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Earl Peel: My Lords, I am extremely interested in what the noble Lord is saying. I have no doubt at all that the opportunities to generate new businesses in the country are absolutely essential for rural survival. But does the noble Lord agree that, rather than spending money on new businesses, at this moment in time it is absolutely essential to keep in business those that are there at the moment? I suggest that perhaps that money could best be used--or, indeed, other money--to ensure that we do not lose the farmers of this country, who are the backbone of rural Britain.
Lord Brennan: My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention, with which I entirely agree. I did not have the time properly to develop the point. I was suggesting that the part of the Government White Paper directed at new business should be partly adapted to meet the present needs of farming. That programme exists. It was presumably approved by the Treasury; it can be adapted to the exigencies of the present situation. It does not require yet another beginning.
Finally, I turn to the question of a food policy for the future. Two elements predominate in society's view of food. The first element is food safety. The Government's introduction of the Food Standards Agency is to be welcomed, but food safety depends on the second element; that is, food security. Where does it come from? Who produces it? How reliable is it?
I respectfully suggest that it is wasteful of the House's time continually to criticise the common agricultural policy and to worry about subsidies in other countries. It should be borne in mind--but it should be borne in mind because we apply subsidies as well. The OECD has identified the fact that, in the OECD group of countries, every day of each year there is spent by the governments involved 1 billion US dollars in subsidies. With the common agricultural policy and its a system of complex subsidies, the idea that we could safely look to a free market in food is, frankly, absurd. It may be a long-term objective worthy of pursuit, but it will not happen in the near future.
That therefore requires us to look to our country as the primary source of our food. In the long-term development of a policy that meets the required standards of food safety and food security, it is our countryside, our farming, that will best secure those twin national interests.
I fully appreciate that a long-term policy of this kind is not at the forefront of our considerations today. But it soon will be. People will find it all the more difficult to accept if, after a crisis like this, we cannot devise a longer-term policy that protects the countryside and the consumer, and therefore benefits the nation.
The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, it is a daunting task to speak when we are in the midst of such a crisis and after so many of your Lordships have given the House a vivid picture of what is going on in the countryside and all the problems that we face. I declare my interest as a personal recipient of a great many of the forms of agricultural assistance that the Government provide. As a hill farmer, one qualifies for quite a number of them.
I echo the wish, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, for a scientific answer to foot and mouth. But so far as I understand this disease, the virus mutates at such a rate that normal vaccination programmes do not touch the issue--and that is only one aspect.
Over the years, we have seen crises develop in farming. We have had crises ensuring that the population has enough food. We have had crises ensuring that the population has healthy food. We now have a crisis that centres around having food produced under the controls and conditions that the Government have laid down and of which we approve.
If I am not mistaken, the Government started off in their term of office saying that every family was paying so many pounds a week extra in order to support the CAP, when food could be bought more cheaply on the world market. To some extent, I echo some of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. But the world market is now being shown up not merely as cheap but as unaccountable. We saw a certain amount of what could be determined as unaccountable in our efforts to impose controls on the outbreak of BSE. We saw unaccountability on the content of animal foods; improper separation of food batches; problems tracing the parentage of affected stock; and the separation of specified risk materials. The list goes on and on. There are many aspects. The farming industry has doubled and redoubled its efforts to accommodate every new regulation that has been introduced to overcome these problems. Then we get foot and mouth.
During the course of this evening, and over the years, we have had a litany of the problems that affect farming and the countryside. The details are certainly very painful to hear. The falling incomes of farmers were referred to by my noble friend Lady Byford. From the MAFF figures that I saw on the website, it appears that total income from farming is now 40 per cent below what is was four years ago. It is now at the level at which it stood in 1980, which is very nearly a generation ago.
Forestry and coniferous timber prices are now 62 per cent lower than they were in 1995. I believe that there has been a slight increase this year. Perhaps in the course of the subject that we are debating tonight, I might wonder and speculate whether the Government cannot provide a small, local hike in coniferous timber prices by using trees now that they seem to be running out of railway sleepers for the burning of animal carcasses.
Even the other great rural diversification of tourism, which has been mentioned by most noble Lords who have spoken this evening, has not been having such a good time, even during the past year. In Scotland last year official returns showed a 10 per cent drop. Factors to which that was attributed are: fuel prices; the autumn petrol crisis; and the strong pound. All of this now appears to be insignificant when one considers the horrendous drop that the industry is experiencing at present.
I hope that it will not appear cruel of me to ask whether this is a moment when one might remind those businesses of what having a reasonable access to the countryside means to them. When it is suggested that there might be a levy per bed night or a similar contribution to help maintain footpaths or look after the countryside in popular mountain areas, like those where I live, there are always great cries of what an imposition that would be. However, we are now seeing how much this very vital industry depends on having a reasonably open and picturesque countryside.
