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Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

It is a great pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, which relates to amendments that the Government will introduce shortly to the regulations governing nitrate vulnerable zones. Those amendments could cause significant harm to this country’s agricultural economy, particularly in certain sectors that are least well equipped to cope with the increased regulatory burden proposed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I should remind you, Sir Nicholas, and the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Government’s proposals for those sectors affected are potentially extremely significant, particularly for the long-suffering dairy sector. It is good to see the chairman of the all-party group on dairy farmers, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), in the Chamber today; I hope that he will have an opportunity to catch your eye, Sir Nicholas, as the debate progresses. However, the proposals have much wider ramifications for farming practice and enterprise viability across much of the livestock and arable sectors in England. Indeed, the Minister for the Environment has indicated in a parliamentary answer that, if the 70 per cent. NVZ proposal is implemented, approximately 139,500 farmers will be affected and, if the action programme covers the whole of England, approximately 195,500 farmers will be affected, as could each of the 272 Members of Parliament with a farm in their constituency.

Before commenting on the proposal in detail, I should like to dwell for a moment on the objectives and evolution of nitrate vulnerable zones. According to DEFRA, nitrogen discharge from agriculture accounts for 60 per cent. of diffuse nitrate pollution of the aquatic environment. In layman’s terms, nitrogen pollution leaching into the watercourses stimulates algae growth, which damages water quality, in respect of both human activity—from the quality of drinking water to swimming in the sea—and biodiversity within our rivers and oceans. I accept that nitrogen can contribute to water pollution, but we have to ask ourselves whether draconian, new and costly regulations are the right answer to a problem that seems already on the way to being solved without them.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is true that farming has reduced its nitrate footprint over the past 10 years or so by about 25 per cent. The hon. Gentleman mentioned aquatic levels. The River Trent forms part of my constituency boundary, and there has been a significant reduction in nitrate levels over the past 15 years—approaching a quarter—so there is substantial progress. I hope that the Minister will take that progress into account when looking at the costs and impact of the suggestions that we are discussing at the moment.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Indeed, I was going to mention the great progress that has been made in respect of the River Trent in his constituency.

How did we get to where we are today? The current proposals for extending and revising NVZs do not result from any new European Union directive; rather, they stem from DEFRA’s need to abide by commitments originally entered into under the 1991 nitrates directive, which was agreed as part of the EU Environment Council in June 1991 and adopted in December that year.

I am not quite sure that I can claim that, but perhaps I could remind my hon. Friend that I had ministerial responsibility in the mid-1990s. Will he accept my assurance that at all times Ministers then, regardless of their party colour, were anxious to ensure that the European regulations were operated in a way that had minimal impact on United Kingdom agriculture?

Indeed. My hon. Friend pre-empts precisely what I was going to say. From my research through the history books into the development of NVZs, it is clear that the original intent was to maintain regulation at the bare minimum. The 1991 directive required member states to designate areas as NVZs where nitrate levels in water were at risk of exceeding 50 mg per litre and where the water was or might become eutrophic. I am sure that I do not need to tell you, Sir Nicholas, that the word “eutrophic” describes water that is rich in dissolved nutrients, photosynthetically productive and often low in oxygen during warm weather. Member states could implement an action programme either for an entire territory or within discrete NVZs.

The Conservative Environment Minister at the time accepted that the aim of the 1991 directive was to improve water quality by reducing nitrate pollution from agricultural practice. He thought that the zone could cover up to 2 million hectares, but crucially said that the precise area would be based on necessary monitoring and other studies by the Government and the then National Rivers Authority. Any additional measures were envisaged to take into account their cost and effectiveness. Those two critical tests of cost and effectiveness should be the guiding principles applied by the Government today in responding to the consultation and bringing forward their final proposals.

It took until 1996 before the initial 66 NVZs were designated, covering a mere 600,000 hectares—just 8 per cent. of England—and focusing on protecting drinking water sources. In 2000, the European Court of Justice found that the UK had failed to protect surface and ground waters and was relying only on protecting drinking water. So DEFRA consulted in 2002 on two options for full implementation in England and received some 13,000 responses. The Government on that occasion wisely decided to take the least regulatory approach to comply with the Court and, in October 2002, designated 55 per cent. of England as an NVZ, including the original 8 per cent. Much of that territory was in the west midlands.

Those designations must be reviewed every four years, unless the action programme applies to the whole country. Having completed their four-yearly review, the Government concluded that there had been some increase in nitrate pollution in certain areas of England and that the current action programme had not had a significant impact on nitrate pollution. Those findings have not been universally acknowledged, as I shall mention in a few minutes.

In August 2007, the Government published a further consultation paper inviting comments by 13 December, so that they could be in a position to respond shortly, with the stated intention of laying a statutory instrument before the House to come into force from 6 April 2008. I should be grateful if the Minister in summing up confirmed whether he is still working to that timetable.

So what is proposed and what are the implications for English farmers and the environment? The measures currently proposed fall under seven main headings: controlling where, when and how much nitrogen is applied, how manure is stored, requiring cover crops in place of bare stubble and requiring detailed records of manure storage and nitrogen applications to be retained for five years. I should like to describe those measures briefly.

DEFRA proposes to control where nitrogen is applied by increasing the designation of either a further 15 per cent. of farmland to take the NVZs up to 70 per cent. of England’s farmland or incorporating the whole of England in an action programme, as Ireland did in 2003, joining Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Interested observers, such as the National Farmers Union, do not feel that such a major increase in designation is justified. The NFU claims to have provided evidence repeatedly to DEFRA over the past two years analysing Environment Agency data that has shown nitrate levels reducing in many rivers, including in the River Trent in the constituency of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). But we do not have to take the NFU’s word for it, since DEFRA itself admits in its NVZ consultation that

“Analysis of surface water concentrations for the years 1999 to 2004 shows that 77 per cent. of sites had a declining trend”.

First, DEFRA may consider an analysis over only five years too short to be reliable, but why does it refuse to recognise the validity of the Environment Agency’s calculations of nitrate levels in several rivers, which show that they have been declining steadily for 15 years since 1990? In addition to the River Trent, which we have talked about, other rivers have had a 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. decline in nitrates, including the River Nene at Peterborough, the River Thames at Goring Weir, the River Aire at Sneath—I could go on—where Environment Agency monitoring of nitrate as nitrogen is used.

As recently as 17 December 2007, in answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), the Minister himself said:

“My Department worked closely with the Environment Agency during the recent review of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones in England. The EA regularly monitors nitrate concentrations in waters and this monitoring data played a fundamental role in informing the recent review.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 1010W.]

Could he explain, then, why the evidence should not be used to allow a more refined designation, so that areas that have improved to an acceptable level can be de-designated? According to the refined method used to define NVZ designations in 2007, some 6 per cent. of England within the existing NVZ should qualify for de-designation. Areas that qualify should at the very least not be required to implement the new, more stringent action programme. That would save farmers a significant and wholly unnecessary capital investment.

