Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to have this short debate about farming because farming is facing something of a perfect storm at the moment. It is a storm made up of low prices, overregulation and unwarranted regulation, in many cases, from Brussels, and the imposition of a new payment scheme—the basic payment scheme—to replace the single payment scheme, but more of that a little later.
Some noble Lords may be familiar with Noel Coward’s song “There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner”, which states:
“From Colwyn Bay to Kettering they’re sobbing themselves to sleep,
The shrieks and wails in the Yorkshire Dales have even depressed the sheep;
In rather vulgar lettering a very disgruntled group have posted bills in the Cotswold hills
To prove we’re in the soup”.
I declare my interest as a member of that disgruntled group of farmers. I farm in Warwickshire and I am disgruntled because during my time in the Lords I have served on the committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who is in his place, and have spoken in many debates, including debates in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2008. I think that in nearly all those debates there were calls for reform of the common agricultural policy. I think that both Front Benches in this House have always agreed with the idea of reforming the common agricultural policy. However, what has happened after all those fine words? Where are we now? Has anything changed? Has the common agricultural policy become less bureaucratic, less centralised and less corrupt? No, it has not. Has it made farmers any more prosperous? No, it has not. Actually, things have got worse, as I will explain.
Let us look at where we are now. Dairy farming is on its knees and in many cases producers are being paid less than the cost of production. In some cases, milk is absurdly being sold at less than the price of water. I checked this out for myself in my local branch of the Co-op supermarket in Shipston-on-Stour last week and found that one litre of milk was priced at 85p, while a litre bottle of San Pellegrino water cost £1.35. Perhaps noble Lords should put San Pellegrino water on their cornflakes as it is obviously better than milk.
The beef and sheep sectors are suffering under overregulation, passports and identification schemes, many of which are unnecessary and certainly very burdensome and time-consuming for stock farmers. Arable farmers are regularly stripped of their ability to grow profitable, healthy and viable crops at a time when they are being enjoined to feed an ever increasing population, but the rules from Brussels make it more and more difficult to do that. I take the example of winter wheat. One of the big enemies of winter wheat is the black-grass weed. Over the last couple of years, the most effective black-grass herbicides have been gradually withdrawn against the advice of our own very independent and expert Advisory Committee on Pesticides and that of the previous government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington. However, their advice does not really count. What counts is what goes on in Brussels. The ayatollahs in Brussels decide what we are going to do and we have almost no say there any more. The rules are decided by the agricultural bosses in Brussels in the Commission and are subject to qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, where we are regularly outvoted. Perhaps the Minister can explain why Britain’s much trumpeted strong voice in Europe—about which we hear all the time from the Liberal Benches and the—
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, who is famous for his continental courtesy. When people ask, “What did the Normans do for us?”, you have to say that, after the initial fracas at Hastings, they brought a great degree of courtesy to our debates, as we will see when the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who is legendary for his courtesy, replies to this debate.
Does the party of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, wish us to withdraw from the European Union and, if so, would we not still be subject to these terrible regulations which he has described, with only one difference—that we would no longer have any vote in what they were?
I am very sorry but I do not want to take any more interventions. If the noble Lord wanted to speak in the debate, he should have put his name down. Farmers can survive in this country without the CAP.
As the Minister will remember, the humiliating position of having no say in what goes on in agriculture in this country was underlined last summer when the Commission, spurred on by demonstrators dressed up as bumble-bees, suspended the use of neonicotinoid seed dressings for oilseed rape and other brassicas. Yet again, our Advisory Committee on Pesticides was against this, as to their credit were the Government and the Minister. Yet again, we are being forced to enforce a policy with which we do not agree.
The rule of unintended consequences will now kick in. Large acreages of oilseed rape have been damaged. The percentages are arguable, but these acreages have certainly suffered. According to Home Grown Cereals Authority estimates, about 40,000 acres of oilseed rape last autumn had to be destroyed, abandoned or re-drilled. The consequence of that is that as oilseed rape is a major food for bees and pollinators, there will be less food for them: there will be less oilseed rape. Now that neonics are banned, farmers will use airborne sprays. They have to be put on at flowering time. This initiative by the Commission will definitely damage bees more than was the case when we had neonicotinoid seed dressings—but welcome to the EU, and have a nice day.
Next on the EU shooting-itself-in-the-foot department were genetically modified organisms. Last year the scientific adviser to the European Commission, Professor Anne Glover, was effectively sacked by the new President of the Commission, Herr Juncker. He simply abolished the post. While she was not an active supporter of GMOs, her big mistake—her misdeed—was to say that she understood that the technology is safe and used all over the world. She made the serious error of actually saying this, when she told an organisation called EurActiv:
“I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food”.
For this extreme view she was vilified and pilloried by the usual suspects: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association. Her job was abolished.
The result of this negative, damaging and anti-scientific approach to risk-based regulation, which is what we should have in this country, is that British farmers are disadvantaged by not being able to use technologies that their rivals all over the world are using to their and to consumers’ benefits.
