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We are currently debating the Climate Change Bill. My noble friend Lady Shephard brought climate change into context. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds made a similarly powerful point about its consequence. It will bring a whole new .perspective to government and it is not just Defra that needs to rise to the challenge. This Government must listen to the message of the failure of Defra or they will fail to meet the challenge of the new era. The Government need a positive policy which is designed to support and promote the farming industry of the United Kingdom.

2.22 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle on his maiden speech. As he probably heard, because I think he was present at Question Time, I have spent most of this week in Cumbria. I have not been here until today. I have had my ears bent enormously in Cumbria. Yesterday, I was on a farm on the outskirts of Carlisle. A coach- load of children visited the farm as part of the Year of Food and Farming experiment to encourage children to visit farms to see how they work. We have had a lot of references to the north-west, but, justifiably, we will hear a lot more.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for securing the debate today. The other night, I caught up on the debate in the other place where there were references to and quotes from the

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noble Baroness’s book on her experiences at MAFF and what she had to say about her Ministers. Now she has this debate today, so things are going really well. What probably will not go down very well is my response. This debate is on the role of Defra, to which I intend to stick. I do not want to spend all my time on the RPA, which figured at Question Time. It has permeated through the debate and I should like to answer a couple of specific questions.

I acknowledge that there are significant difficulties. I know that one noble Lord said that people are fed up to the back teeth with the Minister saying that he is sorry, but that he has still failed. It is true. In Defra, my main role, above all else, is the RPA and single farm payments. I do not qualify that at all and it has been the case since May 2006. The RPA has taken a wide range of actions to improve its performance: 98 per cent of the 2006 single farm payments were made by the end of the payment window, which is our legal obligation, against the target of 96.14 per cent. We of course have set challenging targets for this year’s payments: 75 per cent by the end of March 2008 and 90 per cent by May. As I have already said—it is well known—for the year just finished, we started to test the system in January and started making payments in February.

The RPA is not all about the single farm payment. It is the biggest payment scheme and is worth £1.5 billion to farmers. But the RPA’s staff of 4,000 plus administer more than 30 other schemes, which are worth more than £0.5 billion—for example, export refunds and hill farm allowance. I have a list of dozens of them, including what some people think is the defunct school milk scheme. There are an enormous number of schemes. The RPA also issues the 2.8 million cattle passports every year, which are free—unpaid for—to the farmers. It is a public good for cattle tracing and traceability of the system. Originally, it was intended to charge for them. There is still a case for a charging system, but they are free to farmers. They help to demonstrate to consumers that there is traceability in the system. The RPA is responsible for that as part of its function and role.

There are 11 or 12 single farm payments which remain to be paid from 2005, almost all of which relate to probate. That is no different from the previous IACS scheme arrangements. There were always delays because of probate, breakdown of relationships or changes on farms. In 2006, the RPA achieved its target, which is why for 10 months we heard nothing on “Farming Today” about single farm payments. It was not an issue. The target of paying 96.14 per cent of the fund by 30 June was achieved. The figure now stands at more than 99 per cent. Out of a total of 108,000, there are 115 cases where no payment has been made and a further 110, where, at the beginning of this week, partial payments had been made and the top-up remains to be paid. If necessary, I can give further information on the hill allowance. That is where the RPA stands. By any stretch of the imagination, the overwhelming majority of its work is a success. As I said at Question Time, we are paying more farmers more money earlier than we did last year. I can be confident of that, but I will not give any dates.

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In terms of my response, Defra has been mauled over today, sometimes in a very unfair way. It is involved in a complex range of difficult tasks, as was identified at the Second Reading of the Climate Change Bill. It is staffed by a team who are working hard to assist the industry in becoming second to none. Defra and its staff want a thriving, sustainable and profitable farming industry. It is part of our strategic objectives, which is laid out in the public service agreements from the Comprehensive Spending Review. The strategy is no different. It was set out in the sustainable food and farming strategy. It detailed how industry, government and consumers work together to secure a sustainable future for the industry. There was a vision to create a policy framework to help farmers compete successfully.

