Debates between Lord Clark of Windermere and Lord Blencathra during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 9th Jul 2020
Agriculture Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tue 7th Jul 2020
Agriculture Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansarad) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansarad): House of Lords

Agriculture Bill

Debate between Lord Clark of Windermere and Lord Blencathra
Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 9th July 2020

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 - Government Bill Page View all Agriculture Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-III Third marshalled list for Committee - (9 Jul 2020)
Lord Blencathra Portrait Lord Blencathra (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I think we have all been slightly caught out there. For all the amendments on which I may speak today, I declare my interest as in the register.

I am sorry to disagree with my noble friend Lord Lucas. While I am in complete agreement about the need to improve agricultural technology, robotics and genetics, I just do not think his amendment is necessary, since my reading of subsection (2) is that it does just that. It says that the Secretary of State may give financial assistance to

“starting, or improving the productivity of, an agricultural, horticultural or forestry activity”.

To me, that seems to cover what my noble friend has suggested in his amendment.

I agree entirely with him that we need a huge leap forward in technology, especially in the horticultural sector. I have read that one side-effect of President Trump’s curtailment of cheap Mexican and Latin American labour has been a big increase in robotics and technology in the United States to plant and harvest crops. We need to do exactly the same here. Exciting robotic machines are now being developed in the UK. In swotting up for this amendment, I looked at a recent video showing a machine operating in a vegetable-growing area; it had what I would call very fine fingers or tines knocking out the weeds between the plants but leaving the lettuces completely intact. Technology is the solution, not cheap eastern European temporary workers.

I also look forward to changes in the rules when we leave the EU so that we can do gene editing—not genetic modification, just gene editing. It is terribly important that we move to do that as quickly as we can when we leave the EU. We do not need anything in this Bill to give us the powers to do so.

I cannot support Amendments 43 and 54. These small local community farms do a good job, and they may currently qualify for support under ELMS, but they cannot feed the nation. I do not accept that they can supply up to 80% of the food this country needs. Huge changes are coming to mainstream farm production. I want all Defra’s efforts to be concentrated on the big picture of delivering ELMS and not diverted on to something nice but at the moment irrelevant to feeding the nation. It is quite possible that many of these local enterprises may qualify under the ELM schemes when they are fully developed. We should leave it at that.

Lord Clark of Windermere Portrait Lord Clark of Windermere (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I support Amendment 12, so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, and Amendment 13, which improves on the original amendment. We confirmed last time that forestry was included in the Bill. Amendment 13 spells this out, making the link between forestry and climate change. We all appreciate that trees have a massive beneficial effect in capturing carbon and climate change. We all want to try to take that forward.

I spoke in the first day of debate on this Bill about trying to open up forest areas for public access. I explained how the Forestry Commission had decided that all its freehold land should give access on foot under the right to roam legislation. Since then, issues have been raised. Could the Minister take these on board and give them some thought, not necessarily today but moving forward? We in the Forestry Commission, as a government department, took the decision to dedicate that land for open access in perpetuity. It has been suggested that, if the land is sold, that right falls. That is not what we thought was the case at the time. What is the case?

This has a bigger implication for how we work and give farmers greater freedom to farm in upland areas, where there is a lot of opportunity for increased tree- planting, which helps the economy of the area and the farm, and helps with climate change. If a piece of land on a hillside, currently subject to the right to roam under the freedom to roam access legislation, is converted to forestry, does that right of access fall? These two examples are quite important, because it might affect how this piece of legislation will help build the future sustainability of upland areas—or not.

Agriculture Bill

Debate between Lord Clark of Windermere and Lord Blencathra
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansarad) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansarad): House of Lords
Tuesday 7th July 2020

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 - Government Bill Page View all Agriculture Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-II(Rev) Revised second marshalled list for Committee - (7 Jul 2020)
Lord Blencathra Portrait Lord Blencathra (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare my interests, as on the register. I too regret that I was unable to participate in the Second Reading, but I will be mercifully brief with my comments on this group of amendments.

My worry with this group is the same as that which I had with the first two groups, on which I desperately wanted to speak but, through my incompetence, I notified the Whips incorrectly. My worry is that these amendments, like the others, are too prescriptive and not necessary to achieve the objectives on which all noble Lords agree. I counted and, if all the amendments in the first two groups are agreed, Clause 1 of the Bill will have 42 new and additional purposes added to it. I think that is unnecessary.

I am very keen on access to the countryside and to all green space, and I share the views of my noble friend Lord Randall that we need to increase the number of people from minority groups who visit the countryside. Studies show that the problem is that some youngsters will not go to a park 500 yards from their home. In such circumstances, it is difficult to get them into the wider countryside. This is a huge educational problem.

