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Lord Rowallan: My Lords, I welcome the number of people taken off the street by the New Deal, but is the Minister aware that, in yesterday's Daily Mail, Harry Fletcher, Assistant General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, informed us that paedophiles are getting jobs working with children through the New Deal despite the fact that the staff of the New Deal knew of that? Will she assure the House that action will be taken to stop this happening again?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am aware of the press coverage in yesterday's newspapers of concerns about former sex offenders obtaining jobs through the New Deal. The Employment Service is doing all it can to play its part in preventing unsuitable people obtaining jobs with young people. It would never knowingly submit a serious sex offender for a job working with young children. The Employment Service requires employers, when signing up to the New Deal, to sign a declaration form confirming that they will carry out all the necessary checks with the police and others if the job includes unsupervised contact with children. The primary responsibility for checking on the suitability of people must rest with employers.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the British chambers of commerce have complained about the lack of communication with the Employment Service? That is a serious accusation. Do the Government accept that criticism?
Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords. The Employment Service is working closely with all employers and employers' organisations in the delivery of the New Deal. The fact that more than 30,000 employers have signed up to take part in it is a manifestation of the success of the Government, and of the Employment Service in particular, in making good contacts with those in the private and the public sectors who may be able to offer young people such opportunities.
Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply and the proposal for a statutory basis is certainly welcome. Is she aware, however, that there have been recent concerns about the MCA moving the goal posts in this contentious area and that the new proposal provides, and I quote,
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we are in the process of consulting on the proposals. We are very willing to listen to representations. I am grateful for the noble Earl's welcome and for his request for some clarification of the process in this complex area of the law. Perhaps I may reassure him that we are not in any way moving the goal posts or changing legal definitions. We are trying to ensure that there is an opportunity for manufacturers in particular to challenge judgments about whether something is or is not, under the law, a medicinal product. On the point about the decision being final in court, nothing that is proposed will in any way take away from manufacturers the possibility of contesting classification in either the civil or criminal courts or, indeed, of seeking a judicial review of the MCA's decisions.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, will the Minister explain why the period of consultation by the Medicines Control Agency is so short, lasting only from 6th November to 31st December? Will her department consider extending the period of consultation beyond 31st December?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I believe that the period is within the generally accepted range for consultation. However, I recognise that it coincides with the Christmas period. Although I would not encourage people to be dilatory in responding, by the same token I would not like to suggest that we would not consider responses received within a reasonable time after the close of the consultation period.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, vitamins which are currently classified as "food supplements" presumably carry no VAT, but if certain items are reclassified as "medicines", will that change their status? Will all items classified as "medicines" require a prescription or will people still be able to buy simple medicines over the counter, as now?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is not intended, under the proposals, to change the status of medicines or their classification which at present is subject to European and UK law. The question of whether a
The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, there are considerable efforts afoot on the part of Pharma Cartel to pressure the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the United Nations to outlaw information on vitamins and other natural products on the pretext of consumer protection. Is not that a form of censorship? Is the Minister aware that there is a further plan afoot by Pharma Cartel to have vitamins registered as medicines and thereby subjected to product licences and disproportionate costs, thus eliminating them from chemists' shelves?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the UK's position has been quite clear: we do not believe that there should be limits on the vitamin and mineral content of supplements on anything other than safety considerations. We should like still to be available as food supplements those products which are classified as safe.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, can the noble Baroness assure the House that the review panels referred to in the MCA's consultation letter of 6th November will, indeed, consist of experts who not only know the products in question well, but who do not represent the huge pharmaceutical interests which bear down upon this issue?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord. It is considered that the review panel needs to have a majority of expert members who are chosen for their knowledge and experience. As a rule, they will be MCA medical and pharmaceutical assessors. Exceptionally, an external assessor would be enlisted if in-house expertise were not available.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord Kimball set down for today shall be limited to three-and-a-half hours and that in the name of the Baroness Cumberlege to two hours.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I can still hear the words of that great Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, G. M. Treveleyan, from his English Social History, which he said to me on leaving the college some 50 years ago:
Those who no longer have a job in the rural economy do not stand outside the factory gates. They are not there for everybody to see. In the previous agricultural depression, and in the present unhappiness, they move away from the countryside and find work elsewhere, even abroad. However, this time round, there is a new factor which is even more worrying: there appears to be no desire among the children on so many of our small livestock holdings to carry on in the family farm.
The decay of the rural communities can be halted only by hope and enthusiasm for the future. It is not the purpose of this debate to hark backwards, but rather to look at the stark economic factors revealed by the catastrophic drop in farm income of some 33 per cent. in the past year. That figure was published last week.
The extent of the current crisis is well documented. The £120 million aid package announced last week will help some farmers' cash flow, but the industry is not looking for a quick fix. To restore confidence, the industry needs to know the future shape of the common agricultural policy, due to be agreed next year; the outcome of the negotiations of the World Trade Organisation, due to begin in January, and the effect of the further enlargement of the European Union with the first major countries joining in 2003.
I think we also need to reflect most carefully on the effect of the constitutional changes in the United Kingdom with regard to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland assemblies. Agriculture is a delegated responsibility to each one of these assemblies. We must have a coherent United Kingdom policy with no distortion of competition or preferential treatment with regard to the delegated authorities.
The object must be to ensure that farmers are encouraged to farm productive land to its optimum potential while taking all reasonable measures to protect the rural and social environment. The real problem that faces us today is that of the so aptly named less favoured areas. There is a national desire to maintain a rural infrastructure in the hills. Therefore sheep and beef farming must remain viable. However, under today's circumstances they cannot survive by means of the market alone. The present system of headage payments for mature livestock merely encourages overstocking. Viable numbers of people are needed in the hills--farming, working and living--to maintain the infrastructure. There is merit in considering a "per working person" grant, to include the farmer and his wife and those who run the village shop and post office.
It has to be recognised that it is impossible to draw a definite line between the less favoured areas and the productive lowland. A scheme of halfway support is necessary for these grey areas. As deputy president of the Countryside Alliance, I know that that organisation will be at the forefront of addressing the problems of rural people, particularly in the areas I have just mentioned.
The present uncertainty highlights the contribution that country sports and game rearing make to the agricultural environment. They are an essential part of the rural economy. The annual direct expenditure on country sports in any one year now exceeds £3.8 billion flowing into the rural economy. Fox-hunting alone delivers 15,895 full-time jobs with an expenditure of £243 million, as recorded by the Cobham research consultants. Particularly in the less favoured areas, those who live in the countryside need a diversity of business to cushion them from the present economic shocks. The value of the game market alone has grown from £12 million to some £18 million in the past year. The rural areas now sell £9 million-worth of venison. Alas and alack, the amount of fish that is sold commercially is extremely small, some £650,000-worth. We shall have to tackle that matter at a later stage.
If the remaining productive land is to meet its full potential, we must accept that the current CAP is protectionist. It seeks to preserve an outdated and costly farm structure. We should look carefully at the American example. Their Freedom to Farm Act phases out subsidies and leaves the individual farmer to run his own business. We need the same system here. We need a system that is simpler and less bureaucratic and a system in which modulation has no part to play. All producers should be treated equally without discrimination with regard to size.
Animal welfare considerations should be based solely on the best scientific advice that is available and should not be unilaterally imposed on the industry. The present lurch towards green policies must be curbed and watched. The new consultation process on better protection for SSSIs must not be used to impede economic agricultural development. A flexible funding package must be made available to encourage positive management of SSSIs. The regulatory burden grows. I refer to high vehicle taxation, fuel duties, meat inspection costs and now the danger of a pesticide tax being introduced. Farmers receive too small a proportion of the final selling price of the food they produce. A better return is the key to the success of the industry.
