public about the real value of wool in many other products.
I am grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate. There are many other issues affecting the countryside that we would like to discuss but there is not time to do so today. One of the most important things is to ensure that we have a good badger cull throughout the countryside. We must also face up to avian predator control, particularly of hen harriers. However, in this debate, the most important thing is to ensure that sheep farming continues on a viable basis.
On heather moorland, by far the most prosperous activity is grouse shooting. However, we need sheep on that land in order to provide a host for the tick, which can be removed by frequent dipping. As Prince Charles has said, the economy of the upland areas of Great Britain must include farmers, shooters, hunters and the public. They are all of great value to this country.
My Lords, William Cobbett—not a favourite politician among the Bench of Bishops at the beginning of the 19th century, but a great conservative reformer—was one of the closest observers of rural life in his times. In supporting greater awareness of, and support for, the Prince’s Countryside Fund, we can learn a lesson or two from William Cobbett—to whom we incidentally owe the initiative of the publication of parliamentary debates, which became Hansard—who naturally thought Guildford,
“the prettiest, the most agreeable, and happy looking town that he ever saw”.
In October 1825, Cobbett journeyed through Surrey, and his account is in his Rural Rides. He deplored the demise of the yeoman farmer and the increasing social and economic gap between the farm worker and the newly rich squire, due largely, he argued, to the economic protectionism of the Corn Laws—eventually, as your Lordships’ House well knows, to be repealed by Robert Peel. My point is not antiquarian: Cobbett not only observed, wrote about and deplored the increasing crisis of rural poverty at the beginning of the 19th century, but he also analysed its economic causes and campaigned for reform.
The Prince’s Countryside Fund, to which the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, calls attention, has three goals. The first goal is to improve the sustainability of British farming and rural communities, especially those in greatest need. We heard something about that in relation to upland sheep farming from the previous speaker. Analysis of the causes of contemporary rural deprivation—often hidden, even in affluent Surrey—will be part of this goal. Disparities today include the gap between the largely arable agricultural units, often in the eastern and southern regions of Britain, as compared with what is virtual subsistence sheep farming in the uplands and, again, the smaller, family dairy farming in the west and in Wales. There are also issues to do with the power of purchase of supermarkets and with rural housing, about which we have been eloquently addressed by an earlier speaker.
A further goal of the Prince’s fund is to support farming and rural crisis charities in emergencies. Before I was Bishop of Guildford, I was Bishop of Stafford, covering north Staffordshire from the border with Shropshire and Cheshire to the Peak park—the Staffordshire moorlands. That was at the time of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. Staffordshire, after Cumbria and Devon, suffered devastatingly. Local livestock markets closed permanently. Farmers lost all their animals. It was not always noticed that on farms peripheral to the outbreaks beasts could not be sold or moved but still had to be fed. A farmer in this predicament said to me in a black-humoured way that he wished that I had brought foot and mouth with my wellingtons. Then at least he could have got compensation. Farmers could not leave their land; children were sent off to relatives so that they could go to school; churches and halls had to be temporarily closed; depression and suicide haunted communities. Clergy, doctors, social workers and the National Union of Farmers all had vital pastoral roles of support. Curiously, after I moved to Guildford—I trust that it was in no way connected to me personally—Surrey also had a contained, accidental outbreak in 2007 from a research institute in Pirbright, which your Lordships may remember. Local churches sent small hampers of goodies to the farmers concerned, not because there was a real need of food but as a gesture of concern. A farmer wept when he received one. The wider community was thinking of him. Pastoral care in rural emergencies is essential. Rural chaplains and pastoral care networks are at the heart of such care. The Prince’s fund will support such organisations as can offer this.
The other goal is to connect consumers with countryside issues. Cobbett, born in Farnham, knew the countryside from the inside. Today, this is not a matter simply of “townies” on the one side and the Countryside Alliance on the other; it is more complicated. In areas such as my diocese, most of Surrey and north-east Hampshire, people who work in the City or Canary Wharf, or who commute globally from Heathrow and Gatwick, like to live in rural villages. But the gap between the “newcomers” and the old villages can be vast. Churches are one place where bridges are made, where mutual understanding can be fostered. I conclude with a cautionary tale. After the foot and mouth outbreak in Surrey, I went to the reopening of a farm shop. The farmer told me that after Defra’s closure of his farm had been effected, with perfectly clear markings and notices of closure of footpaths and bridleways, some people—I am sorry to say, living locally—still insisted on crossing over the temporary barriers to walk their dogs and to ride their horses over affected land in spite of the clear danger of cross-infection. That demonstrated the disastrous lack of connection between many who now live in the countryside and the farming communities who work and preserve the countryside that people wish to live in. That gap is serious and I especially welcome therefore that goal of the Prince’s fund as well as the others.
My Lords, it is a privilege to stand here today, a Bradford councillor who has been accepted to take a seat in this wonderful, historic building, joining so many learned and talented individuals.
I shall begin my maiden speech by briefly paying tribute to the people who have made my first weeks here so pleasurable and informative. As a rural councillor, I am much more used to seeing wool markets than woolsacks, and am more experienced in village halls than in Westminster Hall. Nevertheless, the staff of this House have done everything possible to make me feel at home, and for that I am extremely grateful. I must also thank my sponsors, my noble friends Lady Hanham and Lord Bates, whose expertise and wise words will stand me in great stead for the future. I also thank my mentor, my noble friend Lady Sharples, for her instructive insights, as well as all the other Peers who have kindly given of their time and advice.
I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on calling today’s important debate. As a resident of Cottingley, in Bingley, West Yorkshire, and as an elected councillor for my ward of Bingley Rural, I hope that I may add some useful reflections to this highly topical debate on rural issues. People are often surprised when they find out that I am a councillor on the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council but that my ward consists of five beautiful villages in the glorious West Yorkshire countryside. Perhaps the misconception comes from too much television watching and possibly from comparing our cities and urban areas with Coronation Street. Coronation Street is not part of my ward, but Emmerdale almost is. The fact that rural villages sit within metropolitan boroughs shows the sheer variety and diversity of geography and population that councils cover.
My rural ward has its own unique character. The annual Bronte vintage gathering takes place in Cullingworth. In Denholme, the mill used to sustain the population; it no longer does and we have issues involving young people. In Cottingley, the famous wood where the fairies were still attracts many visitors. Wilsden is an old, beautiful stone village whereas Harden, by contrast, quite clearly sits in the commuter belt. It is all very far away from urban Bradford.
Of course, my ward faces a unique set of challenges. The local transport infrastructure and the problems that stem from increasing traffic congestion on small rural roads are constantly raised by my residents, as are questions about affordable housing and the overdevelopment to which my noble friend Lord Best referred. Local community groups, which currently do such fantastic work with groups of people suffering deprivation, are understandably worried about their future.
For example, the excellent Cornerstone Centre project in Cottingley was created through a unique collaboration among the council, the church, Futurebuilders England and local residents. This wonderful project has offered a focal point for the whole village and incorporates public services, a doctor surgery, social facilities, housing and a church. The Cornerstone Centre demonstrates clearly the enormous potential within our communities and the challenge that we face in ensuring that such excellent community schemes continue to gain support.
All the issues raised in my ward are echoed in rural areas across the country, although the specific problems require specific solutions. Like all councillors that I know, I became involved in local politics because I wanted to make a difference locally. I wanted to help to solve the problems that my ward faced. I saw the role of local government as being the mechanism for bringing different parts of the community together in the pursuit of a common goal. I saw that in 1986 when I was elected, and I still see it now.
However, when I became leader of Bradford council, I was increasingly frustrated by the constraints placed on local government by national government. We were constantly having to do an Oliver Twist and ask for more money, more funding, more powers and more freedoms to allow us to improve the lives of our residents. Those constraints have curtailed innovation, stifled creativity and made local people in rural areas feel that they are unable really to make their voices heard and their opinions count. Clearly, this needs to change.
As chairman of the national organisation the Local Government Association, my work as a local politician on the national stage has been to demonstrate clearly to national politicians that local works best and to show that Whitehall must remove the shackles that restrict councils from being the best that they can be for the people whom they serve. I am grateful that I will have the opportunity to continue that work with my noble colleagues in this House. It is fantastic to note that, on all Benches, there are confirmed localists who have done much to improve their areas and will need no persuading. I look forward to debating the best ways of progressing localism in the coming years.
It is inarguable that it is at the local level that services and policies truly touch on the lives of individuals. This is where people feel most able and willing to make a difference, whether through community action, volunteering or planning for the future of their neighbourhood. People passionately care about their neighbourhoods and it is right that our Government should seek to empower these people further. The more people feel involved, the more they will come forward with innovative and useful ideas.
It is equally important that local government remains at the heart of these reforms. The LGA’s place survey showed that people trust their local council; they know that their democratically accountable councillors are there to take decisions based on what is best for the entire area and to offer their leadership and expertise. Councillors are practised in joining services together and in making a difference in projects that affect their communities.
I believe passionately that this new localism can make a lasting difference in Bingley Rural and in wards like it across the country, but it has to bring with it a real, sweeping reform to the way in which our systems work. I believe that this localism has three key attributes. First, localism is about giving all people the power to guide the development of their area. Secondly, it requires partnership working between business, charities, community groups and local service providers, which all have one thing in common: they want their local area to succeed. Thirdly, localism requires an understanding of how each local area fits into the wider picture. No community is an island and, inevitably, every decision made will have an impact across the area.
This radical work must be the goal of any truly localist Government. As a local councillor in the House of Lords, I look forward to playing my part in ensuring this freedom and to working with noble Lords on all sides of the House to make the idea a reality.
My Lords, it is not a duty but a pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lady Eaton on her maiden speech. She and I served together on the board of the Conservative Party and have been saying for months—nay, years—that we must have lunch together. Now that her maiden speech is done and dusted to such effect, I particularly look forward to that pleasure. She comes to your Lordships’ House as chairman of the Local Government Association and from north of the Trent. I have always taken the view that Conservative Party policy on local government is best shaped by those who have had actual experience of local government and I look forward to many more contributions in this House from my noble friend on these subjects.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on having secured this debate so soon after having taken part in the rural debate before the Recess and on having persuaded my noble friend Lord Kimball to speak, so that we have had two Kimbles for the price of one. I also congratulate him on his admirable opening speech.
Sir Francis Burdett, who was for 30 years Member of Parliament for Westminster and a strong radical, eventually retired to Wiltshire, where he became Member of Parliament for North Wiltshire, hunted three days a week and became a high Tory. After 24 years as Sir Francis Burdett’s distant successor for Westminster, I, too, have retired to Wiltshire, although unlike Sir Francis I do not hunt three times a week and our hamlet is denoted as “Lower”.
It used to be said that, if Yorkshire cricket was in good shape, so was English cricket. I declare an interest not only in cricket but in West Yorkshire, which is the global centre of gravity for the worldwide network of Brookes. In the same way, I believe passionately that, if the countryside and the rural economy are not in good shape, the whole country is unlikely to be so. The principal beneficiaries of the Prince’s fund, to which this debate is devoted, include, as has been said, the programme Pub is the Hub in Wales. Although I am half Welsh—I, too, mourn the loss of the late Richard Livsey from our debates on these subjects—I live in Wiltshire rather than in Wales. In the local government parish of Sutton Mandeville, however, we have both a pub and a church as our community buildings. The pub, the “Compasses”, has several times been voted the best in the county, which I regard as a good omen for the Welsh pub project.
The second beneficiary, I note, is the farmer network which operates in Cumbria and the Yorkshire dales and will, over two years, use the fund’s contribution to develop a hill-farmer apprenticeship scheme in Cumbria. Some in your Lordships’ House today will recall the debate devoted to the rural uplands that my noble friend Lord Greaves initiated before the Recess, in which my noble friend Lord Gardiner also spoke. Whoever else does not read the debates of your Lordships’ House, His Royal Highness the Prince clearly does because of the way in which he has devoted this aspect of the fund to the uplands, and all credit to him.
Thirdly, in this 150th anniversary year of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, whose financial appeal under my noble friend Lord Plumb is such a roaring success, the fund’s reserve for the farm charities is still a very prudent move. If my noble friend Lord Gardiner can do so at the end of the debate, I hope that he might confirm that with the personal contributions that individuals can make to the fund over the post office counter, which is said to be available as a scheme in the autumn, the first week in October counts as part of the autumn. I look forward to making my first contribution to the fund in our local post office over this weekend.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner on securing this debate. It is very opportune to talk about rural affairs and to link them with urban affairs in the context of the work that His Royal Highness himself is involved in. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware of the tremendous work that he has been doing, particularly in the field of mutton and wool, which my noble friend Lord Gardiner referred to earlier. He has made a world of difference to both, and we are beginning to see that represented through the price of them both. It is natural, then, that we are aware of his interest in and commitment to rural as well as urban affairs. He has created the brainchild of the countryside fund, raising money from more than 15 organisations, with founding companies already pledging well over £1 million with the objective of improving the status of British farming.
We all know that, in these days, practices in science and advanced technology have revolutionised farming, but farmers have limited access to the technology of many urban areas and are hampered by poor access to broadband, which quite obviously needs to be improved, as has already been said. Yet to create a fund which will, I am sure, grow over the years, it is essential that assistance is directed at areas in need for innovation. Many farmers, as His Royal Highness made clear when opening this fund, are invaluable and form a unique part of our country’s heritage and culture. He said that their intuition and wisdom, built over a long period of time, had been handed down from generation to generation, and he commented that as with their hefted flocks of sheep, there are hefted people whose future is linked to the whole of the country.
What is badly needed is the realisation that there is a rising problem of retaining the next generation on farms, particularly of family and livestock farmers in marginal areas where farming plays such a marginal role as part of the overall viability of rural areas. The main stumbling block is the difficulty in obtaining planning consent to build affordable houses on farms to stop the outward migration of young people, many of whom are currently training. Universities and colleges are full of young people who see an important future for production of food and energy and in the many related sectors. I am very interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Best; I know he has a wealth of experience in that field. We look forward to his support.
The Prince's Countryside Fund is reserving a portion of funding to be used in times of crisis. We are all aware of the devastating impact of foot and mouth disease, floods, drought and now bovine TB, with the loss of 40,000 cattle a year. The existing farm charities welcome this, and have haunting memories of administering emergency relief in all those cases. The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution is celebrating 150 years of its existence this year, as my noble friend Lord Brooke said, raising funds in celebration for the benefit of many farming families and farm workers. One of the most encouraging responses to the Prince's initiative comes from supporting businesses, all of which believe and state that a strong, effective rural community is the bedrock of wider countryside prosperity. This strengthens the commercial relationship with the producer, which is good for the nation's economy.
The countryside as we know it is a living, breathing workplace for everyone to appreciate, and it is essential that we help to increase self-sufficiency in the food supply and products for energy production. We must safeguard jobs, care for the environment and ensure a stable and lasting economy. Farmers are the stewards of the environment.
My Lords, in making my first speech in this place, I put on record my appreciation of the extremely friendly welcome that I have had, and particularly the extraordinarily helpful offers of support from staff here. I only hope that my reception will be as friendly after I have made a few contributions as it has been in advance. I start by explaining my interest in this debate, not least in declaring some interests. I chair the National Housing Federation and, in an unpaid capacity, the Rural Coalition, which has been referred to and which brings together organisations such as the Country Landowners Association, CPRE, the Town and Country Planning Association, the RTPI, ACRE and the Local Government Association. Because I shall touch on some of the issues, I should also say that I chair the strategic partnership which is for delivering eco-communities—the so-called eco-towns—in St Austell in Cornwall.
I therefore have a very specific set of interests. However, my longest interest was to be a Member of Parliament for Truro and St Austell, which is not just a rural constituency but one of the poorest constituencies in the country, reflecting many of the issues that have been touched on in this extremely important debate, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. So I have experienced the pressures that we are talking about today close up in one of the areas hardest hit. I have seen not just the problems but the entrepreneurialism typical of rural communities, where people are more likely to be self-employed on a low income than unemployed. I have seen, too, the importance of self-help and community, which I want to return to in a few moments. I was also privileged to be asked by the last Prime Minister to conduct a formal government review on rural housing and rural economies. That was an extraordinarily useful experience and built many relationships between all those interested in these issues. I hope that it contributed in some way to making a difference.
I did not come today to speak in this debate just to introduce myself. I came to introduce my views, which were well expressed on these issues with the publication in August of the Rural Coalition’s report, The Rural Challenge. It is not a moan, and it is not about the neediness of rural communities; it is about the things that the Government need to do to empower rural communities, where there is a spirit of entrepreneurialism and self-help, to deliver for themselves. It is a report about the way in which the big society already exists in little communities but is held back in so many ways from delivering all that it could, and is at risk from decisions taken in a primarily urban context, from the context of a big picture of government, without addressing the real needs of small rural communities and how they actually work.
I have very little time and will skip through the five key themes. I can barely touch on them, and I hope that people will take the chance to look up The Rural Challenge and see more of it. This is a mere taster.
First, I passionately believe that in the last 10 or 15 years there has been a big change in attitudes in villages, from being pretty resistant to new homes—not least to new affordable homes—to what is almost a campaigning zeal to acquire affordable homes, providing that they are in perpetuity to meet local needs. Yet they have not found the mechanisms to deliver on that. If we empower communities, especially parishes through community-led planning, we can ensure that the small numbers of homes are built in each village that are needed to address the terrible long-term needs. In some places, immigration in from wealthier areas, combined with very low incomes and planning controls which have restricted affordable housing development in the past—though quite rightly in many cases—along with selling off what affordable housing there was, have come together to kill many villages as working, living communities. I welcome the Government’s commitment to right-to-build in that context, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said earlier, although the Government have reduced the referendum requirement from 90 per cent support to 75 per cent and from all those on the register to only those who actually vote, nevertheless the hurdle remains too big for many communities. The parish and community might support a development, but to empower the nimbies in a referendum to get only the 25 per cent support needed to block it will mean that a very good government policy will not be as effective as it should be.
We cannot talk about the problems of housing and low incomes without addressing the issue of jobs. We need a planning system that is responsive to the world as it is and which recognises that a job in an office and the opportunity to have a small extension on the side of a home to employ a home-based employee for a home-based business is as important as having the sheds typically associated with old-style rural business. It must be recognised that rural market towns are at the centre of rural communities; we talk about villages, but we need to remember that the towns are important, too. There we need to deliver whole neighbourhoods and communities the workplaces and facilities—not just the houses—rather than continuing to ring our market towns with unattractive, unsuitable and ultimately self-defeating suburban estates of houses that do nothing to build rural employment and services.
Finally, in the context of the cuts that are coming—and I do not argue that cuts are not a realistic necessity in the present environment—we need to remember that in many rural communities it is a question of having any service at all, not of a choice of services. I beg the Government, in making decisions in the CSR, to recognise in rural communities that having some service, even if it is not the full service that you might expect in a large town, let alone a choice of services, should be a first priority when taking decisions in spending cuts. It is all too easy to say that a bus service, shop, community facility or extended service out into the countryside serves only a handful at high cost when it is the only service and facility. I ask that when cuts are made, if they are made, that is remembered and that if cuts need to be made in those rural communities some of those savings are offered to the community for the community itself to deliver alternatives. The bus service run by the local community with a minibus and volunteer drivers can be the solution, but even that takes money.
I thank noble Lords for allowing me to stray a little over my time, which was not intended.
My Lords, it is a delight for me to follow my longstanding friend, not only in the political sense in this House but from many years of campaigning together on these sorts of issues. When my noble friend Lord Taylor was first elected, he was for 10 years the youngest Member of the House of Commons. He won his seat at the age of 24, he took a senior spokesmanship at the age of 26 and he has just made a remarkable speech that I am sure will make us look forward to his contributions in the Upper Chamber. We are a little older than those he would have found in the other Chamber, but we will listen with great excitement and we look forward to the future. My noble friend followed another distinguished Member of Parliament in Cornwall, David Penhaligon, and both of them have kept that part of Cornwall at the forefront of our attention and served it remarkably well. We welcome him, and he knows that he is among good friends here in the Upper Chamber.
I am deeply concerned by a statement that has been made about the grants to 50 Welsh pubs. There is going to be a massive queue of applications for these grants, and they might need as a referee a teetotal Welsh Methodist minister to try to sort it out.
I shall concentrate on one or two subjects—briefly, because others want to speak. The first is the need for co-operation within the countryside. We are told that Defra does this, the health service does that and the Department for Transport does the other, but to serve the rural community we have somehow to bring these organisations together so that each knows exactly what the others are doing. People sometimes say, “They dig up the road for the gas people this week, for the electricity people the next week and for fresh sewers the following week”. We need co-operation and understanding between the various organisations that are part of community life. That applies not only on the outside but on the inside as well, within the communities. Many communities now are a shadow of what they used to be. Can we not somehow encourage local community councils in Wales and parish councils in England to work together and decide that certain aspects of their responsibilities are better attended to on a co-operative basis, working together on many of the issues?
I would also like to suggest that we need somehow to encourage local organisations to put their members up for election to the community or parish council. Often you find empty places in the nomination list. You will find that many people have come to live in the area, and they are very welcome to take their place, but we also want members of the Women’s Institute, the Mothers’ Union, the NFU, the FUW, the young farmers’ clubs or the Merched y Wawr in Wales—the community organisations—to be able to have their voices heard in the running of the local communities. In many villages and local communities, I do not think that party politics should play a big part. It is the individuals, the individual communities and the community organisations that should be listened to. The local community council or the parish council should be a forum where the young farmers, the older farmers, even the 50 pub landlords, the church minister and the others can speak as representatives and bring their own life to their communities.
As we have seen, certain communities are not viable in themselves. Perhaps there is no doctor’s surgery, the bank visits for only half a day a week or the school somehow has to come to some sort of relationship with neighbouring schools. All these things mean that those communities should work together by having an agreed hub. I do not mean in a self-interested way; rather, one village might be able to provide the facilities needed to keep a number of villages together.
Finally, we must ensure, as has already been mentioned, that agricultural workers are respected and shown that they are still a greatly valued part of their communities. The Agricultural Wages Board is threatened with abolition, and we need to discuss that in great depth. Often the smaller farms, and I speak only for areas with small farms, have only one or two employees. Without some larger organisation to speak for them, their negotiations and agreements will be very difficult to undertake.
This has been a valuable debate. There is much more to be said, and I am sure that in the coming months we will be able to say a great deal more.
My Lords, I am honoured to address this House for the first time and delighted to have the opportunity to do so in support of my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who has initiated this timely debate on the challenges facing rural communities.
With my background in human resources and recruitment, I have naturally taken a degree of interest in the induction programme for this House. I am most grateful for the professional help and support that I have received.
As the fifth viscount, I am acutely mindful of the profound shift in priorities that our nation has undergone as I look back on the maiden speeches of my immediate forebears. They chose traditional ground, my grandfather in 1963 raising the subject of British industrial policy, and my father in 1992 speaking of the challenges of defence and the impact of Options for Change—a theme that resonates today in this most difficult fiscal climate. It is a measure of our changing priorities as a nation and of how the Conservative Party itself has changed that I wish to indulge your Lordships’ time today on the more untraditional but topical subject of the big society.
I believe that the ideas from this new Government that have brought this theme to the public’s attention are important and relevant, not just to our inner cities but to our rural communities. I hope and believe that we are at the beginning of the cultural, moral and behavioural shift that is required to rekindle the community spirit in Britain. The big society, and the examples of its work around the country, will inspire and persuade responsible adults to open their front doors and reach out to help their neighbours and their neighbourhoods. Individuals are being liberated to rebuild their communities and to wield once more the power of voluntary association. Within my own political area of Buckingham there are examples of volunteers funding and building a youth centre. In Milton Keynes, food banks have been set up whereby donations from the public provide funds for emergency food preparation and distribution to the vulnerable.
Voluntary work and self-help are hardly new, though; the philosopher Edmund Burke spoke of “little platoons” that long formed the bulwark of civil society. Today there continue to be unsung heroes who work for no pay. They make up less than half the UK population, but surveys show that 11 million more would do so if only they were asked. This response may seem paradoxical in a supposedly time-poor society, with numbers of dual earners and long-distance commuters on the rise. However, there is also a growth of home workers and the part-time self-employed, which provides a countercyclical trend and a potential well of opportunity for the voluntary sector.
For decades now, many of our Burkean subdivisions and little platoons have suffered the negative impacts of technological progress and consumerism. Community work has waned. We have been increasingly persuaded to stay inside our homes by ever more complex and compelling communications gadgetry. We are, to borrow the title from the writer Neil Postman’s prescient book from 1984, “amusing ourselves to death”. Recently published figures show that the average Briton spends more than seven hours a day—almost half their waking hours—watching television, e-mailing, browsing the web or texting. Those volumes have jumped fourfold since 2004. There are now 12.5 million BlackBerrys, compared with 5.5 million just two years ago. Electronic social networking can be made to benefit local communities. However, it is as important to restore the physicality of community work, along with the personal, interactive and local bonds that stimulate creativity and action.
The remote areas of my native Scotland provide some examples of how the big society continues to operate well where infrequent or no local services prevail. Post offices—even islands—are self-governed, even as they struggle to overcome a host of rural challenges. To speak of the big society is to question fundamentally how we should lead our lives. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister emphasised yesterday, for too long now we have looked to the state for answers in providing services. The time has now come to look to one another and those closest to hand. The resources and funding can be found, whether through the generous pledges made by businesses in the Prince’s Countryside Fund, the release of funds in dormant bank accounts or the careful redirection of lottery funds. What we need are local leaders and champions who can step forward to translate ideas into action and form individuals into powerful groups. A cohesive group engenders trust—a trust that leads to harmony, action and results.
