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Privileges: Select Committee

Procedure of the House: Select Committee

Liaison: Select Committee

House of Lords' Offices: Select Committee

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, on behalf of the Committee of Selection, I beg to move en bloc the four Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.


Committee for Privileges: That the Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank be appointed a member of the Select Committee in the place of the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

Procedure of the House Committee: That the Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank be appointed a member of the Select Committee in the place of the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

Liaison Committee: That the Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank be appointed a member of the Select Committee in the place of the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

House of Lords' Offices Committee: That the Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank be appointed a member of the Select Committee in the place of the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.--(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motions agreed to.

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3.8 p.m.

Earl Ferrers rose to call attention to the importance of agriculture within the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I should at the outset declare an interest. I read agriculture at university and I have been involved with it, practically and financially, ever since. I hope that the debate which we shall have today will cover all aspects of agriculture. I am glad to see that my noble friends Lord Prior and Lord Jopling, two former Ministers of Agriculture, will take part.

Any business which occupies 75 per cent. of the land surface of the country, as agriculture does, is bound to be important and sometimes controversial. Only 2 per cent. of the population may be engaged in agriculture, although in some parts of the country the figure rises to 10 per cent., but the lives and the livelihoods of many others--those who supply the machinery and the ingredients for it, those who dispose of and who process the fruits of it, and those who just live on or about it--depend upon it.

It is fair to say that at the moment agriculture is going through one of its most difficult periods for many years. Those noble Lords who are less charitable--there are not many, but I dare say that if one hunted around one could find one or two--might say that it is just farmers moaning. That is not so. Since biblical days farmers have had their lean years and their fat years. That is an accepted part of the practice of agriculture. However, in those days the determining factors were usually the weather, predators and the Almighty. Now we have politicians, ecus and intervention boards to add to and obfuscate the whole issue; and they are a great deal more sinister to deal with.

There is no way in which agriculture can be isolated from political influence, and even interference. In almost every country throughout the world agriculture and politics become intertwined, and for very good reason. Agriculture provides the stuff of life, and not many countries are prepared to leave that to chance. Those who do have a pretty miserable form of agriculture which means a pretty miserable form of life for those who live on it.

There are those who feel that a successful agriculture and a successful environment are mutually antagonistic, but that is not so. If you have a rundown agriculture, you get a rundown environment and rundown country. Far from being antagonistic, they are complementary to each other. The environment only gets looked after properly when there is a successful agriculture.

The countryside which we all love is what it is because of the way in which previous generations of country folk looked after it. The prerogative of protecting the rural environment does not rest just with politicians, local authorities and people with long hair and sandals. It is the responsibility of country folk too. Many of the woods which are so loved and admired by people were planted in the way in which they were because of--dare I say it?--fox hunting. That is not a sport in which I have ever been involved or taken part.

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I have always regarded horses as dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle. But it is a wonderful sight and all part of the rural scene in which agriculture is deeply entwined.

The future looks threatening because Britain has become so urban minded that the Government, the media and public opinion are all, sadly, far too ignorant of the facts of rural life. Since May we have had a predominantly urban government. There is nothing basically wrong with that. But it is important that the Government should ensure that rural interests do not become trivialised or disregarded. When, in a debate like this, we have 33 speakers, and, despite the avalanche of new Peers whom we have been happy to welcome here, only two Labour Back-Bench Peers find it possible to take part, it really speaks volumes about the Labour Party's interest in and knowledge of agriculture. And it says volumes about agriculture's anxiety about a Labour government.

Over the years we have had a highly successful agriculture, one which has revolutionised itself in terms of its methods of operation, equipment, size of holding and care of the environment. It has taken advantage, and rightly so, of all that science and technology have had to offer.

However, recently the unexpected has come to jolt the whole industry sideways; I refer to the strength of the pound. Recently my noble friend Lord Rotherwick asked a pertinent supplementary question at Question Time. He asked:

    "Does the Minister agree with me that the high interest rates have made our currency so strong that the farming industry has had great difficulty in exporting grain?".

It was a perfectly reasonable question. He received a pretty dusty answer from the noble Lord, the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, which caused a certain rumbling of dissent from your Lordships. That provoked the noble Lord to add:

    "I thought that that would identify the farming interests in this House".--[Official Report, 10/12/97; col. 144.]

That was a characteristically flippant answer to a serious question which happened to be bang on the ball. The noble Lord, the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, is a gregarious fellow; I do not hold that against him. Indeed, I elevate him, if I may, to the level of F. E. Smith. He once made a speech and someone said to him, "My word, you did talk a lot of rubbish this evening", and he replied, "When you talk as much as I do, you are bound to talk a certain amount of rubbish."

It is not a question of the farming interest in your Lordships' House. The fact is that the strength of the pound is affecting every single farm, big and small, up and down the country. The strong rise in the value of sterling since the general election has affected the level of the green pound--that mysterious beast of Community origin--in such a way that the level of prices which United Kingdom farmers receive is now lower than the prices they should receive, and lower than the prices which other European farmers receive for the same goods. I give as an example milk. Because of the strong pound, and because UK milk has to compete with milk produced on European farms, the

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price paid to the British farmer has dropped from 25 pence per litre to 20 pence per litre. That means that the income of the dairy industry has dropped by £600 million in one year.