We need to keep as many people farming as possible. Those people should be entitled to a reasonable standard of living. It follows that we need to make British agriculture as profitable as possible. That is why the catastrophic drop in farm income at the beginning of this month is of such concern. I am certain that the revised figures to be issued at the end of January will
This debate is being held 25 years after we joined the European Economic Community. What has happened in the countryside in those 25 years? Dairy cow numbers have fallen by 22 per cent. We now kill one-quarter less of clean sheep. The figure was 20.6 million 25 years ago and it is 16 million now. The figure for beef slaughtering is down by one third from what it used to be. What is worst of all, 15 per cent. of our arable land is now set-aside. All these figures represent lost production and lost profits to the farming community. Today's debate occurs almost a year after the start of the campaign, "Keep Britain Farming". The farmers are not alone in their concern for the future of the countryside. They have the unqualified support of your Lordships' House. I am certain that the debate will show that. I beg to move for Papers.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I appreciate that there are a large number of noble Lords in this House who know more about the agriculture industry than I do. However, I venture to say that there is no one in this House who is not conscious and indeed concerned about the crisis and the difficulties which face those involved in agriculture in this country today. Some sectors are perhaps more fortunate than others, although I dare say that all sectors face difficulty.
This consciousness, understanding and concern are shared by the Labour Government. That is demonstrated by the efforts they are making to offset as far as possible the difficulties that agriculture faces today. As regards what the Government have to do, and what they are expected to do, I ask noble Lords to consider that this Government have been in office just 18 months, whereas the previous government were in office for 18 years. Certainly the previous government had to face difficulties in agriculture during their time in office.
The Labour Government have not brought about the present difficulties. Mad cow disease, BSE, has been a national disaster. By the year 2001 the United Kingdom will have spent close to £4 billion on measures to combat the disease and to ensure that British beef is among the safest beef in the world to eat. The Labour Government have shown their concern, which has resulted in getting the ban lifted in Europe. Now it is hoped that farmers will be able to increase their sales abroad and perhaps move into a much better position than for some considerable time, certainly a lot longer than the 18 months during which Labour have been in power.
What have the Labour Government done? It should be acknowledged that over 18 months they have done a considerable amount. They have put £150 million into farming over the past 12 months. In addition, there is the further recently announced £120 million for hill farmers. The hill livestock compensatory allowance will account for £60 million; agri-monetary compensation £48.3 million; and the calf processing aid scheme will be extended until the end of the financial year, in March next year. The lifting of the beef ban was a marvellous achievement. For the Government to have succeeded in that took a lot of hard work. We have debated the matter previously.
A matter that causes me some concern is the demand for the ban on beef on the bone to be lifted, despite scientific evidence indicating that consumers will be at risk. It is somewhat irresponsible to call for the lifting of the ban at a time when scientists who are aware of the circumstances are saying that it still presents a danger.
Although farming is recognised as difficult and farmers will be at the sharp end, it is not only farmers who feel the impact of difficulties in the industry. My union represented people in food manufacture in areas where pies, sausages and cooked meats were being produced. All those industries are affected and, consequently, job losses occur. A chain of difficulty arises right across the board. I well remember in the 1980s representing milk workers who were employed in processing plants, milk-bottling, creameries and doorstep delivery (which we do not see too much of today). I remember when a big battle took place over the question of milk imports. We were worried about the health of people in this country. We did not feel that safety standards in milk production in Europe were as good as our own. The unions, in partnership with the Dairy Trades Federation, as it was known at that time, went to visit Commissioners in Europe, who were then my noble friend Lord Richard and the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat. I received much more sympathy for my plea and that of the industry from my noble friend than I did from the noble Lord--who told me that there was nothing wrong with continental milk; his children were drinking it. That response still rings in my ears. The milk that was coming into this country was not being sold on the doorstep; it was discounted through supermarkets and could be bought at a discounted price. That damaged doorstep deliveries. People consumed much more milk when it was delivered to the door than when they collected it from supermarkets.
As a result, and partly as a consequence of other policies, British milk processors decided that they wished to sell more milk to supermarkets and the doorstep delivery almost disappeared. What then happened was that liquid milk consumption in this country was dramatically reduced. As a result, herds became smaller since there was no longer the same
Another element has caused difficulty in the industry; namely, the break-up of the Milk Marketing Board. I am not saying that the situation should not have been changed--had the change been brought about in a sensible, stable manner. I regret the way in which it was introduced. It was the result of an obsession with deregulation rather than concern about practical transformation. Difficulties now seem to be arising, and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is examining the question of what is essentially a farmers' co-operative in the dairy industry.
I ask all noble Lords to have some measure of sympathy with what is happening and recognise the Government's attempts to offset those difficulties. I have no time to talk about reform of the CAP, but the Government are certainly tackling the issue. They wish to see the CAP reformed, to the benefit of the British farmer, and will do everything in their power to bring that about.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for introducing the debate. I go along with the noble Lord in almost all that he said. I did not necessarily follow him into the deepest recesses of his arguments. I received the slight impression that life would be improved if packs of foxhounds were allowed to roam over SSSIs. The main argument that he makes for the countryside and the strength of the agriculture industry is one that we must all support.
Last week, your Lordships were all enjoying yourselves, so that when I finally surfaced here on Thursday all my friends kept saying to me: "Tell me what has been going on in the House of Lords". I am afraid that I was not able to tell them. Not only was I not privy to the peculiar things that were happening in the Conservative Party, but I was not here. I was attending a conference in Rome--largely due to the generosity of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, who allowed me to go when he might have gone there himself. I went as one of your Lordships' IPU delegates to a conference of the FAO on the subject of feeding the world in the future in a sustainable way. It was a heartening and interesting experience. When I returned, possibly I had not learnt a great many new things, but what I had learnt in the past had been greatly reinforced together with the feeling I had in my bones, having been brought up in a period when farming in this country was important and those of us who were brought up on farms were doing something really worth while.
All the contributors to the conference were more or less unanimous--with the possible exception of the Americans. There were only two Americans there so far as I could discover. There was an American delegate who was a member of Congress, who attended for half a day, and there was a keynote speaker. The keynote
It is true that there is enough food for the world at present, but there are threats to food production all over the world. I strongly believe that at the heart of this debate is not so much what we should be doing in the rural parts of the country but that we should concentrate on the fact that it is up to every country to produce enough food to feed itself as far as it can and not to import more than it has to over large numbers of air-miles, thus depleting the world's resources and causing pollution. Food security is extremely important. I hope that as a result of this debate the Government will take to heart the necessity of understanding this basic truth about food and agriculture and its relationship to the countryside.
There is far too much talk about the necessity to restructure the agricultural industry. What does restructuring suggest to an agricultural community that is already in the depths of crisis? It suggests what the steelworkers, the coal-miners and the shipbuilders all experienced under Thatcherism. It means that this Government's mind-set is to allow a significant proportion of traditional family farming throughout the UK to disappear. If they allow it to go to the wall people will retreat from the land. Family farms will be sold. There will be more amalgamations and more agribusinesses. We shall not have the families there who, for generation on generation, have looked after these areas, be it in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, the Highlands or rural Wales. If that happens, then the great irony is that the very objectives on which there is all-party consensus in terms of CAP reform--that more funds should go into rural development, diversification, conservation and management of the habitat--will not be met and we shall not be able to develop the post-CAP reform to which the Government pay lip service.
There is a need to concentrate on support for agriculture. If we once manage to get that into our heads, and the Government manage to get it into their hearts and souls, there are some Members of your Lordships' House who sit on the Government Benches who understand all this and whom we can trust entirely. I very much look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Carter, respond to the debate, not just because he will tell us what the Government have to say--which I look forward to hearing with interest but not necessarily a great deal of hope--but because I know that he himself cares passionately for the countryside and knows a great deal about it.
