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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves his fairly damning indictment of Railtrack, will he indicate whether he supports this Government's policy of giving Railtrack a special position as regards London Underground?
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the situation as regards London Underground is obviously difficult. My feeling is that if Railtrack is able to change and adapt to the new circumstances which the regulator is imposing on it, it can certainly be considered for the sub-surface lines.
In the last years of public ownership a new management culture was developed on the railway. It was instigated by the last chairman but two, the late Sir Robert Reid, and was based on the principle that someone was always responsible if things went wrong. The alibi that "It is nothing to do with me" largely disappeared as individuals took charge of sectors of the railway and were held to account.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the privatised structure is that this acceptance of responsibility has largely disappeared as the railway have been broken up. This danger was repeatedly spelt out in your Lordships' House and in another place during the passage of the Railways Bill but was largely ignored. Fears about future safety arising from the fragmentation were dismissed as alarmist. Safety featured little in those public versus private debates because until recently people thought little about that. We are used to complaining about overcrowded trains, late trains, dirty trains, unreliable trains and expensive trains but you never heard anyone say that they would not travel by train because they thought that was unsafe.
That is the reason the railways' and the Government's responses to the Ladbroke Grove accident matter so much. It is not a question of whether privatisation was to blame. I do not believe that the same railway managers and staff who took such pride as public servants in operating a safe railway when it was publicly owned have decided to take chances with safety now that they are in the private sector; of course they have not. It is a question of whether the culture has changed in a way which pushes the concept of absolute safety down the agenda. The statistics speak for themselves. Rail is by far the safest form of land transport. It is 15 times safer than travelling by car. However, there cannot be any complacency as regards safety on the railways.
As other noble Lords have said, there is much good advice for the Government in the recent report of the Transport Committee in another place, including the repeated demand that the safety and standards directorate should find a new home. The majority on the sub-committee warmly welcomed the establishment of a strategic rail authority. I believe that it offers the best chance of putting right many of the problems that have been caused by privatisation and should provide the long-term planning for the railways that the old British Rail was never allowed to undertake.
Therefore we should expect the strategic rail authority to look 20 to 25 years ahead and come up with a vision for the future of the railways. It and the regulator must use their powers to ensure that all parts of the industry substantially increase investment and produce plans for main line electrification. At the heart of the Government's policy, it seems to me, is a determination to persuade people to leave their cars at home and to use public transport. This will need levels of services, particularly on the railways, of much higher quality if this approach is to succeed and enjoy popular support. The transport Bill offers a way forward and I shall be happy to offer it my full support.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, approximately one year ago my noble friend Lord Kimball called attention to the future of the agriculture industry. That debate identified the serious difficulties facing agriculture in the United Kingdom. A short while ago, on 9th November of this year, the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, brought forward a debate on the milk industry.
Since those two debates, the plight of agriculture in this country has worsened very considerably. Many farmers are hanging on perilously in the hope that things will get better; and, in the dairy industry, many dairy farmers who relied on the milk cheque to pay the rent or the mortgage are finding that that no longer happens and are going out of business. As has been mentioned by more than one speaker, that brings on to the rural scene serious difficulties for the people who service agriculture.
Other issues, such as the health and welfare of livestock, are also affected, as illustrated in an article in The Times this morning. Livestock farmers are finding it difficult to afford vaccines and medicines for their livestock.
However, those are not the matters I wish to address. My noble friend Lady Byford has done that more effectively than I could. I want to address the issues which will place British agriculture in an increasingly uncompetitive situation; namely, genetic modification in farming, livestock production and food production, and the restraints placed upon agriculture in this country. While our overseas competitors suffer less from the public disquiet which surrounds the production of GM crops and livestock in this country, other competing countries benefit from the export of their GM farming products to many countries of the world.
I am of the firm opinion that many people in this country--those in agriculture, those in the food industry, the rural dweller and, indeed, the man on the top of the Clapham omnibus--believe that the issue of GM crops and GM foods has got out of hand. Genetic modification has been used to present emotive headlines such as "Frankenstein Foods", which we have all seen in the tabloids. This has preyed upon the general lack of understanding of GM technology, to the advantage of our competitors elsewhere.
