Lord Bishop of St Albans debates involving the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 26th November 2020
5 interactions (177 words)
Tue 22nd September 2020
2 interactions (217 words)
Thu 17th September 2020
3 interactions (358 words)
Tue 15th September 2020
11 interactions (606 words)
Thu 3rd September 2020
3 interactions (60 words)

Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee Report

Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Thursday 10th June 2021

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Sentamu Portrait Lord Sentamu (CB)
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My Lords, I am thankful to Members of your Lordships’ House who sent me their best wishes when I was created, by Her Majesty the Queen, Baron Sentamu of Lindisfarne in the County of Northumberland and of Masooli in the Republic of Uganda.

“Masooli” means “plentiful place of maize”; it is the village where I was born and grew up. Today is my birthday, and it would have been Prince Philip’s 100th birthday. He rests in peace and will rise in glory. Lindisfarne needs no explanation, save to say that Aidan of Lindisfarne’s great passion was to help everyone in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, especially the poor, to encounter Jesus Christ, His compassion and His friendliness. He greatly valued education and the development of young people.

Therefore, I am honoured to be delivering my “maiden” speech in this debate on Hungry for Change. I thank the Committee and all those who worked hard to bring this to our attention. Already three of its members have spoken and I associate myself with their views. This report covers many burning issues facing us today of poverty, social justice, and education.

There comes a time in the life of a nation when a great crisis challenges a thoughtful Government to reimagine not only their own vision of themselves as a governing body but their vision of the kind of nation that they hope to govern in future. It is an opportunity for radical reassessment, calling for courage, imagination, and a readiness to set in motion practical actions which will have transformative outcomes in serving the well-being and flourishing of all. The United Kingdom is not short of people who are hungry for change and have good ideas, but it is short in discerning the ways of achieving sustainable change and stability. This report hints at it. Therefore, let us keep to task. I am very grateful for it.

In the first half of the last century, the crises we faced were two world wars, a pandemic, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The result was a brave and radical reimagining, with some of the blessings that we enjoy today: the development of the “welfare state”—a phrase coined by Archbishop William Temple, instead of Beveridge’s “social insurance”—the great liberalising Education Act, and a National Health Service, the continued safety of which has been a key part of our Covid-19 response.

In the early years of this century, we have experienced two crises which offered similar moments for reflection, action, and reform. It could be argued that the financial crisis of 2007-08 was an opportunity missed for radical reform. I believe that austerity was the wrong medicine, and that it was applied for far too long. The second crisis is the Covid-19 pandemic. May we all learn the lessons and act on them. I am glad that our National Health Service is now the National Health Service and social care—so a full implementation of the Dilnot report is a must.

Thankfully, no one now talks about how there is no “money tree”. The furlough scheme and support for people’s livelihoods has lifted our gaze to the horizon of hope. We are all in this together, in word and in deed, in ordering our society, our politics, our economy, with well-being and human flourishing as our aim. As the late Lord Jonathan Sacks said in the introduction to his book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times:

“Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is ‘good for all of us together’. It is about ‘Us’, not ‘Me’; about ‘We’, not ‘I’.”

He goes on to say that we need some kind of moral community

“for there to be a society as opposed to a state. States function on the basis of power. But societies function on the basis of a shared vision of what unites the people who comprise it. Societies are moral communities. That was Lord Devlin's argument at the beginning of the great liberalisation debate in 1957.”

Even before the financial challenges and loss of livelihoods over the past year due to the various lockdown restrictions, the statistics for food banks told their own story of poverty, hunger, income inequality and the need to change. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic is a global challenge, food poverty is truly global, affecting the third world here, too, in the United Kingdom. Poverty—food poverty in particular—long predates the problems of the pandemic. It is good that the committee has already produced this comprehensive study of the elements which underlie the problems and is making serious proposals for change and reform. For example, paragraphs 68 and 69 of the report refer to the staggering increase in food bank use. This crisis of hunger is real. Marcus Rashford’s campaign calls us to slay this dragon together for the sake of our children —so well done, Marcus.

Consistently, research has shown that children need a good diet to learn effectively. When children come to school without having eaten properly, they are less likely to learn, thrive and progress, and their future chances will be impaired. That is why breakfast clubs were set up, so that those who are not getting a proper diet could be given the necessary advantages to help them flourish.

Last year, I led a debate in your Lordships’ House on income inequality. It was a debate of unanimity. Today, this report focuses on the dangerous consequences of food inequality and draws our attention to the costs of a healthy diet. We have heard in the last year of parents wondering if they can give their children more than bread and potatoes, and whether they should go without food themselves, or heating, to feed their families. How heart-breaking is that? Please, may the report’s recommendation in chapter 3 receive further assessment, so that practical proposals for radical change are brought forward.

A dismaying table at paragraph 173 on page 65 challenges all of us to have courage and imagination for our future, and the will and determination to see it through to its conclusion. Her Majesty’s Government has learned during the Covid-19 challenge that big government solutions are important for big problems. Free vaccination for all is a good example. Can the lessons learned be applied to government action for the health and well-being crisis? I pray that they can and will, and may it be soon, promising less and delivering more. This is a vital report which we want to take seriously. May the committee continue to work out practicalities which resolve. I congratulate the committee on this wonderful report.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I warmly welcome the former Archbishop of York, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, on behalf of these Benches and the whole House. It is a great privilege to follow him in today’s debate, on his return to the House, and I am sure that his wisdom, compassion, and insight, will be valuable as we move forward in this new parliamentary session.

Hungry for Change outlines the challenges in health and production underlying our food system. Like others, I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford for his campaign last summer in extending the national voucher scheme. I also wish him and the entire English football team good fortune for their opening Euro 2021 match against Croatia this Sunday.

Food poverty remains a serious issue here in the UK, one which has been exacerbated by the economic hardships endured by low-income individuals during the Covid crisis. The Department for Work and Pensions HBAI statistics for 2020 identify 5 million people, including 1.7 million children, as experiencing food insecurity, and half of them had very low food security. Part of the problem is the lack of non-credit based lifelines for people facing financial crises, forcing them to incur debt to pay for essentials. Often this is not a one-off situation but the result of chronic income shortages, particularly where social security payments are reduced to pay debts.

Christians Against Poverty reported that 37% of its clients have sacrificed meals due to debt. A further 56% have borrowed money to pay for food, clothing and other living costs. There is a health and human cost to this. Christians Against Poverty reported diabetic clients relying on sugar water because of insufficient food and parents who avoided eating dinner so that their children could eat each night. Surely this should not be happening in a country as developed and wealthy as ours.

As identified in the Hungry for Change report, repayments of advance payments for universal credit often leave people without enough money for food, let alone a healthy diet. However, deductions for rent, utilities or council tax arrears, court fines or benefit overpayments also contribute to insufficient funds. As of January 2021, Citizens Advice estimated that

“over 3.5 million people are currently behind on council tax”,

largely due to lost income from the Covid pandemic.

The interconnectivity of health, food poverty and financial well-being calls for more generous repayment terms for both universal credit advance payments and other arrears, allowing for affordable repayments on an extended timeframe. The cap of 25% standard allowance does not factor in individuals who are already required to use part of their standard allowance to pay a rent top-up in cases where money provided for housing costs has been reduced.

One innovative way to deal with the issue of health and financial insecurity is the Centre for Responsible Credit’s Financial Shield programme currently being piloted in Lambeth and Southwark. The programme works within the existing NHS framework with GPs and community groups to identify individuals suffering poor health outcomes relating to debt. In particular, its joint debt protocol seeks to prevent creditors from competing for repayments from impoverished individuals. It organises repayment under a single recovery protocol, giving the debtor time and space without the threat of enforcement, which could further affect their health. Tackling the issue of arrears will inevitably lead to better health outcomes. Levelling up in the post-Covid era will require innovative mechanisms and ideas like the Financial Shield to tackle issues like debt and income insecurity that lead to poor diets.

On the production side, it is important that agriculture and food production are not treated in isolation but seen in the context of the overall sustainability of the rural economy and rural communities. Although agriculture is no longer the major source of employment it once was in rural areas, it continues to have a major impact on the overall economy and sustainability of rural areas. It is why the new environmental land management scheme, or ELMS, provides great significance to rural areas and the overall rural economy. We need to align the interests of our farmers and rural communities in tackling the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Already, some of the pilot ELM programmes have raised concerns about ensuring the viability of farm businesses while delivering the vital landscape protections set out in the ELMS. Farmers want to do the right thing for nature but will need proper incentives, clarity of guidance and assistance. So I hope the Government will continue to monitor the situation and get this right when introducing the full scheme in 2024.

The increased focus on the importance of rural areas in providing natural capital and sustainable supply chains presents opportunities to create new, greener jobs. The Hungry for Change report focused on the need for stable and secure funding for research and development. I believe it would be a real boon to make rural areas the focus of this new infrastructure as part of a wider strategy to revitalise the rural economy. It is important the Government recognise the vital nature of rural economies in being at the very centre of the green revolution and come forward with a strategic vision for the rural economy that incorporates agriculture and food production, as promised in their response to the Lords Rural Economy Committee.

Lord Whitty Portrait Lord Whitty (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, it is a bit daunting to follow a Bishop and an ex-Archbishop. I wish to congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, on the rare achievement of a second maiden speech in this House. I served on the committee too, and I would like to pay tribute to the way the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, conducted the committee and marshalled the views, not only of a heterogeneous committee, but also of a wide range of witnesses. I would also like to put on record my thanks to the staff in producing this report.