The big society is not about reducing expenditure for its own sake; it is a long-term process of behavioural change in the mindset of the individual that allows for taking responsibility. I hope that the growing debate on this subject can help us to reawaken, one “little platoon” at a time, our national community spirit.
My Lords, it falls to me to congratulate my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie on his excellent maiden speech. I do so wholeheartedly. He comes to your Lordships’ House with great experience of both rural Buckinghamshire and rural Scotland, as his speech revealed, and he has clearly picked up his late father’s political mantle effortlessly. He also comes to us with an enviable track record as a headhunter, so he will prove more than adequate in assessing your Lordships. We have appreciated and enjoyed my noble friend’s contribution today. I know your Lordships will, like me, look forward to many more speeches from my noble friend in the years to come.
The whole House is in the debt of my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble for giving us this opportunity to debate rural matters—a subject that has been sorely neglected over the past few years. Indeed, it is splendid to see such a strong speakers’ list, reflecting the degree of expertise on the countryside that this House has traditionally had. I declare an interest as deputy chairman of the Countryside Alliance and chairman of the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports.
At the same time, we are being given an unusual but welcome opportunity to congratulate the Prince of Wales on the launch of the Prince’s Countryside Fund. The Prince comes in for a great deal of criticism, most of it undeserved, and not enough credit is given to him for the extraordinary, incredible network of foundations and charities that he has created, threading through so many areas of our national life. Over the years he has displayed a knack for identifying those issues and parts of society that have been abandoned by circumstances, or allowed to fall between two stools.
It is a fact of early 21st century life that for many people in Britain the countryside is a foreign country, in a way that it is not in most other European countries. The vast majority of our people have completely lost touch with their rural heritage. Although they seem to appreciate the country in the way that we appreciate a beautiful piece of art in a museum, they have no understanding of it as a living entity. In particular, we seem to have severed the connection between the food on our tables and the process by which it gets there. Farming and the rural way of life have become undervalued as well as misunderstood, which has led to many people who live in the countryside, particularly those working in agriculture and related industries, feeling that they are under siege in some way. In my village there is a young lad who works in the kennels but has college friends in London. He is a highly intelligent and articulate young man, but he told me that when he comes to London to a party with his old college friends, he lies about his job because they would not understand or would laugh at him. I suspect he is probably right.
Where I live, in Gloucestershire, is traditionally cattle country—both beef and dairy cattle. However, there are very few animals to be seen now. The older farmers do not want to get up to milk their cows at four in the morning, and their sons and daughters certainly do not. They have seen what happened to their parents. Milk quotas have therefore been sold and farmers approach retirement with no one to take on the farm. Unless we are careful we shall end up with farmhouses let or sold as weekend retreats, and the land simply ranched or used as toy farms for city dwellers’ recreation.
This year I have noticed more and more maize being grown as cattle feed—because it pays—but fewer and fewer cattle to eat it. I keep asking my farming friends why they are growing it, who buys it and where are the cattle to eat it, but I have not had an answer yet. This, I suspect, is farming as directed by central planning in Brussels, rather than in response to a local market. The growth in population and the pressure of climate change both mean that we cannot afford to allow our limited land space on this tiny island to go to waste. One of the reasons that this island is the envy of our European neighbours is because we have looked after our countryside so well. That has been achieved not by government diktat, but by the men and women who live on and farm the land.
By focusing on the problems of specialist farmers and farming communities, such as those in the uplands, and by identifying exactly what their most pressing needs are, and addressing them, the Prince’s Countryside Fund will help some of the most vulnerable farmers and farming communities in Britain, ensuring that the weakest but most important threads in the wonderful tapestry of rural Britain are strengthened and enabled to continue their work. If we ever lose that expertise, we shall never get it back, and as the pressure to produce grows in the years to come, we shall need that expertise more and more. At the same time, by connecting consumers to the issues that beset the countryside, the fund will, I hope, start to reconnect the British people to their rural heritage and help them to understand and appreciate its importance, as they used to naturally.
Rural Britain has had a pretty bum deal for the last few years. Foot and mouth disease was colossally mishandled by the previous Government. There have been bird flu scares; increasing and unaddressed bovine tuberculosis; the continual loss of rural services and amenities; rising unemployment; and a Government largely indifferent to these problems, but at the same time seemingly intent on imposing their own alien metropolitan agenda—even by means of the criminal law. Mr Blair’s confession in his recently published memoirs, that he knew the hunting ban was wrong but did nothing to prevent its passage, is quite extraordinary. The claim that he was personally responsible for the loopholes in the law is frankly just fantasy—an appalling and shaming example of government at its worst.
I hope that can now change. We cannot solve every problem overnight but what we can do is send a message to rural Britain that it has a Government who understand and care, and are prepared to listen and then act. As so often in so many areas of our national life, through his foundation of the Prince’s Countryside Fund the Prince of Wales has led by example. I look forward to my noble friend the Minister telling your Lordships exactly how the Government intend to follow his example.
My Lords, I declare an interest as both president of the Countryside Alliance and a small hill farmer living in a rural community. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, for having the foresight to put his name down in the ballot for this debate. However, I have to upbraid him with the fact that this debate could have been sustained over five hours and we could all then have had the run of our teeth. We have all had to curtail what we would have liked to say because of the time restraints.
The first thing I want to say is: God bless the Prince of Wales. He is much criticised but thank goodness we have an heir who does not spend his time in waiting without giving a lead when he sees that something is seriously wrong. Something is seriously wrong because the greatest national asset that we possess—our countryside—is being eroded and falling away before our very eyes. I also say how lucky we are that supermarkets, which are so often criticised, have a leader in Mark Price, who has been instrumental in what has been done here. Both he and the Prince deserve great credit for bringing together such an impressive team of business leaders who also care about the countryside.
I do not know where we went wrong but somewhere along the line we stopped explaining to people why the countryside really matters, not just to those who live or work there but to every one of us. During the recent Labour leadership election campaign, I am sorry to say that not one of the candidates in any of the literature I received soliciting my various votes made any mention whatever of the countryside, yet all those people eat and drink, as do every one of us, and every mouthful they take is the direct result of the skill and effort of someone somewhere in the countryside rearing or growing that food, and living for the most part in a rural community. It seemed from the various addresses that there was very much concern about climate change, but the truth of the matter is that if the world population goes on growing a worldwide food shortage is likely to be the earlier of the catastrophes that strike us. Yet we seem to think that, as a rich nation, all we have to do is go out and get our food from somewhere else, and as a result year after year we produce less and less of what we need; I think that the present figure is down to some 41 per cent only.
Rural communities are suffering. The Prince provided us with figures at the launch. Last year farmers in the uplands made an average loss of £3,000 each, and even in the lowlands an average grazing livestock farm made a profit of £1,500, yet they produce superb food and work so hard. We need farms first of all for food. We need them now and will need them even more in the future. Then we need them above all for the landscape, which would not exist if farmers did not do what they do. Without those rural communities, living, working villages would be replaced by scrubland and ghost villages, shuttered and empty outside holiday times.
I agree with every noble Lord who has spoken in this debate, particularly those who spoke about housing, broadband and rural services such as post offices, shops and pubs. All those things are necessary but above all rural people need once again to have control over their way of life. However, in the long term the most important and urgent need that we have—I hope that the Prince’s Fund may be able to help with this—is for education. We are bringing up most of our children in this country with a layer of concrete between them and the earth. We must take the countryside into classrooms and we must get classes out into the countryside so that the next generation will understand better and value more what we have on our doorsteps, which, in my view, as I said, is our greatest national asset.
The countryside matters not just for food, recreation or its different way of life. Each of the leadership candidates spoke repeatedly about the need for change, but at least as important is the need for continuity, which nobody mentioned. The countryside is our continuity. The well loved places, the tranquillity, the feeling of going out there but feeling at home and finding our roots is what gives us a sense of belonging. The countryside is all our yesterdays. Unless we act now, it will no longer be there for the children of tomorrow.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on securing this debate. I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that we could have done with a five-hour debate. I remind the House of my family’s farming interests and of my association with several rural charities which are on the register. This debate reflects the concerns that many of us have about the future of the countryside and is very timely. The recent launch of the Prince's Countryside Fund aims to improve the long-term viability of the British countryside and its rural communities. I refer to a project that has already been mentioned as it is hugely important: that is, the hill farming succession scheme, which will train eight young people in hill farming skills. They will gain experience from working with farmers and will have the chance to attend local agricultural colleges.
In that vein, only three weeks ago I attended the graduation ceremony at Harper Adams University College and was struck by the diversification of courses and the range of ages of those receiving their awards. I am pleased to say that the pure agriculture course attracted 26 per cent of the students, the agricultural engineering course, which is the only national one left, 13 per cent and the rural enterprise and land management course 17 per cent. Other courses included animal and veterinary nursing, food business and environmental, leisure and tourism courses. For me that underlined the variety of jobs within the countryside and the need for all of us to work together to strengthen those communities.
The NFU briefing reported that the rural economy turns over £300 billion each year, employs 5.5 million people and, most importantly, has farming at its centre. Twenty per cent of registered farm holdings produce 80 per cent of the output value, which reminds us that we have many smaller farm holdings, some of which, as we have heard, particularly those in the upland areas, struggle to make a living. The Prince’s Trust offers them great opportunities. On my travels around farms one of the commonest gripes I still hear from farmers and others in business is about the amount of regulation and red tape that has dogged industry. I particularly welcome the steps this Government are taking to review regulatory burdens. The other gripe, which I am afraid is still ongoing, is about the continued failure of the Rural Payments Agency to deliver payments on time and about the maladministration and poor communication that only adds to farmers’ frustration.
This short debate gives me the opportunity to pose questions, as others have done, about the long-term sustainability of the countryside, and to ask how the Government see this objective being achieved. How will we manage to feed the expected growing populations, rising from 6.5 billion to 9 billion, on less land, with increasing climate change reflected in extreme droughts and floods worldwide, and at a time when we see natural resources being depleted? Certainly, the UK may well benefit from a warmer climate, with extended growing seasons, but that carries the increased risk of pest and disease outbreaks.
For me, research and development are key to the challenges we face and I know that my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach has been doing some important work on this issue, which we will, I hope, hear more about shortly. Scientific research is expensive, be it undertaken by governments or private businesses, but surely we should encourage co-operative work projects and research findings to be shared, which would benefit our country and developing countries.
As other noble Lords have suggested, I believe that there is an urgent challenge to tell people about their food, where it comes from and how it has been produced. It is a great sadness to me that too many have become detached from basic food production. Organisations such as FACE, the NFU, WFU and LEAF, with all of which I am associated, and others regularly engage in this work but it is a huge job. Some 180,000 people visited LEAF farms in June this year. That is a start but it needs to be replicated on many occasions. I hope that people will continue to visit farms and the countryside to gain that wonderful experience of understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced. I welcome the proposed national citizen service which is due to start next year and ask the Government please not to forget the countryside in that regard. It would be an ideal place for some of the projects to take place, even perhaps working with our wildlife trusts. This is a very important opportunity for us to speak on this topic. There is much more to be said. I look forward to hearing other contributions.
My Lords, I preface my few remarks in this debate—which has been so ably introduced, in a sparkling manner, by my noble friend Lord Gardiner—by declaring that I am a farmer in Cumbria, chair Carr’s Milling Industries, a FTSE company based in Cumbria, and am trustee of much of upper Teesdale.
In talking about poverty and deprivation in the countryside, we need to be clear about definitions. I am talking about that bit of rural Britain where the agricultural sector in one form or another is the basis of all that goes on there. I want to make a distinction between that and suburbia or commuter land.
Secondly, while obviously poverty is not confined to the countryside, I will talk about those who were described graphically by my honourable friend the Member for Penrith and the Border—to the sneers of some of the metropolitan intelligentsia—as those with binder twine holding up their trousers. In the Upper Eden Valley, it is a badge of honour.
I will start by looking at another place that has a single industry: Barrow-in-Furness, where they build Trident submarines. When there is work in the shipyards, there is prosperity; when there is none, there is poverty. Wealth is the basis of prosperity and prosperous communities. The problems in the countryside go back to Article 39 of the treaty of the European Union. We have failed,
“to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture”.
How does this happen? The output of a rural community of the type that I am describing falls into three parts: food and other physical outputs, the environment and food security. Over many years, the controlled marketplace for primary products has meant that producers have not been paid the proper value of what they do, but rather its cost and, if they are lucky, a tiny margin. The purchasers of agricultural products—one only has to look at the briefing document from the Prince’s Countryside Fund—pride themselves on using local produce, yet they pay the world price and ignore the fact that better and local products are worth more to them. The Government, as a clearing house for the rest of us, are the only purchaser of environmental services, which they do on the cheapest possible basis, disregarding the value of what they obtain and merely offering Hobson's choice, tied to the negotiating strength of a monopoly purchaser. Finally, food security is a form of insurance: you only need it when it is too late. I merely add that I wish that I could insure my house on the same terms as the country gets food security.
All credit to Prince Charles for being one of the first people to appreciate the characteristics and implications of the way in which the agricultural marketplace works, and for initiating a number of projects directed at some of its direr consequences. I think that I speak for all noble Lords in the Chamber when I say that none of us has been the heir to any throne. However, it seems that people are drawn towards the heir to the throne as moths are drawn to a candle. Businesses and businessmen enjoy being reflected in the penumbra of majesty. All credit to Prince Charles for drawing in these businessmen to publicly accept the problems engendered by the industries in which they are engaged. Good for them; but let us be clear that the sums of money that they are committing are, in the context of the businesses that they run, absolute peanuts. For them it is the equivalent of giving 1p to a beggar in the street.
If this is not mere tokenism and salving a guilty conscience, there is a further step. The businesses—the purchasers in this marketplace—must accept that fair trade, like charity, begins at home. Pay the worth of what you buy from British agriculture to enable it to have a proper margin, and not the lowest price that you can squeeze out of a controlled marketplace in which you are an oligopolistic purchaser. As a starting point, perhaps consider a price that gives the kind of margin and return on capital that your shareholders, and the analysts, expect from you.
To the Government, I say: what about making sure that the rate of return that the Treasury expects from publicly owned assets is granted equally to those providing environmental services?
I say to Prince Charles: I hope that you will stipulate that those who share your brand and support your initiatives conduct the rest of their businesses in line with the principles that they have espoused; because if not, they are hijacking your brand and debasing it, and leading you by the nose. However, if they do, many concerns that you have championed will be much closer to resolution, and you will be able to lead those with binder twine around their trousers towards the sunny uplands.
My Lords, when I was growing up in rural County Down, I never envisaged that there would come a day when rural living would come to be thought of as something exotic and unusual; something, indeed, to be protected and nourished. But that is where we find ourselves today.
The post-war generation was brought up on the slogan “Dig for Victory”. We took it for granted in those days that self-sufficiency was the natural order of things. Seasonal vegetables were just that—seasonal, not air-freighted. Rural practicalities infused every aspect of society in Northern Ireland. People were very close to the land. There were few who could not name a close relative who lived on, and worked, the land.
I moved to suburbia many years ago and have no plans to join the recent trend for country living, but I have not forgotten my roots. Nor do I imagine that sentiment alone will save the countryside—it will not. However, practical support and a proper appreciation of how rural life has shaped the national character will. For those reasons, I am very keen to welcome the Prince's Countryside Fund.
Some people will ask: “What is the problem? We live in an urbanised, service-based economy linked to global trading patterns. The countryside is not going anywhere. There are more pressing things to concern ourselves with”. We should be concerned, though. How often have we seen today's complacency translate itself into tomorrow's failings?
Anyone who visits Northern Ireland cannot help but be impressed by the rural beauty of the Province. Agriculture and rural life still play a more dominant role in this part of the kingdom than elsewhere, and our countryside reflects that stewardship. However, all is not well in the countryside. Currently, 80 per cent of the land in Ulster is used for agriculture. More than one-third of our people are rural dwellers, compared to just one in five in the UK as a whole. Agriculture's gross value add to the local Northern Ireland economy stands at almost 2 per cent—four times the national average—and our agri-food sector has been one of the few success stories during the past few years of global economic turmoil.
Maintaining the fabric of rural life is more important to Northern Ireland than to other regions of the kingdom. However, if you scratch beneath the surface and look beyond the tidy fields and hedgerows of Antrim and Londonderry and the orchards of Armagh, there has been a massive change. The relative importance of agriculture to Northern Ireland's economy has halved in the past 15 years. The number of farms in the Province has fallen by a third since 1980 and the number of people working on farms has halved; yet the average farm size is still about half that of the average UK farm size.
Fewer of our farms have diversified into areas such as tourism or direct produce sales—a poor 6 per cent compared to 20 per cent in England; higher value organic farming is seven times less prevalent; and a massive 87 per cent of our farmers cite practical experience as their sole basis for farm management. Incomes in the wider rural community remain lower than in urban areas, full-time employment is more difficult to come by, and access to public services and affordable housing remains a challenge.
When the Prince of Wales launched the countryside fund, he stated:
“I for one want to keep our countryside a living, breathing, working place so that it is there for everyone to appreciate”.
I agree wholeheartedly. I, too, want everyone to enjoy the countryside. But I also want Northern Ireland to achieve more from farmland, which I believe is our single greatest national resource.
In the UK, we need to learn to appreciate the long-term strategic and environmental benefits of producing a greater proportion of our food supplies locally. In Northern Ireland, in particular, we need to look at ways to push agricultural production further up the value chain. Maximising the potential of our countryside is not just about amalgamating farms or dispatching farmers off to college to learn about the latest techniques. It is also about sustaining and supporting rural communities. It is about creating an environment where the sons and daughters of today's farmers can see a viable and profitable future from the land, and imagine a community in which they would like to stay and raise their own families. This touches on issues of housing, education, local retail services, a local post office—the list is endless.
For that reason, I commend the countryside fund and congratulate those in business who have committed financially to its operation. I also trust that the fund will go on to provide practical support throughout the kingdom; and, perhaps more importantly, to act as a pathfinder to devise and develop new programmes and projects that will be copied and that will help to inform government policy.
I am delighted that we have been given this opportunity to draw attention to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, which is the latest of His Royal Highness’s countryside initiatives and probably his most ambitious. I have a personal reason for speaking today as for the past 11 years I have been Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire, and in that time I have accompanied the Prince of Wales on 18 visits to the county. Many of these visits have had a rural theme and during several of them he has launched rural initiatives. I should like to tell the House about some of the visits, which show how over a long period the Prince of Wales has been of enormous support to the countryside.
The prince is always tremendously welcomed everywhere he goes because people living in rural communities see him as their most determined champion. His visits always have a practical outcome for those whom he visits. He has the ability to bring people and organisations together for their mutual benefit, and frequently these are people who would not normally have a reason to sit down together at the same table. The Prince’s Countryside Fund is an excellent case in point. Who else could have persuaded some of the biggest food retailers and companies to contribute to the fund to help the farming community?
I am delighted that His Royal Highness has chosen to launch a number of his royal initiatives in North Yorkshire. In November 1999 at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes, he launched Dales Action for Rural Enterprise—DARE. This was part of the Rural Revival Initiative. In December 2001, I was with him when he launched the Pub is the Hub, which has featured in today’s debate, at a charming pub in Stainforth called the Craven Heifer. Here in this village pub, we have the post office, the village shop and the public house, and this concept has spread successfully across the country. I am pleased that one of the first grants from the fund, for £126,000, is to develop the Pub is the Hub scheme in Wales.
It is worth mentioning that on the same day that the Prince of Wales launched the Pub is the Hub in 2001, he also went to the Craven auction mart and met farmers and those affected by foot and mouth, which had such a devastating effect. He is wonderful at meeting people who have been in difficulties such as that. We also went to Knayton village hall that day and, as though that was not enough, we then went on to Settle for a meeting with small businesses set up under the Dales project, and he launched the Rural Opportunities for Self-Employment project—ROSE. All these visits were accomplished between 10 am and 4 pm with the help of a helicopter. I should also mention that he was one of the first people to give to the foot and mouth cause, donating £500,000.
The Prince of Wales visits agricultural shows all over the country and has been to the Great Yorkshire Show twice in my time. However, perhaps the most dramatic North Yorkshire visit was to the Nidderdale show at Pateley Bridge in September 2003. The weather was quite appalling, and at the end of the day I had never seen a pair of trousers with so much mud attached. As he said to one farmer who had commented on it, “It’s going to be a bit of a challenge for the dry cleaners”. Some of the comments in the press made it clear that the farmers who spoke to him were very impressed and absolutely delighted that he had been there. “He really knows his stuff”, one of them said.
On another visit in February 2004, His Royal Highness arranged a round-table discussion about the importance of the quality of school meals with teachers, caterers, producers and others. This theme, as we all know, was then taken up by Jamie Oliver. On the same day, he visited an affordable rural housing project in Kettlewell, and again there was a round-table discussion with relevant bodies about the importance of affordable rural housing. The Prince of Wales initiative on affordable housing was made use of in the important review of affordable housing chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, whose maiden speech we have just heard.
All of us today welcome the Prince’s Countryside Fund, which operates under Business in the Community, of which the Prince of Wales has been president for 25 years. The Prince’s Countryside Fund was launched in July and has made a splendid start. What is crucial, of course, is that more companies that share a concern for the future of the British countryside join this groundbreaking cause-related marketing campaign, be they retailers, banks, accountants, agricultural feed companies or the hospitality sector. They all benefit from a vibrant rural community, so I suggest that they should all be part of this new and very welcome initiative.
As has been said, we all owe His Royal Highness a great debt of gratitude for always having been so forward looking with his initiatives, for his passion for the countryside and its people and for his determination to make life better for those who work there. The Prince of Wales is one of the most caring and knowledgeable people I have ever met, and spending the time that I have with him has been both a privilege and a pleasure.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, on securing this important debate. As a senior executive of the Countryside Alliance, he understands the complexities and fragilities of rural life only too well.
Let me say that I unequivocally support the enthusiasm, focus and foresight which His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has brought to many vital areas of national well-being. The countryside fund is but the latest of more than 20 charities associated with the Prince, 18 of which he founded personally. Often he is able to venture where Governments, at least initially, are reluctant to tread.
In the 1990s, I had the privilege of chairing the Development Board for Rural Wales, which co-ordinated and provided leadership to a most beautiful two-thirds of the land mass of Wales, populated with some 250,000 people and 4 million-plus sheep. A major purpose at that time—indeed, before that time and even today—was to stem the flow of young people from the countryside into towns, so we encouraged, for example, job creation in rural areas by facilitating the location of manufacturing processes closer to the farm gate and we encouraged the development of sensitive tourism and the sustainability of resources.
Did we succeed? Partially. There is of course much still to be done, which, if not forcefully addressed, could well lead to a countryside which, in the Prince’s words—already quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu—could become “scrubland” and “ghost villages”. Increased public, private and voluntary resources need to be harnessed to reconnect consumers with countryside issues. I, too, pay tribute to the late Lord Livsey, who provided a strong lead in much of what he did to foster successful rural life.
The Cambrian Mountains Initiative is the flagship of the Prince’s Rural Action Programme in Wales. It is a collaboration between the local authorities of Ceredigion, Powys and Carmarthenshire, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Prince’s charities. The initiative recognises that the future of this exceptional rural heartland depends on an economy strengthened through increased income from local produce, local ecosystem services and tourism, underpinned by the enterprise of the communities themselves and by a strong brand that guarantees quality, taste and welcome.
Peter Davies, the chairman of the Cambrian Mountains Initiative, has said:
“The premium brand ‘Cambrian Mountain Lamb’ is based on a set of quality principles that ensures the best, sweetest upland lamb produced to the highest welfare and environmental standards”. For the past three years the product has been sold through the Co-operative’s ‘Truly Irresistible’ range, delivering a premium to farmers and a return to communities with 10p from each pack of meat sold contributing to the sustainable development fund for community projects”.
So, it can be done. It requires vision, co-operation and enthusiasm from all partners.
The extension to Wales of the Pub is the Hub scheme, which is supported by the Prince’s Countryside Fund, has been mentioned. Incidentally, we should take up the offer of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, to act as mediator. He is very well placed to do so. The scheme is currently identifying 50 new opportunities for rural regeneration and it is the only national scheme working directly with licensees to involve both the public and private sectors. The project will identify pubs which can provide shops, post offices, older people’s lunch clubs, broadband hubs, prescription/parcel drop-off and collection points, citizens’ advice and information centres. The project will train supportive licensees and local authorities to work together throughout Wales to develop these opportunities. Other benefits already observed in England are improved social cohesion for local people, especially the elderly, those on low incomes, young families and those without transport.
It is essential that during this period of necessarily stringent measures to rebalance and restructure our national economy, the Government do not allow the smaller but vital voice of rural development to go unheard in the distribution of funding.
My Lords, one of the advantages in speaking for four minutes somewhat late in the debate is that you do not have too long to bore your Lordships by being too repetitive. Much of what I am about to say has been said, and I shall be very brief in my repetition.
I, too, begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Gardiner on securing this debate which is timely and topical. I am also grateful to have the opportunity to express publicly the appreciation of the rural community for the remarkable support always given by His Royal Highness. The countryside has never had a more determined champion. I recall only too well those desperately dark days in 2001 when foot and mouth ravaged livestock. I saw at first hand the anguish and fear that gripped farmers in the south-west. It was the Prince of Wales who gave £500,000 to help farming help charities, matched by the Duke of Westminster, which was the catalyst for a fund-raising effort that saved many farmers from ruin and, indeed, suicide.
