Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The most important point, however, is not the sadness but the danger. We have ideal conditions in many parts of our country for a vibrant farming community but its continuance is not inevitable. In 1988, UK self-sufficiency from all food types was 70 per cent; in 2006, it was 60 per cent. Self-sufficiency in indigenous crops was 82 per cent in 1988 and 74 per cent in 2006. This is a worrying decline. We cannot take it for granted that we can easily source food from across the world. Defra may be the most crucial of all our government departments at this juncture, both in securing fair trade prices for our own farmers now and, even more crucially, in a return to food security and self-sufficiency. Only in those ways will we be able to secure the future not just for ourselves but for coming generations in this country.

1.20 pm

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, it is clear that this House is very grateful to my noble friend Lady Shephard for introducing the debate. By any measure, the past few years have been difficult for livestock farming. I shall restrict my comments to that

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1841

area of farming, including BSE, foot and mouth, swine fever, tuberculosis in cattle and badgers, avian influenza, bluetongue, and, most recently, the threat that Defra will be looking at making farming more contributory to disease control.

The hardships in farming have already been indicated by several speakers. They come not only from the loss of animals or the interference with their production capacity, such as meat, milk and breeding potential, but also from the disruption of normal trade within the country and in export. An example is bluetongue and the inability of sheep farmers, especially in Cumbria, which I know well since I am a Cumbrian, to take their animals to market, with the consequent reduction in the value of the animals and the extra cost of feeding those animals that farmers cannot sell or move to the auctions. This has been critically described by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle, and for that I thank him.

The indirect losses experienced nationally from disease are well exemplified by the experiences of a few years ago with the lack of exportation of animals and animal products because of BSE and foot and mouth disease. The suggestion from the Secretary of State, as reported in the press, is that the Government are determined to press ahead with the sharing of costs and responsibilities in a consultation before Christmas. Sharing responsibilities and costs is based on the Minister's comments that the present situation is unsustainable. The press indicated that with the industry bearing the costs, this will be the second year in a row that Defra will be cutting back on spending plans.

None of this is good news for agriculture but, as I think we know and as has been mentioned by a number of speakers, farmers will collaborate, or perhaps one should say they will comply. An increasing number of farmers are leaving the industry without knowing where to go and what to do. Unfortunately, a few have taken the suicide route to end their considerations. This cannot be good news for the countryside as a whole. If a greater burden is to be placed on farmers by sharing costs and responsibilities I think that the farmers expect Defra to be prepared, as a quid pro quo, to assist by way of an improved provision of services in disease control, as my noble friend Lady Byford indicated, in surveillance, diagnosis and the provision of vaccination to keep our livestock healthy. An example of support for livestock farming is given in the United States in the Homeland Security Program where, Members may be aware, substantial sums are poured into research and research training to provide the background of surveillance of and provision of information on exotic diseases.

I will set out a few examples where farmers expect more than is being done at present. TB in badgers and cattle is a problem that has been brought to a head in recent speeches by Sir David King, particularly that yesterday to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee where he again dealt with the subject. A vaccine for bluetongue in this country should not be beyond our means or our abilities. We know the strain of the virus. We know the midges that transmit it. And we know that it will come again when the midges

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1842

become active next year. Furthermore, I believe that a vaccine for tuberculosis in badgers is a strong possibility. I know that that is a contentious statement and the Minister may well reject it, but we have the knowledge and the wherewithal to take that on board.

A further point that is relative to surveillance of exotic disease is vigilance to detect and monitor the highly contagious entities that I say are poised to enter the UK owing to global trade and travel. Examples are African horse sickness, which is a devastating disease for equines, and rinderpest, which is almost eradicated in the world, but, if we are not careful, could rapidly re-enter parts of Africa. It may be of interest to noble Lords to know that rinderpest a century ago devastated the cattle population of London, in particular, where there were many small dairies; so much so that the then Archbishop of Canterbury offered a national prayer to save us from this plague. Whether or not that was particularly helpful, the plague was cured. Out of that came disease control by the Government.

