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Agriculture: Farm Waste

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 14 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many farmers have applied for the farm waste exemptions; and how many field officers are being trained to police the operations.

My Lords, by 18 May this year, the Environment Agency had received notifications for waste management licensing exemptions from 71,704 farmers. At the beginning of 2007, 329 officers were assessed as being capable of carrying out unsupervised inspections of agricultural waste exemptions, with more being trained to make integrated inspections, covering various environmental aspects, in one farm visit.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I declare an interest as a farmer who was reluctant to register for this farm waste scheme. Does he not agree that this directive is totally counterproductive, that it is more bureaucracy than ever, and that it would be better to recycle a lot of that waste rather than to remove it in any other way? Assuming that 60 per cent of waste on farms is plastic, much of that will surely go into infill sites, which carries a tax of £24 per tonne, rising to £48 per tonne assuming we get to 2011 with the system still in place. Does that not mean that much of that waste will go into fly-tipping rather than into the infill sites?

My Lords, I take the noble Lord’s point. Obviously, he is far more experienced than me. However, to be honest, he has somewhat exaggerated the point. The objective of the exercise is to make sure that waste is recovered or disposed of without endangering human health or the environment. There will be an exemption for material held on the farm for storage pending recycling. There are some 40-odd exemptions. The whole point is that farmers are registering an exemption. The average farmer will register, purely by ticking boxes, no more than about five or six of the 40-odd exemptions. Therefore, there should not be any requirement for fly-tipping. We want to encourage recycling and disposal in a proper way. Storage prior to disposal is fully covered by the exemptions and the average farmer will be covered. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that those 329 officers are existing staff, not new staff. They are being retrained to do integrated inspections so that farmers will get one inspection covering more than one aspect of the operation.

My Lords, Defra is promoting farmers’ use of the internet to apply for the online exemption. Is the Minister confident that enough farmers are online? Does he have statistics on farmers presently online who therefore can use this internet service?

No, my Lords, I do not have those figures, although those farmers registered for the whole-farm approach can do it by electronic means. They do not have to fill in the forms. Registration packs were requested and sent out to 128,000 farmers. At present, we have had 71,000 back. So far, almost 50,000 sites have been registered as exempt. The packs are coming back at the rate of 1,500 a week, increasing to 8,000 a week as the deadline approached. We still have quite a few assessments to make, but those who can do it online are fully able to do so.

My Lords, first, an inspector need not give any notice of an inspection visit to a farm. Secondly, if the farmer is in contradiction to the regulations—if one can call them that—any fine that may be imposed on him is taken from his single farm payment without any ability to appeal. Can the Minister confirm or otherwise comment on that information?

My Lords, on the latter point, there is a point of principle. Failure to comply with cross-compliance requirements would probably require a deduction of single farm payments. I cannot be specific about this particular waste directive. I want to make it clear that no inspections have been carried out under this system. The integrated inspections will not start until later this year, so there have been no instances of non-compliance. For the benefit of information to the House, I should say that the system has been in operation in Scotland for more than a year. To the best of my knowledge there have been no difficulties with it.

My Lords, I rather dread the prospect of yet another army of inspectors. Last year, my farm had to pass five different inspections, which I thought was rather excessive. I suggested that only one inspector should come and look at compliance across all my farming activities. “No, no”, laughed the inspector, “that would mean that us inspectors would have to go on endless courses to learn all the rules and regulations across the farming industry, and then go on refresher courses because the rules are constantly changing”. I pointed out that that is exactly what all farmers have to grapple with on a daily basis. What plans does the Minister have to simplify the inspection process?

My Lords, I have said this several times: these are exemptions. The rest of Europe requires farmers to have permits. With the approval and agreement of the NFU and the other stakeholders in the industry, we have gone down a very simplified route so that farmers do not have to get involved in bureaucracy. All they do is simply tick the box and apply for one of the 40-odd exemptions. In the main, most farmers will require five or six exemptions. All they have to do is make sure that the rules on the exemption are complied with. As I said, the 329 officers are being trained to carry out these inspections as well as others. I agree that there should be as few inspections as possible as long as they cover the areas that have to be inspected. That ought to be the thrust. We do not want double regulation, over-inspection and double inspection where it is not necessary.

My Lords, if the Government anticipate that farmers will seek only five or six exemptions each, how have they estimated the number of officers who will be required, the cost of their training and what budget to allocate for it?

My Lords, that is the very point. Apparently some 1,000 Environment Agency staff in local government management teams help businesses meet their environmental obligations. So far 329 of the existing staff have been trained in this particular waste regulation; I do not know the cost of that training. But I can tell the noble Baroness that at present, of the 71,000 forms we have had back—a huge amount came in towards the closing date—46,500 registered exempt sites have been agreed and the farmers of those sites requested 287,000 exemptions, which is roughly five per site. It was estimated that on average there would be five or six exemptions for each farm, and we have adjusted our training towards that kind of programme. It looks as though it is going to bear out in reality.