The help that he has given has always been of the most practical sort, whether it be his Pub is the Hub campaign, his affordable rural housing initiative which I know did much to inform the work on the excellent commission on affordable rural housing by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, or his farmers’ marketing initiatives that from Dartmoor to the Highlands have helped hill farmers to increase their incomes by better marketing of their produce.
The Prince’s Countryside Fund is his most important initiative for the countryside, which is the result of two things. First, he has a unique knowledge of agriculture, particularly of the smaller family farmer and of rural communities. I suspect that few people in this country have sat around more farmhouse kitchen tables than the Prince of Wales—be that with his own Duchy of Cornwall tenants, or as he has travelled the length and breadth of this country. I declare an interest in that my wife is a member of the Prince’s Council which advises the Duchy of Cornwall on rural matters, and she is also a farmer.
Secondly, it is the Prince’s extraordinary power to bring people together that has enabled him to create this alliance with some of the biggest food retailers and food companies—a group not known for co-operation. They have come together because they shared Prince Charles’s belief in the need for a vibrant farming sector and thriving rural communities. They recognise the link between the two and the value that that has to the millions who visit the countryside. They recognise, too, that with the uncertain future we are facing with climate change, we need farmers to farm as long as it is done in a sustainable way so that we are not overly dependent on imports. Already, the fund is making a difference, such as funding apprenticeships for young hill farmers in Cumbria and teaching farmers in County Durham to use computers so that they can better cope with the bureaucratic demands made on them.
I can only congratulate those companies that are the founder supporters of the fund, particularly Waitrose whose managing director, Mark Price, who many of your Lordships have already mentioned, is the chairman of the fund’s trustees and, of course, Duchy Originals. I am delighted that the south-west business community is represented through Ginsters Cornish pasties, and that CountryLife butter, made no doubt with milk from the diary farmers of the south-west, is among the supporters. We can now see the Prince’s Countryside Fund logo on the packs and it looks very good indeed.
The fund stands at £1 million, which is an excellent start, but I hope to see other companies recognising the responsibility that they have to secure the future of farming and rural communities. The point was made by my noble friend Lord Inglewood and I, too, urge the banks, insurance companies, estate agents, lawyers, country clothing companies, agricultural suppliers and valuers to step up to the plate. No doubt the hospitality sector can play its part too, let alone individuals and community organisations. While it is encouraging that Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, ASDA and Morrisons support the fund, there are some notable absentees among the big retailers. Surely nothing could say more about a company’s support for British farming than its decision to back this fund.
Our countryside is a fundamental part of what makes this country what it is. We depend on it for our food, leisure and increasingly, for the management of carbon and water. As concrete steals across the western world and disease and climate change remain a constant worry, agriculture suffers. Food and its scarcity assume ever increasing priority. For too long agriculture has been neglected by those in power. This must change. The Prince’s Countryside Fund shows how that can be done. Let us congratulate the Prince of Wales and do all that we can to support this fund.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Arran and I join him in congratulating my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimball on securing the opportunity today to discuss these vital issues which will affect the viability of the countryside as we prepare to embark on the second decade of the 21st century. I have an interest to declare in that I am chairman of a property company seeking to develop a large brownfield site in Surrey which is an area of high housing need at affordable prices. With your Lordships’ indulgence, I shall refer to this later in my speech.
The timing of the launch of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has been masterly. I hope that it will bring a much-needed sea change in how the countryside is viewed and serve to be the catalyst for nurturing vulnerable communities. I fervently hope that it will drive forward a movement to recognise the vital role that our countryside has to play in contributing to the long-term viability and future of the UK plc.
I join noble Lords—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Best—in believing that an important part of the equation is to provide sufficient affordable houses in perpetuity so that the younger generation can live and work there and no longer feel that the only option open to them is to migrate to urban areas. Indeed, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with almost every word that the noble Lord, Lord Best, had to say on this subject, and I look forward to reading his speech in detail tomorrow. Sadly, the previous Government woefully undershot on their housing targets, which has exacerbated the problem that we face today.
A National Housing Federation press release last July made the telling point that the average house price in rural England has doubled in the past decade and now stands at £260,000, whereas the average rural salary is only £21,000, so the majority of people have practically no hope of ever being able to afford a home in their local area. The chair of the Local Government Association's Rural Commission, Councillor Andrew Bowles, made a telling point recently when he said,
“the proportion of affordable homes in rural areas is little more than half that in urban communities. If young families and low income households are not able to access houses in villages, services like schools, buses and post offices become even less viable”.
To come to my particular development, our aim has been to build an exemplar low-carbon settlement of 2,400 homes, 900 of which would be affordable in perpetuity, set in 350 acres of park land. Our plans include new carbon-free transport, on-site household waste treatment, solar energy generation for homes and businesses, water harvesting and the provision of high-speed broadband in every home. Regrettably, our application, which was the first of its kind ever to be supported by Friends of the Earth, was refused last year. We are blooded but unbowed, and we will continue to seek to achieve our vision of the future as it relates to new conurbations. It will come as no surprise to your Lordships to learn that I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and others, when they say that the planning referendum bar is still set too high at 75 per cent. I hope that the Government will take that on board.
My most important point is that the countryside not only feeds us but is the very place where the ability to meet the nation's 80 per cent carbon reduction commitment by 2050 can be met. I am thinking of such technologies as the production of green energy from anaerobic digestion, biomass CHP plants, solar farms and, in the right places, wind farms. We should not forget tidal lagoons and wave energy. They all have their part to play in creating employment and providing so much of our energy needs as we go forward, but without affordable homes, I fear that many of these new rural green industries will be stillborn.
Above all, the countryside must be maintained as a vibrant and viable place in which to live. Some difficult decisions will have to be made along the way, and I hope that nimbyism will not be allowed to prevent the many opportunities which present themselves from being realised.
My Lords, I apologise for striking a possibly discordant note in what has been a very harmonious and high-quality debate. I want to say a few words about food and agriculture. It is very widely accepted, especially by the Prince of Wales, that one way to encourage sustainable and local agriculture is to support organic farming. Unfortunately, very few, if any, of the claims made on behalf of organic farming have ever been upheld, because they have no scientific substance.
First, the whole principle of organic farming is based on the idea that synthetic chemicals are bad and natural chemicals are good, which of course is complete scientific nonsense, as there are many thousands of harmful natural chemicals and a very large number of extremely beneficial artificial chemicals.
Then it is claimed that organic farming is healthier because it is more nutritious. There has been a very careful scientific analysis of those claims undertaken by Mr Dangour on behalf of the Food Standards Agency, which went through every paper that has ever been produced on the question of organic farming and has, after the most meticulous and impartial analysis, found no evidence that organic food is any more nutritious than food which is conventionally grown. Then it is said, “It contains fewer toxins, because of the harmful effects of pesticides. Indeed, I remember reading an article by someone from the Soil Association claiming that one in every three mouthfuls we consume contains toxins. That is completely wrong. Every mouthful that we consume contains poisons of some kind, it is all a question of the dose, as was said a very long time ago. In fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has pointed out, one cup of coffee contains more carcinogens than one would consume in a whole year's consumption of fruit and vegetables because of pesticide residues. The level at which it is set is 100 to 1,000 times below the safety level.
Then it is said—and this is in some ways the main claim and the most relevant to this debate—that organic farming is good for the environment. Again, that is wrong. Indeed, in some important respects, organic farming is bad for the environment. Organic food costs more. Why? Not because organic farmers try to bilk the public, but because organic farming is a much less efficient use of land. That is why it costs more. Yields from organic farming are 20 to 50 per cent lower than from conventional farming. What is the result? It is a less efficient use of land. The world desperately needs more efficient use of land, and we need that in the United Kingdom as well.
It is an extraordinary fact that Defra spends £30 million a year on encouraging farmers to convert to organic farming—on making farming and the use of land less efficient. If ever there were a case for cuts, there is one. I hope that the Government will take note of that. Of course, I would not cut the £30 million; I would transfer it to agricultural research in excellent centres such as the John Innes Centre, Rothamstead and the various Scottish research centres. My point is that I hope that the Government will cease to subsidise the inefficient use of land and that the Prince’s fund will not encourage organic farming.
My Lords, I have explained to the Opposition that this is a timed debate. The overrun by noble Lords who have taken part in this fascinating debate means that there is no longer full protected time for both the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson and for the Minister. In the circumstances, I think that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson should be permitted to continue with the full allotted amount of time. Unfortunately, that means that the House will not be able to hear a full response from the Minister.
My Lords, perhaps I should I begin by apologising for the state of my voice. Despite suffering the effects of a cold, I very much welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, and to join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, on securing it and on introducing it in the way that he did. It has been frustrating that so little time has been available, but I hope that the noble Lord will at least find solace in the fact that the debate attracted such a large number of speakers, and was therefore certainly the subject of great interest.
We have been privileged during the course of the debate to listen to three very high-quality maiden speeches, and I congratulate all three new colleagues who have spoken in today's debate. Besides bringing a great wealth of experience, in particular to the rural issues that we have been considering, it was good that they come from very different parts of the country and therefore gave a good overall perspective of the important issues that we have been considering.
As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, pointed out, this debate follows and continues the themes from some of our previous debates just before the Summer Recess, including the debate on rural communities introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the debate on biodiversity in the UK introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. However, this debate rightly focuses on the new and, we hope, important element in rural and countryside affairs: the Prince's Countryside Fund. We on this side welcome the fund and agree with its aims. As the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said in introducing the debate, it is an initiative which presents an opportunity to draw attention to the very real challenges facing rural communities, and the importance of rural communities to the future economic and environmental well-being of our country as a whole.
The new fund has excellent precedents in the form of the Prince's Rural Action Programme and that other initiative of the Prince of Wales, a countrywide rather than countryside initiative, the Prince's Trust. The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, said that the Prince has trodden where Governments sometimes fear to tread. I know from my experience representing in the other House a disadvantaged urban area that the Prince’s Trust was brave enough to go into areas where banks and other financial institutions had singularly failed. Its record of helping people, particularly to start new businesses, has made a huge difference to many people in many parts of the country.
It is good that this new fund is concentrating its efforts on the hardest-pressed areas. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who has just returned to the Chamber, talked about defining more precisely the areas that are most in need of support and hit the right note in that respect. It is important that the fund helps areas where help is most needed. As a north-easterner, I was very glad to see that the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services scheme is benefiting because it helps farmers with administration and making the best use of IT. Broadband was mentioned by a number of speakers. It would be good if the Minister could say something more about the rollout of superfast broadband that noble Lords are keen to see implemented. I also welcome the Cumbria and Yorkshire Dales scheme which, despite the current difficulties, looks to the future of hill farming and, in particular, to the needs of new entrants with high-quality training. A number of speakers mentioned the Pub is the Hub scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Crathorne, mentioned a pub that he felt is particularly worthy of praise, so I shall cheekily mention my local pub in Harbottle, Northumberland—the village where I have been living—the Star Inn. It is very much the village hub and, like many other pubs, plays a vital role in supporting the local area in enterprising ways and provides a range of valued services which would otherwise probably have ceased to be available to local people.
We know that problems in agriculture and in rural areas, such as outbreaks of animal disease or natural disasters such as floods and droughts, can crop up unexpectedly and sometimes with devastating consequences, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out. I am therefore glad that the Prince’s fund is also channelling resources to crisis relief, building on some of the schemes we have seen and on some of the acquired knowledge about how best to deal with some of these very difficult situations.
I pay tribute to the way that we have already seen farms and rural businesses respond to challenges to diversify. I was very impressed as a Minister—quite a few years ago now—by the way farmers and others were working at adding value to existing products or using modern methods, such as the internet, to link up with customers, despite being sometimes physically far removed from them as they were based in fairly isolated areas. The recent publication by the National Farmers’ Union, Why Farming Matters, underlines this point. It states that,
“some 51% of farms in England have diversified beyond their core farming activities”.
I hope the Government will support and applaud this initiative.
Given that a number of wider rural issues have been raised in this debate, I shall add a few thoughts on some of the Government’s recent policies and decisions in the rural sphere. There has been concern about the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities, which was mentioned in our debates in July. This chimes with one of the questions at Question Time today when we looked at the work of outside agencies being incorporated into departments. I have heard it said that because some current Defra Ministers are farmers or involved in farming, they understand these issues, but I would be very worried if decisions about the future of advisory organisations were to be taken on the basis of who happened to be Minister in a particular department at a particular time. One thing we know about government in Britain is that Ministers come and go. For all Ministers, whatever their background, we need to have good sources of independent advice.
Over the summer, the Government also announced the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. I am concerned about this because we want to see the skills of farm workers fairly remunerated and recognised, and we certainly do not want to see a drive downwards to poorer conditions or a poorer level of wages. I am sure we will revert to this issue in future. There is strong feeling on the Opposition Benches about this.
One of the aims of the Prince’s fund is to reconnect consumers with the countryside. I applaud that and also applaud the involvement of various supermarkets in this initiative. I hope that they will enthusiastically embrace the idea of the supermarket ombudsman and will look closely at the price relationship between themselves and the farming community. This was referred to by my noble friend Lord Kennedy. I have never accepted the rural/urban divide in the way that some people have described it because people in both areas have common problems: making a decent living, having access to affordable housing, transport, good local services and so on and we all have a common interest in the future of our country.
I conclude by wishing the fund much success with its various initiatives and goals, and I again congratulate the noble Lord on giving us the opportunity to debate it and wider rural issues today.
My Lords, I start by offering my commiserations to the noble Baroness on the state of her voice. I am in much the same position but, bearing in mind that I have only 13 or 14 minutes left, I dare say my voice will hold up.
I congratulate my three noble friends on their maiden speeches. My noble friend Lady Eaton brings great experience of local government, especially in Yorkshire, and of the Local Government Association. She emphasised the need for localism, which is important to all of us in the coalition. We will be committed to localism, and I hope she will look forward to seeing the localism Bill come forward in due course. My noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor brings enormous experience as chair of the Rural Coalition. We welcome the report it produced and will consider it carefully. We are grateful for the various recommendations it makes which, as my noble friend said, highlight the importance of enabling local government and empowering local communities. That is entirely in line with the coalition’s thinking. The third maiden speech was by my noble friend Lord Younger. I now feel really very old in this House because he is the third Lord Younger who I have sat here with. We are grateful to him for all he had to say, and particularly for what he had to say about the big society. Recent research by my department has shown that social cohesion can be stronger in rural areas. It is therefore clear that they will be among the areas that we hope will take up the big society challenge most readily.
Like all speakers, I offer my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Gardiner on introducing this debate and on attracting such an impressive list of speakers. As many of them said, it would have been far better if we could have devoted five hours to this matter rather than the two and a half hours available for balloted debates.
I start by underlining the Government’s support for the Prince’s Countryside Fund and for the invaluable work that it has already started to undertake on behalf of rural communities. Defra will be fully committed to it, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State met His Royal Highness to discuss it when it was launched. As other noble Lords have done, I offer our congratulations to all those firms that have agreed to offer support to the fund and join my noble friend Lord Gardiner in encouraging others to contribute. I think that we will all take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Brooke in considering whether we can make personal donations in due course.
We believe that it is a timely boost for a vital part of our society. Agriculture plays an important part within the food chain. In 2009, agriculture had a gross value added of more than £7 billion and employed more than 500,000 people in the United Kingdom. Agriculture is notable for the area of land that it covers. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, emphasised the figure for Northern Ireland, which is considerably higher than that for England. Even in England it is 70 per cent. We also had a figure for the principality from the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, which again was higher than that for England.
In passing, I was particularly touched by the noble Lord’s remarks about the sweet lamb from the Cambrian Mountains. It reminded me of an earlier prince from Wales and a poem by Thomas Love Peacock, which included the lines:
“The mountain sheep were sweeter,
But the valley sheep were fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter”.
It might be sweet meat that we want, but from the mountains it would be better.
Because of the limited amount of time, I should like to address some of the points that have been put to me. First, I was reminded by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, of the issue of the Commission for Rural Communities. We have made it clear that, sadly, the commission must go. Our top priority has to be tackling the deficit that we have inherited from the party opposite. Where we can remove duplication and improve efficiency we will do so. Therefore, we will remove certain bodies. However, I want to make it clear that that is not a reflection on the commitment and quality of work undertaken by the CRC, its staff, its commissioners and, in particular, its chairman, Dr Stuart Burgess, over the past four years. We believe that we can do a lot of that work within the department. It is certainly not a reflection of the Government’s lack of commitment to rural issues.
Housing was raised by a number of noble Lords. It was first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who probably knows more about this issue than anyone. I do not have time to deal with all the detailed points that he put forward, but certainly within Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government we will look carefully at what the noble Lord had to say and will continue within those departments to work closely on the policy to support the delivery of rural housing and to ensure that housing and planning policy reflects the needs of rural communities. In response to the noble Lord and to, I think, my noble friend Lord Liverpool who raised the 75 per cent, obviously we have brought that down from its original figure, but colleagues in DCLG will consider that, as appropriate, in due course.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, talked about the need, as the right reverend Prelate put it, to connect consumers with countryside issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, talked about the need for education. I think that she referred to the need to remove that layer of concrete between, particularly, children and the land itself. I can assure her and the right reverend Prelate that we support a number of initiatives that try to connect people with the land. She will know about Open Farm Sunday where we encourage people to go to farms and discover what they do. As she knows, it is amazing how much ignorance there is about where food comes from. Certainly, we can look at improving access for schools to farms, which can be encouraged through various environmental stewardship schemes. My understanding is that approximately 1,000 farms make themselves available for those valuable educational trips.
The abolition of the agricultural wages boards was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. The noble Baroness will remember that we made the decision to abolish the AWBs in July of last year and to bring agricultural workers within the scope of the National Minimum Wage Act. Since those agricultural wages boards were set up, we have moved on. Employment legislation and protection for workers have changed, and there is no longer the need for special, separate arrangements for one sector. We want to reduce the regulatory burdens on the industry, and to allow it to decide on its own priorities, to ensure that there can be negotiations without the intervention of the agricultural wages boards. Again, it is part of the reduction in the fairly large number of arm’s-length bodies with which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is burdened. As a result of abolishing them and other bodies, we are reducing between 30 and 35 of those bodies from a total of 90, but there probably will be more to come.
Broadband was raised by my noble friend Lord Plumb and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. They highlighted the fact that in this digital age too many rural areas still have limited access to broadband. Something like one-third of our farmers have no access at all. I believe that this is unacceptable, which is why we are committed to working with business and community groups to ensure the rollout of universal broadband with a clear focus on improving the situation in rural areas, on improving existing businesses and on kick-starting new ones. At this stage I cannot give any predictions of how fast we will be able to go in this matter, but I can assure the House that there is that firm commitment to making progress in this area.
My noble friend Lord Kimball and others stressed the importance of getting new skills into farming and encouraging new farmers. My noble friend Lady Byford also stressed the importance of succession in the smaller hill farms. I agree entirely and I appreciate the importance of providing encouragement. We will certainly continue to support the AgriSkills Forum, an industry-led project to increase skills in the farming industry and to improve the attractiveness of farming in order to recruit the best people in the future.
One is tempted to say that as most farms are small, family-run businesses, one should always remember that it is a matter for the parents in those small businesses to make the business attractive to their sons and daughters if they want them to join them. No doubt, that matter is beyond the control of the Government.
I am mindful of the time and I want to allow my noble friend at least one minute to wind up this debate. I conclude by confirming that we recognise and respect the varied, vibrant rural communities that exist throughout the country. We will do all that we can to assist those communities to prosper and improve. We believe that the Prince’s Countryside Fund is an exciting and welcome initiative, which will be an important catalyst in helping to achieve this objective.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for participating in this debate. I think we have covered much country from all sides of the House as well as all parts of the kingdom. I am also particularly delighted that three noble Lords made their maiden speeches during this debate. I want to endorse what all noble Lords have said about the Prince’s Countryside Fund, and I think that the contribution it will make is essential to our national life. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, mentioned all our yesterdays. My view is that the countryside is all our futures. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Food: Regulation and Guidance
My Lords, first, I must declare an interest. I am for a few weeks longer the chair of Consumer Focus. I mention that because Consumer Focus and its predecessor organisation, the National Consumer Council, has a long history of trying to influence food policy from the common agricultural policy to areas of nutrition. Indeed, our social marketing sector is currently working with the noble Earl’s department on ways of changing consumer behaviour in relation to nutrition and other areas of public health. I cannot forbear from mentioning also that, along with many other public bodies, Consumer Focus has a question mark over it at the moment. I hope that it or another body survives to do this work in the future for the benefit of consumers and their role in food policy in general and nutrition in particular.
I shall focus on nutrition. No one can be unaware from reading the newspapers of the nutritional crisis facing the country and the consequent costs for the NHS. Yet in neither the Queen’s Speech nor the coalition agreement, as far as I can see, is there any mention of nutrition. According to a parliamentary reply in another place, as of the end of July at least, Ministers in the noble Earl’s department had not condescended to meet any consumer groups on this or any other issue. I hope that that has changed in the past few weeks.
Regrettably in one sense, the incoming Government have not been idle in this area because they have done at least three things, among which they have determined to abolish the School Food Trust, a body designed to improve the quality of school meals. The Secretary of State has issued a somewhat half-hearted apology to Jamie Oliver, having previously criticised his efforts. However, the area I want to concentrate on most is that as from last Friday, the responsibility for nutrition and dietary health was moved from the Food Standards Agency back to the Department of Health. I regard that as an extremely regressive step, in the wrong direction, that will seriously undermine the widely recognised need to tackle the problems of declining or largely declining nutritional standards.
Noble Lords will recall that the FSA was established in 2000 in the wake of the BSE scandal. It was established precisely because the public did not trust Ministers’ pronouncements on food safety or dietary advice. It was therefore important that we set up an organisation that was based on scientific evidence, not on passing political whims or bureaucratic considerations. Under the leadership first of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, then of one of my predecessors at the National Consumer Council, Dame Deirdre Hutton, and now of my noble friend Lord Rooker, it has gone from strength to strength. It is respected for three key reasons. First, it is open and transparent; secondly, its pronouncements and regulatory approach are based on solid scientific evidence; and, thirdly, it has the consumer interest at its heart and involves consumers in its decision-making. Indeed, in a report by my organisation produced two years ago, Rating Regulators, of them all, the FSA scored the most positively on consumer interest and engagement. As a result, it has gained the trust and respect of most consumers, scientists and industry. Its key characteristics are openness, an evidence base, consumer engagement and public trust. With all due respect to the noble Earl, his colleagues and his department, and their predecessors, these are not characteristics often associated with the Department of Health or of its leadership: rather the reverse, I am afraid.
Trust is key in the area of nutrition. We must try to do as much as possible through information, persuasion and education, augmented where policy is required by regulation and guidance. We are faced with a serious nutritional crisis in this country, particularly in childhood. It is bizarre that our nation suffers such poor nutrition when, at a casual glance, there is huge interest in gourmet food both on television and in our glossy magazines. But for all that such a widespread choice is now available to consumers through supermarkets and elsewhere, and despite all the apparent public interest in upmarket food, the problem is that our nutrition is not improving and has in fact seriously declined since the 1950s. Despite all the efforts of government, of the FSA, of Jamie Oliver and of everybody else, they are of course up against different forces of persuasion—the forces of advertising, particularly the advertising of foods that are limited in their nutritional value and some that are actually nutritionally counterproductive.
This is particularly a problem for the very poor since the two lowest deciles pay out about 17 per cent of their household budget on food, compared with around 7 per cent for the likes of us. If you are a family with several young kids and no car, you also have the problem that the food outlets in your area are small and you cannot get to the supermarket. Even if you do manage to get to the supermarket, a survey by the NCC undertaken two years ago showed in many respects that the lower-price-range foods were often—not always, but often—of the least nutritional value when rated pound for pound sterling or avoirdupois. Moreover, the problem of food poverty is likely to increase. The reality is that the West has enjoyed cheap or cheapish food for the past 40 years. The globalisation of the food supply, the cheapness of fuel, improved logistics and serious technological change have brought cheap food to the West, helped by subsidies in North America, Europe and Japan, so that the consumer has been paying relatively little for food.
There are clear signs that the era of cheap food is now ending and going into reverse, with global pressures on demand through growing prosperity in China and India competing with demand in Europe and elsewhere. There are also limits on cultivatable land supply, and the impact of the environmental cost of extending that supply, which will eventually be embodied in the cost of food to the final consumer. Costs are going up generally and that will hit the poor in particular, but the problem of poor nutrition is by no means confined to poor and low-income families. Some of the least healthy of our children and young adults actually come from middle-income and relatively affluent families. The parents of those families, whether justifiably or not, see themselves as time poor and with not have enough time to choose more nutritional food or to cook it. Some would undoubtedly say that that is another symptom of our child-placating society because kids frequently want, and are encouraged to want by advertising campaigns, food that is not particularly good for them. Instead, our kids are filled up or bought off at all meals, from breakfast through to tea, with packets of crisps, burgers and sweets topped up by sugary fizzy drinks, all of which are widely advertised and hugely available directly to the kids themselves as they pass to and from school—indeed, sometimes, even now despite intervention by the previous Government and by local authorities, into schools themselves.
