Motion to Take Note
My Lords, before I introduce the debate, I should first pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Plumb, who will make his valedictory speech today. In the words of the NFU, my noble friend has been,
“a tireless and vocal champion for British farming … For many, there will be nobody to equal the contribution to British agriculture that Lord Plumb has made”.
That contribution reached the first of its many high points in the 1970s. My noble friend was president of the National Farmers’ Union during the British accession to the EEC and successfully negotiated greater support for British agriculture from the common agriculture policy. Thereafter, while he was an MEP between 1979 and 1999, he served as President of the European Parliament from 1987 to 1989—the first and only Briton to hold that post. My noble friend became a Member of this House in 1987, since when he has given us 30 years of wisdom in the Chamber and as a member of many of our Committees. His wisdom and experience will be long remembered and much missed by this House but his contribution to the industry goes on thanks to the Henry Plumb Foundation, which he has set up.
Moving on to the debate, I declare an interest as a farmer in Fife and chairman of Scotland’s Moorland Forum, a body that brings together all the organisations with an interest in the Scottish uplands. The title for today’s debate is deliberately broad for three reasons. First, agriculture and food is a vital sector throughout the UK and is likely to form a central strand in today’s debate. However, we should not forget that other key sectors make up our rural economy—from forestry, fishing and aquaculture to renewable energy, ecosystem services and tourism. Secondly, this debate is deliberately UK-wide; I for one intend to refer to the Scottish perspective. Finally, while the immediate consequences of Brexit raise serious concerns, many of which have been the subject of a recent and very thorough debate in this Chamber, we also need to focus on the significant opportunities that lie beyond Brexit.
A number of organisations with a stake in agriculture, land and the environment are already doing some bold and visionary thinking about the future. They all recognise that the Brexit legacy will give us the first opportunity in at least 40 years to establish a new framework for farming, food, forestry and environmental policies. Some would go further than that 40 years, as in the words of one industry commentator:
“Brexit offers the greatest opportunity to determine agricultural policy since 1947, providing the chance to improve the sector that provides much of our food, environment and landscape—such a chance to shape our own destiny may not come again”.
Many industry and environmental organisations agree on not only the scale of this opportunity but the broad shape that it should take in new policy and support frameworks. All agree that greater integration is the answer. All see a golden opportunity for a new policy framework that combines support for economic resilience with rewards for the delivery of wider public benefits. All see the delivery of environmental and animal welfare standards as objectives.
However, most agree that maximising the benefits of this once-in-a-generation opportunity requires the key challenges arising from Brexit to be successfully resolved. These are: the need for frictionless access to existing and new export markets; for continued access to a skilled and competent workforce; for a domestic market that is a level playing field and is not suddenly exposed to cut-price imports, with inferior environmental and animal welfare standards; and for a targeted support system with, importantly, the UK and the devolved Administrations working together in a creative and constructive manner.
Targeted support will be vital. Most commentators are mindful of the wider truth behind the old adage that farming cannot be green if it is in the red; nor, if in the red, can farming deliver the same high-quality produce that underpins our food industry, nor support the livelihood of so many local communities and the services on which they depend. The Government’s undertaking, as I understand it, to match the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in support from the CAP until 2022 is therefore welcome, as is the pledge to continue supporting farmers thereafter where the wider public benefits of that spending are clear. The design and delivery of that future financial support, as well as the policy framework in which it sits, are going to be key at both UK and devolved levels.
Resolving the Brexit challenges and seizing the post-Brexit opportunities for agriculture and other rural industries, such as fishing and aquaculture, will underpin a much bigger win. These industries are the bedrock of the wider UK food sector, which employs 3.8 million people and contributes more than £100 billion per annum to the UK economy. Last year more than £20 billion-worth of food and non-alcoholic drink products were exported. Most farming and food organisations see significant opportunities to increase that figure if the right new trade agreements are in place. The Scottish food and drink industry has been particularly successful and has grown to the point where the president of NFU Scotland felt able to say that it is a bigger driver of Scotland’s economy than oil and gas. Its turnover is currently in excess of £14 billion, and it accounts for 4.5% of employment in Scotland. Scottish food and drink exports were worth £5.5 billion in 2016 and reached 86 countries. NFU Scotland sees opportunities to grow those markets and to open up new export markets elsewhere in the world.
Critical for the farming, food and drink industries of both Scotland and the UK post-Brexit is a new UK register of protected food names to replace the current EU regime, with mutual recognition for UK and EU protected names having been agreed. The Minister may be able to update us on the Government’s plans on this matter. In Scotland, the current EU regime protects food names such as Scotch beef, Scotch lamb and Arbroath smokies. Elsewhere across the UK, protected food names include Welsh lamb, Cornish pasties, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton blue cheese and Jersey royal potatoes, to name but a few. It is important that we have a new UK regime for protected names.
Another very important Scottish product that benefits from a protected food name is the UK’s single most valuable food export: Scottish farmed salmon. Some 65% of its production is exported to 64 countries across the world. The industry is worth £1.5 billion and supports 8,800 jobs. It is now the biggest seller in the UK fresh seafood market. It is highly invested, and it sees future opportunities for new value-added products and new markets. Its contribution to the rural economy and local communities is immense. The vast majority of the 2,500 directly employed people—with salaries totalling £75 million—are in remoter parts of the highlands and islands.
Fishing is an industry of importance to many local communities as well as to the rural and wider economy. It is also the sector that anticipates the most immediate opportunities from Brexit. Given the UK’s plans to resume sovereign control of its waters by coming out of the common fisheries policy and the London fisheries convention, this is the first opportunity in 50 years to rewrite existing policies on who can fish in our waters, the management of our fisheries and their sustainability, our fishing effort, the regulation of fish products, support for fishermen and their coastal and island communities, and such thorny issues as quota hopping.
In short, there is a significant and long-awaited opportunity to establish a new regime that is more effective and more responsive; better tailored to UK waters and fishing fleets; based on fairer, more appropriate and more intelligent controls; and developed in consultation with local interests and the local industry. Post Brexit, the UK industry will also be better placed to explore new markets for UK fish products outside the UK among some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Also anticipating major new opportunities post Brexit is forestry, which is another vital cog in the rural economy. This is especially the case in Scotland, where the industry is worth around £1 billion and supports more than 25,000 jobs. The widely held belief that policy integration is the key to unlocking future opportunities applies especially to the forestry sector. The industry body, Confor, feels that the single biggest obstacle to new woodland creation in the UK has been the CAP, which has meant that any farmer considering planting trees has faced decades of lost income due to lost subsidy payments.
Furthermore, a lack of integration to date between different land-use policies has created additional hurdles. Farmers considering planting trees, for instance, have had to learn how to navigate different grant and regulatory systems administered by different public bodies, with different processes, timescales and cultures. With a sensibly integrated land-use policy encouraging new woodland and new forestry where that represents the best use of land, a number of opportunities arise—from carbon capture on the one hand to new downstream jobs with sawmills and processors on the other.
It opens up the opportunity for the UK to achieve greater self-sufficiency, which is a worthwhile objective given that the UK is now the second-biggest timber importer in the world behind China. Also of considerable importance, post Brexit, the UK will have the flexibility to take greater control over imports that are deemed to be high risk in terms of tree pests and diseases. This of course has been a real concern for the sector and indeed for anyone with an interest in trees.
I recognise that in the time available today I have not been able to cover all the many different sectors and diverse strands that make up our local rural economy, or all the wonderful regional patterns and local circumstances that make up this wonderful, rich tapestry. I hope that others might touch on topics such as renewable energy, tourism, planning and housing. That said, I hope I have done justice to the local rural economy sectors that I have been able to cover. Most are facing some short-term and very real challenges arising from the uncertainties surrounding Brexit. These can and must be avoided or resolved. But, looking further ahead, above and beyond those challenges there are undoubtedly a number of very significant opportunities, all of which are seen by the industries and organisations involved as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for this debate and for his wide-ranging introduction. He is of course right to have begun with the real historic importance of this debate: the retirement from this House of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. I first met the noble Lord, when he was plain Sir Henry, back in the European Parliament days when he was leader of the Conservative group. In those days the Conservatives were a very influential group within Europe and in the European Parliament and had many friends, but times change. My conversations with him then must have revealed to him that I did not have a very clear grasp of agriculture. Since he knows the way of the world, it can hardly have come as a surprise to him that a few short years later I was appointed as the Agriculture Minister in this House. That was in very difficult times in the immediate aftermath of foot and mouth; indeed, it was still going on. I think I speak for everyone on every side of the House who has spoken on agriculture or had responsibility for it when I speak of the importance of the contributions we had from the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, in the Chamber, in Select Committees and in private conversations. I thank him for that. I am not saying we always agreed. I am not even saying he was always right, but he usually was. This House and many people in it will miss him.
I have two points to make today. First, the noble Earl is clearly right that we have an opportunity to substitute for the CAP a new British agricultural policy. As I said a few days ago, we need to remember that the CAP had multiple objectives and multiple effects. It was not simply a protectionist policy, although it was that and a very effective one; it also had environmental aims, land-use aims, rural development aims and aims that affected the whole of the food chain, which accounts for well over 10% of our employment and our GDP. Whatever reform and replacement there is of the CAP, which was never a perfect fit for the UK in any of its manifestations, has to recognise all those multiple dimensions. If we regard it simply as an agricultural or environmental policy, we will not have done the job of replacing it and taking this opportunity seriously. I will not expand on this, given the time.
My second point relates to an issue that rarely gets referred to here and, to be honest—looking at the list of speakers—may not be quite so popular, as in some cases it is the dark side of certain parts of the agriculture and food-processing industry: the labour force and the industry’s treatment of it. The last 40 years have seen an increasing dependence on migrant labour for certain parts of agriculture and food processing. It may not be politically correct to say so, but that imported labour and its effects socially and locally have led to social tensions in some parts of our country. It is no coincidence that many of the largest votes for Brexit were in the small towns and villages in counties in the east of England where these issues are at their most acute. It is also ironic but no coincidence that many of the farmers who, contrary to the advice of the NFU, advocated Brexit and shouted most loudly for it are now among those who are shouting for exemptions from what will be a stronger migration policy following Brexit. I am not against a new and properly regulated seasonal workers scheme; in fact, I am for it, and I hope it is part of the outcome. However, the more general outcome needs to see a situation where the workers within the agriculture and first-line processing sectors are treated better than they have been over the last few decades.
Contrary to the reassuring noises made by several noble Lords when we debated the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board a few years ago, the reality has been that in a period when real wages for the rest of the economy have not gone up, the relative position of agricultural workers, as far as statisticians can make out, has still deteriorated. The abolition of the board and, for example, the restriction until recently on the activities and resources of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority have meant that the problems within that sector had not been properly addressed. Whatever we do in terms of the new agricultural and rural development policy, we must make sure that we have a workforce who are invested in it, properly trained and properly rewarded.
I add my thanks to the noble Earl for securing today’s debate, for introducing it so ably, and for giving us the opportunity to hear the valedictory speech of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. Although he sits on the other Benches, I would still very much like to refer to him as my noble friend. His wisdom, experience and dedication to this industry is legendary and we shall miss him in this House. I imagine there must be a certain bitter-sweet quality for him and for others that, having fought for so long to get agriculture on to the public agenda, it has taken the result of the referendum to begin to get people talking about farming and what it means for this country.
I guess that in a sense one impact of the CAP was that agriculture was something that happened over there somewhere and that we did not have much say in the matter. There is some truth in that. So, if we are about to take back control, it is time to take some responsibility.
Around 18 months or so ago, the EU Sub-Committee on Energy and Environment, which I chaired at the time, carried out an inquiry into building resilience in the farming sector. It was in the context of our EU membership, but the challenges we identified are systemic to the industry and will not disappear after Brexit. Indeed, making progress on some of these basic structural issues will be vital if our farming sector is to survive in anything like its current form.
I guess for me that is the starting point. Do we actually want something that is the way it is now? I am not clear on the Government’s vision for agriculture, as we go forward—whether it is a Grayling-esque fortress Britain or the dream of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, of a low regulated buccaneering sector, or something more aligned to the Secretary of State’s vision where we have high environmental and welfare standards.
Taken as a whole, the agri-food sector accounted for 7.2% of the national gross added value in 2014. The agricultural workforce that same year was around 429,000, and some 71% of land in the UK is utilised by agriculture. This is an enormous sector for the well-being of this country, and its needs ought to be very high on the Government’s agenda as they negotiate trade policies, for example.
We need to reflect that farming is an industry quite unlike any other. Farmers provide a secure supply of safe food, manage the land and contribute to the wider rural economy. They cope with multiple risks such as unpredictable and catastrophic weather, the impact of political decisions such as the Russian embargo, and volatile international markets. They do that while providing public goods, such as a managed environment and animal welfare standards. Their investments are often made over a very long period. Land is often family owned and passed through the generations. Short-term price volatility, which is becoming an increasing feature of agriculture markets, is an uncomfortable bedfellow with that sort industry structure. That is why, right across the globe, we see public support for agriculture. Many countries offer short-term assistance for particular problems such as catastrophic weather because those risks are insurable, but very expensive. Government need to reassure us that the previous funds available from the EU will continue in some form after/if we Brexit.