Food, from farm to fork, is by far our largest single industry. It has repercussions for difficult areas of public policy on health and diet, the local and global environment, air, water and soil quality, our nature, countryside and biodiversity. It is noticeable that the distribution of the benefits and detriments in the way we deliver food creates severe social inequalities and some serious health dysfunctions. Healthy food is often not affordable, particularly among our poorest communities.

In this report, we have attempted to deal with all aspects, with recommendations that will involve several departments beyond Defra and the Department for International Trade. The same will be true of the report we hope to see shortly from Henry Dimbleby, the second stage of which I hope the Government will treat rather more seriously than their response to this report has yet shown. Our media is unaccountable: for some reason, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, received rather less media attention than Marcus Rashford for his recommendations on school meals and universal credit. The Government did at least respond in part to that.

I wish to focus on a less obvious and more mundane aspect, which is the institutional one. My points relate to the structure of the food system as a whole and the ineffectiveness of the regulatory structure and enforcement we currently have. Our specific recommendations range from more effective local planning controls for retail outlets right through to the creation of an independent body analogous to the Committee on Climate Change. One key proposition is that we should reverse the decision made a decade ago and give the responsibility for nutrition, labelling and reformulation back to the Food Standards Agency.

At present, our regulatory system on food is concentrated on the two ends of the food chain—farmers and their methods, and consumer protection. Underlying the totality of the chain is the domination in the middle of it by major, often multinational, corporate players who largely escape criticism. The regulation on farmers is arguably about to become more complex through the new subsidy system replacing the CAP, which most of us support. The operation of public goods will be extremely complex, and the proposed ELMS and related interventions on agriculture to deliver public goods will inevitably involve a very sophisticated form of regulatory intervention. At the consumer end, both the Government and the report propose more sophisticated systems of labelling and consumer protection for safety and nutritional reasons. Again, those will need to be implemented in a way that improves the consumer experience rather than confuses the consumer. Between those two, regulation is and will be much less.

However, this market is hugely dominated by a limited number of large companies in the middle: the big supermarket retailers—obviously; the big processors and manufacturers; the big wholesalers and importers; and the big catering chains and food service companies. Although there is a market distortion in terms of a tendency to both oligopoly and oligopsony, it is in those fields where the decisions of those large companies determine the nature, quality and standards to which food is produced, the availability of it, and the price, and therefore affordability, to the ultimate consumers. Standards formulation and pricing conditions and, of course, advertising—the primary information that goes to consumers and smaller retail outlets—are dominated by the priorities of those companies.

There have been previous interventions. The relationship between the big supermarkets and farmers and other first-line producers were supposed to be regulated, or at least overseen, by the groceries code. To be fair, some of the standards and contract formulations have significantly improved for small producers, but not only has enforcement been extremely light-touch, but the reality is that the groceries code deals with only a small part of the issue and is largely confined to the large supermarkets dealing directly with primary producers, whereas the reality is that virtually the whole of our largest sector, the food chain as a whole, is a markets and competition issue, with wider repercussions for consumer protection and health and environmental impacts.

Given the externalities we have been concerned about in this debate, on the environment and on health, we need to take further steps. To take two examples, advertising expenditure by the large companies in the food chain is 40 times larger on confectionery than it is on fresh food and vegetables. No wonder our consumer diets are so far from ideal. The balance of market power between processors and primary producers means that, for most farmers, there is no profit without subsidy, and the new agricultural regime will not change that. The office of the Groceries Code Adjudicator is inadequate to the task. We need a much more effective body and, although the report does not spell this out in detail, it points inexorably in that direction.

I have a final point. Trade is a vital part of our food chain and imports provide us with key products, but when most assessments of sustainability in our food system emphasise the desirability of shorter supply chains, the Government’s emphasis is to prioritise a trade deal with Australia—one which potentially undermines our environmental and welfare standards and which appears to be concluded without a view from the safeguarding mechanism we all agreed in the process of delivering the Agriculture Act: the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission. If we go down that road, it will not improve the health and diet of our nation, nor will it improve the environment. It may drive out a few livestock producers, but it will provide no solution to the problem that this report identifies.

EU: Fishing Industry Negotiations

Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Thursday 4th March 2021

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con) [V]
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My Lords, there is an overall improvement in the situation, but we all agree that more work needs to be done. That is why Defra has invited exporters to in-depth workshops, 11 of them in the past few weeks, on issues including export health certificates. We are also working closely with the Scottish Government, Food Standards Scotland and other government departments to learn from the establishment and operation of existing hubs in Scotland. Although the situation is improving, we in Defra and other government bodies are doing considerable work.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, there is an immediate, pressing problem for many of our fishermen, who are suffering. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to increase fish consumption in the domestic market? Do we need a fish and chips tsar or someone to encourage people to eat fish? More importantly, in the negotiations with the EU, will the Government work towards a flexible arrangement that allows for better quota swaps?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con) [V]
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My Lords, we will be pragmatic and we will work robustly with the EU and, indeed, with Norway and the Faroe Islands. Importantly, Defra and Seafish are working together on the Love Seafood campaign precisely to encourage the domestic consumption of excellent fish that hitherto we may not have consumed.

Genetically Modified Food

Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Monday 8th February 2021

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential (1) health, and (2) environmental, risks associated with approving genetically modified food production in the United Kingdom.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con) [V]
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My Lords, our legislation includes rigorous requirements for assessing health and environmental risks associated with GM food production. Approved GM crops and GM food products must pass a robust, case-by-case safety assessment reflecting independent scientific advice.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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I thank the Minister for his reply. Although I have some questions about gene editing, I recognise the potential it has to revolutionise the agricultural sector. My concern is for farmers and any potential barriers to trade with the EU that this might introduce. Although the Commission has indicated its intent to review the current rules, this has been countered by the European Parliament, which signalled its objection. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment of the impact of gene editing on our ability to export agricultural products to EU markets?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con) [V]
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My Lords, the purpose of our consultation is principally to consider the issue of gene editing, which we think has a very strong future in assisting us in many respects in food production and the natural environment. Obviously, we shall consider the response to that consultation, and the right reverend Prelate’s remarks about the rest of the world, certainly including the European Union countries, are relevant. I know that the French Agriculture Minister has expressed concern about the European court’s view on gene editing.

Agricultural Transition Plan

Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Tuesday 8th December 2020

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con)
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I thank my noble friend. We have worked together on these matters, which is why I go back to the importance of codesign in the tests and trials. We have contracted 72 tests and trials involving 5,000 farmers and land managers. We have nine tests and trials in upland areas: three are taking place across multiple regions, two in the south-west, two in the north-west, one in the West Midlands and one in Yorkshire. We are working with a total of 811 farmers and land managers. Our portfolio of tests and trials involves at least 76 tenant farmers, of whom approximately 62% are upland tenant farmers.

Clearly, we want to ensure that there is a vibrant tenanted sector in this country. I am well aware of the importance of the uplands. I might diverge from my noble friend here. If we had more time, we could go through the many schemes that are coming forward, whether for owner occupiers or tenants, where productivity grants and environmental schemes will be extremely valuable, whatever the tenure. We want to ensure that these schemes are of value to farmers across the piece as they seek to produce excellent food and enhance the environment for us.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition and pay tribute to the Minister, who has worked so hard on getting this through. In the ELMS policy discussion document, Her Majesty’s Government recognised the bureaucratic burden that the CAP had placed on farmers and administrators. We were optimistic that the rollout of rural broadband would help a great deal, although the comprehensive spending review seems to have drawn back, and many people in rural areas are deeply concerned about how these new processes will be worked through. Can the Minister outline the plans for the ELMS application process and how it is intended to reduce bureaucratic constraints? Can he assure the agricultural community that there will be adequate helplines staffed by those who have been fully trained in these new processes?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con)
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My Lords, broadband and mobile connectivity in the countryside is clearly very important, which is why the Chancellor announced the first £1.2 billion, as I recall, of the £5 billion scheme that we wish to roll out. Clearly, this is a project of huge importance in rural areas. As the Minister for Rural Affairs, I can assure the right reverend Prelate that I am constantly in communication with DCMS about this.

The right reverend Prelate is right in using word “bureaucracy”. That is why we have wanted to simplify the BPS and, as we move forward, remove some of its most complex aspects by removing greening rules and improving arrangements for cross-border farmers, and removing the complicated rule that required farmers to claim payments on their entitlements every two years.

I understand the frustration about whether there should have been more detail but, in our quest for a less bureaucratic ELMS—a less bureaucratic arrangement —I emphasise that we must co-design these schemes with farmers so that the farmer sees it is as their scheme, not the state scheme. We want to make sure that it is not bureaucratic. The advice, support and guidance that will be available to farmers will ensure that, while there will undoubtedly always be worry, they get a helping hand rather than a heavy hand, so that they understand what schemes are available and, I hope, will apply for them and be successful.

Rural Economy

Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Thursday 26th November 2020

(10 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to their response to the report by the Select Committee on the Rural Economy Time for a strategy for the rural economy (HL Paper 330, Session 2017-19), what progress they have made towards their strategic vision for rural communities.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I draw attention to my interest in the register as president of the Rural Coalition.

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, our vision remains that rural communities should prosper, benefiting from the full range of government policies designed to level up opportunity and take the country forward. Defra will shortly publish the first annual rural proofing report on how the needs of rural areas are being addressed across all domestic departments.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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I thank the Minister for that reply. The Government’s commitment to rural communities is welcome and, I am sure, forms a major part of strategies such as the UK shared prosperity fund, the Covid-related green recovery fund and the levelling-up agenda. The Campaign to Protect Rural England noted the lack of funding for rural areas in the comprehensive spending review. What actual evidence do Her Majesty’s Government have that the rural proofing promised in their response is making a real and significant difference? Could the Minister give us some specific examples? If not, could he write to me with those examples?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con)
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My Lords, I think the best thing here is that I will be able—very soon, I hope—to furnish the House with the first rural proofing report. Following this House’s Select Committee report work has been under way on the formation of a rural affairs board, and indeed, because of Covid, the Rural Impacts Stakeholders Forum, of which the CPRE is a member.

