Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Business of the House: Debates Today

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Baroness Shephard of Northwold set down for today be limited to three hours and that in the name of Baroness Perry of Southwark to two hours.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1819

Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (Amendment) Regulations 2007

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft regulations be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Agriculture: Defra

11.47 am

Baroness Shephard of Northwold rose to call attention to the role of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in securing the efficient and effective delivery of policies and funds that support and promote the farming industry in the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this debate today. This House has always taken a serious and knowledgeable approach to agricultural and environmental matters and we have in today’s debate many expert speakers. The contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle, who is making his maiden speech today, will be especially welcome. It is also good that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will be replying to the debate. He is rightly a popular Minister in this House, and within the industry is known as someone who listens.

Today’s debate focuses on Defra’s role with regard to the farming industry, but Defra’s overall responsibilities are very broad and could hardly be of more importance to our nation. Its responsibilities include preparing for the greatest global challenge that we have known—climate change—protecting our natural environment, ensuring a safe and sustainable food supply and supporting those who care for 75 per cent of the nation’s land surface. These are enormous policy areas.

When Defra was created in 2001, we were promised that it would provide a strategic and joined-up approach across government—something that I warmly welcomed at the time. I also hoped that the creation of a larger department would give the important issues with which it dealt more salience across government and its Ministers more clout than their MAFF predecessors had. Bringing together different Whitehall cultures is not easy, but Defra officials continue to provide highly specialised expertise at every level, for which I had every reason to be grateful during my brief and now distant time at MAFF in the 1990s.

That expertise is needed in every policy area, because MAFF had and now Defra has to wrestle on a regular basis with natural disasters such as floods, droughts, other environmental events, outbreaks of animal disease and food scares. This year alone has seen them all in abundance: the severe flooding in the summer, foot and mouth twice, avian flu, bluetongue and bovine TB. The department’s experts will have been in overdrive. At the same time, they will be conscious, as are we all, of the effect of these disasters on a farming community

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1820

already battered by the after-effects of the last FMD outbreak, swine fever, extreme weather conditions and now, with the livestock sector in crisis, very high world commodity prices.

To deal with this, Defra needs to be efficiently run and well resourced and it needs to have the clout to deliver an effective and consistent strategy across Whitehall. How are we to judge the efficiency of Defra? Is it well run? Is it able to cope with the crises that are part of its daily expectations? Does it help or hinder? Sadly, we have examples over the past year or two of problems for farmers arising from Defra itself. The most obvious are the single payment scheme and this summer’s double outbreak of foot and mouth emanating from the government-licensed laboratory at Pirbright. I will address those briefly, as noble Lords will have other examples.

As is well known, in 2005 Defra chose, against EU advice, to adopt a dynamic hybrid system to make single payments. According to the March 2007 EFRA Select Committee report, it did so,

than the historic approach, and with no proper appraisal of the volume of work that would be entailed. In the event, the financial loss to English farmers of the whole sorry saga has, according to the National Audit Office, amounted to between £18 million and £22 million. Of course, some farming enterprises have been ruined, but the stress and frustration to almost all farmers is difficult to quantify. The Minister has been very open with the House on the problems caused by this episode. He will certainly accept the EFRA Select Committee’s view that that decision was,

August’s foot and mouth outbreak at the government-licensed laboratory at Pirbright has done little to enhance the department’s reputation for efficiency, nor has the second leak of virus from the same premises announced a couple of weeks ago. The independent inquiry by Professor Spratt of University College London concludes:

I know that the Minister will wish to point out that Defra is not the only government department with problems, either now or in the past, when my own Government were in power, and he will be right. But he is also fair enough to accept that the farming industry has enough problems without Defra adding to them, as the NFU continues to point out.

Given that Defra deals with issues of enormous national and international importance, such as climate change and flood defences—all government priorities—adequate resources are clearly essential. Last year, Defra had to impose in-year cuts on, among other bodies, the Environment Agency. That turned out to be a short-term view, given what happened in the summer. Now Defra faces cuts of a further £270 million in the 2008-11 Comprehensive Spending Review period. In addition, I understand that it will have to find up to £300 million—it may not

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1821

be that—disallowance for single payments. In the current year, the administration budget has already overspent by £50 million out of a total budget of £360 million, and there are still six months to go. Meanwhile, bovine TB, with no resolution in sight, is costing some £90 million a year. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the Minister, because I remember from my time in MAFF that the Treasury delighted in taking a very hard line on our budget in the correct belief that we were small and had no clout. Defra is not small. It should have clout. Things have changed and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Treasury has, too.

When Defra was created, we were told that the new department would deliver a co-ordinated approach in all its policy areas. Has it been allowed to take an effective lead in policy development across Whitehall in areas within its remit? Because of time, I choose only one example—the impact of migrant workers on rural areas—on which I would have hoped that Defra would take a lead. Had it done so, the number of migrant workers, whom we certainly need to help us, would not have come as a surprise to the Home Office.

