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I hope that we shall hear from the right reverend Prelate frequently. He talked about the importance of being in Cumbria, but I hope that people in his diocese will release him frequently to come and speak as he has spoken today. Many of us have missed for a number of years our old friend John Oliver, the former Bishop of Hereford, who was a great champion of the countryside and of agriculture. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will fill those shoes in the years ahead. Perhaps I may gently tease him, in the hope that he will be able to come here to explain himself, as my understanding is that when he was at Oxford he prepared for confirmation one Tony Blair. The right reverend Prelate has a good deal to answer for.

I declare an interest as a farmer who receives single payments and assistance under the environmental entry-level scheme. As a former Minister of Agriculture, like my noble friend Lady Shephard, I am dismayed at the way in which my former department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has descended into the shambolic disarray that is now Defra. At a time of the most serious crisis in the livestock industry, one can only say that the present state of the Rural Payments Agency is a disgrace. Again, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease at Pirbright in recent months is a scandal. The Minister may say, “Oh, but that is not the responsibility of Defra”. But it is, in part, and, in terms of the Government as a whole, it most certainly is a scandal.

I hope that the Minister will not accuse me of extravagant language in talking about the shambolic disarray, because I am not the only one who is implying that. As my noble friend said in her opening speech, the European Community is widely expected to impose substantial fines on the Rural Payments Agency for the situation in which it finds itself. We are told that a fine of something approaching €300 million is likely to be imposed on us as a result of the mismanagement of the single payment scheme. What I find inexplicable is reading in the press of the announcement of major staff redundancy programmes for Defra. We are told that some 300 members of staff are to take voluntary retirement in the near future under the most generous redundancy scheme in history. It seems clear that this huge impending fine on the department and the RPA is why they have had to make all those redundancies at a time when the RPA is quite unable to handle the situation that lies before us.

I ask the Minister why, inexplicably, we are having this voluntary retirement scheme now. Will it put back further the payments from the single payment scheme, which are already delayed, and will the redundancy programme include the RPA, from which farmers already find it difficult to get a reply on anything? The chaos was caused by the Government choosing the

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most complicated single payment scheme. Frankly, I am sick to death of successive Ministers coming to Parliament and endlessly repeating phrases such as, “We are doing our best”, “We can only apologise”, and, “We are learning from mistakes”. That is really not good enough.

Finally, I want to voice a particular concern. I have here a document that refers to some of the environmental programmes, such as the environmental stewardship scheme, the higher-level stewardship scheme, the entry- level stewardship scheme and the organic entry-level stewardship scheme, as well as the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, of which I claim a certain paternity. The department says:

It goes on to say:

Anyone who has tried regularly to telephone Defra knows that if ever there was an appropriately named department, with its deaf ears, that is it.

I was talking over the weekend to a consultant who helps me considerably at home. He is a person who handles these claim forms and he was telling me of a recent case in which he contacted Defra or the RPA—I forget which—and asked about a form that he had sent in. He was told, “Oh, we’ve lost it, we haven’t had it”. He said, “Don’t be so silly, here is the receipt you gave me”. He also had a copy of the claim. He made the point that farmers could lose thousands of pounds because of the frequent instances of Defra losing claim forms. It is absolutely wrong if Defra is not issuing receipts; certainly some of us in the Chamber today who are former Ministers would never have done that. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will review the ending of issuing receipts? Will he give a particular assurance that it will not apply to the single payment scheme?

12.53 pm

Lord Rosser: My Lords, I start with an apology. The Committee stage of the Local Transport Bill is due to start at 2 pm and at least one of the amendments in my name is likely to be reached before the conclusion of this debate, which will almost certainly mean that I will not be present for some of the concluding speeches. Therefore, I offer my apologies in advance.

There are a small number of industries and organisations that do not lack a strong voice in your Lordships’ House and, in my opinion, the farming industry is one of them. That is not an adverse comment; it is simply a statement of fact. I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold, on securing today’s debate and providing an opportunity once again for issues relating to the farming industry to be highlighted.