A 100 per cent. designation would also exacerbate existing boundary anomalies on the edge of NVZs—for example, along the Welsh border, where NVZs are proposed to increase to only 3 per cent. of Welsh farmland, and in Scotland, where it is planned to increase them to only 14 per cent.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing this debate. His constituency neighbours mine, and we share the River Teme as a constituency boundary. It seems strange, if the designation depends on science, to take different approaches in Wales and England.

I am particularly grateful to my constituency neighbour, the hon. Gentleman. I was not going to personalise my contribution by getting into the minutiae of water systems in my constituency, but it is true that a river such as the Teme could be subject to an NVZ in England but not in Wales. Similarly, my farm is divided by a watercourse. The water flowing into the River Lugg will be subject to the regulations, but the water flowing into the Teme will not. That seems peculiar, and it will have some impact on how we conduct our farm and business.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend; I appreciate that he has already given way once. I wish simply to put on record an administrative principle that I hope he accepts. If Ministers are considering expanding the zones, they must not, under administrative law, close their minds to the possibility of reducing a zone if the objective indications argue for that decision.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I hope that the Minister will take note of his intervention. The increased costs on those within the zone, to which I shall come shortly, put them at a considerable competitive disadvantage compared with those engaged in similar enterprises in neighbouring areas outside the zone.

The proposal’s second impact concerns when nitrogen applications can take place. DEFRA plans to ban spreading slurry and poultry manure for up to five months during autumn and winter. It will extend the current ban of two to three months, which applies only to that 10 to 20 per cent. of NVZ land with sandy and shallow soil, to a ban for all land within the NVZ of between three and five months, depending on average rainfall, soil type and whether the slurry is being applied to arable or grassland. That is likely to have the perverse effect, even according to DEFRA’s own figures, of increasing the ammonia emissions from manure spreading by up to 9 per cent. Ammonia is a potent pollutant that other EU directives are targeted to reduce. It is a further irony of the proposal that, according to the NFU, the environmental damage caused by the extra emissions will cost up to £300 million.

The proposal will encourage farmers to empty their slurry stores on the first fine day after the winter spreading bans end, almost certainly in unison. That has been the experience in other countries with similar regulations, such as the Netherlands, where regulations apply to pig and dairy cattle slurry. Instead of spreading slurry little and often when soil and weather conditions align to make it suitable, farmers throughout the area will all rush to empty their stores at the same time, increasing the environmental risks of smell in dry weather and leachate in wet.

Thirdly, the proposals on how manure should be spread amount to a ban on high-trajectory, high-pressure slurry spreaders. That would slow down the process, increase the cost and require additional investment in further machinery.

Fourthly, the proposals prescribe limits on how much nitrogen can be applied to each type of crop, which will effectively limit the potential yield from any specific crop. Over the years, plant breeders have developed higher-yielding varieties of all types of crops. The measure flies in the face of the attempt to encourage a competitive, dynamic agricultural sector. Perhaps it is an example of the Prime Minister’s vision—from his bunker, he commands a new five-year plan for agriculture. The command economy will be alive and well on English farms.

Farmers can work within a farm-wide limit, so they should be free to apply fertiliser within that limit as they see fit to maximise crop potential. DEFRA recently conceded that it is willing to seek a grassland derogation from the general whole-farm limit of 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare. The derogation is essential, and I urge the Minister to confirm today whether he is seeking a grassland derogation of 250 kg per hectare, as is granted to other member states.

The proposal’s fifth and single biggest impact for farmers in affected sectors relates to the control of how slurry is stored. DEFRA proposes a minimum of six months’ storage for poultry and pig manure and five months for cattle slurry within two years of the regulations’ coming into force. That would impose a massive cost increase on hard-pressed dairy, pig and poultry farmers, many of whom would need to more than double their storage capacity, at a time when two dairy farmers a week have been leaving the industry due to the inability to make a living, poultry farmers have faced two avian flu scares in successive years and sharply volatile prices and livestock farmers, especially pig and poultry farmers, face a near-doubling of feed costs following last year’s grain price rises.

The capital cost of constructing suitable storage pits is estimated to be between £240 million and £400 million. DEFRA’s estimate seems completely out of touch with the reality of farming in Britain today. DEFRA assumes that farmers will have no difficulty in borrowing the capital cost and repaying it over 25 years, but banks—particularly in their current nervous and fragile state—might take a more jaundiced view about lending money to finance a sunk capital spend with no prospect of any return on investment. According to Promar International for Dairy UK, the capital cost for the average dairy farm will be £55,000. For the average pig farm, it will be £30,000, according to the British Pig Executive. For tenant farmers, such a commitment is likely to be particularly hard to fund. In an economic environment where dairy and pig farming has recently become a marginal activity for many, a bank prepared to lend might not take a 25-year view on repayment. Ten years seems more realistic, which would double DEFRA’s estimate of the annual cost of investment.

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that my constituents in Staffordshire will be among those most heavily affected by the proposals? Indeed, some years ago, one of the original NVZ pilot areas was located bang in the middle of my constituency. The provision is not only virtually unchallengeable as far as the European Union is concerned, as it will lay down the requirements very stringently, but my constituents tell me that it will be one of the worst things to affect the farming industry in my constituency, particularly dairy farming, since I became a Member of Parliament in 1984. It is that serious.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, neighbour and indeed constituent for making that point so graphically. I hope that the Minister will take it on board. The purpose of this debate is to emphasise the level of feeling out there among the farmers, particularly dairy farmers, who will be affected by the regulations.

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. Will he comment on the commercial inconsistency of the Government’s position? They are heaping costs on to farmers through such measures, yet they do not acknowledge that, at the farm gate, farmers are under the cosh from supermarkets, which can dictate market conditions and state the terms and conditions under which farmers trade. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should not heap such costs on to farmers, while turning a blind eye to the way in which farmers are treated in the food supply chain?

That was another useful contribution. I was about to tell the House of measures that the Government could take to alleviate farmers’ problems, particularly those taken by the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland. They are providing some relief there, but apparently not in England.

My hon. Friend spoke of the costs to farmers and the investment required for the necessary storage, and so on. Does he agree that the problem is seriously exacerbated by the Government’s decision to abolish the agricultural buildings allowance, a small but nevertheless beneficial way to help farmers to recoup the costs of that investment?

It is almost uncanny that every intervention raises a point that I would have mentioned later. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, one measure that the Government might consider is to reinstate some relief for that investment through the tax code.

There are other costs in addition to the capital costs—for instance, the additional running costs of the proposed storage arrangements will lead to extra costs when dispersing slurry. Given the shorter time frame and the reduced volumes that can be spread at the same time, it will take longer, so there will probably be greater transport costs. I believe that those factors were not properly taken into account in DEFRA’s calculations.

Sixthly, the most significant aspect on farms other than dairy farms is the proposal to plant cover crops on ground harvested before 1 September that would normally be left as bare stubble over the winter. DEFRA argues that a cover crop would reduce nitrate leaching; it might do so, but I suspect only by a tiny amount. Will the Minister tell us where the idea came from and on what scientific basis it was made?