Yesterday, travelling along George Street, I was reminded of the Plumgarths vans in Cumbria. They were initiated by the farmer of the year, who created a brand new business for local food producers in Cumbria. They serve 18 Asda superstores, one of which I went to visit, which are leading on using local food. I was thinking about the vans belonging to the farmer who did it himself with initial support from various agencies and now assist massive amounts of local producers and supermarkets, as well as local hotels. They are not in competition, but are working together. I make no apology for giving Plumgarths and Asda a plug.

We have to focus on being a smarter regulator in order for the department to being able to deliver. The number of people in the department is not the issue that counts. People have referred to this, but I cannot go beyond what has been leaked in the press. Being a smarter regulator does not necessarily mean having the same number of people doing exactly the same jobs that they have been doing for a while. We need to make public food procurement better. To that extent, I plead guilty as a failure. The noble Lord used my words: French farming Ministers would not stand for what happens here. It is unpatriotic not to use local produce where it is available, and it is available. It is as simple as that. More government departments should do it. In the health service and education it is improving slowly, but in a couple of our key departments, it is not good enough. Defra pushes on this and I have told it: “It is not your job to count the figures. It is your job to change the policies. That is what we are accountable for under the public service agreement”.

So, this has been a difficult year, as everyone has realised. There has been unpredictable weather—no doubt we will get the blame for that as well. Whatever flood prevention measures we take, more than six inches of rain in 24 hours would overcome many of our defences. Volatile commodity markets have certainly contributed, and that volatility may continue. For arable and milk, it is not bad at the moment; but we must be aware that it is still volatile.

The summer flooding provided a stark reminder of what we face if climate change becomes a regular feature, particularly in the middle of the growing season. No amount of planning would have prevented that. The Environment Agency is also a

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Defra-funded body—we fund it, but do not run it—and it played a key role in that respect. I want to pay tribute once again to the emergency staff of the Environment Agency, who never got the proper thanks for the work that they did at the switching station at Walham, near Gloucester. They did not finish that work off, but they started by identifying it, and moved. The members of the emergency team of the Environment Agency were not on television with their badges and uniforms, but they actually prevented that flooding. Had Walham failed, it would have knocked out electricity for half a million homes.

In many of the problems, agriculture has a key part to play. Farmers are among the first to feel the effects of climate change, and to be in a good position to manage those effects. We will be able to debate that during proceedings on the Climate Change Bill. The Stern review on the economics of climate change said that agriculture accounts for 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That is why we need farmers to adapt to climate change; it is that simple. Defra is putting millions of pounds into research programmes to assist with that, particularly to reduce agricultural emissions. That is a substantial amount of money.

However, that money is just a drop in the ocean compared with the amount that we are pumping into the English countryside. The England Rural Development Programme has a budget of £3.9 billion, of which £3.3 billion will be allocated to agri-environment and other land management schemes, including the environmental stewardship scheme, which is open to every farmer in the country. Some £600 million will be made available to agriculture and forestry to make them more competitive and to enhance opportunity in rural areas. I am pleased to tell the House that this programme has, within the past 24 hours, been agreed by the EU. We will proceed to full implementation as soon as possible.

Of all the things that I heard, the one that worried me—and I do not get too worried—was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. The stopping of receipts for the entry level stewardship application form was done only while awaiting agreement on the rural development programme. Because neither the money nor the agreement from Europe was there, we had to stop processing applications. That is a huge tranche of money, but applications will now start to be processed again and all of the associated paperwork will start to flow. The noble Lord was quite right that people should receive acknowledgements for their applications.

Currently, over half of English farmland is under agri-environment schemes. That is more that 2 million hectares, and under those schemes farmers are managing in excess of 180,000 kilometres of hedgerow—enough to stretch around the world four and a half times. That is far different from the time when the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, were running MAFF. In those days, the farmers were paid to dig out the hedgerows. It may have been as a result of the Common Market and everything else, but that was the reality. In one six-year period, a quarter of this

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country’s hedgerows went, but we are paying farmers to reinstate and manage them to increase biodiversity and maintain the wildlife of this country. That costs money, which is coming from Defra—nowhere else.

