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Agriculture: Farming

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2010


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Task Force on Farming Regulation will make their recommendations.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare my interest as a farmer.

My Lords, I, too, declare my interest as a farmer. The Task Force on Farming Regulation, to be chaired by Richard Macdonald, will identify ways of reducing the regulatory burden through a review of relevant regulations and their implementation, as well as advising on how best to achieve a risk-based system of regulation in future. It will produce its initial views in early 2011.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and I congratulate him and the Government on calling for a task force to consider this whole issue, which has got out of hand in the past year or two. Although the Rural Payments Agency has been making improvements, the way in which it has operated over the past couple of years or so has been a great shambles. Action is therefore needed to simplify the whole process. Is the Minister aware, therefore—I know that he is, of course—that all cattle reared on farms have to have a passport and that sheep have to be electronically tagged? Think of the difficulty of getting 5,000 sheep off a hill to electronically tag them. Livestock movements have to be recorded in quadruplicate. On the whole question of the movement of livestock, forms are supplied in second-classed envelopes. The Minister is obviously aware—

Does the Minister accept that every field, hedge, pond and tree has to be entered on the environmental map, to name but a few of the problems that we face, all creating high costs for little benefit? Does the Minister accept—

Does the Minister accept that future procedure needs the application of a bit of common sense to reduce the regulatory burden on farming without compromising standards?

My Lords, if I can answer briefly, we must move away from the idea that the only way of solving problems is to regulate. To take just one of my noble friend’s examples, the EID for sheep, I can give him an assurance that, when Commissioner Dalli, who has responsibility for this in the EU, visits this country, we will certainly make him aware of the problems that electronic identification of sheep is creating. I am sure that my honourable friend in another place, Mr Paice, will make a point of encouraging him to visit one of the big sheep sales to see what the problems are.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the least necessary aspects of regulation is the multiplicity of visits and inspections under each protocol? Will the task force look at the cost to the farmer of compliance with each regulation?

The task force will certainly look at that. As has been made clear, it will look not only at regulation but at the multiplicity of inspections, because inspections take up time.

My Lords, the task force is very welcome, and there is a lot to be done, but it consists entirely of people from the farming and food industries. There will be no representation of expertise on the environment and conservation or of agricultural workers and other people who live in the countryside and are affected by farms. In those circumstances, does the Minister agree that it is essential that, when the task force reports, its conclusions are thoroughly debated and there is time and opportunity for the country to debate them, including a debate in your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, debates in your Lordships’ House are a matter for people other than me, but I can assure my noble friend that the membership of the task force is not drawn just from the farming industry. It includes Judith Donovan, who is a board director of HSE, and Dr Stephen Tapper, who comes from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, so it covers other aspects.

My Lords, what happens if the recommendations of the task force do not find favour with our lords and masters in Brussels and their infamous common agricultural policy? Which prevails?

My Lords, I had a suspicion that the noble Lord or his noble friend might raise that subject. It might be that we would want to seek to renegotiate a certain number of regulations that come from Europe. If that is the case, we will try to do so. I accept that there are no quick fixes, but we are more likely to be successful if we go to Brussels with a positive attitude rather than a negative one.

My Lords, given the concern expressed yesterday in this House, will the Minister rule out transferring to Defra any regulatory role of the Food Standards Agency? Does he agree with me that the independence of the agency from Ministers and from the food and farming industries was strongly supported by his party and, indeed, was very strongly supported by the Liberal Democrats when the FSA was introduced under the previous Government?

My Lords, the noble Baroness should not necessarily believe everything that she reads in the papers, tempting though that might be. All I can say to her at the moment is that no decision has been taken on the Food Standards Agency and that all arm’s-length bodies in all departments will be subject to review.

My Lords, given the deaths in the agricultural industry that were revealed by the most recent HSE report, will the Minister ensure that any change in regulations will not dilute the regulations concerned with the safety of workers in farming?

My Lords, I can give that assurance to the noble Lord and I can tell him that a further review of health and safety is being carried out by my noble friend Lord Young of Graffham. Those two reviews will not overlap in any way, so my noble friend Lord Young will review that issue, but obviously the health and safety of farm workers must remain paramount.