That change would have a significant impact in my constituency in Lincolnshire. Is my hon. Friend aware that that proposal forms no part of the directive, which has been gold-plated by DEFRA?

My hon. Friend is clearly another clairvoyant.

The proposal bears all the hallmarks of Labour’s ill thought out, opportunistic and yet all too characteristic gold-plating—piggy-backing on an EU directive, so that the Government can blame someone else for the idea. There is no requirement for such a measure in the nitrates directive.

The Minister suggests from a sedentary position that my hon. Friend is wrong. It would improve the quality of debate if the Minister were to intervene and explain to us why the assertion that the directive is gold-plated was incorrect.

Order. If the Minister wishes to intervene, I am sure that he will do so. However, he will have adequate time at the end of the debate to comment on what has been said during it.

The Minister declines your offer, Sir Nicholas, but he indicates that he will answer the point later, for which I am grateful. The change shows yet again a complete lack of understanding of practical farming and horticultural practice.

The hon. Gentleman is extremely generous in giving way again. A number of conservation schemes pay premiums to allow over-winter stubble, to protect farm birds. It seems that one arm of Government is working against the same arm.

Again, I was briefly going to touch on that issue, but the point is well made.

A requirement to plant a cover crop and then to plough it in before sowing a spring-planted crop would lead to additional costs in mechanical operations and labour, and it could increase soil damage through the possible the use of additional herbicides and the additional spring work necessary to establish seed beds. However, it would also be a direct encouragement to farmers to manage the land in such a way as to avoid the regulations—for instance, by harvesting after 1 September.

Indeed, and such planting might adversely affect the optimum rotation for the farm.

The loss of over-wintering stubble would lead to a significant loss of habitat for farmland birds, just as set-aside is coming to an end. The environmental damage from such a proposal—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, it is in other respects encouraged by DEFRA—would far outweigh the tiny reduction in nitrate. The proposal should be dropped, and I very much hope that the Minister will indicate that he is minded to do so.

Finally, the imposition of a new record-keeping regime provides a further major set of proposals for farmers to contend with. It takes red tape to new dimensions, even for this Government. Those of a sensitive disposition may need to hold their noses when working through the excruciating details of the records required to be kept to comply with the provisions set out in the statutory instrument. I read them with mounting alarm.

Such records include not just what manure is stored, but what is spread and where. They must all be kept for five years. Maps hatched in specified colours must be prepared and risk assessments undertaken, including a physical inspection, which must be recorded before spreading takes place in accordance with the map. Calculations for storage must be made in accordance with the schedule, which sets out how much manure each size, type and age of animal or bird excretes—a word that I had not intended to use in the Chamber until today. Did you know, Sir Nicholas, that a laying hen excretes 120 g a day and that a duck excretes 400 g? However, a large suckler cow excretes an average of 45 kg a day, each and every day; over 11 days, that is equivalent to its body weight. That is according to DEFRA.

Failure to comply is an offence, with penalties of up to two years in prison. That is taking micro-management to a ludicrous level. Farmers, particularly livestock farmers, have a better understanding of how their animals behave, including how they defecate, than bureaucrats in Whitehall. Farmers should be trusted with a system of spot checking to ensure compliance, not compelled to spend endless spare time—time that they do not have—tied up in keeping essentially pointless records. Please rethink that, too, Minister.

Another consequence of the proposal is the impact on the production of home-grown milling wheat of bread-making quality. I have some personal knowledge of that, having grown milling in preference to feed varieties of wheat on my farm for 20 years. UK flour millers require wheat with bread-making characteristics, which include a high level of good quality protein. The varieties of milling wheat now available mean that, to achieve the required protein level, more than a third of UK crops will need more than 280 kg per hectare of nitrogen and 25 per cent. will require more than 300 kg per hectare.

Milling wheat achieves a premium price for farmers, which can be achieved only if it meets the millers’ high standards. Last year, wheat was grown on some 1.826 million hectares in the United Kingdom, of which approximately 35 per cent. had bread-making potential. Those farmers whose soils or land quality require higher than the proposed maximum 260 kg per hectare of nitrogen inputs to achieve those standards will be encouraged to grow more feed wheat varieties, thus lowering their returns and reducing the supply of home-grown quality wheat for the mills. That will increase our imports of such wheat from France, Germany, Canada and other countries.

British farmers have supplied an increasing proportion of domestic demand, which was estimated by the milling industry at 85 per cent. last year, with imports declining over the years from 70 per cent. to 15 per cent. Did the Minister’s environmental impact assessment consider the cost of the increased food miles and the associated carbon footprint increase that will result from reversing that trend, possibly to the point where the majority of the flour needed to make bread or cakes to feed the British public must be imported? Does the Minister remember what happened to Marie Antoinette when she was held responsible for rising bread prices?

It does not have to be like that. There is already significant evidence of reducing nitrate fertiliser use on cereal crops, by 25 per cent. over the past 10 years, while yields have continued to grow. Specialist farmers who produce bread-making wheat are skilled in applying nitrogen to maximise uptake by the plant, while minimising losses and wastage through run-off. That requires a flexible approach by individual farmers, applying manure and chemical fertilisers when it is right for the crop and in weather conditions suitable to maximise take-up and minimise leachate, not when they are told to do so by Whitehall.

Are more stringent requirements really necessary? I am not a scientist, but that decision should be based on scientific evidence rather than on bureaucratic convenience. As I have just said, nitrogen fertiliser use has declined by 40 per cent. in less than 20 years and by 25 per cent. in the past 10 years. That has come about for several reasons, including a decline in the numbers of livestock after the animal health diseases of recent years, which means that less manure is generated. Furthermore, crop efficiency in absorbing nitrogen has risen substantially, so less nitrate is being leached through the soil. Nitrate trends are static or falling for 77 per cent. of river monitoring sites, and for 25 per cent. of groundwater. DEFRA’s plans seem based partly on meeting the aims of other directives or other Government objectives.

The Government have pledged to avoid all gold-plating of EU legislation, but their implementation and enforcement of these proposals fly in the face of that pledge. These measures are very costly, but not very effective. DEFRA itself has calculated a reduction in nitrates of only 1 per cent. by extending the closed period, which is responsible for the main cost of increased storage. These measures might not be regarded as cost-effective if they were introduced under the water framework directive and could be disproportionate, but mysteriously, those tests do not apply under the nitrates directive.

I shall make an observation on grants and helping farmers. When the initial NVZ scheme was introduced in 1996, the then Government recognised the significant cost to farmers of meeting the manure handling and storage requirements under the action programme. They therefore established the farm waste grants scheme, which the current Government expanded, in 2002, when they substantially increased the designated area and then extended, in 2003, for a further two years. The scheme ended on 31 March 2006. Will DEFRA reinstate that or equivalent schemes to provide relief to farmers in England, who see their neighbours in Wales and Scotland being offered grants of between 40 and 60 per cent. of the capital cost of providing the storage facilities?