UK farming, as we know, contributes just over £5.5 billion to our economy; that was the figure for 2006, at least. The industry employs over half a million

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people. Many of those employed are not particularly well paid and government action on the minimum wage, minimum holiday entitlements and the position of part-time employees will have benefited some within the farming and agriculture industries. Despite the speech by my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden, there is a temptation in talking about the farming industry to spend too little time considering those employees who earn relatively little and asking whether they are getting a fair deal from those who employ them. Certainly, the more extreme examples of the gangmasters, to which reference has been made, show the extent of the problems that can exist and the need for legislation and regulation in some areas. Once again, the Government have taken action on that front.

Farming in the UK uses, as we have heard, around three-quarters of this country’s land area. Public access and public rights of way can be a source of conflict on occasion. It is not unknown to find rights of way either deliberately blocked off or made difficult to traverse, although it is also true that not every user of a public right of way always acts responsibly. Reasonable access to our countryside is important. The Government’s Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the right to roam mean that, in England, people now have nearly three-quarters of a million hectares of land across which they can ramble, climb and watch wildlife. Legislation last year also established Natural England, a new body with responsibility for promoting and encouraging the integrated management of the environment, nature conservation, biodiversity, landscape, access and recreation.

As we know from debates, Questions and Statements in your Lordships’ House, the farming industry has faced difficulties. Last year, there were major problems with the single payments to farmers. This year, 98 per cent of payments for the second scheme year were paid by the Rural Payments Agency before 30 June. One hopes that further improvements in making full payments will be achieved in 2008. This year, which initially looked promising, has been one of significant difficulty and hardship for the livestock industry, with foot and mouth and bluetongue outbreaks and avian flu. The president of the National Farmers’ Union said that the industry had cause to be grateful to Defra officials for their work in bringing the outbreaks of foot and mouth, bluetongue and avian influenza under control.

One does not want to minimise the difficulties faced by those in the farming industry, but there is another picture. The Government launched the Farm Business Advice Service with £7.5 million in funding to provide free advice to English farmers on future options for their businesses. Following the foot and mouth and bluetongue situations, the Government recently announced an aid package to farmers worth, I believe, £12.5 million. Comment has been made that the average farm gate price for milk delivered in August this year was the highest August figure since 2001, although the right reverend Prelate told us in his thoughtful and thought-provoking maiden speech that increased feed costs are having adverse effects. The British food and drink industry has a good

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reputation and has potential for growth. The underlying trend shows that the amount of lamb and beef eaten here is up, and my information is that cereal farmers are not too unhappy.

The Fresh Start programme aims to secure a sustainable future for farming in England by encouraging new entrants into farming. The Fresh Start Academy initiative helps new entrants to find openings in the farming industry with a 12-month training course in business skills. Some 14 academies are now running and more are in the pipeline. The initiative is industry-led and Defra support includes more than £100,000 for the production and distribution of publications, sponsoring and staffing stands at agriculture shows, hosting the website and providing a secretariat.

Another industry-led initiative, fully endorsed by the Government, is the Year of Food and Farming in Education campaign to promote healthy living by giving children direct experience of food, farming and the countryside. The initiative, which runs through the current academic year to July 2008, will also give young people a better insight into what happens on a farm, how food is grown, reared or produced and how it gets to the customer. Defra has also made a commitment to reduce net administration burdens by 25 per cent by 2010. The department’s 2006 simplification plan contained initiatives to deliver an annual reduction of around £160 million in administration burdens, some of which will assist farmers.

I do not doubt that the farming industry does not think that it is well off. It is a fact of life that every effective pressure group pursues its own interests and agenda as hard as it can, seeking to ensure that attention is paid to areas where it feels that action and investment are required and remaining largely silent about areas where complaints are few. There is nothing wrong with that, since nobody achieves change by giving the impression that there is nothing that needs putting right. However, I hope that at least some of the problems that the farming industry feels that it is having to face, or is about to face, can be addressed to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Equally, it is also fair to draw attention to some of the steps that the Government have taken and are taking to help the industry to operate as efficiently as possible and to address the difficulties that have been encountered, in addition to administering support policies agreed in Brussels that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture.

1.01 pm

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Shephard for the way in which she introduced this important short debate today. Her experience as a former Minister and her continued interest in, and practical knowledge of, farming matters were reflected in her thoughtful opening speech. I remind noble Lords of our family’s farming interest, particularly as we are arable farmers, and of my presidency of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers.

