(4 months, 1 week ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(7 months, 2 weeks ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(8 months, 1 week ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(10 months, 2 weeks ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(10 months, 3 weeks ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(1 year ago)Lords Chamber
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.
(1 year, 1 month ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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?
(1 year, 1 month ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
(1 year, 1 month ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(1 year, 2 months ago)Lords Chamber
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?
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.
(1 year, 3 months ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(1 year, 4 months ago)Lords Chamber
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?
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.
(1 year, 4 months ago)Lords Chamber
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?
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.
(1 year, 5 months ago)Lords Chamber
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?
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.
(1 year, 5 months ago)Lords Chamber
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.
(1 year, 8 months ago)Lords Chamber
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.
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.
(1 year, 8 months ago)Lords Chamber
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.”
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.