Lord Jopling: I think that the Minister has his dates slightly wrong. If he is kind enough to look it all up again, he should find that I was the Minister who started paying farmers to reinstate hedgerows again.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, on that, the noble Lord has my undoubted congratulations. I am simply pointing out what I know; that over a six-year period before 1997—since I remember being challenged about this during my first time round in MAFF—we lost a quarter of hedgerows in the country, because farmers were paid to take them out. It is true that a lot of policy changes occurred before 1997, including on the building of supermarkets in out-of-town areas. For that important change in policy, John Gummer deserved the praise. So I do congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, as I mean none of this personally. My point was just that farmers were paid to take out the hedgerows, and we are paying substantial sums of money to maintain and put them back—and that is coming from today’s Defra, which was described as shambolic here.

For another practical scheme to improve the natural and historic environment, look no further than the ruined Norman moat and castle at Kilpeck in Herefordshire. Natural England—another agency to which we pay money, but do not run—negotiated a new agreement that changed the way the land was farmed, which in turn enabled the area’s archaeological remains to come out of damaging cultivation. Livestock was brought back on to its small fields, which gave a purpose to restoring the ancient species-rich hedgerows that has helped to bring one of our ancient landscapes back to life.

In addition to the flooding, the summer has also seen a number of animal disease outbreaks, which have been listed here. In response to each outbreak the department worked along with key stakeholders. Not a single major decision has been taken in this situation without consulting a massive range in the chain of industry stakeholders. Swift action was required. Being up in Cumbria for three days—about as far as you can get from Surrey while remaining in England—I realise that farmers understood that, with foot and mouth, we had to move fast to shut down movement completely, not knowing where it came from but having proved that we had learnt the lessons of 2001. That has had an enormous cost effect on the whole industry, as I have admitted more than once, but I make no point about that. The contingency plans were delivered effectively on the ground.

The Animal Health agency, another much-maligned part of Defra that used to masquerade as the State Veterinary Service, also provides a crucial service to farmers. It has 1,700 staff in 25 offices around the country and is the first port of call at Defra for most farmers. We need to have those offices around the country. I am conscious that this was

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raised with me by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, who may have disappeared—I beg his pardon, for he has not. All that the noble Earl said is exactly true, from his own circumstances. However, those 25 offices are managing the economic and public health risks of animal disease. In addition to their 700 field staff, they work closely across the country with several thousand local veterinary inspectors from the private sector. That is our resource; on call and under contract as part of the contingency plan, and that resource reacted rapidly to the foot and mouth outbreak and to avian influenza.

Within hours, nearly 300 people were working from the local disease control centres—first, for foot and mouth, in Reigate and Guildford and then, for avian influenza, from Bury St. Edmunds. Now, those people came from somewhere, but not from those local areas. They had packed their bags at half an hour’s notice to come from virtually as far north as John O’Groat’s, or from Land’s End, as part of the Defra team to assist the farming community in those areas to manage and stamp out these diseases. Again, they were working with our stakeholders. I am not getting into the blame culture, for the reality is that when the disease was there we had to deal with it.

Therefore, we have established robust frameworks to deal with such things, and clearly we will have a debate about cost-sharing responsibility. I cannot answer your Lordships’ detailed questions on that, but nothing will be rushed and there will be a document around which we can debate. We can have no debate without a document, and I freely admit that I have pushed within the department to have one so that we can have a genuine debate. Frankly, no one will talk to me in a serious way without one.

Among other opportunities, I have discussed the public sector food procurement initiative, which we are continuing to push. Equally important to the framework is regulation. I agree with much of what has been said here about over-regulation, and with some of the examples given. I was given direct examples by farmers and others during my three days in Cumbria. We have a policy of delivering a 25 per cent reduction, and we are about to publish our annual assessment of that. I do not know the publication date, but it is before the House finishes for Christmas.

We want to look at how we can work with farmers. I was given the example of four different agencies coming on to a farm in seven working days, some of which might have been duplicating, and some of which were completely unnecessary. We have to stop such things happening over a seven-day working period—some came without any warning, ignoring all the biosecurity arrangements at the farm gate as well. I am going to deal with that. There must be more co-ordination. We have to have a degree of regulation for public safety and traceability, but it must be done in a more efficient way.

The Whole Farm Approach—the IT system that Defra set up—is part of the answer. It provides guidance to farmers, reduces the need for inspections and helps with registration for the waste exemption licences. It went live last year and so far 11,000 farmers have signed up to it. People might think that farmers would

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not bother about using new technology, but 11,000 have signed up for it. We believe that all of that can assist in providing a thriving, long-term future, although I fully accept that there will be some major problems.