Noble Lords have already referred to the fact that many farmers are suffering as a result of rising feed

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costs, reflected in increased milk prices. I also draw the House’s attention to the difficulties being experienced by the pig industry. Its prices have not risen but feed and energy costs are hugely expensive. It is a sector very much under stress.

I am confining my comments to three topics, the selection of which was, in itself, a challenge: Defra management, cost of regulation and animal health and disease control. To be kind, let me say that Defra’s delivery record as a new department has been at best disappointing and at times a total failure. Described by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, as a “dog’s dinner”, Defra’s broad remit and overarching role into several departments was perhaps too ambitious a concept. The department then had to deal with the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth, which brought misery to many farmers. It imposed closures on some rural areas, with devastating financial implications for many local businesses. Add to that the visual spectacle on television and in the newspapers of thousands of animals being slaughtered and it is perhaps no wonder that the department got off to a poor start.

Unfortunately, incompetence has continued to dog the department. The single farm payment scheme chosen by Mrs Beckett was controversial because, applying only to England, it was different from the schemes chosen by the remaining home nations. Only Germany chose the same route. The RPA was given the responsibility for mapping the eligible areas, calculating the sums and paying the farmers. Due dates were set and Mrs Beckett kept assuring us that the money would be paid on time. March due dates were then deferred to June and, clearly, even this target was not to be met. My noble friend Lord Jopling has again stressed the failures of that saga.

Farmers found themselves in financial difficulty and stressed to the limit, while confidence in the department fell to an all-time low. Between £18 million and £22 million was lost due to Defra management failure. Will the Minister tell us how many of the 2005 and 2006 payments are still unresolved and whether he has confidence that the 2007 payments will be paid in time? Can he tell me whether there are still any remaining IACS payments overdue? My information is that there are. Defra was then faced with fines from the European Commission for late payments to farmers. Will the Minister bring us up to date on what those fines might be? I understand that £64 million in administrative savings were planned for Defra and the RPA for 2005-06. How is that going to be realised?

I turn to animal diseases and the increasing risks to livestock producers. Bluetongue arrived in England this summer. The warmer weather forecast brought midges across from the Continent. The department was clearly not to blame for this new disease outbreak, but one must ask, given that it knew that an outbreak was likely, what strategy was in place. Was it adequate? Did it include vaccination and, if so, what steps had been taken to produce the virus?

The 2007 foot and mouth outbreak has been found to be caused by leaky drains at the Pirbright site. Although the Minister said, when we took the Statement in the House in October, that Defra does not own the site, he acknowledged that his

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department is the inspector and approver of health matters there. Professor Brian Spratt, in his report into the outbreak, said:

In 2002, the Institute for Animal Health review reported:

The Spratt report, Independent Review ofthe Safety of UK FacilitiesHandling Foot-and-MouthDisease Virus of 2007,concluded that, from 2003, the pipes were old and needed replacing but that money had not been made available. This showed an error of judgment, poor financial management, complacency or all three. I understand that in three of the past four years, Defra has cut funding to the institute.

Bovine TB continues unabated. It causes great distress to farmers to see their cattle killed—still about 30,000 each year—and costs the country millions in compensation. The Government urgently need to take firm decisions on tackling this scourge. The longer the delay, the more the spread of the disease continues. Someone within government must take a lead.

This year, 2007, has been a dreadful one for farmers affected by outbreaks of foot and mouth, avian flu, bluetongue and bovine TB. The Government’s reaction is to propose a major shift in the cost and responsibility for future outbreaks of animal diseases, moving that away from government towards industry. This comes at a time when the whole of the livestock sector is in severe economic crisis because prices have not adjusted to the steep increase in feed, energy and regulation costs. To suggest now that the industry should be picking up additional costs from the Government is unfortunate. Indeed, with climate change likely to increase diseases, the Government should think twice about it.

Lastly, I turn to regulation. Defra has committed itself to reducing its administrative burden by 25 per cent by 2010. So far, only 5 per cent has been achieved. What strategy is in place to achieve its target and what areas of regulation have been identified that will make a difference? For a collection of relatively small businesses, agriculture and horticulture are disproportionately heavily regulated, and there needs to be better understanding across government of the cumulative impact across departments and agencies. Inspection fees set in the UK are not in line with fees required by other countries. Is it not time to review the way in which we set such fees, so that UK producers are not put at a competitive disadvantage?