I appreciate that I have extended the length of my speech, but I have taken a number of interventions from colleagues unable to make their own contributions. However, finally, I have some specific suggestions for the Minister about what is needed to make the regulations workable. First, no more land should be designated as an NVZ than is justified by science monitoring—less than 70 per cent. Secondly, in areas where designation is questioned, there should be no additional storage requirement, plus the retention of existing closed periods and ideally other aspects too, while DEFRA undertakes more intensive monitoring.

Thirdly, capital grants comparable to the 40 to 60 per cent. grants available in Wales and Scotland should be introduced to assist with increased storage requirements, as well as tax deductible depreciation charges, following the loss of the agricultural buildings allowance. Fourthly, a longer period, such as four rather than two years, should be introduced, to allow the implementation of storage requirements, given the time needed to secure planning permissions, arrange funding and build. Ministers are keen to encourage anaerobic digestion facilities on farms, which will take even longer to plan and install than conventional storage, and they should be covered by these measures.

Fifthly, Ministers should press to secure a whole farm manure loading grassland derogation of 230 kg per hectare. Sixthly, rather than imposing a blanket obligation from Whitehall, slurry volume storage requirements should be arranged locally to match more closely the conditions on the farm, including soil type, rainfall and land use. The six-month storage requirement for pig and poultry should be reduced to five months, because there seems no justification for additional storage; it is a buffer zone put in place by bureaucrats. Finally, the record-keeping system should be simplified to allow a spot-check monitoring system, rather than a prescribed one.

We have about 25 minutes for Back-Bench contributions before the winding-up speeches, unless the Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen are prepared to shorten their contributions, because I want the Minister to have at least 10 minutes in which to reply to the many points raised.

Happy new year to you, Sir Nicholas, and your colleagues on the Chairmen’s Panel. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate and on his speech, which was a veritable tour de force in its comprehensive approach to the subject before us. As he said, it took up quite a lot of the time for our debate, regrettably, so I shall try to be as brief as I can.

Since the 1980s, Governments of both major parties have tried to work harder to recognise the effect on British businesses and competitiveness of over-regulation, and Governments now try to rationalise existing regulation, to weed out regulations that are no longer necessary and, when new regulations are proposed, to ensure that they are justified by the science and that they are proportionate in addressing the problem with which they seek to deal. The Minister ought to say today that the Government are mindful of that approach when considering proposals for the further implementation of the nitrates directive.

If it is a yellow card for the Minister to regulate when he ought not to, it is certainly a red card for him to come before this Chamber with a proposal to gold-plate a European Union directive—to use regulations implementing a directive to bring into force further proposals that he and his civil servants think are a good idea. I hope that the Minister will tell us that there is no such proposal to gold-plate this EU directive.

I shall explain why my involvement in this subject is so strong. A number of farmers and other land managers in my constituency of Stafford have approached me with concerns about the Government’s proposals in their consultation. Michael Madders, who is president of the Staffordshire branch of the National Farmers Union and a constituent of mine from Coppenhall, came to see me with the Staffordshire NFU’s view of these proposals. The Minister knows those views because he has seen the relevant letter making four very sensible points and constructive suggestions. However, many of those points were covered by the hon. Member for Ludlow, so I shall not repeat them, as I would have done had I more time.

I shall mention another person who manages land in my constituency: Andrew Blenkiron, who manages the Chillington estates. I put it that way because most of the land is in the constituency of my parliamentary neighbour, the long-standing and hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). However, Andrew Blenkiron also manages land in my constituency and thus wrote to me. I passed on the letter to the Minister and he replied, for which I thank him. I want to bring to the attention of the Chamber the strength of feeling among those who are very experienced in managing land locally. Andrew Blenkiron spoke about the “substantial and disproportionate impacts” of the proposed changes on businesses such as the one that he manages. He wrote:

“I am particularly concerned about the costs associated with the maximum manure application rates, extended closed periods for manure application and the requirement for growing cover crops over winter.”

The hon. Member for Ludlow covered all of those points.

It might help if I draw to hon. Members’ attention another quote that demonstrates Mr. Blenkiron’s strength of feeling:

“Perhaps the most insulting part of the consultation is Defra’s own estimate of the Nitrate reduction that will be achieved by the extended closed period and whole farm limit, a mere 0.5 to 1.0 per cent. change. As a livestock farmer I recognise the important role that I play in looking after the environment.”

He rightly goes on to mention, as hon. Members have done in this debate, the way in which farmers are responsible for the management of land and the way in which the Government reward them for sensible management through many stewardship schemes.

I have also hosted a west midlands meeting of Members of Parliament, the National Farmers Union and individual farmers. The hon. Member for Ludlow was one of the prominent Members of Parliament who took part in the discussion that day. Nationally, I have dealt with the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. I have read the CLA’s briefing on the subject.

On behalf of all those who have made representations to me, I would like to point out to the Minister that land managers and farmers already have a good story to tell in relation to carbon dioxide reductions—a subject dear to the Department’s heart—and their record on nitrate reductions. The CLA briefing mentions a 30 per cent. decrease in fertiliser use during the past 20 years. When we discuss further restrictions, more stringent record-keeping requirements, and imposing burdens that most people think will have huge price tags, we, as Members of Parliament, are entitled to ask whether such measures are really justified. The hon. Member for Ludlow said that we should have regard to the evidence. I agree, as does the CLA in its briefing, which states:

“According to the Environment Agency figures 75 per cent. of rivers have downward trends over 5 years”—

in terms of nitrates—

“but we are told by DEFRA that they are not statistically significant. We therefore call on DEFRA to obtain statistically significant data to clarify whether they are downward trends.”

The challenge goes back to the Department to justify making changes when the current trends appear to be downwards and therefore requiring less action.

I have talked about the representations that I have received. How many responses has the Minister received to his consultation, and will he tell us whether he is already getting the sense that those responses overwhelmingly reflect the views that he has heard in this debate? I hope that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has understood those messages and what matters crucially to farmers and land managers. Many of those issues were pointed out by the hon. Member for Ludlow, but I would like to emphasise some of them again. Many people are saying that nitrate vulnerable zone designation should be at no more than the level justified by science monitoring. The other side to that coin is that in areas where there is no longer a need for zones to be designated, there should be a procedure to stop or take away the designation.

Before Christmas, I asked the Minister for the Environment about that in a written question, which he answered on 17 December. I asked whether it was possible for the River Trent catchment area to be removed from the nitrate vulnerable zone designation because of the long-term downward trend in nitrate content in that river—again, the hon. Member for Ludlow referred to that in his speech. The Minister answered:

“My Department is considering under what circumstances removal of land from within a nitrate vulnerable zone may be possible in the future.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 1005W.]

The representation that I wish to make is that there might be a good side to the regulations if they allow for an area to be de-designated where the evidence shows that that should happen.