Farmers need to produce food and other products of cultivation, to care for the landscape and its wildlife, to provide a sound economic base and core employment for the rural economy and to form a stable backbone in the rural community. That can in part be done by supporting smallholders and small farmers. At present 80 per cent. of subsidies go to 20 per cent. of farmers. It is not sensible to give very large subsidies to very large farmers. I concede that all farmers need subsidies these days, but they should be tapered according to scale
If we want healthy, home-grown food, a flourishing rural economy and an attractive landscape, complete with wildlife, family farmers will produce that as long as there is a profit to be made from producing food. They will produce the rural infrastructure which is needed if the countryside is to have services, such as post offices, shops and rural transport. The existence of those services requires that there be a countryside population which is able to afford what is offered and which can go on living in the countryside and that the sons and daughters of that population will go on living there--a point stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball.
It is not any particular reform that is needed, although I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Mackie and others will talk about reforms. The need is to try to get the Government to understand that agriculture is the heart of the countryside and that we cannot for ever rely on trade from abroad, which may produce food for our people but which at the same time ruins our farming industry and the countryside. If we can instil that feeling in the Government's heart, this debate will have been worthwhile.
It is exactly three weeks since we last cantered over the problems facing this country's agricultural industry. It was generally agreed in that debate that Britain's farmers are facing the worst crisis in living memory. Some of my neighbours have yet to finish their wheat harvest--and we are now under two inches of snow. That is grim, my Lords, grim. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for introducing the debate and I agree with him that it is to the future that we must now look.
I must declare an interest as someone who tries to farm in the Scottish Borders. In the previous debate I made a plea for further investment into research and development for alternative crops, particularly those that can be used for bio-fuels. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, told the House that £420,000 was currently being spent on research and development. I am afraid I believe that that sum is ridiculously low, especially as North Sea oil will not last for ever. Many valuable renewable resources can be derived from agricultural crops. Some sectors of the European chemicals and energy industries increasingly rely on vegetable oils, fibres, starch, cellulose and sugars derived from established and novel agricultural crops. Increasing the use of these renewable raw materials will help to reduce the consumption of finite resources of mineral origin and benefit the environment by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It will also improve the overall carbon balance.
It is imperative that non-food crops are available. For this, a framework must be introduced which ensures that non-food crops are a viable option for agricultural businesses, processors and consumers. Until recently the key driver for the growth of non-food crops was set-aside. Over the past 10 years there has been considerable public funding, coupled with private funding, running into millions of ecus, of projects which have improved the economic and environmental performance of non-food crops and their derivatives.
The European Renewable Raw Materials Association estimates that 5 per cent. of arable land in Europe is used for producing crops for industrial markets. Set-aside has not been the only driver which has encouraged the development of non-food crops, but it has certainly boosted the speed with which the sector has developed. However, the CAP reform proposals published by the European Commission ignore this successful development and have cast doubt over the whole future of set-aside. This doubt has been felt throughout the industry as further investment in plant, machinery and multi-annual crops is now very much in question. This suggests that set-aside is an unsatisfactory basis for support as the rate varies annually.
Naturally, this does not inspire confidence, particularly when planting multi-annual crops such as short rotation coppice. Its long term future is indeed uncertain. Agenda 2000 makes no provision whatsoever for the development of non-food crops on land which is not eligible under the arable area payments scheme. Surely this is a terrible oversight. It is vital, therefore, to consider a new support regime to provide long-term, robust measures which could qualify for WTO green-box status.
A new approach to the development of a non-food crops industry is a must, driven by a recognition of the economic, environmental and social benefits of this sector rather than dependence on set-aside production. The development of a robust industry which will deliver high quality and tailor-made raw materials for use by industry and the energy sector will clearly help the European Union to develop in a sustainable way. Non-food crops will make a strong contribution to the objective of sustainable development by creating employment and revenue opportunities in rural locations and providing obvious environmental benefits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing biodiversity in the rural landscape.
As Agenda 2000 fails to make specific provision for non-food crops it will not be profitable to plant new species for non-food use and biomass crops. If this is the case the European Union's agricultural, chemical and biomass industry will lose the market share that it has built up successfully over the past decade. Considerable investment will be wasted or, worse still, handed to our third world country competitors to capitalise on Europe's short-sightedness. Surely it must be madness.
To ensure that Europe can continue to benefit from the industry that it has developed we need a policy framework specifically designed for industrial and energy crop advancement in the long term which will allow non-food crops to compete with mainstream
Lord Jopling: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for introducing this debate in such an admirable way. I declare an interest as a farmer in arable and lowland beef farming in the north of England. I share entirely the concerns that have been expressed in your Lordships' House over the past few weeks about the current plight of agriculture. It is by far the most serious situation that I have ever known in the industry and it affects almost everybody within it. However, I should like to concentrate this afternoon on one group of farmers who cause me especially great anxiety. I refer to the smaller farmers, mostly tenants, who occupy land that is within the less favoured area or others whose land is slightly too good to qualify for assistance under the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances. In the north of England we call them "dales farmers". When I use that phrase I intend it to embrace similar farmers in the west of England, Wales and other parts of the country.
Generally speaking, these farmers do not have the buffer enjoyed by owner occupiers; they have rent to pay. Most of them rely on farming for the vast majority of their income. I believe that they are in need of particular help and the sympathy of the Government. I suggest to the Government three matters that I believe deserve their sympathy. First, I should like the Government to have another look at extending the area of land that is covered by the environmentally sensitive area scheme. I have raised this in your Lordships' House previously and I hope that I shall be forgiven for raising it again. I was the instigator of that scheme about 12 years ago. It is tailor-made for those remote dales farmers who now face the greatest difficulty.
The scheme has three great advantages. It is already accepted by Brussels, so there is no need for a lot of new legislation to extend it. It is environmentally sensitive, prohibiting the use of pesticides and chemicals and ensuring that stone walls and barns are maintained. It also ensures that wild flowers in hay meadows can seed before the hay crop is cut. Above all, it does not
Secondly, I hope that the Government will not make matters worse by changing what is already working well. After I left the department in 1987, I spoke in the other place on agriculture very rarely, but on one occasion I seriously questioned the actions of the previous government in scrapping the powers of the Milk Marketing Board. I have a good deal of sympathy with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, on this topic. I came of that generation which always saw the Milk Marketing Board as the saviour of the dales milk producers who were being beaten into the ground by the big dairies in the 1930s. The policy of the Milk Marketing Board was to adopt a universal price regardless of transport costs, but that is all behind us. The universal price remains, but the MMB does not. We now have the successor organisation Milk Marque, albeit with less powers than its predecessor, to which the noble Lord, Lord Davies, referred. That, too, is being picked over by the Director-General of Fair Trading. I hope that the Government will not allow further changes to the arrangements for marketing milk that may drive out more and more of the smaller remote milk producers in the dales. They are the first ones to go if the present arrangements for marketing milk are drastically changed.
The third point I raise concerns me very much. I refer to the effect of the Government's proposals to relax milk quotas by 4 per cent. after 2000 and to abolish them by 2006. Noble Lords will recall that when milk quotas were introduced in 1984 there was a huge amount of anguish. At that time, the anguish was directed as much at me as anyone else. Unlike most of my colleagues in Europe, I had the good fortune never to have anything thrown at me. I believe that the German Minister was burnt seven times in effigy! It was an extremely uncomfortable time. But the fact is that milk quotas have been invaluable. First, they have given milk producers a valuable asset. Secondly, by their very nature they have curtailed the creation of more and more unsaleable and unmarketable surpluses. Thirdly, and above all, they have allowed milk producers to get a fair price and therefore have not encouraged a number of highly efficient, large producers to continue to expand and create more and more unsaleable and uneatable surpluses.