I do not support the amendments of my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, on a small but important technicality. I believe that the word “supporting” can include “enhancing”; therefore, changing it is not necessary and could be damaging. If the definition is simply enhancing, it may freeze out farmers who have done a lot of access work, above the minimum, but can do no more to enhance it and would not qualify. It would therefore be a bit unfair if those farmers, having already reached a high access standard, got no payment, but those who had done little got payment for enhancing by just a small amount. I submit that the word “supporting” is adequate and can do all the enhancing work that colleagues suggested.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that the NHS and Public Health England are working with lots of organisations, including Natural England, on something called social prescribing. I believe that, until a few months ago, about 2,000 NHS staff were being trained in GPs’ surgeries to get people to do various things other than queue up for pills. That put it rather crudely; I do not mean that to be unfair on people who need pills. But social prescribing could save the NHS billions. Once this Covid-19 crisis is over or under control, I hope we get back to social prescribing.

On Amendment 34, I agree it would be good if the wider or urban public understood what agriculture does or where their food comes from, but this is not a job for government. Farmers themselves and their organisations—the NFU, CLA and Tenant Farmers Association—through farm open days and schoolchildren visits, must promote public understanding and engagement with agriculture. That is their business. No one knows it better. They are the best people to educate the public, rather than the Government.

Lord Clark of Windermere Portrait Lord Clark of Windermere (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, the Government deserve congratulations for bringing forward this Agriculture Bill. It offers the same potential as the Attlee Government’s efforts in 1947 and the common agricultural policy that has dominated us for so long. I am particularly pleased that the Government have realised that farming is changing and changing quite dramatically. I sometimes feel that those at the centre do not quite understand the subtlety of those changes.

I have an advantage: I live in the area where I started work, on the land, 50 or 60 years ago. I can determine the changes in agriculture. I will come back to that in a moment on these clauses. This has been a particularly interesting eight hours of debate. There were issues in the previous two groups of amendments related to those we are discussing now, but I held back because I wanted to speak on rights of access, which I think are critical.

Before I develop that, it seems as if this has been a Second Reading debate, made even more confusing by the considerate and detailed response of the Minister, who has gone out of his way to sum up, on two occasions, which has been an advantage. One point has kept coming up about forestry and woodland. There is confusion on what the Government have in mind; perhaps they have not got their sights completely set at this stage. I was led to believe that certain parts of woodland, and certain forests—which were a bit different—might receive a public grant. We were certainly looking at huge areas of new woodlands being created up here in Cumbria, just outside the national park. There is a great deal of potential for access in and on forestry land.

I had the honour of being chair of the Forestry Commission for nine years. It will be no surprise to the Minister that I was very keen to promote the right to roam in forests. We were not covered by the legislation—that was mountains, moorlands and heath above a certain height. But, when I was chair, we decided that there would be a legal right of access in all our freehold Forestry Commission land. This has not caused any fundamental difficulties in running our forests. I press the Minister to look at the possibility of permitting access to forestry land as well.

I also want to make the point that, amazingly enough, quite a lot of forestry land is near the centres of big towns, cities and urban areas. There is great potential for access in those areas. You can often get there much easier, but there are difficulties. I remember trying to negotiate access to a large forest within two miles of the centre of Newcastle. The Forestry Commission—we the people—owned the freehold, but I could not grant access, because when the land was bought it was agreed that the shooting rights in the forest would remain with the original vendors. To this day, people in a concentrated, built-up area are not allowed to use that forest, because of the shooting rights. I hope it might even be possible that some of the money available under the new government proposals could be used to buy out those rights. I know that there are difficulties, but I cite this because it is the way we ought to be moving forward. The holistic approach which the Government are taking to agricultural support in the future is the right one.

I mentioned earlier the subtle changes. Just outside the Lake District National Park in the lower levels of the valleys there were a lot of small mixed farms. Those farms provided employment and were viable, but I can tell the House that in the Bowness-on-Windermere area in which I live, I cannot think of a farm that has a single cow. There is the odd steer about, but all the land is grazed by sheep. That means that most of the small farmsteads have been sold off to be converted into country cottages. We are now finding the cost of that. Field upon field which used to be pristine hayfields are now covered in reeds. Stone walls which were maintained and rebuilt if they fell over—you had to do that to keep the cows in—are now left unbuilt. It is a real problem when you are trying to have countryside that deals with so many people. The Lake District National Park—I tell the House this repeatedly, and I do not apologise—has 19 million visitors a year, a vast number.