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8 Jan 2008 : Column 39WH—continued

I am deeply concerned, too, about the derogations made available to Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Ireland. Belgium and Northern Ireland have made applications, in particular for specialist dairy farms. The costs that my constituents will incur will be horrendous, and they are deeply worried about the issue. I find it extremely distasteful that differential grants in Scotland and Wales, which effectively mean that we pay a much higher rate in England, are paid for by our taxpayers. We subsidise what happens in Scotland and Wales, which is extraordinarily difficult to understand. I should like the Minister to address that point.

There are ways of dealing with the issue. The problem’s centre of gravity is the European directive, and ultimately, if a solution is not found by negotiation, under the supremacy of Parliament provisions that I have recommended in the past, we should take action to ensure that our farmers are not treated in a way that is detrimental to our own vital national interests.

11.57 am

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate. He may know that before Christmas, I called on the Leader of the House to find time for a debate in Government time about this very important subject. It is a sad indictment of the Government’s attitude to the countryside that we must hold the debate in Westminster Hall, not in the House itself.

I shall describe the plight of farmers in Norfolk in light of the disastrous effect of nitrate vulnerable zones. Although farmers in my constituency accept that the environmental impact of agricultural practices must be addressed, they are worried about the proposals. In Norfolk, farmers share concerns about the seemingly rushed timetable for implementing the new NVZ regulations, and about the costs that they will incur. However, they are particularly dismayed about the autumn cover-crop proposals and the closed period for spreading manure. Cover crops will prove costly in money and in time, as has already been said.

Spring crops, such as sugar beet on which the Norfolk economy relies, are dependent on autumn ploughing, and cover crops will seriously handicap farmers’ land preparation for spring. Cover crops could also devastate farmers’ yields. The National Farmers Union has gone
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so far as to say that cover crops might make it “impossible” for farmers to grow vining peas, potatoes and sugar beet, which would be a disaster for the Norfolk economy. If cover crops are mandatory, farmers may be forced to use more chemicals to produce a good seed bed, which is expensive and bad for farming practice.

Will the Minister respond to farmers in my constituency who believe that they will suffer from a lack of resources to try to meet DEFRA’s requirements while maintaining their usual farming practices? A constituent has told me that cover crop requirements will mean an end to winter stubble, which will have an adverse impact on birds and animals that use that stubble as an important food source. The sting in the tail is that the EU nitrates directive does not require cover crops to be included in member states’ action plans. How does the Minister justify the gold-plating of the directive, and does he accept that Europe has a lot to answer for in the directives by which British farmers have to abide, and which have not been thought through?

I have received a great deal of correspondence from farmers about new regulations on slurry and manure. As my hon. Friends have said, the increase both in storage requirements for slurry and in restrictions on spreading manure will be extremely expensive. Can the Minister guarantee capital grants for farmers if the slurry storage proposals go ahead as planned? Why is DEFRA considering regulations that would further penalise farmers who are already struggling because of animal disease, extreme weather conditions and bureaucracy?

12 noon

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests—that has probably used up most of my time.

I ask the Minister to help me see into the mind of the official who thought up the terms of compliance with the regulations. Oh, to have been on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee when he or she, and the Minister responsible for signing off the terms, appeared before it to answer questions on just how draconian, detailed and bureaucratic the regulations were and how much red tape was involved.

Will the Minister consider how the regulation conflicts so dramatically with what his Department is doing both on the countryside stewardship scheme, which has been successful in west Berkshire, and on other methods of increasing biodiversity? If he wants to see the future of stock farming in areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), he should come to the Berkshire downs, where it has all but disappeared, and see the impact that that has had on biodiversity and the excellent things that the Government want to achieve. The regulation will only add to that problem. Dairy farmers will continue to go out of business as the infrastructure that supports them disappears. I urge the Minister to have a rethink.

12.2 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair to oversee this welcome debate, Mr. Hancock, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing it. It is incredibly important, and it ought to have taken place elsewhere, as has been said.

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I notice that the Minister looks relatively relaxed; perhaps his football team, like mine—Burnley and Blackburn Rovers are normally hostile rivals—has benefited from the stress-free existence of willingly having gone out of the FA cup at the weekend, and is now settling down to a mid-table position. That is a contrived link—I hope that the Minister is not relaxed about the serious implications of the NVZ proposals for British farming, the tourism industry and the environment. People outside Parliament might consider that this is not the first time that Members of Parliament have talked poop, but it is right that we should do so on this occasion.

The Government’s proposals for the implementation of the NVZ directive are outrageously disproportionate. They will place a huge cost on the industry, yet DEFRA admits that the resulting reduction in nitrate leaching will be less than 1 per cent. They come at an incredibly difficult time, as we have heard, with foot and mouth disease placing a cost of at least £200 million on the farming industry. I imagine that we are having a slight respite from the impact of bluetongue and other damaging attacks on the industry, both natural and unnatural, but to add at least a £250 million price tag to increase storage capacity is unbearable considering the pitifully low compensation that the Government have provided to farming for foot and mouth. Almost none of that compensation has gone to lowland farms, yet the cost will have the greatest impact on them.

