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House of Lords

Thursday, 26 July 2007.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Sheffield.

Agriculture: Renewable Fuel

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, before I answer the Question, perhaps I may say how nice it has been to work with the noble Baroness over the past few years. I understand that this is her last day on the Front Bench for the Opposition. Her charm and experience have been valuable to the House and certainly to the Ministers who have answered her many, many questions.

It is expected that the biofuel supplied to meet the 5 per cent target will come from a mixture of domestic and imported feedstocks. UK farmers will be able to play a significant role and compete in this market, and we understand that several biofuel production facilities anticipate using domestic feedstocks. But much will depend on the ability of UK farmers to compete on price and quality with overseas producers.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, and particularly for his generous words. I started opposite the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is my fifth Agriculture Minister. I am not claiming that I got rid of them; it is just a fact of life. However, I thank the noble Lord for his generous comments.

Can he assure the House that UK-produced biofuel crops will not be disadvantaged by overzealous accreditation and that those rules will apply equally to imported crops?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right: we want a level playing field for UK producers. The potential for them to become involved is quite substantial, probably through a mixture of crops. Supplying the whole 5 per cent for the renewables obligation would require some 1 million to 1.5 million hectares. We farm about 5 million hectares and about 500,000 hectares are currently in set-aside, some of which is used for such crops. There are problems with imported biofuel from the United States, where there are tax subsidies, but they are being dealt with. It will take a while, but negotiations are going on. We have contacted the European Union and the Trade Commissioner to get those problems sorted out so that our farmers are not disadvantaged.

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Lord Palmer: My Lords, if the penalty buy-out price was increased to 20 pence a litre, would this not therefore encourage the oil companies to invest in this exciting new venture?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not think there is a problem about investing. I have a list of almost a dozen plants for biofuels currently under construction in the country, some of which are very substantial. The programme should not require a great deal of public subsidy; there is a lot of money to be made on this, both for farmers and others. The renewables obligation is designed to set up a market for producers to respond to. Obviously at the present time there is that change in the tax arrangements for biofuels, which will continue.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, will the Minister turn his attention a bit further ahead to when there will be substantial pressure throughout the world both for motor fuel and for food? Are the Government developing any long-term strategy to assess the ability of this country to meet possible future shortages of both?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that issue is being raised. We want biofuels to be imported and used around the world, but from sustainable areas. It is not much good chopping down the forests to plant biofuels; that would damage the environment and so negate the purpose of doing it in the first place.

This is only the beginning of this technology, and it may not stand the test of time. It may stand for a generation or more, but biomass for heating and the technology of anaerobic digestion could well be the way to deal with climate change. This is not a panacea; there is not enough land to grow the crops, so it is not the silver bullet that some people might think.

Lord Plumb: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for the tremendous job she has done over a period of years. It has been a privilege to sit behind her and give what support one can from time to time, and we wish her well in a sort of semi-retirement—although one could not believe that she would ever retire.

Does the Minister accept that there are around 900,000 acres of set-aside land in this country and that therefore land is available to grow more crops? Does he further accept that in a normal year—although one does not know what sort of harvest we will have this year—we have around 3 million tonnes of wheat to export? The investment, as he has said, is taking place, and there is therefore tremendous scope for fulfilling our commitment of the amount that will be required to add to the other forms of producing energy.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The plan is to abolish set-aside anyway; it is proposed to have zero set-aside. We do not want to lose the environmental benefits that accrue from set-aside, although there are arguments about how good they have been. Some farmers have used set-aside as part of the rotation; others have used it for land that has

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been set aside for some years. Now they are able to grow energy crops on set-aside land, but some 900,000 acres—500,000 hectares or more—have not been used for growing food, so that land is available for this. It is up to farmers. It will require co-operation, and it will be good for the farmers to co-operate with each other. The capacity is being put in to use these products, and we wish them well in the future. It will be another income stream for farmers, which is important.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as one of the many former agriculture Ministers the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, saw off, I join in the appreciation of her around the House. I did not always appreciate her when I was sitting where the Minister now is, but I appreciate her contribution to agricultural matters in this House. I was also the Minister who saw through the transport fuel obligation at the behest of the late, lamented Lord Carter, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and others. One of the strategies envisaged at that time was not only that we would grow biocrops here and elsewhere in the world, but also that we could mobilise waste from food, agriculture and forestry in order to make both biomass and biofuels. Will the Minister indicate that that is still part of the strategy and that the regulatory barriers and other resource measures to mobilise such waste are part of the plan for meeting the obligation?