It gets a bit worse. Brussels has come up with a shiny new and exciting replacement for the single payment scheme. It is called the basic payment scheme, or BPS. It is even more complex and irrational than the scheme that it replaces; it sounds hard to do, but Brussels has done it. There is a whole lot of bumf in six papers that I have had that covers 160 double-side pages of print and weighs in at 1 pound and 7 ounces. It defines what a farmer is and tells us what we can do on our own land.
The critical point here is that as farmers we can no longer decide what we grow. We are now handed down a demand and requirement by the Commission that in order to get the subsidies from the BPS we must grow three separate crops. The peasantry can no longer decide what it wants to grow. Presumably we are too stupid to decide what grows best on our own land, too ignorant to grow food that the market requires, and not fit to know what sort of rotational scheme we should have. We have to be told what to do by the European Commission.
This is complete madness. Do the Government really think it right to remain in this wasteful, corrupt, mismanaged, bureaucratic and utterly hopeless organisation, when the common agricultural policy has been condemned on both sides of this House for many years with, as far as I can see, absolutely no result? We would surely be better off bringing agricultural policy back to this country. This would be better for consumers and farmers, and much better for our self-respect.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on getting time for this important debate.
In the world today we face a burgeoning population and a growing demand for food, yet EU and UK agricultural production is at best stalled and in some cases decreasing. Clearly not all is well. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said that there are serious costs to UK agriculture from being in the EU. So what are the difficulties?
For the first time, the majority of the world’s population live in urban areas and for the most part understand neither farming nor the country. This will only get worse, whether we are in or out of the EU. The latest CAP reform was not fit for purpose. The three different crops for arable farms of over 30 hectares is the prime example. Decision-makers in Brussels pay too much attention to unelected, unaccountable NGOs. The so-called green lobbyists, funded in part by the taxpayer—quite wrongly in my view—are starting to do real harm. They will increasingly affect future decisions and regulations—and again, it does not matter whether we are in or out of the EU. EU regulations are far too often based on emotion and politics, not on sound science. A good example is the banning by the Commission of the neonic group of pesticides. This was a dubious decision that undoubtedly makes the lives of farmers more difficult.
The conclusion of the Anderson report on the plant-protection products regime as currently run by the Commission, commissioned by the NFU and others, makes for sober reading. It concludes that in the UK some crops, such as peas for freezing, carrots and apples, will probably not be grown in the future. The gross value added of UK agriculture will fall by about £1.6 billion per annum. There will be a drop of over 36% in farming profits, and a loss of between 35,000 and 40,000 jobs in the associated workforce. These are serious and worrying conclusions, and my noble friend must give us an answer today as to whether he agrees or disagrees with these findings.
I turn to GM crops. The EU position is not just to commit millions of the poorest to a worse diet and more starvation; it is driving research, development and production out of the EU when these are exactly what we need to boost growth and jobs. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, that the sacking by President Juncker of Anne Glover as chief scientific adviser, and the demolition of her job because of her approach to GMOs, was a huge black mark and a terrible decision.
Dr Roberto Bertollini, chief scientist and the WHO representative to the EU, said:
“Ideology and vested interests continue to dominate the public debate in Europe and elsewhere irrespective of the attempts to bring knowledge and science-based advice in the picture”.
Anne Glover’s sacking and the removal of her post was a victory for the green NGOs that sought to undermine her position and won. The result is that the future is bleaker than it should be.
Let me be fair. Good regulations do come out of the EU. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, will have welcomed the minimum apple content in cider that has led to an increase in cider-growing orchards in this country. Although EU regulations on agriculture are perhaps one of the best arguments for leaving the EU, that would be totally wrong. From time to time we are bound to have less good commissioners and Commissions, just as we have less good Governments and Ministers in the UK. One has only to look at ex-Prime Minister Blair, who failed us on many fronts and in particular gave away a large part of our rebate in return for reforms of the CAP that never happened. Getting out of the EU will not solve agriculture’s problems. It will probably make matters worse and is not wanted by most farmers, particularly those in Scotland. I know that the noble Lord is a farmer and that he wants to get out, but not all farmers do.
There has been an encouraging start by Commissioner Hogan, however, who has said many of the right things. I hope that he is more in the MacSharry mould than his predecessor. In his keynote address to the NFU conference in Birmingham two days ago, Commissioner Hogan said that he had made simplification a top priority for his work programme in 2015. He went on to say that he had launched a comprehensive screening exercise of the entire CAP to identify which sections may need simplifying. He went on to say that more than 200 Commission regulations implemented by the common market organisation will be reviewed and simplified. If 200 are being looked at, what is happening to the others? Why are they not being looked at? In what timescale will this happen? How will we hold the commissioner’s feet to the fire? He has said the right things; how will we make him perform?