In the long term, there is a very fine balance between providing the sort of support farmers need to smooth out short-term volatility on the one hand, and providing a permanent cushion which creates a disincentive for innovation and change of business practice. At the moment, when our farming sector is receiving between 40% and 60% of farm income in subsidy, it is difficult to see how that will be sustainable financially or politically in the long run. If UK taxpayers are expected to contribute on that level, they will expect to see much clearer outcomes in return for their money, whether it is in landscape, biodiversity, animal welfare, food security or the wider rural economy.
New Zealand is noteworthy for having removed public subsidy pretty much overnight in 1985. The committee was told that the dominance of a few key exports meant that periodically revaluing the currency was a viable way of ensuring competitiveness. That is still government intervention in my book. The US is sometimes cited as an example we should follow, but the committee was not convinced by that either. Public subsidies are still enormous, but they are entirely linked to a few crops and not at all to public goods such as the environment or landscape. The American system is also notoriously bureaucratic. Canada, Australia and New Zealand operate various schemes of support, including income equalisation and agri-investment. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister the Government’s thinking on how support for agriculture will be framed as we go forward.
My Lords, it is a very sad day when we have to bid farewell to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. Our Henry is a national and international celebrity. If you go with him to Brussels, you get off the train and, 10 yards down the platform, the first person will say, “Bonjour, Monsieur le Président”. It goes on all day; every five minutes someone will come up and say “Bonjour, Monsieur le Président”. Even at night, in shirtsleeves, going out to find something to eat, someone passing in the darkness will say, “Bonsoir, Monsieur le Président”. He is a legend in his own lifetime. Our agriculture, our countryside and indeed our nation owe him a huge debt for a life of immense contribution and service. So thank you to our Henry, from the depths of our hearts. I could go on far longer, but I want to contribute to this important debate.
I was not a Brexiteer, but we must all move on. As the well-chosen title of this debate would indicate—my thanks to the noble Earl for that—we have an opportunity now to put in place a system for managing our countryside that is fit for the 21st century. The first question we must ask is: what is our countryside for and how can we pull together the various policy strands? Having an environmental plan separate from an agricultural plan is not a good idea. Any vision for our countryside has to include agriculture, the environment and rural communities. They are all interlinked.
The next question a department for food has to ask is: how much food do we need to produce from our own resources? Both too little and too much are risky. The Government need to establish some achievable long-term parameters. A shortage of food would be an easy way for a Government to fall. As I have said before in this House, we are only ever nine meals away from anarchy, so we need to work out the levers to keep our farmers producing. As our post-CAP costs inevitably go down, especially rents, some farmers will be able to produce at world prices. Others, particularly in the uplands, will only be able to farm if they and their households can supplement their agricultural income.
This brings me back to my first question: what is our countryside for? There are services that society will want to buy from our land managers: landscape, improved access opportunities for leisure and health and greatly improved diversity of habitats and species—all of which I know British voters would support. But another lever for keeping farmers producing is to create more diversified jobs, so that they and their households can survive on the land. Of course, creating rural jobs is equally important to the 96% of rural dwellers who are not farmers. This is vital for all our countryside, and a department for rural affairs must pursue this agenda with gusto, which we have yet to see. We need better broadband, the promotion of tourism and the facilities and training to make our rural economy hum.
We have an opportunity here to make a difference to wherever rural deprivation exists or will exist. We need a range of schemes promoting rural diversification. Let us take ex-CAP money to help farmers and others to find new sources of income and employment. What I love about my fellow countrymen is that, of those below the poverty line, compared to their urban counterparts, more than twice as many are self-employed and avoid state aid. They would rather get out there with their entrepreneurial flair and, through a variety of probably part-time jobs, earn enough to survive. But they need help: business advice, careers and planning advice and, above all, grants for projects, building conversions and marketing and so on. A whole new comprehensive diversification scheme is required.
I will stop there, but I just repeat that this is an opportunity: we can make our countryside hum economically, socially and environmentally. I have not even touched on the new possibilities for the nutritional health of our nation that any department for food should be thinking about.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lindsay for raising this issue and putting forward this important Motion. It is equally important that we debate the issue a little more often than we have done in the past. It is good for us to know where our food comes from, who produces it and how and where it might come from if we do not produce it here.
As I move towards retirement, after 30 years and a rewarding and enjoyable education among so many distinguished colleagues, I thank the clerks and the staff for their tolerance and understanding in recent times. I thank in particular my Whip, my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, and the Chief Whip, my noble friend Lord Taylor.
As I look back over a long life and career, I recognise that agriculture has been at the very core of it, in both practice and political interest. My formal education was cut short in March 1940, when my father and headmaster both agreed that the war could not last more than six months and so I could return to my studies in the autumn. Therefore, I had to leave and go back to work on the farm. That suited me fine as I was not too happy at school, but I was in at the deep end and well into hard work and a lot of responsibility, with bombs falling round us on land between Coventry and Birmingham. But then the land girls came to the rescue as farm workers.
You could say that my politics started through the Young Farmers’ Movement, an organisation able to advise and provide mentorship for young entrepreneurs in agriculture and rural business. My CV reads as if I was a collector of presidencies. My father used to say that anyone can become a president. Well, I have proved him right. I moved from the Young Farmers’ Movement to the presidency of the National Farmers’ Union in 1971, as noble Lords have heard. My path then took me from the presidency of the Society of Ploughmen to Chancellor of Coventry University, and from non-executive roles in finance and business to a fellowship at Ohio University, where the agricultural faculty was created in 1860 by Professor Charles Plumb. The Plumbs get around everywhere in interesting times.
Among other organisations, I was best known through the NFU. I remember a farmer once complaining, “If you’re joining this old common market, don’t hold it on a Wednesday because that buggers up ours”. Negotiations on our entry, changing from one policy to another, required six steps in five years to change to the common agricultural policy. I ask the Minister: will this happen in reverse? I was an enthusiast for our membership and the opportunity it presented for co-operation and competition for the food market of 500 million people. However, with a £22 billion deficit with European countries on food and farming products alone, our exit will not be successful without government assistance and encouragement, and changes in the method of support.
Retiring from the NFU presidency came at a time when it was agreed that we should hold direct elections to the European Parliament. Discussing this with my son, who had just come back from Argentina, I said that I would welcome his advice. “If I come home instead of going elsewhere, where do I start?”, I asked. His reply was short and sharp. “You can start by sweeping the yard because you always complain that it is untidy when you get home”. So I decided to stand for membership of the European Parliament. It was a pleasure to represent the people of the Cotswolds over the 20 years I was there. It was a great experience.
In Parliament I had no particular ambition to get too involved, but I found myself as the first chairman of the 50-strong agriculture committee, with Barbara Castle as a member. I then became leader of the Conservative Group for Europe, which also included members from Northern Ireland, Spain and Denmark. In 1987 I was elected President of the whole Parliament, as your Lordships have heard, and I can now say that I was—and, presumably, will be—the only Brit to have been elected to that position. I was a bit surprised when I received a very complimentary letter from Mrs Thatcher inviting me to become a working Peer. It did not happen at once but it certainly happened later—and I have enjoyed my 30 years.
Even our friends in New Zealand and Australia, after some years of heavy criticism, accepted that by joining Europe we had helped at least to widen the world market for their products. We had of course helped to shield them when we joined Europe by obtaining import quotas for their products—quotas on which in later years they were no longer dependent.
Whenever agriculture is debated, in this House or elsewhere, there is always a tendency to underestimate its importance in the life and the economy of the nation. Some 0.7% of GDP does not sound like a lot, but let us not forget the sector’s massive input into the food and drink industry, which employs some 14% of the workforce and generates £96 billion-worth of business. It is a major part of our economy. Therefore, we must not think of agriculture purely in terms of its product; as we have already heard, we must remember its jobs and its contribution to our GDP. It is a major factor in determining the success or otherwise of our national environmental policies.
My noble friend Lord Ridley, who unfortunately is not with us today, is right to predict that we can all reap rewards from robotised farms—what he means by that is for your Lordships to imagine—drawing on existing technical and scientific advice. Developments have taken and are taking place. However, I enter the two caveats that matter as regards development. First, we have to ensure that the rural environment is not negatively industrialised. The character of our countryside is something rightly precious to all of us, wherever we live. Furthermore, as we face the challenge of increasing agricultural production, whatever happens we must keep a weather eye on the land available for that purpose—farming. For example, the HS2 rail project alone is estimated to require 100,000 acres of agricultural land and, of course, the need to increase housebuilding will make further significant demands. I do not say that that is wrong, but it is a fact as we see it at the moment.
With a food trade gap of over £22 billion, we need to increase production and it is not obvious that all the countries which are supposed to be queuing up to do a deal with the UK are motivated by sentiment; the US, Canada, China, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and the like all have their own interests. We are also in danger of losing benefits from joint research and development with our European friends.
In today’s debate many have not taken on board that agricultural support post Brexit is not something over which the UK will have an entirely free hand. The fact is that whatever the UK will do must fall within the framework of rules set by the WTO. The reason why the cap changed so radically over the years was not principally because EU politicians saw the light about the need for reform; it was much more because world trade agreements made the reform inevitable.
We have to admit that it is difficult to imagine precisely what the world, the EU and the UK will look like on the other side of our withdrawal. At the end of what we hope will be a successful negotiation, we will pass across the yet-to-be-designed bridge of an implementation stage. The media are currently focusing the national gaze on that period of five years or so as our “future”. As I look back on almost five decades of the European project, I also look far beyond those mere five years.
The UK is moving on—but in ways not yet agreed upon in detail, because inevitably the EU will also move on. It will be for another generation altogether, both here and there, to determine whether the respective directions of travel will tend to diverge or converge. My instinct tells me that the future generations in Britain and Europe will favour a reconvergence.
I hope to spend some time in the future with many young people, encouraging them to develop their skills in rural affairs, business and enterprise, and always to remind them that they make a living by what they do but make a life by what they give. I am sure that agriculture will provide many of them with many opportunities to do just that and still be proud to be British.
My Lords, it gives me the greatest joy to follow the very special contribution today of my good and noble friend Lord Plumb. As other noble Lords have already indicated, Henry’s contributions to agriculture over his lifetime have been immense. His leaving school at 14 to take on the running of the family farm, his membership of young farmers’ clubs, where he met Marjorie, his first steps into agricultural politics and, eventually, his rise to be the youngest vice-president of the NFU at the age of 38 all reflect a man with a mission.
My noble friend was elected as MEP for the Cotswolds in 1980, as we have heard, and later became President of the European Parliament. His people skills and ability to persuade marked him out as a man who could make things happen—and they did. This House has heard his memories of amazing events over these past 30 years and the lessons learned, but—and it is a very big “but”—he has always continued to look forward to challenges and opportunities, as we have heard today. We shall be very sorry not to see him on these Benches again.
On a more personal level, I have witnessed the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Plumb to the wider community through his support for farming charities and rural communities, as well as his desire to encourage young people to go into farming businesses. As some of your Lordships know, he is a past master of the Worshipful Company of Farmers and was master when I became a liveryman.
Time restricts me to these few remarks but, lastly, I should like to pay tribute to him for setting up the Henry Plumb Foundation in 2012. As he explained, its aim is to give young farmers a start—a leg up, not a handout. To date, 54 scholarships have been awarded. Each scholar is allocated a mentor, who is there to help, advise and encourage.
We warmly thank my noble friend Lord Plumb for all his contributions in this House, where he has been a walking encyclopaedia, and for his ambassadorship for the farming industry internationally. I know that he will continue to take an interest in parliamentary work, though perhaps from a more comfortable seat in Warwickshire.
I turn now to my very brief contribution as I am well aware that we are time-limited. I declare my farming interests as listed in the register.
We must have robust outcomes to the Brexit negotiations if the challenges we face on leaving the European Union are to be resolved. We must ensure that our agricultural, food and other businesses in rural areas are best prepared for the new trading opportunities that will emerge. Our producers must not be put at an economic disadvantage. Fair trade should mean free and fair trade for all, recognising the high standards set for UK businesses, especially for livestock producers.
We await the agriculture Bill, and I am pleased that it will be taken simultaneously with the 25-year environment plan; the two go together and should not be divided. This Government are committed to developing a system that will enable the UK to grow more, sell more and export more. I, like others, welcome this commitment.
I should like to raise three items. The first is trade agreements. We need the ability to increase the home and overseas markets to which I referred earlier. The second, as touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is labour, including seasonal workers and skilled full-time workers. We must encourage more young people into apprenticeships so that they can learn while gaining work experience. Here, again, I congratulate this Government on what they are doing in encouraging apprenticeships.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we need more highly skilled scientists, technicians and engineers. In a world where GPS systems are the norm, where drones can give the exact area of crops that need fertiliser or other dressings and where robots will be able to pick soft fruit, one realises that farming methods have changed rapidly. A hundred years ago, the steam tractor was being developed. Today’s developments will change traditional methods of production, opening up new opportunities. As some noble Lords will know, earlier this year Harper Adams University cultivated, planted and harvested a complete field of barley—all with driverless equipment.
