Committee stage & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 9th July 2020

(4 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-III Third marshalled list for Committee - (9 Jul 2020)
It has been an interesting debate. I echo the calls to the Minister to confirm that these pursuits are possible within the Bill and that the Secretary of State has powers to encourage them. Before I give away to the Minister, I wonder whether he will answer the inquiry today from my noble friend Lord Clark, who asked a similar question yesterday concerning the status of the right of access to land where forestry may increase and change the character of that land. He is right to draw attention to the suitability of forestry as a way to increase access. Has the Minister’s department undertaken any assessment in this respect? I also commend the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the good work he undertook at the Countryside Agency. I remember implementing rural market towns regeneration and other initiatives under the northwest regional development agency after the devastation of foot and mouth; his experiences are very instructive in continuing these activities.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con)
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My Lords, this has been another very interesting and, indeed, thought-provoking debate. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to it. I declare my farming interests as set out in the register.

I have to say that, in opening the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and my noble friend Lord Caithness demonstrated textbook brevity: they got absolutely to the point of their amendment, and I should remember that brevity myself. Clause 1(1)(b) allows us to pay for educational infrastructure to ensure our farmers have the right facilities to host farm visits and increase wider awareness among the public, and especially school pupils, about the crucial role our farmers play in maintaining our countryside and producing the food we eat.

On the word “forestry”, I agree with my noble friend Lord Caithness; as I said on Tuesday, I see “forestry” and “woodland” as coterminous. I expect that for many farmers who have woodland, part of the educational visit offered is to go from the wheat field to the barley field, to the sugar beet and to the woods—a complete package, showing what happens on so many farms. As outlined on Tuesday, Defra has a significant programme of public engagement, which incorporates the voices of young people in particular. Defra has used this input to make environmental policy more accessible to young people; as I said before, the year of green action is extremely important.

I have noted a number of points which I may not be able to answer, partly because of time but also because of the detail involved. I say to my noble friend Lady McIntosh that I very much agree with the point she made. I will speak to the DfE about the importance, as part of looking after the interests of young people, of making clear that connection with the natural world and the environment.

I am very conscious of the work that goes on in forestry. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and my noble friend Lord Caithness that Clause 1(1)(b) allows the Government to provide funding for

“supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland”

and “woodland”. Just as educational visits on farms are covered, so would be visits that take place partly or fully on forestry land. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, spoke of many parts of the country where woodland would be a very important feature—I agree. The National Forest is a prime example of where land that went through industrialisation has been restored and become a great educational resource and source of much broader enjoyment. Government can do only so much, but an important aspect of what happens in the countryside is the way agricultural associations, the NFU and all the farming organisations, the CLA, the agricultural colleges, Kew, the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, the Forestry Commission and all such bodies, private and public, are engaged in public awareness and providing educational resource, as I know from personal experience.

I will get back to the noble Lord, Lord Clark, particularly on commercial transactions of Forestry Commission parcels of land. My understanding, from way back in my memory, is that very little Forestry Commission land is sold and any proceeds of sale go back into further forestry. As to any commercial arrangements that involve access issues, I do not think that it would be reasonable for me to reply to him or the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, without a full legal analysis of the arrangements. I hope that will be acceptable to the two noble Lords.

On forestry graduates, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—I know it is also of particular interest to my noble friend Lord Caithness—that Forestry Commission England supports the industry-led Forestry Skills Forum, which is dedicated to promoting education, skills, learning and development across the forestry sector in England and Wales. Nearly 30 forestry employers, associations and educational providers have pledged to work together to attract the very best of young and new talent into the sector. As for the number of forestry graduates, the detail I have is, I am afraid, for 2016-17, when there were about 150 graduate students in forestry. However, the headline number disguises the fact that forestry employers recruit from other disciplines that offer supplementary training.

I was very pleased that my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury highlighted that an important element of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Curry, is the importance of an appropriately skilled workforce. Agricultural and forestry technologies are transforming farming and creating new types of jobs and requirements for new kinds of skills. It is important that the industry is supported in its ability to respond to these changes.

Clause 1 has been purposely broadly drafted to allow the Government to account for existing or emerging skills gaps. Activities “connected to” any of the purposes listed in Clause 1 can already be funded, which already covers protecting the environment, mitigating against climate change, conservation, forestry and measures to improve the productivity of agricultural and forestry activities, among many others.

From my personal experience of this, I remember going with a school from Lambeth with Kate Hoey to an agricultural college. We arrived and the children were asked to run through strips of oats, wheat and barley. I was horrified, but it was a very good idea. They were asked to pick the ears and, when they came back, the question was: “What food comes from those crops?” I have to say, quite a number of children were on to it and knew. We then went into the dairy, where there were shorthorns—we used to have shorthorns in the family; they are a very good breed to manage and look after—and the children held their brushes. They were not sure, as they did not like the smell, but afterwards they really got involved in it all. So, if anyone wants to ask me, “Do you know how inspirational these visits can be to children of all backgrounds, and particularly from inner city areas?”, I am absolutely with it.

The connections we can have from encouraging the countryside and urban areas to work together are profoundly important. That relates not only to the Bill, but to what so many charities and bodies are already doing. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and my noble friends Lord Marlesford and Lord Cormack all made those points. My noble friend Lord Cormack said that this is an important point. I absolutely get the point that it is not only important, but imperative that the next generation know more than perhaps this generation about the interconnection between farming, the environment, the production of food and everyone’s well-being.