Lord Rooker: They certainly are, my Lords. We waste between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the food that is grown and produced in this country. There is green waste, as well as an enormous amount of animal waste from cattle and pigs. None of that should be going to landfill. All of it contains energy, and the technology is there to extract it. We have funded anaerobic digestion plants around the country on an experimental basis, and some are in commercial operation. That is probably the future; we could benefit from it long-term. The Germans have 3,000 anaerobic digestion plants on their farms. That is an integral part of what we are doing to protect the environment, reduce waste to landfill and mitigate climate change.

Bovine Tuberculosis

11.14 am

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire.

The Question was as follows:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, we welcome the independent scientific group’s final report, which further improves the evidence base. We are carefully considering the issues that the report raises,

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and will continue to work with industry, government advisers and scientific experts in reaching policy decisions on these issues.

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I join others in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her excellent work from the opposition Front Bench.

I am sure that my noble friend must be aware of the acute distress that this disease increasingly causes to livestock farmers, as he set up the Krebs trials 10 years ago while a Minister in another place. In 1997, 500 herds were affected; by 2006, it was nearly 11 times that number, with more than 5,848 herds affected. Given the methodology of the trials, is my noble friend content that the scientific conclusions are robust enough for decision-making, given the criticisms expressed, among others, by a group of vets from his own department’s former State Veterinary Service and against the background of a wealth of alternative scientific research, data and risk management experience available and accessible worldwide? Will this jeopardise his department's strategies for sharing costs and responsibility with the industry?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I must say to my noble friend that I am reluctant to go much beyond my Answer at the moment. This is an important report and I pay tribute to Professor Bourne and the team that produced it. I have reread some of the original statements made in 1998 and 1999 as advice to Ministers. We were told that if we set up the Krebs trials, within five years we would know about the transmission route between badgers and cattle, if it exists, the cost benefits involved and what needed to be done in terms of policy. The fact is that we do not. The report makes it quite clear, on page 173 at paragraph 10.49, that there is an awful lot that we do not know. Nevertheless, it is important for us to work with industry because of the cost-sharing and responsibility arrangements that we want to put in place. As I said, we are examining the issue with government advisers and scientific experts and we will reach a decision as soon as possible.

Lord Krebs: My Lords, following the Krebs trials—unfortunately named after me—that were set up 10 years ago, we now know from reading the report of the independent scientific group that culling is not a viable policy option. There is no wriggle room. Does the Minister agree with the ISG’s conclusion that badger culling is not a viable policy option? Furthermore, does he agree with the ISG that cattle-based measures alone could reverse the spread of bovine tuberculosis, including better cattle-control movements, better biosecurity and the introduction of the gamma interferon test, which is more sensitive than the current skin test?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, my past is coming back to haunt me. I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I am not going to go beyond my Answer. I am actually reading the report; since the reshuffle it is part of my day job as well as other things. Others in the Government are also reading it, or have already read it. The report constantly rules out culling as it was done during the randomised culling trial. It virtually

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states that every time culling is mentioned, saying, “Done as we did it, it does not work”. Obviously, we now have the gamma interferon test and, as the noble Lord said, an awful lot can be done in respect of biosecurity and cattle movements—and it will be done. It is an impost on farmers, but we have to close down every possible route. I cannot for the life of me understand why some farmers in non-hotspot areas are buying cattle from hotspot areas without getting them tested.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, could I, too, pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and say what a pleasure it has been working with her?

Does the Minister accept that there are many other wildlife carriers and that one problem with the Krebs trials as they were designed was that they concentrated simply on badgers?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, to get the full picture, we should look not only at the report that has just been published but at the report of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, which was commissioned by the previous Administration and delivered in December 1997 to the current Administration. There is enough evidence out there to know that there is a connection. What we were told was, “Do this, and in five years you will know what the transmission route is”—but, if there is a transmission route, we do not know what it is. The current trials have not exactly explained that.