The question is: will we be ready? We must be, but equally we must not be afraid of doing things differently or taking calculated risks. We must have an open mind. Most importantly, we must encourage and support present and future generations who are eager to rise to the opportunities and challenges that we face in agriculture, fisheries and the rural economy.
My Lords, this is an important debate not only for those living in rural areas but also for the whole of the UK population, which relies on rural areas and the adjoining coastal seas for natural resources, environment and energy, both above and below ground level. These areas are as reliant on appropriate governmental, human and financial resources and policies as urban areas are. The Labour Party has a long tradition of introducing new policies, from national parks and planning in the 1940s to the recent establishment of the Marine Management Organisation at the end of the Brown Government. Some of us thought that the MMO should have been part of an overall environmental organisation. Such integration occurs in the USA, India and other countries.
I declare my interests as a director of an environmental consulting company and the president of ACOPS, a marine sustainability NGO. I am also the owner of a small property in a national park in the south-west.
I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, and thank him for his contributions, particularly in dealing with foot and mouth disease, which is a critical environmental issue.
Our first concern should be the social and educational development of rural communities. In the period of the Blair-Brown Governments, following the idea of Bill Clinton, there was the considerable success of the unified development of welfare, education and housing in critical areas and the Sure Start programme. I saw this in small villages and certain deprived areas. However, these programmes have declined under the coalition and Conservative Governments in rural and urban areas across the UK.
In Wales, the PISA calibration of educational attainment is low on the international scale. This inhibits all levels of commerce and industry. Engaging school pupils in practical and out-of-school activities may be one way of stimulating learning. One initiative for such an integrated approach is being developed by the Darwin Centre in Pembrokeshire, which I have visited. A research and engagement programme supported by Dragon LNG, based at Milford Haven, has been effective. This is a beautiful estuary where the environment is studied to stimulate children at different levels. Practical projects for cleaning beaches around the British Isles are essential for improving the environment and the tourist economy. The ACOP survey produced every year is supported by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. However, this needs more funding. In Wales, in particular, such centres are being planned in connection with universities.
The sustainable building project at Machynlleth in the centre of mid-Wales is another successful project which engages the interests of teachers, communities and tourists. It develops new materials and techniques, which is particularly important for areas that are prone to flooding.
Another aspect of community development in rural areas should be the provision of mobile information, with a much wider range of services and advice than is available in the mobile libraries, the number of which is greatly declining—a fact which I checked on the internet this morning. Many people do not have or know how to use the internet for their daily needs. In many villages there are, of course, now no longer banks, post offices or even buses, and it is essential that we do more for these communities. Given the changes in welfare payments that we have been hearing about, particularly in the House of Commons, a new approach needs to be developed for these areas. This week this House has discussed the problems of financial fraud on the internet. Again, we must develop methods of helping people in remote areas. If these wider services were provided the funding could be obtained from many other budgets rather than relying on the library budget, which is extremely depleted.
Successful economic development in rural areas requires innovation, such as that made possible through the world-class Dyson innovation centre in Wiltshire, which has its own university. As the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, mentioned, various kinds of green energy are of great importance for jobs and for science centres in rural areas. The Government’s research agency, the Natural Environment Research Council, is very effective in this area.
As has been mentioned, some fishing ports around the UK need to recover. As stated in a Marine Management Organisation report covered in a House of Lords Library paper, there has been a great decline in shipping and fishing boats. Part of the reason for this has been attributed to the fact that fish caught in the North Sea and elsewhere have been landed in continental ports in countries where people eat more fish per head. The Government need a stronger programme to support fisheries and to bring more fish back into our cities. There are now very good fish shops in Tufnell Park, which we never had before.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lindsay for tabling a debate on this important subject. My noble friend Lord Plumb, of Coleshill, knows a thing or two about growing grass—but, as we have heard, he never lets it grow under his feet. He was always generous with his time and helpful to me as a junior Minister at Defra, and I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I add my tribute to him to those of others.
A pioneer of adding value to the rural product, my noble friend starting selling his Ayrshire milk direct to the public early in his career and publicised it on his waxed cartons as “Easier to digest”. An inspector from the local authority was quickly round to ask him to justify his claim. “Well”, said my noble friend, “it doesn’t say than what it’s easier to digest, does it? I mean that it’s more easily digested than, um, Ayrshire cows”. The inspector went on his way.
We have heard about my noble friend’s glittering career with the NFU and in the European Parliament. He served as President of the latter from 1987 to 1989, the only Briton ever to do so; how we could do with him there now. Among his other achievements, he was knighted in 1973—incidentally earning himself, in view of the butter and beef mountains of the day, the soubriquet “Sir Plus”. He has held most of the senior positions related to agriculture in this country and in the EU, holds more honorary doctorates than Nelson Mandela and has a chest full of medals to compete with a Chief of the Defence Staff from countries as far apart as Germany and Tonga—not bad for a chap of whom a headline in the farming press once read, “Henry will never be president. He’s too nice a chap”.
While acknowledging its shortcomings, my noble friend has always been a staunch supporter of the European Union. He is truly international. He has grandchildren married to an Argentinian and a Zimbabwean, and one living in Australia who is to marry a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. Another is living in Singapore. As he said, the Plumbs get around. He has 18 great-grandchildren. The Government could do well to engage the Plumb clan in promoting British trade in a post-EU world.
I declare my interest as an owner of farmland and residential property. Much of what I would have said today has already been said. Like my noble friend Lord Plumb and other noble Lords, I am concerned to enable our farmers to keep farming and maintaining our countryside in a world after CAP. After 2022, I would expect the Government to prioritise for support those farming in the most difficult conditions, such as hill farmers. To the extent that we can support agri-environment schemes elsewhere, we should—but I cannot see the UK continuing to pay much by way of basic farm payments, the loss of which would of course place a lot of farmers in financial difficulty. So we need to help them to help themselves—the more so if, in a free trade world, tariffs are reduced, thus letting in food imports to compete and bring prices down. The positive flipside of that is that it will benefit consumers.
To deal with this, farmers need technology. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will be able to update us on progress with the agritech strategy. My noble friend Lord Plumb made a substantial contribution in this arena as well. His foundation, mentioned by my noble friends Lord Lindsay and Lady Byford, awards grants and, importantly, mentoring to people aged between 18 and 35 with a great idea in agriculture. Started in 2012, the foundation already has a good spread of successful graduates.
We also need to foster more diversification. Although it is not an option for everyone, one of the most straightforward is to develop, for example, redundant farm buildings for residential or commercial use. There are things that the Government and local councils could do to make this considerably easier. Residential landlords are treated as little better than criminals by both the national and local tax systems, and a spider’s web of rules applies to them. If the Minister would like me to, I can come and explain some of my thoughts to him. As we heard at Questions this morning, there is strong concern about bad landlords, particularly in urban areas. I understand that, but I urge the Government to keep in mind that such people are in the minority and that to ensure an adequate supply of housing we need properties to be made available for renting.
Life is not meant to be easy and I am afraid that I do not think it is going to be for farmers. They need our help as we emerge into a world in which they will need to be brave and resourceful. We need to be there for them.
My Lords, I wish that this was a five-hour debate rather than a three-hour one, but to have a debate at all is better than not on this very important subject. I offer many thanks to my noble friend Lord Lindsay for introducing it.
Mr Plumb first came into my life in 1970 when I was sitting behind a desk at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. The agricultural tutor said to me, “Mr Plumb says …”—and Mr Plumb has been saying, for at least 50 years that I know of, that farming is important. We have all benefited from his words of wisdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said earlier, he has been a life force in the farming industry, not only to those on these Benches but to those on other Benches. I agree with him that he has not always been right, but he has been 99% of the time, and those who did not listen to him are worse off.
If there have been vast changes in agriculture during my noble friend’s lifetime, they will be as nothing compared with the changes of the next few years. It will be a big experience for farmers. The common agricultural policy has benefited farming to some extent, but it has been very bad for the environment. Thank goodness we are getting out of the EU on that score alone; it offers us huge opportunities.
I want to highlight two groups who are bad for the countryside: bad farmers and some dogmatic environmentalists. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, said that people on the land needed more education. I am concerned about the huge disconnect between people in urban areas and those who live on the land, as well as how those who live on the land work and have to exist. Education is needed just as much in urban areas as in rural ones.
What are the opportunities? We need to work together with regulation that suits everybody. I know that is easier said than done. We need to deliver goods in the public interest, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said. Those of us who sit on the NERC Committee have found that the Government really lack concise data, agreed across the board. Data will be hugely important if we are to produce benefits for farmers producing public goods.
As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron—I call him my noble friend because we are fellow Scots who have known each other all our lives—said, we need a flexible and dynamic land-based sector for the future, which works not only for humans but for everything in nature. One way we can do that is by following what the NFU suggested with farm clusters—farms working together to identify improvements in nature for their own good. Never talk down to farmers; work with them and bring them along.
The CLA has recommended an excellent idea: land management contracts. I am all for that. I think that could very well be part of delivering public goods. Let us never forget that private landowners are the best and most excellent preservers of our landscape and environment. They are the people we need to support.
We must take a holistic approach to the environment and the countryside in future. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lindsay for mentioning forestry. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that you cannot divorce farms from forestry because so many farms include bits of woodland. That is one of the mistakes of CAP. For goodness’ sake, let us have an integrated policy, because that will help the environment—and let us get control over grey squirrels to get our broadleaf woodlands back.
We had a recent debate on air and water quality, but soil quality is hugely important. The red light is flashing for soil. If our soil quality decreases, there will be no farming, no landscape, no natural environment and no tourism. The countryside will be poorer.
My third point is that, because we are coming away from CAP and the devolved Administrations, we need a holistic approach on the environment and farming. We also need to let the devolved Administrations get involved. That will be a tricky hand for the Government to play—but if we are united we will have a much better environment than we do now.
My Lords, I was thinking about the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, and I realised that in all the time I have been here—which is not as long as he has been here, but seems a long time—he has, if he does not mind me using the analogy, seemed like part of the furniture. Without him, your Lordships’ House will feel a little bit emptier.
I will speak briefly about the rural economy, particularly the contribution of outdoor recreation, which is an important part of it. Various noble Lords hinted at what is too often an apparent conflict between landowners and farmers, and people using the countryside for recreation, education and so on. An important part of any new system that will come in is to work actively and deliberately towards reconciliation and people working together, because the countryside belongs to everyone in the country, not just the people who own and farm it. Both sides need to understand that. It is a national resource, but at the same time it is there to allow farmers to undertake their livelihood and produce food for us. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said in his very sensible speech that any policy must include agriculture, the environment and local communities, but it has to be done in a way that brings together the outsiders who use the countryside and the people who live there. This is important because of the contribution to local economies made by visitors, particularly people engaging in outdoor education.
Walkers are Welcome is an organisation that is now 10 years old. It was formed in Hebden Bridge, where a lot of good things used to happen. It has just produced a 10-year national survey of all the work it does to promote local walking in conjunction with local businesses. A very interesting report this year from Manchester Metropolitan University on behalf of the Sport and Recreation Alliance called Reconomics Plus sets out a large number of the benefits of people visiting the countryside. What the noble Earl just said about the need to educate the overwhelming number of people and children growing up in urban areas is vital. We all know the stories about people who, when asked where milk comes from, say it is from the supermarket.
One of the important things groups such as Walkers are Welcome are doing is spreading the load, because no doubt there are problems in some places that are honeypots, where the number of visitors is great. As the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, will remember when we did the marine Bill, I am a great supporter of coastal access and the coastal path. I went to Dorset last year to Lulworth Cove and saw the wonderful, newly built coastal path there. The queue of people walking up it was like an old-fashioned queue outside a cinema or a football ground. It was quite extraordinary. I thought, “Is this really what we want?”. Of course it is not. We want to spread the load and spread the visitors around.
A very interesting submission has just been made by an alliance of the British Horse Society, the Byways and Bridleways Trust, the Open Spaces Society—I declare an interest as a vice-president—and the Ramblers on how public access can be improved post Brexit. If and when Brexit occurs—even if it does not—this is vital work. These proposals suggest that an opportunity is here for,
“model funding schemes for agriculture to ensure that public money achieves maximum public benefit and promotes public wellbeing”.
It is talking about people walking on footpaths and on access land. It says:
“Public benefit should include public access, whether by paths or open access to land (freedom to roam), because such assets support local economies, and improve people’s health, wellbeing and safety”.
They are also one of the very important ways in which diversification of local businesses and farming businesses can be brought about. There needs to be a great deal more work to bring people together, rather than trying to keep them apart.