As far as I am aware, everyone wants the Department to make the maximum use of derogation. The hon. Member for Ludlow mentioned one proposal relating to derogation that the Department itself has introduced. Everyone says that the proposals are too inflexible on the lengths of slurry storage requirements, and many people point to the actual cost of that requirement. The president of the Staffordshire NFU estimated there would be a £50,000 additional cost for a dairy farm with a herd of 120 cows. That helps to show that, proportionately, we are talking about large amounts for people whose businesses can ill afford it. Help should be provided with those costs if the Government’s own regulations impose the requirement for investment.

Many, including the NFU and the CLA, say that the requirements for winter cover crops should be scrapped. In this debate, hon. Members have referred to some of the beneficial effects of leaving cereal stubbles in over winter. We should at least draw the definition of what is required sufficiently widely to cover good environmental practice. That is my representation to the Minister on that subject, but I would like to point out that on his website, to which he refers from time to time as a place where we will find information about his Department’s policies, there recently appeared an announcement of a new consultation on helping businesses to cut carbon dioxide emissions. The website refers to the Department helping to

“cut duplication and unduly complex bureaucracy”

for farmers and other land managers who want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I hope that the Minister keeps the same attitude of helping to cut duplication and unduly complex bureaucracy at the forefront of his mind when he responds to this debate and deals with the issue of nitrates.

I congratulate my neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate. I will significantly curtail my speech because I want to ensure that other hon. Members are called.

By way of introduction, I would like to point out that there is a terrible crisis in the dairy industry, as hon. Members are already aware. The price paid for milk to farmers by the supermarkets has until recently been absolutely disgraceful. On top of that, there is a terrible crisis of bovine TB throughout the country. In 1998 in Shropshire, 45 animals were slaughtered under bovine TB control measures, and in 2006, the figure was 915. There has been a massive increase in the number of animals slaughtered as a result of bovine TB. The recent foot and mouth outbreak also cost farmers throughout the country more than £100 million. So far the Government have offered only £10 million in compensation, which is wholly inadequate, and there is not much hope that the NFU will pursue the Government through the courts to give appropriate compensation to our farmers.

Nevertheless, we are making progress. We now have an all-party group on dairy farmers. I am chairman of the group and 189 Members of Parliament are members of it, many of whom are from the Labour party. I pay tribute to you, Sir Nicholas, as you are one of the most active members of the group and thank you for all that you contribute. I will, of course, send a copy of what the Minister says in this debate to all 189 members because I am sure that they will all be interested to hear the comments made today.

One of the most encouraging things that has happened is that the Office of Fair Trading has finally decided to fine the supermarkets for the way in which they have behaved. The all-party group met the OFT on many occasions and repeatedly pressed it on this issue. I am pleased that it will be fining supermarkets, but the group now wants to convince the OFT that fines should go not directly to Government coffers, but to farmers.

The nitrates directive will be hugely damaging to the dairy industry. It will result in a substantial increase in costs for dairy farmers. From the various studies that I have read, I calculate that it will add an extra £15,806 a year to the costs of the average dairy farm in Shropshire. That equates to a cost of compliance to the farmer of 1.34p a litre. Many dairy farmers will simply not have the capital available to cope with the NVZ proposals, if they are implemented. The 2008 forward planning booklet of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation estimates the average cost of production at more than 25p per litre, and that is before family labour is taken into account. Even with the improved prices, many farmers will not receive a milk price in excess of that amount.

The Environment Agency has shown that there have been falling trends in nitrates in 75 per cent. of rivers in the past 15 years due to decreased fertiliser applications. Why must we add additional measures when we are already achieving the objective? In existing NVZs, when a long-term nitrate decline is evident, new action programme proposals should be waived. That point was made by other hon. Members, and I hope that the Minister takes it on board.

I shall put three points to the Minister in my remaining few minutes—[Hon. Members: “Seconds.”] In that case, as I am generous to my hon. Friends, I shall conclude with one point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow mentioned anaerobic digestion, which is one of the most important points. I hope that the Minister will tell us that he has been to Germany or Sweden to see it in action because the Germans and the Swedes are advancing tremendously with anaerobic digestion. They are using farm waste to ensure that energy is produced, and ultimately the result is that far more animal waste is spread on farm land. I look forward to the Minister telling us what plans the Government have to support our farmers in order to ensure that they can enter the field of energy production, which ultimately will help everybody.

May I begin, Sir Nicholas, by saying how pleased I am to see you in the Chair this morning? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) not only on securing the debate, but on the articulate and comprehensive way in which he introduced it. His speech was a tour de force on the subject of nitrate vulnerable zones.

My hon. Friend made three key points. I do not want to repeat what has already been said, but I shall highlight the three key areas, about which my hon. Friend was absolutely right. Given the scale of the proposed change and the negative impact on farmers, he was right to highlight costs and effectiveness as key determinants in the directive, and the necessity for a far more refined and focused designation of NVZs. I do not want to repeat the context, but it is important to re-emphasise the fact that farming has recently reduced its nitrate footprint dramatically, which is the point of the directive. Nitrate fertiliser use has fallen by 25 per cent. in 10 years, manure applications have been reduced, nitrate levels in rivers have fallen significantly, and as my hon. Friend rightly said, DEFRA’s own NVZ consultation showed that 77 per cent. of sites show a declining trend.

I shall make a few key points about Lincolnshire-specific issues, particularly on the gold-plating that DEFRA proposes regarding cover crops. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Department will not gold-plate on cover crops or, indeed, that it will drop the whole proposal. There is significant concern among farmers and producers in Lincolnshire about the additional cost of the proposal and the damage that it may do. DEFRA proposes that cover crops be planted on land ploughed in autumn in preparation for the spring crop. In my constituency, many peas and brassicas are grown that are particularly sensitive to soil conditions, and cover crops will have a negative impact on those conditions, because the sowing and subsequent destruction of the cover crop will increase field operations and carbon emissions in direct contradiction of other DEFRA policies. It will prove harder to establish good seed beds in the fields for the next crops, which will inevitably lead to the greater use of herbicides and pesticides—again in direct contradiction of other DEFRA policies.

The proposal is agronomically unsound, because it defeats the object of autumn ploughing, which is to allow winter frosts to weather the soil, using nature rather than diesel to create a seed bed. Without the benefit of frost action, extra cultivations, herbicides and pesticides will be needed, planting will be delayed and the carbon footprint will increase. The crops that will be affected in my constituency in Lincolnshire—and elsewhere in England I suspect—are sugar beet, peas, brassicas and other vegetables.

Finally, as we heard, farmers may try to avoid the requirement by switching to autumn-sown crops or by harvesting later. That would result in fewer winter stubbles, upon which farm birds rely, and which form a vital part of another DEFRA policy—the entry-level scheme that encourages environmental protection among farmers. I urge the Minister to listen to what has been said in the debate and to the representations that he has received not only from Members, but from farmers and producers throughout the country. In an already difficult and challenging economic and agricultural environment, DEFRA should certainly not examine ways of gold-plating European Union directives by creating additional burdens and regulatory costs that will challenge farmers’ success. That is unhelpful, uneconomic and unwarranted.

Order. I want to allow two extra Members to speak, but if their remarks are not succinct, I shall not be able to do so.