Agriculture Bill

(Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard))
Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Lord Rooker Portrait Lord Rooker (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Curry, in supporting this amendment. Indeed, it is the only amendment tabled on Report which has my name attached to it. I shall be brief.

The point encapsulated in the last two speeches is very important. The National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales, the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland and the Ulster Farmers’ Union, which I worked very closely with when I was the farming Minister in Northern Ireland, all support this amendment. It is also supported by the CLA. That is incredibly widespread support that should enable the Minister to grab it with both hands. It cannot be anything but good for the Government to have the kind of support from the farming community that an amendment such as this carries.

Before I make my other comments, I want to respond to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, who was kindly paying attention, or partly paying attention, to what I said in the previous debate. What I said was that in the United States of America, over 400 people a year die of salmonella. You can get the figures from the Centers for Disease Control. I did not say that they all died from eating chicken. What I also said was that nobody has died from this in the UK in the past 10 years. There may have been one case, but there was a dispute about it.

So it is not a question of looking at populations. The number of deaths in America is huge. Per head of population, food poisoning cases in the United States are 10 times higher than in Great Britain—although I did not go into that. People in America die from salmonella, but here it is not a cause of death. That is the difference, and the point I was making.

This amendment is very important for providing the checks and balances for what is a somewhat haphazard Government. I am not criticising the Minister or his team in this respect, or indeed the Bill team, but it is a haphazard Government, and this would provide checks and balances. The Government cannot rely on the existing structure. For example, I do not think that the Food Standards Agency is resourced or has the overall competence to get involved in the details of trade deals, as the proposed commission would. Of course, bodies such as the FSA and Food Standards Scotland would advise the commission, but the commission would have the main role.

It is also quite important that Amendment 101 not just involves but respects the primacy of Parliament, which Amendment 97 clearly does not. As I read that amendment, it seeks to give a veto over trade deals, and that cannot be right. I shall not recite the contents of Amendment 101, as that would be quite wrong. However, proposed new subsection (4)(d) in Amendment 101 is quite useful. In fact, I think that the Minister himself would probably quite like a list of the existing powers of the Minister, as it would be useful to know. Basically, we would like to know which powers they have got that they are not using. The powers are spread throughout a massive amount of legislation and it would be useful to have a list of them so that we could check which ones they are not using. Proposed new paragraph (f), which ties in with paragraph (c), would make the monitoring of imported foods—something that will not be easy—practical and workable.

We also have to remember that the EU does that for us now. The EU, on behalf of the member states, sends inspectors all over the world to check that farms and food factories are safe and of sufficient quality to supply the EU. We will have to repeat all that ourselves, and therefore it is very important that we have a system for monitoring the situation.

On the efficiency of UK agriculture—I am speaking from memory here—I think that the UK is so efficient in producing milk from dairy cattle that, if the rest of the world replicated our systems, there would be less than half the number of dairy cattle in the world. In other words, we are very efficient, and if we could spread that technology around the world, we would have fewer dairy cattle, less methane, less pollution and much more efficient production.

In short, on the idea of a standing rather than a temporary commission, a standing commission would consist of consumers, traders and producers, and it would instil far more confidence than the six-month commission that the Government have set up. The Minister and his team would be very wise to embrace Amendment 101.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I too will speak on Amendment 101, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, to which I have added my name. The previous three speakers have more than adequately spelled out why it makes a great deal of sense, so I can limit my comments.

The Government, through the joint letter from the Environment Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Trade, have assured us that standards will not be compromised as part of trade negotiations. Furthermore, I am reassured by the breadth of experience among the agri-food trade advisory group. However, welcome though these developments are, fundamentally they lack the legally binding requirement that properly guarantees that Parliament will have recourse to ensuring that our standards are not diluted.

We all recognise the value of our agricultural standards in promoting the well-being of consumers, producers and the environment. As part of the Government’s ambition to conclude new trade deals, compromises will be required, but it is imperative that they do not encroach on our standards, which must remain a red line. The amendment seeks to turn verbal and written guarantees into a comprehensive legal mechanism that combines independent expertise with parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that the necessary measures are taken to protect our agricultural sector, the environment and, above all, consumers.

Agriculture Bill

(Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard))
Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Thursday 17th September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Boycott Portrait Baroness Boycott (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who have supported my amendments and also the Minister, who has been listening long and hard to all of this. I feel that the Government have come a long way on the issue.

Household food insecurity is very different from national food security and we should measure both. I should say that measurements of household food insecurity are already being taken. The Family Resources Survey does this as a part of its work every year while the Food Standards Agency collects data on household food insecurity as part of the Food and You survey. These measurements are being made and while I realise that taking them every year seems like a lot, if you are hungry, three years will seem like an extremely long time.

Quite frankly, if you are poor and cannot afford to buy food, it does not matter to you if the supermarkets of Chelsea and Westminster happen to be well stocked for those who have enough money in their pocket. The Trussell Trust produced a report this week saying that by Christmas, it reckons that 670,000 more people will be coming to food banks as the furlough scheme is lifted. We have a great deal of household insecurity, which can lead to incalculable damage.

I thank the Government for this amendment and I support it, but I would like to keep the channels open. People cannot wait three years to find out whether the food system is going to be made better for them and their children.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I shall speak briefly to Amendment 52 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and then to Amendment 57 tabled in my name. I am grateful for the way in which the Minister has listened closely to the House and brought forward amendments. This is immensely helpful. On Tuesday, several noble Lords rehearsed the reasons we need the highest levels of food security possible, and I will not repeat those arguments now. Although I agree that this is a difficult call, my personal view is that annual reporting would be preferable. Nevertheless, I shall listen carefully to the arguments as they are made.

On Amendment 57, while I welcome the Government’s commitment to produce a regular report on food security, it is vital that this is a means by which Her Majesty’s Government can express their policy targets and mechanisms to address any issues in this area. Currently, the provisions in the Bill envisage a fairly static output that merely reports on the current food security situation rather than a more dynamic report which seeks to set out an agenda for change where change is required. There is little point in the Government merely producing a report of which Parliament is required to take note; we need a platform for evaluation, repurposing and, of course, to inform future actions. At the very least, it will be essential to ensure that food security targets are both met and monitored. Where the report indicates that there are issues with aspects of our food and environmental security, the Government must come forward with their plans and policies for addressing those shortcomings.

This amendment would provide the necessary architecture for the Government to take the matter forward and ensure responsibly that the UK is adequately prepared for any future uncertainties. It would be a failure if, having taken the time to consider the importance of having a food security report, we do not also ensure that it is used to inform changes in policy and procedures. A statutory requirement for Her Majesty’s Government is needed to address these issues and it needs to be included in this Bill.

Earl of Dundee Portrait The Earl of Dundee (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I support Amendment 53 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, which recommends that government reports on food security should take into account measures of household food insecurity. As the noble Baroness has just pointed out, it would be anomalous if in isolation, on its own, some assessment of national food security were to have a good reading while at the same time, United Kingdom household food security might have a poor one. That inconsistency would be prevented by this amendment, which requires the Government’s report to consider household food insecurity alongside food security.

I am also in favour of Amendment 57, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, on specifying food security targets so that thereafter, actions can be taken to ensure that they are met. The prescription within the amendment is irrefutable, for how can we proceed efficiently and competently if we do not state and specify targets in the first place? If we do not use targets at all, how then can we properly calculate any future level of progress and judge whether we have acted correctly to attain certain levels of food security in the United Kingdom?

I come now to Amendment 55 in my name on supply sources of livestock feed as an input to food production and the reliance on the food supply chain. As I pointed out in Committee, there are three major disadvantages from imported animal feed. First, these imports undermine the country’s food security. Secondly, there is the carbon footprint arising from their production and transport. Thirdly, there is the environmental damage which their cultivation causes in certain countries, notably soya beans in Brazil and Argentina.

In 2019, imports of animal feed broke a record by exceeding £2.4 billion. The feed is mostly soya or intensively produced grain being grown by companies that are responsible for deforestation in the Amazon. If we use feed from land that should be forest, we are adding to the destruction of an ecosystem which sustains our climate and biodiversity. Regarding the resolve to increase our own homegrown animal feed supply as much as possible, my noble friend the Minister has already referred to the Pulse Crop Genetic Improvement Network, a project due to end in 2023. Its aims include the production of better quality animal feed and to discover alternatives to imported soya beans. Based on the existing level of research, can my noble friend say what targets can already be set both for the reduction of imported feed and an increase in homegrown feed?

Meanwhile, United Kingdom importers could be encouraged to buy feed from countries that demonstrate similar environmental standards to those of the United Kingdom, and perhaps guided in this endeavour by international certification bodies. Does my noble friend agree with that? If so, what steps might the Government now take to buy from certain countries rather than others and to make use of international certification bodies?

Agriculture Bill

(Report stage)
Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Tuesday 15th September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I was pleased to add my name to her Amendment 6 because, for me, food security is very much about the public good. Putting this amendment into the Bill, as we would like to see, would try to ensure that the Secretary of State is given powers to give financial assistance to underpin food security, health and well-being. This is a laudable objective, which should be placed in statute and recognised by government as such. It should therefore be placed in the Bill. Particularly at the time of this pandemic, people should be able to access not only cheap food but the food that they need to stay healthy, with the food system acting in relation to policy areas such as health, welfare and food production.