I return to the current crisis. The newspaper headlines are rightly full of the welfare problems of lambing ewes and calving cows, which are now at some distance from their main steading. However, farmers are not just sitting idly by in the hope that something will turn up. Those who have stock are trying to think how to cope with the regulations and the situation in which they now find themselves.
My noble friend Lord Monro of Langholm mentioned sheep in Scotland. We are only a few weeks from 1st April. This is the date in Scotland when somewhere in the region of 750,000 hoggets, or young sheep, from the less favoured areas are due to be returned to their own holding from the low-ground
It is very reassuring to learn that a derogation was given at last week's Management Committee in Brussels to allow the use of set-aside land to provide extra grazing. Following on the restrictions that had to be imposed on some units because of the recent occurrence of TB, it is also perhaps fortunate that at times of disease farms are allowed to exceed these thresholds by a factor of 20 per cent. However, can the Minister say whether the Government are satisfied that this will really be enough in the circumstances that are now occurring?
A different avenue that might be helpful to explore comes under one of the agri-environmental schemes. I know that I have a management agreement that has been entered into under the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, where certain fields have to be closed off from grazing during the prime grazing season. That is fairly common under that type of scheme. If it was found to be advantageous because of stocking density problems, at what level of the administration would permission have to be obtained for those restrictions to be lifted?
I come back to one question which I hope will not require an immediate answer but there is no doubt that it will be looked into. We would all like to be reassured that the fact that the controls had to be administered through the mechanism of the devolved regions did not cause any delay in the introduction of the movement restrictions.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I declare an interest. I am a small landowner with some Hebridean sheep. I farm grain in partnership. I have eight grey-faced Dartmoors. I hope that they will increase in number as they are very woolly and have woolly legs and are a rare breed.
I am also a member of the committee of the British Horse Driving Trials Association which holds approximately 10 events a year. It is not a large sport; in fact, it is probably the smallest sport in the United Kingdom. However, we take ourselves quite seriously. Of those 10 or 11 events, three have already had to be cancelled. They did not have to be cancelled but they were cancelled because the people concerned felt that it was thoroughly irresponsible to go ahead while the catastrophe in the countryside loomed.
The countryside can only survive on the basis of a prosperous agriculture--that has been mentioned frequently--and a multi-use agriculture. It is worth doing some calculations. Before the war, the agricultural wage was 27 shillings and sixpence a week and a tonne of wheat sold for approximately £10. In effect a tonne of wheat took seven man weeks to produce. The most recent price for a tonne of wheat was approximately £70 and a top quality combine harvester/tractor driver/skilled agricultural labourer now probably earns £20,000 a year or £400 a week gross. A tonne of wheat now takes about eight hours' work to produce, as opposed to seven weeks' work before the war. That shows the enormous increase in agricultural productivity that has occurred as a result of the boost given to it by the Boyd Orr report after the war, the threat of U-boats in the Channel and continental starvation.
Scientific and productivity advances have ensured that world famine is totally unnecessary. It is caused only by evil people with twin 500 machineguns shooting people from the back of Toyota pick-up trucks. Of course, one will have famine under those circumstances. The world has no difficulty now in producing food. The problem was well identified by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, when he mentioned the billion dollar day. I multiply the billion dollar day by 365 to get the figure of 365 billion dollars a year. If you have that level of subsidy in agriculture, you will get the most appalling distortion. I then parted company with the noble Lord because there is nothing we can do about our own agriculture without going to Brussels. Let us not kid ourselves; Brussels runs agriculture. We cannot step one iota out of line.
When I first came to your Lordships' House a very long time ago, I voted enthusiastically for the accession treaties to the European Community. I remember people saying, "Ah, when the Brits are in they can change the CAP". What did I hear the Prime Minister say the other day? "With our influence in Europe we will change the CAP". I am afraid that the system is irrevocably broken; it is irrevocably harmful; and we must have control of our own agriculture. That is not a xenophobic remark. I am a xenophiliac; I love abroad. I love foreigners. I just do not like the way that they are running the European agricultural policy.
I give another little vignette. When my grandfather retreated from Mons in 1914, there were behind him fields full of oxen and people hand-hoeing the root crops. Now if one drives from Calais to Troyes one sees nothing but a prairie desert. The French countryside is deserted. There are deserted villages in the Massif Central and some in Burgundy are full of people only in the summer. The common agricultural policy has failed everyone. With the combination of an over-bureaucratised, uncontrollable CAP with world subsidies at the level to which the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, referred, we shall get into serious trouble.
I must be brief. I think that everyone has spoken at slightly too great length so I shall try to set an example for the remaining speakers. We cannot blame the store trade; it has been going for ever. In 1693 we passed an Act of Parliament banning the Irish store cattle trade. The Yorkshire farmers did not like the competition. In the 1950s, my noble friend Lord Jopling used to buy cattle in the Dublin market which would be put on boat and train and offloaded at his local station the next morning. The cattle would walk up the A1 to his farm. There is nothing new about the store trade. Last year I bought some sheep from, I think, Carlisle market. Luckily this year I did not do so; otherwise there would probably be foot and mouth disease in Surrey.