The shocking result is that, for many of our children, their diet is worse than it was in the 1950s. The prevalence of obesity has increased in the past 20 years and is now affecting 24.5 per cent of all adults. While that increase has flattened out a little, partly as a result of interventions by the last Government and the FSA, it is still marginally going up and is dramatically worse than it was 30 years ago. Some 10.1 million adults and 716,000 children are clinically obese. Around 2.5 million adults never eat any fresh fruit or vegetables, and after 10 years of campaigning on the “five a day” slogan only 19 per cent of our children actually reach that goal, compared with 22 per cent who eat between nought and two pieces. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey, reporting in August, also showed that we are still consuming well above the recommended level of saturated fats and sugar. The intake of fibre is below recommended levels, as is oily fish for omega acids.
The balance of our diets, whether as adults or children, is not right—and I emphasise that I am talking about balance. Like several other noble Lords, I suspect, I am a war baby, and those who were brought up immediately after the war on national health orange juice ended up in the 1950s with a fairly good diet. However, on the day sweet rationing was abolished, I remember buying a farthing’s worth of hundreds and thousands in my corner shop. Little did I know that that measure was the start of a decline in the nutritional standards of children. But of course it was not. The food industry always asserts when you attack some of its products that it is not a question of bad food but a question of bad diet—and that is true. However, it is also true that if we depend on foods of poor nutritious value such as crisps, sugar, butter and dairy products—and if the balance of our diet is made up of those foods—it is extremely bad for us whatever age we are.
In recent years there has been some improvement through a variety of sources, some of which are surprising. When I started as a Minister in Defra in 2001, the FDF, the manufacturers’ association, was in denial. It was chaired at that time by the director of Cadbury’s but, even so, it took a heavy line that its products had nothing to do with health and nutrition. Now, firms such as Mars, which you would think was an offender, have reformulated their chocolate to eliminate trans fats. McDonald’s, which is often the bogeyman in this area, has greatly improved the nutritional value of its offerings at the retail end. Caterers at the top end of the market have also begun to show calorie scores on their doors and on their menus, a process that was pioneered by Consumer Focus Scotland.
Although there are still problems with the supermarkets, four years ago sweets were offered at the till, a location that gave maximum pester power to kids to harass their mothers who were trying to find enough money to pay the bill. I am pleased to say that that has gone in most supermarkets.
The previous Government helped by reintroducing and improving nutritional standards for school meals. However, the biggest contributor has been the Food Standards Agency, which has improved the situation through a combination of sustained persuasion based on firm scientific evidence; the use of regulation and targets—for example, by putting pressure and a target date on the manufacturers of bread and other products to reduce the salt content; the use of guidance and codes of practice, including most recently advice to caterers; and by pressurising for a restriction on advertising. A change was made by a rather reluctant Ofcom, although I, my organisation and many others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, in a debate not long ago in this Chamber, pressed it to go further. However, we have cut out television advertising during children-specific programmes.
We have moved hard on nutrition labelling, which is not a happy story. The FSA, supported by my organisation and others in the nutrition field, were going for a traffic light system. More than half of the supermarkets were prepared to do that but most of the manufacturers and the remainder of the supermarkets resisted. As a result we have had about a five-year delay before ending up with a less good form of labelling. Nevertheless, a coherent form of labelling is about to launch—which is at least progress—both here and at the European level. However, it took that long to get there. Incidentally, if we are not careful, we will do the same with the labelling of carbon products. We need a single, clear, significant and comprehensible system of labelling in that field was well.
The attack—led largely by the FSA—on major social and behavioural patterns, which have all been going the wrong way in the past 30 years, has combined information, education, guidance, regulation, social marketing and advertising. The FSA has served us well. However, in the last of those areas we need stronger intervention now. The Ofcom guidelines on advertising to children on TV relate only to children-specific programmes—which, as everyone will know, are a minority of the programmes that children actually watch. We had to see through a lot of opposition from the industry to get that far—it was a good first step—but we need to go further. Indeed, advertising what is clearly junk food should not be allowed any more than advertising tobacco and alcohol should—certainly on television.
It would have been better if responsibility for nutrition had remained with an independent, respected, scientifically based organisation. I accept that some parts of nutritional policy have always rested with the Department of Health, even after the creation of the FSA, and that it would be sensible to put it into one place. However, in Scotland, where they have come to that conclusion as well, the one place would be the FSA. In terms of public credibility, reputation and the likely effect on patterns of eating and family behaviour, direction by the FSA is much better than direction and representation by the department or, with all due respect, by the noble Earl and his colleagues going on television and telling us what we should eat. It is a wrong move. I hope the Government, who have already enacted it and taken away a fifth of the Food Standards Agency’s total resources, will consider it again. Indeed, I suspect that a few years down the line the move will be in the reverse direction, whether under this Government or another. The importance of the nutrition crisis requires independent, authoritative and trusted sources of advice and direction, and a more proactive form of regulation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for securing this timely debate. I was encouraged to hear the Minister say during Questions today that the public health function in future will come under the direct responsibility of the Secretary of State. My reasons for saying so will become obvious.
I should like to speak about two substances added to our food which have a significant adverse affect on our health. The first, which has already been mentioned, is sodium chloride, which in small quantities is essential for our diet and for making food tasteful. The second substance, trans fats or trans fatty acids, has no nutritional value and is not essential to our diet.
Sodium chloride, or salt, is essential in small quantities. The maximum amount of daily salt intake recommended is six grams a day for an adult—about a teaspoonful—much less for children and no greater than one gram per day for a baby. It is not easy—in fact it is very difficult—to know exactly how much salt you eat in a day without knowing the exact content of salt in each type of food and the amount of food you eat. About 75 per cent of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy—cereals, bread, biscuits, ready meals, sauces, pizzas, yoghurt; the list is endless. Many prepared foods have a very high content of salt.
Is six grams of salt a day essential? No, it is not—the less the better—particularly if you suffer from hypertension or certain other diseases. The majority of the population consume more salt than the daily recommended amount. There is a strong link between salt intake and hypertension, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke. Scientific evidence has shown that salt intake can vary blood pressure by as much as 9 millimetres of mercury. Certain foods—fast foods, crisps and ready meals—have a much higher content of salt. It is food often eaten by children and certain groups of the population. The food industry has responded but not well enough. The Food Standards Agency’s target for salt reduction by 2012, in the view of many, does not go far enough. Labelling for food and salt content is often confusing. Salt is often labelled as sodium. To establish salt content from a label which gives sodium content, you have to multiply by two and a half times. How people would know that 0.6 grams of sodium per 100 grams in a packet of crisps or cereal is high salt content? Better labelling of foods and a reduction in salt content of prepared food are required.
The second substance that I referred to, hydrogenated fats or trans fats, which is added to many foods, is in some respects even more harmful. Hydrogenated fats, trans fats, or trans fatty acids, is found in a lot of our food, particularly food consumed by children and low-income families. Hydrogenation is a process for turning liquid oil into solid fat. During the process a type of fat—trans unsaturated fat—is formed. The process produces cheap fats, but also destroys labile omega 3 fatty acids. This reduces the propensity of fat to become rancid and therefore is useful to industry. It increases shelf life and helps deep frying. That is why industry likes it. It has no nutritional value and is not essential to our diet.
Consumption of trans fats raises cholesterol levels. It changes the ratio of good to bad cholesterol. Not surprisingly, trans fatty acid is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Industrially produced trans fatty acids may also promote systemic inflammation in the vessels, endothelial dysfunction, resistance to insulin leading to diabetes, adiposity and cardiac arrhythmia. It is estimated that a reduction in their consumption by even 1 per cent of total energy intake would prevent 11,000 cases of heart disease and 7,000 deaths per year.
The risk to health from industrially produced trans fatty acids is far greater per calorie consumed than for any other dietary micronutrients, including saturated fats, which we are all told not to eat too much of. Risk occurs even at low consumption. Trans fats are found in deep-fried foods, prepared meals, biscuits, cakes, pastries, snacks, crisps and chocolate. Yesterday, I had a biscuit with my tea in the Peers’ Dining Room which undoubtedly had trans fats in it.
What has been the response? In 2007, Alan Johnson, the then Health Secretary, asked the Food Standards Agency to investigate trans fats. It concluded that no action was needed because, on average, consumption was half the recommended amount; that is, 2 per cent of all energy comes from trans fats. However, as the then president of the Faculty of Public Health, Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, rightly said—I declare an interest as a fellow of the faculty—there is no known safe level of consumption of trans fats. More recently, the current president of the faculty, Professor Lindsey Davies, accused the food industry of being profoundly irresponsible for adding unhealthy amounts of fat and salt to its products and proposed introducing legal minimum health standards if food producers and retailers do not take action to remove such products from foods. Professor Davies has had support from many, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians and many patient groups. I, too, certainly support her call. Both the faculty and the Royal Institute of Public Health, as part of a 12-step manifesto for better health, proposed that consumption of trans fatty acids should be eliminated in the UK by next year.
The Department of Health asked the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, NICE, to produce public health guidance on the prevention of cardiovascular disease at population level. It recommended accelerating the reduction in salt intake from a maximum intake of 6 grams per day by 2015 to 3 grams by 2025, ensuring that children’s intake does not exceed age-appropriate guidelines and establishing an independent system for monitoring salt levels in commonly consumed foods. For trans fats, it recommends eliminating the use of industrially produced trans fatty acids added to foods for human consumption, directing the bodies responsible for national surveys to measure and report on the consumption of industrially produced trans fatty acids by different population groups and considering using legislation to ensure universal implementation of the Food Standard Agency’s front-of-pack traffic light labelling system. That system is easily understood by the population.
Many countries have banned the use of trans fats in foods, including New York in the USA, Denmark and Austria. Australia is considering it, along with Canada and many other countries.
Yes, people should take responsibility for healthy eating, but so should government, regulators and the industry that sells the food. They should make sure that food is healthy, nutritious and certainly not harmful. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that the Government will take steps to implement the far-reaching public health reform guidance from NICE, particularly in relation to levels of salt and trans fats in foods and food labelling.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and congratulate my noble friend on having made it available for us today. I also pay tribute to his work. I had the great privilege of serving under his chairmanship of the National Consumer Council, and since then I have watched him develop that organisation into what has become the very successful Consumer Focus—a body which, as he said, works in this and a number of other areas. Its great success is a testament to his work in the very many areas in which he has been involved.
It is fairly obvious that nutrition is very good for individuals, but it is also very good for society. A healthy population learns better at school, it works better and it plays better. That is good for our economy and it is good for individuals. The public expenditure saving, particularly in the health service, is one which I should hope the Government are taking an interest in and, therefore, doing more to promote.
We have seen in this country a long-term interest in the quality of what we eat and drink, which includes the Fabians’ early work on cleaner water. Safe food was perhaps regulated much earlier than other areas of our lives, and more recently there has been regulation on the labelling and promotion of healthy options. However, all of that works only if it has the confidence of all the parties concerned, including the Government, the producers of food, the distributers of food, the doctors and public health specialists and, above all, the consumers. That brings us to the key question of how food standards and nutrition are to be regulated such that the consumer is absolutely sure that the consumer interest is at the heart of regulation. As my noble friend mentioned, we have already learned the lessons of what happened when the beef farmers denied any problem with their stock and when the Government sought to reassure or advise the public—it did not work. Parents want to know that their child’s health does not depend on a politician with many other interests to balance deciding the content of the dinner plate. Nor will parents necessarily believe the advice given out by politicians—sad though that may be to believe. Parents want guidance and rules to be determined in a way that puts child health and welfare above any other consideration.
That point is fundamental to all types of regulation, whether in financial services, in medicine, in legal services—I must declare an interest as chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel—or in the regulation of actuarial work, on which I must also declare an interest as a member of the Board for Actuarial Standards. The great success of good regulation—what is admired by other countries that look at our UK regulation—comes where the end-user is at the heart of regulation. It is never in the consumer’s interest to regulate unnecessarily, but where market failures arise due to the lack either of information or of opportunities to shop around or, as perhaps in this case, because there is too long a production chain so that the consumer cannot influence the market, regulation is needed to protect the consumer and to give advice and guidance. That is as much the case in food as in financial or legal services. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that consumer protection will remain the Government’s watchword as they take over responsibility for nutrition from the FSA and, indeed, elsewhere in their regulatory role. We want to hear from the Government that consumers will be part of the dialogue on policy development and that consumer trust in our food—both in the quality of the food and in its nutritional value—can, therefore, continue and, indeed, increase.
In closing these very short remarks, I will take up my noble friend’s comments about our having come to the end of the era of cheap food. I take his word on that point. That being the case, let me end by asking the Minister about the impact on, for example, a widow with six children, given the Government’s proposed cap of £500 a week on her income. What impact will that have on the nutritional standards and thus the health of her six children?
My Lords, I am also most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for having secured this debate, particularly this week when we have seen the nation’s passions enflamed by concern for the welfare of children. It is apt and welcome that we have an opportunity to focus on one aspect of welfare, which is that good nutrition feeds our children’s life chances.
One concern is that, although we can all grasp the value of financial benefits in determining a child’s outcome, the specific high currency of a nutritious diet is often undervalued and underexposed. It is particularly worrying—I think that we have a moral imperative now to act—that education about nutrition gets through to all sections of society. That has not happened to date, given that invaluable knowledge about healthy eating has tended to be the property of the privileged and the educated and has not reached those whom it needs to reach. The science of nutrition is extensive and complex, but there are, nevertheless, several key messages that must be common knowledge, not privileged knowledge.
The difficulty of acquiring such knowledge is compounded by some of the bogus claims that are made about food and foodstuffs. I was asked recently, “Is plain chocolate good for you?”. That seems such a ludicrous question, but the trouble was that it was asked in all seriousness by someone who was very ill. There was desperation behind that question. I have seen really bogus nutritional advice given to patients. The worst was to a woman with extensive cancer, who had been told by someone with a nutritional adviser label that parsnips would help her body to fight her cancer. As a result, she was eating more than 1 kg of parsnips a day, to the exclusion of everything else in her diet. When I saw her, she had magnesium toxicity as a result. That was a tragic outcome of the desperation that people can feel at times—they are desperate to do anything—because they associate food with the source of life itself.
Of the different aspects of nutrition, I want to focus on intrauterine nutrition, by which I mean the importance of nutrition before birth. There is evidence that the long-term effects of the way that the foetus is nourished carry on throughout the person’s life. In 2002, Sir Derek Wanless’s report to the Department of Health entitled Securing our Future Health: Taking a Long-Term View, identified low birth weight as a pivotal cause of the vicious cycle of poor health. He recognised that the cycle repeats itself from generation to generation and traps communities in poverty and health inequality. The UK now has the highest rate of low birth weight in western Europe. Our message concerning nutrition’s significance from womb to tomb is clearly not resonating sufficiently.
A wealth of medical research and literature corroborates the impact of intrauterine nutrition. In a literature search in preparation for this debate, out of 904 papers listed on the subject, my eye was caught by one paper that examined the emergence of insulin resistance, visceral obesity and glucose intolerance in adult life. Evidence from the Sansom Institute for Health Research indicates that, in the uterus, the foetus adapts to being starved when it is being undernourished by upregulating insulin receptors so that glucose is driven into cells. That does not occur in the skeletal muscle to the same extent, so that organs and the brain are preferentially fed—a very good survival adaptation for the foetus. After birth, there is a general upregulating, so in the growth catch-up that occurs glucose is generally driven into cells. The problem is that, as it is driven in, it is driven into fat cells, so the fat cells get glucose more quickly than muscle and other organ cells can develop. At that point, the foundations of obesity and the metabolic pathways that are associated with it are laid down.
It may seem obvious that obesity is malnutrition, not simply overnutrition, but I think that that is often forgotten. Glucose is essential to our lives. We cannot survive without it, but all of the nutrients that we take in are important. Statistics on child obesity vary, but there is nothing to dispute the information that childhood obesity is rising in the UK. Childhood obesity is unhealthy in terms of biological damage as well as its emotional impact due to stigmatisation and all its other effects.
In our supermarkets, the choice of food and drinks available is now overwhelming. We have to look at the way in which people shop and buy. Following on from the theme taken up by my noble friend Lord Patel, I shall focus on the use of artificial sweeteners, which so often appeal to the young. Another paper that caught my eye was written by Swithers and Davidson at Purdue, who looked at the effects of artificial sweeteners on calorie intake in rats. They did a clever experiment. They fed half the rats with artificial sweeteners and the other half not and they let them run around eating as much as they wanted. They found that the ones that had consumed artificial sweeteners became more obese. It seems that the artificial sweetener affects the whole physiology of the organism, making the animal want to take in more calories, because they are primed to expect a calorie load. I know that that research was on rats—it would be difficult to do it in our population—but it underlines the importance of research and of good knowledge about the problem that we face with this epidemic of obesity.
The problem for the Government is that they have to communicate risk in a proportionate and sensible manner. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, knows better than most of us the difficulty of trying to communicate risk to the public, allowing people to be risk intelligent while not creating food scares. We all remember the food scare in 1988 about eggs and egg production. Egg production plummeted following the statement that it was infected with salmonella. The risk was minute—less than 200 million to one—but that warning will always be remembered in relation to public statements. Indeed, in my own household, egg consumption at breakfast went from high to zero—not my doing, but because of other members of the family.
Nutritional outcome in our society is inextricably linked to socio-economic outcome. Sir Michael Marmot’s review, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, conducted in 2008, although published only recently, shows clearly the importance of nutrition from the moment of conception, from when we can nourish and nurture every child’s health and opportunity. Sir Michael reports that,
“the foundations for virtually every aspect of human development ... are laid in early childhood. What happens during these early years (starting in the womb) has lifelong effects on many aspects of health and well-being”.
The Food Standards Agency certainly tries hard to communicate accurate information. I was interested in tartrazine, that yellow colouring in food, which fortunately fell out of favour some years ago. However, we have not banned it. In 2008, it was recommended that tartrazine should not be included, as a result of awareness that it is allergenic, is associated with behavioural problems in children and has been implicated in malignancy of the thyroid. The Food Standards Agency called for a voluntary phasing-out of tartrazine along with five other colourings and duly reported the link with hyperactivity. By then, tartrazine had already been banned in Norway, Austria and Germany, but an EU directive overturned that ban in the same year. We are left without it being banned; it is simply recommended against.
The information on the FSA website is helpful. It states that, if you have a child with hyperactivity, you should consider avoiding giving them certain artificial colourings, because this might help to improve their behaviour. It lists six colourings, which have absolutely no nutritional value. However, there is a problem. The colourings are listed either by name or by E number. I am sure that none of us can remember our PIN codes let alone the E numbers for six different food additives when we go shopping for children. These six have to carry a label saying that they may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children, but it is impossible to read all the print on all the labels—we probably end up just reading the main name. Those who have difficulty with literacy may not be able to assimilate the information in a meaningful way.
Another problem with this brightly coloured food is that children become acclimatised to the notion that food should be brightly coloured; they begin to think that if it does not have food additives it looks dull and unexciting. In that way, we begin to condition the next generation to believe that food that is not psychedelically coloured is of less worth, particularly if the people who are responsible for their care are buying this food for them.
We should not forget the mantra “Every Child Matters”, which is associated with the previous Government, or the importance of education. They touch the humanity of every individual. They are universal sentiments, which cut across all political lines. They point to universal education about the value and importance of nutrition, which is a fundamental contributor to affording equal opportunity and outcome for all. If we do not teach children how food grows, how to shop, how to cook, how to sit at table with others and how to eat well, it is hardly surprising that the cycle of malnutrition continues. If we do not have clear information for the public, put across in a sensible way, it will become increasingly difficult for well meaning parents to know how to shop appropriately for children. People need to be able to avoid being misled by the sensationalist headlines that appear so often in the press and skew shopping habits. It is interesting to talk to shopkeepers, who will sometimes say, “I don’t know why we’ve had a run on such and such this week”. The reason is that the product has probably been associated with a headline or a magazine article.
I suggest to the Government that they consider, in all that they do, the importance of communicating accurately and with sound information, to help people to understand risk. If we do not improve the nutrition of our nation, particularly for women about to conceive and in pregnancy, we will harvest the downside for many generations.
My Lords, let me join the queue to congratulate my noble friend Lord Whitty on initiating this debate, the importance of which is much greater than might be indicated by the paucity of noble Lords who are contributing to it.
About 10 years ago, I wrote a book called Runaway World. Its theme was that, in a global industrialised order, we have unleashed forces that we are losing our capacity to control. What is happening to world food production and consumption and their relationship to patterns of health is one example of that. Today the purchase and therefore the consumption of food have become increasingly isolated from food production. It is important to recognise that this is a recent development. It dates back only about 50 years—even later than the noble Lord suggested—in the industrial countries, while it is an ongoing process in developing countries.
The key retail entity in producing this separation, which I argue is structural and underlies many of the dilemmas that noble Lords have talked about, is the supermarket, as with the advent of supermarkets food becomes completely removed from the vagaries of the climate, the seasons and localities. The supermarket also offers the consumer an abundance of products on a scale completely unknown before in history. As this separation between the production and consumption of food becomes radicalised, advertising and marketing become the primary vehicles of information about food—again, a crucial difference from the past.
The modern food industry has been a vehicle of plenty for many; at the same time, it has helped to create an entirely new relationship between food and health. I am not in the business of self-promotion, but I also wrote quite a lot about anorexia and bulimia a few years ago. Why do people starve themselves to death in an era when we have far more food than we can possibly consume? I will not bore noble Lords with the answer, but it is directly bound up with the rise of supermarkets. Once you have that rise, food is no longer determined by what happens locally. There is a certain sense in which we all have to be on a diet in relation to how we want to be. The pressures that exist on young women to follow a certain bodily image become conjoined to that. Anorexia was virtually unknown in history before—it was known only in the activities of a few female saints—but now it and its less radical versions affect large swathes of the female population across the world.
The other side of this, which has already been mentioned, is the rise of obesity. I will concentrate on this, hoping that my remarks will slot in nicely with what was said previously. For thousands of years, obesity was rarely seen. It existed only among a tiny proportion of the very rich. In complete contrast, in 1997 the World Health Organisation formally recognised obesity as a global epidemic running out of control. One billion adults in the world are clinically obese or radically overweight. The most striking increase—already noted, I think—is among children and adolescents. The US and Mexico have the highest overall rates of obesity at roughly 30 per cent and 25 per cent of their populations. The UK is in an unenviable third place at 24 per cent. Some noble Lords might have seen reports in the newspapers of what happened in Australia, where they had to widen the entrances to crematoria because the coffins had got so huge that they could not get them in. This story is apparently not apocryphal.
Contrary to what is often argued, recent studies show quite conclusively that our lives are not more sedentary than was true three or four decades ago. The epidemic of obesity is almost all the result of dietary changes. Of course, we would be foolish just to blame the food and drug industries for this, but their contribution undeniably has been huge. It is a contribution that the food companies are starting to recognise and trying to do something about. Fast-food manufacturers are quick to point out the changes which have been made over the past few years, some voluntary and others prompted by regulation. We have many examples from different countries. In the United States, for example, Pepsi, Kraft, Kellogg and others have promoted what they call a Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation—a sort of voluntary, sign-up organisation. There is not a lot of rigorous regulation in the United States, certainly not at a federal level. Nestlé and similar companies are pursuing parallel lines in the UK and Europe. Yet that is on nowhere near the scale needed.
My opening remarks were due to show that this problem is structural. It is deep, global and unparalleled in previous history. It is perfectly obvious that marginal measures will not serve to control it. The food industry, especially its fast-food sectors, pays back no more than a tiny proportion of the total social costs it creates. In this country, it has been calculated to be £17 billion a year that is needed to treat obesity and obesity-related illnesses. Some medical specialists say that the prevalence of obesity alone in countries such as this one and the United States will overwhelm health services within 10 to 15 years, because of the associated problems of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and many other serious medical consequences that ensue.
That is a sort of epidemic running out of control. The knock-on costs are completely out of proportion to the existing regulation of the fast-food industry. The Chief Medical Officer in the UK recently spoke of a public health time bomb, which is completely correct. Even having listened to the interesting contributions of other noble Lords, I propose that if we look at this as a deep structural issue with massive social and medical consequences, it is not enough just to tinker at the edges—whatever resistance one might get from the food industry. I shall make three comments on this to which I would like the Minister to respond.
First, we should contemplate far more stringent controls on junk-food advertising to children than exist at the moment. We have to tackle the issues of advertising not just in the orthodox media but, I am afraid, on the internet. Noble Lords will know that there has been a certain advance of control in this country and elsewhere on advertising to children, but many companies have then simply turned to the internet as a vehicle for promoting the same thing. One thing that is well known is that children—and some adults too—find it difficult to discriminate between advertising and other messages in television and other programmes, so they are very vulnerable to those messages. We are not really near to controlling with the rigour that we need. There are some voluntary no-child marketing strategies, which enlightened companies have followed, and I commend them. In this country they include, for example, Mars and Cadbury—although that is pretty recent—but again it is nowhere near enough just to rely on that. In Norway and Sweden, all marketing to children under 12 is banned. Why should we not do the same in this country?
Secondly, the issue of trans fats has quite rightly been raised. I will not go over what the noble Lord said so eloquently and knowledgeably. However, research has shown that trans fats are an independent factor in weight gain. They contribute in other ways, which were noted, because of their use in frying and many other things that produce weight gain, but there is evidence that they independently contribute to it quite apart from how they are used in relation to other aspects of food. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, mentioned that Denmark, Switzerland, New York and California have banned trans fats. Denmark is the most interesting example; it was the pioneer, and because it goes back some way we have more research on Denmark than on the other cases. The research shows amazing health benefits from that ban, with a 20 per cent reduction in some kinds of illnesses directly related to trans fats. Why can we not follow the Danish example in this country and simply ban trans fats?