My Lords, I must begin by doing two things: first, to declare my interests in the register and, in particular, explain that I am a farmer; secondly, to congratulate my noble friend Lord Lindsay on the timeliness of this debate. That is obviously partly because Brexit means that the CAP will no longer apply here, but, more importantly, because the general political and socioeconomic framework within which agriculture is set is changing around the world.
In this country, such change goes back to the Attlee Government at the end of the war. Perhaps to simplify a bit: it is now no longer the case that agriculture is the only suitable land use for the countryside and that food production is the universal presumption of farming. It has all become much more complicated and nuanced than that. After all—just to name a few—leisure, the environment, energy, carbon, ecosystem services, natural capital, flood alleviation, trees and woodland and landscape are all serious aspects of what used to be known simply as “farming”.
In this context, it is helpful to notice the recent inscription of the English Lake District as a world heritage site under the new category of “cultural landscape”. When I was a member of the then Lake District Special Planning Board 30-odd years ago, this process was then under way. It was only earlier this year, under the canny leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that it was achieved.
What was traditionally known as farming seems to be morphing in the direction of what was traditionally known as estate management. A lot of what farmers previously produced as by-products are becoming part of their primary output. In the past, much of this was not expressly paid for, but it now seems that if the rest of the community wants such things, it may well have specifically to pay for them. Much of that, I suspect, must be via the clearing house known as the Government.
Subsidies for agriculture have overtones of feather-bedding farmers, but this is not necessarily the case now, even if it ever was. They are payments for providing myriad public goods and services. After all, nobody suggests that teachers and nurses, policemen and the military should not be remunerated for providing services for the public. Equally so it seems to me that that should be the case for farmers, not least in an era of the minimum wage. For this reason, it may be fanciful to suppose that public disbursements for agriculture will necessarily go down in a post-Brexit world. They may well have to go up, if this sector is to generate enough to enable those involved to have an appropriate standard of living commensurate with what they do and for the sector as a whole to remain sustainable.
Agriculture is not a homogenous activity. As has already been mentioned, livestock farming and arable farming are in many ways very different. In reality, I cannot see bureaucracy declining, since relatively detailed individual farm plans and contracts seem an inevitable result of the changes that will happen.
Finally, as we have already heard, today is my noble friend Lord Plumb’s swansong. He has been a friend and mentor to me for more than 30 years. His is a career which, as we have heard, goes back to watching the German bombing of Coventry in the war and, as a young man, buying cattle in Scotland for his neighbours in Warwickshire. He then moved up the hierarchy of the NFU, where my father, who was then a junior Agriculture Minister, commented, “He was difficult; that is to say, he fought the corner of his members hard”. He then moved on to COPA and the European Parliament and its presidency, which I believe to be the real summit of his achievements.
These days, when it is fashionable in some circles to display self-generated malice towards anything to do with the European Union, it is worth remembering that, in the eyes of many observers, of different nationalities and different politics, he has been the best President that the Parliament has had. Throughout that career, he fought for the values and interests to which he subscribed in alliance with his political friends at home and abroad, always promoting his country’s interests as he perceived them. As someone proud to consider himself one of them, I am sure that I speak for all his friends when I conclude by saying: “Henry, you’ve done us proud”.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those offered to my noble friend Lord Lindsay for securing this debate on this important day and at this vital time for British agriculture. My noble friend Lord Plumb, known to us locally in Warwickshire as Henry, is a living icon and so very much respected across the Midlands, the UK and beyond. He and I have our roots firmly planted in Warwickshire and are extremely fortunate to live in the rich agricultural countryside, which will become even more important to us as we leave the European Union in 2019.
I have personally admired my noble friend’s many elections over the years to positions of importance, both nationally with the NFU and internationally, becoming first the MEP for the Cotswolds and then President of the European Parliament. Perhaps I may be allowed to share a short story which my noble friend told me.
Mrs Thatcher, known for not being a fan of the European Union, held a reception for internationally and nationally important people. My noble friend, then the President of the European Parliament, flew in to attend, having been greeted around the world with red carpets wherever he went. Mrs T introduced him to one guest: “Have you met Lord Plumb? He was our president of the NFU, you know”.
We in Warwickshire are so proud of his achievements, so I, with love and gratitude, thank him for his immense contribution to our county, this House and our country over so many years.
My Lords, I declare my interests: I farm in Northumberland and am a trustee of a Devon estate. Other interests are listed in the register.
This is a hugely important debate at this point in our history. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, for his sponsorship of it and his comprehensive opening statement. As has been said a number of times, this is a generational moment, so I expect we will continue to debate this topic over the next few years as we try to influence and shape this new chapter in our history.
The debate is important also because, as we all know, it marks the retirement of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, of Coleshill. I thank him for his excellent valedictory speech. I make no apology for commenting on his importance. I met an elderly friend in Hexham market on Friday. We were only a couple of minutes into our conversation when he said, “And how is Henry?”. I did not need to ask who he was referring to. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, has achieved the remarkable feat of being the most recognised “Henry” in Britain. Having gazed around the Prince’s Chamber next door and seen the portrait of Henry VIII, I have concluded that we need a new portrait of our most important Henry.
It is not an exaggeration for me to state that I would probably not be here, in this House, if it were not for the inspiration I received from observing Henry Plumb. My wife and I started our farming business in 1971 by renting a farm, Kirkharle. This coincided with the election of a new NFU president, one Henry Plumb. I attended the Northumberland AGM to hear him speak and was inspired. I hope that Henry’s successor presidents will forgive me, but no one since then has had the same ability to charm an audience, had the same gift of oratory and been able to establish themselves on the European and global stage in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, has done. He has been, without question, one of the most influential figures in agriculture of the past century, and we all owe him immense gratitude for what he has achieved and how he has helped shape British agriculture. As we have heard, he has devoted recent years to encouraging young people to become established in business through his foundation, which is a wonderful thing. Perhaps what he has not realised is that there are many people in Britain today, such as myself, who have been, in an unstructured way, mentored by Henry himself. As he steps down from this place he leaves an amazing legacy.
Rather than duplicate comments that have already been made regarding the seriousness of the need for a new, sustainable policy, particularly those made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, which I fully endorse, I will make three comments.
First, like the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, I am concerned about soil. In conversation with one of our leading soil scientists recently, he bemoaned the fact that we have degraded so much of the world’s soil, compromising our future ability to feed ourselves. He said that it is not possible to recreate soil. We, who have the responsibility of being stewards of God’s creation—which includes soil—are not being very responsible. So I hope my noble friend the Minister will take this issue very seriously in the design of new policies post Brexit, and find ways of encouraging farmers to adopt cropping and management practices that improve the organic matter and the quality of our soil. If anything is fundamental, this is.
Secondly, and again looking forward, we need to address the uptake of stewardship management schemes. I am sure that Defra, the RPA and Natural England had the best of intentions when they redesigned the schemes but the current suite is unpopular and participation is declining. Having achieved almost 70% of eligible land under stewardship management, largely through the entry-level scheme, which I had some responsibility for, we are now going in reverse. Post Brexit we need to reinvigorate the stewardship management of our countryside and have well-designed schemes that address the environmental challenges we face on a landscape scale.
Thirdly and finally, I will comment on the rural economy. The briefing provided for this debate was very helpful indeed. The figure that jumped off the page for me was that 24% of all businesses are located in rural areas and they employ 3.5 million people. However, the data underplay the importance of farming businesses in contributing to the rural economy. The noble Lords, Lord Cameron and Lord De Mauley, commented on this subject and I fully endorse their comments. Over 50% of farm businesses have diversified into an alternative enterprise so a significant proportion of the 24% of businesses are located on farms. This diversified activity is sustaining many of these businesses and recent data show that those without an alternative source of income are under severe pressure. It is really important that we replace the incentives that currently exist within the rural development scheme in the new design of schemes.
My Lords, no doubt I will be proved wrong but I am sure that everything has been said about the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, by now. So I just wish him a very happy and well-deserved retirement. I shall miss him.
As a farmer and egg producer, I will talk about the egg industry—a great success story, achieved without grants or subsidies. Last winter we had a number of outbreaks of bird flu. We were required under a veterinary order to keep our hens housed to protect them from the threat of the virus. This lasted for 18 weeks, two days. If birds are housed for more than 12 weeks, the producer loses his free range status and can sell his eggs only as barn eggs, at a fraction of the price of free range eggs, so that continued production becomes unviable and unprofitable. So I thank my noble friend, Defra and the British egg industry for persuading Brussels to extend the 12 weeks to 16. If approved, this will greatly help producers.
My main point concerns the current rules for the cleaning and disinfection of sheds when there is an outbreak of bird flu. Many EU countries perform only one cleanse and disinfection operation; for example, Holland has never had a further outbreak following the one cleaning-out operation. The German process is much swifter and cheaper than ours. Britain does the operation twice. The first is paid for by Defra, which sprays the shed with disinfectant, which dampens down the virus. The second operation is paid for by the producer and can cost anything from £5 to £10 per bird. So for a 16,000-hen shed such as mine, this can cost anything from £80,000 to £160,000, depending on how the contaminated muck and water can be dealt with.
What incentive is there for a producer to spend up to £160,000 cleaning his shed when in a normal year his flock might make a profit of £70,000, so that it will take him two and a half years to recoup the cost? If he does nothing and waits for one year, he is allowed to restart production without needing to do the expensive second clean because the virus is considered dead by then. We should not forget that it is not just the £160,000 for the cleaning; he has also lost his hens, which has cost him £65,000, and when he restocks after cleaning, he will have to buy new hens, at a cost of a further £65,000, plus consequential costs of feed and labour of about £35,000, before he starts generating any profit. He could be £325,000 out of pocket. So why would he want the cost of cleaning if he could avoid it by doing nothing?
However, this inactivity by the producer would be a disaster for the British egg industry as Britain would lose its bird flu-free status for a whole year. There would be no exports of eggs or meat; there would be zones around the producer for the whole year, with all the restrictions on movement, whether of laying hens or hens for meat; and jobs might be lost. The decision not to carry out the cleaning operation would affect the whole UK poultry industry in the most disastrous way. Could we have just one cleaning and disinfection operation like Holland does, and could Defra pay a proportion of that cost, which might just encourage the producer to carry out the cleansing operation?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a hands-on small-scale sheep farmer on the top of Exmoor and therefore in receipt of single farm payments. I have also been president—just once—of the Countryside Alliance.
This House is sometimes said to be a House of experts but the press usually focus on how often a Peer speaks, asks questions or votes. But of possibly greater value, in my view, is the Peer who is always ready to share his expertise, answer questions and give his take on an issue. Throughout my time in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, has been my first port of call when I need facts, guidance or a steer on agriculture, and I see others doing that constantly. He is never too busy. He is always full of humour, wisdom, patience and generosity. I will miss him and so will this House.
Five minutes is totally inadequate to even list the many important issues raised by the well-timed and well-chosen debate in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. In the four minutes I have left, I will confine myself to one: the future of small and medium-sized family farms, which still exist in the remaining and besieged rural areas of our country, which are themselves already changing very quickly.
For many small farms, the single farm payment represents the difference between break-even and loss. For many tenant farmers, who usually receive those payments directly, the current rents they pay are based on that fact. Without replacement in some form, either those farm rents must fall in compensation or those farmers will no longer be viable, the farms will be untenanted and eventually they will be swallowed up into larger and larger units. Yet if we want small-scale farming, which has shaped—indeed, created—our landscape and keeps our landscape as it is, and if we want to retain the cornerstones of their local communities, which those farmers and their families are, we have to find ways in which future funding continues. It should be based not on acreage, as at present, but on incentives to innovate; to promote animal welfare, which is increasingly a marketing tool in itself; to compensate them for environmental improvements which they are often required expensively to make; and to maintain and enhance a landscape and what it offers to the wider public. It is a challenge but it is also a brilliant opportunity, and I believe that the next generation is already up for it.
The pace of change is already fast. Twenty years ago, there was little shooting where I live on Exmoor. Now, commercial shooting is vast—some would say too big—and has a worldwide reputation. The most recent survey shows that it contributes £32 million a year to the local economy there, up from £18 million a year in the national park survey just five years ago. Two visitors who came into the House on Tuesday told me that they had received an EU grant without which they could not have converted their redundant farm buildings to small business units. They have been full ever since and have brought much-needed new employment as a result. I recently asked someone from Cornwall what she did on her farm and the answer was, “Sheep and solar”.
The Countryside Alliance’s rural retail awards show every year what is happening up and down the country, with small businesses, specialist foods, new land-based businesses and some truly inspirational environmental projects, often with education as a part of them. So the pace of change is rapid, at least for some, but all this needs good communications and, especially, fast broadband. We have that across most of Exmoor, thanks to the national park, but my noble friend Lord Hollick, who lives in the New Forest, was complaining the other day that he could not even get a mobile signal let alone fast broadband. Surely that must be the most important infrastructure project of all at present.