There is TB in other wildlife, particularly in the deer population. The fact of the matter is that there is a disease out there affecting food production animals and, frankly, we have to do something about it. We cannot simply keep the status quo.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the disquiet, despite what has been said, among agriculturalists and the veterinary profession about the ISG report. My understanding is that very useful work has been done by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency on an oral vaccine for badgers which will either stop infection in badgers or stop infected badgers shedding the organism. Will the Minister bring us up to date with the progress of that vaccine and when it is likely to be in production? If it were to be so, the whole issue of culling badgers and control of cattle would largely disappear, because the vaccine would prevent it.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not want to make a cheap point by saying that 10 years ago we were told that the vaccine was 10 years away, but we are in virtually the same position today. I am visiting the VLA on Monday and will get an update on this.

We have invested quite a bit in vaccination; in fact, between 1998 and 2008, we will have invested more than £17 million, which is quite a lot. Within one to five years, we have got identification of candidate vaccines and different tests, but we are still more than five years away from a vaccine—and if we had a vaccine for badgers, we would still have to deliver it, which is a bit of a problem with badgers.

A vaccine for cattle could have a perverse effect on trade, so we have to be very careful. It could be a

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solution but it may not be the best solution. However, we are spending millions of pounds on it, as was promised following the report from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, because it was part and parcel of the whole thing. The report was not just about culling; it was about cattle movement, biodiversity and looking for a vaccine.

Olympic Games 2012: Housing

11.22 am

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, on 19 July this year there were 13 registered commonholds, comprising 129 units. The London Development Agency is working with key stakeholders to develop proposals for the development of the site after the 2012 Games. It is too early to say how property and land ownership on the site will be structured.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which is still very disappointing, as in November 2005 there were six commonholds, which the Government admitted themselves was an abysmal number, and it was part of the Labour Party manifesto at the 2005 general election. It gives people a better way in which to own their homes.

In answer to my Question in November I was told:

I am not aware of any report back. Can the Minister confirm whether we ever got a report back, or has this just been lying idle since 2005?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right in suggesting that progress has been disappointing. We have not yet brought a report back to Parliament. What has been decided is that, because of the disappointing progress, a consultation should take place later in the year with the key parties interested in commonhold to see what we can do to improve take-up of what I agree with her is a very desirable option.

Lord Paul: My Lords, yesterday was a most historic day for the Olympics. The London Development Agency handed over the land to the Olympic Delivery Authority on time and on budget. Will my noble friend congratulate the Mayor and the London Development Agency on the wonderful work that has been done? I declare an interest as a member of the LDA and chair of the Olympic Delivery Committee responsible for the acquisition.

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am very happy to endorse what my noble friend said. The House may be interested to hear about the use of the land post-Olympics. The LDA intends that 9,000 new homes should be developed, many for key workers, and that at least 30 per cent should be affordable for low-paid workers.

Lord Best: My Lords, I fear that nobody in this House will recall that some six years ago my maiden speech extolled the virtues of commonhold. It is indeed very sad that this has proved a complete damp squib. Does the Minister agree that developers and house builders do not offer this form of tenure to people who buy the flats and apartments that they build because they can charge a ground rent if they sell a lease which they cannot do if they sell it on a much better commonhold basis? Does he further agree that as regards the Olympic site, and indeed all sites where either public money or public land is involved, the Government should help to show the way and really get commonhold to take off?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that his maiden speech still echoes round the corridors of the Ministry of Justice. He is absolutely right: that is one of the reasons developers seem not to be keen to move into this area although there could be counterbalances in that commonhold could be very much more attractive to buyers of property. That could be reflected in the premiums. It is clear that we need to talk much more closely with developers and other companies to encourage them to think of this as a positive option. I take the noble Lord’s point about the Olympics. I shall ensure that my officials pass this to the relevant people in the LDA, but it must be for them to make those decisions.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, if the noble Lord wants to make commonhold more attractive, why do the Government not use incentives? If they abolished stamp duty on these units, they would sell like hot cakes.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, noble Lords will know that it is somewhat above my pay station to talk about tax matters in your Lordships' House. However, one of the areas we will look at as part of the consultation is whether more incentives can be identified to encourage the development of the definitely much more desirable concept of commonhold.

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