I take some pride in the fact that milk quotas have been so successful. In 1984 farmers hated them, but now I believe that they like them very much. Sometimes I wish that they had said so at the time. I am told that as regards our New Zealand arrangements, the United Kingdom is currently 5 per cent. over-supplied with milk. I can only believe that the abolition of milk quotas will again encourage greater and greater surpluses and, most frightening, will put intolerable burdens on the small milk producers on marginal land who, as I have explained, caused me the greatest anxiety. There are bleak times ahead for the small tenants in the dales and on the hills. I hope that the Government will take note of this danger and that they will not make a bad situation infinitely worse.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Jopling, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Kimball, for introducing this debate and to declare an interest. I am a farmer in Cumbria--although I understand that it is customary to declare an interest where one is making money.
It is agreed throughout the Chamber that in the past 18 months we have seen agriculture in a parlous condition. The reasons for that are varied. I believe that some of the reasons can be laid at the door of the previous government, of which I was proud to be a member; undoubtedly, some of the reasons should be laid at the door of the present Government on the Benches opposite; some of it is to do with the weather, and some is simply "events, dear boy".
Perhaps I may point out two particular matters that bear thinking about. First, the Government's policy about exchanges has had a very damaging impact on agricultural prices. That has come at a time when the other factors--some of which we have heard about already this afternoon--have been militating against farming. The attitude towards exchanges has been driven by the Treasury's wish to save money. I dare say that it may find at the end of the day that, in terms of tax forgone and tax repaid, it may well now be worse off than it would have been had the prices been adjusted. That is of small consolation in rural Britain.
Secondly, it is important that, in the face of the setbacks that British agriculture has experienced, in future we make every effort to regain markets which have been lost. It is always easier to lose markets than it is to get them back. I believe that on my upland farm we have been successful with our cull ewes this year. We sold them for £2.90 each. That was before one deducts auctioneer's commission and transport. That is a measure of the kinds of difficulties that are being faced in the uplands.
In my opening comments I focused on some points of detail and, of course, detail is important. But it is also at least as important, in the context of the world that we are now in, that we also look at the wider picture. After all, what is the point of farming at the end of the 20th century? What is the point of the countryside? I believe that it is necessary to be clear about that because it is only by doing so that we can have a policy framework that will enable us to have the kind of farming and countryside that we want in the next millennium.
It is quite interesting to turn to Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome, which is the text on which the entire common agriculture policy is written. The common agricultural policy is quite rightly widely derided, but Article 39--I do not propose to bore your Lordships by quoting it--spells out in terms what is the purpose of the policy and why. Against that background it has been an effective basis for a policy albeit one which, in my opinion, is now out of date and, in a number of material respects, misguided.
I am sure that there is agreement throughout the House that in such areas it is not the Government's business to run agriculture in any kind of hands-on manner. But at the same time, because of our history
For many years the framework of the politics in which agriculture operates has not been national politics. We have only to go back to the great burning issues associated with the Corn Laws to appreciate that British agriculture cannot be isolated from events outside these islands. That has merely been underscored by our membership of the Community. When one looks at recent developments in the Community and the reform process that is under way of the common agricultural policy, it seems to me that there is a very strong case for saying that the Agenda 2000 initiative and the World Trade Organisation talks are as much symptoms of what is happening in the wider world as being themselves engines for change.
We are living in a world which is changing very fast. It is different from what we have been used to. Society is changing and it is different from what we are used to. Technology is changing and enables things to be done which were completely unthinkable a few years ago. After all, is agriculture any more primarily about food production? I personally believe that it should be. It is particularly regrettable that, for example, certain aspects of the quota system have meant that as regards milk production the capacity for milk processing has had to close because it has not been possible to acquire milk because of the corset put on the milk supply by the existence of quota, in order to produce products for which there was a market in the wider world, but for which the basic raw materials cannot be obtained.
There is general agreement that the environment plays an important part in agricultural policy. But how does one implement that? Should there be cross-compliance? How does one deal with farms which have SSSIs on them? There must be severe restraints put on husbanding that particular land. What about forestry? Those of us who live in the countryside are encouraged, on the one hand, to plant trees and on the other there is enormous opposition at the same time against planting large-scale coniferous forests, which we are told by those who want to buy the timber, is probably the timber for which there is the greatest market and which can underpin the largest number of jobs. I could go on, but I do not see any particular point in adding to these illustrations.
I was extremely pleased to hear my noble friend Lord Jopling comment about the plight facing the small farmer. I would like to add my name to the points that he made. But the crux of much of what is happening in the context of farming at present seems to me to hinge on that and the important point made by my noble friend Lord Kimball about modulation. The inevitable economic response to agricultural policy and prices that we have at the moment is for small farms to be subsumed into large farms. It is an essential part of the
When thinking about the remarks that I wished to make today, I suddenly realised that in one sense I might have started in the wrong place. As we all know, most of the population in this country live in towns. They are the taxpayers. Through their taxes they help to support farming in the countryside. In looking forward to the next millennium, and the kind of agriculture that we shall have then, it is important to take into account what those who pay many of the bills of the countryside would like to see.
We must address two important issues. First, what kind of farming industry and countryside do we wish to see in the next century? Secondly, we must concentrate on how we achieve that. Bankrupt farmers, be they owner-occupiers or tenants, cannot deliver. In this country we tend to sneer at poor peasant farmers on the Continent. If the politics of agriculture create a standard of living in the farming community that puts our farmers on a par with them, not merely does it not sound to me to be consistent with general policies enunciated by the Government about the level at which wages should be, it also seems a guarantee that they will not be able to deliver. We must ensure that the farming industry's personnel has a standard of living equitable with that of the rest of society.
Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, I am pleased that my noble friend's Motion draws our attention to the future of the farming industry. There is a tendency--I am guilty of it--to concentrate on the miseries of today. That is helpful only if such examination, like Advent, leads us to look constructively to the future. To that end I have a shopping list of questions that I, as a farmer, wish the Minister to try to answer.
The overriding question is similar to that asked by my noble friends Lord Kimball and Lord Inglewood. What are we, as farmers, trying to achieve? Should we aim to have an efficient farming industry capable of competing in the world market? If, as I hope, the answer is yes, there are a number of problems to be faced. The first is the hardy perennial of a level playing field, which I accept cannot truly ever exist. But when the Americans tried to compete worldwide through "freedom to farm", they had to bale their farmers out to the tune of 8 billion dollars. It poses a problem. I hope that the Minister will agree that that problem is his to solve, not mine as a farmer.
Secondly, the Government must accept that to aim for efficient agriculture is by no means universally accepted. Many people have idyllic ideas of small family farms with buttercups and daisies. I am sorry to have to inform them that such a view cannot lie side by side with an efficient agriculture. I and farmers must adapt for the future. A farm of 1,000 ewes and 100 beef cattle, let us say, is not a large enough unit to survive.
My answer is somewhat different from that of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, but somewhat parallel to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Jopling on marketing. If we co-operate on both selling and working, and accept that such units must be part-time, there is a future. I am much encouraged by the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in that direction. I hope that he will be more successful than I have been in trying to encourage my neighbours in that direction. Sad to say, I found it very much easier to achieve on the larger farms in Oxfordshire than in the smaller units in Anglesey where the need is far greater. However, putting that into action rests primarily on the farmers and not necessarily the Government.
If we are to have efficient agriculture, the Government must be careful not to make us less competitive by imposing punitive regulations and taxes--for instance, on health and safety, the environment, protection as regards nitrate zones, bird and pest destruction and a possible pesticide tax. That is the quid pro quo of cheap food, which the housewife wants, efficient farming and coming into line with the GATT regulations. However, it is inevitable that if we go down the efficiency path some farmers will never be able to be viable however hard they try.
I would have liked the Tangemann plan, as I know would my noble friend Lord Middleton. But some form of retirement plan is essential. I hope that the Minister--I know that he has thought about such a scheme--will encourage his colleagues to consider it again. I know that the Conservatives disliked it, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will remember, I did not always agree with everything that my party did on agriculture.