Surveillance has been shown to be particularly good in the case of the SARS outbreak in the Far East. If they can do it with SARS, so can we. Other areas are public health issues; for example, the importation of bush meat carrying viruses, which, if eaten, are devastating to the human population, and the importation of raw or putrid meat to celebrate the birthdays of people of African origin.

I mentioned the Homeland Security Program. I have some good news. The programme for the training of veterinary scientists, the veterinary training research programme, of which I have the honour to be chairman, is going very well indeed. We look forward at the end of next year to having a substantial number of well trained young veterinarians who are able to pick up the programme of surveillance and help in the control of not only our indigenous diseases but those from overseas. These are examples of developments which will convince the farming community that Defra is on their side, not the reverse.

1.28 pm

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Shephard for securing this important debate. I declare an interest as a farmer and assiduous Defra form-filler. While preparing for the debate, I looked up some of the paperwork that I received in the past few months. The latest single payment scheme book runs to 100 pages; the cross-compliance handbook to 47 pages; the cross-compliance soil management handbook to 40 pages; and, in a little light reading, the set-aside update for 2007 is nine pages. And, one I seem to have missed, the SPS handbook, is 90 pages. That is not allowing for the waste management paperwork, the ELS—the entry-level scheme paperwork—or the countryside stewardship. I do not blame Defra for this paperwork; it is simply doing Brussels’ bidding. It is the implementation agency for our master in Brussels, the Commission, which is responsible for the shambles of the common agricultural policy. It is a shambles, is it not? Even

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1843

after so-called reform in 2003, the CAP still gobbles up 47 per cent of the total EU budget; it still supports tobacco farmers growing unsmokeable tobacco; the sugar regime remains largely unreformed; and, as the Spanish Minister of Agriculture said:

That was after the reforms.

If that is reform, it is rather like a drunk saying, “Sure, I’ve reformed—I’ve gone off the scotch and I’m on vodka”. That is the sort of reform it is.

It is arguably even worse after reform. Those now getting paid our taxpayers’ money—we are a huge contributor to the common agricultural policy—are people who have never farmed, and who have not even had any intention of farming. Railway companies in this country, horse-breeding establishments in Germany and golf courses in Denmark and in this country all qualify in some mysterious way for common agricultural payments, which seems pretty odd. That may be a bit of a joke in a way, but it is not; it is a very expensive joke. Britain is still the second largest contributor to the European Union budget; France is by far the largest recipient of common agricultural policy funds—very nearly twice as much as the next recipient, which is Spain.

It looks very much to me as though the British taxpayer is supporting French farming. That seems absolutely mad. It is mad. It is not even as though the CAP is a success. It is generally agreed that it is a gross misallocation of resources; it fails consumers as it puts up prices; it fails the taxpayers because they have to pay the bill; as many speakers have said this afternoon, it has not even succeeded in securing or improving farm incomes; and, perhaps most lamentably of all, it fails the third world and the economies of developing countries.

Noble Lords may think this the ravings of a swivel-eyed Europhobe but it is not so. I want to quote briefly from a document called Global Europe, which was published only in October this year. The quote relates to the CAP as well as other aspects of European finance. Of the CAP it says:

The authors of this quote from Global Europe were the Prime Minister, the right honourable Gordon Brown, and the Foreign Secretary, the right honourable David Miliband. I think that we can take it as fact that as far as they are concerned, the CAP has had it.

I am supported in that view by the conclusions of a 2005 report by the EU Sub-Committee A. It used to be heresy and what the committee had to say on the CAP was that,

and it agrees—

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1844

If the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and a highly regarded EU sub-committee of your Lordships’ House all agree that the CAP is a total failure and that it would be much better repatriating common agricultural policy to this country, who am I to argue? It is what I have been saying for many years. I was grateful for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who mentioned the common fisheries policy, which is an equally scandalous policy. I have news for him—the only way that is going to be resolved is to repatriate fisheries policy as well. Countries such as Norway, Namibia, Finland, New Zealand and Iceland have very successful fisheries policies. There is no reason we could not run our own fisheries policy in this country just as successfully.

I agree with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the sub-committee of this House that to repatriate the common agricultural policy and the fisheries policy would be good for the taxpayer, good for the consumer, good for British farming and good for the British environment. Finally, it would put Defra back into the centre of British farming policy—it would no longer be a simple cat’s paw for the discredited common agricultural policy.