During Committee, many of us referred to the report published by our Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment. The report, Hungry for Change, was particularly comprehensive and found barriers at all levels of the food system that make it harder for people, particularly those living in poverty, to access a healthy and sustainable diet. The lack of a unifying government ambition and strategy on food has prevented interrelated issues such as hunger, health and sustainability being considered in parallel, meaning that opportunities have been missed to develop coherent policies that could bring about widespread change. Everyone should have access to a healthy and sustainable diet, hence the need to ensure that financial assistance will be given for adhering to this objective as a public good, and therefore get public money for public goods.

It is interesting what the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, said about the National Food Strategy: Part One by Henry Dimbleby. He gave evidence to our committee some months ago. Basically, I suppose he is saying that we were lucky that we did not face further challenges in relation to the pandemic. However, there is no doubt that we have all seen the problems and challenges in food supply chains over the past months. It is important that food security—and, yes, food insecurity—should be recognised as a qualification for future funding in the Bill. I am happy to support this amendment.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. I speak in support of Amendment 6, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and I have added our names. Incidentally, I also support Amendments 12, 13 and 17 in this group, but do not intend to speak to them. Let me be brief, as a number of the main points that I had planned to raise have already been made by my colleagues. This amendment touches on two areas: food security and the food which brings good health and well-being. Both areas are about public goods.

I am planning to say something more about food security when we reach a later amendment, so I will confine myself to just one thing about good health and well-being. The results of poor diets are well documented. We know that poor diets lead to worse health outcomes, early onset of diseases and indeed, in the case of Covid, a greater likelihood of a slower recovery or death. At a time when the NHS is under considerable pressure, we need to do all we can to join up our legislation so that we can revolutionise diet in this country and make access to good food the best we possibly can.

The reason I am happy to support this modest amendment is that it strengthens this Bill to keep before us the need to improve the quality of food and diet and good access.

Lord Judd Portrait Lord Judd (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I hope that even at this late stage in our proceedings, the Minister and Government will be able to take this group of amendments seriously and give them serious consideration, with a view to making necessary adjustments to what they finally bring forward. In supporting this interesting group, I emphasise my support for Amendments 7, 16 and 48.

On Amendment 7, I simply say this as a former president of Friends of the Lake District and a vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks. I cannot speak for those organisations, but all my experience with them and with my own family and friends is that, in many parts of our national parks and beautiful parts of the country, livestock are an important part of the scenic setting. I and my family—I speak subjectively—always feel a sense of contentment when we see cattle grazing, but one big condition of all that is that I cannot allow my enjoyment to mask my anxiety lest the farming is not of the highest quality. From that standpoint, this amendment is very valuable indeed.

What is put forward in Amendment 16 is just straightforward sense. I hope that my colleagues agree and that the Government can take it on board. We constantly talk about the relationships between landscape and climate change, countryside and climate change and agriculture and climate change, but this enables the Minister to take practical action to provide support in that context.

We also worry very much about what is happening to the condition of our soil; this is dealt with in the amendment. I have just spoken about landscapes. To encourage members of the farming community to see their role as trustees of our national inheritance in this sense is very important indeed.

How can I—living in Cumbria, five miles from Cockermouth—possibly overlook the importance of flood protection measures? What happened at the time of the great floods in Cockermouth was that the valley up where I live was filling up with water. I was stuck in London at the House and was ringing my neighbours, asking, “What’s happening? How’s it going?” A very great friend of mine, a hill farmer, said to me on the phone: “Well, Frank, all I can say is that I have never seen the valley fuller of water, and it’s got to go somewhere.” That is quite a dramatic illustration of what happened. It went somewhere. The bridge broke at the bottom of our section of the valley and the water poured through and down, out of control, towards Cockermouth.

Wildlife and the environment are concerns we frequently speak about, but we must not just sentimentalise. Here we are giving power—authority—to the Minister to take appropriate action, but it must be appropriate action. I hope the Government will feel able to make some adjustments to meet those points.

On Amendment 48, I have become deeply concerned about the neglect of common land. We may sentimentalise about it and some people may find it controversial, but for any of us who have an ongoing and lasting relationship with and deep commitment to the countryside, common land and the encouragement of a community approach to agriculture are tremendously important. Again, what is envisaged here is underlining the authority of the Minister to take necessary supporting action.

This is a thoughtful group of amendments and I hope the Government will take them seriously.

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Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate all those who have tabled amendments in this group. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and her co-signatories to Amendment 18 which calls for an impact assessment. It would add a great deal to the Bill. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on moving her amendment.

I shall focus my remarks on Amendment 30 and, in particular, government Amendment 35. The latter amendment, in the name of my noble friend Lord Gardiner, concedes in new paragraph (a) that we need to know

“as soon as practicable before the beginning of the plan”

what the purpose of the plan will be. He sets out very neatly in new paragraph (b) that the plan should be published

“at least 12 months before the beginning of the plan period for the plan.”

I welcome the fact that my noble friend has conceded that we need 12 months’ notice. I do not know quite why my Amendment 36 is not included in this group. When we come on to discuss dates other noble Lords will press their favourite dates, whether it is five months, three months, seven years or five years.

My noble friend has conceded the principle that we need 12 months’ notice. I do not quite understand why we are not then agreeing to delay the start of the transition period in that regard, because we need greater clarification of what the plan will be. I am very uneasy that we do not have the results of the trials of the ELM schemes, which are still ongoing. So what I have set out here is very specifically that we have levels of expected expenditure set out and, equally, we can identify the outcomes for that expenditure as part of this multiannual financial planning. I shall not make the arguments in full, because we debated them quite fully in Committee, but I am deeply concerned that the role of the Office for Environmental Protection is still unclear in this regard. Can my noble friend come forward with a date for when we will be able to look in some detail at the environment Bill? I hope that it will be before the end of this year and of the transition period. It would be most helpful if my noble friend could give us a date.

What is lacking in the current provisions, and why Amendment 30 is required, is a framework that requires the Government to be clear about what they are planning to spend and what they will spend that money on. In Amendment 35, I think my noble friend concedes can and do change over time, but we need a clear direction of travel from the Government so we can judge how well the Government and Defra are doing in achieving these objectives and in targeting these public resources. We need to give farmers and land managers the clearest possible indication and assurance about the certainty of funding, if they are going to be able to enter into long-term relationships to deliver the outcomes for the public benefit and the improvement of productivity. So, in identifying specific levels of budgetary expenditure, we will also need to enhance the ability of Parliament to scrutinise government plans and policies in advance of them being implemented and by way of evaluating their performance. Both provisions would be an important part of good governance.

In summing up, can my noble friend say when he will bring forward a business plan that will impact and be effective for the first year after the transition period, which is next year?

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I added my name to Amendment 30 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, which seeks, as she explained, to increase the levels of accountability and ensure that Parliament can understand Her Majesty’s Government’s strategic priorities and the extent to which they are being met. We discussed this issue in Committee.

Many Members of your Lordships’ House have already expressed concerns about levels of financial accountability in this Bill, and we have a number of amendments that seek to address that. On page 4, line 15, the Bill specifies that the Secretary of State will be,

“monitoring the extent to which the purpose of financial assistance has been achieved.”

The amendment, dealing with the multiannual financial assistance plans, specifies that the Secretary of State will produce annual budgets for each strategic priority. There is a powerful argument that we need this so that the public can have confidence in the spending of public money. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s and indeed other noble Lords’ reflections and responses on the extent to which this amendment can strengthen transparency and accountability.

Lord Teverson Portrait Lord Teverson (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend prelate the Bishop of St Albans. I particularly praise his work as president of the Rural Coalition. I know that he does really good work there. I declare my own interest as co-chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership.

I will speak to Amendment 32, which was not all that popular in Committee, in that it suggested and states that the transition period from the old funding system to the new should be not seven years but five. I will go through why that is so important and why I have bothered to bring it back and take up the House’s time—although I will not be putting it to a vote at this Report stage.

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Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, I support Amendment 36 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, to which I am also a signatory. I also support Amendment 41, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, has clearly articulated the purpose of Amendment 36. It is important that the Government provide a degree of certainty for farmers in relation to the new environmental land management schemes. We are simply asking for a deferral of the commencement date from 2021 to 2022.

As we all know, there is not a lot of detail yet on the ELMS pilots. It is generally felt that it is too soon to switch to this new scheme in 2021, without that background and concrete detail. While we wish to keep the seven years, we are asking for a deferral of one year for the commencement.

I feel that government Amendment 35, moved formally by the Minister, does not go far enough. We do not have enough information on how it will operate, or what the plan is for the next year. Therefore, I am very happy to support Amendment 36, because it provides that necessary deferral for a year to allow the plans to be worked up, to collect the statistical evidence from the ELMS pilots and to provide that much-needed certainty to farmers who are faced with a whole new funding framework after some 50 years. There is a whole new generation of farmers who never knew anything but the European framework that has been with us for such a long time.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I can be brief. Amendment 36 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, may appear very minor, but when you consider that we are in the last third of this year and that this is first day of the Report stage of the Bill, there is very little time left before the seven-year transition period is due to begin.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, both laid out the uncertainties facing landowners and farmers, not least until greater details of ELMS are clear. The Bill is going to make a huge change to both farmers and landowners, and it is much better that we take them with us. Indeed, I think it is only fair that we give them time to make the necessary adjustments, as there are still so many details to be worked out and the implications of the Bill are so significant. I hope the Minister will find a way that we can adopt this proposal.

Earl of Devon Portrait The Earl of Devon (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I am concerned that the mistreatment of and disrespect for farmers under the Bill is continuing. I speak to Amendment 36 and to support Amendment 37 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and Amendment 41.