I noted down that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to “multitasking” but, in fact, with all the tasks that the noble Lord mentioned, I then put “magician”. There is no doubt in my mind, coming as I do from a farming background, about how versatile farmers have to be. They are versatile in the first place in dealing with every weather condition, but I also have some sympathy with the paperwork that is no doubt put before farmers. That is why the whole emphasis of what we want to do is to concentrate on making this practical by working with farmers to ensure that it works for them and that it is their project, so that they do not think what on earth have this Government done to them.

I acknowledge the instrumental work of the noble Lord, Lord Curry, in the Skills Leadership Group and I express my gratitude to him. Defra officials are engaging with the Skills Leadership Group as leaders in the industry to develop plans for a proposed new professional body, which is intended to be an independent and self-funded organisation, precisely to bring forward skills in all the sectors that I have mentioned. The Government believe that this kind of industry-led initiative can be instrumental in creating clear career development pathways and promoting the sector as a progressive, professional and attractive career choice. If we are looking at the recovery from what this country is going through—a green recovery as well—these are clearly areas where we must encourage the next generation to feel that there are worthwhile careers; it is very important for the national interest.

I turn to some of the other points. I agree that Amendments 32 and 33 raise some essential topics. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for raising them, but they were also echoed by the noble Lords, Lord Krebs, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Mann. I echo the points that my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, raised. This Bill will not be a way in which, suddenly, all the research demands of the natural world and agriculture will be found. I say that rather softly, in so far as we would look for other sources of funding across Whitehall for some of these really significant research projects. But it is important—indeed, essential—that robotics and genetics offer great potential for agriculture. Innovation and technology are key to boosting productivity while, I emphasise, enhancing the environment and feeding a growing world. I leave it to scientists such as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others to ensure that the science is directed in a way that clearly enhances production of food in an environmentally important way. Existing legislation, such as the Science and Technology Act, already enables the Government to support research to enable the development of new technology and practices in food production.

The Government are planning to use these powers to launch an ambitious agricultural innovation research package, which will enable more farmers and agri-food businesses to become involved in agricultural research. Having been to the laboratory at Harper Adams University, it is extraordinary what is in prospect in terms of an agricultural revolution, so that we can improve the productivity, sustainability and resilience of farming. For example, people are developing remote sensors which use artificial intelligence for the early identification of pests and diseases, so that with integrated pest management we can be much more cautious with the use of those materials.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. Those are very important points, and I will be happy to provide answers to that further range of questions.

Earl of Caithness Portrait The Earl of Caithness [V]
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My Lords, I first thank my noble friends Lord Colgrain and Lord Shrewsbury for signing my amendment; that was very kind of them. I also thank all noble Lords who have spoken in favour. I think half the noble Lords who spoke specifically mentioned and approved of my amendment and nobody spoke against it, so that was good to hear.

I spoke only on my Amendment 13, but that does not mean I do not support a number of the other amendments; I do. I have one specific point on another amendment, that of my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond. I ask my noble friend Lord Gardiner whether Defra will be able to support vertical farming, because that could be a great and very environmentally friendly source of vegetable production.

I very much like what my noble friend said in reply to my amendment. I was particularly pleased to hear his comment that he would like to see the educational groups that would go to farms go to the wheat, the barley and the sugar beet, and then into the woods. Does this indicate that Defra is now taking much more of a whole-farm approach? Will we see this in ELMS? One of the great drawbacks of the current system is that farming and forestry have been split. Does he now envisage a whole-farm approach in everything Defra will do? That would be a useful answer to get.

My noble friend did not explain particularly clearly to me why he thought the rather vague wording in the Bill was better than the more specific wording of the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and me. I think he said that there might be other issues the Government would like to fund that are not covered by a more specific wording. Do I take it that more specific wording will come in regulations that we will debate in the House? Before I decide what to do, I would be grateful if he could give me an answer to that.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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I am getting conflicting advice as to when there should be further questioning of a Minister, but I am happy to answer as best I can.

The tier 1 ELMS will be to the farmer across their farm. My understanding of most people’s farms is that they involve agricultural land and may involve copses, covers and other parts that would be involved in a whole-farm project. Tiers 2 and 3 are on a wider landscape level and may involve a range of either farms or other landowners. We discussed the different tiers before, so I am a little confused as to whether my noble friend thought that a farmer was going to apply for tier 1 for the arable land and work for environmental enhancement and Clause 1 objectives, and then have a separate application for what they might do with their woods and covers. No, this will be a farmer undertaking work on their farm.

My noble friend is right that, as I said—I thought I said this on Tuesday as well—the Government distinctly want to have a broad definition, not to curtail it, because we want to work with the farmers, foresters and growers to ensure that when we devise the scheme we do not find ourselves ring-fenced because noble Lords have decided that they have an important point that they must have in the Bill. That would start to make it more difficult. That is precisely why I have said that our definitions are deliberately broad in order to enable us to work with the farmers, the foresters and the growers to ensure that we get the right schemes for them.

I am not sure whether I was permitted to reply to my noble friend in this way, but I intervene now because it is important that he realises that a lot of what we are going to be discussing is best discussed with regard to the regulations, many of which will be made by the affirmative procedure. Then we will we have more flesh on the bone, having had the result of our work with the important people who are going to make all this happen for us.

Earl of Caithness Portrait The Earl of Caithness [V]
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I am grateful to my noble friend for what he has said, which has clarified the position. I think that I am perfectly entitled to ask such questions in Committee for elucidation of what he has said—as he will appreciate, I cannot ask him a question about what he has said until he has said it—and that is the great value of Committee stage. With that, I am happy not to move my amendment.