As patron of the Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators I wish to draw to the Minister's attention the difficulty of getting colleges to find sufficient places, mainly because of lack of local authority funding, to train those people despite the fact that the demand for the finished product (if I may call them that) far outweighs the supply. I hope that the Minister will allow me to send him a full brief on the subject.
Finally, I am confident that British farmers will survive the present cut prices. Short-term payouts are not what I really want, happy though I was to receive some as a gesture, as being less favoured. But I am very much aware of the saying that you should live as though you were to die tomorrow and yet farm as though you would live forever. I wish to know--not necessarily for myself but for those who follow after me--where we are going; and that the Government will ensure that the playing field is not made up of totally unnecessarily rutted fields by ignoring the points that I and other noble Lords have raised.
Lord Middleton: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimball for initiating the debate and for his thoughtful speech. I declare an interest as one who has been for a long time closely involved in farming. I do not need to be reminded that the current agricultural recession is painful.
The problems facing UK farmers received a good airing only three weeks ago in the debate so ably led by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. There is little new, other than official figures released underlining the concern shown in November. We are told that there has been a fall in farmers' incomes over the past two years of 63 per cent. There has also been a drop in the average income of hill farmers this year to £2,400. I do not have to remind noble Lords that a farm worker's minimum annual wage currently at the lowest grade is £8,600.
I do not think that the Government need reminding of that. On top of other measures described in November by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, today, the Government have produced the £120 million aid package slanted, quite rightly, towards the hill farmers. They are trying to lift the BSE restrictions and are understandably making slow headway in the face of an EC protective wall.
My remarks, therefore, are directed with diffidence towards my fellow farmers. There have always been ups and downs in farm profitability. But those fluctuations have occurred in a steady downward trend in incomes in real terms over the past 25 years. The causes are well known in the industry. Farmers are well aware, too, that an acceleration of that long-term downward trend was inevitable once the EC took the road, far too late in my opinion, towards reform of the CAP. Farmers have seen Agenda 2000 on the horizon and the eventual WTO-led and enlargement-led future reduction, or at best retargeting, of subsidies.
It is now more than seven years since sub-committee D, which I had the great privilege to chair for six years, produced its report on the MacSharry CAP reform proposals. Our conclusions have stood the test of time very well. I should find it difficult to improve on this extract from the advice we gave seven years ago:
Farmers are well aware of the long-term trend and are adjusting. What has taken them aback has been the sudden combination of the shrinkage of world markets, BSE, low prices and the state of the pound, coupled with very bad weather which has led to the current downturn.
What does one say to UK farmers who see in the future a kind of Darwinian struggle for survival--the survival of the fittest? Perhaps one should remind them that Darwin understood that natural selection could operate only because of the inherent variability of individual organisms and the inheritable nature of those variations. Just as useful variations in nature may give a competitive edge in the battle for survival, variations in farming attitudes and methods may be needed to do likewise.
Farm units will need to be bigger to be viable. Already, four out of every 10 farmers are part-timers. If smaller occupiers are to stay on their farms--and that is an extremely desirable social objective--then more of them must look for other sources of income. Therefore, as has been said so often, it is all the more important that non-farming economic activity in rural areas should be encouraged. That is something which can be facilitated through EC policies and by our own government policies.
In these days of food security and more affluent consumers, there is, as was pointed out in this year's Massey Ferguson lecture, a changing pattern of demand for high quality, safe, convenient and attractively-processed food. At present, food processing doubles the value of produce at the farm gate. That is before the costs of distribution and sales. Are there perhaps opportunities there for farmers to process their own products further down the food chain? If so, that could perhaps be performed by producer groups.
There must also be a drive for markets abroad. I wonder what happened to Food for Britain which was established by the noble Lord, Lord Walker of Worcester, when he was a Minister. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will remind us about Food for Britain and the point that it has reached.
It is perhaps significant that the most successful marketing initiatives have been in relation to products which are outside any CAP regime; for example, fruit, vegetable and poultry. One is tempted to speculate as to how much better would have been our marketing performance had their been no CAP support for the other commodities over the past 20 years.
As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, reminded us, there is scope, too, for the non-farm use of farmland, whether it is for bed and breakfast, crops for industrial use, wind farms or whatever. Finally, it is plain that not all farmers are situated so that they can evolve and diversify. The purists will say that they will be eliminated under the harsh laws of economics. If that is so, there must be some kind of safety net for those failing in the struggle for survival.
If the rug is pulled out too sharply, the social costs will be heavy. In that regard, I find myself, as is very often the case, in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. For example, as was urged by my noble friend Lord Wade in the November debate, there must be devised policies and methods whereby farmers can purchase their retirement to ease their passage. Time does not allow me to discuss various schemes which have been mooted. Support, preferably outside the farm budget, must be available for farmers, particularly in the uplands, who would otherwise leave the land. The public are well aware of strong social and environmental reasons for keeping a cared-for countryside and they must be prepared to pay for it.
The UK industry is well placed to flourish again, as it has after every downturn that I can remember. My fellow farmers have the wit to adapt and survive. They just need to use it and use it I am sure they will.
Lord Cooke of Islandreagh: My Lords, after hearing the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, this afternoon, I felt that I could go home. He said all that I wanted to say and said it so much better than I could. Therefore, I shall not go over that ground again.
I was pleased to see that the debate refers to "the agricultural industry" because it is now an industry with far greater tentacles than a business. There is the processing industry, and village and rural life is totally dependent on farming. It is now a very complex industry which needs to be treated with care.
I must report that in Northern Ireland there is an even more disastrous situation than elsewhere in Great Britain, for a very simple reason. The agricultural industry was weakened by the BSE crisis and the embargo on exports because in Northern Ireland 60 per cent. of the beef was exported outside the UK whereas the figure for Great Britain was about 9 per cent. Therefore, that embargo weakened the industry and left us less able to withstand the disaster in relation to sheep and pig prices about which your Lordships will know.
The result of that is that the industry in Northern Ireland is in a parlous state. Small farmers have amassed a vast amount of debt--approximately £500 million with the banks at the moment, which is all against their land values. They have an extremely large indebtedness to their feed suppliers. There are many in the pig industry whose indebtedness to their feed suppliers is as much as the value of their stock.
We have another problem in Northern Ireland; namely, that the average age of farmers is over 50. It looks as though their children, their sons, will not go into farming. They have all been well educated; they are ambitious; and they just do not see a future in farming. We may be faced with a rural desert with all the consequences which would flow from that. That is unthinkable because, as we all know, we must have agriculture. It would be quite ridiculous to have a wasteland, perhaps even in trees. We must do something about it.
I have not yet heard that there has been any attempt to think through the position that farming is in now or how it should be developed in the future. That is an extremely difficult and complex matter but some attempt must be made in different ways. For instance, it may be that some farms have no chance of success. But there should be a scheme whereby farmers can retire without going bankrupt. Their present option is to go bankrupt and then retire in poverty.
Some thought should be given to how the industry has been distorted over the years by the various grant systems, the CAP and so forth, which have led to great trouble. Also, are we being sensible as a nation to impose standards of husbandry on farmers when the same standards do not apply abroad? For instance, the
We must consider all these matters very seriously if we are to make any sense of the future. We must find a way forward in helping agriculture to thrive. I believe it can thrive, but not with all the distortions, extra costs and other problems which have arisen.
I understand that net farm incomes--according to the NFU's figures--fell 49 per cent. last year. That figure excludes the cost of family labour whereas the Ministry figure includes it. It is perhaps more graphic to look at what has happened over the past two years. I understand that we are likely to find that net farm incomes have actually gone down by 80 per cent. One may well ask in those circumstances where we are going.