The 2022 harvest season has begun. Crops are being sown right now that are due to be harvested next year, and farmers just do not know what rules they will be harvested under. With respect to Amendment 29, the Government accepted that expert advice and guidance is a priority for these farmers, but there is nothing to advise and guide them on—they simply do not know what the rules are going to be. Similarly, in proposing Amendment 35, the Government have accepted that the minimum reasonable period is 12 months, but they are not giving the farmer those 12 months.

There were very reasonable objections raised, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that we do not want to delay the environmental achievements due to be delivered by ELMS. I agree; we do not want undue delay. However, it would be an environmental disaster to proceed with the transition period that will be stillborn at birth.

No farmers are going to adopt this if they do not know what it is or how it is going to work, so it will be useless from the outset. We need to take time; the Government need to get responses to their tests and trials and work out what they are going to do. Rushing this legislation and rushing the transition period into being is not going to deliver any benefit to farmers, the environment or the public.

Tree Planting

Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Thursday 3rd September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con) [V]
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My Lords, we have seen an increase in planting rates in England over the last year. They are up from 1,400 hectares in 2019 to 2,200 in this planting season but, as the noble Lord will acknowledge, that is a long way off from the target we have set ourselves by the end of this Parliament. We absolutely acknowledge that we need to ramp up rates, and rapidly. However, we have backed up that commitment with funding. The £640 million Nature for Climate Fund is part of that funding package. We are funding the new Northern and Great Northumberland forests; we have introduced a £50 million carbon guarantee. As he pointed out, the shift from the common agriculture policy to the ELM system will also provide support. We absolutely want to make that support as accessible and unbureaucratic as possible.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, it is encouraging to hear about the progress being made, but we are fighting a losing battle if we continue to import saplings rife with diseases that then kill significant numbers of trees. Will the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the tree health resilience strategy and what other steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to increase biosecurity?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con) [V]
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Biosecurity is enormously important, not least because we are an island nation. We announced a £2 million partnership investment, which I mentioned earlier, alongside the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The Government support the Grown in Britain agenda and the Woodland Trust’s UK sourced and grown assurance scheme. Any initiatives which increase domestic production and grow more trees and plants in this country are welcome and will merit government support. In addition, for exactly the same reason, we are taking steps to increase demand for domestically grown timber. Demand massively exceeds supply in this country: we import 81% of the timber and wood products that we need, while only about 23% of homes in England are currently built with timber frames, compared to 83% in Scotland. We want to reverse that ratio as much as we possibly can to stimulate demand and the sector, while encouraging more tree-planting.

Agriculture Bill

(Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard))
Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Tuesday 21st July 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I support Amendment 130. In my years in business I have run a few businesses in the rural area: principally some forestry in Herefordshire, a little horticulture—down to a very small amount now—a small amount of viticulture, and just 40 acres of woodland registered with the Forestry Commission. I have led a number of large businesses, in India, Sri Lanka and the UK. One of the key determinants of a successful business is not to have a review too long after you start out on a big project such as this one. In my judgment, seven years is far too long when there are quite so many variables.

We have only to listen to noble Lords as we debate the Bill. We hear of variables that were anticipated and of those that nobody ever expected to happen. In addition, there are new problems due to the fact that we will be an independent nation. There are variables caused by climate change—how many of those have we had in the last seven years? There are variables due to Brexit, and due to the Environment Bill, which we have yet to debate. There are variables that will come from the penetration of 5G across the rural parts of the United Kingdom. Broadband is absolutely vital to rural communities.

Finally, one of the key problems at the moment is that a significant number of the staff who serve us as civil servants, and do it so well, are still working from home—is it 90% of them? Can my noble friend tell me how many or what percentage of Defra staff are currently back in the office?

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I will say a few words about the transition period and, in particular, in support of Amendments 150 to 154 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, which have the support of the National Farmers Union and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, among others.

These amendments focus on funding during the transition period and touch on the vital importance of maintaining food security during the period when we are moving over to the new payment scheme. Cash flow is a major problem for many organisations, and in some cases it has been a factor in businesses, and indeed farms, going bankrupt. It has become a huge problem during the Covid-19 lockdown, and it threatens many people’s livelihoods. It has also been an ongoing problem for farmers, who have sometimes had to wait long periods before receiving payments. We know that any new systems need time to bed in, so these amendments make allowance for any problems in the implementation of the new scheme, and I support them.

I am also supportive of Amendment 149 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, as are number of your Lordships. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on the need to take special care of small farmers and less favoured areas where farming is extremely vulnerable, which need our support during this time.

Lord Inglewood Portrait Lord Inglewood (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I will speak briefly to Amendment 146 but will refer in passing to quite a number of other amendments.

Before the CAP was even a glimmer in the eye of the founder of the European Union, the agricultural sector was operating in a regulated marketplace, which makes it quite different from almost all other kinds of business and commerce. In such a marketplace there is a need for all those involved to have a degree of certainty, which is as important from the Government’s perspective as it is from the agricultural sector’s. The parties need to know what the lie of the land might be, if I may put it thus. That is why Clause 4 is so important, because it sets the framework of the way the land lies for the transitional period and points to the world beyond it.

It seems that the problem surrounding Clause 4 is essentially twofold. First, the process of Brexit has been so drawn out that the length of time to effect a seamless move to the new era is too curtailed for it to be achieved as originally envisaged. Secondly, the coming into being of the ELMS—the environmental land management scheme—which was intended to replace the basic payment scheme, has been so delayed, as a number of noble Lords have said, that it is no longer available for farmers and land managers to transition into it and into the new economic and agricultural environment, which is the heart of the new era. As well is it seeming inherently unjust, it is not part of the basic political and policy proposition that was put to the British people as to how we left the CAP.

Moreover, there is a real risk that it may end up causing a muddle in terms of public policy outputs. If you oversimplify it, under the basic payments scheme, the public goods which the state paid for were farming, and everything else was a kind of bolt-on extra. We are now moving into a brave new world where everything else is public goods and food production is a bolt-on extra. That is quite a turnaround.

Against that background, there is, as several noble Lords have said, a chasm—or what might be described as the valley of the shadow of death—that lies between the two eras and into which a significant amount of both farm businesses and land may fall. This will get in the way of implementing the policies we are discussing; indeed, it may put certain parts of them into reverse.

Although, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said on a previous occasion when discussing the Bill, we must not be frightened of failure, surely the underlying intended purpose is to effect a successful transition from the old to the new. That is why the amendment of the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Curry, is important, as is that of the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, because they recognise, as was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that things may not actually turn out as planned and intended. You need to build into your system a way of modifying your arrangements, and an escape route.

It is clear from our discussion of this clause that the present transitional process is flawed, and those flaws need ironing out, because if we are to make a successful journey from the old world to the new, we have to get to the destination in one piece and not have a car crash.

Agriculture Bill

(Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard))
Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Tuesday 14th July 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con) [V]
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my long-standing and noble friend Lord Trenchard. I agree with the general thrust of his comments. After a long day on two important Bills, I will confine myself to two points.

First, the changing weather pattern, the risk of another pandemic and, more immediately, the possibility of an exit from the single market without an FTA all point to the need for a sensible, long-term focus on food security. I welcome my noble friend Lord Northbrook’s Amendment 60—an enabling amendment and not a requirement—and the part on food security in the lead amendment, Amendment 35, proposed by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. This plays to Clause 17 of the Bill and its proposal for a five-yearly report on food security, which I very much welcome.

Secondly, like the noble Lord, Lord Trees, I will talk about antibiotics. I support the provision on reducing farm antibiotics in Amendment 75 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. The impact of antibiotic resistance is one of the most serious issues facing the human race. It could make common operations extremely dangerous around the world, endangering people of all ages and in all countries—and with no prospect of a vaccine, so potentially worse than Covid-19.

At Red Tractor—I restate my interests here—we have worked hard with the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance to tackle this on farms through proper measurement and collection of data, assured standards and annual veterinary inspections. The former CMO, Dame Sally Davies, has commended us for the substantial decline in antibiotic use. For example, in the pig sector use of antibiotics has fallen by 60% over four years. However, there is more to do, and we are working with farmers, processors and retailers to do just that. The power proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, could help us to intensify the work, with some government support. This should be if and only if the need arises, and after proper costing and risk assessment—to hark back to my amendment to Clause 1.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that he had been advised that the scope of the Bill did not cover health. I would like confirmation that the role of farmers in AMR is within its ambit when the Minister replies to this important group.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I support a number of amendments in this group, in particular those that touch on food security, such as Amendments 35 and 60. Food security is crucial, both for our protection and for the flourishing and survival of any nation. History teaches us that food shortages have always occurred. They are often caused by many different factors and occur at an alarming rate. One of the earliest historical examples of this is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis chapters 41 and 42, where we read of Jacob storing up grain in Egypt ready for the seven years of famine. Not only did his actions save the lives of many, but underlying this narrative is the message that food is also about political power:

“And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere.”

We are all aware that food security in the modern world is complex. The many advantages of an international market have meant that for most of the time food prices have been driven down and choice expanded. We know that many types of food would be both difficult and expensive to grow in this country due to our climate, so we will never be totally self-sufficient in food.

We have heard reference to publication of the report Hungry for Change from the Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee just eight days ago. I note in that report the evidence given by Defra. It states:

“The ELMS proposes to reward a number of environmental ‘public goods’ with public money. The Government will support and reward farmers for providing improved environmental outcomes such as improved soil health and carbon emissions. The Department told us that the scheme may lead some farmers to move away from ‘traditional agricultural activity’.”