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the same NFU conference highlighted many problems. She talked about the 30 hectare farming nonsense. Is that one of the reforms that Commissioner Hogan will look at, or does it fall into the category of getting at the principles of the recent CAP reform and is therefore untouchable?
The commissioner mentioned something else that is very important but which the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, did not mention at all. He rightly pointed out that not all the complaints fell at his door. With the greater flexibility produced under the CAP reforms, we need to look at our own Government and, in particular, gold-plating. I must commend Defra—in recent years, it has been considerably better than its predecessor, MAFF—but we still have problems. Let me give an example from Scotland. The debate refers to British agriculture. I know that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, will not reply to this, but as recently as 1 January this year, the Scottish Government introduced a more aggressive penalty matrix to drive the prompt reporting of cattle movements to fit with Scotland’s three-day reporting window, rather than the EU’s seven-day reporting window. That is stupid, and also detrimental to farming.
I will not let Defra get away with it completely: it might not be making new gold plates, but what about some old gold-plating? What about the 2007 regulations about the density of poultry stocking? That was way worse than what the EU had recommended but has not yet been repealed. I hope that that will be first on my noble friend’s list of things to do after today’s debate.
Let me end on a positive note. Sometimes one forgets what we do in this House. Sub-Committee D has recommended a number of things. When I was serving on it, it produced an innovation report which we sent to the Commission. A lot of that was incorporated in the CAP review. As recently as 31 January, another initiative under the European innovation partnership for agricultural productivity and sustainability was taken forward. That is to be welcomed, and Sub-Committee D deserves a pat on the back. It is worth staying in there and having our feet under the table—irritating as it is at times. That is the right thing for our countryside and our farming community.
My Lords, in his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, reminded me that we have often debated these issues in this House, even in the 16 years I have been here. We always seem to come to the same conclusions. I respectfully suggest to him that the reason for that is nothing to do with Europe. It is more to do with the fact that our food system has been so broken over those years. I shall lay out a few reasons for that before turning to the question of the EU.
The food system in the UK is not working for farmers or consumers. We produce some world-famous items, such as beef, lamb, potatoes and apples, and some others that are not so often thought of, such as watercress, pears and trout. They are fabulous, health-giving food. At the other end of the scale, we have consumers who are malnourished or obese. What are they living on? They are living on processed food saturated with sugar, palm oil and salt, which is doing no good to their health. That has nothing to do with the EU; that has to do with the food system, which has broken down. That is what we have to mend. In this country, we need an overarching food strategy that covers the spectrum from what Defra covers to what the Department of Health covers. Not since the Second World War have we had that.
From the EU, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, mentioned, we have lots of good regulation. We have had regulation about water pollution, air pollution and all sorts of other things without which we would probably have never had the incentives to make those steps forward. Of course, we have also had overregulation, and the noble Earl has cut short what I had to say about that, because I, too, was going to mention my hope from what the new commissioner has said about deregulation.
I remember that a few years ago the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, was championing the cause of honest meat. With that, he had a point: it is about labelling meat so that consumers here can really see what they are buying. If, like me, he had been at the meeting of the All-Party Group on Agroecology yesterday—I must declare my interest in that I chair it—he would have heard from John Turner, who initiated the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. It is a vibrant and growing association which ensures that we are using grass, which grows so well in the UK—probably better than anywhere else—to produce the absolute highest quality meat. The results of studies show that meat from pasture-fed animals has a higher nutritional quality than meat from animals fed on other things. That group did not mention that it is suffering from EU regulation, but it is suffering from the lack of proper, open labelling, which would make it much easier for consumers to see what they are buying.
One effect of the tabling of this debate was to make me look at UKIP’s agricultural policies. I was most surprised to see that number one on its agricultural policy list is to impose stronger controls on bush meat. Controlling bush meat, with all its health implications, is clearly very important, but that is not really a British agricultural issue. It is not in competition with beef or lamb. To mix my metaphors, it is a total red herring. That is an issue for the Home Office and border controls. The second top policy of UKIP is to support the trial culling of badgers for the control of bovine TB if veterinary opinion substantiates it. That is not original. It is common to all sides of the House so there is nothing to disagree with there. The third is that UKIP supports the principle of science before emotion on any agricultural topic. Who does not?
There is the issue of how strong the precautionary principle should be. Noble Lords have today raised the issue of neonicotinoids, which is highly important. We cannot do nothing about our pollinators dying out. There is a good argument for trying different approaches and not just allowing the continued use of neonicotinoids as a blanket solution to pests without seeing whether their use is what is causing such a dramatic fall in the number of our pollinators.
I contend that UKIP’s proposals would be an environmental disaster for farmers themselves because they suggest that pollution does not matter. Not only that, they would be a disaster for the wider community and for the food-buying public. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, made fun of the fact that the policy defines what a farmer is, but there is good reason for that. Why should CAP public money go to support the so-called slipper farmers? People who put their feet up and do nothing should not be receiving public money. It is understandable that the Commission is to try to define what a farmer is. The UK Government would join it in being anxious to ensure that public money does not go to people who should not be receiving it.