Agricultural output is falling. Bearing in mind agriculture's import-saving role, sooner or later that will impact on our balance of payments, as indeed will falling manufactures. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, was absolutely right in saying that the young in particular are being forced off the land. That bodes ill for the future. If we are not careful we will be heading towards the abandonment of land and with it damage to the farming infrastructure. That will also badly affect the environment. Not all is lost yet but the situation is becoming extremely serious. There is an urgency about short-term measures and also about medium and long-term measures.
As my noble friend, Lord Inglewood, said, the most urgent requirement relates to interest rates and the high pound. That is problem enough for manufacturers but it is worse for British agriculture, which has to compete against lower priced imports and the fall in value of European Union aid. I must express criticism in relation to the interest rate policies since May 1997. Was it necessary to increase interest rates so much? Only the United States grasped and acted upon the need to fight off depression by reducing interest rates. The Bundesbank--I noticed that yesterday in The Times it was castigated and referred to as the "Blundersbank"--and Europe together generally did nothing to help those objectives. But we actually increased our rates, which was even worse. We must find a way of reducing interest rates or manufacturing industry will rust and agriculture will abandon land to weeds.
Perhaps I may turn to other more specific urgent agricultural matters. The need for an equal footing was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Stanley and I applaud that. We ought to apply UK standards to imported production. At the moment that is often not the case. And of course we should end the ban on beef on the bone.
The Government might consider whether they should be taking steps to try to halt the rapid demise of livestock auction marts. My noble friend Lord Jopling referred to the poorer agricultural areas not quite within "less favoured areas". That may apply to areas such as the Sussex high Weald. It is in such areas that the shoe will pinch badly.
Perhaps I should declare at this stage that I come from Sussex and that, although I am partially retired, I still have some interest in farming. I hope the Government will bend their efforts to fund the Countryside Commission's high Weald land management initiative among other cases of that kind. I believe it will help. Also, in relation to Sussex, there would be a great deal of virtue in improving the environmentally sensitive area payments to retain grazing on the Sussex Downs and other sensitive landscape habitats.
In relation to medium and long-term objectives--I hardly dare mention this--I should like to say a word about milk, with which I have always been involved. The number of farmers ceasing milk production last year was 6 per cent. That is a high figure when we consider that the norm is somewhere between 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. I understand that we are the only country where farm gate prices have actually fallen recently. It is not only the high pound that caused that. While producer prices fell, the dairies increased their profits by 40 per cent or so. UK farm gate prices are now so low that some farming industry experts feel that milk production may well contract.
I wish to draw attention to the notoriously large difference between UK farm gate and retail prices and the fact that it is again on the increase. Action is required to find ways to equalise the imbalance in bargaining power between primary producers and the buyers and retailers. That applies not only in dairying. It may be that British dairying cannot compete against New Zealand; but we can compete extremely well with the rest. The opportunity to do this should not, I feel quite sure, be lost. We could do it if we do not make a mess of it, and I sincerely hope that we do our best. We do not want to lose this opportunity.
Lord Plumb: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for his initiation of the debate and also for the excellent way in which he opened it.
Everyone has recognised--it is so throughout the whole country--that the dramatic fall in farm income is estimated, as my noble friend has just said, to be over 70 per cent. in real terms over the past two years. It has been described as the worst situation since the 1930s, and we all know that the morale among many farming families is particularly low, especially among those small farmers who were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Jopling.
I, too, declare an interest as a farmer and as an ex-farmer leader. As your Lordships can imagine, during my 20 years in the European Parliament I have been fairly close to the development of the common agricultural policy. I would say to my noble friend Lord Jopling that, yes, I look back to the days when we were together in 1984 and the difficulty we had in the presentation to farmers of a very radical change at that time moving towards milk quotas. He rightly said that they had been difficult to accept, but nevertheless they had been the saviour of many smaller farmers who at least had something to latch on to. It sounds rather like a cliche, when we are in the middle of this debate, to say that British agriculture is such an extremely important industry both nationally and internationally. We know that, but it is important in terms of food security, both in quantity and quality.
Food security is something of which we hear little these days. I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, mentioned it himself when he recognised that we have been through difficult times and it is therefore important to emphasise it. It is also important for the part that it plays in maintaining our rural and national wellbeing and also for the key role that agriculture plays in the conservation of the countryside and its environment. If the environment is to be conserved then it is essential that we have a thriving farming business. We all know that a depressed agriculture cannot carry out its traditional role of caring for the countryside. A neighbouring farmer friend of mine some years ago used to say quite often to me, "I know how to farm a farm and I know how to rob a farm; and if I start to rob it it will take me 10 years to do it". I hope to God that we are not in that position today and see the start of a run-down of our rural areas.
The facts themselves are well rehearsed. Financial pressure is forcing the industry to seek significantly lower cost structures. Yet we import so many of our products: 83 per cent. of our seeds that we put back into our farms; 66 per cent. of our machinery; and 44 per cent. of our fertilisers, to name but a few of the inputs, at a cost which is much higher than that of our competing producers in other countries. Yet that market, as we know, has been virtually wiped out because of the distortion of currency values and the volatile world market as a whole--together of course with the disastrous BSE crisis. That has cost us over £4 billion, £1.42 billion of which has come from the European Union.
Of course I acknowledge the enormous problems facing Ministers and I appreciate the recent injection to help the pig industry and to help some of the farmers in the hills and uplands who have falling livestock prices. I am sure that is a point which will be well emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. However, Government have a very crucial role to play if farming is to be competitive. That can be achieved by avoiding the imposition of costs that have no justification in logic or science; by reducing external costs where possible; by minimising unfair competition by insisting on standards of welfare and food safety that apply in the United Kingdom applying equally in the countries from which we import; by requiring retailers to give consumers
The Government also have the responsibility for claiming from Europe our entitlement under agri-monetary arrangements. Therefore I ask Ministers why we failed to obtain the full recompense in 1997 and 1998. In 1997 under the European rules we would have been allowed to take £420 million to compensate United Kingdom farmers against the strength of the pound. This year the amount available has been £280 million and next year it will be £140 million. Half--I repeat half--of all this financial assistance has been available from the European Budget and, I stress, without the need for the United Kingdom to contribute one single penny--and that at a time when our industry faces insurmountable difficulties, with farm incomes at their lowest for many a year. And all the Government had to do was ask.
Over the past two years the Government have only required £67 million of EU agri-money assistance and yet £350 million has been available. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will tell me that of course we have to pay the rebate, but if he disputes my figures I would ask him to go to Brussels with me tomorrow and meet the Commissioner who emphasised this and gave me those figures only yesterday. So let us take whatever is available; let us take advantage of it. Are Ministers aware of the history of agri-money compensation to the United Kingdom? The United Kingdom is the only country that has not fully subscribed to EU assistance when the need was so great and so obvious. It gets worse. In 1997 and 1998 United Kingdom farmers have been eligible for £158 million of compensation for loss of earnings from direct payments. The Government have only asked for £11.5 million of that amount of money: that is a short-fall of £146.5 million. In 1999 £70 million of additional EU agri-money will be available to United Kingdom farmers. Some would say that it is far too little, far too late; but farmers need it and they deserve it. So are the Government going to ask for it?
I should like to finish by asking: how are we to face up to the reality of 11 countries deciding that their money should be in parallel--countries that are just on the outside of this great country of ours? As we know, United Kingdom farmers are facing this crisis. They may not be concerned either way as to what happens, but will the Government's failure to allow payment in euros to those who want it from the 1st January next year inhibit the commercial influence in the European Union and perhaps more widely? Are we to be further marginalised on the fringe of Europe? How will that impact therefore on an already traumatised agricultural industry?