I was talking to a farmer who lives just up the road from me, Gordon Capstick of Heversham. He reckons that it will cost him, a relatively small dairy farmer, about £30,000 to improve his storage facilities. At a time when we are contemplating our navels about what we get paid, we are discussing a directive that, if imposed as planned, will create enormous cost increases for people, some of whom subsist on incomes below the national minimum wage.

Despite all that, the Government appear not to have planned any grant support to enable farmers to improve storage facilities. I hope that the Minister will tell us otherwise. Elsewhere in the UK, for example in Northern Ireland, farmers are given up to 60 per cent. grant aid, and elsewhere in the EU, close at hand in the Republic of Ireland, young farmers receive up to 80 per cent. grant aid in certain cases. We must also bear in mind the economic impact, given that storage requirements will undoubtedly reduce livestock numbers, as there will be pressure to maintain a lid on the amount of muck in tanks. Costs go up, and income goes down, so the measure is not wise, given the current situation in farming.

The impact on the countryside will be huge. Not only will there be a significant cost to farming, but there will be a massive impact on tourism. As we have heard, there will be a day, probably in March when, to coin a phrase, there will be a big stink. The tanks will be emptied on the first dry day, at just about the time when the tourists arrive in our part of the world. That will be terribly helpful! Hon. Members may know that we occasionally get a bit of rain in Cumbria, and there is every chance that the day following the first dry day will not be dry, and that it will chuck it down. Not only will the result be antisocial and unpleasant, there will be massive leaching into water courses.

Ironically, the measure threatens to be ecologically counter-productive. Members will have seen DEFRA’s own figures showing that it is likely to cause an increase
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of in the region of 9 per cent. in emissions of ammonia, which is a serious pollutant in its own right. I wonder whether the Government have considered the impact of the regulation in breaching other EU directives, particularly fresh water directives. The proposals appear to have been ill thought out, with precious little preparation time built in. As we have heard, the imposed building of new tanks will not happen overnight. They will be costly, and raising the finance will not be as straightforward as the Government think. In addition, planning permission will not be secured overnight, particularly in areas such as the Yorkshire dales and Lake District national parks, part of which I represent. Will there be a guarantee that farmers who cannot complete the installation of the new tanks in time, through no fault of their own, will be exempt from penalties?

There are clear examples of gold-plating in the NVZ proposals. We have heard two such examples: the first is the requirement for land that does not carry crops in the winter to be sown with cover crops. We have heard about the impact that that will have on farmland birds and, ecologically, on soil quality. It will be a massive drain on farm resources and extremely damaging to wildlife.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that something that has not been mentioned—I apologise if I missed it earlier in his excellent speech—is the impact on the Environment Agency? In these days of flood prioritisation, I worry that the key monitoring agency might not be able to monitor nitrates properly and could be seriously under-resourced.

Tim Farron: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention, and I shall mention in a moment the impact of the regulation on monitoring bodies and the administrative framework.

I may have missed it, but I do not think that anybody has mentioned the second piece of gold-plating: the fact that DEFRA has decided to differentiate manures from different animals. The European Union makes no such requirement, as far as I can see, but still DEFRA seeks to enforce different minimum storage periods for cattle slurry and for pig and poultry slurry. That is an unnecessary complication that the Government have chosen to add to an already complex situation, which brings me to ask whether DEFRA is ready or, dare I say, even competent to deal with yet another complicated administrative system, which will be required to enforce and monitor all of this. The Minister must admit that DEFRA’s track record is not glittering in that regard. Does he really want to carry the can in a few months’ time when the administrative infrastructure that has to be constructed inevitably starts to implode?

The directive contains serious flaws, which prompts me to ask how we got here. Given that nitrate fertiliser use has fallen by 25 per cent. in the past 10 years, despite rising yields, that manure applications continue to decline, and that 77 per cent. of riversides show a declining nitrate trend, why has Britain been labelled a nitrate offender? Those charged with fighting our case in Europe have let farming down badly and I sincerely hope that it is not too late to tackle this issue. Will the Minister seek grassland derogation to 250 kg per hectare, as his Department has promised, which would at least provide some mitigation? Will he provide grants to support new storage or relax restrictions on slurry
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spreading? What about other mitigations? More generally, given the enormous cost to farming and the farming industry, and the ecological damage that the proposals will bring—in exchange for a tiny gain—will the Minister agree to return to Brussels to mitigate the impact of this directive? Will he also undo the restrictions that the Government have imposed over and above the requirements of the EU directive?

12.11 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. As others have rightly done, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) both on securing the debate and on the exceptionally comprehensive and reasonable way in which he presented all the issues. In many ways, he made other contributions superfluous, because he covered every aspect. However, I do not intend to follow his reasonable approach entirely. The most important thing to state is that the debate is not about the rights and wrongs of reducing nitrate pollution, so I hope that the Minister will not detain us on that issue. There is universal agreement across the House that we all want to do that, so we do not need to hear a lot of verbiage about why we need to do it. The issue is entirely about how we should do it.

