The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con)
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.