But the basic fundamental point of agriculture is to grow food and it is deeply worrying to consider that in under 30 years it is estimated that the world will need 60% more food than today. It is concerning considering that, at this very moment, we have vast swarms of locusts devastating crops in east Africa, Asia and the Middle East—an event of which we had no foresight a few months ago but which is likely to lead to extensive famines in the coming months. So I am keen to support these amendments, which support food security both for our good and for that of the international community.

Amendments 53 and 63 refer to food produced locally, including urban areas. We are trying to improve the environment, reduce transport and provide locally grown food, so these amendments are worth exploring. Both are supported by Amendment 69, which strengthens the Bill by changing “must have regard to” to “must support”. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to these ideas and how Her Majesty’s Government might include them in the Bill.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con) [V]
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My Lords, here we are on day three and we are still on Clause 1. Just to encourage the Minister, I remind him that he must have been in the House of Commons when the Maastricht Bill was being debated. It had all of four clauses but it took 25 days, so he is doing extremely well at the moment. But in the interests of making progress I am restricting myself to one speech tonight. That concerns Amendment 36. To me that is the heart of the Bill and very much the heart of horticulture. What a privilege it is to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. He covers most of Bedfordshire, although unfortunately not the part that I live in, but much of the part of Bedfordshire that is keen on horticulture.

Agriculture Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard))
Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Wednesday 10th June 2020

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Kilclooney Portrait Lord Kilclooney (CB)
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My Lords, living in rural Northern Ireland in the county of Armagh, better known as the garden of Ulster, I have a natural interest in the Bill. I also have an interest in it having served on the agriculture committee of the European Parliament, although that service was in the middle of the last century.

I have watched developments in the common agricultural policy; I have watched the development of the European Union. More recently, the United Kingdom has contributed £20 billion to the EU budget, of which about £8 billion comes back, £4 billion of that to the farming industry in the United Kingdom.

As a result of Brexit, this is the first real United Kingdom agricultural policy for about 50 years. This is due to the end of the application of the common agricultural policy. There are three fundamental questions which still need to be answered—in fairness, the Minister answered one of them, but I want further clarity on the issue. First, will Her Majesty’s Government’s support for the agricultural industry in the United Kingdom continue at the same level as exists from the common agricultural policy at present? Secondly, will the quality and standards of agriculture and food in the United Kingdom decline after we leave the common agricultural policy? Thirdly, will there be provision for the import of cheaper foods, creating unfair competition for our own home producers here in the United Kingdom?

This is a comprehensive Bill that will require much detailed examination in Committee, but there are a number of issues in relation to Northern Ireland that I wish to mention. Agriculture is the main employer in Northern Ireland, employing one in eight people. Rural towns and communities depend on the success of our 25,000 farm enterprises, but beef production income has fallen by £36 million in the past year alone. Income from milk has also fallen. Many farmers are now finding it difficult to stay in business.

Farm structure in Northern Ireland is very different from that in England, hence it is important that agriculture is a devolved matter. For example, farms in Northern Ireland are much smaller than in England. Intensively farmed poultry and pigs are a major product. Near where I live, we have Moy Park, employing 4,000 people dealing with poultry alone.

There are three issues that I wish to mention to the Minister today. One relates to the Northern Ireland protocol, in which I am sure he is well conversant; namely, can the Government give an assurance that there will no checks or tariffs on Northern Ireland agricultural exports into Great Britain, as 50% of our exports are into the British market? It is very important that that is maintained, so I hope that there will be no checks or tariffs. Secondly, can the Government confirm that they do not want lower standards of food safety than in the European Union, as Northern Ireland has to retain the EU’s standards under the protocol? Such lower standards would result in reduced costs of production and make it more difficult for Northern Ireland agricultural producers to compete in the GB market. Finally, on Article 10.2 of the EU Northern Ireland protocol, will UK support for Northern Ireland agriculture be unquestioned, or will the exemption from the EU state aid rules become null and void if the joint committee fails to reach an agreement? Does this in practice mean a continuing EU veto over UK support for Northern Ireland agriculture?

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans [V]
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My Lords, I am pleased that the long-anticipated Agriculture Bill has finally arrived in your Lordships’ House. There are many good and laudable parts of the Bill, not least the fair trading provisions for farmers and concerns for the environment and wildlife.

This House knows that rural England requires flexibility, and the complications and unintended consequences caused by the European Union’s cap have been well rehearsed. I have repeatedly raised the issue of food security in your Lordships’ House, which must be a top priority for any Government.

We have been reminded of this again recently after the recent lockdown following the Covid pandemic. Shop shelves were stripped bare within hours and you could not buy some products such as flour for weeks. We know we cannot be fully self-sufficient in food as a nation, as nowadays we demand many products that are best produced in warmer climates. However, we can learn from our recent experience and think about how as many people as possible can have access to ethically farmed, good quality, locally sourced food. This is an agricultural issue, an environmental issue and a social justice issue.

The possibility of cheap imports providing even cheaper food is being trumpeted by some and a trade deal with the States has long been thought of as an opportunity to deregulate our farming. As the Bill progresses through its various stages, we will want to test the legislative guarantees to reassure us that these worries will not be proved correct. I will want to explore why the reviews into food security will be so infrequent rather than undertaken on an annual basis.

Elsewhere in the Bill, we will also seek clarity. Environmental land management schemes, with public money for public good, remain a cornerstone of the Bill, yet a cornerstone with so little clarity will fail to support legislation. The definition of biodiversity in the Environment Bill—a piece of legislation this Bill fails to acknowledge—remains unclear, as does this Bill’s lack of definition of the phrase “public good”. Moreover, the tapering of the schemes remains opaque, despite many requests for clarity. Upland farming, for example, is dependent on similar schemes, yet, as far as I can see, remains undervalued by the Bill. Furthermore, issues such as peat restoration and water obstruction which fail to consider legal implications remain unfinished. While welcome, the Bill will need a much great level of clarity as it passes through its various stages if it is to receive support from this House.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach Portrait Lord Taylor of Holbeach (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interests in the Bill as published in the register. The Bill is one of the most important for the countryside and for farming for many years. It does not just tinker with the system. It is not just an Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, with which many noble Lords will be familiar. It is a direct consequence of our 31 January departure from the EU. As such, it is a great opportunity to reinvigorate our farming industry as we in the UK would want it, free from the suffocation of the common agricultural policy.

There is a real need to give farming a boost—a breath of fresh air. Recent events have lessons for us. It is a paradox of the global world: just as the supplies of PPE dried up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, so can our dependence on cheap food imports from around the world expose us to a similar risk.

The structure of the Bill is essentially that of an enabling Bill, but it is important to note that it does not weaken current commitments to the public good. Farms such as ours support far more trees, hedgerows, spinneys, field margins and nature areas than in my day. It is also important to note that the joint letter that noble Lords received from Liz Truss and George Eustice, Secretaries of State respectively for International Trade and Defra, clearly commits that there will be no lowering of standards, either in animal welfare or food safety. Chlorinated chicken is not on the table.

There is one area to which I would like to see a similar commitment—one in which there is extensive support from both scientists and farmers and, for that matter, here and in Europe. It is breeding for enhanced yields and reducing our use of fertilisers and pesticides—a double whammy, but a positive one. I refer, of course, to gene editing, which is an acceleration of plant breeding that is supported not only by our world-leading scientists here, but also in Europe. The Prime Minister spoke of the technique on the day he was appointed. He used it to demonstrate the perversities of the European justice system.

The agency delivering this game changer would not be multinational agro-giants but institute spin-offs and small SMEs, such as the ones that I am familiar with in my area. The Minister will know that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture strongly endorsed these techniques, which have a great potential in the developing world. As an industry we would be delivering a greener environment and food security for the nation, and playing our part in feeding the world. I welcome the Bill.

Direct Payments to Farmers (Crop Diversification Derogation) (England) Regulations 2020

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Tuesday 2nd June 2020

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Parminter Portrait Baroness Parminter (LD)
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My Lords, there are large sums of money involved in this statutory instrument. Those figures were not mentioned in the Explanatory Memorandum or by the Minister, so I am very grateful to the civil servants for confirming to me that in 2019, the greening fund amounted to just over half a billion pounds. That is public money to deliver greening schemes to protect the environment—protection that is needed now more than ever, due to the impacts of climate change evident in the extreme weather that we have been seeing. Indeed, as the Minister said, it was the severe floods in February, which prompted the derogation in this statutory instrument; since then, we have had the sunniest May on record.

This is a pretty blunt tool to exempt all farmers from crop diversification requirements. While I accept the case for supporting farming businesses, it is not a great signal during the first year we are outside the European Union that public money is to be retained while not delivering environmental goals. The two need to go hand in hand.

Now that we are outside the European Union, I welcome the Government’s Agriculture Bill and the proposals of public money for public goods, including environmental goals. But given that the Bill has no accompanying introduction of new powers to better regulate farming and land management, building on the current baseline standards, how are we to guarantee that those environmental ambitions will be delivered? We had the Government-commissioned Stacey review of farm regulation in 2018. When will we see government proposals to ensure the delivery of the environmental ambitions that we expect farmers to undertake in future, in return for public financial support?

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, British agriculture needs all the help it can get at this moment, so this legislation is most welcome. I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on their flexibility in responding to this need. As the National Farmers Union said earlier this year, farmers

“have found it virtually impossible to have one crop in the ground, let alone three. Without a derogation they would have been forced down the bureaucratic ‘force majeure’ route that would require case by case assessments.”