1.35 pm

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, first, I declare my interest as a trustee of an estate in the north of Scotland which has farming interests with pedigree Cheviots and Aberdeen Angus. I am sure the Minister will agree that the nation must be served with nothing less than a Defra which is well resourced, confident, capable, and respected, and peopled by highly motivated officials with good morale. This debate today has proved quite the opposite. It is sad that that is the case.

I should like to ask the Minister about the number of officials who are to take voluntary retirement. My noble friend Lord Jopling said that 300 staff are to go. I have heard that some of the best are taking the good golden handshake that has been offered. How can a ministry in the parlous state that Defra is in at the moment contemplate losing its best staff? How can it possibly take on the extra work that will be generated by the Climate Change Bill, which begins its Committee stage next week in this House, if it is losing staff now? It is a matter of very great concern and it perhaps adds a great deal to the argument that Defra should not be the lead department when it comes to climate change.

My noble friend Lord Jopling described the situation as shambolic. Indeed that was supported—in fact, introduced—by my noble friend Lady Shephard. Both my noble friends have great experience of the Ministry of Agriculture and of farming. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Shephard for organising the debate so that I can bring in the Scottish element, which has not been raised so far.

It is a tragedy—I know that it will hurt the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—to be a Minister in a department

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1845

that is either known as Deafra for its deafness or Deathra for the amount that it manages to kill. We were particularly lucky being north of the border that the single farm payment scheme was not administered by the English for us. That would have caused a huge amount of unemployment and the demise of agriculture north of the border. However, one of the quirks of the devolution system is that animal health and welfare policy is devolved but the budget is held by Defra on a GB basis for England, Wales and Scotland. That is based on the basis that GB is one epidemiological zone. While this is true, it opens the door to the sort of political wrangling between London and Edinburgh that we have seen over the past couple of months. By its attitude, Defra is doing a very good job as the stormtrooper for the nationalists north of the border.

The initial position of the Secretary of State, Mr Benn, was that the devolution concordat required Defra to pay compensation only on culled livestock and not for welfare schemes or compensation for economic loss. However, when reminded that Defra had paid for a welfare disposal scheme in 2001, he changed tack and argued that the amounts this time around were not sufficient to access the Treasury contingency fund and could, or should, be accommodated from existing Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly or Defra budgets. However, when questioned as to the top-up LFA payments to English farmers and whether any of that was in respect of economic loss, he had to admit that there was of course an element of that.

I am glad to say that the Scottish Government have found £25 million, including the cost of a light lamb welfare disposal scheme, most of which will go to the ewe payment in recognition of the losses incurred by sheep producers, but that is nothing like the full extent of the losses. There is agreement that the immediate imposition of movement restrictions, which prevented a repeat of the 2001 disaster and a £3.5 billion bill to the taxpayer, was right. However, the restrictions have cost farmers hundreds of millions of pounds. The Government should recognise that, especially given the cause of the outbreak.

Will the Minister confirm that Defra Ministers have an open mind on going back to the Treasury when the full costs of the foot and mouth disaster have been calculated? In Scotland, it is estimated that they will be in excess of between £75 million and £100 million. If we transpose that throughout the UK, we are looking at about £1 billion. Surely that should come back from the contingency fund, not just from the internal fund of the department. If that is not the case, what is happening is government by financial expediency rather than principled policy-making. England has been given £12.5 million from the Defra budget. What happened to the £20 million that we understood that the Treasury was going to provide from the contingency fund?

Against that background and the extra associated costs, it is surely crazy for Defra to suggest that it should achieve its spending cut targets simply by transferring costs to the industry. I hope that the Minister will look at his own costs, because I understand that it costs the Government nearly six

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1846

times as much per head to collect sheep for TSE testing as it does for the National Fallen Stock Company to collect equivalent casualty animals. If Defra needs to save a lot of money, which it does, it should look to more efficient ways of carrying out the work, rather than simply handing a bill to the industry. That might well involve a significant degree of self-regulation by industry-run bodies, such as the National Fallen Stock Company, but that is a better way to go forward.