I believe that there is an urgent and important need to bring to the attention of the public the outstanding advantages that GM technology can bring to agriculture and other industries such as medicine, brewing and so on. The matter needs to be dealt with in an objective way, with the fears and perceived hazards brought out, and the risks attendant on these hazards explained. A clear, calm and calming debate is necessary.
What are some of the concerns? The most common one, of course, is that food containing GM products--such as soya, maize, etc--may affect human health, and demands are made that extensive research be undertaken to determine this. One of the answers is that GM soya and maize has been consumed in the
It has recently been noted that, while much concern has addressed the consumption of GM products by humans, GM products are consumed in large amounts as fodder for livestock which produce meat, milk and eggs. For example, last year Britain imported approximately 2 million tonnes of soya meal for pig and poultry, 1 million tonnes of maize gluten to be used in cattle and sheep feed, and half a million tonnes of brewer's grain. Again, there has been no instance of ill health in livestock as a result of feeding such products.
The perceived danger of genes being transferred from "genetic fodder" through the animal to the final product of meat, milk or eggs, is not really valid. Any gene protein is broken down in the digestive system of the animal--or, indeed, of the human--and it can be claimed that the animal acts as a natural screen for DNA transfer. This phenomenon has been going on throughout human history as we have eaten material containing DNA of various kinds.
While the GM debate appears to centre on the safety of GM products and the dangers to the environment, the wider, positive aspects of GMOs in agriculture are often ignored in the general argument. For example, the prime targets for transgenesis in major crop plants for both human and livestock consumption are genes for adaptation, conferring on plants disease resistance, resistance to insect pests, tolerance of environmental stresses such as cold, drought, acidity, alkalinity, and so on. These attributes reduce the need to use chemical pesticides; there is less spoilage and greater and more reliable production. In the third world, GM products give a broader geographical spread; for example, the wheat or maize may be grown in climates which are currently suitable only for the growing of millet and sorghum. Fodder crops such as modified legumes--clovers, lucerne or ryegrass--may have inserted genes which not only increase feed utilisation but also prevent serious metabolic disorders in the animals that eat them.
The GM debate also fails to take into consideration the need for our agriculture to be economically competitive with that of other countries. That means keeping up to date with recent scientific developments of all kinds, including genetic modification and the growing of high production strains of arable crops and animals. The agriculture of the United Kingdom must not be shackled by unnecessary regulations or by a public that places unrealistic demands on it.
There has been much debate about the question of labelling of GM foods. Fortunately, the recent developments in the detection of GM material in foods are moving well ahead. New technology will detect GM material in food to a level of 0.1 per cent in the case of protein, and to a level of 0.01 per cent in the case of DNA. That means that there will be choice based on adequate labelling.
Without expanding on the issue, it is critical that the scientific competence and competitiveness of agriculture and biotechnology in the United Kingdom should play an important role in third world development. Again, this should not be compromised by over regulation, delays in field trials, safety assessments and so on.
It is clear that the Government failed to anticipate the controversy over GM foods and crops, as, too, did previous governments. Public debate has become polarised. Proponents and opponents dismiss each other as unreasonable or irresponsible. We must restore discussion in which all parties have confidence, while recognising that definitive answers do not and cannot exist in the face of uncertainty and ignorance. I believe that we should take note of the ways in which other countries have dealt with the debate on GM products. For example, in North America there are focus groups, citizens' juries and consensus conferences. Since our GM debate does not seem to be progressing as far and as actively as it should, it may well be that we should look at those techniques with greater attention to see whether we can gain more ground by using them.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, suggests that we send back the gracious Speech with a rejection slip, to use the words of my noble friend the Leader of the House. Conversely, I rather commend the gracious Speech, not simply as a government lackey; I commend it from the perspective of several of my other hats, in terms of its significant and highly coherent achievements for the environment, countryside, rural affairs and for education.