As for the effects of UKIP’s proposals economically, I will simply echo the words of Ross Murray of the CLA. He said that it was a fallacy to argue that if we opted out of Europe, British farmers could survive, let alone survive well. He said:
“If we opt out of the EU our exports will be cut to shreds and we will be completely at the mercy of the supermarkets, who will always buy on price”.
I go back to where I started with this. The food system in this country is broken, but it is not the fault of the EU. One of the big steps that this Government have taken was to bring in the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which we need to do more to strengthen. We can see that from the dairy sector, but that is a different issue. Socially, UKIP’s policies would be an utter disaster. UKIP has nothing to say about young farmers, the price of land, capital machinery investment or food quality assurance and it wants to get rid of all of these border controls and regulations. What is going to happen when we have another horsemeat scandal? Finally, UKIP seems to have nothing to say on animal welfare issues, which certainly concern the Liberal Democrats and the public, and should concern the noble Lord.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on achieving this debate. I thank him for his contribution, some of which I agree with and some of which I clearly do not. I should also declare my family farming interest and my membership of the NFU and the CLA.
I understand that farming is one of the most regulated industries. We should be working towards minimum regulation and the encouragement of good practice, only legislating where it is truly necessary. The question is: what is the problem? Has risk-assessment research been undertaken, and has sound science been implemented there? If the answers to those questions are yes, should regulation be introduced with a review planned afterwards?
I am grateful to this Government for responding to Richard Macdonald’s task force review and for the work undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, chairman of the Better Regulation Executive, who looked at smart regulation. I was, like others, encouraged to read of the incoming Commissioner Juncker saying that removing unnecessary red tape was at the centre of his political agenda and that his first vice- president has been given responsibility for looking at better regulation. I do not mind whether we call it better or smart, but it needs to be looked at and I, like others, am concerned about the dismissal of the scientific officer.
In this country, the Government have been tackling the current position on regulations. The Secretary of State, the right honourable Liz Truss, speaking at the NFU conference earlier this week, said that Defra was on course to cut 80% of the guidance given to farmers over the course of this Parliament. My goodness, that would be an achievement. They will have cut some 34,000 farm inspections due to farmers who have gained earned recognition. I cannot go into this more deeply, but I know that the Minister will know about that. This has been made possible by the various assured schemes on offer to farmers, so progress is being made.
However, one cannot be complacent. Relevant regulations over the years have protected food production, the environment and animal health and welfare, and have recognised the importance of soil and water in growing crops. However, there are concerns: some have been touched on but I will reinforce them. The new cap, the greening rules and the proposed three-year crop rule—which has been introduced for farmers with more than 30 hectares of land—bring huge challenges to many farmers, particularly the smaller ones and dairy farmers, who normally grow grass and perhaps only one crop on the farm as cattle feed. Those farmers are under serious threat and I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say when he comes to wind up at the end of the debate.
Secondly, as has been mentioned, the loss of plant protection products—such as herbicides, pesticides and fungicides—due to EU regulation has had an alarming effect on production. I do not know if your Lordships are aware, but since 2001, half of these products have been removed due to the overly cautious regulation principle, rather than taking into account, for example, the dose level and exposure of existing products. This risks reducing yields and exposes the crops to black-grass, which is a huge problem in the long term. Will the Minister tell us whether research is being undertaken to review bee colony numbers, now that these products have been withdrawn; or whether it was more climatic and other conditions, rather than the neonics themselves, that caused this problem? I am sure it would be a useful study if it has not been undertaken already.
Yesterday, an article in the press referred to an EU proposal that I nearly did not believe existed. It would require insurance cover for all owners of lawnmowers, golf buggies and mobile scooters that never leave private land. If they were in the public domain, it would be understandable, if slightly questionable, but these are only on private land. While I know that this comes within the remit of the Department for Transport, it obviously affects farmers as well. It brings to mind the proposal, which I think was then dropped, to restrict the driving of tractors to four hours a day. We just need to be very aware of some things that are not practical.
We need to be constantly aware of regulations that are not fit for purpose. Does the Minister agree that the EU GM regulations are not fit for purpose, either in respect of the current process or in anticipation of new crop biotechnologies, such as gene silencing and site-directed nucleases? I welcome the recent EU announcement that allows member states to take the decision on whether to grow GM crops, but there are some persistent questions that need answering within that. There are many who have reservations about GM technology. There are reports of its success in some parts of the world, but some express concerns about the effects experienced by other countries. Does the European Commission track such evidence; where does this responsibility lie; and who, if anybody, challenges the evidence that is coming forward from other parts of the world?