I endorse the excellent speeches that my own MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), and others have made. It is interesting that so many of us have the same concerns, which have been expressed very well.

The proposals will have a devastating effect on many farmers in my constituency. The nitrate vulnerable zone pilot scheme was based in the centre of my constituency many years ago, and I have been following the issue for the past 15 or 20 years. The root of the problem is not gold-plating, although it contributes to the problem and it ought to be taken away. For practical purposes, the problem’s centre of gravity is the prescribed level of 50 mg a litre under the nitrates directive itself. As the National Farmers Union says, the level

“presents no human health impact but could trigger ecosystem changes in certain estuaries.”

I am deeply concerned, too, about the derogations made available to Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Ireland. Belgium and Northern Ireland have made applications, in particular for specialist dairy farms. The costs that my constituents will incur will be horrendous, and they are deeply worried about the issue. I find it extremely distasteful that differential grants in Scotland and Wales, which effectively mean that we pay a much higher rate in England, are paid for by our taxpayers. We subsidise what happens in Scotland and Wales, which is extraordinarily difficult to understand. I should like the Minister to address that point.

There are ways of dealing with the issue. The problem’s centre of gravity is the European directive, and ultimately, if a solution is not found by negotiation, under the supremacy of Parliament provisions that I have recommended in the past, we should take action to ensure that our farmers are not treated in a way that is detrimental to our own vital national interests.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate. He may know that before Christmas, I called on the Leader of the House to find time for a debate in Government time about this very important subject. It is a sad indictment of the Government’s attitude to the countryside that we must hold the debate in Westminster Hall, not in the House itself.

I shall describe the plight of farmers in Norfolk in light of the disastrous effect of nitrate vulnerable zones. Although farmers in my constituency accept that the environmental impact of agricultural practices must be addressed, they are worried about the proposals. In Norfolk, farmers share concerns about the seemingly rushed timetable for implementing the new NVZ regulations, and about the costs that they will incur. However, they are particularly dismayed about the autumn cover-crop proposals and the closed period for spreading manure. Cover crops will prove costly in money and in time, as has already been said.

Spring crops, such as sugar beet on which the Norfolk economy relies, are dependent on autumn ploughing, and cover crops will seriously handicap farmers’ land preparation for spring. Cover crops could also devastate farmers’ yields. The National Farmers Union has gone so far as to say that cover crops might make it “impossible” for farmers to grow vining peas, potatoes and sugar beet, which would be a disaster for the Norfolk economy. If cover crops are mandatory, farmers may be forced to use more chemicals to produce a good seed bed, which is expensive and bad for farming practice.

Will the Minister respond to farmers in my constituency who believe that they will suffer from a lack of resources to try to meet DEFRA’s requirements while maintaining their usual farming practices? A constituent has told me that cover crop requirements will mean an end to winter stubble, which will have an adverse impact on birds and animals that use that stubble as an important food source. The sting in the tail is that the EU nitrates directive does not require cover crops to be included in member states’ action plans. How does the Minister justify the gold-plating of the directive, and does he accept that Europe has a lot to answer for in the directives by which British farmers have to abide, and which have not been thought through?

I have received a great deal of correspondence from farmers about new regulations on slurry and manure. As my hon. Friends have said, the increase both in storage requirements for slurry and in restrictions on spreading manure will be extremely expensive. Can the Minister guarantee capital grants for farmers if the slurry storage proposals go ahead as planned? Why is DEFRA considering regulations that would further penalise farmers who are already struggling because of animal disease, extreme weather conditions and bureaucracy?

I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests—that has probably used up most of my time.

I ask the Minister to help me see into the mind of the official who thought up the terms of compliance with the regulations. Oh, to have been on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee when he or she, and the Minister responsible for signing off the terms, appeared before it to answer questions on just how draconian, detailed and bureaucratic the regulations were and how much red tape was involved.

Will the Minister consider how the regulation conflicts so dramatically with what his Department is doing both on the countryside stewardship scheme, which has been successful in west Berkshire, and on other methods of increasing biodiversity? If he wants to see the future of stock farming in areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), he should come to the Berkshire downs, where it has all but disappeared, and see the impact that that has had on biodiversity and the excellent things that the Government want to achieve. The regulation will only add to that problem. Dairy farmers will continue to go out of business as the infrastructure that supports them disappears. I urge the Minister to have a rethink.

I welcome you to the Chair to oversee this welcome debate, Mr. Hancock, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing it. It is incredibly important, and it ought to have taken place elsewhere, as has been said.

I notice that the Minister looks relatively relaxed; perhaps his football team, like mine—Burnley and Blackburn Rovers are normally hostile rivals—has benefited from the stress-free existence of willingly having gone out of the FA cup at the weekend, and is now settling down to a mid-table position. That is a contrived link—I hope that the Minister is not relaxed about the serious implications of the NVZ proposals for British farming, the tourism industry and the environment. People outside Parliament might consider that this is not the first time that Members of Parliament have talked poop, but it is right that we should do so on this occasion.

The Government’s proposals for the implementation of the NVZ directive are outrageously disproportionate. They will place a huge cost on the industry, yet DEFRA admits that the resulting reduction in nitrate leaching will be less than 1 per cent. They come at an incredibly difficult time, as we have heard, with foot and mouth disease placing a cost of at least £200 million on the farming industry. I imagine that we are having a slight respite from the impact of bluetongue and other damaging attacks on the industry, both natural and unnatural, but to add at least a £250 million price tag to increase storage capacity is unbearable considering the pitifully low compensation that the Government have provided to farming for foot and mouth. Almost none of that compensation has gone to lowland farms, yet the cost will have the greatest impact on them.

I was talking to a farmer who lives just up the road from me, Gordon Capstick of Heversham. He reckons that it will cost him, a relatively small dairy farmer, about £30,000 to improve his storage facilities. At a time when we are contemplating our navels about what we get paid, we are discussing a directive that, if imposed as planned, will create enormous cost increases for people, some of whom subsist on incomes below the national minimum wage.

Despite all that, the Government appear not to have planned any grant support to enable farmers to improve storage facilities. I hope that the Minister will tell us otherwise. Elsewhere in the UK, for example in Northern Ireland, farmers are given up to 60 per cent. grant aid, and elsewhere in the EU, close at hand in the Republic of Ireland, young farmers receive up to 80 per cent. grant aid in certain cases. We must also bear in mind the economic impact, given that storage requirements will undoubtedly reduce livestock numbers, as there will be pressure to maintain a lid on the amount of muck in tanks. Costs go up, and income goes down, so the measure is not wise, given the current situation in farming.

The impact on the countryside will be huge. Not only will there be a significant cost to farming, but there will be a massive impact on tourism. As we have heard, there will be a day, probably in March when, to coin a phrase, there will be a big stink. The tanks will be emptied on the first dry day, at just about the time when the tourists arrive in our part of the world. That will be terribly helpful! Hon. Members may know that we occasionally get a bit of rain in Cumbria, and there is every chance that the day following the first dry day will not be dry, and that it will chuck it down. Not only will the result be antisocial and unpleasant, there will be massive leaching into water courses.