An appalling crisis has occurred. But I ask the Minister this question of which I have given her notice. I considered recently the countryside stewardship scheme. I rang the individual concerned who said, "I'm terribly sorry. I cannot come to your farm". If I want to go ahead, I have to get an application in by May. If I cannot get advice, I cannot put in an application. What will happen?
In the 1967 outbreak there was greater use of liming than now. Lime is not used because of various local authority waste disposal regulations. Can a knife be taken to those? I suggest that to bury and lime is better than burning. Furthermore, it appears that beasts are being valued individually which holds up the slaughter process. That cannot be right.
I stand to be corrected, but I believe that if a vet says that an animal has foot and mouth disease, he is not allowed to shoot it immediately. He has to take a swab, and it has to be confirmed. The Minister shakes her head. I shall go no further on that point.
There is a tiny sliver of a silver lining in this crisis. I believe that this crisis will have brought the countryside more to the attention of, and the grown up sympathy of, the rest of the town population. That may be a silver lining.
My final plea is this. This crisis will eventually be over. I think that criticisms of the Government have been mainly through ignorance. With foot and mouth disease, out comes a "blue book" plan from the Ministry of Agriculture. It is not like BSE, when nobody had a clue what was happening and they floundered their way through it. At least we know what to do. After the crisis is over, please may we have another equivalent of the Northumberland committee? I have not mentioned this to him, but I can think of nobody better to chair it than my noble friend Lord Inglewood.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I am grateful to those who have made possible this debate, which is very necessary at this difficult time for farmers and all those affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. Also, the recent dissatisfaction in the countryside deserves our attention and a search for a better way ahead.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, put forward some good ideas that should be considered, particularly the proposal for dialogue with the regional development agencies. There are regional differences and there will probably be even more by the time the outbreak finally ends.
I begin with the foot and mouth outbreak, which must be foremost in our minds at the moment. The sympathy of all in the House goes to the farmers. Our thanks go to all those who are fighting the outbreak, particularly the veterinary officers, public services and local authorities that have been referred to. The speed at which they are able to act may not be entirely satisfactory in some cases, but overall the response has been very good. The reaction was very quick at the beginning and they have done an excellent job.
It is disheartening that the cases are so widely dispersed, but it seems that all the cases can be accounted for by the trade in animals or by contacts in markets, notably from Longton in Cumbria, or the abattoir. However, it is disappointing that in certain cases, particularly in my county of Somerset, the virus seems more likely to have been spread by the wind or in some other way.
It is important not to confuse, as some have done, the real issue of how best to protect ourselves against foot and mouth disease in the future by attributing the problem simply to industrial agriculture or intensive farming. That argument has been exaggerated. We have had 20 years free from foot and mouth disease and it is 33 years since the last major outbreak. Of course, there have been huge changes in farming practice in that period. Most of the changes in the meat production sector have been led by the food chain and the development of supermarkets and strong catering companies.
The general global pattern is that foot and mouth is absent where the most modern farming practices are used, such as in western Europe and North America, but it continues to be present elsewhere, such as in southern Asia and parts of southern Africa. United Kingdom sheep and lamb production, which is the most affected so far by the current imported outbreak of foot and mouth disease, is an excellent example of extensive agriculture, which has traditionally involved some movement of sheep between the hills and the lowlands. Our cattle are, for the most part, grass-fed and our pig production is probably less intensive than that in many other countries.
I recall visiting a beef lot in the United States, in Greeley County, which had 10,000 cattle on one holding. We do not have that type of operation here. Basically, we practise an extensive agriculture. I also believe that there are two abattoirs within 10 miles of the farm at Heddon in Northumberland, where the first cases of the present outbreak took place.
I was in the Ministry of Agriculture at the time of the last great foot and mouth crisis when Fred Peart was the Minister. For some months, my life was wholly taken up with foot and mouth disease. I did not want to see it again and I do not want to see it again in the future.
Of course, it is far too soon to draw direct lessons for the future from the present outbreak. But one thing is certain: this is an imported disaster. We have not had foot and mouth disease in western Europe for years, and the present virus is a type which is found today in southern Asia and other distant countries. If we wish to maintain our slaughter and disease-free policies, rather than switch to a vaccination policy if that were possible, we must ensure that our defence against import of the virus is as secure as possible. I am sure that those of us who have been to Australia will remember being sprayed in the aeroplane. Those of us who went to America and admitted that we had been on a farm had our shoes taken off.
The defences in other countries are extremely severe, and it is important that that should be so. I assume that we should implement a strict enforcement of rules against personal imports of potentially risky material and exotic species and a tight control of waste products--in particular, from aircraft and ships. I also want us to consider the economic and health cases for the continuation, or not, of the feeding of swill--
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