My third point has not been mentioned by noble Lords, but in my view it is really crucial. Even though it is politically very problematic, we need a tax-based approach to play a part in regulating the food industries, specifically the fast-food industry. That is because, to repeat the point, the fast-food industry is creating social and medical consequences of a massive kind and not contributing to paying for those consequences. We—the rest of us—have to pay for those consequences. That is not morally right and not a situation that one should simply accept, so it is right that extra taxes should be added to food and drink which are high in fat, sugar and salt. The evidence that these foods do as much damage as tobacco and alcohol is strong. Tobacco and alcohol are very highly taxed, and quite rightly so. Researchers at Oxford have developed three models for the potential use of taxation to improve public health, which in the UK they calculate will save upwards of 5,000 lives a year, if they are implemented. Even though there is always fierce resistance from the fast-food industry, the tax-based approach has just as much legitimacy as it does in the case of the tobacco and alcohol industries. The fast-food industry will increasingly face the sort of litigation that has driven such regulation in those industries, so it is not completely against the interests of the fast-food companies to participate in accepting an increased tax-based regime, or at least look at the possibility doing so. That would not only help to limit the intake of noxious foods that produce such tremendous medical problems; it would also make it possible for the food industry to pay back some of the social costs that it creates. At the moment, it pays back virtually none of these costs.
Finally, I ask what the Minister thinks about the FSA, and what will happen to food regulation more generically.
My Lords, I join this debate to say a few words. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who had a deep experience in Defra, for allowing us to have the debate.
I wanted to look at it from the point of view of whether regulation is effective and whether it is always right. I come from a tradition whereby I do not like being told what to do the whole time. I may well get it wrong, and if I die early as a result of overeating or overindulging in the wrong things, that puts a cost on the health service but will save a fortune in my dementia and old-age care and its provision on a very close though not quite one-to-one basis—
That almost proves the point. We are all different, and I do not like to live in a world where the Government tell me what to do, because we are all very different people. Those differences are important in society. I am talking about having total central controls; that is why I want to get on to balance. I want to demolish the concept that if you do something silly and you die early, although you may be a cost to the National Health Service in your obesity and the costs of dealing with your diabetes at that point, you have alleviated another budget—the cost of looking after you very expensively in your old age. That is quite expensive, and it is a bigger and bigger problem, as well as all the pension and other costs. I would like to see a true paper done academically on the economic balance between those costs, because I have not seen one. The only one that I ever saw was produced in Holland about the cost of the early deaths of smokers from cancer, and it said that the cost of the cancer care was much lower than the cost of the old-age care, with people living longer. But let us not get side-tracked into that for hours. It is for another day.
I wanted to look at the whole thing from end to end. You have to look at food distribution, diet, disease, and the effects of this on the system and people and everything like that. To take the nutrition bit first, I used to run around mountains and leap around the place energetically and one thing that I was always told was that we need balance. People always believe that advice, because they are told, “You are what you eat”; that is the problem—everyone believes that now. But actually we are individuals, and it depends what you do as to what you can do and cannot do. Sportsmen sweat salt. If you run around hills and take a lot of exercise, you have to take extra salt. I have heard of a chap who is the son of a friend of my wife’s, who nearly died on the Welsh mountains because she had him on a salt-free diet, and he thought that it was poisonous to take extra salt. We have to be careful with these messages, because they are not universal messages. I remember talking some years ago to a nutritionist, who was quite concerned about how we were extrapolating the research on middle-aged men’s diets to children, who have very different dietary needs. They need different minerals in different quantities, because their bodies are growing. I realise that these things change throughout life and that there is no one universal message. I do not really get that from the press. We have to be quite careful about how that is put across. It is quite subtle and noble Lords may be experts, but I am not sure that all the public are, and that concerns me quite considerably.
I am very reassured by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, that I was right to stick to butter throughout my life. I believe that it builds up calcium in my bones, and I should be worried about osteoporosis because men are living longer. I do not really know, because I am not a nutritionist, which is right and which is wrong; all I do know is that whenever I am told that I should not eat something, later on someone says that I should and then they say I should not eat it again. Messages throughout history are confused, and I do not think that there is probably one right or wrong. I had heard about the artificial sweetener thing, and I am hugely reassured, because I have stuck to sugar. I dislike artificial sweeteners and have always felt that they are inherently wrong. I wonder sometimes—although this is straight off the top of my head and I know nothing about it—whether if we reduce the salt content in all foods, that does something about our body’s perception of what we are eating and we eat more bulk as a result. These are such complex things that we do not know. I know that noble Lords think that it is simple—they are shaking their heads—but I am not sure that I am convinced that it is so. I shall have to read up on it.
But I am like an ordinary general member of the public. When I was running around hills, the food I ate was very simple. You had protein to build up the body, some carbohydrates for long-term energy and you finished with some sugars to give you an immediate energy boost to keep you going while the body was digesting, or you hit a sugar low otherwise. Equally so, if you are going to take all the sugar out at the end of meals in schools, I bet you that pupils will fall asleep with inattention in the afternoons. That was the concept of the pudding. If you overdo it and do not get the balance right, they are going to get fat—I agree. But you do not just kill and ban something just because of that. The real problem is that we are now so frightened of children running around the place and doing dangerous things that they are kept sitting down the whole time. When I sit in an office, I drink more cups of tea and eat things on the side, whereas if I am moving around and doing things I am not only burning up more energy—I do not have the time to eat as much. The exercise point is the unintended consequence of us getting parents terrified that there is a paedophile standing on every corner, which is probably also driving obesity. You may think that I am mad about this, but a lot of people would agree. We have stopped children walking to school so much. All right, we are now starting with walking buses, and things like that, and that is good. But we must attack this problem not only from the diet point of view.
I shall give your Lordships one other story about this that is quite interesting. Years ago I was travelling in the south of France. Because I did not know how to cook, I lived on Spanish vegetable omelettes for a month, with no meat. When I hit Italy just after that, I had deep intense cravings for ham and I used to go down the street buying it from every shop: “Etto prosciutto, per favore”. I have never lost my craving for ham; it did something to my body. The unbalanced diet does not work, and we have to be very careful of that.
Leaving that aside, the other thing that I wanted to look at was disease—the excessive cleanliness that can come out of regulation. We are born with an immune system that you need to train early. When my children were young, they used to try to drop things that they did not like on the floor for the dogs to eat, but we would make them eat them. They said, “Oh daddy, we’ll get diseases”. “I said, “Don’t worry, it builds up your natural immunities”. Years later, when my daughter went to Tanzania to help build some loos for a school there, she was the only one who did not go down with severe dysentery. She said, “Daddy, you were right”. One of the problems is that we sometimes transfer the risks of some of these things. If we had slightly less food safety and cleanliness, would we increase people’s capacity later on in life to survive? Are we merely making it safer at one end to make it more dangerous at the other? Those are the sorts of things that I worry about quite a lot.
The other thing that I worry about is the general build-up of regulations. Often, all these individual regulations are very reasonable but in aggregate they just become excessive—they bog the entire system down. To horrify the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, I have a Kit-Kat here. Have I read any of this stuff on it? No, I haven’t got time, but I am sure it is all good, well meaning labelling. I have not got powerful enough glasses for that any longer, anyway. In order to make the text bigger they would have to make the packaging bigger, in which case they would increase the waste, in which case we would have more landfill and other undesirable effects.
That brings us to the problem that some of these regulations are very good for one thing but bad for another. I declare an interest here that I am married to a farmer. We are at the start of the food production chain. People are working further and further back with the regulations. Great. I do not have a problem with that in principle. I do not have a problem with the fact that all the glass light bulbs anywhere near a barn should be covered; we do not want glass falling into raw wheat before it is ground up. It would end up with ground glass in it. So that is very sensible. But when you start looking at all the other bits and pieces, you realise that you need an A-level at a minimum to be a farmer. Farmers were not that sort of person; they were people who loved the soil, the land and producing things. They loved the animals. They did not have to tick boxes the entire time and recognise all sorts of obscure things.
You might decide to take the pressure off and sign up to a thing called the Whole Farm Approach. It is a wonderful thing. You go online and tick the boxes, and it checks whether you have ticked them right. But there can be problems. My wife has a few cows that graze some grass, because it is environmentally correct to do so and it is all done under environmental schemes. They are rare-breed South Devons, a native species, and they are hardy animals that live out all year. They are very happy and they have plenty of shelter out there. When we come to the question, “Have you got cattle housing?”, the answer is no. To the question “Does your cattle housing have proper ventilation?” you can answer only yes or no. So do I say, “Yes, my non-existent cattle housing has adequate ventilation”, or do I say truthfully that there is no ventilation because is there is no cattle housing? The answer is that if you tick “no”, you fail. It tells you so, and it tells you to go and sort out your cattle housing ventilation in your non-existent cattle house.
You get other asininities. Because these cows are not housed, there is no manure to spread. Do not worry, in case any NVZ people are listening in, we are very careful about manure loading on the ground—we do all that stuff with compliance, stocking rates and so on. So no, we do not produce any manure. Do we obey RB209 on the correct calculation for manure loading? We do not, because we do not have to do the calculation, so we have failed. Instead, we have to say that we calculate our non-existent manure loading properly. If people are running these sorts of schemes, could they at least employ someone who has bought a pair of decent practical wellies at some point and spent some time on a farm, not just someone who has done an environmental studies course at university and then gone straight into an office?
Some of these things worry me—there is a lack of common sense throughout. The certification you need for everything means that nowadays everything has to be trained for. Now you have to have a certificate on how to move a cow into the back of a horsebox and move it over a couple of miles or whatever. It is just getting out of control. This worries me because it induces a lack of respect for the system and the sensible regulations, and everyone starts working their way around them. If we are going to have regulations, let them be sensible. At the common sense end, people say, “Yes, that makes sense”. It is not just seen as a load of nonsense everywhere.
We overuse the precautionary principle all the way down the chain. I hear all the messages from the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and others, and I know that to a large degree they are right, but at an individual level I want to make a decision about whether I am going to eat something because it has the right mouth-feel or the right taste, or to buy a bag of crisps because I know that that will keep me awake better when I am tired. I know I should not be driving tired, but sometimes it just happens; you are between stops, there is not another motorway services for 40 miles and you need to keep going. I happen to know that, for me, crisps are better than chocolate for doing that, even though I am doing the wrong thing.
The other thing that worries me, thinking back to what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said at the end, is the control of agencies, of which, unfortunately, he has bitter experience. One of the unfortunate things that happened at the end of the previous Conservative Administration was the growth of agencies that were outside ministerial control. That lack of control right up the chain of command—so that there is, in effect, a separation—has always worried me. I am rather pleased that these matters are being taken back in-house so that Parliament can look at them properly and the poor Minister does not have to stand up and say, “Until they have fallen outside their remit, I am not allowed to go in and sort it out. I have to pretend that there is nothing wrong because that is what they are telling me, even if the rest of the world is telling me that they are underachieving”. What happened with the RPA is very unfortunate. I am looking forward to seeing that finally sorted out properly.
Can we please stop the EU redefining field boundaries? I have just redone a digital mapping for the third time.
I suppose my message is very simple. Let us have some common sense. I know it is not common and I do not know whether I have it. Let us watch out for having such strict rules that, on the one hand, we say that we do not want waste but, on the other, we have to package so tightly that waste is created by having rules. I do not mind if my bread is wrapped up or handled. I have enough natural immunity, as others should. That is my message. Human beings survive quite well. If you do not, that is bad luck. It may happen to me. However, we were born with responsive systems, which can manufacture antibodies to protect us from viruses, bacteria and so on. Let us train those up early. Let us have a little less regulation and a little more danger in the system, and not go overboard in trying to control everything.
I do not suggest that for society—not at all. I am saying that we should not go overboard in saying that the sole goal in life is its length, rather than its quality or doing the things that you want to do. We control people out of being able to take risks and do dangerous things themselves. I am not saying that we are trying to kill people off early. If people want to do things their way, they should be allowed to do so.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving us a little light relief in a debate on rather a serious topic. I especially thank my noble friend Lord Whitty for bringing this subject to our attention. Faulty nutrition today is of huge importance for public health. As almost every other noble Lord has said, it plays an important part in causing obesity, type 2 diabetes, arterial disease and high blood pressure, which lead to coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as some cancers.
Today it is mainly overnutrition with the wrong nutrients, rather than undernutrition, which is the main problem. However, too many elderly people are undernourished when they are admitted to hospital and sadly still are when they are discharged. Evidence is also emerging of the importance of nutrition for mental health and behaviour, particularly in corrective institutions. I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Food and Health Forum, a trustee of the National Heart Forum and a former trustee of the Caroline Walker Trust, a charity that aims to improve “public health through good food”.
The history of public health in the UK since Edwin Chadwick’s monumental report on The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes in England in 1842 has been one of regulating or restricting activities or products that are harmful to health, and setting up local and national bodies to ensure that necessary measures are taken to achieve those aims. We benefit to this day from some of the subsequent results of the Public Health Act 1848, including London's water supply and sewerage system. That is only now being replaced, so well was it built by Joseph Bazalgette. His project was hastened by the “great stink” of 1858, when Parliament had to cease its activities until the weather changed and it was washed away.
These early measures, such as sewerage and clean water, were driven by the need to control illness caused by pathogenic bacteria, although to begin with it was not known that they were the cause of such illnesses. It has been so successful that now infection, while still with us, has been supplanted in importance by chronic diseases, mainly affecting adults in the second half of life. However, it has been shown that these conditions, like mental health problems, often have their origins in early childhood. Poor nutrition in infancy, and even pregnancy, can plant the seeds of chronic disease later in life. That was fully discussed earlier by my noble friend Lady Finlay.
Improving public health may mean restricting the freedom of individuals and commercial enterprises; Chadwick’s Public Health Act 1848 had many enemies. If these restrictive measures result in loss of livelihood or lower profits, they will naturally meet with resistance, and they do. After all, we live today, as in 1848, in a competitive, capitalist world dependent on profit whether we like it or not. This resistance may take the form of denial of the deleterious effects of the product or activity concerned. Considerable resources may be put into efforts to discredit the evidence and disprove the need for public health measures. The long-running rearguard action of the tobacco industry is one of them. It is still running in resisting the banning of tobacco displays in shops and the banning of vending machines. Another example was the initial reluctance of the food industry to accept that high salt intake was a cause of hypertension.
As many noble Lords have pointed out, it is unlikely that voluntary guidelines will be followed if they have an impact on profits. There must be legislation, or the serious prospect of it—the sticks—or, on the other hand, incentives—the carrots—to encourage or enforce compliance. This does not apply only to the private sector. A rather sad example of this, recently described by Sustain, is the series of programmes, taskforces, plans and packages which have exhorted hospital trusts to improve the quality of the food given to patients over the past decade. There is no evidence that they have had any lasting effect, despite costing at least £54 million. The quality of hospital food is still poor in many hospitals, as we know, particularly also in care homes. The proportion of malnourished elderly patients admitted to hospital is still high and has not changed much in the past decade. Department of Health figures reveal that in the past decade 2,600 patients died in hospital in the UK directly as a result of malnutrition. More important were the many others whose poor nutritional state may have contributed to deaths from other causes. The exact size and impact of the problem is not known and urgently needs research. I hope that the noble Earl will urge that to be done. The Conservative Party said that malnutrition in hospital needed to be tackled when it was in opposition. I hope that it will now look into this matter and do something about it. Hospital food could be immediately improved if standards were made mandatory rather than relying on well-meaning but rather ineffective guidelines.
A major difficulty in improving eating patterns today is the high proportion of our diet that consists of processed food, as other noble Lords have pointed out. It is impossible to tell by appearance or taste alone how much salt, sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, preservatives, artificial colouring or flavouring is incorporated in many popular brands; hence the need for a clear, easily understood system of food labelling, which was also discussed by many other noble Lords. The Food Standards Agency’s research found that the simple traffic light system was the most popular among consumers, and some retailers have adopted it—about half of supermarkets—but it is not popular with the food industry since a red light label indicates that a product should be consumed sparingly. The industry’s preferred labelling system, using the RDA or recommended daily amount, is more confusing and shoppers find it difficult to understand. Some retailers use a combination of both. The labelling system in use is voluntary and therefore inconsistent. Progress is slow as we have had to conform to EU guidelines, as has been said. However, there are ways around EU regulations by citing particular public health problems. The Government could explore how that provision could be used more fully.
Many manufacturers market healthy versions of their products, thus indicating their social and ethical responsibility. They may hope to attract a greater market share. These healthier options, such as low saturated fat, low trans fat, low sugar or low salt products, may indicate the direction that ideally the rest of their products, and those of other manufacturers, should follow. The food industry would then become part of the solution, not part of the problem. However, progressively increasing the market share of these good foods is likely to be very slow or incomplete unless the healthy ranges cost less than the standard range. Unfortunately, the reverse is usually the case. The National Consumer Council, before it changed its name, reported in 2006 that many economy-range foods contained more salt, fat and sugar even than the standard products. Thus the poorer sections of the population, the people on tight budgets who most need an improved diet, will continue to buy this energy-dense, less nutritious, obesogenic—I like that word—food, thus perpetuating the increasing health divide in obesity, heart disease and cancer.
If statutory regulations were to ensure that all manufacturers sold food products that conformed to an optimum standard, this problem would be solved. In fact, several manufacturers and at least one major catering firm, Compass, have said that they would welcome legislation of this sort. It would not end competition, but all products would have to conform to the nationally agreed standards. These standards should be set by the Food Standards Agency—of which more later—which should act on the expert advice of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.
This brings me to an important question for the noble Earl. In the bonfire of the quangos that was trailed in the Daily Telegraph two weeks ago, SACN was included among the 170-odd bodies to be abolished—as was the School Food Trust and a number of other health-related organisations. If these are to be abolished, what is to take their place? The Government will always need expert advice, particularly now that we have major nutrition-related health problems. I hope that the noble Earl will assure us that these useful—I would say vital—watchdogs will be retained. If not, I hope that he will explain what is to take their place.
A crucial feature of scientific advisory committees is their independence from government and from industry. How is this to be retained? Perhaps the noble Earl will bring us up to date on the future of the Food Standards Agency. Which of its functions will be retained by the part of it that remains and which will be merged with existing departments? The current information is that its nutrition division is to go to the Department of Health and its food safety responsibilities to Defra. If so, this would be a backward step indeed, since the FSA was created in part to take this responsibility away from Defra following its mishandling of the BSE epidemic. What will happen to the much admired independence and transparency of the FSA?
I think that noble Lords will see where I am coming from. If we wish to see an improvement in the nation's health, more use must be made of statutory regulation of food manufacturing, advertising and marketing. This is another area that I would like to cover, but I have not got time. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, spoke about advertising, as did other noble Lords. I think that regulation will be effective, even sometimes without being enacted, if the industry feels that there is an imminent possibility of its introduction. That may set the ball rolling, as we have seen in the case of salt reduction. However, here, as other noble Lords have said, there is still a long way to go.
In conclusion, I think that the Government would be wise to follow more closely the independent scientific advice which is available on the action that needs to be taken to improve our diet and thus reduce the burden of chronic illness.
First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for giving us the opportunity, which we rarely have in this House, to discuss food nutrition. When these issues are so central to our lives for both our health and social well-being, it is remarkable how seldom we debate them.
It also gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rea, who, as chairman of the Associate Parliamentary Food and Health Forum, has provided a wonderful opportunity for those of us who belong to it—I declare an interest as an officer—to attend the seminars that it lays on, many of which have covered subjects that have been touched on today, such as trans fats, salts in food, and in utero nourishment. I have learnt a tremendous amount from the forum. The secretary, Patricia Constant, now produces a very helpful round-up of everything that has happened called “Food in Parliament”, which makes it much easier to see who is asking about what and who is not asking anything at all, which is also very interesting. Therefore, I express great gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for all the work that he has put into the forum. It has made a huge difference to parliamentarians’ understanding of these issues.
I was very struck by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, saying that we should not consider this matter simply by itself but that it is part of a much larger issue, which of course it is. Noble Lords who are here to debate the millennium development goals shortly could equally well have taken part in this debate, or vice versa, because 1 billion people in the world still suffer from chronic hunger. Even if millennium development goal No. 1 is reached by 2015, half a billion people will still suffer from chronic hunger. That is not to say that people suffering from malnutrition in this country have any less of a problem—it is all part of the same problem, and I shall give noble Lords one example.
The fact that there are so many quite obese people is partly due to the fast food industry and Big Macs and so on, because a lot of very fatty cheap meat was heavily promoted. Of course, the cost of that very cheap meat has been borne in countries where grain and soya prices have gone up. Grain and soya is fed to the cattle to provide the western world with the very cheap meat, which is ruining our health, and there is therefore a vicious circle. It is vicious for us for all the reasons that we have heard today, and it is vicious for those still suffering from chronic hunger, so I do not think that we can afford to take this matter lightly. We need to start taking a tougher line with the food industry, and I am glad that some noble Lords have said that today.
The FSA has done some good work, which I shall refer to in a moment, but I think that it lacks the necessary teeth in the face of the strength of the food lobby. It is therefore time for a new look at the FSA. Establishing the agency was an attempt to bring policy together, but the question of nutrition was fudged at the outset. The FSA was never given a strong enough remit to take on nutrition. It picked up the reins as best it could but nutrition was never in its original remit and so the agency was always on the back foot, reacting to the next food industry initiative.
For an example of how seriously the Government will need to take this issue we need only look at the excellent debate in this House on 13 July this year on nanotechnologies and food. The committee looking into this, under the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who knows a great deal about food regulation, having been in charge at the outset of the FSA, highlighted a huge number of points that I could not hope to reiterate this afternoon. However, I draw attention to the sort of danger that the noble Lord sees. He said:
“First, by keeping quiet about nanotechnologies, the food industry leaves a communication vacuum into which pressure groups and/or inaccurate media reporting will happily step. Secondly, in contrast to what was said about GM products in the 1990s, there are real potential consumer benefits to be had from nanotechnologies”.—[Official Report, 13/7/10; col. 656.]
There is a need for a strong regulator to be able to rely on some very well researched issues as this is an extremely fast-moving field. Let us consider what nanotechnologies can do to food. For example, we could be offered ice-cream that will look like ice-cream and taste like ice-cream but will not be ice-cream. That might be good in that it will not fatten you, but it might be extremely dangerous in the sense that it would not contain any of the benefits of a dairy product that we have come to know. I know that the Minister said when replying to that debate that he foresaw a robust regulatory function that would still continue to be delivered through the agency, but he admitted that it was a fast moving picture. He went on to say that,
“the FSA could more sensibly and cost-effectively sit elsewhere”.—[Official Report, 13/7/10; col. 671.]
I do not take issue with that. Like other noble Lords, I want Ministers to be more accountable for some of the issues, but I hope that “cost-effectively” is not shorthand for saying that the nutritional element will completely disappear from the horizon. As has been highlighted this afternoon, it is incredibly important.
I join other noble Lords for whom nutrition begins before the baby is born by saying that we still ignore the diets of pregnant women too much. It is incredibly striking how brains develop during pregnancy and not thereafter, so I make a plea for the nutrition of pregnant women and breast-feeding to be particularly concentrated on. Only last week, yet more research showed that babies who had been breast-fed for up to six months had much better health outcomes in a large number of ways. Indeed, the NHS’s own figures show that 84 per cent of women know that breast-feeding is particularly good for the health of their babies, yet the figures still drop off dramatically a month after the baby is born. It is a cultural issue as much as anything. It is very difficult to get people to go back to providing for breast-feeding or encouraging it in the workplace and elsewhere. It is no more acceptable in pubs and restaurants than it was when I was a young mother. That is a pretty sad state of affairs considering that that was about 30 years ago.
Finally, I shall mention the Tudge principle which we have adopted in our house. It comes from an author called Colin Tudge, whom I have had the privilege to meet a couple of times. He has written a number of books on food and has done a great deal of work in this area throughout his life. Among his books, he has written So Shall We Reap and Feeding People is Easy. Primarily, his contention is that if we look at some of the places in the world that we consider to have terrific cuisine, such as the south of France, and the places that we go to to enjoy the sort of diet that they have, we see that they eat very little meat and a lot of vegetables, rice and other things.
It is going to be hard to get back to that sort of principle in the face of the biggest added value for the industry always being meat, but it is important in dietary terms and incredibly important environmentally. The UN’s most recent report on agro-ecology shows that, in climate change and sustainability terms, it will not be possible to continue with current meat consumption in either the western world or the countries that are now aspiring to join it. We all have to change our thinking and go back to meat being a small part of our diet. For example, in a risotto, there might be a few pieces of meat. A chicken is for high days and holidays. Yes, it will be hard for our generation and probably for our children, who have grown up with eating meat, but it is a matter of taste. That is where we come back to school meals. We educate our children's palates when they are very little, and it is very hard to get over that. That is why, when people are ill or far from home, they crave the things that they had when they were little. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on what will happen with the future regulation of school food, because we need to get into schools to educate the children's palates for the future. It is no good regulating people when they are adults; that is too late.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the gap to raise two points. One is a cautionary tale of an organisation which tried to have guidance issued on improving the nutritional outcomes for adults and young offenders in institutions. The other is to plead with the Minister to do what he can to prevent that ever happening again.
I refer to an organisation now called the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, which was called Natural Justice, and must declare an interest as vice-chairman of the board. About 20 years ago, the organisation started work trying to use the right mixture of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids with people on community sentences with the probation service in Cumbria. It was then developed and, in 1998, a random double-blind trial was conducted at the young offender establishment at Aylesbury, which proved that the right mixture reduced violence and anti-social behaviour by 40 per cent in those who were taking the right mixture, produced an enormously changed atmosphere in the young offenders’ institution and enabled the young to take part in things which they had previously rejected. That was noted not just by the measurement of crimes committed but by the very hard-bitten prison officers, who noticed the change.
