Crustacean Mortality in North-East England: Independent Expert Assessment
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 26 January.
“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, in addition to the Written Ministerial Statement tabled today, I would like to make a Statement updating the House on the next steps that we are taking to shake off the damaging legacy of the bureaucratic EU common agricultural policy for good.
We will learn from the past, and help farmers to build and maintain profitable and resilient businesses by spending public money in a way that helps us to secure the public good, so that they can continue to produce the food we need and help to improve the state of nature. That is the right and smart thing to do with public money, as we also develop the markets that will draw on finance from all sources. Today we are publishing detailed information about what we will pay for in our environmental land management schemes, and how farmers can get involved this year and beyond.
Having kicked off our sustainable farming incentive last summer starting with soil health, today we are adding six more ways that farmers can be paid to take action in 2023, from protecting and enhancing the hedgerows that make up a vital network of habitats across our farmed landscapes, to making sure that we tackle pests, protect crops and support wildlife, so that more farms of all shapes and sizes can make doing their bit for the environment part of their business plan. Each year, we will add offers to the SFI, with the full set in place by 2025, so that farmers can choose more options for their businesses. That is vital for producing food, tackling the causes and impacts of climate change, and helping nature to recover.
We are making it straightforward and simple to get involved. We know that farmers need to plan for the months and years ahead as early as possible, so today we are publishing information on the work we will be rewarding by 2025 through the sustainable farming incentive and countryside stewardship, and sharing information on the next round of landscape recovery projects. We remain as ambitious as ever, as we move ahead through our transition and work with farmers to design a much better way of doing things.
All that will help us to build the resilience of our communities and to meet our environmental targets on air, water and waste, as well as nature, land and sea, guided by our commitments to reach net zero by 2050 and halt the loss of species in our country by 2030. We are also tackling the polluters who stubbornly refuse to help and threaten to undermine everyone else’s hard work. Our aim is to back the front runners who can have the greatest impact and inspire others, as well as helping everyone to bring up their baseline and improve it year on year, harnessing the power of innovation and technology to help our farmers give nature a helping hand so that we focus on bringing their businesses into the future.
All the evidence we have, as well as plain common sense, tells us that making the shift towards a more sustainable, resilient food system is critical to feeding our growing population and meeting our commitments to halt the decline of nature by 2030 and reach net zero. That will fundamentally improve the lives of people across our country and around the world, and make sure that every generation has a better future. The UK will continue to lead the way. I am sure that the whole House will join me in recognising the vital importance of the solutions our fantastic farmers bring to the table. I commend this Statement to the House.”
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 26 January.
“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a Statement on the independent expert assessment of crustacean mortality in the north-east of England in 2021 and 2022.
Last Friday, the Environment Secretary published the independent expert assessment of unusual crustacean mortality in the north-east of England in 2021 and 2022 on GOV.UK. The report documents the findings of the independent crustacean mortality expert panel convened by the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Professor Gideon Henderson, working with the Government chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. The expert panel was convened to provide an independent scientific assessment of all the possible causes of the mass mortality incident using all relevant available data. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the panel for their work.
The independent panel concluded that pyridine or another toxic pollutant was very unlikely to be the cause, as was any link to dredging in the Teesside freeport; capital dredging was exceptionally unlikely. The panel considered a novel pathogen to be the most likely cause of mortality because it could explain four key observations: mortality over a sustained period, mortalities spread along about 40 miles of coastline, the unusual twitching of dying crabs, and deaths predominantly of crabs rather than other species. The panel’s assessment followed a multiagency investigation, co-ordinated by Defra, into the cause of dead crabs and lobsters that washed up on the north-east coast between October and December 2021.
Similarly to the independent expert panel, the Defra investigation identified no single, consistent causative factor. It could find no evidence of known pathogens and concluded that a harmful algal bloom present in the area coincident with the event was identified as of significance. I am considering carefully whether further analysis by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I shall first speak to the Statement on the agricultural transition plan. We know from the Statement that Defra is moving away from the direct payment schemes that farmers have been receiving for many years from the EU, such as the basic payment scheme, and is instead moving to a system where farmers are paid to make improvements to the environment, animal health and welfare, and to reduce carbon emissions and pollution. We welcome this. Farmers will get grants to improve productivity, including new robotic equipment.
Our one concern around this is that funds will need to be matched, which will make them unaffordable for many. The Government claim that farmers will, within seven years, produce healthy and profitable food in a sustainable way and without subsidies. Therefore it is important that the Government keep a close eye on progress to ensure that it is achievable, because we know that farmers have been struggling with the increased cost pressures on fertiliser, fuels and labour supply, for example. For upland farmers, such as in Cumbria where I live, the withdrawal of the basic payment support is going to make life much harder. What reassurance can the Minister give to upland farmers that they will have access to sufficient funds for their farms to continue to be viable?
We also know that tenant farmers have raised concerns: for example, how will the new environmental payments work in practice? How will the value of income streams be possible for tenants? How would tenant farmers go about claiming them, and how can the length of tenure be accommodated within this? We also know that they are concerned that the loss of BPS could have an impact on rents. The Rock review raised the issue of access to the various schemes, so I would be grateful if the Minister could provide further clarity and reassurance in these areas.
