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I shall make an observation on grants and helping farmers. When the initial NVZ scheme was introduced in 1996, the then Government recognised the significant cost to farmers of meeting the manure handling and storage requirements under the action programme. They therefore established the farm waste grants scheme, which the current Government expanded, in 2002, when they substantially increased the designated area and then extended, in 2003, for a further two years. The scheme ended on 31 March 2006. Will DEFRA reinstate that or equivalent schemes to provide relief to farmers in England, who see their neighbours in Wales and Scotland being offered grants of between 40 and 60 per cent. of the capital cost of providing the storage facilities?

I appreciate that I have extended the length of my speech, but I have taken a number of interventions from colleagues unable to make their own contributions. However, finally, I have some specific suggestions for the Minister about what is needed to make the regulations workable. First, no more land should be designated as an NVZ than is justified by science monitoring—less than 70 per cent. Secondly, in areas where designation is questioned, there should be no additional storage requirement, plus the retention of existing closed periods and ideally other aspects too, while DEFRA undertakes more intensive monitoring.

Thirdly, capital grants comparable to the 40 to 60 per cent. grants available in Wales and Scotland should be introduced to assist with increased storage requirements, as well as tax deductible depreciation charges, following the loss of the agricultural buildings allowance. Fourthly, a longer period, such as four rather than two years, should be introduced, to allow the implementation of storage requirements, given the time needed to secure planning permissions, arrange funding and build. Ministers are keen to encourage anaerobic digestion facilities on farms, which will take even longer to plan and install than conventional storage, and they should be covered by these measures.

Fifthly, Ministers should press to secure a whole farm manure loading grassland derogation of 230 kg per hectare. Sixthly, rather than imposing a blanket obligation from Whitehall, slurry volume storage requirements should be arranged locally to match more closely the conditions on the farm, including soil type, rainfall and land use. The six-month storage requirement for pig and poultry should be reduced to five months, because there seems no justification for additional storage; it is a buffer zone put in place by bureaucrats. Finally, the record-keeping system should be simplified to allow a spot-check monitoring system, rather than a prescribed one.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): We have about 25 minutes for Back-Bench contributions before the winding-up speeches, unless the Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen are prepared to shorten their contributions, because I want the Minister to have at least 10 minutes in which to reply to the many points raised.

11.35 am

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Happy new year to you, Sir Nicholas, and your colleagues on the Chairmen’s Panel. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate and on his speech, which was a veritable tour de force in its comprehensive approach to the subject before us. As he
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said, it took up quite a lot of the time for our debate, regrettably, so I shall try to be as brief as I can.

Since the 1980s, Governments of both major parties have tried to work harder to recognise the effect on British businesses and competitiveness of over-regulation, and Governments now try to rationalise existing regulation, to weed out regulations that are no longer necessary and, when new regulations are proposed, to ensure that they are justified by the science and that they are proportionate in addressing the problem with which they seek to deal. The Minister ought to say today that the Government are mindful of that approach when considering proposals for the further implementation of the nitrates directive.

If it is a yellow card for the Minister to regulate when he ought not to, it is certainly a red card for him to come before this Chamber with a proposal to gold-plate a European Union directive—to use regulations implementing a directive to bring into force further proposals that he and his civil servants think are a good idea. I hope that the Minister will tell us that there is no such proposal to gold-plate this EU directive.

I shall explain why my involvement in this subject is so strong. A number of farmers and other land managers in my constituency of Stafford have approached me with concerns about the Government’s proposals in their consultation. Michael Madders, who is president of the Staffordshire branch of the National Farmers Union and a constituent of mine from Coppenhall, came to see me with the Staffordshire NFU’s view of these proposals. The Minister knows those views because he has seen the relevant letter making four very sensible points and constructive suggestions. However, many of those points were covered by the hon. Member for Ludlow, so I shall not repeat them, as I would have done had I more time.

I shall mention another person who manages land in my constituency: Andrew Blenkiron, who manages the Chillington estates. I put it that way because most of the land is in the constituency of my parliamentary neighbour, the long-standing and hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). However, Andrew Blenkiron also manages land in my constituency and thus wrote to me. I passed on the letter to the Minister and he replied, for which I thank him. I want to bring to the attention of the Chamber the strength of feeling among those who are very experienced in managing land locally. Andrew Blenkiron spoke about the “substantial and disproportionate impacts” of the proposed changes on businesses such as the one that he manages. He wrote:

The hon. Member for Ludlow covered all of those points.

It might help if I draw to hon. Members’ attention another quote that demonstrates Mr. Blenkiron’s strength of feeling:

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He rightly goes on to mention, as hon. Members have done in this debate, the way in which farmers are responsible for the management of land and the way in which the Government reward them for sensible management through many stewardship schemes.