Biofuels—a policy area that is very close to my heart—have revealed that, although Defra’s intentions were undoubtedly good, its effectiveness in practice proved wanting. I, along with other noble Lords and many Members of another place, have been campaigning for at least 10 years in support of biofuels contributing to the Government’s environmental targets, providing an alternative market for producers and keeping land in cultivation. Two weeks ago, the UK’s first bioethanol plant was formally opened by the Minister in south-west Norfolk, my former constituency. He was immensely welcome. He pointed out that this plant hits all the environmental targets set by the Government. It uses excess energy from the adjacent sugar factory and it will produce 70 million litres of ethanol each year from 700,000 tonnes of sugar beet. Its by-products include stones—this sounds a little funny but it was explained that they are for rockeries—top soil, lime, animal feed, enough electricity to power 200,000 homes in Norfolk, and excess CO2 to cultivate 100 million tomatoes each year, grown under glass on the site. The Minister was impressed by all that and, as I said, he praised the plant for its holistic approach to production. Why then has it seemed to me and to others involved that there has been resistance in every sphere of government towards the development of biofuels in the past 10 years? I think that Defra was on our side during that long journey, so why was it not the lead department?

The Minister will almost certainly not wish to comment on that, but I make the point for a reason. I have already spoken of the immense importance of Defra’s responsibilities, but another area of even greater importance is emerging in which Defra’s skills, efficiency, resources, clout and effectiveness will be tested to the full: food security, or, to say what we actually mean, the food supply, or food shortages. In 2003, Margaret Beckett, then Secretary of State, said:

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1822

The joint Treasury-Defra paper, Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy, repeated this view, which was taken by farmers to mean that what they did could not be of less importance to the Government or to the nation. Defra’s strategy under this Government has concentrated almost entirely on environmental issues, while assuming, dangerously, that the food supply is not an issue. It is now. By 2050, the world population will have reached 10 billion. In developing countries, improving incomes will increase the demand for more and better food. More people will become consumers rather than producers of food. The World Bank has calculated that world food demand will double. Over the next 40 years, farmers in this country and across the world will need to double the production of food, triple yields per hectare, and do so on less land, using less water. Contrary to the assertion that the world is awash with food for us to import, suddenly there is less food than people thought. The fact that the Prime Minister has initiated a review is welcome, but it is a bit late.

It will be Defra’s task to lead and support our farming industry in playing its part in one of the most formidable challenges that the world has ever faced. Our farmers can and will rise to that challenge, but the Government need to do so as well. They must have the courage to change their attitude to the farming industry. They must reorder some of their priorities, especially in research. Above all, they must afford to Defra the resource, clout and respect across government that it will need to meet this challenge. Will the Government do so? I hope that the noble Lord will be able to tell us today. I commend the Motion to the House and I beg to move for Papers.

12.01 pm

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I congratulate the so aptly named noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on introducing this debate on farming. I come from Cheshire, a dairy county, where we are very proud of our products and very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, who every Christmas provides roundels of cheese for noble Lords’ delectation in the Bishops’ Bar. There is praise and cheering in Cheshire today following yesterday’s announcement that there is no decision at the moment on splitting up Cheshire. It would be a folly indeed to create two different Cheshires when we want to remain a unitary Cheshire. To give an example of why we want this, farming in Cheshire takes place mainly in the central and southern areas. To split the two artificially would be a very bad thing indeed.

I have in the past asked the Government Questions about milk production in Cheshire. I am very eager to learn more about farm gate prices, which I understand are now at 20.7p per litre since August 2007, at their highest since 2001. Can the Minister confirm that? Is he able to tell us what the trend is likely to be? I congratulate the Minister on his ambition to improve regulation that governs the farming industry and reduce it by a net amount of 25 per cent by 2010. How confident is he of achieving that target?

Does he also recognise that there is a difficulty over administration with the farmers themselves? When I was an MEP for Cheshire, I used to visit farms with

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1823

the NFU. I was surprised by how poor the resources were for farmers’ record-keeping, which was essential for reporting to the Government. I hope we can help them to learn how to administer their own farms. I am sure that things have improved since my time.

My theme today is innovation and the future. I am pleased that Hilary Benn addressed a “Farming for the Future” conference on 19 November at the Oval. I wonder whether my noble friend can report on that. What was the attendance from the farming community, to try to absorb some of the new and innovative ideas? One such innovation in recent years has been the expansion of farmers’ markets. They provide competition and bring to the marketplace goods that are desirable to consumers. That is also good for farmers. When I was an MEP, in a meeting at Beeston, which is at the centre of the farming industry in Cheshire, I learnt how isolated farmers are. They do not have the opportunity to meet customers face-to-face. I welcome farmers’ markets as an example of where this is now beginning to change. Farmstead isolation is being reduced.

A good example of the obverse of this coin is that the Government are having the Year of Food and Farming to encourage children, who are of course future consumers, to have a direct experience of food farming and the countryside. Again, it is hugely beneficial to bring town and country together in a positive way. On the Fresh Start programme, how many potential farmers are being brought into the countryside with their new ideas about what and how they can farm? In the 1980s, when I was on Cheshire County Council, it was always a great regret to me that we closed or sold off 80 farms that had been provided to bring new and fresh blood into the countryside and new ideas about farming.