Why was it that so many people voted in rural areas to leave the EU? I believe it was because of the dead hand of bureaucracy and regulation, which lies particularly heavily in those areas, and the EU, usually rightly, gets the blame. We used to be able to bury a dead sheep; now we are not allowed to and I have to pay £21.60 plus VAT for each one. The New Zealanders do not incur those charges. I also have to get a licence to burn my hedge trimmings and have to go on courses, at £250 a go, to go out with my knapsack sprayer or to buy a tub of effective rat poison. All those things may well be good things, but every time it is the farmer who has to pay for it. Driving across Exmoor at sunrise this morning the landscape, made up of small farms, was so beautiful it makes you cry. We must not lose it or them. That is the danger, that is the challenge and that is the opportunity.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lindsay on securing his debate today. I declare an interest as a former farmer and a current member of the National Farmers’ Union and the Countryside Alliance.
This debate provides the opportunity to say farewell, on his retirement from the House, to one of this country’s great names from the agricultural community. Over the vast majority of his life my noble friend Lord Plumb, of Coleshill, has devoted himself to standing up for and promoting British agriculture in all its forms. Over my lifetime there have been a number of great presidents of the National Farmers’ Union, and my noble friend is at the top of that list. He is a true farmer and a stockman with a deep love of the countryside and his animals. He and I have regular conversations about his top-quality herd of British longhorns, of which he is rightly very proud. These conversations usually begin with him saying, “Charlie, have I told you about the time that”—and I listen, totally enthralled. It can take an awful lot of time.
A few years ago I asked my noble friend, as we are both past presidents of the Staffordshire & Birmingham Agricultural Society, whether he had received an invitation to the president’s lunch on county show day. He had not, so it was duly arranged and we agreed to meet beforehand. I met him at the entrance gates to the showground and we started on a tortuous walk to the main pavilion. Every few yards, we were stopped by local farmer after farmer who wanted to chat with his Lordship. I got the impression that my noble friend thoroughly enjoyed that experience. He is held in such high esteem in that part of the world and through the rest of the country. I wish my noble friend and Lady Plumb a long and extremely well-deserved retirement.
I want to take this opportunity to make three points. I seldom agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but in the debate “Brexit: Farm Animal Welfare” on 17 October last, he said:
“I just want to say something about food security and the very learned comments made by the Transport Secretary … that all we have to do is grow more food in this country”.
To my mind, my right honourable friend the Transport Secretary has not noticed that it has been a pretty awful year so far. It rained for most of the summer and it is turning out to be one of the most difficult harvests on record, with thousands of hectares yet to be harvested and much already ruined. That is the unpredictability of the farming industry. Another problem is that under EU rules, a lot of waste happens among all the crops that we grow in our farming. Cucumbers, tomatoes and so on—even carrots—are, as the noble Lord said,
“rejected by the supermarkets because it is not the right shape and colour; it is left unsold in supermarkets and thrown away”.—[Official Report, 17/10/17; cols. 567-68.]
What a waste. I agree with many of those comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Perhaps Brexit will give us the opportunity to undo some of the completely barmy ideas and rulings which have emanated from the EU with regard to the shapes of fruit and veg, and its objection to the use of glyphosate, for pity’s sake, among numerous other matters. Glyphosate is one of the major tools in the cabinet for the farmer.
My second point is that in its vision for a future domestic agricultural policy in March 2017, the NFU proposed a framework of three specific cornerstones, one of which is,
“to enhance positive environmental outcomes from farming”.
I am in complete agreement. Whatever shape Her Majesty’s Government’s new agriculture policy takes following Brexit—and I sincerely hope and trust that support for the industry will continue—it is vital that assistance and encouragement is given to those who derive their livings from farming in the upland and less-favoured areas. These regions are the backbone of the livestock industry and without agriculture and tourism, in which I include the shooting and fishing sports, such communities will surely wither away. We must support and promote these very special areas.
Galloping on—I am going as fast as I can—my final point concerns ritual slaughter. I have no difficulty with ritual slaughter if the animal has been pre-stunned, but I have a very strong objection to it if there is no stunning. I cannot for the life of me understand why there can possibly be any objection to pre-stunning. It is inhumane not to do so. Every vet with whom I have ever spoken supports pre-stunning and objects to not doing so. The NFU would seem to support no action, as we as a country are exporters of sheepmeat products to those throughout Europe and further afield who require ritual slaughter through their religious views. But this is a serious animal welfare problem and, in my view, completely unacceptable. If my local abattoir in Staffordshire can conduct ritual slaughter for the halal trade by pre-stunning every animal, surely the whole industry could follow that example. It is very much with this in view that I support the Government’s initiative to place CCTV in abattoirs—well done them. Now with Brexit approaching fast and a new policy for agriculture on the stocks, let us get something done about non-stunned ritual slaughter. This country leads the world in animal welfare. Let us prove it and show what we can do by grasping the nettle. That is five minutes.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lindsay on calling this debate and I refer to my register of interests. I would like to share a cautionary tale with your Lordships: the first verse of an ode to Henry Plumb when he left the European Parliament. It went:
“The chief defect of Henry Plumb
was keeping resolutely mum
in every language of the earth
except the language of his birth:
in which regard, you will agree,
he was as English as can be”.
I yield to no one in my admiration for and gratitude to Henry—my noble friend Lord Plumb. The very reason I am here today is that he selected me as one of three staff to join the secretariat of what we knew as the big family of the European Democratic Group, in September 1983. He and my noble friend Lady Byford were my supporters when I entered this place.
Many have waxed lyrical about Henry’s presidency of the European Parliament. He was preceded by Mr Pflimlin. They did a double act around Strasbourg, as “pflimlin” means “little plum”—so Little Plum was followed by Big Plumb. It is not so well known that he became co-president of the African, Caribbean and Pacific-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly and served with distinction, sharing his knowledge and expertise with a wider audience including many countries in Africa.
Another song springs to mind: the Henry Plumb song “The Three Drums”:
“All de native drums were beatin’
Right across de ACP
We were summoned to a meetin’
Wit de famous MEP”.
We shall all miss the advice, wisdom and expertise that Henry has shared with us over the years.
I shall take up one strand he has pursued today: not seeing the rural environment negatively industrialised. The rural economy of North Yorkshire is very fragile and depends largely on farming and tourism. North Yorkshire is probably the most beautiful county in the land, with a deeply rural economy dependent on farming, fisheries and tourism. North Yorkshire Moors Railway, of which I have the honour to be president, is the biggest attraction, followed by Castle Howard and Flamingo Land, and with the natural beauty of the moors, vales, hills and dales and the magnificent coast, the vibrant yet fragile economy could so easily be imperilled by— dreaded word—fracking, over the wishes of local people, who fear for their health, the safety of the water and the value of their homes and are concerned about disruption from increased lorry movements bringing construction material to the sites and removing waste substances.
A number of countries have banned fracking. We have to ask why. Will the Government accept that while hydraulic fracturing may boost UK energy output in the short term, the technology has never been successfully tested in the UK and that the level of self-regulation is inappropriate given the potential long-term damage to the environment, people and property of North Yorkshire? Britain prides itself on tough regulation of the offshore oil industry, yet accidents happen, as the Piper Alpha accident showed in July 1988, with 167 deaths from a catastrophic event—an explosion—and the resulting fire. The inquiry chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, made 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea oil procedures.
A particular concern about this nascent, unconventional fracking industry in the UK is how the flowback oil resulting from the process will be disposed of without allowing it to make its way into watercourses or the sea. Can the Minister assure us that any money raised from fracking operations will be spent locally to make good any damage done and that any future fugitive emissions will remain the responsibility of the present fracking company, not any future landowner? There are alternative sources of energy which are equally unpopular but to which I subscribe, such as energy from waste and combined heat and power. This Government were elected and given a democratic mandate on localism—letting local people have their say on major issues affecting them. Currently the North Yorkshire economy is vibrant, so why would anyone put that at risk? Will the voice of the local people of North Yorkshire be heard today? I hope so.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Plumb. He and I were elected to the European Parliament in the first direct elections in 1979. He came having been president of the NFU, so it was very fortunate for Britain that the first chairman of the elected European Parliament’s agriculture committee should be a British Member. As has been said, he went on to become the first and, sadly, only British President of the European Parliament. I certainly salute his service in the European Parliament. Surely his career there was more distinguished than any of the rest of us who served as British MEPs.
My noble friend Lord Plumb, sadly, leaves the stage at a moment of great difficulty for British agriculture. I must declare my interest in agriculture as detailed in the register. Many people in this House know how difficult it is for small and medium-sized livestock farms, many of which are family farms—I particular commend the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, a few moments ago. They cannot possibly make a profit without the financial support which they currently receive from Brussels. The Government have, fortunately, guaranteed that those payments will continue until 2022, but nobody yet knows what will replace them. Family livestock farms cannot continue to care for the countryside and environment without financial support. Livestock farming is by its nature very labour intensive, and animal welfare and high environmental standards must surely suffer without support. There was a discussion earlier today in this House about the 58 sectoral analyses that have been prepared by the Government. I got a list yesterday of the sectors, and I see that one of them is entitled “Agriculture, Animal Health and Food and Drink manufacturing”. I hope that the Government will feel able to publish it as soon as possible and that it will include the impact on British farmers of leaving the CAP.
There are two other major risks for agriculture. Two-thirds—some say three-quarters—of our agricultural exports go to the EU. Any tariff or, indeed, non-tariff barrier to this trade would be most serious for British farmers. Tariff-free and barrier-free access to the EU market must surely be a priority for our negotiators in Brussels. The third risk is a lack of EU labour to work in agriculture and associated industries, which has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and other speakers. This has been mentioned many times in this House but, as with overseas students, somehow the Government are reluctant to give the necessary assurances, in this case to farmers. The Motion refers to the,
“opportunities and challenges for agriculture”.
The opportunities rest on continued financial support, particularly for livestock farms, continued access to the EU market and the continuance of the supply of skilled labour, so when the Minister replies I hope he will go as far as he can to provide assurances to farmers on some of these disturbing matters, because farmers supply so much of the raw material for our food processing industries, which are so important to the economy of this country.
My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, on his amazingly wonderful valedictory speech. I found it a model of vigour and clarity. I doubt I could do that even today at a much younger age. I also congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, on obtaining this timely debate. He gave a very scholarly survey of things. I shall pick up on just one of them and talk about forestry. I should declare my interests as set out in the register of the House, particularly those in respect of agriculture.
Forestry is, I regret, slightly the poor relation in the rural economy. I note that the five-year planting target to 2020 was 11 million trees, or 2.2 million trees a year. Forestry Commission figures for the first two years of this pledge came out in August and showed that in the first two years, in the aggregate, just 2.28 million tress had been planted. We are travelling at half speed. But the Climate Change Act 2008 means that we cannot afford to do so. I remind the House that the Act makes it a duty to ensure that the net UK carbon account for all six of the Kyoto greenhouse gases for 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline. The largest component by far of the six gases is of course carbon dioxide, and planting trees is self-evidently an easy and natural way of balancing CO2 emissions.
There are many causes of this slow speed of planting, but my own take is that they really fall into two categories. The first is that the forestry grant offers and the economics generally are simply not attractive to landowners. Secondly, there are the high risks associated with plant health, pests, squirrels—a particular interest of mine—and deer. Taking the first of these categories, I was of course delighted to read policy 39 of the Government’s new Clean Growth Strategy. We have already heard of policy 38, concerning future agricultural support, but policy 39 says:
“Establish a new network of forests in England including new woodland on farmland, and fund larger-scale woodland and forest creation, in support of our commitment to plant 11 million trees, and increase the amount of UK timber used in construction”.
Could the Minister expand on this admirable policy or tell us when we might expect to hear more?
In terms of the second of these categories, I hope the House is aware how much the Minister is doing to help. I visited the Animal and Plant Health Agency facility outside York again 10 days ago for a conference on all these matters. Ninety-nine people from all over the UK were there, and the full range of innovative and world-class research that the UK and especially APHA are undertaking was discussed. For me, in my role as chairman of the UK Squirrel Accord, it was especially heartening to hear of the great strides being made in the science of grey squirrel fertility control, which ultimately will protect our broad-leaf trees from ring-barking by this invasive alien species, which kills young trees. But as I said, that is just one strand of much of the research that is going on, and the Defra family should be warmly congratulated on its hard work in all areas of research. It would be heartening for all involved, in whatever capacity in these battles, to hear from the Minister about his own determination and resolution in these areas.
In closing, I want to cite Action Oak. This initiative was launched just 10 days or so ago in the River Room. It is a determined, UK-wide partnership of governmental, voluntary and private sector bodies working together to seek to address the multiple problems that face our iconic national tree species. For instance, they will get communication going together and commission common research. It is a wonderful partnership concept and a very commendable model. Could the Minister tell us whether this type of public/private partnership approach is one that he sees as useful in the wider context of the forestry and agricultural sector?