I am sure that all who are partaking in this debate today wish to see UK agriculture and horticulture thrive. Food supply is crucial to the well-being of any country and Defra has its part to play to enable that growth to happen. In that context, I underline the importance of research and innovation as a key to success for the future. I would like Defra to succeed but I am concerned about the generous early

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retirement packages referred to by my noble friends, which may result in the loss of high-quality, experienced departmental staff. I hope in this respect that I shall be proved wrong.

1.10 pm

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for instigating this debate and for her incisive development of the issues which we all face with regard to the farming industry in this country. This is a subject which has not always received the attention it deserves, partly because we have tended to look at it as a series of different issues—food, tourism, welfare of farmers, welfare of animals. This debate gives us the opportunity to bring those strands together and to encourage Defra in its pivotal role in the future of the land in this country. I am delighted, too, that my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle has been introduced here in time today to give his wisdom and current experience of the realism and kindness of Cumbria.

Today, 6 December, is St Nicholas’s Day, a day when that church tradition which we now celebrate chiefly in Santa Claus looks to provision for the future. As a rural bishop, Nicholas looked to the future by providing—so legend has it—dowries to safeguard the future of young women and protection for young men against those who would starve them. I believe that this debate provides the opportunity for Defra to show that it follows in the footsteps of St Nicholas by establishing a firm way forward which will defend and safeguard the future of our farming industry and the way in which that affects and contributes to our whole economy.

I want to concentrate on two issues for the land as we look to the future. The church has long been committed to a vibrant sustainable agricultural sector for our economy. There is increasing evidence of the danger of agriculture coming to be seen as dispensable. We are less and less self-sustainable in our provision of food with an increasing proportion of imports. I want to come back to that in a few moments. One issue is the continuing price pressure which puts farming livelihoods at risk and which is an inevitable result of the dominance of the four great supermarket chains with their skewed buying power. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, for drawing our attention to that. I am also grateful to the Ethical Investment Advisory Group of the Church of England for its recent survey, Fair Trade Begins at Home,which raises for all of us the dangers of the pursuit of cheap food. Through case studies, that report demonstrates practices which it describes as “invisible” and “pernicious”, unknown to the consumer and accepted with bitter anger by farmers as simply inevitable if they are going to do business at all. These include labelling which obscures the country of origin of the primary ingredients of products, flexible payment terms which are subject in practice to arbitrary change, and promotions which are made at the expense of the farmer not the retailer.

If farmers are to flourish as the Government wish them to do, there must be a greater control of prices

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and a fairer market. I believe that we need a supermarket ombudsman if we are going to achieve fair trade in this sector and I hope that the Minister will comment on that in his response. There are other ways of doing things—in Wensleydale local cheese and ice-cream manufacturers pay more realistic prices for milk—but these are small-scale in the general scheme of things. Unless more is done to end the silent collusion over the continued rush to cheap food, we shall continue to see decline particularly in the dairy and beef industries.

My second point is to emphasise the need to return to the principles of food security and self-sufficiency and to do so before we are caught out by ever advancing climate change. The global challenges facing the world in the next 50 years make our countryside policies crucial and mean that Defra has a particular and major contribution to make. The countryside is not there simply for tourism, biodiversity and recreation, important though all of these are. There needs to be an increasing concern for food itself and I do not believe that we have yet properly tackled that issue. Andrés Arnalds of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland makes that point dramatically when he argues that more food needs to be produced in the next 50 years than has been consumed in the past 10,000 years since the last ice age.

The global food challenges are immense and Defra has the opportunity to develop policies which can respond to those challenges. Climate change appears already to be affecting many of the traditional areas of food production, such as the Australian cereal farms affected by drought. If we allow our own agricultural industry to decline, we shall store up problems for the future rather than, like St Nicholas, providing for it. There is nothing sadder than to go to one of those once-flourishing parts of the Yorkshire Dales, such as Grisedale at the head of Wensleydale, which has been abandoned by the farming industry. Indeed, the abandoned area is increasing.

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