I start with the environment. I declare an interest, which has already been revealed, as Chairman of English Nature. I very much welcome the legislation to improve the conservation of key wildlife sites--the SSSIs, the jewels in the crown of our nature conservation. We have heard criticisms from speakers on the Benches opposite that there has been a lack of mention of agriculture and farming. Perhaps I may say that I plan to keep noble Lords on the Benches opposite very happy by mentioning copiously over the next few minutes both farmers and agriculture.
Many of our SSSIs are managed extremely well by farmers. We have 32,000 owners and occupiers of SSSIs and, for the large part, they do an excellent job. However, 30 per cent of those SSSIs are still in an unfavourable condition and are not improving. Therefore, the legislation provides a valuable opportunity to reorientate the focus of SSSIs towards positive management. Certainly, it will enable English Nature to act more effectively and, indeed, with more
I hope that the Bill will introduce also a duty of care for all public bodies who own or manage SSSIs to ensure that in their management they remain or move into favourable conservation status. We really should not continue to see public bodies preside over the damage or decline of those jewels in the crown.
Therefore, the legislation for SSSIs is necessary and welcome. However, legislation and the accompanying non-legislative measures will not be enough to stem the damage and decline of SSSIs. Much of that continues to be paid for by you and me through agricultural subsidies. As taxpayers, we pay for subsidies that damage sites which, as a nation, we have committed to defend. Therefore, we need to see agricultural reform and we need to see it very quickly.
The Government now have the opportunity at UK level--no longer hidden behind a European Union barrier--to make changes in the immediate future in the way in which subsidies are paid that could have a long-lasting benefit. A modest top slice--say, 5 per cent--from mainstream payments, which currently damage not only the environment but also farmers, would double the funds available for the agri-environment budget and for the rural development budget. That money would still be paid to farmers but it would be for the public good, not for environmental damage.
That type of change in agricultural reform is now within the grasp of agriculture Ministers in the UK. It would enable double benefit to be obtained from the proposed wildlife legislation. It would be good for farmers and for rural communities, as well as for wildlife. However, that kind of agricultural reform needs leadership, as the noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, indicated. I call in particular for positive leads from those bodies which represent farmers. At the moment, some of them are behaving like the worst kind of trade unions, showing a protectionism that, I believe, is not in the long-term interests of the agricultural industry.
The very damaging type of restructuring of the agriculture sector, outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is exactly what will happen if we continue down the path of seeing global competitiveness as the only solution for our agriculture. The best defence in the face of the imminent world trade round is to produce a range of agricultural practices that are sustainable and that take account of environmental and social as well as economic objectives. We also need a positive lead to achieve that from the Ministry of Agriculture.
I am at odds with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, in her promotion of a department for rural affairs. I do not believe that it is possible for a single department to solve all the ills of the countryside, many of which are based on issues like access to services, health, transport, the planning system and the development of regional funding. Not
Before I leave the issue of agricultural reform, I must pick up the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, on GM crops. I hope that we can move away from the promotion of the potential benefits of GM crops to a proper examination of the actual benefits; away from an analysis of the potential risks of GM crops towards a proper analysis of the actual risks. It is only if we can see the continuation of the field-scale trials through to their conclusion and a proper analysis thereafter that we will know what we are talking about. If I had a pound for the number of potential benefits in GM crops that have been outlined, I should be an extremely rich woman.
I turn to the provisions in the Bill which relate to access. I welcome the extension of access to the countryside. It is important to enable more people to enjoy and understand the countryside and its wildlife. I was slightly taken aback by several speakers on the Benches opposite who complained about lack of understanding of the countryside, but who were then rather loath to let anyone anywhere near it in order to find some understanding. Obviously, the access provisions need to take careful account in their detail of the needs of wildlife. However, speaking on behalf of the Government's statutory nature conservation body, I should say that we would not worry about the impact on wildlife in moorland, heath and other open habitats. There simply is no research evidence that there is a huge risk to wildlife. There may need to be some modest spatial and temporal restrictions, but no more than that. We are rather more worried about other habitats to which access might be considered for extension, particularly the impact on river corridors, on coasts and on woodland, where I believe that the research evidence of potential impact on wildlife is greater. Therefore, there needs to be careful examination--
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