The results were published. They were doubted by the Home Office, which sent in a professor from Warwick University to examine the data. He proved that they were 92 per cent statistically pure and said that he had never come across a trial of that kind conducted so well, which speaks volumes for Natural Justice and for the Oxford University department of physiology, which is where the work was based.
We then tried to get replication. The trial had been picked up in America, Scandinavia, Holland and France, where they were repeating the work. The Wellcome Foundation recognised its value and granted us £1.5 million to enable us to do it again. We were welcomed in Scotland, where they said, “Please come and do it here”, but we had a seven-year fight with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to be allowed to do it again, because successive Prison Ministers took an opposite view about the trial. The trial is now taking place, and the report will be published next year. The work has been picked up by Manchester probation service, which wants it looked at in connection with those on intense supervision orders.
The Robert Clack School in Dagenham is very interested in the application of the right mixture of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids to young children at school. In other words, there is an enormous amount of evidence about what the right mixture does. What worries me about this is that it is despite the fact that it has been officially evaluated and promoted. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for including it in his report. Here, I hope, is an opportunity for the Department of Health, if it is really going to take responsibility in this area, to pick up the work that has been done and apply cross-government action rather than leaving it to separate ministries to do what they have been doing in isolation and not promoting it. The Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour stands ready to help in any way it can.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Whitty on obtaining this important debate and I congratulate all the other speakers. On 30 July 1999, during the winding up of the Second Reading debate on the Food Standards Bill, the late and much loved Lord Carter, the Chief Whip at the time and an enthusiastic farmer and fruit producer, said on behalf of the Government:
“We have had a wide-ranging debate on this Bill and the related issues concerned with the food standards agency. We feel that the Bill represents a major step forward. It shows how the Government are continuing to give public health and the interests of consumers the high priority they deserve. The proposals have from the start been exposed to the fullest scrutiny and comment, despite what some noble Lords have said. We feel that the Bill is now a well developed piece of legislation, with three rounds of consultation having shown what consumers want … The painstaking process of consultation, with two years of hard work by Ministers and officials, have laid the ground for these major changes”.—[Official Report, 30/7/1999; cols. 1819-20.]
I was a bit player at the time and made a speech in that debate as well as participating in debates throughout the passage of the Bill. I mention that because of the contrast with the approach that this Conservative Government have taken in introducing their proposals to change the work of the FSA. Given the number of times that the Minister has chided me over the past few years for what he called a lack of evidence base for the various proposals that the Labour Government brought forward, it is a bit rich and a great contrast to the way that the Secretary of State announced major changes to the FSA and its work. We are entitled to ask: where is the evidence base that food labelling will do better back at Defra, since some will argue that it did not do so well before the creation of the FSA, and where is the evidence base that national policy on nutrition will be improved by putting it in the English and Welsh departments?
On the FSA website, I found a rather sad message. It said:
“If you wish to look at our old content on nutrition you can see it on the National Archive website. Nutrition research reports remain in our research repository”.
I suggest that the Minister visits this website as it is a marvellous library of the evidence of the food-base archive that has underpinned some of the campaigns that the FSA has led in the past 10 years or so, setting targets, as it did, for reductions in salt, sugar and fats in food. In May 2009, the FSA published revised salt-reduction targets for 2012 for 80 categories of food. They are more challenging than the previous targets for 2010. Will they be maintained? I know that the reduction of salt in food is work in progress. Indeed, I have very vivid memories of when I worked for the Co-operative movement when the Food and Drink Federation was violently opposed to any suggestion that government or a government body might interfere or comment on food manufacturers’ right to put pretty much what they liked in our foodstuffs. I am glad to say that they have modified their practices over the intervening years. Perhaps I may suggest that they do not take the proposed reduction in the FSA’s remit in this area as a signal that they can revert back to their bad, unhealthy habits. However, I have to say to your Lordships’ House that, after remarks like those from the Secretary of State when he said that he will scale back public funding for Change4Life and is asking the food industry to fill the gap in return for,
“an expectation of non-regulatory approaches”,
we have a right to be anxious.
I should like to explore a little further the powerful medical health case for salt reduction put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. In 2006, the FSA published the original voluntary salt reduction targets for 85 categories of food as guidance for the food industry. The agency committed to review the target in 2008 to formally assess progress to date and to establish what further reductions were necessary to maintain progress towards a six grams daily intake target, as mentioned by the noble Lord.
The setting of the targets, backed by scientific and nutritional evidence, gave the exercise credibility and led to some serious improvements. For example, salt has been reduced by one-third in pre-packed sliced bread. There has been a 44 per cent reduction in branded breakfast cereals and a reduction of between 16 per cent and 50 per cent in cakes and biscuits. There has been up to a 55 per cent reduction of salt in snacks and crisps, 50 per cent less salt in UK white cheese and a 32 per cent reduction in retail standard cheese slices. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, probably will disapprove of this, but I think that this is great progress and that our food manufacturers should be congratulated. Huge progress is still to be made, but it is a success story. How does the department propose to maintain reductions of salt in food?
As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, it is no exaggeration to say that there is a crisis in children’s diet. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that 92 per cent of children consume more saturated fat than is recommended, 86 per cent consume too much sugar, 72 per cent consume too much salt and 96 per cent do not get enough fruit and vegetables. As my noble friend Lord Giddens said, the Chief Medical Officer has compared this to a health time-bomb which we have to diffuse.
The history of the previous Conservative Government in this matter is truly abysmal, so the Minister should not be surprised at the anxiety and scepticism being expressed today. For years, school meals services suffered from neglect and underinvestment with kitchen and canteen facilities in many schools removed or allowed to deteriorate. The previous Conservative Government removed any guidance about nutrition for children’s school meals. Staff were not given proper training to allow them to prepare food from scratch. Their job was reduced to heating up and serving pre-prepared food delivered from large catering firms. Menus in many schools were limited to a regular selection of processed and deep-fried foods, including pizza, chips and the infamous turkey twizzlers. Such options tended to be high in fat, salt and sugar, and contained little fruit and vegetables or other fresh ingredients. Junk food and unhealthy soft drinks were widely available in vending machines and tuck shops.
There is no question that we have Jamie Oliver to thank in part for what happened next, which is why the Secretary of State’s remarks to the BMA on 30 June about Jamie Oliver’s efforts to provide healthy schools were singularly inappropriate. Combining his other utterances on these issues with the facile comments from his colleague, Anne Milton, about obesity and calling people fat instead of obese, creates legitimate concerns about the seriousness that exists within the ministerial team to deliver on this agenda and their willingness to do so.
When the Labour Government established the Schools Food Trust, a non-departmental public body, in 2005, new standards for the type and nutritional quality of school food were introduced in primary and secondary schools. After the success of campaigns, such as the schools food campaign and Jamie Oliver, we need to thank them for their efforts. The new rules for food in schools ensure that school lunches are free from low-quality meat products, fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate. Deep-fried items are restricted to no more than two portions a week. Schools have also ended the sale of junk food in vending machines and tuck shops, including confectionery, chocolate and fizzy drinks. The School Food Trust now works with schools and vending operators to promote the sale of healthy snacks and drinks such as water, milk, fruit juices and yoghurt drinks. In addition to the school food standards, a series of measures have been put in place to,
“embed the school food revolution for the long term and help tackle childhood obesity”.
This includes investment in healthy ingredients, training kitchens, the entitlement to learn to cook, a specific fund for building kitchens in addition to the £1 billion Building Schools for the Future programme, as well as increasing tendering opportunities for small and local producers. I pay tribute to the work of the trust and ask the Minister how he intends to deliver good health for the nation’s children if the Government withdraw their support.
It is important to look at what third parties have to say about these proposals. The chief executive of Which?, Peter Vicary-Smith, has said:
“The Food Standards Agency has revolutionised the way that food issues are handled in the UK, so we’re pleased today’s announcement ensures it can continue to independently monitor food safety. Unfortunately, some issues that would be best handled by the FSA have been moved to other departments. With these changes the government must ensure the interests of consumers remain at the heart of food policy”.
Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum has said that it is “crazy” to dismember the FSA:
“It had a hugely important role in improving the quality of foodstuffs in Britain and it was vital to have at the centre of government a body that championed healthy food. This appears just the old Conservative party being the political wing of business”.
Tom MacMillan of the Food Ethics Council has said:
“The agency was set up to earn public trust after a succession of food scares. Its wobbles, like the latest row over GM foods, have come when that commitment has wavered. Any departments absorbing the FSA’s role should heed that lesson carefully, doing even more to invite scrutiny and banish the slightest whiff of secrecy, or the new government could face another BSE”.
Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, the organic food standard bearer which had several run-ins with the first chair of the FSA, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has said:
“Many NGOs campaigning on food thought for a long time the food industry has an unhealthy degree of influence over the Department of Health, so the great risk is the corporate vested interests of the food industry will have too strong an influence on future policy”.
How will the noble Earl respond to the fact that so many respected organisations are worried about what the future holds? Indeed, his noble friend Lady Miller believes that food regulation needs more teeth, so will his department be delivering on that?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for her wise words and for reminding the House about Every Child Matters. She underlined the importance of diet for pregnant women. I thank also my noble friend Lord Giddens for his analysis of the separation of food production and consumption. His words filled me with dread at the challenges ahead, and I cannot see how the Government’s proposals will add to the solution. I enjoyed the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, but I wondered if he had been at the e-numbers recently. My noble friend Lord Rea was right to remind us of the roots of our public health regime, and of how hard vested interests work, but not only for consumers.
In conclusion, the FSA is neither overstaffed nor overresourced, and it has made significant economies over recent years. Will the Minister inform the House how his honourable friend has responded to the letters he received from my noble friend Lord Rooker, the current chair of the FSA, in June and July? The letters are on the public record and are available on the FSA website. My noble friend says:
“The core principles of the FSA are to put the consumer first; making policy in an open and transparent environment; operate independently; and be science and evidence-based. The FSA Board is concerned that these principles, which have served consumers well in the food policy environment since 2000, would be at risk by moving nutrition and dietary health work from a non-political to a political department”.
I could not have put it better myself.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for calling this debate on food standards and the role of regulation and guidance in the food chain. As your Lordships may know, this is an area for which the noble Lord and I have, at one time or another, both been responsible in our previous roles as agriculture ministers, his experience being much more recent than my own. Along with other noble Lords I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s work as the chair of Consumer Focus.
The food that we eat is fundamental to who we are. It is, of course, a source of essential sustenance necessary for basic survival. But food can also be much more. A meal made with the finest ingredients, prepared with skill and care and shared with loved ones can be one of life’s great pleasures. Yet no matter what our culinary preference, we all expect our food to be safe. It is no longer enough that we do not expect to be taken ill with a mild dose of salmonella or to have our lives put at serious risk by botulism; we also need to pay attention to the less acute causes of harm which noble Lords have rightly highlighted—the high levels of salt, sugar and fat that can do so much harm over the course of our lives.
While I do not believe that the role of the Secretary of State is to tell people what they can and cannot eat, there is a role in making sure that the food we eat is safe; that we make people fully aware of any long-term risks from our diets; and that those risks are minimised as far as possible. The sensible use of appropriate regulation and guidance is essential to this. The warnings sounded by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, are well founded. Far too many people in this country eat far too much salt, saturated fat and sugar, and nowhere near enough fruit, vegetables and oily fish. The personal costs to our health and the high financial costs to business and, through the National Health Service, to the taxpayer are huge. If everyone ate a diet that matched national nutritional guidelines we could prevent around 70,000 deaths every year. The current cost to the NHS of those deaths is thought to be around £8 billion a year. This does not include the further costs to the wider economy in lost productivity.
As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for one, pointed out, obesity in particular is a serious and growing problem. Nearly three-quarters of a million people in the UK are classified as morbidly obese—overweight enough to cause real long-term damage to their health. As such, they increase their risk of being diagnosed with diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular disease, as well as a wide range of conditions that have a significant negative impact on a person’s quality of life.
The Government are committed to improving the health of the nation. We consider public health to be a high priority and to be everyone’s business. Much has already been achieved—and here I pay tribute to a great deal of the work done by the previous Government: there is clearer and easier to understand information on the front of food packaging than ever before, helping people to make healthy choices at a glance; there are national guidelines to protect the most vulnerable and ensure high-quality food in places such as schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons; voluntary initiatives with the food industry have seen significant reductions in the amount of salt in our foods; we have put in place a new Change4Life strategy; we are working with industry on appropriate safeguards for marketing food and drink to children—I shall say more about that in a minute; and we will continue the national child measurement programme.
Something that many of these achievements have in common is that they stretch beyond the limitations of purely government actions. We recognise that public health is not a social good that can somehow be mandated from the centre. The way to make real progress is through a coalition of partners—government departments, private companies, charities and individuals all taking responsibility for their own actions. We want business to do more to help meet public health challenges. We want all partners to be joint owners of a long-term public health strategy and for each to play its part in improving people’s health. This is the thinking behind the Responsibility Deal, our response to the challenges that cannot be resolved through legislation or regulation alone. The Responsibility Deal is a partnership between government and business that balances proportionate regulation with corporate responsibility to tackle the health problems associated with poor diet, alcohol abuse and a lack of exercise.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised the specific issue of nutrition. Providing clear, easy-to-understand nutritional information for consumers is essential if people are to make informed choices. This is also true when eating out. We have challenged the food industry to give its customers this information. From a traditional bag of fish and chips to a special treat for the whole family, eating out has become an important part of our culture and must be included in any serious attempt to influence it.
In this and in all areas of regulation, guidance and food standards, there is a balance to be found between the impact on health outcomes and the impact on business. We need always to take a proportionate approach and to try to get the balance right. Food is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. It is a real success story, bringing billions of pounds into the Exchequer and employing tens of thousands of people. We must be careful not to strangle this particular golden goose with excessive regulation. We want a light touch wherever possible. Where we can achieve our objectives through voluntary agreements, we should do so. We also need to be realistic about what is within our gift to do. Much food regulation is EU-wide, so we need to negotiate and agree certain changes at an EU level. I need hardly say that we should also avoid gold-plating any legislation when implementing it.
One other key plank of public health policy is informed consumer choice. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is a particularly strong advocate for consumers and their rights in his role as chair of Consumer Focus. Often, people’s health and well-being are rooted in their daily lifestyle choices. To improve public health, we need to support people in changing their behaviour, making the healthy choice the easy choice. Public health must not be about nannying consumers or demonising particular foods. We need to find new approaches, founded in behavioural science, which nudge people in the right direction.
While we have made some progress, we have only really started to scratch the surface. Our average salt intake is down almost 10 per cent over the past decade, which will save the lives of 6,000 people each year as well as saving the economy around £1.5 billion. But we still have a long way to go before we reach the recommended level.
Early indications suggest that people are starting to reduce their intake of saturated fat, but we are still a very long way from the ideal level. Although levels have fallen substantially in young children, we are still eating far too much added sugar. Sadly, the consumption of fruit and vegetables remains poor, with only a third of people eating the recommended five a day. For all these reasons, we will publish later this year a public health White Paper. It will set out in detail our plans to transform public health: a good, balanced diet, more exercise, drinking responsibly and stopping smoking.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and other noble Lords dwelt to a considerable extent on the decision by the Government to move nutrition policy to the Department of Health from the Food Standards Agency, a transfer which took effect from 1 October. The main reason for doing that is not only to ensure that nutrition policy is delivered coherently and consistently in relation to nutrition—although nutrition is certainly part of it—but also to recognise the direct interrelationship between nutrition policy and public health policy in areas such as obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease. It is an early step towards realising the Government’s vision of drawing together the diverse arrangements for delivering public health into an inclusive public health service. The transfer will mean that the Government can give the general public more consistent information. It will also mean, as I have indicated, a more co-ordinated and coherent policy-making process and a more effective partnership between Government and external stakeholders.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that the creation of the Food Standards Agency was sensible and necessary in the context of public confidence at the time in the Government’s advice on food safety. I am not so sure that I agree with him that there was any lack of consumer confidence in the Government’s advice on nutrition. The main problem, I think, lay in issues around food safety.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that the Food Standards Agency will continue to ensure the public’s safety by maintaining its essential and robust regulatory role on food safety, covering all aspects of development, implementation and delivery. In the context of consumer confidence, what matters is surely transparency. The Government are committed to provide evidence-based advice to consumers in order for them to make healthier lifestyle choices. We understand the need for transparency in our policy-making and the need for independent advice and scientific accuracy. The Government will continue to be advised by independent experts to ensure high-quality, trustworthy advice to consumers.
The noble Lord, Lord Rea, mentioned the press report that appeared on 24 September that suggested that various public bodies would be axed, including the Government’s independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. In fact, discussions are still on-going and we will be in a position to make an announcement on the matter in due course. In the mean time, SACN will continue to provide expert advice on nutrition to the Government. Again let me reassure the noble Lord that our expert scientific committees, of which we have several, will continue to operate in line with government principles of scientific advice and codes of practice for scientific advisory committees. Those will ensure transparency in their work, and the minutes of those committees will be published.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, questioned the evidence that food labelling belongs in Defra. She will recognise, I believe, that there was a division of responsibility for food labelling. We will now have a more consistent delivery of food labelling policy that will bring together general labelling and issues such as country-of-origin labelling.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, asked me to give the Government’s view of the FSA in general. I hope that I have indicated that we think very highly of the FSA. We recognise the good work that it has achieved as well as the principles that it has established of openness, transparency and evidence-based policy. At the same time, it is important in delivering the Government’s objectives on public health to draw together nutrition policy so that it can be delivered more coherently.
Much has been said this afternoon—not least by the noble Lord, Lord Patel—about saturated fat and salt and their connection with ill health. Two key dietary influences in the development of cardiovascular disease are the levels of saturated fat and salt in the diet. High intakes of saturated fat can cause increased cholesterol levels, which are a major risk factor for CVD. Similarly, high salt intake contributes to high blood pressure, which is also a risk factor. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, that there is strong international agreement with UK expert opinion on what constitutes a healthy balanced diet that is low in salt and saturated fat. The substantial body of scientific evidence supporting that view includes long-term epidemiological studies, which conclude that a healthy balanced diet has a positive effect on the prevention of diet-related chronic disease.
The noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Rea, suggested that there should be a stronger regulatory approach to such matters rather than simply a continuation of the voluntary approach. The UK is moving further and faster on salt, saturated fat and sugar reduction than most other countries, even those that have taken a regulatory approach. The responsibility deal aims to build on that and to challenge industry to play its part in improving people’s health. Legislation would undoubtedly produce an additional burden, which could stifle industry innovation. Industry ought to have the flexibility to decide how it delivers public health benefits. Consumers also need to take responsibility. We need to find ways in which to support people in changing their behaviour and improving their diets. The Food Standards Agency is fully on board with this voluntary approach. It has worked with the food industry to deliver voluntary reductions and to secure public commitments to the reformulation of food.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, spoke eloquently about trans fats. Action by the food industry in the UK has reduced average trans fatty acid intakes to less than half the maximum level set for public health. We understand the public concern over artificial trans fats and will continue to encourage the food industry to eliminate their use. The Government’s public health White Paper and the responsibility deal will set out more of the strategy, but my right honourable friend Andrew Lansley has stated that the Government will continue to encourage the food industry to eliminate the use of artificial trans fats.
My Lords, the whole matter of trans fats is under review. I expect that we will be in a position to say something in the public health White Paper. In the context of the noble Lord’s question, it is instructive to look at the experience of other countries. The United States took legislative action on trans fats only after voluntary measures had failed and because intakes by New York citizens in particular were much higher than those recommended and much, much higher than those in the UK. Denmark acted to ensure that individual food products did not contain high levels. We believe that much of this can be achieved by voluntary measures, which will be considered as part of the responsibility deal.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, suggested in his speech that the ban of trans fats in Denmark has directly reduced the incidence of chronic diseases. I would be interested to see the evidence that he has for that. We are not aware of published scientific evidence of a direct linkage between reducing trans fat intakes and changes in disease rates in the population in Denmark, so I should be glad to communicate with him on that topic.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, questioned whether the voluntary approach would be enough. Voluntary action by industry so far has shown that it can be successful. As I indicated, we want to make industry joint owners of the long-term public health strategy. That includes our drive to reduce salt levels in food, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked for reassurance that protection of the consumer will be a watchword for the Government. I can tell her that the responsibility deal most certainly includes representation from consumer-focused organisations, to make sure that consumers’ interests are protected. She also spoke about the impact of poverty on diet. We recognise the action that retailers have taken to ensure that the nutritional qualities of value food lines and premium food lines are comparable. The Government’s responsibility deal can take into account these types of issue to help to promote good nutritional standards.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, that the Government are committed to working with the industry, as I indicated. We have seen a great deal of progress with children’s diets, as he will know in relation to foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked what action the Government will take to help educate consumers, particularly about food labelling. The Government fully support consumer education to help achieve a balanced diet. That will continue with the “Change for Life” brand, which can evolve in response to evidence and the economic climate. We recognise the role of simple nutritional labelling on pre-packed foods and are supportive of measures that support its usefulness. We would like to see front-of-pack labels that include percentage guideline daily amounts for the five nutrients which are of particular dietary importance.
I shall write to noble Lords with answers to other points. Perhaps I may conclude by briefly emphasising that more than any other area of health, public health has the potential to change people’s lives for the better. It cannot be seen as an add-on, or as somehow secondary to the important business of saving lives. It is saving lives and, at a time of tightening budgets, by preventing people from becoming ill in the first place it saves money as well.
My Lords, I welcome much of what the Minister has just said and I welcome very much the contributions of everybody in this debate. My noble friend Lord Giddens and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, reminded us that this is only part of a huge issue about the world food industry and food chain, and its inter-relations with individuals, with society and with the environment. That might well be appropriate for a wider debate at some point in this House.
Almost everybody has accepted that we have a serious nutritional crisis on our hands; the Minister has just done so. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lord Rea have particular professional experience in these areas with the more vulnerable people. It was much welcomed that we drew attention to those things. The only points of contention around this House were, first, the role of regulation and, secondly, which part of government should be responsible. On regulation the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, played his part as the man in the street. He did it quite well and we do not think that he is mad—or, at least, not much madder than the rest of us—but the man in the street or, more particularly, the woman in the supermarket wants more understandable advice and more bad things banned. My noble friend Lord Rea and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, made the point that, at times, we have to have a bit more regulation.
However, that was not actually my main point about the FSA, which has used softer but more effective means, some of which the Minister has just referred to, as well as regulation. Often, the threat of regulation, as my noble friend Lord Rea said, produces miracles to which otherwise industry would not respond. The FSA’s record in the area of nutrition, as well as of food safety, is difficult to replicate in a government department. I wish the government department with that responsibility well, but—and this is where responsibility lies—the FSA has a reputation for independence, which is important and was the original concept behind it, and for its scientific base. It is also trusted by the public and nutritionists and, as my noble friend Lady Hayter said, trusted by consumers. I welcome the assurance that that consumer engagement will continue to be an issue, but independence is more likely to be trusted than political management.
I wonder sometimes why Ministers actually want that responsibility. I am not against Ministers taking some more general responsibility for the operation of agencies, as the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, suggested, but on actual advice to the public it is most difficult for Ministers to be taking responsibility. Indeed, history is littered with otherwise eminent, successful and distinguished Conservative politicians who have fallen foul of this: Edwina Currie for telling us what we could not eat—as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, reminded us—and John Gummer for telling us what we could eat. John Gummer has, of course, had to change his name to come into this House.
The Minister may object that that was food safety and not nutrition but, as somebody said to me, the only difference between interventions on nutrition and those on food safety are that the latter are to stop us eating things which will kill us quickly, while interventions on nutrition are to stop us eating things which will kill us slowly. My final contention is that both of those are better off in an independent agency, but for the moment I wish the noble Earl and his colleagues joy of them. I beg to withdraw the Motion.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the business that follows is a Question for Short Debate in the name of my noble friend Lord Chidgey. It may be helpful if I indicate at this stage, as it is such a popular Question, that it has 19 speakers. As with the previous two debates, this is strictly time limited, on this occasion to 90 minutes. That means that if each person keeps precisely to the amount of time indicated on the speakers list, the House will just complete within the time limit. I appreciate that that is quite difficult today with only four minutes for most of the speeches permitted; therefore, the Whips on duty will assist Members to keep to the four minutes as they come up on the indicator. Today, because we appreciate that it is early days in this Parliament, I do not intend to invoke the rules in the Companion, so if there is by any remote chance a slight slippage, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the opposition Front Bench that her time will remain protected. It is the Minister who will find his time reduced—but of course that means a reduction in the opportunity to respond to Members.
It is Lord Brett.
I beg your pardon, it is the noble Lord, Lord Brett, who is responding to the debate for the Opposition. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has had her go and is giving way. The noble Lord will have his time protected.
It may be timely to remind the House that applying the Companion would mean, in practice, that if noble Lords were to overrun, the last Back-Bench speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, might find himself without a slot at all. But today he will be guaranteed a voice.