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Lindsay for initiating this debate and for giving the House the opportunity to thank my noble friend Lord Plumb for his very exceptional service to agriculture. I also declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Rural areas account for over half of England’s economic output. Non-metropolitan areas are engines of our economic growth and support industries such as advanced manufacturing, tourism and agriculture. But like other parts of the country, rural areas face significant challenges in growing their economies and securing new investment. Access to fast and reliable broadband is vital for all rural and non-metropolitan areas in supporting their efforts to grow their local economies, as they need universal access to superfast broadband to help businesses reach more customers, offer online orders and deliver services and trade internationally.
The LGA has promoted improving broadband connections on behalf of local government through its Up to Speed campaign, which uses a simple online tool to help residents compare their broadband speed to the rest of their street, local authority and county. The need for better digital connectivity is why the LGA and local government welcome the creation of the universal service obligation and why we now need the Government to re-double their efforts to achieve 100% coverage across the country, for all areas.
EU funding has been vital to many rural areas in supporting their efforts to create jobs, support SMEs and make sure that people have the skills they need to succeed. Brexit presents challenges, but also opportunities to do things differently. Following the referendum, one of the biggest concerns from councils, including non-metropolitan authorities, was addressing the potential £8.4 billion UK-wide funding gap for local government that would open up once we officially exited the EU unless a new, viable domestic alternative to EU structural funding was put in place. The Government have pledged to create a UK shared prosperity fund to replace the money. This is a positive first step, and we now need the Government to work closely with councils and the LGA to inform how this new fund operates. The funding should enable local areas to set their own priorities and target the investment in a way that gives them the flexibility to build their local economies.
It is also positive that the Government have committed to developing an industrial strategy for all corners of the country. It is crucial that this help all areas, including non-metropolitan areas, develop their economies. It can do this by giving local leaders greater influence over their local economies. One example is the skills system. The evidence shows that counties currently do not have the skills base to support the high-value growth sectors. Therefore, rural areas could benefit from greater local government influence over the employment and skills system, enabling local solutions to be developed to address specific challenges. The Local Government Association’s Work Local report provides a positive vision for the future of our skills system, and I hope the Government will take seriously the recommendations being made by councils.
My Lords, I am pleased to be here today to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Plumb and to wish him well in his well-deserved retirement. I have worked for over 30 years in the agricultural sector, during which time the landscape has changed considerably. I might take issue with my noble friend Lady McIntosh, as Lincolnshire is probably one of the most beautiful counties in the whole UK. I also thank my noble friend Lord Lindsay for initiating this debate on agriculture, which is one of the most crucial issues facing the UK post Brexit.
Whatever views each of us held during the referendum or holds now, Brexit presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity, although no doubt there will be many challenges to address in shaping the future of British agriculture. Leaving the EU means leaving the CAP, which has for several decades been determined by tradition, but offers a chance to take an innovative and transformative approach to include national and worldwide issues quickly and effectively, directly responding to local need and diversity.
We should encourage the innovative agritech sector, which unites scientific and research capacity with traditional agriculture, but this must be backed up with really good data. We should take the opportunity to applaud universities and industries that are major drivers in this area with a strong commitment to it, by emphasising the need for a strong STEM-qualified workforce for the 21st century and encouraging new entrants to help drive innovation.
But we must set about dealing with the immediate issue of poor connectivity in many rural areas, which a previous speaker has already alluded to. Superfast broadband is an absolute priority, for which there is acute need, given the reliance on remote working and long-distance relationships with customers, clients and suppliers. We also need to address income inequality, housing shortages, rural transport services and an ageing population. Rural communities are at the heart of our rural economy; compared to towns, cities and conurbations, they have a higher proportion of small businesses and entrepreneurial self-employed people delivering those vital and in many ways unique opportunities.
Tourism connectivity also plays a huge part in the diversity of the rural economy, requiring better road and rail network links, particularly for tourism in our coastal areas. That said, the character of rural land use, including agricultural land, also plays an important part in bringing tourists to our unique rural area. As the Minister, Michael Gove, has said, the UK has only 40 years of fertile crop growing left because intensive farming is cutting the ground from beneath our feet, and farmers need to be given incentives to tackle soil fertility loss and the decline in biodiversity.
There is scope to improve farming and ecosystems by recognising both the economic and the non-economic services that can be provided by agriculture, such as flood risk mitigation, climate change adaptation, habitat protection and recreation services. To promote British food at home and abroad, and because we have a reputation for quality, we should have bolder, eye-catching advertising for the little red tractor label supporting UK products, displaying our animal welfare, wildlife habitats and marine conservation. That is what our customers want to see. We certainly do not want to be flooded with products from other countries that have poor welfare standards.
Getting food to the shops quickly is important, as is looking into unfair practices in the food chain and more joined-up working practices to address major rural crime such as the theft of machinery and fly-tipping. We can all see for ourselves the devastating effect plastics are having on our environment. Lastly, a clear and effective national policy framework for setting short-term, medium-term and long-term minimum obligations and maximum entitlements must be included.
This is an opportunity for transformative change and it is important that it not be missed. Agriculture has been put under the spotlight as never before. There is huge potential for positive change. When it comes to growing more, selling more and exporting more, as has been said, the question is: how can we grow better, sell better and export better to address the environmental, economic and social challenges of our food and farming system?
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Lindsay for introducing this wide-ranging debate so expertly, and I wish my noble friend Lord Plumb well in his richly deserved retirement.
We can do so much more than merely take note of the opportunities we have before us; we should embrace them. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, for the first time for decades we have the chance to ask ourselves fundamental questions about what we consider to be the purpose of both the countryside and agriculture—for example, how self-sufficient should we aim to be? How can we leave the land in better condition for the next generation?—and to craft solutions to address those challenges. Objectives can now be set with a more holistic approach to rural communities that go beyond the business of farming. We need to encourage vertical integration of the quality and scale of Robert Wiseman Dairies, Green & Black’s and the Covent Garden Soup Company, which started in a Suffolk farm. Such diversification creates rural employment and adds value in the food chain.
The structure of the CAP has hardly encouraged the industry to improve its productivity and, as we have heard again and again, there are now serious warnings about soil quality, biodiversity and the long-term damage caused by some modern farming methods. Now may be the time to prove the thesis that conventional tillage is destructive. Many believe that “no till” agriculture will help to preserve soil structure, moisture and carbon content while at the same time improving habitats for the worms, insects and other wildlife that they support. We need to keep glyphosates such as Roundup in the mix—a herbicide, incidentally, that the EU may ban despite evidence that it is safe. New methods can hugely lower the costs of cultivation while at the same time allowing the high-yield farming that is essential to raise productivity levels.
Low productivity remains a problem, production costs remain high and large parts of the agricultural workforce remain unskilled. More investment is required in our university sector. Both Sweden and the Netherlands have institutions ranked in the top five globally for excellence in the study of agriculture and forestry. Where are ours? It has been said that forestry and the environment have long been marginalised by the dominant role in rural policy and funding that the CAP gives to farming. Now is the time to redress the balance—public good for public money, and a common countryside policy.
We can do that, as our track record shows. We are already seen to have a global leadership role in ocean conservation, taking long-term decisions such as creating vast marine reserves around some of our overseas territories. If one considers unravelling the common agricultural policy to be challenging, the common fisheries policy is even more so. However, the UK has already taken the lead in reforming the CFP, addressing issues such as maximum sustainable yields and the banning of discards. This has led to a significant improvement in managing that mobile and renewable resource sustainably. We now have the opportunity to develop our own fisheries policy, to establish a management regime that is relevant to our waters and to our fleet. The moment we leave the EU, the EEZ becomes our exclusive economic zone and our task will be to manage this change in co-operation with our maritime neighbours. Our mission will be to create a policy that is fairer to the UK and delivers not only a more modern, profitable and competitive UK fishing industry but a healthier marine environment—a policy that helps to preserve the livelihoods of the approximately 25,000 people employed in the fishing and fish-processing industries in our coastal communities.
By all means let us acknowledge the challenges, but equally, let us be positive and welcome the opportunities that present themselves to create profitable, productive industries that secure the future of our rural and coastal communities. Let us also be associated with the highest welfare standards for animals and for custodianship of our countryside, and healthy coastal waters, enabling us to take advantage of a global appetite for high-quality foodstuffs in markets that value both quality and the principles of sustainable development.
My Lords, for me this is a very emotional day, as the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, was a childhood hero of mine. I remember so well first meeting him in Strasbourg when I was the Scottish representative to the European Landowning Organisation when he was President of the European Parliament. There he stood with a magnificent chain of office around his neck. I remember behaving rather like an overexcited schoolboy. In my view, the only mistake he ever made in his long and distinguished career was to become a director of the wrong biscuit company! The noble Lord once asked me where I got the tie I am wearing today—it says “British Meat” all over it—and he gave it to my father 45 years ago. It is so sad that his dear wife Marjorie is not sitting below the Bar to hear all the wonderful tributes today; she has been so wonderfully supportive to the noble Lord in his distinguished career. In my view, he has been the finest champion of the UK’s agriculture and countryside who has ever lived. As every other speaker has mentioned, he is going to be greatly missed.
If I were to declare all my interests, it would take up all my advisory time. I therefore refer noble Lords to the register of interests. I have been involved in the food industry all my walking life—Hansard, please take note. I try to farm in the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom, the Scottish borders. I took on a staff of 17 and I was farming a bigger acreage with just three men, all of whom were born and brought up on the farm.
We live in a crazy agricultural environment, with bottled water being more expensive than milk. The distribution of the single farm payment to farmers in England and Wales, and indeed Scotland, is another unacceptable scandal. It is causing real hardship for those of us who are affected. My children reminded me that 25 years ago the telephone rang constantly during lunch at harvest time. I remember once, all those years ago, being offered £165 a tonne for low-nitrogen malting barley. Oh, to be offered that last year. Wages have gone up by 193% while inputs across the board have more than doubled in those 25 years. While I accept that yields per acre have gone up slightly since then, the right weather at the right time can make up to a tonne-per-acre difference. That is not good management; it is pure luck.
I have a friend who telephones me on Christmas Day to ask if we have started the harvest. The difference between conditions north and south is huge, and in my part of the world grain-drying costs greatly exceed those for farmers in the fertile Thames Valley, where I was born and brought up. It is too early to tell what effect the new living wage will have on commodity prices and I know that this is a great worry for many of those involved in agriculture and, indeed, horticulture, especially—this is a very important point—for those who signed contracts with retailers before the new living wage was introduced. I fear that it could well prove disastrous.
Food today is incredibly cheap. Fifty years ago, 40% of the national wage went on food, while today it is just 11.1%—a huge difference. We now have strong scientific evidence from the president of the UK science body, the Royal Society, that GM crops do not endanger every living human and plant, and I urge Her Majesty’s Government to pursue the future of GM crops with the same vigour that China and the United States have done for the last 21 years.
My Lords, I may be the only person speaking here today who has not had the pleasure of either knowing or working with the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. However, I know I speak for all those in the farming community who have not had the opportunity to meet and work with him in giving him a great vote of thanks for his wonderful representation on our behalf over many years. I refer to my interests in the register, in particular my farm in Kent.
Two significant trends affecting rural industries are visible over the last few decades. The first is the ageing agricultural worker population, now averaging in their mid-50s, and declining in numbers overall. According to a Eurostat 2013 survey, 83% of workers are aged 45 or older. The second, a partial consequence, is the reduction in the number of family farms, and the increase in size of individual units. The average unit in our part of the world between the wars used to be one farmhouse and two cottages—three families in other words, on 120 acres; now, such an acreage would not support one person. We have a serious labour crisis looming in the industry. The most spoken about relates to seasonal labour in the fruit and horticultural sectors, this being tied in with the availability of casual labour post Brexit. The less spoken about, however, is the more problematic, and we must do whatever we can to encourage and attract more people to the sector.
In as much as subsidies will continue post Brexit, we must ensure that we direct some of the funding towards education, not only at graduate level—Hadlow College being an excellent example—but also at younger age levels, as some of the previous HLS schemes were directed. This is not only to motivate more and better qualified candidates to see a vibrant and exciting career in the sector, but to introduce the wider public to the rural environment. I recall an article by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, pointing out that some titles in the English literature curriculum were no longer really relevant, given that the average urban reader could not identify with the basic rural themes, let alone some of the terminology of the great works of the canon. Surely we can devise enough of an introduction to our rural environment and its industries for children of school age to overcome such a basic disadvantage.
We have been told that post Brexit, grants will be harnessed more closely to environmental benefits. We need sensitive discrimination between those areas that will never be financially viable in pure agricultural terms—hill farms, for example, and owners of grade 1 and grade 2 land, who frankly neither need nor deserve subsidies. There has been a suggestion that the size of holding might determine eligibility for grant aid; I suggest that land quality should a fairer determinant. In the same way, approval for solar parks should be given only to sites where mainstream arable or livestock cropping will never be commercially viable. Brexit presents us with the wonderful opportunity to rewrite the catch-all policies of the EC. At the same time, we must ensure that our animal welfare standards and food production quality control are not compromised.