I have also hosted a west midlands meeting of Members of Parliament, the National Farmers Union and individual farmers. The hon. Member for Ludlow was one of the prominent Members of Parliament who took part in the discussion that day. Nationally, I have dealt with the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. I have read the CLA’s briefing on the subject.

On behalf of all those who have made representations to me, I would like to point out to the Minister that land managers and farmers already have a good story to tell in relation to carbon dioxide reductions—a subject dear to the Department’s heart—and their record on nitrate reductions. The CLA briefing mentions a 30 per cent. decrease in fertiliser use during the past 20 years. When we discuss further restrictions, more stringent record-keeping requirements, and imposing burdens that most people think will have huge price tags, we, as Members of Parliament, are entitled to ask whether such measures are really justified. The hon. Member for Ludlow said that we should have regard to the evidence. I agree, as does the CLA in its briefing, which states:

in terms of nitrates—

The challenge goes back to the Department to justify making changes when the current trends appear to be downwards and therefore requiring less action.

I have talked about the representations that I have received. How many responses has the Minister received to his consultation, and will he tell us whether he is already getting the sense that those responses overwhelmingly reflect the views that he has heard in this debate? I hope that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has understood those messages and what matters crucially to farmers and land managers. Many of those issues were pointed out by the hon. Member for Ludlow, but I would like to emphasise some of them again. Many people are saying that nitrate vulnerable zone designation should be at no more than the level justified by science monitoring. The other side to that coin is that in areas where there is no longer a need for zones to be designated, there should be a procedure to stop or take away the designation.

Before Christmas, I asked the Minister for the Environment about that in a written question, which he answered on 17 December. I asked whether it was possible for the River Trent catchment area to be removed from the nitrate vulnerable zone designation because of the long-term downward trend in nitrate content in that river—again, the hon. Member for Ludlow referred to that in his speech. The Minister answered:

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The representation that I wish to make is that there might be a good side to the regulations if they allow for an area to be de-designated where the evidence shows that that should happen.

As far as I am aware, everyone wants the Department to make the maximum use of derogation. The hon. Member for Ludlow mentioned one proposal relating to derogation that the Department itself has introduced. Everyone says that the proposals are too inflexible on the lengths of slurry storage requirements, and many people point to the actual cost of that requirement. The president of the Staffordshire NFU estimated there would be a £50,000 additional cost for a dairy farm with a herd of 120 cows. That helps to show that, proportionately, we are talking about large amounts for people whose businesses can ill afford it. Help should be provided with those costs if the Government’s own regulations impose the requirement for investment.

Many, including the NFU and the CLA, say that the requirements for winter cover crops should be scrapped. In this debate, hon. Members have referred to some of the beneficial effects of leaving cereal stubbles in over winter. We should at least draw the definition of what is required sufficiently widely to cover good environmental practice. That is my representation to the Minister on that subject, but I would like to point out that on his website, to which he refers from time to time as a place where we will find information about his Department’s policies, there recently appeared an announcement of a new consultation on helping businesses to cut carbon dioxide emissions. The website refers to the Department helping to

for farmers and other land managers who want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I hope that the Minister keeps the same attitude of helping to cut duplication and unduly complex bureaucracy at the forefront of his mind when he responds to this debate and deals with the issue of nitrates.

11.45 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate my neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate. I will significantly curtail my speech because I want to ensure that other hon. Members are called.

By way of introduction, I would like to point out that there is a terrible crisis in the dairy industry, as hon. Members are already aware. The price paid for milk to farmers by the supermarkets has until recently been absolutely disgraceful. On top of that, there is a terrible crisis of bovine TB throughout the country. In 1998 in Shropshire, 45 animals were slaughtered under bovine TB control measures, and in 2006, the figure was 915. There has been a massive increase in the number of animals slaughtered as a result of bovine TB. The recent foot and mouth outbreak also cost farmers throughout the country more than £100 million. So far the Government have offered only £10 million in compensation, which is wholly inadequate, and there is not much hope that the NFU will pursue the Government through the courts to give appropriate compensation to our farmers.

Nevertheless, we are making progress. We now have an all-party group on dairy farmers. I am chairman of the group and 189 Members of Parliament are members
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of it, many of whom are from the Labour party. I pay tribute to you, Sir Nicholas, as you are one of the most active members of the group and thank you for all that you contribute. I will, of course, send a copy of what the Minister says in this debate to all 189 members because I am sure that they will all be interested to hear the comments made today.

One of the most encouraging things that has happened is that the Office of Fair Trading has finally decided to fine the supermarkets for the way in which they have behaved. The all-party group met the OFT on many occasions and repeatedly pressed it on this issue. I am pleased that it will be fining supermarkets, but the group now wants to convince the OFT that fines should go not directly to Government coffers, but to farmers.