Changes in the common agricultural policy and in the agri-money system will all add to the pressures on United Kingdom farmers and, of course, the impact of the European Monetary Union could be greater on agri-business than on other economic sectors due to our dependence on the European Union for financial support. Surely, therefore, our collective aims should be
Lord Christopher: My Lords, I acknowledge the courtesy of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, but I am less sure that I am as grateful to him as some other noble Lords because, when, back in the summer, I thought that agriculture would be something to which I could turn my attention, I had not bargained for how I would feel on the first occasion when I rose to speak upon it. My qualifications for speaking are very limited and I shall not dwell upon them. However, I hope that my remarks will be seen in a modest way as complementary to the extremely good speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Cooke.
Eighteen years ago I deliberately moved back into the countryside to the heart of a village surrounded by four large farms. It is interesting to study what has happened to them over the past years. One is now substantially set-aside or part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, with a lot of birds but hardly anything else. Another has been, in industrial terms, asset stripped. I do not complain about the farmer in that respect; indeed, that is what the market told him to do. The land and the woodlands were sold off separately; the farmhouse was sold off separately; the farm cottages and buildings were sold off separately, including a magnificent Victorian Shire stud stables; and a pedigree Jersey herd (which had not bought in any stock for 30 years) was sold off as, indeed, was the milk quota. It seems to me that that process is being repeated throughout the country and, in effect, a fine farm is no more a farm. A pedigree Sussex suckler herd has gone from a neighbouring farm--I cannot bring myself to ask where--and it is now dedicated to horse grazing. Indeed, only one of the four farms is still functioning as a farm.
As I see the general situation, it seems to me that the root cause of a great deal of this is in fact the CAP. It is consuming a half of the European Union budget and the best thing that can be said about it at present is that at least the flaws in it are now being recognised by almost everyone. I begin to wonder whether in fact we might be better off without it. There are damaging consequences involved. Of the 25 million farmers in the original six member states who farmed, only six million are left. In the UK, the number of farmers has halved over the same period. A good example of the causes of this was the conversion of milk quotas into a commodity. That has brought about exactly the same effect upon farmers as the effect upon British motor and truck-tyre manufacturers when tyres became a commodity.
To the extent that I understand it, the agri-environmental measures under Agenda 2000 will certainly not replace the CAP. One economist has put them as representing no more than 5 per cent. of the budget. I would be interested to know how far 5 per cent. could be expanded to avoid--and I hesitate in these times to use this phrase--"level playing field charges".
I believe that farmers must seriously explore the opportunities for collaborative marketing. A good example is to be found in Lincolnshire with the Lincolnshire Quality Beef and Lamb Marketing Group. It goes for quality but not quality in terms of washed carrots and clingfilm-wrapped beef; it is getting an average market premium of 12 per cent.
Another older example which was, incidentally, introduced by an Australian in 1920, is the Kent Wool Growers. There were 75 farmers in 1920 with 25,000 fleeces. Today, it has 4,000 members, half a million fleeces and a £6 million turnover. Again, the emphasis is on quality--grading 150 grades from 1.5 million tonnes of wool. It has now diversified around 20 ranges of products which it sells.
When we look at the regeneration of the countryside and the joint proposal from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment, we can see what a mountain there is to climb. A recent report from the Cheltenham and Gloucester College is utterly disturbing. It shows a picture of a divided Wiltshire--of all counties! In one village, 40 per cent. of the households' income is more than £40,000, but the income of another 40 per cent. is less than £8,000. Around the town of Pewsey, 25 per cent. of households are living at or near the poverty level. Over the whole county, 14 per cent. still do not have any central heating.
What other solutions might there be? Like farmers, I recognise that they are obliged to look to government to set core national objectives. I know that the present Ministers are as concerned about these matters as farmers most certainly are. But I would ask farmers to look at themselves, consider their image, and ask, "Am I right that it has gone down hill well beyond the old jokes?". I believe that it has. They will need public support if they want to get the things that they need. They need to be less reactive and more proactive. They need to explain and educate; and the Government could help in that direction. They need seriously to consider, and not simply dismiss, those things which the public say about farmers' methods of production. I need not list them because noble Lords will know what I mean.
However, perhaps I may just illustrate one of them; namely, the Farmers' Ferry. I can understand why some farmers felt driven to do it. They claim to have exported half a million sheep, although I doubt that figure. However, in PR terms, it was a real shot in the foot. It is not just the ferry and the lorry journeys: it is what happens to the stock when it gets to Italy, Spain and Greece. The general public hold all farmers responsible for such happenings.
I say to farmers: open up your farms to the people. A while ago Sainsbury's was asked by a television company whether it could film one of its pig farms. Sainsbury's said no; the television company trespassed and was found guilty of doing so. Why? If there is nothing to hide, why should the public not know how farms are run and what is happening on them? I should declare an interest here because I do some consultancy work for them, but perhaps I may just refer to the outgoing approach of British Nuclear Fuels with its visitors' centre. It is one of the leading places for people to visit when they take a holiday in Cumbria.
When the Government set the core objectives, I advise them to give the NFU more authority and encourage it to bring forward policies over, I suggest, a seven-year period. That is what will be required to get farming back to where it should be, especially when one considers that there are more than 15 or 20 categories of farming. Collective support should be given to the NFU if it includes some proposals that will be unpopular with some farmers but popular with the people and government.
This is a world where realpolitik and the global economy will not be at all comfortable when organising the future. That was certainly my experience in the trade union world. Indeed, I am bound to say that I could call upon quite a number of witnesses in this House to that fact. I hardly ever obtained what I sought. Three months ago, I asked the Industry Forum, which I have supported from the very beginning, why farming is not seen by it as an industry. I am pleased to say that farming is now being seen as an industry and it is to be hoped that a study by it will be produced before too long.
I do not expect my noble friend the Minister to reply to everything that I have said, but I would certainly urge the Government, first, to find a means of serious financial backing for farmers for joint collaborations and marketing; and, secondly, to revisit the ADAS issue. If we want farmers to change and prosper, they need the best advice, and I believe that that should be free.
The Earl of Radnor: My Lords, I, too would like to thank my noble friend Lord Kimball for tabling this debate at such a very apt time--although it is quite an unfortunate time after two bad years for the farming community.
Perhaps I may declare an interest in that I am chairman of a farming company engaged in the roles of what I would like to call orthodox farming, fish farming and forestry. In such an erudite debate as this, with contributions from people who know a great deal about the land, I am not quite sure that I will be able to fill my nine minutes, but I wish to make a few subsidiary points which have not yet been made by any of your Lordships.
The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, said that we must start by looking forward, not back. But we must start by looking at the present and seeing what it is like--and it is very bad. Noble Lords have quoted figures of declining income and so forth. The fact of life is that it is extremely bad, but take away the subsidies and it is a
Although I was not there, I read that the Minister of Agriculture--and probably the head of the NFU--hinted at some form of co-operation. I am fortunate enough. I farm on a large scale--and I have declared my interest--and we are still making money. But the smaller farmers are probably not. In a way, they are probably very wasteful. I cannot outline any particular system, but somebody should be able to devise a way whereby groups of farmers could get together--possibly using the contractual industry as well--so that they could assume some of the cloak which we larger farmers wear quite successfully. That would be a better step forward than the £97 for every acre of every crop they grow, and so much more for set aside and so on.
Furthermore, we pay a fairly high price for our subsidies in terms of bookwork, deskwork and bureaucratic--I would not dream of saying "nonsense"--procedures. But some aspects take so much time that the farmer hardly has time to farm; he is making out a passport for his steer--a blue card, a green card and, for those who like football, a red card, I am told! It goes on and on. If you make a little mistake with the forms, you really are in trouble. We received our first threatening letter this year when we lost a bullock. We used to have 90 bullocks but now we have only 89--the other one had gone--so of course we were not paid for the non-existent bullock. That was fair enough, but then we received quite a tough letter saying that the next time we lost a bullock it would be much more serious and we probably would not be paid for any of them. That is just an aside. A tremendous amount of simplification could be done about the way our subsidies are received, particularly for animals.