Ironically, the measure threatens to be ecologically counter-productive. Members will have seen DEFRA’s own figures showing that it is likely to cause an increase of in the region of 9 per cent. in emissions of ammonia, which is a serious pollutant in its own right. I wonder whether the Government have considered the impact of the regulation in breaching other EU directives, particularly fresh water directives. The proposals appear to have been ill thought out, with precious little preparation time built in. As we have heard, the imposed building of new tanks will not happen overnight. They will be costly, and raising the finance will not be as straightforward as the Government think. In addition, planning permission will not be secured overnight, particularly in areas such as the Yorkshire dales and Lake District national parks, part of which I represent. Will there be a guarantee that farmers who cannot complete the installation of the new tanks in time, through no fault of their own, will be exempt from penalties?

There are clear examples of gold-plating in the NVZ proposals. We have heard two such examples: the first is the requirement for land that does not carry crops in the winter to be sown with cover crops. We have heard about the impact that that will have on farmland birds and, ecologically, on soil quality. It will be a massive drain on farm resources and extremely damaging to wildlife.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that something that has not been mentioned—I apologise if I missed it earlier in his excellent speech—is the impact on the Environment Agency? In these days of flood prioritisation, I worry that the key monitoring agency might not be able to monitor nitrates properly and could be seriously under-resourced.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention, and I shall mention in a moment the impact of the regulation on monitoring bodies and the administrative framework.

I may have missed it, but I do not think that anybody has mentioned the second piece of gold-plating: the fact that DEFRA has decided to differentiate manures from different animals. The European Union makes no such requirement, as far as I can see, but still DEFRA seeks to enforce different minimum storage periods for cattle slurry and for pig and poultry slurry. That is an unnecessary complication that the Government have chosen to add to an already complex situation, which brings me to ask whether DEFRA is ready or, dare I say, even competent to deal with yet another complicated administrative system, which will be required to enforce and monitor all of this. The Minister must admit that DEFRA’s track record is not glittering in that regard. Does he really want to carry the can in a few months’ time when the administrative infrastructure that has to be constructed inevitably starts to implode?

The directive contains serious flaws, which prompts me to ask how we got here. Given that nitrate fertiliser use has fallen by 25 per cent. in the past 10 years, despite rising yields, that manure applications continue to decline, and that 77 per cent. of riversides show a declining nitrate trend, why has Britain been labelled a nitrate offender? Those charged with fighting our case in Europe have let farming down badly and I sincerely hope that it is not too late to tackle this issue. Will the Minister seek grassland derogation to 250 kg per hectare, as his Department has promised, which would at least provide some mitigation? Will he provide grants to support new storage or relax restrictions on slurry spreading? What about other mitigations? More generally, given the enormous cost to farming and the farming industry, and the ecological damage that the proposals will bring—in exchange for a tiny gain—will the Minister agree to return to Brussels to mitigate the impact of this directive? Will he also undo the restrictions that the Government have imposed over and above the requirements of the EU directive?

I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. As others have rightly done, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) both on securing the debate and on the exceptionally comprehensive and reasonable way in which he presented all the issues. In many ways, he made other contributions superfluous, because he covered every aspect. However, I do not intend to follow his reasonable approach entirely. The most important thing to state is that the debate is not about the rights and wrongs of reducing nitrate pollution, so I hope that the Minister will not detain us on that issue. There is universal agreement across the House that we all want to do that, so we do not need to hear a lot of verbiage about why we need to do it. The issue is entirely about how we should do it.

The proposal is totally disproportionate and pays no heed to the realities of farming practice. It has clearly been drafted by people who have no idea about farming practice on the ground. It has been put to the House by Ministers who also have no understanding of farming practice and are therefore not in a position to challenge what is put before them. It goes far beyond what any reasonable interpretation of the directive would require, or what is necessary to comply with the directive. I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that part of the problem is the directive. I hope that it can be renegotiated because it is far too detailed.

Several hon. Members have mentioned individual cases. Just this morning, I received a letter from a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill). Mr. Cussons has a relatively small family farm of 63 hectares with 130 dairy cows. He estimates—he provides figures in the letter—that if he had to reduce the herd to cut manure production, it would cost £58,000 in reduced income. Increasing slurry capacity, as well as other factors, would bring the total to £148,000. On his 63-hectare farm, that is a cost to the business of more than £2,000 per hectare.

I accept that the 50 mg per litre requirement is laid down in the directive and that we have to work with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is right to say that there is some science to challenge that figure, but for the purposes of the debate, we have to accept it. However, the action plan is entirely disproportionate, especially at a time when even No. 10 Downing street is beginning to acknowledge the importance of having an element of domestic production and food security. As several hon. Members have said, the plan goes way beyond the directive and represents gold-plating. The Minister appeared to suggest that the measures on cover crops, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow discussed, are not gold-plating, and I look forward to hearing his explanations on that point.

The whole issue of cover crops goes completely against traditional agricultural practice and the interests of the environment. They will cost some farmers their entry-level scheme. If they are getting points for winter stubble in an entry-level scheme to which they have signed up for five or seven years and if they now lose that, one must question how they can possibly achieve both objectives. The measures on cover crops will require much more energy use. I grew up farming in Essex, on heavy clay, where the frost for tilth was essential to get any sort of spring seed bed because otherwise we had to engage in what was called clod bashing to break up the soil, which used a lot of energy. Having tried to deal with the Labour Government for the past 10 years, I sometimes feel as though I am back clod bashing.

There has been a massive 25 per cent. reduction in the use of nitrogen, yet paragraph 5.12 of the document contains the insulting—there is no other way to describe it—statement that the programme could

“lead to cost-savings that will act to mitigate the costs”.

The document goes on to say:

“it is expected that the efficiency of nitrogen utilisation on farms will improve, thereby enabling farmers to reduce their input costs (e.g. manufactured fertiliser).”

If someone is paying £300 a tonne for their nitrogen, as opposed to £120 a tonne two years ago, they are already damn well looking at mitigating their costs. They do not need some pipsqueak writing it into a DEFRA document—it is already part of business practice.

Other important issues are the development of technology and fertiliser placement. Farmers are doing all that they can to reduce their nitrogen inputs because that makes sense. We have also had the issue of closed periods. With the exception of two rainfall categories, there is no differentiation, so the situation in Cornwall is the same as that in Cumbria—and in Cambridgeshire, although we have a lower rainfall. There is no reference to topography, so the same set of rules applies whether land is level or on a slope, or north or south-facing, and whatever the soil type. That is bonkers, and no respectable Minister with any understanding of, or sympathy for, this industry would put such measures before the House.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) rightly referred to the very small percentage reduction in leaching that can be achieved for what the NFU estimates is a £250 million investment in storage. Wherever one looks, there are serious problems, and I could go on. Paragraphs in section 4 of the document lay down unbelievably ridiculous detail about what farmers should do. The whole farm limit excludes woodland and roads, but makes no reference to the mix of crops. Slurry and manure cannot be spread on every crop—only on certain types of land. For example, they cannot be spread before potatoes. They can be spread only on crops for which the land is there and can be travelled on at that time of year. All sorts of husbandry constraints make the proposal nonsense.