The nitrates directive will be hugely damaging to the dairy industry. It will result in a substantial increase in costs for dairy farmers. From the various studies that I have read, I calculate that it will add an extra £15,806 a year to the costs of the average dairy farm in Shropshire. That equates to a cost of compliance to the farmer of 1.34p a litre. Many dairy farmers will simply not have the capital available to cope with the NVZ proposals, if they are implemented. The 2008 forward planning booklet of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation estimates the average cost of production at more than 25p per litre, and that is before family labour is taken into account. Even with the improved prices, many farmers will not receive a milk price in excess of that amount.

The Environment Agency has shown that there have been falling trends in nitrates in 75 per cent. of rivers in the past 15 years due to decreased fertiliser applications. Why must we add additional measures when we are already achieving the objective? In existing NVZs, when a long-term nitrate decline is evident, new action programme proposals should be waived. That point was made by other hon. Members, and I hope that the Minister takes it on board.

I shall put three points to the Minister in my remaining few minutes—[Hon. Members: “Seconds.”] In that case, as I am generous to my hon. Friends, I shall conclude with one point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow mentioned anaerobic digestion, which is one of the most important points. I hope that the Minister will tell us that he has been to Germany or Sweden to see it in action because the Germans and the Swedes are advancing tremendously with anaerobic digestion. They are using farm waste to ensure that energy is produced, and ultimately the result is that far more animal waste is spread on farm land. I look forward to the Minister telling us what plans the Government have to support our farmers in order to ensure that they can enter the field of energy production, which ultimately will help everybody.

11.50 am

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): May I begin, Sir Nicholas, by saying how pleased I am to see you in the Chair this morning? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) not only on securing the debate, but on the articulate and comprehensive way in which he introduced it. His speech was a tour de force on the subject of nitrate vulnerable zones.

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My hon. Friend made three key points. I do not want to repeat what has already been said, but I shall highlight the three key areas, about which my hon. Friend was absolutely right. Given the scale of the proposed change and the negative impact on farmers, he was right to highlight costs and effectiveness as key determinants in the directive, and the necessity for a far more refined and focused designation of NVZs. I do not want to repeat the context, but it is important to re-emphasise the fact that farming has recently reduced its nitrate footprint dramatically, which is the point of the directive. Nitrate fertiliser use has fallen by 25 per cent. in 10 years, manure applications have been reduced, nitrate levels in rivers have fallen significantly, and as my hon. Friend rightly said, DEFRA’s own NVZ consultation showed that 77 per cent. of sites show a declining trend.

I shall make a few key points about Lincolnshire-specific issues, particularly on the gold-plating that DEFRA proposes regarding cover crops. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Department will not gold-plate on cover crops or, indeed, that it will drop the whole proposal. There is significant concern among farmers and producers in Lincolnshire about the additional cost of the proposal and the damage that it may do. DEFRA proposes that cover crops be planted on land ploughed in autumn in preparation for the spring crop. In my constituency, many peas and brassicas are grown that are particularly sensitive to soil conditions, and cover crops will have a negative impact on those conditions, because the sowing and subsequent destruction of the cover crop will increase field operations and carbon emissions in direct contradiction of other DEFRA policies. It will prove harder to establish good seed beds in the fields for the next crops, which will inevitably lead to the greater use of herbicides and pesticides—again in direct contradiction of other DEFRA policies.

The proposal is agronomically unsound, because it defeats the object of autumn ploughing, which is to allow winter frosts to weather the soil, using nature rather than diesel to create a seed bed. Without the benefit of frost action, extra cultivations, herbicides and pesticides will be needed, planting will be delayed and the carbon footprint will increase. The crops that will be affected in my constituency in Lincolnshire—and elsewhere in England I suspect—are sugar beet, peas, brassicas and other vegetables.

Finally, as we heard, farmers may try to avoid the requirement by switching to autumn-sown crops or by harvesting later. That would result in fewer winter stubbles, upon which farm birds rely, and which form a vital part of another DEFRA policy—the entry-level scheme that encourages environmental protection among farmers. I urge the Minister to listen to what has been said in the debate and to the representations that he has received not only from Members, but from farmers and producers throughout the country. In an already difficult and challenging economic and agricultural environment, DEFRA should certainly not examine ways of gold-plating European Union directives by creating additional burdens and regulatory costs that will challenge farmers’ success. That is unhelpful, uneconomic and unwarranted.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I want to allow two extra Members to speak, but if their remarks are not succinct, I shall not be able to do so.

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11.55 am

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I endorse the excellent speeches that my own MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), and others have made. It is interesting that so many of us have the same concerns, which have been expressed very well.

The proposals will have a devastating effect on many farmers in my constituency. The nitrate vulnerable zone pilot scheme was based in the centre of my constituency many years ago, and I have been following the issue for the past 15 or 20 years. The root of the problem is not gold-plating, although it contributes to the problem and it ought to be taken away. For practical purposes, the problem’s centre of gravity is the prescribed level of 50 mg a litre under the nitrates directive itself. As the National Farmers Union says, the level

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