My experience relates specifically to the south-east of the country. I am one of the minority who farms around the M25 corridor, where, with the proximity of London and the commuter belt, property prices remain the prevalent topic of conversation. Broadband and connectivity run property a close second, and given that diversification is a sine qua non for all business in the rural economy, the failure of Openreach to deliver on its promises and the inability of the Government to drive through a successful national broadband programme, is nothing short of a scandal. Tens of billions will be spent on HS2, yet there is neither financial resource nor political application to support rural industries with one of their most vital and basic currencies of competition.
Likewise with planning. The principle of utilising brownfield sites, as opposed to greenfield, for new housing demand is generally accepted. The same principle should apply to light industrial businesses, since there is little purpose in building new houses in the countryside without endeavouring to provide jobs nearby. The present planning regulation for brownfield sites, particularly in the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty, is inconsistently applied, remains prey to the vagaries of individual planning officers and is failing in the Government’s stated objectives. It is not surprising that local sentiment is often hostile to planning applications when confronted with the evidence of inconsistent and irrational local policies.
Opportunities in the rural economy should be legion. Increased productivity as a result of new crop varieties and mechanisation, extended growing seasons as a result of climate change and a reputation for producing high-quality food safely should give the rural economy the ability to compete internationally regardless of the outcome of Brexit. But we must provide a regulatory framework that is simple to understand and not costly to implement, which cannot be said by any stretch of the imagination of the current regime.
First, I thank my noble friend Lord Lindsay for initiating this debate. I must also declare an interest in the register as I am a director of a farming company. I also add my own tribute to my noble friend Lord Plumb, along with the many others that he has already received. There is very little more to say to him, except for what an amazing figure he was at the Royal Show. I once tried to walk behind the Royal Pavilion with him and it took us about five hours to get anywhere. Everyone swarmed around him. It was wonderful. It is also very good news that his foundation is doing a first-class job.
I do not want to be depressing at the end of a very interesting debate. It is good that there is an increasing awareness of the need to preserve our countryside, but there are certain parts of our modern life that need addressing urgently if our countryside and the rural economy is not to be seriously damaged. The most obvious is litter thrown from cars and lorries in ever increasing amounts. I live near the M24 and last year I picked up 10 big black bags of litter from one slip road off the M74. This year the problem is just as bad. One way I would like to see it alleviated would be to get those required to do community service to pick up litter. Other countries use prisoners to do the same thing. I am very well aware of the requirements laid down by the Health and Safety Executive on such matters, but with the right equipment, a great deal could be achieved without being hit by a car or a lorry.
The same group of people could help with another scourge of the countryside—ragwort. The worst offenders for allowing ragwort to proliferate are the railway and road authorities responsible for our motorways both nationally and at local level. I am not suggesting that anyone should go on to the sides of roads or railways to pull up ragwort, but ragwort seed is blown into many of the adjacent fields and is very damaging. That could be pulled up without any problems at all. All that is really needed is a strong pair of gloves, and ideally a ragwort fork.
Another problem is Himalayan balsam which is taking over our river banks. In areas away from running water, it could easily be sprayed but it is also very easy to pull up and I know my noble friend Lord Gardiner has done that himself, so I congratulate him on knowing exactly what the problem is. It is possible to eliminate such weed and the River Tweed authorities have now eliminated giant hogweed. It took 10 years to do it, starting at the source of the river and going downwards, and there is no reason why one should not do the same thing with Himalayan balsam. At the moment, it is killing all other plants which grow anywhere near it on the river banks.
Finally if Brexit happens and we leave the European Union, I beg that we remove the ban on Asulox; it is far and away the most efficient way of getting rid of bracken, which is spreading very rapidly in the whole of Scotland. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on those ideas.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Lindsay for securing this timely debate and for an excellent opening speech. In taking part in this debate, I need to declare personal interests; they are rather considerable and I therefore refer noble Lords to the register.
It is a special privilege and pleasure for me to be present at my noble friend Lord Plumb’s final contribution in your Lordships’ House. Important milestones on our journey through life often have aspects of sadness and nostalgia. These are not negative sensations; on the contrary, as with today, they accompany the admiration, affection and gratitude that so many of us feel towards my noble friend as he brings down the curtain on the parliamentary phase of such a distinguished career. I join others in wishing him well.
I felt it was almost a tribute to my noble friend when I saw the NFU’s recent paper, Farming’s Offer to Britain: How Farming can Deliver for the Country Post-Brexit. It opened:
“Farming is Britain’s backbone. It matters to everyone. Leaving the EU creates a defining opportunity for British farming. For too long the success of our sector has been determined not in Britain, but in Brussels”.
I do at some point part company with the NFU, in so far as I find ever more compelling the ancient doctrine of free trade. Even then, I accept that free trade can result in concentrated losses that must be set against the large but distributed gains that free trade bestows. If Britain were to adopt a unilateral free trade policy, as we have done in the past and as other countries have done more recently, the benefits would favour especially the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. It would also favour the poorest and most vulnerable in the developing countries with which we trade.
While I believe that the ultimate aim should be free trade, in today’s complex world, special consideration is owed to our farmers. For nigh on four generations, our farmers have been denied—often for good reason—the one thing that they need: the ability to look to the long term. To a large extent, they have had little or no contact with their marketplace and have been told what to produce and how to produce it. Sensitivity and imagination are now required to assist farmers as they face the biggest upheaval probably in living memory. In the more settled times that one hopes lie ahead, literally nobody knows what our farmers will be capable of when they find themselves operating in conventional market conditions. My own hunch, for what it is worth, is that our farmers can and will rise to almost any challenge put in front of them.
I spent yesterday morning following with great interest on the parliamentary website the Secretary of State for the Environment taking questions upstairs from the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee. A number of the committee members are speaking in this debate. I was not only much reassured by the Secretary of State’s command of his brief, but felt strongly that his instincts in respect of our countryside and rural enterprise are completely in tune with the times that we live in. He highlighted innovation as one of the most important challenges facing agriculture and the countryside generally and I understood him to say that there may be merit in underwriting in part the risk arising from innovative investment, which will be crucial as we aspire to greater productivity.
Many of the historic problems faced by rural Britain are already identified: the skills shortage; the housing shortage and the hugely damaging defects in the planning process; complex and burdensome regulation, which has been spoken about a lot and is the main complaint of farmers and SME managers; the poor quality of connectivity and low-quality broadband; the miserable underinvestment in infrastructure, and high taxation. These shortcomings must be addressed if we are to have a prosperous future.
For any sector to prosper there needs to be investment and, therefore, a willingness to accept risk. I hope that my noble friend the Minister recognises that today’s fiscal regime impacts on margins to the point where investment is becoming less and less attractive. I am among those who believe that Brexit, with all its short-term problems, will open unimaginable opportunities—it is a question of grasping them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, for initiating this debate and all noble Lords who have spoken. From our Benches I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. My noble friend Lord Grantchester, who cannot be here today, has also asked me to pass on his gratitude for the noble Lord’s lifetime contribution to farming. As he says, to be from farming and to become President of the European Parliament is a unique achievement.
When I first joined this House over 10 years ago, I was very pleased to be put on EU Sub-Committee D, which dealt with EU farming and fishing issues. Little did I know that I was about to join the cream of the Lords’ farming fraternity—and giant among them was the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, or Henry as he is known. My lack of knowledge was all too apparent, but Henry could not have been nicer. He was kind and supportive and never patronising. He genuinely made me feel like part of the team. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, I have a strong memory of going to Brussels with the committee. On previous occasions, we had dutifully queued up to go through security and collect our passes and so on. This time, with Henry at the helm, we swept through like royalty. It was obvious that all the staff, from the porters right through to the Commissioners, held Henry in deep regard and affection—a view that I know this whole House shares.
Many colleagues have spoken today about Henry’s contribution as president of the NFU. I add another accolade: as a trade unionist at that time, Henry taught us the power of direct action—and very good he was at it, too. But, at his heart, he is a moderniser. His speech today captured the challenges and opportunities of the future perfectly. That is what I want to build on in my contribution.
The shadow of Brexit has hung over a number of our debates recently, but I do not want to dwell on the depressing facts and statistics highlighted by the excellent Lords reports on the implications for fishing and agriculture. Undoubtedly, huge challenges remain in securing tariff-free access to the EU markets for our farmers and fishermen. It is impossible to imagine how we will feed the nation post March 2019 unless we have access to the crucial EU food imports and migrant workers on which our nation depends. Indeed, a new RSA report has highlighted that the bulk of fruit and vegetables that make up our five-a-day target are grown in the EU or harvested by EU workers in the UK. But, rather than dwell on the negatives, in the spirit of this debate, I thought that I would concentrate on the positive opportunities ahead.
A number of noble Lords have talked about the benefits that the agriculture technology sector can bring to food production and to the protection of the environment. The UK is already a leading player and has the opportunity to be at the forefront of global agricultural innovation. Precision farming and smart machines are revolutionising the way that crops are grown by using intelligently targeted inputs, such as fertiliser and pesticides. Robotics are being developed to drive tractors, kill weeds using lasers to avoid chemical use, pick and grade fruits and manage pests and diseases. Agricultural drones are increasingly used to inspect crops and livestock. Interactive livestock collars are used to track animal activity and behaviour. Perhaps most importantly, technology innovations are speeding up the search for natural, sustainable alternatives to chemical fertilisers. These are great initiatives but, of course, they cost money. It is therefore welcome news that Innovate UK—the Government’s innovation agency—has been funding much of this research through the agritech catalyst. The Secretary of State’s recent announcement of a further £40 million grant for the countryside productivity scheme will also help growth in this sector.
Similarly, new technology is shaping the livelihoods and prosperity of the fishing industry. Boats are better designed and are safer. Satellite technology, sonar, remote cameras and submarine drones are all enabling fishing fleets to target their activities more effectively. Nets are being designed to attract or dispel different varieties of fish stocks and allow juvenile fish to escape. Innovate UK’s blue economy sector is finding new ways to track illegal and unregulated fishing and to measure changes to sea temperature and supplies of plankton, which again will impact on fish sustainability.
Better scientific evidence is feeding through to the evaluation of fishing limits to prevent overfishing and maintain healthy fish stocks for the future. Therefore, in both farming and fishing, new technology is at the heart of our new opportunities. However, other common themes must be addressed for the sectors to thrive. First, as a number of noble Lords have said, we need to address the entry of young people into the farming and fishing sectors. My noble friend Lord Whitty rightly made the point that there is a particular problem with farming, given its reliance on EU and other migrant workers. This is a huge challenge. Only 4% of UK workers would even consider farm work. It is seen as low paid and taking place in remote settings with unsocial hours. There are similar concerns in the fishing sector, which has an increasingly ageing population. Therefore, vocational education, apprenticeships and training packages are key to attracting a new generation, and a new emphasis on high-tech, high-skill employment will help to provide new incentives for people to work in those sectors.
Secondly, we need to build up local markets and consumer demand for British brands. This has to be synonymous with high-quality products. Labelling of country of origin for all products is vital for this. Consumers need to feel a sense of pride and commitment in backing British food and understanding its provenance. In the fishing sector there is still considerable public ignorance about what fish are caught in British waters. As the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, will recall, when our committee visited Peterhead fish market some time ago, most of the catch was loaded on to lorries heading for France and Spain, where it would be consumed in large quantities by British tourists who all assumed that it was a local delicacy, so developing local food markets and local food loyalty is key.
We need to ensure that our food is grown and fished sustainably. The UK’s limited land supply and our growing environmental and climate change challenges demand that we maximise output and minimise waste, without damaging the quality of our soil, water and biodiversity for the future. The reduction of bees, linked to concerns about pesticides, and the recent report that insects have reduced by three-quarters in the last 25 years, need to ring alarm bells. Insects and bees are crucial pollinators as well as helping to control pests and sustain our ecosystem.
At the same time, we need to respond to changing UK diets, including the desire to eat less red meat, and encourage production of, for example, more protein crops and other more diverse food production. Therefore, the replacement of the CAP could create a new farming era which encourages balanced, environmentally sound farming methods while reducing bureaucracy. We welcome the Secretary of State’s recent supportive comments in this regard. I hope that the plans will include incentives to restore vital habitats such as native broad-leaf woodland, which would help with carbon storage and natural flood-risk management and encourage the development of successful smaller farms, as a number of noble Lords have said.
Sustainability should be at the heart of our future fishing policy too. Overfishing serves nobody and we will need to continue a dialogue with our neighbours to get this right, as required by international law. Science will lie at the heart of the solution, but we also need robust systems to police and protect our waters so that fish stocks remain high for the longer term.
I have tried to look at the challenges ahead in a more constructive frame of mind. I have not been able to touch on the wider challenges for the rural community, which we know are legion. But, as with other issues, technology could be transformative. Indeed, many people have a simple ask—noble Lords have echoed this—which is that the Government deliver on their long overdue promise to sort out rural broadband. So, there is the potential for a bright future ahead based on sustainability, new local markets and the creation of high-skill jobs for the next generation. I hope that the Minister shares that vision. In the meantime, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, a very happy and well-deserved retirement.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Lindsay for securing this debate to discuss the historic opportunities and challenges facing our rural economy, agriculture and fisheries sectors. I declare my own farming interests as set out in the register.