These Benches have long supported efforts to promote the environmental aspects of the three-crop rule and many other EU-driven policies, yet they must be applied to the unique British farming ecosystem. Currently, farmers talk about the large parts of the country which were drenched last winter, following Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis; now, a few months later, many of our fields are dry. One commodity trader wrote that the weather has been against the grower throughout this season, so this regulation is timely and necessary.

Recent events such as the coronavirus pandemic have brought into focus the need to support all our supply chains, especially in food. As your Lordships’ House will be aware, the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill will take place tomorrow week. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will show the same flexibility in responding to Members’ concerns about our dairy industry and home-grown food sustainability, along with the provision of sufficient labour for the harvest.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward this much- needed emergency measure. I join him in thanking the farmers for working through what has been a very difficult time, including a pandemic, to put food on our plates.

I applaud the investment that the Government have made in forecasting for extreme weather events. My noble friend referred to the background to this measure as one of severe flooding—not least, may I say, in North Yorkshire and the whole of the Yorkshire region. Yet now we find ourselves in a time of potential drought. Will he update us on the research and continuous fore- casting that is done, so that in future extreme weather events farmers may be better prepared for where the deluge might fall? The game changer came, as was recognised in the Pitt review in 2007, when we saw weather events that we had never seen before—in particular, deluges of rain falling in one place and not moving on, making farming extremely difficult.

While looking ahead to the Agriculture Bill, I welcome the environmental and greening aspects of the measure before us today and recognise that this currently amounts, as my noble friend said, to 30% of farm incomes. Will he give us an assurance today that future provisions will have an emphasis on crops, livestock and other food production, particularly in view of food security and self-sufficiency? At no time has that been more important than now, when we have seen all the difficulties of the Covid-19 virus.

Food Supply and Security

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Thursday 14th May 2020

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Ramsbotham Portrait Lord Ramsbotham (CB)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Boycott on her persistent pursuit of this important issue, including obtaining this debate, which she introduced so comprehensively. I declare an interest as president of the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, whose main interest is healthy nutrition.

Currently, farmers rely on 70,000 seasonal workers, mostly from eastern Europe, to pick vegetables and fruit in particular. The Countryside Alliance, which I thank for its excellent briefing, draws attention to farmers’ lack of certainty in both the 2018 White Paper on immigration and the current pilot scheme, which runs out at the end of 2020. Vegetable and fruit farmers say that they cannot meet the demand without these foreign workers. In response to my noble friend’s Oral Question on 30 April, the Minister said that the Government were “mobilising a British workforce”, which they have palpably been unable to do thus far. I have one suggestion, based on the pioneering work of last year’s High Sheriff of Suffolk, George Vestey: have the Government considered using prisoners on day release, or making use of the numbers on probation requiring unpaid work in the community?

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for this debate and I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. It is often said that the primary duty of government is the defence of the realm: equally important is the need to feed the population. When a crisis hits, we can survive for a considerable time without importing computers and machinery, but without food we last only a few weeks. Fortunately, during this pandemic the food chain has held up relatively well, although a number of shortages in the early days of the lockdown acted as a salutary warning. Within days of the lock- down, many of our churches here in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire had set up food banks or parish pantries, not just in poorer areas such as Stevenage or Farley Hill, but in wealthier villages such as Flamstead and Ponsbourne.

Farming is different from other industries, because you cannot keep land in reserve and bring it back into production at the flick of a switch; you cannot keep milking cows in storage to bring out when there is a shortage. Our farmers are some of the best in the world and need our support, not just for their own livelihoods but because they provide an essential public service—that is why we need to help them get the workers they need to bring the harvest in. Will the Minister support the idea that we should dedicate one of our Thursday evenings to outdoor applause for British farmers and food producers? Will he commit Her Majesty’s Government to increasing the level of food security in Britain, both now and to protect us in the future?

Baroness Redfern Portrait Baroness Redfern (Con)
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I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate. All parts of the economy have been hit hard during this Covid crisis, with customers not spending in cafes and restaurants, resulting in a dramatic loss of income almost equal to the spend on food and drink through our retail stores. We have seen the demise of our dairy processing capacity during the pandemic, with 2 million litres of milk produced per day which would have gone to the food-service market. Spikes and drops are difficult to manage, with risks being passed down to farmers and growers. Taps cannot just be turned off and on. With a total UK grain crop of about 24 million, the collapse of maize demand from the ethanol market risks a deluge of feed grain on the world market in a prolonged price depression. Living in Lincolnshire, a very diverse county, labelled “the breadbasket of the UK”, growing Maris Piper and Cara potatoes to supply our chips and crisps sector, we have been hit very hard. The south of the county has one of the largest horticultural sectors, so I am pleased that restrictions have now been eased.

We must learn from Covid-19 regarding our approach to the domestic agricultural policy and international trade policy post Brexit. A focus on food security and food resilience during this epidemic is, and must be, financially supported. We must see the gradual phasing out of CAP direct payments and move to a welcome system that: rewards farmers and growers; increases farm productivity while delivering fairness along the food supply chain; includes a duty to support our environment; instils confidence for the long term; and builds capacity to increase our export markets. Post Covid, to see UK agriculture operate again in an increasingly global market, agriculture must not be left behind.

Agriculture: Dairy Prices

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Tuesday 28th April 2020

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of changing dairy prices on farmers.

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Lord Fowler Portrait The Lord Speaker
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Thank you, Chief Whip. Can you stay on the line and at least field the questions that will come? The right reverend Prelate needs to ask his supplementary.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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Thank you very much. I cannot thank the Minister for his Answer because he has not given me one, but he will be aware that some dairy producers are unable to change contracts and are finding it extraordinarily difficult to access business support grants. What changes have Her Majesty’s Government made in the past month to cut red tape and save some of our dairy farmers who are going bankrupt?

Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait Lord Ashton of Hyde
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I should first declare an interest. I am not a farmer, but I own a farm and my tenant is a dairy farmer. Obviously, these are difficult circumstances. Dairy farmers have a particular problem. I know that there is a great difference depending on where dairy farmers sell their milk. For example, if they are selling their milk to supermarkets, that is okay, but those selling to other enterprises that are not functioning in the same way have different problems. I know that some have had to pour milk down the drain. I will take the right reverend Prelate’s specific question away and make sure that I get him a sensible answer because I do not know the details at the moment, I am afraid.

Tree Pests and Diseases

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Thursday 13th February 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Colgrain Portrait Lord Colgrain (Con)
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My Lords, it is sobering to consider that not many of us alive today remember what the English countryside looked like before the ravages of Dutch elm disease. It is for those of us who do remember to draw a parallel between that cataclysm and the one we are told is about to descend on us with ash dieback, which I think will alter the countryside to a far greater degree than most can appreciate. It is timely that we are having this debate, and I congratulate my noble and learned friend Lord Hope and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on securing it.

I served recently on your Lordships’ ad hoc Rural Economy Committee. In our report we laid emphasis on the importance of a place-based approach. This is particularly true of any discussion about woodland tree pests and diseases, where my personal experience and observations relate specifically to Kent. We have two tree types most at risk from disease: the native oak, and the sweet chestnut, historically an import but which has now become part of our woodland vernacular.

With the Chatham dockyard nearby and the oaks of England providing the crucial first line of defence in the construction of ships of the line for the Royal Navy from Elizabethan to Napoleonic times, oaks and Kent come naturally in the same sentence. Oak dieback and acute oak decline have been evident for a number of years. We have an ongoing monitoring programme, and in many instances it seems difficult to distinguish dieback from the other diseases from which the oak suffers, such as defoliation by the oak processionary moth. Certain gradual and sudden deaths are problematic to diagnose, with some people maintaining that perhaps certain individual trees have been weakened by the effects of global warming—on which I have my doubts. Oak and ash trees dying across our landscape would make it nigh on unrecognisable, and any science that can be funded to help arrest such a tragedy should be hugely encouraged.

Kent has many tens of thousands of acres of sweet chestnut, a versatile wood used historically for pit props in east Kent coalfields, hop poles when we had a vibrant beer industry, charcoal when London depended on that fuel source, and fencing materials. It is still valued for the last and is an excellent biomass fuel source, given the intensity of its burn. The arrival of sweet chestnut blight has given us cause for huge concern. While it seems to be contained currently, it has brought home the need for the proper monitoring of imports and for endless in-field or in-wood vigilance.

Those who lived through the great storm of 1987 remember its immediate effects, but those who were in the eye of it continue to live with its consequences. For us in west Kent, the obliteration of the deer fences at the National Trust’s Knole Park resulted in the introduction to the locality of a fallow deer herd population that has been impossible to control. The effect on natural regeneration of native woodland has been devastating and catastrophic, as has the effect on ground-nesting birds when all natural cover has been grazed away. There are said to be more deer in England now than at any time in our history, which will have a severely detrimental effect on self-sown and self-selecting species. Advocates of rewilding who want to include the introduction of deer in that process should realise the disadvantages this can produce.

However, the foreign invader that has taken most advantage of the devastation wrought by the storm is the rhododendron ponticum, another persistent and vigorous invader that leaves a barren undercanopy that is hostile to all our native fauna and flora. Along with other plants introduced originally for Victorian gardens, such as Japanese knotweed, it is expensive and time-consuming to deal with and should be in the bull’s-eye for any new forestry grant programme that emanates from the Agriculture Bill.

Last but by no means least is the destroyer of much new tree growth, the grey squirrel—evidenced by brown strips of barked saplings and dead new growth in plantation and coppice—another pest introduced for aesthetic reasons with no appreciation of the damage it could do if left unchecked, not least to our native red squirrel, birds’ eggs and unfledged chicks. It seems we are unable to control it—a view that probably has much in common with the prevailing wisdom of our grandparents’ generation about the rabbit, which in its millions was devastating field and woodland crops. That was controlled in the end by the advent of myxomatosis. Let us hope that scientists can come up with a more humane solution for the grey squirrel, but a solution there must be if we are to encourage a vibrant commercial woodland industry.