I will finish at this point. I also accept that there are problems with arables and that the milk price has changed, but the worst affected, most damaged farmers are the hill sheep farmers. They cannot do anything else. I was in two valleys, both of them six-mile cul-de-sacs. I had to drive from one to the other, which was the drive of a lifetime I can tell noble Lords. They were both cul-de-sacs, so it was difficult to get across them. I knew about the families I was going to meet before I got there. I knew their ages, whether they had children who wanted to stay in farming or had left. I knew whether the farms were tenanted or owned. I could work out from the information that I had been given by my NFU colleagues and others that, in 10 years’ time, they could both be wilderness valleys if no one goes into farm them.

We have to ask ourselves as a society whether we want the landscape maintained. Should the landscape be maintained for city dwellers who use it for their recreation? If we think that that is a good thing, we have to put a value on it and say that it is for the public good to maintain the landscape; otherwise it is a wilderness. Those are questions that we must ask. How we pay that, I do not know. Quite clearly, it will not work expecting sheep to go to market and come back through the food system. It appears that that is not a viable proposition. Those questions must be asked and answered. Otherwise, we will see the destruction of rural communities and the destruction of our landscape at the same time. In 10 years’ time, I do not want to be someone who is fingered for being part of that.

2.43 pm

Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, as expected, the debate has been knowledgeable and expert. We have had points of view from every sector of the industry, from England, Scotland and Wales, and from the worlds temporal and spiritual. I should like to add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle on his outstanding maiden speech.

I thank the Minister for his reference to my book, which is out of date, out of print and in my garage. If he would like a copy I would be very happy to let him have one, to know that his life is not necessarily the worst ever lived by a Minister of Agriculture.

No one doubts the Minister's diligence and enthusiasm, and his response this afternoon demonstrates that he has listened not only to the concerns expressed in this debate but to those that he hears as he goes around the country. He mentioned the changes that Defra is having to cope with. It is because we in this House wish to see Defra in a strong position to cope with those changes that we called this debate. I know that he understands that. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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2.43 pm

Baroness Perry of Southwark rose to call attention to the case for an action plan to make opportunity more equal in the United Kingdom by raising school standards and increasing the number of good school places; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is with pleasure that I move this Motion. The quality of education in our country is an important topic for debate and one in which this House has much to contribute. I am pleased also to speak about the policy Green Paper issued last week by the Conservative Party entitled Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap. The paper sets out many of the party's proposals for improving the provision of education for children and young people in our society.

Many things contribute to the quality of a good school. Hundreds of thousands of hours have been devoted to research which explores what makes a good school. Politicians of all parties have struggled to find the golden bullet to transform our education system overnight, yet we heard only last week that we have fallen in the international league tables in key aspects of performance in reading, maths and science.

As David Cameron says in the Green Paper,

During Labour's 10 years in office, social mobility has stalled and we have fallen down the international league tables for educational achievement. That is both socially unjust and economically inefficient— an unforgivable betrayal of our children's future. Teaching quality and successful learning are, however, complex issues and politicians should tread on this ground with great care and without preconceived prejudice. We have suffered for a decade from the belief in Whitehall and of politicians that the way to improve standards was central control, bureaucratic directives, oppressive targets and a punitive inspection regime, which has demoralised and disempowered teachers. The evidence is starkly clear; that the top-down approach has not worked. Something quite different is needed.

Lest anyone wishes to argue that things are not so bad—and no doubt we will hear an upbeat defence of the current system from the Minister—it is worth looking at some of the downside of the facts, while, importantly, acknowledging the splendid work that goes on in almost half of our schools, and indeed the splendid and brave work that is done by many of the teachers even in our least successful schools.

There is, however, worrying evidence that for a large number of young people, school contributes little of relevance or value to their lives. The curriculum on offer is manifestly unsuited to their needs, interests and motivation, so they fail to achieve any worthwhile qualification. They leave school at the earliest opportunity and sometimes truant even earlier. A third of a million pupils fail to gain five good GCSEs including English and maths every year, while 130,000 young people each year fail to obtain a single C grade.

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