The document promises us a “new decision support tool”. I look forward to a new decision support tool—

Yes, hopefully it will be a general election.

The Minister must also address the issue of the time scale. Paragraph 5.17 of the document says that “We will explore”—wow!—

“the possibility of simplifying the process for obtaining planning permission for the construction of new manure storage facilities”

with regard to anaerobic digestion. The measures come in in three months’ time. Yes, there is a two-year process, but the Minister knows damn well—he has been a local government Minister—that if all he is doing is exploring the issue, there is no way that in two years and three months, every farmer will have manure storage up and running so that they meet the necessary obligations.

The proposals are typical of DEFRA’s approach over the past few years. There is an obsession with process rather than outcome. We are trying to achieve a reduction in nitrates in the water, but we have been given a huge list of prescriptions and a tick-box system. There is no room for discretion by farmers and no recognition that farmers can be trusted to know their local situation. There is no thought about the true cost to the industry. It really is now time for a whole new approach to how we deal with regulations. It is time to say to our farmers and other businesses, “We trust you. This is what we are trying to achieve. We will not tell you how to do it, but we will trust you to achieve it. If you do not, we will come down on you like a ton of bricks, but you know your farm, your soil, your finances, your rainfall and so on.”

I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to reconsider the regulations and, for goodness’ sake, heed the universal appeal. Even Labour Members have been sensitively critical. They have all made the same point. I urge him to come back with something that achieves the objectives, but is reasonable for the industry.

I have asked the Minister not to reply to the criticisms about his antecedents as a farming expert. I now invite him to reply to this very interesting debate.

Thank you, Mr. Hancock. The debate has indeed been interesting and important. I understand its importance to Members of Parliament and their constituents in farming and related sectors. If I were not aware of its importance from the debate, I would be from the correspondence that I have received from hon. Members of all parties. I can tell hon. Members that I am receiving more letters on this issue than any other in my portfolio, including international climate change. That gives us an appreciation of its importance. In particular, the letters from individual farmers have been intelligent and well argued, and the parliamentary questions that have been tabled have also been well informed. Not all Members who have tabled questions are here.

I met representatives of the National Farmers Union only this morning, before this debate—it was a happy coincidence—to discuss these issues. I wish to answer the questions as best I can and to set out the Government’s approach.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said that we agreed on the need to reduce nitrates and to address the problem. I emphasise that, but let me dwell on two points. The cost of treating water to meet drinking water requirements in respect of nitrates between 2005 and 2010 is estimated to be some £288 million in capital expenditure and £6 million in operating expenditure. The nitrate problem results in a cost on the other side of the equation as well. The cost of environmental damage to river and wetland ecosystems and to natural habitats is estimated to be some £716 million to £1.3 billion per year, so there are important issues in the balance. It is true that agriculture contributes approximately 60 per cent. of the nitrogen entering rivers in England.

The issue, of course, is the European directive. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) provided one solution to the problem: attempt to get Parliament out of the directive. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) provided another: anaerobic digestion. He said that that solution was for the long term and would not answer the immediate problems, and I concur with him. It is an important opportunity that the Government will be pursuing in any event, but it is not an answer to the immediate question.

The fact is that the UK negotiated and agreed the directive in 1991. It might be old, and some would argue that its prescriptive approach is outdated—it is a prescriptive approach—but its environmental objectives are still relevant. So far, our efforts to implement the directive have been considered insufficient by the European Commission, and an infraction case has been opened against us. In our discussions with the Commission, we have expressed the firm view that the measures that we apply should be based on robust evidence and the status of our water bodies, and should go no further than our evidence shows to be necessary. However, the UK continues to have one of the highest levels of nitrate pollution in the European Union, and while monitoring data suggest that the nitrate levels in many surface waters are on a downward trend, we have no basis for concluding that the trend is significant or sustained. On the contrary, concentrations remain high and are increasing in some areas, particularly in groundwater.

So, what action are the Government planning to take? Our proposals for making additional designations of nitrate vulnerable zones and introducing a reinforced action programme were set out in a consultation document that was published in August last year. In developing the proposals, we took on board the views of people with a direct and indirect interest in the sector. Those views were gained through a series of workshops with farmers and meetings with their representatives and others. I can assure hon. Members that we have also had, and are having, extended discussions with the European Commission as part of the ongoing infraction proceedings.

How does the Minister answer the NFU’s claim that the nitrate level risk that is prescribed by the directive represents no human health impact? Surely that is at the heart of the issue.

As ever in these important debates, the Minister finds himself in a position of being unable to answer all hon. Members’ questions, however reasonable, because of the time limit. While I am in that position now, I can say that the consultation has taken place. It resulted in some 700 responses, which reinforces the seriousness of the matter. I will try to respond to the points that have been made, and I have an open mind on how we implement the directive.

Hon. Gentlemen are pressing me. If I give way, I will not be able to answer all questions that have been asked. I hope that that is understood.

Let me briefly finish this point and see where we are. The proposed revisions would bring us more in line with the action being taken in other member states, although I have to say that requirements are even more stringent in other countries. For example, in Finland, 12 months’ slurry storage is required. In other countries, satellites are used to check compliance. In Denmark, applications of fertiliser are restricted below the economic optimum.

The formal consultation ended on 13 December 2007. As I said, we had 700 responses to it, and I am in the process of considering them.

Will the Minister respond to the points made about the gold-plating of the regulations, particularly in respect of autumn cover crops?

What I have in mind on that is the importance of storage. I understand the point about cover crops, which the NFU made in the formal consultation and many hon. Members made in their letters. I have an open mind about it. There is no intentional desire to gold-plate the directive, which, as I have already said, some would argue is outdated. It is a prescriptive directive, and I have to bear that in mind. I reassure hon. Members that I have an open-minded attitude to the point about cover crops and the importance of stubble.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), who initiated the debate, asked about the timetable. I am not committed to 6 April. It is important that I consider the responses. Areas to be improved can be de-designated and reduced—there is some flexibility. I am aware of the point about ammonia, which was raised by him and by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and others in written questions. The hon. Member for Ludlow mentioned the level of feeling about cover crops. We are seeking a derogation from the measure on 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year. I shall consider his suggestion to go further, but I am presently in discussions on the 170 kg, and I have to balance European Commission requirements against the points that have been made by hon. Members.

A happy new year to you, Mr. Hancock, and to the other Chairmen. I am sorry that I have not been able to answer the questions in detail. I shall, of course, undertake to answer hon. Members who raised pressing points that have not been answered today or covered by responses to parliamentary questions and letters. I have no doubt that I will be in other debates as we move towards decisions on this important directive.

I thank the Minister and hon. Members for their co-operation. I hope that Members who are leaving will do so quietly as we move on to the next debate.