As well as dumping its annual animal health and welfare costs on the industry, Defra would like to raise a levy to pay for any future disease outbreaks. Again, why should the industry pick up the cost of managing an outbreak from a body that cannot even manage its own laboratory safely? In Scotland, the industry already has a healthy working partnership with the Scottish Government Ministers and officials. Legislation for responsibility-sharing is not wanted or needed.

Finally, I move on to the question of state aids. There are two points here. First, there is a strong feeling in Scotland that Defra will not use what it calls its negotiating capital to take forward Scottish problems. We saw that when it came to getting state aid approval in Brussels for the ewe payment and—the issue that affected us in the north of Scotland—the Orkney and Shetland shipping charges for livestock. It was a real tragedy that Defra would not use its negotiating capital because it said that it had more important things south of the border to take up with Brussels, rather than take up a remote Scottish issue. There is a mistrust of Defra on that issue. If Defra was to get that right, can the Minister assure me that Defra officials can present the Scottish case adequately and that Scottish officials and Ministers are given a proper and representative degree of interest in negotiations with Brussels?

I have time to raise one more question. It is a wide question, so the Minister may not be able to answer it now, but perhaps he will write to me when he has covered the other points that I raised. Where are the cost cuts going to be in Defra? Given climate change and the need for spending money on all sorts of areas that have already suffered from Defra cuts, where will the cuts be made so that Defra can balance its budget?

1.44 pm

Lord Northbrook: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Shephard of Northwold on securing this debate on the role of Defra in supporting agriculture, and declare an interest as a landowner of mainly arable land.

The key issues on which I want to focus are, first, the Rural Payments Agency; secondly, FMD and cost sharing; thirdly, bovine TB; and, lastly, the structure of the department itself and its implementation of regulation.

The RPA fiasco has caused huge dislocation and chaos to farmers across England. In its November 2006 report, the NAO calculated the loss to farmers at between £18 million and £22.5 million. Against better advice, the then Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, insisted on adopting the dynamic hybrid model,

6 Dec 2007 : Column 1847

which is far too complicated and is different from the system in Scotland and Wales. There are also serious problems with the digital system of land mapping, where the system gave some farmers fields that they did not own while others had their land cut down and given to others.

What payments are still outstanding that should have been paid in 2005 and 2006? How many farmers do not yet have definitive entitlement statements? When are this year's entitlements due to be paid? I understand that the UK Government set aside £131 million for fines from the EU for failing to pay out on time. To make matters worse, that £131 million provision was increased in spring 2007 to £305 million. Can the Minister confirm that, and confirm whether that figure is in addition to the £131 million and whether it will come off the future Defra budget? It certainly ought not to. Why should farmers pay for the incompetence of the RPA?

I now move on to foot and mouth disease. In two official inquiries into the outbreak, serious failings were identified at both the Pirbright laboratories. If robust systems had been in place at the Pirbright site, could the 2007 FMD outbreak not have been avoided? On this subject, I am concerned, as are others, about the statement by the Minister, Hilary Benn, in his speech at the Farming for the Future conference on 19 November, that a major shift of the cost and responsibility for animal health should be made from government to the industry. Does the Minister believe that the £40 million levy on farmers to fund disease prevention after the outbreak is reasonable? Should not the Government, as the creator of the risk, pay all of that?

On 3 December, 29 UK farming and livestock organisations submitted a statement to Mr Benn calling on the Government urgently to reconsider their proposed measures on cost sharing for animal diseases. I urge the Minister not to rush to conclusions on those complex matters but to reach the right solutions by a much more measured approach.

I now move on to the subject of bovine TB. I am far from being an expert on that, but it seems that organisations such as the NFU are making a good point. If the general population of badgers is expanding as fast in the rest of the country as it is in my county, Hampshire, I can well understand livestock farmers’ problems. As the NFU states, that is destroying livestock farming in more and more parts of the country, at great cost to the industry and the nation. The Secretary of State has asked for more time and space to take a view on the disease. I urge the Government to take robust and strong measures, as recommended in the Chief Scientific Adviser’s advice to Ministers, given in July and published recently.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page