Food security, increasing populations, climate change and the growth of energy crops all put great pressure on agricultural land. In this country, we produce only 60% of the crops we need indigenously, which means that we are reliant on importing 40% of our food globally. That also has an effect on our balance of payments. Whether that can be sustained in the long term or not is a big question. “Backing British Farming in a Volatile World” was the title of the NFU conference held earlier this week, which recognised the challenges facing farmers today.
Another way in which agriculture across Europe can be helped is by greater co-operation and research-sharing between member states. I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Caithness referred to EU Sub-Committee D, on which he and I used to sit together and on which I now, temporarily, still sit. Over recent years, we produced two reports to which I want to refer, one of which he touched on. In the summary of that report, Innovation in EU Agriculture, we stressed the importance of science and research as key elements for increasing yields, but that this knowledge and innovative changes must be put into practice on the ground for farmers to understand and take benefits from. The report stated:
“Regulation should help, not hinder. Politicians and society must not be afraid of new properly tested technologies … Benefits and risks must be clearly articulated, recognising that too cautionary an approach may pose risks to global food security”.
The other report, which we produced more recently, was called Counting the Cost of Food Waste. In that, we recognised:
“The EU has an important role to play in encouraging co-operation throughout the supply chain. It must also look at its own regulatory framework and consider where that may impede food waste prevention throughout the component parts of the supply chain”.
I guess that in this Chamber, it will not surprise its Members to hear that we waste a third of the food that we produce in this country and across Europe. If we could save and make better use of that food, there would not be so much pressure to produce more and more, while at the same time we know that we have more and more mouths to feed.
I am passionate about the way in which we in this country and across Europe can and do produce food. I believe that farmers want to be allowed to get on with it within reasonable constraints of correct regulation where it is needed. I am not as pessimistic as the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke.
Perhaps I might take up the point made my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, who talked about healthy eating. I come back to square one: I believe that we are tending to go so much towards the nanny state. At the end of the day, it is really for us as individuals to take responsibility for what we eat, how much we eat, what we do and the exercise we take. Having said that, it is the Government’s prime responsibility to defend the nation and to feed it—and in that, I am very glad that my noble friend Lord De Mauley is the Minister at this moment.
I thank the noble Lord. I intervene because the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, was unwilling to accept my interventions during his speech.
When the Minister sums up in answer to this debate, will he confirm that the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is entitled to grow whatever he likes on his rolling acres, provided that he chooses not to apply for a subsidy? It is when he fills in the forms that he becomes subject to the regulation on issues such as the three-crop rotation. If you believe in reducing the cost of the CAP, as I certainly do and as the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, has argued down the years, a good initial contribution would be for him to decide that he is happy to farm his land unsubsidised. It is if he applies for a subsidy from the EU that he has to play by the rules of the game.
Will the Minister also confirm that, if the UK left the EU, farm products or food from Britain would be subject to the 10% common external tariff on entering the EU that we had left, and that the regulations on food standards and quality would still have to be honoured if we were going to sell into the single market that we had left? In other words, we would still get the regulation but would have absolutely no say in the writing of the rules.
Finally, I think I am right in saying that the proportion of our GNP represented by agriculture is now a lot lower than it was in 1972, but that the cost of agricultural subsidy to this country is a lot higher. Will the Minister confirm that? He might want to consider whether that is one of the reasons why the CLA and the NFU do not agree with UKIP.
My Lords, I can bring no farming expertise to this debate but what I can do is to bring memory. I well remember that, before the war, the farming industry was allowed to decline. That was a great strategic mistake. It is necessary, for strategic reasons, that we are as near self-sufficiency in this country as we possibly can be. Before the Second World War and for a long time during it, we were not self-sufficient and we suffered for that.
I happen to have been evacuated from London to a farm in Mapledurham, so I have a certain amount of experience of farming. The farmer was a member of what were then called the war agricultural committees. They had enormous powers to take over farms, if necessary, and have them run by the Government or people who they appointed. I remember going around with the farmer to some of those derelict farms. It was an absolute disgrace that farms which could have produced food were producing nothing and that their buildings and systems were completely derelict. So I know that we must not let our farming industry decline. I also believe that, for strategic reasons, we must have control of its policies. That is what we have not got under the European Union and the CAP.
Following the Second World War, the then Labour Government brought in a new agricultural Act, which treated farming probably better than it had ever been treated before. That lasted quite a long time but we can—and should—still be responsible for our own farming decisions. I understand of course that the farming industry and farmers themselves are concerned that, if we left the CAP, they would lose the subsidies without which they could not operate. However, we have to remember that we pay a net contribution to the European Union and that half of that goes to farmers. We could then use that in ways that save our own farming industry, rather than being beneficial to other farms throughout the EU.
It was correct of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, to have raised this matter. This has been an excellent debate and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, it is always timely to consider for a moment the status quo of agriculture in the EU, what is current reality and what our objectives are for UK agriculture. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for initiating this debate today and I declare my interest as a farmer receiving CAP funds.
