Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

6.6 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, it was a great pleasure to hear the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. The noble Lord gave a fascinating speech. It is not surprising to hear that he has immediately been co-opted to your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology. The noble Baroness gave clear proof of the need for public transport and indeed of how

23 Nov 1994 : Column 326

vital it is to the evolution of a sustainable environment. The noble Viscount the Minister who opened the debate said that he was interested in having a policy that was not an end but a beginning, and that it was to be a combination of agriculture and environment. I welcome that approach most clearly.

Noble Lords on all sides of the House have mentioned the subject of organic farming. Perhaps I should take this moment to declare my interest as a patron of the Soil Association. Noble Lords may appreciate that that is one form of patronage that comes quite cheaply.

I wish to speak about the organic aid scheme—though I hope not too deeply in the method of a Second Reading speech. The scheme has been in force for a year and there seems hardly a bud in sight, although it has had all that time to bear fruit. The scheme is ungenerous. It is too small in its concept of trebling the organic acreage—which would still be an infinitesimal proportion of the farming land of this country. It would not fulfil the aim of creating the critical mass that would make organic produce competitive in the home market. Rather than 100,000 hectares—which is what is sought—we should go for 1 million hectares. So much for the scale. The scheme is perhaps ungenerous in the aid that is provided. It does not match the allowances that are given to organic farmers in the European Union. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, clearly pointed out, in the German Lander some 5 per cent. of land has already been converted to organic farming, and east Germany has converted 3.5 per cent. That is way beyond the limit of the 100,000 hectares that is being considered in this country. It is not worth mentioning a figure as small as that if there is to be any effect at all.

Organic farmers are also concerned with what they see as the dead hand of the Treasury in the matter. They see the support given as divisive and derisory. In terms of value it is about one third of what their partners in Europe receive. We are in fierce competition with the Europeans, who have some 60 per cent. of the home market. In that sense the aid scheme is not only derisory but unfair. No wonder we are suffering fierce competition.

Regarding divisiveness, the aid is available only to new starts and not to existing organic whole farm (symbol associated) farmers. In such circumstances, why should existing established organic farmers bother to help their neighbour convert to a new and difficult system which involves re-learning the arts of their forefathers? In last year's debate the noble Lord, Lord Carter, emphasised the quality and skill involved in farming organically. Those vital points demonstrate the need for adequate support for organic farming.

In terms of the environment, we need to implement the decisions of the Rio Conference. We need to reform the CAP which subsidises intensive farming to the tune of £1.175 billion a year. We need to reform set-aside, which is another £140 million thrown down the drain. In the meantime, we are generously supporting ESAs and the stewardship campaign with some £65 million.

Perhaps I may here take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Selborne about the need for extensive farming in all directions. I do not suggest that organic

23 Nov 1994 : Column 327

farming is the only one, but that all forms of extensive farming should be developed. Indeed, the country is doing a great deal in providing £65 million to that end.

What is the organic farmer getting? He is getting £1 million. Is not that derisory? In all these areas organic farming makes a defined and useful contribution; but the opportunity is being wasted. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, who unfortunately is not in his place, showed the need for friendly farming. It is the organic farming system which has been developed and is the basis of the new venture of understanding that there should be friendly farming. That is why I believe that organic farming needs special support from this Chamber. Indeed, it deserves it.

On the occasion when the Minister opened the Organic Harvest Month, in the somewhat unusual venue of Waterloo Station, The Times leader reported:

    "Mr. Gummer, of course, is now looking at farming more for the damage it does than the crops it raises ... the intensive farming of arable land, especially in East Anglia, has drenched the ground with fertilisers, polluting rivers and groundwater ... All this has been done in the name of efficiency. And abundance has been the result—indeed abundance throughout Europe on a scale that its people can neither eat nor store".
Surely that says it all.

I ask my noble friend the Minister to prevail upon his right honourable friend to review the organic aid scheme. I believe I can say that there is some sympathy on the part of my noble friend towards organic farming, especially in view of the kind speech that he made at the 50th anniversary dinner of the Soil Association. We truly need his help if we are to make a fully sustainable environment in the kingdom, which I am sure is the aim of all concerned in this matter. It would be in sympathy with the gracious Speech, which I am glad to commend to your Lordships.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Geraint: My Lords, enough has been said over the past few days about the shortcomings of the gracious Speech: notable omissions and lost opportunities. However, today I shall not dwell on those aspects.

I should like to begin my contribution to the debate by congratulating the Government. I do so because they promised to produce a White Paper on agriculture—but not just on agriculture. I understand that the paper will take into account the place of agriculture in the development of the rural economy and will encompass the social and environmental changes that are taking place in the countryside.

That is a very welcome move and one that has been advocated for some time by Liberal Democrats. Life in the countryside as I knew it has changed beyond all recognition. Thousands of jobs in agriculture and related industries have vanished; some 100,000 alone went between 1971 and 1987. Holdings have increased in size and declined in number. In some areas farmers have been forced to become part-time farmers and have had to look for other ways to supplement their income. I hold the view—I have given it once or twice before—that the majority of farmers in Wales, 80 per cent. to 90 per cent., will be part-time farmers by the end of this

23 Nov 1994 : Column 328

century. I have nothing at all against that, so long as the people remain in the countryside and have a reasonable standard of living.

Over the years there has been a pattern of declining services, from vanishing public transport to fewer village schools and scarce provision of health and social services. It is not only in our towns and cities that we see deprivation today. Life can be very bleak for young and old in the rural areas, where there is a shortage of affordable housing, few jobs and minimal transport. We need to look at those things seriously if we want to maintain a fair balance between the needs of the rural dweller, the protection of the environment and the necessity of encouraging a viable and thriving agricultural economy. Therefore I welcome any move to bring meaningful discussion on these topics into the political arena.