We have a vision of a thriving United Kingdom that offers unparalleled business opportunities, an agricultural community that produces world-renowned produce and a fisheries community with sustainable stocks. The challenges we face on the path to this vision are of the utmost importance to the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, they are all mutually dependent and highly interlinked with the future of rural communities.
Your Lordships have all raised essential points and, given the time available, I shall write in detail on those I am unable to cover. It is very clear from the contributions today that this is an important debate as it has given us all an opportunity to reflect on the service of one of our own number. My noble friend Lord Plumb is so venerable that I can say that he knew my grandfather—yet he has a timeless quality. He is held in the greatest respect and affection not only in farming circles or, indeed, in the county of Warwickshire, as my noble friend Lady Seccombe said, or, indeed, in rural areas, but has been widely respected and held in great affection over many decades of public service, both at home and abroad. If my noble friend were a tree, he would surely be an oak: steadfast, resolute and strong. He will be remembered as one of the giants of agriculture, not just over these last generations but of all time. The name of Plumb joins those of Townshend, Bakewell, Coke and Boutflour. We owe him, Lady Plumb and his family a profound expression of gratitude.
The vibrancy of the rural economy goes unnoticed by some. It contributed over £230 billion of gross value added in England in 2016. Rural areas are home to many small entrepreneurial businesses. A quarter of all registered businesses in England are in rural areas. Employment in rural areas is higher than the UK average, with an employment rate of nearly 80% in rural areas compared with 74% in urban areas.
Farming and fishing are the backbone—I used that word before the NFU did—of rural life, helping communities to prosper, shaping the environment and making rural areas places that people want to live in and visit. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood said, the Lake District is now a world heritage site. The unique and treasured landscape has been shaped by people and nature over the millennia. I was very struck by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, on Exmoor—a wonderful part of the country. Tourism is important for rural economies, providing an estimated 13% of employment in rural areas. However, my noble friend Lord Home spoke of litter. This scourge lets our country down and reduces our appeal. I was very taken by what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, said about marine litter. We must address this. I do not know whether noble Lords saw the footage of Sir David Attenborough and an albatross taking plastic food wrapping back to the nest. It was extremely depressing.
I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Home for mentioning the volunteers who pull up Himalayan balsam and ragwort. This is where the community can be engaged. I certainly had a wonderful day in the New Forest with a great team of volunteers. Their efforts in pulling out Himalayan balsam have much reduced it in the upper river catchments of that national park. I was pleased that, although their interpretations of recreation may be different, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury all recognise that country pursuits create jobs and are an undoubted pleasure, as I well know. They are all key features of the rural economy.
The rural economy is a microcosm of the national economy. The sectoral mix of the rural economy is broadly similar to that across the UK. The main difference is that the proportion of small enterprises is greater in rural areas, and they undoubtedly face different opportunities and challenges arising from their location. The Government are committed to bringing sustainable growth to the rural economy and boosting rural areas, so that people who live in the countryside have the same opportunities as those who live in towns and cities. We want to ensure that rural communities are vibrant, that rural businesses can increase their productivity, and that people in rural communities have improved life opportunities.
As Minister for Rural Affairs and the Government’s rural ambassador, I often speak directly to people living and working in rural areas and to organisations representing rural interests. What impresses me greatly is the sense of community and entrepreneurial spirit, whether it is the parish council, volunteers or the many small businesses that provide employment and services for the area. They all contribute greatly to well-being and prosperity, but there are also steps that government can and must take to support and facilitate growth in rural areas. I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Redfern and to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for what they said. The industrial strategy and the rural productivity plan are absolutely key in helping businesses secure the skills and infrastructure they undoubtedly need to grow.
A number of your Lordships—the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and my noble friends Lady Eaton, Lady Redfern and Lord Colgrain—spoke in their varying ways about connectivity. Whether mobile or broadband, connectivity is vital for rural businesses and for those who live and work in rural areas. By the end of this year, 95% of homes and businesses in the UK will have access to superfast broadband, but we need to do more. We are committed to introducing a universal service for high-speed broadband by 2020 that will act as a safety net for those areas not covered by superfast broadband. Last month saw the launch of a £30 million scheme to fund rural broadband projects that support economic growth, and over £2 billion is being spent through DCMS’s superfast broadband programme.
The Government recognise the importance of rural proofing. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who has worked tirelessly on this. We have now revised guidance on rural proofing on GOV.UK and have improved the ways in which government departments consider the impact of policies on rural areas.
Our farmers, in maintaining world-leading animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards, produce the best. We champion and will continue to champion these high standards in an approach that works for farmers. The UK produces 60% of the food that we consume. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury spoke of challenges. I was once asked in an interview what the challenges were. The commentator was surprised when I said, “The first one I was taught about was the weather and the difficulty of wet harvests”, as we have heard from your Lordships.
We are already in a strong position to maximise opportunities. At every stage of the food chain, the UK is creating exceptional food and drink that is enjoyed around the world. In just 10 years, global demand has grown by nearly a third and is now worth £20 billion, providing unlimited opportunities for UK exporters, international buyers and investors. For instance—I have many details but do not have the time—exports in whisky have risen to £4.1 billion. We will continue to promote and enhance the reputation of British food through the Food is GREAT campaign.
In response to my noble friend Lord Lindsay, the Government support the use of geographical indications and will prioritise continued protection of the best of our UK food and drink. The EU rules that currently govern the enforcement of geographical indications will be placed on a UK legal basis through the EU withdrawal Bill.
I was very pleased that my noble friend Lord Cavendish, in particular, as well as other noble Lords, referred to research, development and innovation. They are crucial to improving agricultural productivity. In conjunction with this, we are facing a renewed threat of antimicrobial resistance, and it is essential that we tackle it. Last week, government announced the historic 21% drop in UK sales of antibiotics for use in animals to the lowest level since records began in 1993. We must press for further progress.
I also entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. We are world leading. The UK has substantial strengths to build on, including a number of world-class research institutes and universities. I say to my noble friend Lady Byford that I look forward to visiting Harper Adams next week. Through agritech and precision technology, the UK is developing innovative ways of optimising production and taking advantage of cutting-edge technology to identify weeds and diseases in crops. Farmers are increasingly engaged in this advance—in particular the next generations coming up. I find the next generation of farmers very enthusiastic about the prospects ahead. One of these challenges—referred to by my noble frienda Lord Caithness and Lady Bloomfield and the noble Lord, Lord Curry—is the issue of soil health and fertility. This must be at the fore of our considerations.
Agriculture is of great importance across the United Kingdom—my noble friend Lord Lindsay’s speech and his references to NFU Scotland were important. That is precisely why the ministerial team regularly meets both Ministers and farmers from all parts of the kingdom. The UK Government are working closely with the devolved Administrations on an approach to returning powers from the EU that works for the whole of the UK and reflects the devolution settlements of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As we develop our future farming policy, we are aware of the vital questions on trade policy from the integrated supply chain in Northern Ireland and labour shortages. My noble friend the Duke of Wellington and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to these matters. Defra is ensuring that these issues are at the forefront of the EU exit discussions, and we are actively working with the Home Office and industry to ensure that we have the necessary labour we need to harvest our crops and look after our animals. We will continue to work with industry and consumers as we promote and ensure global trade opportunities for the UK and for British agriculture.
In response to my noble friend Lord Cathcart, Defra has been working closely with the industry to review the requirements for secondary cleaning and disinfection. The principles have now been agreed and the Animal and Plant Health Agency is working on standard operating procedures which will minimise the need to dismantle complex machinery, thereby reducing the cost of secondary C&D without compromising—I emphasise that—disease risk, which is our responsibility.
I am pleased that a number of your Lordships raised the issue of forestry and woodland. Indeed, a number of us were at the National Forest reception yesterday. Forestry and woodland are important for so many reasons, be it timber production or our own sense of tranquillity and well-being.
I am acutely aware of my responsibilities as Biosecurity Minister. I can tell the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that the Government are committed to doing all they can to prevent plant pests and diseases reaching our borders. Research, biosecurity and collaboration are key to this. My noble friends Lord Lindsay and Lord Caithness also raised this point. I am indeed determined.
We are committed to developing a future agriculture policy that values the high-quality food and drink that our farmers work hard to produce, sustainable British farming, excellent produce and protecting our treasured countryside, with the twin aim of producing excellent food and enhancing the environment. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, made points about the importance of this.
Public money should, and will, reward environmentally responsible land use. We know that good environmental practice and profitable businesses are not mutually exclusive; they run hand in hand. A practical farmer in the form of my noble friend Lady Byford identified that a good environment and a strong agricultural sector are eminently compatible.
On fisheries, we have a clear vision to create a resilient, competitive and ultimately more profitable UK seafood sector, and to deliver a cleaner, healthier and more productive marine environment. The fisheries sector, including marine fishing, aquaculture and processing, contributes £1.3 billion to the UK economy and employs nearly 35,000 people. It is therefore crucial to the prosperity of our coastal communities. I agree with my noble friend Lady Bloomfield that leaving the EU provides opportunities to set our future aims for sustainable fisheries that will support and enhance these communities.
I was also very interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, had to say about fisheries. I assure your Lordships that the Government will continue to be a consistent champion for sustainable fishing, based on the best science and evidence. Through the use of initiatives such as fully documented fisheries and on-board cameras, we have been a leading player in the recovery of stocks. An example of this is the recent recovery of cod stocks in the central and northern North Sea. They are being fished within safe biological limits and now have Marine Stewardship Council accreditation.
Our commitment to working with the EU and other coastal states to promote sustainable fisheries will remain as strong as ever. To deliver a profitable fishing industry, we must fish sustainably now and in the future. The UK is fortunate to have global centres of excellence and world-renowned fisheries science. These will be invaluable in achieving our ambitions. As custodians of our own waters, we want to build on our record to ensure that this valuable resource is preserved for future generations to harvest. My noble friend Lord Lindsay rightly wanted assurances that this is seen as a whole-UK point of policy. We are working actively with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, the Crown dependencies and the fishing industry to ensure that we have a successful fishing sector across the whole of the United Kingdom.
As stewards of our own waters, not only will we be able to husband fish stocks more wisely but we will allow our fishing industry to grow sustainably in the future. We can be home to a world-class fishing fleet, be an environmental leader and, in turn, have thriving coastal communities. Again, I know that up and down the kingdom coastal communities are looking to the opportunities they wish to grasp for the prosperity of their companies and the communities they serve in providing an outstanding part of our diet.
In the very brisk gallop to articulate the many points that we wish to make, we should remember that around 90% of the United Kingdom is rural. Our rural communities provide us with many benefits. They are producers of food of globally renowned standards and they are custodians of our fish stocks so that our seas are a sustainable source of food. I think of how brave the many generations of people running the fishing fleets have been. These communities manage much of our natural environment and are a source of employment and recreation, providing places that people want to live in and enjoy visiting. They are many things, and they are also our pleasure and our tranquillity.
My noble friend Lord Plumb has been a champion of rural interests all his life. He has encouraged future generations and inspired many people. In observing the courtesies, I think I can safely say that we all know him as Henry. The rural parts of the country provide us with food and water, thriving businesses, beautiful landscapes and cultural heritage. As my noble friend retires from this House, there is no better legacy for us all than to continue to place the rural interests of our country at the very heart of our national vision.
My Lords, I am hugely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this very stimulating and timely debate. I am also very grateful to the many Members of this House who raised the topics that, with regret, I did not have time to mention in my opening remarks. The sheer number of topics we have touched on today proves just how multidimensional our rural economy and rural life are.
I am grateful to the Minister not only for doing a very able job in summarising the kaleidoscope of issues that have been raised today but for the specific assurances that we have had on protecting product and food names and on the United Kingdom’s approach to solutions that genuinely involve all the devolved nations. I shall not summarise any other key themes—they have been well explored and well expressed.
I think we all agree that we are living in a period of significant change. We all accept that that change is driving challenges but, equally, most of us accept that it is also driving some very real opportunities. As my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness said, it is now a question of grasping those opportunities. They are there to be grasped.
The breadth and depth of the wisdom and expertise that we have had in today’s debate, in the finest traditions of the House, has been entirely appropriate, given that the House is saying farewell to someone who has been a pinnacle of wisdom and expertise. All the tributes we have heard expressed have been greatly deserved. The remark from the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, that my noble friend is the most recognised “Henry” in Britain is a nice way for him to be remembered.
I will just finish by sharing a comment from my noble friend Lord Plumb, who is sitting next to me. It was not picked up by Hansard and probably was not heard by many other Members of the House during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, acknowledged that my noble friend is usually right, and in fact my noble friend Lord Caithness even offered the thought that my noble friend is right 99.9% of the time. My noble friend next to me said, “I’m always right”. He is.