Let us take wheat. Two years ago wheat was trading at £120 per tonne. Now it is £75 per tonne and half the wheat crop is still left unsold on the farms. Two years ago barley was trading at £115 per tonne; now it is £71 per tonne. Two years ago pigs were selling at 128 pence per kilo; now they are down to 86 pence per kilo. Two years ago beef imports accounted for 18 per cent. of the beef we consumed. The strong pound, and therefore the cheapness of imports, resulted in imports last year nearly doubling from 18 per cent. to 31 per cent. Farm incomes have dropped 50 per cent. this year compared with last year. Hill farmers are in despair.

I shall not be so naive or stupid as to blame the Government for all this. All I say is that these are facts; and in so far as the Government are influenced by and can bring influence to bear upon agriculture they are facts that they should take into account.

There are remedies available. When the currency of a country becomes strong there is a mechanism within the common agricultural policy for alleviating the very effects we are now experiencing. If the United Kingdom were to take advantage of that, it would bring £980 million more into British agriculture. Other countries take advantage of it when their currencies are strong. Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland and Belgium did so. But not the United Kingdom. Yet our farmers are being ruined.

It may surprise the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington--I am glad to see him in his place--when I say that all is not bad in the Community. There are good things too. The only bad thing is not taking advantage of the good things. Perhaps the noble Lord might try to exert a little pressure upon the Government, preferably in the characteristically flamboyant manner in which he used to castigate us, to take such advantage.

Everyone hides behind the joke of Treasury parsimony; but Treasury officials only advise Ministers. And when the farming community sees its industry in the straits in which it is, and the Government deliberately not availing themselves of that which is available, it knows where the blame lies. It is with Ministers. If farmers are to compete in Europe, it must be on a level playing field. The field is not level. The Government can help to make it level. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Donoghue, will say that they will do so.

Then there is our old friend bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, which is supposed to be connected to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD as it is usually known in humans. What a devastating mess this has made of everything, and what a devastating mess everyone has made of it. There is in my view only one really important fact about this: it is that there is no known proven connection between BSE in animals and CJD in humans. It may be likely, or even very likely, that there is a connection. The agent which causes BSE

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in animals may be the same or similar to the agent which causes CJD in humans. But no one knows if there is a transmission from animals to humans or, if there is, what is the route of that transmission. No one can say without doubt that new variant CJD can be contracted from BSE in animals.

This is a highly complicated business in which difficult decisions have had to be taken and will have to be taken. I am thankful that it never fell to my lot to take any of them. The biggest decision a junior Minister usually has to take is whether or not to switch off the light on his desk.

It does us no harm to stand back and look at the miserable position in which we now find ourselves. The media have wallowed in it; they have fanned the flames of fear and have arrogantly considered it their public duty to apportion blame. The great thing nowadays is to apportion blame to people for whatever happens, and the media love that. "BSE--Who is to blame?" was a trailer for a "Panorama" programme. To a large extent it was the media who were to blame.

What did we do? We decimated our dairy and beef herds by slaughtering 1,900,000 head of stock. That is unbelievable. We tried to incinerate the carcasses and make electricity but the fat gummed up the works. Up to some 280,000 tonnes of meat and bone meal and 150,000 tonnes of tallow are now in deep freeze waiting to be incinerated because our incinerating capacity is, not unsurprisingly, insufficiently large to deal with it. Some £4,000 million has been spent by the Government, not for health and safety reasons but,

    "in order to restore consumer confidence".

That is what the right honourable gentleman the Minister of Agriculture calls support for agriculture. Of course, it is nothing of the sort.

We claim to be concerned about the third world and about the inadequate supplies of food there. I wonder what they think of this wilful destruction of perfectly good meat and whether they would not have given anything to have had it.

Cull dairy cows which two years ago fetched £600 now fetch the statutory £311 for incineration. Cull dairy heifer calves, which two years ago fetched £100, now fetch £26. In 1995 we exported 250,000 tonnes of beef; last year we exported none. What a terrible state of affairs. What is this for and why is it done? Because 23 people in all have died from CJD.

The right honourable gentleman the Minister of Agriculture said that BSE--not CJD--had the "gravest human consequences" and described the disease as a national tragedy. I venture to suggest that it is nothing of the sort. We all have the greatest sympathy for anyone who has lost friends or relatives, whether from CJD or from any other cause, but I question whether we have not got this completely out of proportion. Three thousand people die each year from motor accidents, but we do not ban cars. Thirty thousand people die each year from lung cancer but we do not ban smoking. But 23 people die over three years from CJD--not from BSE--and we destroy all these animals and ruin an industry. Now the Government are going further and are

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to make it a criminal offence--one which will carry a penalty of an unlimited fine or two years' imprisonment or both--to sell beef on the bone.

There are only three species of animals in the whole country which could possibly--not which will definitely--carry the infection in what is so delightfully called the dorsal root ganglia. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), which advises the Government, says that there is only a one in 20 chance of one person in the whole country catching--not dying from--new variant CJD this year. It does not fall within the limits of being what the scientists would call even a "negligible risk".

I do not know whether your Lordships know that there is a one in 800,000 chance of your Lordships dying as a result of drowning in your bath, a one in 10 million chance of being killed by lightning, but only a one in 600 million chance of dying as a result of eating beef on the bone. I really think that we have all gone completely mad.

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