Naturally, I consider agriculture to be the focal point of any discussion on the countryside. Farmers have traditionally been the backbone of the rural economy and their labours have formed the British landscape to a great degree. Over recent years they have had a rough ride and deserve to be given some credit for staying in there. They should have adequate support to carry on. A sensible plan for the future could give them the stability that they need.

We have all been appalled at the extent of the fraud uncovered in the operation of the common agricultural policy. What we should do now is to make sure that any system of support should go towards helping those farmers who are genuinely in need of that support. In this country we should encourage the family farm and also give more incentives to those farmers who wish to diversify and achieve environmental goals.

I have always been very keen to see new blood in the farming industry. We must do everything we can to encourage young people who wish to take up agriculture as a career. Therefore I was very interested to learn of the Government's latest proposal for changes in agricultural tenancy, mentioned in the gracious Speech. They should be examined carefully, as the provisions are crucial for the development of farming in today's economic climate. I am not entirely uncritical of the proposals, but tenancy reform is badly needed if relationships between landlord and tenant are to be maintained and improved. I understand that we shall have the opportunity to discuss the proposals next Monday.

I turn to the plight of hill farmers. Hill farming and the live export of animals to the Continent are the two burning issues in the agricultural industry at the moment. In this regard I declare my interest because I am one of the beneficiaries from the system of hill livestock compensatory allowances. I was also involved with exporting live animals and carcasses to the Continent over many years, though I have now given that up.

The confidence of hill and upland farmers in relation to the long-term viability of their businesses has been seriously undermined over the past two years. Today farming unions in England, Scotland and Wales are calling for the restoration of money cut from the HLCAs during the past two annual reviews with no further cuts

23 Nov 1994 : Column 329

this year. The Government used a rise in incomes during those years as a reason for cutting their financial support, even though around 30 per cent. of hill farmers received an income of less than £5,000 in 1992-93. Experts now forecast that incomes will drop this year. The National Farmers Union is insisting that such farmers are provided with the necessary resources to ensure that the essential fabric of the countryside can be maintained. It said:

    "If the Government is serious in its intentions towards hill farming then it must acknowledge that restoring the confidence of those working and living there must be a priority".

As was mentioned earlier in the debate, there is a danger that unless the current generation of hill farmers has the ability to invest in the future of their businesses then younger generations will think twice about following such an occupation. Sir David Naish, president of the National Farmers Union, also holds that view. He said,

    "That would be bad for farming, bad for allied industries, bad for the countryside and bad in terms of the public's ability to continue to enjoy such areas".

I turn now to the export trade of lambs. The United Kingdom is the largest lamb producer in Europe. In the 1980s, as production increased, UK producers also became major exporters of sheep meat and live sheep. Since the removal at the beginning of 1992 of the export clawback—a tax on exports equal to the variable premium paid to farmers—exports have increased substantially. In the past 15 years the United Kingdom has moved from being 57 per cent. self-sufficient and heavily reliant on imported New Zealand lamb to being a net exporter of sheep meat and live sheep. We now export 43 per cent. of all the lamb, mutton and live sheep we produce each year and the trade is important to our balance of payments.

In 1993 total lamb exports were worth almost £400 million; that is, £4,300 to every lamb producer in the country, many of whom farm in marginal areas. The trade is dominated by the export of carcasses, although live sheep exports have risen in recent years. Estimates for 1993 indicate that around 80 per cent. of all exports were as carcasses—123,000 tonnes or the equivalent of 7 million carcasses—and 20 per cent. were live sheep, or 1.9 million head.

Live sheep exports have increased substantially in recent years from a total of 582,000 head in 1990 to 1.9 million in 1993. Research by the Meat and Livestock Commission in the early part of this year indicates that 80 per cent.—1.6 million—of all live sheep exports are consigned to France, with the remainder going to Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. A small number of those sheep may have been re-exported to Spain and Italy. Within France almost three-quarters of the sheep are consigned to the north-west quarter of the country—Brittany, Normandy, the Vendee and the Loire area. The remainder go mostly to the south-east of the country, south of Lyon.

Restrictions on the time or length of journeys, in order to constrain live sheep exports, may be a severe constraint on the national movement of breeding, store and finished sheep from the Scottish islands and

23 Nov 1994 : Column 330

Highlands or the more remote parts of upland England and Wales. The sale of sheep or lambs to farmers elsewhere in the country is the only option that many hill and upland farmers have. It is therefore important that legal changes to satisfy one interest group should not be detrimental elsewhere in the industry.

I am pleased that the Meat and Livestock Commission is acutely aware of the public concern about the welfare of sheep exported live and attaches great importance to trying to ensure that those fears are allayed. The Meat and Livestock Commission is helping to fund, with the Ministry, studies into the precise impact on their welfare of the way in which sheep are handled—transportation, loading and the resting of sheep in transit. The Meat and Livestock Commission is also helping and encouraging the industry to operate to the highest standards of animal welfare.

As a hill farmer, having been involved with the meat trade all my life and having exported thousands of live lambs to the Continent, I feel that all finished or fat lambs should and must be slaughtered in this country. I hope that this Government will take heed of the views of the majority of farmers on that issue. In the meantime, I ask them please to get their act together with other European governments regarding animal welfare regulations. It is a very important matter and should be resolved sooner rather than later.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page