Animals already have a passport, but they are now going to have a book, just like we do, and a bar code. By the time a bullock eventually meets its demise the book will carry at least three signatures--auctioneers, farmers and others through whose hands it has passed. Perhaps we can improve on that.
Another matter which has not been raised follows on quite well from what I have just said. Nobody in your Lordships' Chamber seems to have noted that today food in this country passes through very few hands indeed. I am told that Sainsbury's and Tesco's deal with about 51 per cent. of the food we consume. In addition, there is Somerfield, Asda, Morrison's in the north, and so on. There lies a tremendous danger to the farming community of which notice should be taken. Those big entities are very powerful. They presumably avoid the
It follows that if farmers could get together in bigger groups without losing their identity there would be some hope of competing with these big entities. But probably more important would be an approach made to the auctioneers. They will lose their markets because those big players do not like markets. We should make the auctioneers into "agents" such as they have in Australia, where distances to the markets are too far to travel. The agent is the farmer's man. He knows where the animals are going and he gets the beasts together so that he has some bargaining power. Something along that line would be very important indeed. It would not be impossible for somebody to work out such a system.
In commenting briefly on the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, about processing food, I have to tell a story about my own experience with fish. We produce a lot of fish, approximately 1,500 tonnes a year, and we now have to process it. I never wanted to, but we now fillet, marinade and so on. The rules are very, very strict indeed. They are very strict from the Government, quite rightly; and far stricter from Waitrose, quite rightly. I went there the other day, dressed up in my white coat, my hair protector and white gumboots. The manager made a filthy face at me and said "For God's sake, go away!". I asked "Why?". He said, "The inspectors are here.". I said, "But look at me, I am wonderful.". He said, "It is your wheelchair; they think it is very insanitary.". I fled, I have to say.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I must first state that, like other noble Lords, I am a farmer, among other things, and, thank goodness there are other things in my life apart from agriculture. Agriculture is not a rich occupation. We have heard many figures from many noble Lords, and there is one that I wish to quote. Allowing for the deduction of family labour, the NFU forecasts that UK farm incomes have fallen by at least 49 per cent. in 1998 compared to 1997.
I pride my farm on being one of the best performers in the Cotswolds. Our 1997-98 projected accounts will show a loss after paying a notional rent. I am thankful that I am not a tenant farmer and I have deep sympathy for small farmers who are in considerable difficulty. I agree totally with the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, that smaller farmers should come together into bigger groups of farmers. Even I, as a substantial farmer, group together with other larger farmers in order to command a better bargaining position when selling grain and other commodities.
Most people perceive a farmer as having great wealth because of the land he owns. But the average return on capital has been in the range of only 2 to 4 per cent. The average farmer would have done much better if he had gone off to be retrained as a solicitor, an accountant or even a politician.
Moreover, recently the Government have persisted in loading more and more industrial costs on his back, which increases his production costs and cannot be passed on to the consumer. Typical of these are the costs of both the harsher abattoir rules following BSE and the obligation to adopt welfare friendly production systems, which we all know are much stricter than those of his continental counterpart or other non-EU countries.
If high quality, safe foodstuffs produced under stringent controls result in higher food production costs, UK farmers must accommodate these higher costs. But then the UK consumer must be prepared to pay a higher cost for those foodstuffs. The UK farmer needs the Government to help the agricultural industry in informing the UK consumer of the different standards of food that he has a choice of by development of labelling, marketing and promotion of UK higher quality safe foodstuffs. At present some foreign foodstuffs, as we have heard from other noble Lords, are often not required to be produced under such stringent controls and are outcompeting our produce due to their lower production costs. The pear and pig industries are good examples of this.
Both the UK and Europe are in the process of examining the margins made in the food sector by supermarkets. But, from information already available, there seems little doubt that the prices they pay to the farming community have fallen considerably more than the prices they charge to the consumer. Deloitte & Touche, in its publication Farm Results 1997-98, compares actual net farm incomes for the three years 1995-96 to 1997-98 with its projection for 1998-99. Over that period the best sector is dairy and arable where the income per hectare has fallen from £227 to £95. In the root crop sector, it has fallen from £462 to just £64.
Let us consider for a moment what that means. It is the equivalent of a worker in the building trade earning £80 per day with regular overtime having to accept less than one day's earnings for a full week's work. For let us be aware that farm incomes do not disappear because the work is not there. It is simply that the recompense for the work has declined almost to vanishing point.
To make matters worse, the standard response by farmers to falling incomes is often to cut back on direct costs; for instance, by using less expensive older types of spray at lower rates. This can often result in more resistant weed species and lower output. They might cut back on indirect costs; for instance, by not buying that new high-tech sprayer, they will not be able to embrace newer spray techniques and improve savings on chemicals. They might cut back on such things as machinery, which has a knock-on effect on those associated farming machinery industries. They might cut back on employing local trades people to do property maintenance and repairs. And so this vicious spiral continues.
I have already pointed out that agriculture is not like other industries in that its product is the food we require for life itself. If the producers are put out of business, our only recourse is to get our food from elsewhere. This is feasible but it reduces the ability of our citizens
We must be grateful for the recent government money given to specific areas of agriculture or to specific regions of the country. But this package is too little too late and it is unlikely to stem the tide of bankruptcy, despair and the flood of imports from overseas. Will the Minister tell us today what his Government intend to do to help? Perhaps I may suggest some helpful measures that he could carefully consider. It would not cost much to allow 100 per cent. depreciation of new capital equipment in the year of purchase. It would not cost much to abolish VAT on repairs to farm buildings. It would not cost anything at all to ensure that no further specialist taxes are placed on the farming community. We rely deeply on the Government to create an environment in which farmers can survive. At present, we are suffering from a non-competitive environment.
Finally, I should like to ask the Minister to acknowledge that the farmers of this land are the creators and guardians of our clean and attractive countryside that is rich in wildlife. They are responsible in large measure for the preservation of our historic landscape. They are the major players in the continuation of the rural lifestyle and, potentially, the providers of precious leisure facilities to large numbers of urban dwellers.
Earlier today, at the Countryside Commission's countryside access conference, the Minister of State for the Environment, Michael Meacher, stated that the leisure industry in the countryside was responsible for 400,000 jobs and that the 1994 figure of £4 billion that this industry generates makes it a bigger industry than the agricultural industry. Is it now the case that our UK agriculture industry has been relegated into second place behind leisure? One questions whether, without a strong and vibrant agriculture industry which is living, working and sustainable, our leisure industry will be the worse off.
I was interested to hear the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, about the sporting industry because I suspect that, if Michael Meacher had added that on to the agricultural industry, he may well have found that the leisure industry came second to this great agricultural industry of ours.
Lord Geraint: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, on initiating this important debate. As many noble Lords will be aware, I have spoken many times during the past month about the plight of the agriculture industry. But today I shall be very brief indeed. I am just going to remind the Minister that we are still in a crisis.
I urge the retailers to play their part in rebuilding the agricultural industry. I have yet to hear a reasonable justification for why supermarket prices have remained so high when revenue to the farmers has plunged so dramatically. I hope that producers and consumers will be able to persuade the supermarkets to build a better relationship between everyone concerned for the sake of the people living in the countryside.
The figures I am about to quote are interesting. During the past three years, there has been a steady rise in the gap between producer and retail prices. There is a gap of 57 per cent. in beef prices; 56 per cent. for lamb; 64 per cent. for pork and 74 per cent. for bacon. I wonder who is profiting on the back of the producers. Perhaps the Minister will be able to let us know when he replies.
I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in his place. He knows more about the agricultural industry than any other government Minister at present.
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