The proposal is totally disproportionate and pays no heed to the realities of farming practice. It has clearly been drafted by people who have no idea about farming practice on the ground. It has been put to the House by Ministers who also have no understanding of farming practice and are therefore not in a position to challenge what is put before them. It goes far beyond what any reasonable interpretation of the directive would require, or what is necessary to comply with the directive. I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that part of the problem is the directive. I hope that it can be renegotiated because it is far too detailed.

Several hon. Members have mentioned individual cases. Just this morning, I received a letter from a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill). Mr. Cussons has a relatively small family farm of 63 hectares with 130 dairy cows. He estimates—he provides figures in the letter—that if he had to reduce the herd to cut manure production, it would cost £58,000 in reduced income. Increasing slurry capacity, as well as other factors, would bring the total to £148,000. On his 63-hectare farm, that is a cost to the business of more than £2,000 per hectare.

I accept that the 50 mg per litre requirement is laid down in the directive and that we have to work with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is right to say that there is some science to challenge that figure, but for the purposes of the debate, we have to accept it. However, the action plan is entirely disproportionate, especially at a time when even No. 10 Downing street is beginning to acknowledge the importance of having an element of domestic production and food security. As several hon. Members have said, the plan goes way beyond the directive and represents gold-plating. The Minister appeared to suggest that the measures on cover crops, which my hon. Friend the Member for
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Ludlow discussed, are not gold-plating, and I look forward to hearing his explanations on that point.

The whole issue of cover crops goes completely against traditional agricultural practice and the interests of the environment. They will cost some farmers their entry-level scheme. If they are getting points for winter stubble in an entry-level scheme to which they have signed up for five or seven years and if they now lose that, one must question how they can possibly achieve both objectives. The measures on cover crops will require much more energy use. I grew up farming in Essex, on heavy clay, where the frost for tilth was essential to get any sort of spring seed bed because otherwise we had to engage in what was called clod bashing to break up the soil, which used a lot of energy. Having tried to deal with the Labour Government for the past 10 years, I sometimes feel as though I am back clod bashing.

There has been a massive 25 per cent. reduction in the use of nitrogen, yet paragraph 5.12 of the document contains the insulting—there is no other way to describe it—statement that the programme could

The document goes on to say:

If someone is paying £300 a tonne for their nitrogen, as opposed to £120 a tonne two years ago, they are already damn well looking at mitigating their costs. They do not need some pipsqueak writing it into a DEFRA document—it is already part of business practice.

Other important issues are the development of technology and fertiliser placement. Farmers are doing all that they can to reduce their nitrogen inputs because that makes sense. We have also had the issue of closed periods. With the exception of two rainfall categories, there is no differentiation, so the situation in Cornwall is the same as that in Cumbria—and in Cambridgeshire, although we have a lower rainfall. There is no reference to topography, so the same set of rules applies whether land is level or on a slope, or north or south-facing, and whatever the soil type. That is bonkers, and no respectable Minister with any understanding of, or sympathy for, this industry would put such measures before the House.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) rightly referred to the very small percentage reduction in leaching that can be achieved for what the NFU estimates is a £250 million investment in storage. Wherever one looks, there are serious problems, and I could go on. Paragraphs in section 4 of the document lay down unbelievably ridiculous detail about what farmers should do. The whole farm limit excludes woodland and roads, but makes no reference to the mix of crops. Slurry and manure cannot be spread on every crop—only on certain types of land. For example, they cannot be spread before potatoes. They can be spread only on crops for which the land is there and can be travelled on at that time of year. All sorts of husbandry constraints make the proposal nonsense.

The document promises us a “new decision support tool”. I look forward to a new decision support tool—

Daniel Kawczynski: A general election.

Mr. Paice: Yes, hopefully it will be a general election.

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The Minister must also address the issue of the time scale. Paragraph 5.17 of the document says that “We will explore”—wow!—

with regard to anaerobic digestion. The measures come in in three months’ time. Yes, there is a two-year process, but the Minister knows damn well—he has been a local government Minister—that if all he is doing is exploring the issue, there is no way that in two years and three months, every farmer will have manure storage up and running so that they meet the necessary obligations.

The proposals are typical of DEFRA’s approach over the past few years. There is an obsession with process rather than outcome. We are trying to achieve a reduction in nitrates in the water, but we have been given a huge list of prescriptions and a tick-box system. There is no room for discretion by farmers and no recognition that farmers can be trusted to know their local situation. There is no thought about the true cost to the industry. It really is now time for a whole new approach to how we deal with regulations. It is time to say to our farmers and other businesses, “We trust you. This is what we are trying to achieve. We will not tell you how to do it, but we will trust you to achieve it. If you do not, we will come down on you like a ton of bricks, but you know your farm, your soil, your finances, your rainfall and so on.”

I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to reconsider the regulations and, for goodness’ sake, heed the universal appeal. Even Labour Members have been sensitively critical. They have all made the same point. I urge him to come back with something that achieves the objectives, but is reasonable for the industry.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I have asked the Minister not to reply to the criticisms about his antecedents as a farming expert. I now invite him to reply to this very interesting debate.

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