Millennium Development Goals
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, after that I shall be as brief as I can. This is a serious matter. Each year, in the developing world, 9 million children under the age of five die. Four million people die from malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Maternal mortality continues to be at the rate of one death in every 200 births, and 1.4 billion people, one-quarter of the population of the developing world, continue to live below the international poverty line. These were the headline challenges on the MDG agenda facing the high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly of the UN last month. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, in calling on leaders from 140 Governments to redouble their efforts to achieve the goals, stressed how vital it was to keep our promise to the poor. He said:
“In the decade since the MDGs were first agreed, we have learnt a great deal about what works and where we need to focus our efforts. Evidence shows that the Goals can be achieved, even in the poorer countries. We can and must do more, especially given the impact of climate change, increasing global hunger, and fall-out from the economic crisis”.
We can and must do more. The MDGs are too big to be allowed to fail and the promise to the world's poor too important not to be kept.
Since 2005, the 1.8 billion living below the poverty line has fallen to 1.4 billion, but only if you include China. Otherwise, the number has actually risen by 92 million, within a rising global population. Nevertheless, nine African countries are on track to halve poverty by 2015. Botswana is among the leaders, with 95 per cent enrolled in primary education, 90 per cent of HIV cases receiving healthcare, and robust programmes to reduce poverty in remote rural communities. Universally, net enrolment in primary education has risen to almost 90 per cent, but more than one in 10 primary school-age children are still out of school. Many countries are also facing severe shortages in teachers and teaching facilities.
The HIV infection rate in the developing world has decreased by almost a third to 2.7 million. Sub-Saharan Africa is still the most heavily affected, accounting for more than two-thirds of all those living with HIV. Yet, still nearly 1 million people a year die needlessly from malaria—a challenge that the UK has, to its credit, taken up.
The world is on track to achieve the safe water target, although close to 1 billion people worldwide still use unimproved water supplies. Over one-third of the world still does not have access to toilets or latrines and improvements are far too slow.
Women are still suffering disproportionately, with two-thirds of employed women having vulnerable jobs—part-time, seasonal or low-paid. The gender gap in secondary and third-level education in some countries continues to be unacceptably high. In spite of the steady decline in the deaths of children under five, the current figure of 9 million globally is still horrific. Every minute, somewhere in the world, 17 children under five die needlessly. Child mortality rates have been slashed in some 50 countries, but the decline of 28 per cent overall is not even close to the target of a two-thirds reduction.
The commitment to reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio and achieve universal access to reproductive health is where the least progress has been made. With maternal mortality declining only marginally over the last 15 years, with some 40 per cent of births still not attended by a skilled health worker and with only one in five sexually active women in sub-Saharan Africa thought to use contraception, the targets are being missed by a mile.
The response of the UN summit was to adopt a global action plan to achieve the MDGs by 2015. The Secretary-General secured more than $40 billion for women’s and children’s health. The World Bank doubled its support for agriculture, to up to $8 billion a year for the next three years. The Deputy Prime Minister emphasised the UK’s overall leadership on international development issues. He reiterated our commitment to reaching 0.7 per cent of gross national income in aid by 2013. He challenged others to live up to their promises and to back Ban Ki-Moon's call to keep the promise to end world poverty.
While the ODA globally had reached some $120 billion in 2008, so far only four countries have reached the ODA target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. At the United Nations, major countries including Japan, Chile, France and China, together with global corporations, all committed to major increased support. To our Government’s credit, they have pledged over the next five years to triple to some $750 million our contribution to fighting malaria, which needlessly kills 1 million people every year, and to prevent 50,000 maternal deaths and save the lives of 250,000 newborn babies.
Those commitments are welcome, but more detail is needed from the Government to deliver on their impact. For example, in tackling maternal mortality, what programmes are planned by the Government, and which countries and regions will they focus on? Do the Government share the concerns of Save the Children about the lack of an agreed accountability framework for achieving the goals on maternal and child health?
The increase in the proportion of hungry people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, underlines the importance of agriculture and food security and the impact of the dramatic 17 per cent rise in food prices in the past year. Will the Government be reconsidering their low-key approach to agricultural research and strengthening its ability to tackle a potential global crisis? The ongoing famine in Niger and the recent food riots in Mozambique are a clear warning of the threat.
At the UN, African leaders recognised that those in the developing world had to do more for themselves, to design programmes and strategies for their circumstances, to take charge of their destiny and to depend upon and mobilise their resources as the primary means of achieving the MDGs. The challenge to donors, including the UK Government, is to support the empowerment of the poor, the engagement of civil society and capacity-building, and the strengthening of human rights, transparency and the rule of law. The challenge is to enable the poor to hold their Governments to account.
A major obstacle to achieving the MDGs and sustainable development beyond 2015 is insecurity and instability. Security, stability and development are interlinked. The UNDP in Afghanistan, for example, has added a ninth MDG to the list—to enhance security. The stark fact is that 22 of the 34 countries furthest from meeting the MDGs are in the midst of, or emerging from, violent conflict. More will need to be done to help states that are judged to be fragile or in conflict.
Increasing MDG investment alone will not be the solution. There needs to be an overarching consideration of political developments, not least if there is to be a results-based developmental return on the international development commitments that the Government are seeking. There needs to be established joint accountability between donors and recipients of ODA, introducing transparent audit and tackling corruption. This is essential to the long-term viability of international development.
We need legislation to allow us to play our part in tackling corruption. Tax evasion and bribery in developing countries is estimated by the OECD to cost their economies as much as $160 billion every year. We need to ensure that human and natural resources in developing countries are treated fairly and no longer exploited. Will the Government bring forward legislation to require UK companies, their subsidiaries and joint venture partners to disclose all payments made to recipient Governments for access to natural resources and details of the resources themselves? Will the Government bring forward legislation similar to the Dodd-Frank financial reform Act in the United States, requiring disclosure and due diligence transnationally?
Achieving the MDGs is not just about aid. Eradicating poverty is fundamentally a political challenge. Poverty reduction is hampered as much by political and social factors as by economic conditions. Poor communities need to be empowered at local and national level and to hold their Governments to account, in particular on progress with eliminating poverty and drastically reducing maternal and child mortality. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the knowledge that, at the end of the 90 minutes that are scheduled for this debate, another 1,500 children under the age of five will have died needlessly.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the British Olympic Association and a member of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games. Today I will talk about the importance of sport as a key contributor to the progress needed to deliver the millennium development goals. Over the years the Olympic movement and its constituency have applied immense resources in the area of development through sport, helping to promote formal education, culture, healthy lifestyles, human rights, sustainability, gender equality, understanding among peoples and peace, to name a few. As a family of some 205 national Olympic committees, we in the International Olympic Committee also assist several humanitarian organisations by providing sports equipment, educational material and aid to victims of wars and natural disasters.
Each of these programmes and activities offers a meaningful contribution to the achievement of the millennium development goals. For example, in community development we contribute to local socio-economic development through sport. In environmental protection we advocate environmentally sound sport practice and sustainable development. In HIV and AIDS prevention we promote healthy lifestyles through peer education. In humanitarian assistance we bring hope through recreation to people in need. In gender equality we ensure greater access to sport for girls and women, as well as leadership empowerment. In Olympic education and culture we promote Olympism and Olympic values throughout the world among youth. In peace and Olympic Truce promotion we work on conflict resolution and inter-community dialogue through sport—a subject close to the heart of my noble friend Lord Bates.
The International Olympic Committee and international sports associations co-operate with numerous United Nations agencies, programmes and funds, and with member states as well as non-governmental institutions, to develop and implement a range of initiatives, using sport as a tool for development. National Olympic committees and national sports federations play a critical role as they communicate with billions of young people throughout the world on a daily basis. They bring to the table specific organisational expertise that delivers a cadre of young, disciplined generations to be empowered and trained for the roles they will play as leaders of tomorrow. In this country my noble friend Lord Coe and we at the British Olympic Association do this through the programme International Inspiration. It is the main British project in this context. It is led by Sir Keith Mills and uses sport to touch the lives of more than 10 million people in developing countries as a result of our hosting the Olympic Games in London in 2012.
The decision by UN member states last October to invite the IOC to participate in the work of the UN General Assembly as permanent observer—a position strongly supported by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown—has raised the level of partnership between sports organisations around the globe as a whole, and the political leadership of nations, to a whole new level that dictates that more resources should be provided to sport by Governments and by sport to deliver on its development commitments, so sport is an essential development tool and a key contributor towards ensuring progress towards the millennium development goals. We at the British Olympic Association are ready to assist government with a range of initiatives before and after 2012 so as to deliver a true and lasting legacy from London 2012.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for initiating this debate and, indeed, for giving us his usual wise and comprehensive account of the issues we are discussing. At the outset I pay tribute to the remarkable achievements of the Labour Government on all aspects of international development, including the millennium development goals. We trebled the aid budget, cancelled debt, established DfID and for the first time had a Secretary of State for International Development sitting in the Cabinet. Yet in spite of the efforts made by world leaders, many of the MDGs remain dangerously off track. We know that, according to the Institute of Development Studies, unless MDG progress accelerates more than 1 billion people will be living in dollar-a-day poverty in 2015. At current rates, we will not halve poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, which is the objective of MDG 1, before 2141.
Attention must be paid to achieving better accountability and to providing the predictable long-term funding which Governments in developing countries need if they are to plan a health infrastructure and get children into school. Critically, funds must be additional. This has to be new money. We do not want to see a rebadging and recycling of money that has already been pledged. I am afraid that we are seeing far too much of that in many countries. I very much hope that I can be given an assurance today that the funds that will be needed for resourcing adaptation to and mitigation of climate change will be new money and will not be transferred across from what is meant to be overseas development assistance. We also need to look at innovative sources of funding development. I am very much in favour of taxation on financial transactions—the so-called Robin Hood tax. France and Spain have already called for such a tax and I hope that the Government will support their position.
Critically, we need to invest in more and better opportunities for women and girls, as the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, intimated. We need to invest very seriously and conscientiously in the economic, legal and political empowerment of women and girls. Gender equity has a multiplier effect on all the MDGs and arguably offers the most significant linkages between the millennium development goals. For instance, if we ensure that girls have increased and unfettered access to education, we will have more of a linkage to better health and nutrition. Enhancing access to reproductive and maternal health contributes to all the MDGs. Maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa has barely changed in two decades. Women also need to benefit from equitable land distribution, which increases output and provides better food security. Safe water and sources of energy reduce the burden of women’s domestic activity. Discrimination is pervasive and ensures that women are more likely than men to be in low-paid jobs with no social protection. Violence against women was rightly described recently as a global pandemic.
On MDGs 4 and 5, which were a major focus in New York, I should be very interested in a response from the Minister to criticism that statements and announcements from DfID are focusing too much on newborn and one-month old babies rather than on children under five.
In conclusion, the millennium declaration represents a commitment to social justice and promises to promote equity and tackle social inclusion. I hope that will be the outcome of the MDGs.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend on securing this debate so early in the Session. The statement after the meeting in New York in September included a call for,
“a redoubling of efforts to reduce maternal and child mortality and improve the health of women and children”
by providing contraception, safe abortion, maternity care and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections. As someone with a lifelong interest in women's health, and as the newly elected chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, I particularly welcomed this because, as the noble Baroness who spoke before me mentioned, healthy women with small families can access education for themselves and their children; and eventually not only they, but their communities and countries, will benefit economically—and also sustainably, if we can slow down population growth.
Two years ago and following extensive hearings, the all-party parliamentary group, chaired energetically by Richard Ottaway, produced an excellent report, The Return of the Population Factor. The conclusion was that it will be difficult or impossible to achieve the millennium development goals with current rates of population increase in the least developed countries and regions. World population is currently 6.5 billion. By 2050, if nothing else happens, it will be 8 billion to 10 billion, which will wipe out any advances we might have made towards the millennium development goals. Sadly, those who set them did not take account of this.
Why are we not making progress? I have always contended that family planning has long been the missing link. It has always been underfunded. Global funding for it has declined in absolute terms; it has been halved from its level a decade ago. We must get family-planning supplies to 215 million women who want them but cannot access them.
There is another problem apart from finance; distribution. We are always told that in Africa, two condoms are available per man per annum. This is not a very generous provision—for any age group, I may add. Why—I have asked this many times—is it possible to get Coca-Cola in whatever village you come to in Africa or Asia, but not to get condoms or pills? Will the Minister take up the challenge? It cannot be beyond the wit of our civil servants and business leaders to do a deal to ensure that the unmet need for family planning somehow is met through their networks. The distributors of anti-retrovirals missed an opportunity; they did not even send out condoms with the drugs because of George Bush's objection to contraception. That was a scandalous waste. I hope that the Minister will assure us of the Government’s commitment to increase funding for sexual and reproductive health, especially family planning and safe abortion services. Women in developing countries depend on us to take the lead.
My Lords, last month’s meeting in New York said most of the right things but it is legitimate to ask whether the right actions will follow, and that is why the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, is so timely. After all, those actions have not done so in the past, and the recession has taken its toll on the willingness of many countries to implement the commitments that they entered into, most importantly at Gleneagles and at the UN summit in 2005.
Some of those who endorsed the warm words agreed in New York last month are not fulfilling those commitments now and have shown no sign of doing so in the future. Russia, France and Italy are examples of that tendency. I should like to know what the Government are intending to do to make the monitoring of commitments in the EU and the G20 and at the UN more effective during the last one-third of the journey than it has been in the past two-thirds. It is good that we are sticking to our commitments, but the UK is only a modest part of a global jigsaw and, if we cannot carry others with us, progress towards achieving the millennium development goals will flag.
This issue of the consequences of the recession and of the current problems over government spending has to be confronted fair and square. It needs to be recalled that the global recession and the particularly sharp slowing of growth in the main developed countries—which are also, of course, the main aid donors—has already levied a substantial hidden tax on the resources being made available to the developing world, as many of the commitments entered into were expressed as percentages of donor countries’ gross national income, and the growth of the GNI of those countries is markedly lower than was expected at the time the commitments were entered into.
A second consideration is that the 2008 financial and economic crisis was in no conceivable way attributable to the policies or actions of developing countries. Therefore, it would surely be aberrant and immoral if they were to be directly punished for events which are already taking a toll on their economies.
Thirdly, it is not in our own interest that developing countries’ health, education, climate and other development policies should be hobbled, with the inevitable increase in global insecurity which would follow. Therefore, I strongly commend the coalition Government’s decision to honour our commitments and to sustain the aid budget.
It is not too soon, I suggest, to be thinking now about the post-2015 scenario for the MDGs. The problems that they were established to address will not have disappeared by then, although one can hope that they will have been much reduced. An instrument a bit less blunt and all-embracing than the MDGs could serve better in the future. It is now widely recognised that global MDG achievement figures conceal as much as they reveal. Thanks to the rapid economic growth in Asia, the below-average performance of many weaker developing countries in other parts of the world is hidden and often not properly addressed. The problems of failed and failing states are simply not on the development radar screen at all. We surely need in future an instrument and approach which focus much more clearly and effectively on what Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University in a striking phrase called “the bottom billion”. The fate of those countries whose populations make up that bottom billion have serious implications not only for the world economy but for international peace and security.
We also need to think hard about the role that can be played in the future by the most successful countries emerging from the developing world—countries such as China, India and Brazil. I do not believe that we should expect those countries to match the same degree of spending as the developed countries but they have gone through this experience themselves and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and they have a lot of lessons to teach us. Therefore, to ignore the contributions that these countries can make to shaping and participating in future development work would be foolish and entirely contrary to the rationale of establishing the G20 as the primary body for co-ordinating global economic policies. After all, these countries have shown how it can be done—how rapid progress to achieving the MDGs can be made. Therefore, I should like to suggest that in cases such as China, Brazil and India, the Government should be thinking of how we can work with them in the future and co-operate with them in seeking to achieve the goals. I hope that when he replies to this debate the noble Earl can say something on the Government’s intentions in that respect. I heard the Secretary of State for DfID speak about that on television only two days ago and it would be very good if we could hear from him.
My Lords, I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for introducing this timely debate. The previous Government gave a strong lead in addressing world poverty, and our present Prime Minister on the day he entered office declared that we should be “generous abroad” . The aid budget has been ring-fenced despite financial pressures, although one must take into account the reflection of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. This issue has firmly joined the agenda of matters which, in this country at least, relate to the common good and occupy a sphere beyond party politics.
I wish to make one point and ask the Minister for one assurance. In a recent article, the Secretary of State for DfID said that the importance of faith groups in the global battle against poverty could not be overestimated. My experience comes from a 12-year partnership with the church in London and churches in Angola and Mozambique. We have been involved with local partners in building schools and medical facilities. We are also now raising money to float microfinance projects there.
It is very clear that those grass-roots networks involved have a high reputation for honesty and considerable reach. A recent World Health Organisation survey estimated that never less than 30 per cent, and in some cases as much as 70 per cent of the healthcare facilities in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, are provided by faith-based groups. It is vital that the Government continue to exploit the potential of these networks. It takes time to develop trust and to provide the necessary know-how but the potential is huge.
I am not, of course, making any exclusively Christian point. The reach and effectiveness of Islamic Relief agencies and other religious charities throughout the world contribute to an emerging—what shall we call it?—global society of great significance. Lambeth Palace was involved in meetings between the major faith groups in the UK with DfID in advance of the 2009 White Paper and in subsequent consultations. At that point a commitment was made to increase the use and the funding of faith-based networks in the distribution of aid but, in an internal DfID submission to the Secretary of State leaked to the Guardian, this commitment is cited as one of the 80 or so such commitments that could be abandoned. While others were considered to risk significant public outcry if they were jettisoned, this faith-based funding stream was thought to risk merely “individual vocal” criticism.
Can the Minister assure the House that there is no change to the commitment to an increased use of faith-based agencies in the distribution of aid? We do not want special treatment but fair treatment and recognition of the reach and effectiveness of distributing aid in this way.
Of course, I acknowledge that it is very difficult in a democracy to move too far ahead of public opinion. Here, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples have a responsibility to enlarge the room for manoeuvre so that sympathetic politicians can act. Make Poverty History and the Jubilee Debt Campaign on international debt showed what is possible. The Micah Challenge coalition is organising a global day of prayer on 10/10/2010—this coming Sunday. The plan is to match prayer with individual promises to contribute to bringing to an end disabling poverty in our generation. The focal event in the UK is, significantly, at Jesus House in north London. I do not have to declare an interest as it is not one of mine. It is home to one of the most vibrant black-led churches. Millions of people worldwide will participate in an effort to make sure that at a time of anxiety for the rich world, the vulnerable and the needy are not neglected.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for initiating this important discussion. In the UK we should be rightly proud of the British leadership in advancing the millennium development goals which represent a vision of a world transformed where equality and justice prevail.
However, while we are very pleased, one group of women remains outside the MDG effort. Until we address this failure, we cannot speak of real progress. Today I ask our Government to call explicitly for girls and women who are forcibly impregnated by the vicious use of rape in armed conflict to be included under MDG 5—reducing maternal mortality. “Rape as a weapon of war” is a phrase commonly used accurately to describe what is happening alongside today’s armed conflicts, but we rarely speak about the consequences of this weapon. Thousands of girls and women impregnated by rape used as a weapon of war are routinely denied access to abortions. Girls and women die from their attempts to self-abort and from suicide resulting from untold stigmatisation leading to social marginalisation.
We should do what no other country has done: to ensure that the humanitarian medical aid provided to girls and women in places such as Congo, Sudan and Burma—an endless list of countries—gives them choices and access to abortion when pregnancy is a direct result of rape as a weapon of war. This is a moral imperative and a legal obligation. The Geneva Convention requires that civilians and combatant victims receive non-discriminatory medical care, whether it is provided by the state in conflict or by others. Why, then, are pregnant rape victims given discriminatory medical care through the routine denial of access to abortion? The embedded inequality towards women in conflict settings has been recognised by the Security Council in such historic resolutions as 1325 and 1820. Equal justice for women is not limited to the courtroom, it must be extended to supporting those women who are victims of the inhuman practice of rape as a weapon of war.
I draw the attention of the House to the recent report of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam, which details examples of the impact, stigma and suffering of raped children and women in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere, where no legal provision exists to support them. It also mentions that women should be given preventive care—that is, utilisation of contraception—as though women who are raped can be prepared for such horrors.
One of the solutions proposed by women’s organisations, including the international human rights organisation the Global Justice Center, is that access to abortion must be a critical part of the support available to women. The centre filed a shadow report with the Human Rights Council asking it to recommend that the US remove the prohibitions put on humanitarian aid to rape victims in conflict, as it violates the US obligation under the Geneva Convention. The UK can and must support this issue by asking questions of the US during the council’s review process due shortly.
I know that these are difficult matters for many individuals and countries to address, and international donor communities have thus far resisted pressurising countries to review their policies. Neither criminal abortion laws in the conflict state nor foreign aid contracts with the United States can serve as defence to a state provision of discriminatory medical care to all victims under international humanitarian law.
Time is short, and I should have liked to highlight many examples of countries such as Bangladesh where the suffering and humiliation of rape has left decades of suffering, ill health and stigma. The UK must take a lead to end that discrimination. This will mark real progress towards the millennium development goals and towards ensuring equal rights for women under international humanitarian law.
My Lords, we should be much reassured by the fact that, despite the difficult financial position faced by the Government, their commitment to raise spending on overseas aid from 0.5 per cent of our annual economic output to 0.7 per cent by 2013 has remained a firm promise—indeed, it is to be enshrined in law. That is welcome, and demonstrates that while charity may begin at home, it only begins there. However, this is not just about charity. A world divided between the wealthy and the very poor is inherently unstable, particularly as the world continues to shrink because of the speed and availability of communication.
I shall talk specifically about the role and importance of women in reaching the challenging millennium goals that world leaders have set. A few years ago, I visited a housing project in Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town's townships. There, I realised that if you wanted homes built, it was the women’s housing co-operative that would build them. If you wanted a crèche, it is women who would create it and run it. If you wanted bed-and-breakfasts, the businesses would be run by women; and if you wanted a self-help saving scheme to provide microfunding, it was women who would organise it.
That is why we need to concentrate far more on strategies which help the lives of women directly, particularly in health, maternity and schooling, which will in turn drive higher growth through greater equality. The millennium goal furthest away from being met relates to the mortality rates of women who die in pregnancy and childbirth. This impacts directly on the existing children of those mothers and their life chances. Half a million women die every year in this way, and half of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. The new strategies recently announced to increase substantially the number of lives saved are at the heart of what we need to do. For example, in under half of developing countries does a skilled health worker attend a birth. Addressing this specific issue could make such a difference. Two-thirds of the billion people who live on less than one dollar a day are women, and those women own only 1 per cent of the land they live on. Yet gender inequality discourages economic growth because when women earn money, they spend more of it on their families. Research by Goldman Sachs and by the World Bank has confirmed that if more women could earn their own income, the income per head in many developing countries could rise by a fifth.
I have two final points. Let us remember that economic growth requires clean water. As an example of what can be done if we concentrate aid, we should look to new technologies, such as encouraging the use of solar power to pump fresh water from deep underground wells. Finally, I congratulate the BBC World Service Trust on the excellence of its work in developing countries, to which it broadcasts information to help people in the face, for example, of natural disasters. I give a particular accolade to “Afghan Woman’s Hour” to which six million Afghan women tune in every week. These women say that the stories they hear inspire them to take action to improve their own living conditions. At New York, Ban Ki-Moon reminded us that:
“Meeting the goals is everyone’s business. Falling short would multiply the dangers of our world—from instability to epidemic diseases and environmental degradation”.
He said that,
“achieving the goals will put us on a fast track to a world that is more stable, more just and more secure”.
He is surely right.
My Lords, in my limited time, I shall focus mainly on MDG 5 and, in particular on 5.B, which aims to,
“achieve universal access to reproductive health”,
by 2015. This may be the most off-track of all the MDGs, as well as having the biggest beneficial multiplying effect on other MDGs. These benefits are also won through being connected with maternal health. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, said that this is the area of least progress and used the phrase “missed by a mile”. The reason that the MDG I am referring to is called 5.B is that it was a very welcome additional afterthought, some years after the original 2000 framing of the MDGs. Hence there was a slow start in including reproductive health for the essential factor it is.
We should be grateful to the Government and, in particular, to the Minister, Andrew Mitchell, who have, in the recent past, realised the importance of this crucial aspect of development. In particular, they are prepared to use plain and straightforward language in encouraging these ends. That significant change of emphasis by the Conservatives was achieved well before the advent of the coalition, but I am sure it has the full and enlightened support of the Liberal Democrats. In this case, as we heard, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, is very much on message. We are looking forward to seeing how the Government will put their words and intentions into practice.
One particular and important aspect of this is the statistical increase in the proportion of young people in the overall population in less-developed countries who could benefit from help in this field. In many countries, it makes strong sense to target them at an early stage as an investment to avoid multiple later problems, and that is the direction and focus of many agencies now. It is only by investing in the reproductive and sexual needs of this massive cohort of young people that we can hope to begin to achieve MDG 5.
Some of us have been agitating about a considerable setback since the Cairo conference in meeting the scale of contraceptive availability promised there. That has fallen woefully short. In this context we rightly talk about unmet need for contraception. It is estimated that more than 200 million women in less developed countries have such an unmet need.
In a recent article in the Times, Matthew Parris had an excellent summary of this population dilemma, but at the end he partly implied that we were defeated by not wanting to confront and tell people what to do. That was a distant yesterday. For the past few years, particularly since the Cairo conference, if we can meet it and respond to it, there is very much a demand and an unmet need for reproductive health, particularly from women, without the need of resorting to any forceful methods.
In talking like this we should not and do not forget the disproportionate damage to the environment and to sustainability caused by the developed world, but that was not the main focus of MDGs. To use one of the current criteria, I believe that the department and the Minister fully realise the value for money of even small investments in this field and the disproportionate effect it has on other MDGs.
