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Agriculture: Combine Harvesters

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 22 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many British farmers have been prosecuted under European Union rules for using a combine harvester on wet land.

None, my Lords. Breaching cross-compliance would result not in a prosecution but normally in a reduction in payment. As part of the EU’s direct payment to farmers, member states must set cross-compliance conditions aimed at preventing soil damage through the inappropriate use of agricultural machinery. No farmers have been found in breach of the relevant English standard. To enable farmers to complete their harvest, my department granted a derogation.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that there have been no prosecutions, but does not the Minister hold the view that British farmers are the best judges of whether to use heavy machinery on their wet fields? Surely they know better than Brussels bureaucrats how to protect their soil quality for future harvests. When can we expect this ludicrous EU rule to be abandoned so that British farmers can use their common sense?

My Lords, I have every confidence in British farmers using their common sense. We are bound by the rules that have been set down in the EU. This is about the protection of the soil and minimising damage to it. I assure the noble Baroness that given the conditions this summer, in which farmers had difficulties completing the harvest, we showed the flexibility that was desired.

My Lords, given that farmers have no vested interest in damaging the soil and given that there has been no fine since 2005, as the Minister said, does he not agree that this is one of the most stupid laws that ever came out of Brussels? As he said, the regulation is for a good reason, but how many staff are used to implement this scheme, what is its cost and why does the derogation for 2008 cover only combinable crops? If we are talking about damaging soil, why not consider the problem area in Glastonbury, and why not make the derogation permanent?

My Lords, since no breaches have come to the attention of the Rural Payments Agency, which is responsible for overseeing this, I can only assume that the bureaucratic burden has not proved to be very heavy. I accept the noble Lord’s point about the need for flexibility. We will review this, particularly in the light of current experience with our summers. I assure noble Lords that we will look for flexibility, but within the constraints that are set down.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that other member states have negotiated a more complete and comprehensive derogation? What steps could our Government take to make this a much less rigorous and much more flexible system than the one that it seems is being imposed on British farmers at the moment?

My Lords, that is the purpose of the review that is taking place in the next few weeks and months. I hope that we will know the outcome in the new year in time for next year’s harvest. Clearly there could be a more flexible approach that does not apply to harvests, in view of the wet summer weather that unfortunately we now seem to be enjoying.

My Lords, would the noble Lord be awfully kind and answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Plumb? How much does it cost Defra to administer this wretched derogation scheme? Will he also explain why horticultural crops were exempted from this derogation?

My Lords, as I have told the House, my department has attempted to be as flexible as possible, which is why the derogation was given both this year and last year. We will look to reviewing the system to see whether more flexibility can be provided in the future. It is not possible simply to produce a cost for this scheme, but because there have been no breaches I do not think that it has proved to be a heavy bureaucratic burden.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to agree that, if so many things are wrong with this regulation and there are as many derogations as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, says, and if it does not really apply to us, is this not a case for the deregulation task force? Can the results be sent to the former Leader of the House, my noble friend Lady Ashton, saying that getting this deregulated is one of the things that she could pursue on our behalf?

My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion, which no doubt will be given earnest consideration. As we have seen in the UK a better approach to regulation, so we wish to see better regulation in Europe as well, and of course we will pursue that. In the mean time, we will use the discretion that we have to see whether this rule can be used more flexibly in the light of experience.

My Lords, will the Government in their review consider ways in which the administrators and inspectors who are utilised to enforce cross-compliance might be used more effectively to give much needed support to farmers and growers in technical and other matters?

My Lords, we should always look at those involved in administering regulations to ensure that they do their job effectively and that, where we can make value-for-money changes, we do so. It is important that an effective regulatory system is in place for the whole range of cross-compliance, but it should be proportionate. I fully accept the point.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the issue is not really one of flexibility but one of basic sanity? If the land is too wet to support a combine harvester, surely it is too wet to harvest the crop.

My Lords, I see the logic of what the noble Lord says, but I say to him that the conditions of this year’s harvest put farmers under a great deal of pressure. They were faced with the problem of wet conditions and crops being left in the field, then the difficulty of bringing them in and drying them. It must be recognised that the farmers were under considerable pressure, which is why my department tried to respond as flexibly as possible to the situation.

My Lords, is it not a fact that the people who draw up these regulations are not the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament, but a whole lot of bureaucrats who probably do not have the slightest idea about combine harvesters and certainly do not know anything about soil composition? Why do not the Government do something to ensure that these stupid regulations do not feed through?

My Lords, as ever, the noble Earl has a point. This Government have been extremely earnest in arguing in Europe for a more proportionate approach to regulation, as we have taken internally, in farming and other sectors. I assure him that we will continue to argue for sensible and proportionate regulation to be used as flexibly as possible. Surely that must be the right way forward.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the last question he responded to was absolute and utter rubbish? No one who has had any experience of the workings of the Commission, particularly the agriculture directorate, would have any doubt whatever about the extraordinary competence of the people involved and, indeed, their deep knowledge. The noble Earl should withdraw his comments.

My Lords, as ever I am happy to be corrected by my noble friend. One has to distinguish between what might be regarded as unnecessary bureaucracy and the worthy work of the European Commission in seeking to ensure that environmental and other standards in farming are protected. To that extent, these overall standards are to be supported. I believe that it is essential that they are operated as flexibly as possible.

My Lords, in an earlier response the Minister referred to the “relevant English standard”. Is he implying that different standards are observed by different countries? Have any other EU countries been taken to task with regard to this regulation?

My Lords, I do not know the answer with regard to other countries but I can certainly find out. Scotland has a different, more flexible system. That, of course, relates to the traditional, perhaps rather wetter, summers that Scotland has. Alas, we seem to be following it down that route.