I should like to explore innovation more and encourage the Minister to distinguish between good and bad innovation, and diversification. One bad idea is the plethora of motorway advertising which has besmirched our motorways and major trunk roads. Farmers may be trying to get an extra buck or two, but such advertising despoils the countryside and kills the very golden goose which should be saved. I shall not go on more about that because I have spoken on this subject previously in your Lordships' House.

Good ideas sometimes are frustrated by planning laws. A farmer wrote to me about providing truck stops for lorry drivers who are taking goods throughout the country and require not only safe places to stay overnight but also places to eat. He wanted to convert his farm partly to provide such facilities, but he was being balked by the planning conditions. The addition was that he would provide fresh food from his farm for dinners at night for lorry drivers, which seemed to be an excellent example of innovation. One hears further ideas on “Farming Today”, including the Scottish farmer who transferred to herb production, which responds to a new need, or the farmer from Northern Ireland who is making mash available for the market. We need to encourage that kind of innovation.

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1824

We also need to encourage marketing. Too often the marketing of the wonderful food that is produced is lax in our country. When I represented the Wirral, I noticed that tomato growers did not talk to each other in the same way as our Dutch counterparts. The Dutch were much quicker at marketing their tomatoes than were the English. I regretted that and I thought more could be done. I saw a wonderful example of this type of marketing when I visited Paris with the European Union Committee. The British ambassador hosted an event for marketing and showing off our wonderful British cheeses to the French, who are very proud of their cheese. Our cheese is very different, but it is a wonderful product and I praise the ambassador for making available the wonderful British embassy in Paris for that purpose.

My closing remarks are on the relative importance of farming, which of course is a central industry. We do not exist as a nation if we do not eat. But there are other important industries, especially in the countryside, associated with leisure, tourism and hospitality, which these days employ many people and sometimes are offshoots of the farming industry. I have in mind the equine industries. As people have more leisure time and money, they are more likely to go horse riding and so on. What are the Government doing about that? I note that the universities which study these matters are saying that when such terrible things as BSE and FMD have happened in the countryside, the Government may have responded there but have been less secure in responding to the tourism industry. In work done at Glasgow Caledonian University, Leslie and Black said:

The farming industry is vital to us but we must not neglect those other growing and innovative industries responding to the changes in society that are taking place in rural areas of Britain today.

12.10 pm

Lord Teverson: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on securing this debate. Given the responsibilities of Defra, this area is, as she so well described it, extremely broad.

There are mixed fortunes within the area over which Defra has its purview and remit. On rural affairs, we see the countryside in many areas being more prosperous and having better health and income indicators than ever before. At the same time, more rural remote areas are under greater pressure than they have been for some time, and are more cut off from mainstream society.

In the farming industry itself, we have the contrast between the grain growers, particularly in the eastern United Kingdom, who are having their highest prices for some time—and being relatively affluent, upbeat and positive about the future—while the livestock sector, particularly the more rural hill sectors in the west, have great concerns, some areas having been hit by foot and mouth disease and bluetongue. There are those contrasts.

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1825

Great changes are also going on given that climate change, for which Defra has responsibility, brings particular challenges and opportunities for the farming industry and for rural life generally. The Commission’s health check is coming up next year. At one time that was going to be just a “look and see” and planning for post-2013 but it is clear from certain pronouncements by the Commission and member states over the past few months that it is to be a much larger and more fundamental exercise than we had previously thought.

Food security was another area mentioned by the noble Baroness. That is going to be much higher in people’s perspectives within the farming industry. A couple of months ago, I went to a meeting of the farming community in Somerset. I was expecting to go there to talk about foot and mouth disease, bluetongue and supermarkets but one of the biggest issues that came up, along with climate change, was food security. We sometimes think of that as being food availability, although it will probably be reflected in prices when buying food rather than in an absolute shortage. However, there is a real issue concerning biodiversity and the threat from climate change and disease to the small number of crops on which we rely. We need to look more strategically at that whole area. I am not of the Malthusian tradition of looking forward and saying that the world will starve because of that threat, but there are real issues to be looked at strategically with our European partners, and relatively soon.

I will go through some of those bigger changes. First, there is the health check. I remember that the press releases of Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel earlier this year were about looking at the common agricultural policy, something that, from a financial perspective, was demanded by the UK Government during the British presidency. There was going to be little change for the farming industry. However, if you look at the pronouncements coming out of Brussels now, you see that suddenly they have become energised and more interested in this area. There may be a feeling that France may not be quite so obstructive to a change in the CAP, so there is sudden excitement and all sorts of initiatives are appearing in terms of flattening payments rather than grandfather rights, taking out smaller holdings—I had hoped that my modest five acres in Cornwall could have qualified for single farm payment, but it looks like that will be, quite rightly, impossible—scaling down large payments and changing the complex cross-compliance regime. There will be a real agenda of change next year. But I do not yet understand what Defra's view is on that fundamental area, which will greatly affect our farming industry. It is urgent that we understand what positions Defra will take.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page