We can expect to have to deal with natural and weather-related disasters, and we are at the mercy of windborne spores and pests, such as ash cholera and the box moth, but what we can prevent we must guard against, such as the import of disease on young plants and the release into the wild of animals that will upset our wonderful, historic, native ecosystem. We should also guard against our own ill-thought-out measures such as plastic tree guards, which blight our woodland for decades and leave permanent pollution.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for obtaining the debate and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cope of Craighead, for his excellent introduction. For these Benches, and indeed for many Members of your Lordships’ House, trees have a special significance. They feature in the first chapter of the holy scriptures in Genesis and they reappear in the final chapter of the Bible in the Book of Revelation chapter 22, where we find that enigmatic phrase

“the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The ancients certainly knew some of the medicinal properties of leaves. Perhaps what they did not quite realise in the way we do today, due to scientific research, is the extraordinarily vital role trees play in modern life by absorbing carbon dioxide and other chemicals, and trapping airborne dust. Strategically planted trees, along with appropriate hedging, can make a material difference by reducing pollution alongside busy roads. In urban areas they regulate temperature, helping to reduce heat in the summer and, if planted in the right places, acting as windbreaks and even providing energy savings in the winter.

We have yet again been facing more flooding and revisiting its causes, part of which is to do with the removal of important areas of trees, which have the ability to slow down the run-off when there are heavy rains and which themselves absorb massive amounts of water. As well as providing habitats for wildlife, they have many wider benefits. Indeed, some research suggests that when people recuperate in hospitals they do so at a faster rate if they have windows looking out over the countryside, particularly where there are trees.

Three miles north of St Albans where I live is the newish Heartwood Forest, on the edge of the village of Sandridge. It is a wonderful project that has been developed by the Woodland Trust. It has 850 acres— 340 hectares—of woodland, with more than half a million native trees. Half a million is a lot of trees to get planted, yet the Committee on Climate Change recommends that we will need to plant about 30,000 hectares —74,000 acres—of woodland annually if we are to address issues of climate change. So far we are planting fewer than that. Indeed, some voices claim that we ought to be planting more like a billion trees, which may seem beyond our reach and an impossible target.

However, we can learn a lot from Heartwood Forest. It has been the most extraordinary initiative, bringing together local people to work voluntarily on the project. It is increasing wildlife and involving many groups and schools from every part of society. Above all it has produced a wonderful local amenity that is drawing people from a wide area to enjoy the walks. It is good for the physical and mental health of the local community.

Tree planting is crucial for much wider issues, as is trying to work out how we can prevent the death of those trees that are dying. It is notable that, as Defra put it, since 2010, some 15 million trees have been planted, and there is a 25-year environmental plan to grow woodland cover further.

In the dioceses of the Church of England we are playing our part. The Diocese of Lincoln is planning to use small areas of underproductive glebe for tree planting. The Bishop of Norwich has taken to presenting all confirmation candidates with a hazel sapling, so that they can plant a tree and one day hold a hazelnut. Those who know the spiritual works of Julian of Norwich will understand the hazelnut’s significance. The plans for the Lambeth Conference taking place in Canterbury this summer include planting the “Lambeth Grove” on four acres of diocesan land near the village of Shepherdswell.

I am glad to have planted more than 40 trees in my garden in the last few years. However, turning to the focus of today’s debate—the increase in diseases and pests affecting our native trees—the close connection with climate change makes this important not only for those of us who love and plant trees. How do we get this virtuous cycle going? There is evidence that some diseases are surviving in this country because our temperature is edging up. The danger is that as diseases take hold because the new climate is more attractive for them, it will be even harder to get the extra trees in, not least our native trees. Native trees are less likely to need lots of fertilisers, and are more likely to grow healthily, because this is where they have developed.

How do we address this downward spiral, when, with increasing temperatures, more diseases are coming? There is the danger that we are fighting a losing battle. Therefore, I ask the Minister, first, about the general commitment of the Government to tree planting for rural landowners. Is that going to continue? Can it be increased? To what extent is it dependent on planting native trees?

Secondly, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to reduce dramatically the numbers of trees being imported? Can we follow the good example of the Woodland Trust, which now only plants trees propagated in this country? What representations are the Government making to the largest landowners in the country to encourage them to get on board with the prevention of native tree diseases and pests? Finally, what assessment is being made of Defra’s tree health resilience strategy? How do we know what impact it is making and how can we build on it in the years to come?

The Lord Bishop of Oxford Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for introducing this very important subject at such a crucial time.

I will concentrate almost entirely on ash dieback. We were slow in waking up to this terrible threat to our ash, and I am not sure that, even now, we are fully aware of the scale of the devastation upon us. Writing in 2012, George Monbiot pointed out that there had been clear signs of the disease for the previous three years and nothing had been done about it. Since then, the Government have taken a number of valuable initiatives, as outlined in the Answer to my Oral Question on 25 June last year. However, the rapidity of the spread has taken everyone by surprise. There is now hardly any part of the country unaffected. I spent last summer in west Wales, on the edge of Cardigan Bay. Normally, I look out over a field lined with the most glorious green ash on either side.

In the Bible there is a little-known form of poetic literature called a lament. The sight of those devastated ash trees provoked in me nothing less than such a lament:

“Thin branches stripped bare, stark against the sky,

Dry sticks prodding the air

Through leaves once fair,

Now drooping. O why?

Dying back. Dying back.

Fresh leaves once so green and fresh

Sagging in defeat,

Once you rose so high above the fern.

Great green Wales in slow retreat.

Dying back. dying back”.

What is happening to our trees is indeed an occasion for lament. I have mentioned ash, others have mentioned chestnut and oak, and I am sure we shall hear more about that.

We are waking up to this, but I am not sure that we have even now ascertained the scale of it. At the moment the ash is a major feature of our landscape. There are 123,000 hectares of ash in stocked woodlands, second only to oak in extent. Outside woodlands, the UK has an estimated 60 million ash trees, which represent 12% of our broadleaf. However, the ash is important not only for itself but for the species associated with it. There are 955 species associated with ash and 45 of these are thought to have only ever been found on ash trees.

This disease will be devastating not only for the look of the countryside but for all the ecological and environmental benefit trees bring. As we know, trees are fundamental to the ecosystem and play a major role in counteracting the effects of global warming and climate change by absorbing and storing carbon.

There is also the effect on human health. Trees are not only good to look at but are good for our health. Recent studies in medical journals show a correlation between the spread of ash dieback and the increase of respiratory diseases in a given area. In all, Defra has estimated that ash has a social and environmental value of £230 million per year.

One lesson to be learned from what has happened to ash dieback is the need for stricter controls on all imports of seeds and saplings. Ash dieback entered the UK from East Anglia only a few years ago and, as I mentioned earlier, spread with extraordinary rapidity. One question for the Government is whether import controls are stricter now than they were then. I am sure other noble Lords are better qualified than I am to judge whether the steps the Government have so far taken are adequate in this area.

My major concern is, first, with research. It is vital that we identify, develop and plant strains of ash which are resistant to the disease. The Government say that they have put £6 million into this but I wonder whether this is adequate for the scale of the crisis. What success has there so far been in identifying types of ash that are tolerant of the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which blocks water getting to the leaves and causes the ash gradually to die back from the branches. When a strain of ash that is tolerant to the disease is found, a replanting programme must begin. This should be on a massive scale.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, some noble Lords will remember—as I do—when our fields and hedgerows were resplendent with the English elm. As a result of Dutch elm disease, 60 million trees were lost in the UK in two epidemics. Only 100 were left after the last one. Now, a variety that is resistant to the disease has been identified. What is the Government’s policy on replanting elm, and what success have they had in replacing those millions of destroyed trees? It was good to hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, about the success he has been having in Scotland not only with ash but with elm.

I hope the Government might be spurred by the example of Ethiopia, where there is a programme to plant 4 billion trees in a single year; last year, 330 million were planted in one day alone.

At the moment it is the policy in some areas—for instance, the Ministry of Defence—to fell these trees when they are diseased. Is this really the best policy? It could be argued that if they are left standing—or, at least, if they are left on the ground—all the insects we need in this country could be saved. We are now hearing about an insect apocalypse: 80% of them are about to be lost. We need to retain insect life, on which the whole of the ecosystem depends, in this country in any way we can.

Ash dieback is devastating our countryside, causing significant damage to our ecosystem, to our health—spiritual, mental and physical—and to the economy. There needs to be a sense of urgency, both in research and replanting, which we can but hope will spring from this.

Agriculture Bill: Food Production

Lord Bishop of St Albans Excerpts
Monday 27th January 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether food production is included in the definition of “public good” contained in the Agriculture Bill.

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, I declare my farming interests, as set out in the register. The Agriculture Bill includes powers to give financial assistance to farmers based on public money for public goods. These are goods and services not provided by the market. Clause 1(4) states:

“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. A prime duty of government is to ensure that there is enough food to feed the population. Yet one has only to think about the impact of things such as coronavirus, and the immediate ban on the movement of live animals, to show how vulnerable we are, not least when this country is only 60% self-sufficient in food. Will the Minister assure the House that the Agriculture Bill will maximise the level of food production and food security for the country’s future?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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My Lords, Clause 17 provides a duty to report to Parliament on food security. This country clearly has a high degree of food security and we rely on a supply of healthy and homegrown produce. The whole point of the Agriculture Bill is to ensure that we have efficient farming, good-quality produce and an improved environment—those things go hand in hand.