The topic is wide ranging and all speakers have highlighted various areas for concern, but let us be careful with our conclusions. It will be no surprise that I do not share the conclusions of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. All nations support their agriculture. The figures speak for themselves. In England alone, the total support from CAP payments in 2012 was just over £2 billion. That is 27% of the value of farming, which is some £7.25 billion in total. To those who say that Britain could be like Norway or Switzerland, I would suggest that they look at the comparison with agricultural subsidies in those countries: they are far higher, at 60% in Norway and more than 50% in Switzerland. I cannot see this as a likely or credible outcome for agricultural support here, should the UK leave the EU. Agricultural support would be nowhere near this level, or even at the status quo level.
Furthermore, Britain is a trading nation, which pertains in agriculture as well. EU exports would be in jeopardy. In 2013, some 105,331 tonnes of British beef went abroad, of which only 4,574 tonnes went to non-EU states. Sixty per cent of it went to Holland and Ireland. This reliance on exports to the EU would mean that UK producers still needed to comply with EU trading regulations, yet would be without influence on any future decisions, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has argued. What British agriculture produces is world-class and competes with any of its neighbours on quality. Britain needs to be at the table in Europe, shaping the decisions that will affect its farmers and food supply chain. The agri-food sector contributes £97.1 billion to the economy each year and supports the jobs of more than 3.5 million people.
Yet this not to deny that there are issues to address and implementations to be improved. Under this Conservative-led Government, however, the outcomes of the reformed CAP have been rather disappointing, failing to deliver simplification and failing to achieve further progress on decoupling support with a move towards a greener CAP and more profitable farming.
The Labour Party is clear that we want to see UK farming profitable, thriving and competitive. UK farming can respond to international food markets and meet global demand but at the same time protect and enhance natural resources, without a trade-off between food production and the wider issues of sustainability. The CAP has a clear role in the delivery of this and in providing resilience to enable responsible land management, recognising the public goods delivered such as mitigating flood control and providing recreation against an attractive landscape. This is why modulation from Pillar 1 payments to Pillar 2 payments of 15% from 2017 will be necessary. The next Labour Government have a clear commitment to support agriculture in the context of doing more to support the rural economy and get best value for money.
The delivery of all this through regulation is a vital area of concern to all speakers in the debate today. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, has highlighted the withdrawal of crop protection products, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Labour supports this precautionary principle, as both have spoken about, but this must be underpinned by science and be evidence based.
We recognise the contribution provided by the Crop Protection Association members, with investments of nearly £4 billion per annum globally to develop innovative solutions that support safe and sustainable food production. The process leading to the licensing of new protection products will be complex, costly and lengthy. But the process must be consistent and focus on mismanagement and evidence rather than be hazard based. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, have highlighted the report produced by farm business consultants Andersons: the impact of hazard-based regulations will curtail profitability, restrict most crops and even curtail some food altogether, with consequential job losses along the food supply chain.
Perhaps the Minister in his remarks, and in answering the questions of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, can reflect on how regulation has slipped into this, what protocols exist whereby the Government may re-examine the basis of assessments and what his Government are doing to ensure that British agriculture has the tools at its disposal to increase production and productivity, which we believe should be at the heart of policy-making.
Several noble Lords have mentioned neonicotinoids as a further example of inappropriate regulation. The studies and research on pollinators are incomplete, with insufficient data at the moment. That is why the Labour Party supports the temporary ban on neonicotinoids, for the mean time, as an appropriate response to the European Food Safety Authority’s evidence on the contribution of neonicotinoid use to pollinator decline in the UK. The ban is due to be reviewed this year.
On the subject of genetic modification of crops, once again the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, have argued that this is far from fit for purpose. We recognise the assiduousness with which ACRE—the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment—undertakes its assessments. The safety of citizens and consumers with the environment should be the Government’s top priority. Any decision needs to be based on scientific evidence on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, genetic modification and new agricultural biotechnologies and techniques could be a powerful tool to tackle the challenge of global food security. These technologies have the potential to put crop protection in the seed rather than in the environment.
Labour agrees that it is right that EU member states should be able to decide themselves whether to allow certain GM crops, after careful consideration and in tandem with public recognition of their acceptance. In the light of the recent decision of EU Environment Ministers to enable member state decision-making on GM crops within the EU framework, when does the Minister think the first commercial application for GM cultivation in the UK will take place, and for what products? How will the Minister take forward a balanced argument to the public, based on science and evidence, robust safety controls, responsible biosecurity and labelling?
While there are many regulations that can cause problems, the one that has perhaps received most coverage, especially as it is pervasive to cropping systems, is the three-crop rule. This is one of the criteria to be met by farmers and growers to secure 30% of their direct payment. In England, although the NFU and environmental groups alike are critical of the overall EU reform package, they have conceded that the UK Government have done the “best of a bad job”. Perhaps in his remarks, the Minister might reflect on why his department could not have done a better job. Does the Minister consider that the new Commissioner’s approach, as highlighted by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, could provide a solution in this situation? After all, this rule cuts across many businesses that have been developed to generate efficiencies and co-operative practices. What are the Government doing to mitigate unintentional consequences from this element of the package?