In addressing this subject and having read the Minister’s speech at his party conference on Tuesday, where he was talking about creating a private sector division in his department, the area to which I have been referring, reproductive health, would seem to be one of the ideal candidates for such treatment. Referring to that same speech, which very much touched on previous departmental profligacy, I hope that the Minister will view the uses or abuses of the huge percentage of overseas aid which we are currently obliged to channel via the EU.
My Lords, I just have one central point to make. Everyone acknowledges that while some good progress has been made in meeting the millennium development goals, progress in too many areas, such as malnutrition, maternal mortality and HIV, has been sporadic and patchy. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that in setting the goals, no attention was paid to what should be the central motor of the development process—the provision of a free and independent media.
I speak as chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, which aims to enhance press freedom throughout the Commonwealth, and I declare an interest accordingly. Experience from within the Commonwealth shows how free media can contribute enormously to the development of democracy and good governance, which are the foundation stones for the achievement of the MDGs.
A media that is free and robust, such as in India, Botswana, Kenya and the Caribbean island states, calls government to account. My noble friend Lord Chidgey, to whom we owe a great debt for securing this debate, rightly talked about empowering the poor to hold their governments to account. It needs a free media to do that. A free media will also take seriously its educative role in communicating objective information. In many countries, independent television and radio have been a successful platform for social information programmes to disseminate vital health messages. But state-run media, with journalists often cowed by the threat of jail, always end up doing a government’s bidding. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, where progress on meeting the MDGs has been slowest, this means the propagation of misinformation campaigns through which the population is often actively misled about subjects of major importance. There could be no better or more tragic example of this than the failed state of Zimbabwe, where the Government hold a vice-like grip on all information, with grave consequences for public health, which means that life expectancy is now just 33 years.
A report from UNESCO in 2007, Press Freedom and Development, outlined the strong correlation between media freedom and progress in meeting the MDGs, concluding that,
“press freedom is an instrument of development in itself”.
It highlighted how no country has both a free press and a very large percentage of its population living below the poverty line, how life expectancy improves as governance does and how media freedom makes it more likely that sound public health policies will be introduced. Let us look, for instance, at Ghana, which has an independent media whose freedoms are enshrined in the constitution. Its president, John Atta Mills, has worked in partnership with the media to instigate imaginative programmes to move the country forward toward the millennium goals, particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS. In Kenya, much progress has been powered by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement, working with free media throughout East Africa to improve environmental conservation and women's rights.
Development cannot be imposed; it can be only facilitated; and an independent media, with well trained journalists, is the best facilitator that there can be. If we are going to meet the ambitious targets of the MDGs by 2015, much more will have to be done to improve issues of governance, of public information and of press freedom, the three catalysts of change. Will the Minister ensure that greater attention is now paid to these issues and that the Commonwealth in particular is urged actively to encourage the development of free and independent media, which will be the precursor to the progress we all so desperately want to see?
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for instigating this debate, I declare an interest not simply as a global board member of Food for the Hungry, a faith-based developmental charity, and an adviser to Light Years Inc, a champion of the African producer, but perhaps more importantly as the grandson of a small to medium-sized cocoa farmer, first in the Gold Coast and then in Ghana, and indeed the beneficiary of a cocoa marketing board scholarship—a link between urban and rural that made a real difference to the quality of education in Ghana. All too often, a false dichotomy is made in the African context between the rural and the urban.
The World Bank has drawn attention to the fact that around 70 per cent of the millennium development goals’ target group live in rural areas, particularly in Asia and Africa. For the most part, for the rural poor agriculture is a critical component of the success of the MDGs. Even though structural transformations are important in the longer term, more immediate gains can be made for poor households’ welfare through agriculture, which can help them overcome some of the critical constraints they now face in meeting their basic needs. Thus, a necessary component of meeting the millennium development goals by 2015 in many parts of the world is a more productive and profitable agricultural sector. Yet this is threatened by the fact that, as statistics show, support in aid for agriculture has fallen by 43 per cent since the mid-1980s. Recent data indicate that although the decline has slowed a bit—indeed, there is some hope that it may now be rising—the share of aid given by members of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, of which we are one, has declined from 17 per cent in the late 1980s to 6 per cent in recent years.
Attainment of the MDGs therefore requires that we heed the World Bank’s suggestion and go with its policy plan for 2010-12, which puts the emphasis on growth through an agricultural action plan. I hope the Minister will give us an assurance that the United Kingdom intends to put its efforts, and indeed its money, behind this plan. It has to be said, I fear, that perhaps we in the last Government did not do all we could to support agriculture. That is a fact. Looking at the figures, we see that the UK devotes less than a percentage point of its aid to agriculture. Its contribution is some $23 million, which represents 2.8 per cent of the DAC total. That really is not good enough. The World Bank has indicated that it needs to see a much greater emphasis on the part of donors if the trend of decline in agricultural production is to be reversed and if we are to have any hope at all of meeting the millennium development goals.
Kenya has shown the way in this. It is possible to end the sterile debate between smallholders and large owners and between commercial farming and farming by smallholders in rural areas by integrating the two. The point has been made by Dr Stephen Mbithi, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya:
“Until African agriculture is commercially viable there will always be hunger in Africa”.
There are many innovative and exciting ways in which we can help; I hope that we do.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord for securing this debate, but I also express the hope that there will be a longer debate at some stage. Too many of us feel deprived by the short time available to speak, and we would like to talk about this very important subject at length.
I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock. I have always agreed with her on most things but at the last summit, under the leadership of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, women were never mentioned as being at the heart of MDGs. This is the first time that the summit papers have mentioned that women are at the heart of MDGs. At the previous summit only Denmark and Liberia said that the MDGs can be met only if we concentrate on women; however, on this occasion every single paragraph has women at the heart of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, spoke about African agriculture but he did not mention that 70 to 80 per cent of African agriculture is in the hands of women. Once again, unless women are at the heart of the millennium development goals, nothing can change in Africa. The women could be helped to do better through co-operatives, for example. We should look at best practice in other places. In India there are 10 organisations called “self-employed women’s associations”, which are all co-operatives. They all do different things in different parts of India extremely successfully. Why not look at that model and start an agricultural co-operative movement in Africa? Then they would be able to feed not only a few people but maybe the whole of the continent.
I always say that we are hampered in what we want to do for women by some powerful people, one of whom recently visited us—and we paid for his visit. I mind that. It is despicable that an institution has a leader who systematically deprives women of their normal human right to choose whether or not to have a child. I mind the fact that it is an institution that is riddled with child abuse and yet we invite its leader to visit us—and we pay for it. That is a very bad thing.
At every meeting and conference you attend, who stops you from talking about abortion and about women’s sexual health? At the ICDP conference last year, Saudi Arabia and the Catholic Church made us take out the term “women’s sexual health”. What a load of nonsense. What world are we living in? We are not living in Christ’s day and, anyway, they did not have any contraception then. We have to look at our world and go with it. Unless everyone here will stand up and be counted, the lives of the women will not change. It is time we started doing that. I get very upset.
I am tired of hearing about empowerment; I am tired of hearing about equality. Have we got equality in this country? Every time there is a debate everyone shouts, “We do not have equal pay; we do not have equality; we do not have this; we do not have that”. You think that the African women will get equality? No, they will not. Get them food first.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of Concern and as a special envoy for conflict resolution for the Government of Ireland.
Before I start, I must take exception to some of the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. Her description of the Catholic Church, to which I belong, is inaccurate and offensive. I do not have time in this debate to deal with the issues at length, but I must register that fact.
We are all familiar with the millennium development goals and the targets and indicators and we can, through those indicators, measure the extent of the achievement of the goals. There can be no doubt that some of the targets are very crude and questions may be asked about the validity of some of the statistics being presented as evidence of achievement. One can question, for example, the validity of a target that measures children’s enrolment at primary school but not their completion of primary school; or the target that measures a woman’s access to one session of antenatal care before pregnancy as being antenatal care in pregnancy. Notwithstanding this, much has undoubtedly been achieved through the focus created by the MDGs.
It has been commented today that some developed countries use the financial crisis as an excuse to pull out of or default on aid commitments. The commitment of the coalition Government to maintain the UK’s aid commitments is to be welcomed. I also welcome the fact that the coalition Government’s agreement develops the previous Government’s proposed new global development action plan by prioritising sanitation, a target for which there is a very high failure rate. Without sanitation, the achievement of all the other goals is profoundly more difficult. I also welcome the statement that the Government will recognise the vital role of women in development and will promote gender equality and focus on the rights of women, children and people with disabilities to access services.
At times of such economic difficulty, we will be challenged to remain faithful to our commitment to the MDGs. Inevitably, the amount of money dedicated to aid in this country will decrease, because it is assessed by reference to a percentage of gross national income. There will be less money in the next five years for those who are in need. It is therefore vital that aid is incisively targeted, with measurable and specific outcomes and real accountability.
It is profoundly important that, in the process of seeking to achieve these goals, donor countries do all they can to ensure that their contributions are underpinned by two significant objectives. The first of these is ensuring that, in so far as is possible, development aid is used in the context of capacity-building in the host country. It is laudable for donors to build schools and hospitals using imported labour, or even prisoner labour. The consequence of such strategies, however, is that there is no development of local capacity that will enable the host country to build in the future. The partnership of imported labour and local labour is a fundamental necessity, even where the consequence may be to delay the completion of the project. I therefore ask the Government to ensure that aid is linked to capacity-building at a local level as it is delivered.
The second significant objective that should underpin development aid focused on the achievement of the MDGs is that there should be ongoing risk analysis to ensure that the strategies adopted are buttressed by adequate provision for security and do not add to or create conflict. Many of the countries seeking to achieve the targets inherent in the MDGs are either emerging from conflict or still engaged to some degree in it. At present, some 42 million people are displaced either internally or as refugees. In the granting of aid, do the Government assess the risk of conflict consequential upon it? Is there a requirement for an early warning/early response system to deal with such conflict locally?
Women continue to be disproportionately represented among the uneducated, the unemployed and those in marginal employment. It is fundamentally important and necessary that, in countries that are emerging from conflict and that are the subject of UK donor aid, there is a clear link between the UK strategy to achieve the MDGs and the obligations placed on the country by UN Security Council resolutions.
My Lords, I follow the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, in stressing the importance of conflict resolution in achieving the millennium development goals. At the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 22 September, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, made what some may recall as a radical observation. He pointed out that 22 of the 34 countries furthest from reaching the millennium development goals are in the midst of, or emerging from, violent conflict. He might also have pointed out that not a single country that is currently defined as fragile or conflict-affected has reached any of the millennium development goals—that point was eloquently made by my noble friend Lord Chidgey in so ably opening this debate.
The world of development professionals can often be perplexing and confusing for lay people. It is surely axiomatic that armed conflict drives hunger, displaces refugees, assails human rights, denies justice, erodes equalities, destroys crucial infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and roads, thwarts education and disease prevention, undermines systems of governance and law, unleashes corruption and ravages the environment. It may therefore be surprising that conflict resolution or peace building is not mentioned in the eight millennium development goals. It is incomprehensible that conflict reduction should not be mentioned in the underlying 21 targets against which attainment of those goals will be assessed. It is utterly depressing that conflict reduction or peace building should not even appear among the 60 indicators underlying the 21 targets and eight goals.
That is not just my view. The G7+ group of countries that are affected by conflict now has 17 members, including many of the most fragile states such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan, Sierra Leone and Chad. When the group met in Dili in Timor-Leste, some frustration was expressed at the inadequacy of the millennium development goals, which totally ignore—to use their words—the importance of peace and security as a prerequisite for development. The group’s host, Emilia Pires said:
“Aid is given based on MDG criteria, and from our experience we have found out that before we can get the MDGs, we have to do a few things first. We have to have peace and stability … It means that you have to build peace and then you have to build a state to manage the whole thing. Peacebuilding and statebuilding must come before the MDGs and if you look at all the literature of the MDGs, it doesn’t talk about that”.
That is the point that the G7+ countries make. If people are bewildered as to why the $37 billion which is spent on the one-third of the world’s poorest who are in conflict-riven countries is not having more effect, that might be part of the answer.
Let me conclude on this point: I am a politician; I believe in politics; and I believe in democracy, in the parliamentary process and in the rule of law. I believe that each human life is sacred and I abhor violence as a means of dispute resolution, for it places human lives, hopes and aspirations at the disposal of tyrants. I simply cannot understand why the political class do not ensure that peace and security, which we take for granted in this country, have primacy in our efforts to tackle and alleviate poverty around the world.
My Lords, that very powerful speech leads into my contribution as chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children, which received a powerful presentation in July on Protect for the future: Placing children’s protection and care at the heart of achieving the MDGs. That piece of research was produced with the help of Save the Children, Railway Children, the International Children’s Trust, Retrak, the Consortium for Street Children, ChildHope and War Child.
If the millennium development goals are about children’s futures, there is still quite some work to do in putting protecting children at the heart of those goals. Let me give just a couple of examples of very practical things that should be done to help children. I refer in particular to street children, especially those who lose their homes as a result of conflict—although that is an extreme example—or as a result perhaps of family violence or of migration to escape rural poverty. In any event, the effects on the children are often very similar.
One of the greatest effects is lack of access to education. If a child does not have an address, it is very hard for the child to go to school. If the child cannot buy a uniform and the school requires a uniform, it is very hard for the child to go to school. Even the lack of a birth certificate can have a crucial effect on a child’s future chances in life, as that can make it hard to migrate across borders or possibly to get any sort of job. The need to ensure registration of all children at birth, so that they have a document, might sound bureaucratic, but it is actually a great necessity.
A few schemes offer a perverse incentive, such as those that offer money for the fostering of children. The report found that, in some cases, children were put into foster care so that the money could be accessed. Such perverse incentives need to be guarded against.
All those issues, particularly protecting children, apply in spades to girl street children, who are more vulnerable, more at risk and more subject to the issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and my noble friend Lady Tonge raised about sexual health. Before these children even reach adulthood, they are pregnant. I am sorry to say that in a lot of cases well meaning NGOs run by the church prevent contraception from being given to those girl street children.
My Lords, professionally I am an obstetrician and I have witnessed the death of a mother in childbirth. It scars you for life. Therefore, I applaud the Government’s new commitment to save the lives of 50,000 mothers.
One of the four drivers of the reduction in maternal mortality has been capacity building in the health system, particularly in trained and skilled birth attendants, including for emergency obstetric care. The UK is well placed to deliver on this. Professional organisations such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives are very experienced in this area. DfID already works through its five-country programme in sub-Saharan Africa with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I hope that it will engage again with the professional organisations to meet its commitments. The methodology lends itself to interventions around contraception and essential obstetric care. This module can be quickly rolled out on a hub and spoke principle, as exemplified by the success of the partnership project in Malaysia, which is being spread into surrounding countries, such as Indonesia.
I am also encouraged that DfID recognises in its document that, for every woman who dies, 20 more suffer disabilities such as the terrible condition of obstetric fistula. I work with professional organisations to help to train doctors and nurses to care for such women. It is estimated that 20 million women with obstetric fistula exist in sub-Saharan Africa alone; there are many more in south-east Asia. Their tales are heartbreaking. Let me read some. A 26 year-old woman from Equatorial Guinea said:
“I endured 5 days with delivery pains. I was finally transferred to the hospital and the foetus was dead. After 3 weeks, I started to feel constant flows in my vagina, and the odour was very bad. The situation has persisted for 10 years”.
A 22 year-old woman from Bangladesh said:
“Nobody wants to stay with me due to the smell of urine. Even my husband sometimes blames me for my condition”.
A 48 year-old woman from Mali said:
“I am distasteful in the eyes of others. It is God’s will”.
Another woman said:
“Everyone has rejected me. Cure me or kill me”.
It is possible to cure these women. All that is required is a commitment to do so. When you cure them and you see their faces, it is like magic. A 48 year-old woman from Tanzania said:
“I did not know that one day I would be like other women, because the problem was so big”.
Another woman said:
“When I returned to the village, those who did not believe that I was healed were embarrassed when I saw them. I have become a person again”.
Hitherto, DfID has not felt that it needs to do something for these millions of women with obstetric fistula. I hope that it changes its mind. Through the work of professional organisations, these women who suffer from long-term disability and who live a living death can be helped, just as the death of women in childbirth can be prevented.
My Lords, I join others in expressing appreciation for the endeavours of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, in getting this debate. I share the frustration of other noble Lords at the time limit: four minutes is not sufficient to develop the argument. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, on that, but I do not agree that the previous Administration did not put women at the centre. I say that not as a former spokesperson for that Government in this Chamber but as someone who worked for a half a decade when the millennium development goals were set as vice-chairman and then chairman of a specialised United Nations agency—the International Labour Organisation—where time and again I saw the British Government in the vanguard of pressing the issue of women.
I also join the appreciation of others that the Government—the Conservatives, with their Liberal Democrat allies—have enshrined a commitment to the 0.7 per cent. We should not lose that as an important fact, but I must admit to asking when we will see that enshrined in legislation. I can think of no reason why the draft legislation prepared by the previous Administration, which had all-party support, could not have been put swiftly into legislative form. That would have been a powerful signal at the special summit which we had last month.
There have been MDG successes. We may not shout about them about too much, but the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned malaria. HIV/AIDS is down by 25 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. Child survival rates are up and 42 million more children are in education. The poorest part of the world—that is, living on $1.25 a day—is down from 58 per cent to 51 per cent. Yet that does not beg the question, which a number of noble Lords have raised, that many of the MDGs are seriously off-track.
Clearly, the world economic crisis has exacerbated that situation, with over 50 million of the poorest now being denied their escape from poverty by that very financial crisis—that was a point which I think the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made. Another reason is that our colleagues in the developed world have not met the commitments that they made in the 10 years of millennium development generation that we have gone through, and if they do not meet those then the task will of course be very difficult. Add to that the whole question about areas of conflict, which was eloquently put by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and others, and MDG achievements remain quite formidable.
Much hope was placed on the special summit where, despite the pledging of $40 billion to a global strategy for women’s and children’s health—as the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, reported—and for agriculture, in the eyes of many the summit remained a failure. It brought no serious commitment to put the MDGs back on track. Turning to our own Government, despite my appreciation of their endeavours to maintain the 0.7 per cent in very difficult times, many fear that the temptation to raid the DfID funding for other commitments will be irresistible. That view was confirmed rather than confounded by the leaks from DfID about many key international commitments being dropped—a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London—and that the budget is to be put under the control of the national security council.
Time certainly does not allow for the development of those arguments, so I restrict myself to asking the Minister a number of questions. I recognise that he may not be able to answer them in the 10 minutes available, so perhaps he could answer them in writing. They are as follows: do the pledges that the Government made at the millennium development goals summit on maternal health represent new funding from the UK Government? How do the Government intend to meet the commitment to spend £500 million per year on malaria? Does DfID intend to reduce funding on any other health-related expenditure from the department’s budget in order that the pledge to spend £500 million per year is met—in other words, is that new money? Do the Government intend to launch the “My Aid” fund, and when? Will the Government fund the BBC World Service from the DfID budget?
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey for asking this Question for Short Debate, and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. My noble friend explained the situation with his usual skill and with balance. I will endeavour to answer as many questions as possible; where I cannot, either I or my noble friend Lady Verma will write to noble Lords. I have listened very carefully and—with a few understandable exceptions—I agreed with everything that noble Lords have said today.
Progress has been made on the millennium development goals or MDGs. However, it has indeed been uneven and on a number of our goals we remain significantly off-track. In Africa, a child dies from malaria every 45 seconds; as my noble friend Lord Chidgey told us, that equates to 1 million per year. Every year at least one-third of 1 million women die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth.
The UN MDG summit in September was a crucial moment for the world to renew our global commitment and redouble our efforts to meet the goals by 2015. The UK approached the summit seeking an ambitious agenda for action in the final years. Work by the UK behind the scenes and in public helped to achieve this, and the UK’s leadership on sticking to our promises was instrumental. The summit resulted in unprecedented global commitments to save 16 million women and children, reverse the spread of malaria and tackle hunger and undernutrition. We were successful in doing this in spite of the tough financial conditions.
In sum, three elements contributed towards the summit’s success: renewed political commitment, new concrete commitments and increased public awareness of the MDGs in the UK. Since their conception in 2000, the MDGs have provided a global rallying point towards eliminating poverty. The summit this year gave global momentum for the final push and highlighted the unique role that the UK has and will continue to play in driving this agenda forward. More than 140 world leaders attended the summit to recommit themselves and their countries towards meeting the MDGs. First, throughout the summit, including more than 80 meetings, the international community’s respect for the leadership that the UK has shown on the MDGs was abundantly clear. The UK was often praised for standing by our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on official development assistance from 2013, and in enshrining this pledge in law. The noble Lord, Lord Brett, will understand that it is when parliamentary time allows, but the most important thing is that we actually do it.
Prior to the summit, the UN Secretary-General referred to our pledge of 0.7 per cent as visionary. The Secretary of State for DfID and the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that we expect other countries to live up to their promises on aid. It was also a very useful opportunity to drive through the UK’s key message on the importance of focusing on results and accountability, making progress on the most off-track MDGs and the underlying importance of resolving cross-cutting issues such as conflict, raised by my noble friend Lord Bates, and climate change, to achieve all the MDGs. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Chidgey and others.
Secondly, the summit resulted in a number of substantial commitments on the most off-track MDGs. The most significant of these were the Secretary General’s event on maternal health and the UK co-hosted event on malaria. The maternal health event generated $40 billion of financing and policy commitments. The UK pledged to save the lives of 50,000 women, 250,000 children and to help 10 million more couples gain access to family planning by doubling our efforts. The UK pledge on malaria was similarly strong, helping to reduce deaths from malaria by 50 per cent in the 10 highest burdened countries, backed by an increase in funding to as much as £500 million per year by 2014. Policy commitments from developing countries, such as extending bednet coverage and eliminating tariffs on health commodity imports, will also have a great impact on the fight against malaria.
The summit was also notable for the extent of developing country engagement, not only in the financial and policy commitments—one-third of the $40 billion commitment came from developing countries—but also in leading side events on issues of concern, such as climate change, fragility and conflict. We also saw substantial commitments from the private sector. Johnson and Johnson aims to help as many as 120 million women and children each year over the next five years, and of the NGOs, World Vision committed $1.5 billion over five years. All these groups have vital contributions to make towards achieving the MDGs.
The summit concluded with the formal adoption of the outcome document, Keeping the Promise: United to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals. This important document sets out a focused framework for the efforts over the final five years. Thanks to lobbying by this Government, that includes an annual review mechanism on the outcomes of the summit, which will be administered through the UN Economic and Social Council.
Thirdly, the summit provided a focus for increased public awareness of the MDGs and development issues among the UK and overseas public. UK civil society played a major role in this, particularly in organising various media events involving the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State in the weeks leading up to the summit.
I will do the best I can to answer questions. The noble Lord, Lord Brett, asked about the 0.7 per cent GNI, and I have answered that. I should point out that we are bound by the strict OECD definition of “overseas development assistance”, and every penny must be used to encourage the economic development and welfare of developing countries.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Kinnock and Lady Tonge, the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, and many others raised the issue of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health, including family planning. The Government are reorienting our aid programme to put women and children at the heart of it. DfID is developing a new business plan on reproductive, maternal and newborn health that will set out how the UK will save the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth and 250,000 newborn babies, and enable 10 million couples to access modern methods of family planning over the next five years.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan raised the important issue of sport and development. We are supporting sport programmes in developing countries by working through International Inspirations, a charity set up by the 2012 UK London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The charity supports development projects such as training teachers and sports coaches.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, raised the most important issue of rape as a weapon of war. Her Majesty’s Government abhor the use of rape as a weapon of war, and tackling this problem is something we take very seriously. The UK strongly supports action at the international level and has been a key supporter of UNSCRs 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889 to protect women and girls in armed conflict and maximise their role in peace-building. DfID is driving international action to empower women and girls. Under its new structural reform plan we will pilot approaches to eliminating violence against women and girls.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, asked whether the Government should not be more concerned about the post-2015 agenda. At the end of the summit, the UN Secretary-General announced his intention to initiate a consultation process on what comes after the MDGs, and the UK will play its full part in the process.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, said—and I too have noticed this—that there is a particular problem associated with poor or absent obstetric care. His points reinforce the importance of our commitment to reproductive, maternal and newborn health, especially obstetric care. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London raised the role of faith groups and their importance. We welcome the role of faith groups in development. The Government were pleased to welcome the visit of the Pope. My noble friend Lord Black talked about the need for a free media and the relationship between media freedom and MDG progress. He is absolutely right.
The noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, asked about the recently announced private sector department in DfID. This new department brings additional capacity, particularly to work on innovative approaches with the private sector and leveraging private investment into basic services in communities. It brings much of DfID’s private sector work into one place, it allows a stronger input from business itself in development operations and it has a strong remit to make the whole of DfID more private sector friendly. None of this has existed before. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, mentioned agriculture. I would like to say more about that but I have run out of time. However, I point out that supporting infrastructure is extremely important for agriculture.
In conclusion, the UK ensured that the summit rallied the international community to accelerate efforts to achieve the MDGs in the final five years. We can be justly proud of the contribution that we made. However, there is still much work to be done, not least in ensuring that this momentum is carried forward through other international meetings, including the G20 summit in Seoul, and that commitments made are followed through. The coalition Government will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that the international community delivers on its commitment to meet the goals by 2015.
House adjourned at 6.05 pm.