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, mentioned food security. This concept is often spoken about as if it is only to be assessed against self-sufficiency of production. The Labour Party believes it is more complex than that and is also a function of distribution and reducing food waste, as has been mentioned, in the face of challenges such as climate change and decarbonisation. It is also a function of social and economic policies and good governance.
The Labour Party has a strong record on food security. It was the previous Labour Administration who undertook a coherent analysis of food security in 2009-10 with the Food Matters report, the Foresight report on land use, leading to the strategic Food 2030 report—regrettably now scrapped by this Conservative-led coalition. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, had forgotten this report in her statement that there had been no such strategic analysis in the past 30 years.
I do apologise. May I be allowed a minute to wind up—or half a minute?
I was going to go on to reflect on our party’s approach to climate change, the global demands for food and the strategies of the CAP. I was going to conclude that the conclusions of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, in his opening remarks are quite wrong. The logical conclusion would be to call for a new Labour Government—after all, it is the only party with a long-term economic plan.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for raising a series of very important matters. Like the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, I start by declaring an interest as the owner of a farm and the beneficiary of the common agricultural policy.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has repeatedly emphasised her vision for our farming industry to be the best in the world. Indeed, at the NFU conference earlier this week, which has been much mentioned in this debate, she set out a long-term economic plan for food and farming which will ensure that this vital industry continues to grow and create jobs. One key element of this plan—making EU regulations work for British food producers, so that they can innovate and grow their businesses—is closely linked to the subject of today’s debate. As we have heard, being part of the EU brings benefits as well as challenges—regulations, in fact, on most areas of British agriculture and on the consumer. Quantifying those impacts is complex and challenging. However, noble Lords should be aware that the Government’s review of the balance of competencies between the EU and the UK, published last year, addressed these matters in great detail. Three of the reports published related directly to regulations affecting British agriculture. The consensus was strong support, including from the British farming industry, for the single market for agricultural goods, and for the EU’s powerful role in negotiating global trade deals for those goods.
Still, it is important to note that the views on more specific issues varied considerably. We have heard about several areas of division already today, so perhaps noble Lords will allow me to address some of them directly. On the common agricultural policy, we advocate a fundamental review of the current system of support payments. We want to see more emphasis on measures targeted at improving competitiveness and protecting and enhancing the natural environment. We were firm in advocating these beliefs during the CAP reform negotiations in 2013, and continue to press for further reform to reduce burdens on farmers and improve value for money. More immediately, we are committed to simplifying our own implementation of the CAP now. We are actively engaging in the latest CAP simplification agenda initiated by the European Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, of whom my noble friend Lord Caithness spoke optimistically.
Although I would never suggest that we have arrived at an acceptable CAP, I would like to give some examples of how the UK has applied pressure to improve the original proposals from the Commission. First, the original proposal did not cut the CAP budget at all, which would have been a disgrace. The final agreement cut the CAP budget by 13% in real terms.
As a result of our efforts, greening has been made less burdensome by raising eligibility criteria and adding more flexibilities. The crop diversification procedure proposals, for example, were originally for everyone with more than three hectares of arable land. Then there is the issue of ecological focus areas, which were originally to have been 7% of arable land. They have been reduced to 5% and, furthermore, nitrogen-fixing crops will now count towards the farmer’s EFA.
The original proposal for the active farmer test involved farmers’ accounts being checked to see what percentage of their income was from agriculture, which would have been hugely bureaucratic. We now have a much simpler approach based on a negative list of businesses deemed not to be farming.
Several member states argued that production quotas for sugar should continue for the whole of this CAP programme. In the end, we successfully argued to end these quotas in 2017. I am not saying that the result is good. However, we have been able to move it from terrible to bad. That is why we are maintaining the pressure.
To the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, with whom I agree on a surprising amount in this whole area, I have to say that I do not recall such effectiveness from the previous Labour Government. He asked why we had not done a better job. The answer is that we have to negotiate with the Commission and 27 other member states, but I can give him some examples of what we have done in terms of lobbying. A great deal of pressure was brought to bear by my right honourable friend Owen Paterson when he was Secretary of State, and my right honourable friend Liz Truss has retained that level of pressure. She wrote to the new Commissioner in October stating our concerns about the greening measures, and met him at November’s Agricultural Council to discuss the issue. Senior officials met their counterparts at the Commission in November, and my honourable friend George Eustice met a number of MEPs in December, January and February to raise UK concerns on greening and to encourage them to feed into the Commissioner’s CAP simplification exercise. The Secretary of State hosted a visit from Commissioner Hogan on Monday ahead of the NFU conference. They met farmers directly affected by the three-crop rule, allowing them to put their views to the Commissioner face to face. The Secretary of State is replying in very clear terms to the Commissioner’s request for suggestions on simplification.
It is not only the Commission and the Parliament with which we have engaged; at the meeting last October of the Stockholm group—consisting of senior officials from the UK, Germany, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden—simplification was high on the agenda. The UK, Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Sweden signed a letter to the Commissioner in December calling for ambitious action on simplifying the CAP. And so it goes on.
As a result of all that work, Commissioner Hogan has committed to simplifying the CAP. He is currently, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said, undertaking an exercise to identify areas to reduce red tape and administrative burden. In answer to my noble friend, he has committed to producing a simplification strategy by the end of the year. He wrote to all member states last month asking for ideas on how to simplify the CAP without opening up regulations, focusing on the administrative burden for farmers. We consulted with the devolved Administrations and across the UK farming industry, and the Secretary of State will be responding tomorrow, calling for more ambitious action to simplify the CAP, including extending the review of the EFA requirements for greening to include the three-crop rule by 2016. Commissioner Hogan has also committed to reviewing direct payments, which include greening, ready for the 2017 payment year. The UK will be fully engaged in pushing for the most ambitious action to simplify the CAP in Commissioner Hogan’s mid-term review in 2017 to make UK farming more competitive. We believe that the only way to simplify the CAP properly is by making changes to the regulations, hence we are calling for more ambition and providing Commissioner Hogan with suggestions that require changes to legislation.
Various questions were asked by noble Lords. My noble friend Lady Byford talked about crop diversification, specifically in the area of dairy farming. She might like to know that farmers with fewer than 10 hectares of arable land are exempt from the crop diversification requirements, and those with 10 to 30 hectares must grow at least two different crops. It is therefore stepped so, to the extent that a dairy farmer is not growing arable crops, he will not bump into those rules.
The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, referred to current pressures on dairy farmers more generally, and he is quite right. We are doing all that we can to help dairy farmers overcome current pressures. The Rural Payments Agency has paid EU direct payments to 98% of farmers more than two months ahead of schedule, and almost every first-milk farmer has been paid. We are also working on longer-term resilience. He will know that the global market for dairy products is actually growing so, provided we can make ourselves as competitive as possible, we should be able to take advantage of that. The question is how we bridge the gap until we get there, and that is something we are acutely focused on.
On pesticides, the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Grantchester, and my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lady Byford, among others, referred to neonics. The UK has consistently argued that decisions should be made on the basis of proportionate risk assessment, not an approach that rules out any conceivable risk, however improbable.
Noble Lords are right in what they say about the effects of a ban on yields. We raised these issues repeatedly with the Commission last year, and will continue to pursue the point with the new Health Commissioner. There is a review clause in the EU regulation and we will press for that to be carried out thoroughly, taking full account of costs as well as benefits. The European Commission has given an undertaking to commence a review of the science on neonicotinoids in 2015.
My noble friend Lady Byford asked about research on bees. I assure her that there is a great deal of research and monitoring on pollinators and this will continue, including under the national pollinators strategy.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Grantchester, talked about GM. I know that they would not disagree that we must ensure that all GM products for cultivation in the UK must have passed a rigorous safety assessment. As written, the EU regulatory regime could allow timely market access for safe GM products but, in practice, as we all know, most member states oppose GM and vote against the science. Over time, this has become increasingly problematic and restrictive. We have been pressing hard for positive changes in the operation of the regulations. We want a pragmatic and proportionate regime. The recently agreed cultivation proposal did not go as far as I would have liked, but it could help to unblock the EU-level approval mechanism as it will allow those member states that do not want to cultivate GM crops to restrict or ban them while allowing countries that are open to the technology to use it.
A large number of questions were raised in this debate and I do not have time to answer them all. I will respond to noble Lords in writing where I find that I have not been able to do so in the debate.
My noble friend Lord Caithness raised a really important point about gold-plating. We are committed to avoiding, where at all possible, going beyond the minimum requirements of any measures being transposed. Taking such an approach will ensure that the UK does not create unnecessary legislative burdens and place UK business at a competitive disadvantage. To ensure that we do not gold-plate, my department must satisfy the reducing regulation committee that it has identified the aims of the EU law and the relevant policies of the UK Government and how, save in absolutely exceptional circumstances, it does not go beyond the minimum requirements of the measure being transposed. The policy teams have clear guidance and, indeed, specific training on policy development and consultations to ensure that they take steps to check whether their intended policy goes beyond the minimum requirements and to provide stakeholders with maximum opportunity to engage with us on our proposals.
Several noble Lords referred to Professor Anne Glover. I regret that the Commission decided not to continue the post of EU scientific adviser. Anne Glover was, and I know will continue to be, an enormous force for good in science. She served extremely well in Brussels and we intend to work closely with the Commission to ensure that any new arrangement is well suited to the purpose, providing first-rate scientific evidence.
I fear that I am out of time. I know that a number of other important points were raised; I will do my best to summarise them in letters to noble Lords.