The other concern we have is that, despite the many schemes on offer, some of them are quite complex. We would be grateful if there was more attention paid by the Government to ensure strong take-up of the new schemes. Our concerns arise from the figures on the sustainable farming incentive from the last year: just 224 applications were paid out, a far lower number than the number that received BPS, which was over 80,000. It is clearly important that these schemes are successful, both for our farming and rural communities but also for the environment. If the Minister is able to provide any information on the projected take-up over the next 12 months and what Defra is doing to encourage that maximum level of interest, we would be very grateful.
Moving on to the Statement on crustacean mortality in the north-east of England, I am sure that many of us are aware of the extremely distressing scenes of thousands of dead and dying lobsters and crabs that have washed ashore on beaches there. We also know that fishing crews have reported a drop of up to 95% in their catches and continue to report high levels of dead shellfish, a situation which has been described as catastrophic for their livelihoods.
We do not understand why this mass die-off has happened, and I appreciate that it is understandably very difficult to identify exactly what the cause is for such incidents. But as the Statement says, the independent crustacean mortality expert panel reports that a novel pathogen was the most likely cause. In making this Statement to the House of Commons on 26 January, Mark Spencer, the Minister, said:
“I am considering carefully whether further analysis by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality.”
Since then, Sir Robert Goodwill, the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, has written to the Minister asking for a study to be carried out as “a matter of urgency.” The letter also states:
“The Committee believes that further work should be undertaken to identify this novel pathogen, given the importance of determining its origin, its vectors of transmission, its transmissibility, its virulence and other factors related to it.”
I have two questions for the Minister. First, how is Defra working with the local fishing industry to support it during this crisis? Secondly, will the Government take note of the Select Committee’s letter and act on its request to get this mystery solved, so it is prevented from happening again?
My Lords, the farming Statement in the other place on 26 January has been generally welcomed. Farmers are keen to move forward with ELMS, but sufficient detail to allow them to plan ahead has been sadly lacking in the past. This current announcement provides more information, which should give some reassurance. The rollout of the sustainable farming incentive is overdue. There appear to be six strands to this, and it provides for paid actions by farmers to manage hedgerows for wildlife, plant nectar-rich wildflowers and to manage crop pests without the use of insecticides.
I particularly welcome this last one as there were amendments and debates during the passage of both the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act on the very harmful effect of pesticides. Can the Minister tell the House the extent of the regulations around the proposed use of insecticides?
The six additional standards to the sustainable farming initiative allow farmers to receive payments for actions on hedgerows, grasslands, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management. This adds to the existing standards on soil health and moorlands. Can the Minister give more detail on these standards?
There do now seem to be a plethora of ways in which farmers can access money. Farmers are busy people and their workload is heavy, especially in bad weather. The larger farm businesses will employ staff, including farm managers, to look at the detail of the schemes and assess what is best for them. The smaller farmer is unlikely to have the time to look into the detail of the myriad schemes available in order to make the best choices for his or her land. The Minister is aware that there have been complaints about the complexities of applying for existing schemes, and has said on previous occasions that the process is being simplified. Can he give us reassurance that these new schemes will be easier to apply for and less complicated than those already running? It is vital to increase the uptake of sustainable farming initiatives and Countryside Stewardship schemes, and crucial that the schemes are easily understood and that the forms are not overly complex, so that the smaller independent farmer is able to participate.
I am concerned about tenant farmers generally. Countryside Stewardship Plus encourages farmers to work together with their neighbours and landowners. How will the tenant farmer fit into this pattern?
I welcome the new ambition for local nature recovery to include managing flood plains and maintaining peatlands. How will that assist farmers on the Somerset Levels, where flooding is a way of life and water management an everyday part of life? This year, as in others, large tracts of land have been under water for a considerable time. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on this.
My final comment is about the overall thrust of the transition plan, which is towards improving the land, increasing biodiversity, carbon capture, and enhancing and managing woodlands. This is a vital part of managing the land. However, there is insufficient mention of the production of food. The growing of crops, the husbandry of animals and the production of food is essential, both for the sustainability of the British farming industry and as part of the process of feeding the nation. Agriculture cannot be about only biodiversity and carbon capture. Food production must have equal billing for farming to survive. Can the Minister provide reassurance that there is a balance in the transition plan?
My noble friend Lord Teverson, who led on the then Fisheries Bill from these Benches, will speak on the north-east crustacean Statement.
My Lords, I will be very brief. Exactly as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, the images of this incident are quite something. Given its importance, I would be very interested to understand from the Minister why Professor Gideon Henderson, the main scientific adviser to Defra, was not involved at the beginning to make sure that the first inquiry was well managed and actually dealt with the real issues. That, perhaps, would have made the second inquiry unnecessary. In fact, we have had two inquiries now but we still do not know what the answer is. I would be interested to learn from the Minister what happens next.
I am particularly interested to understand whether we have samples in cold storage of the original crustacean victims so that we could actually go back and look at pathogens. As we all know, invasive species, whether they are pathogens or larger organisms, are potentially extremely dangerous and expensive to our economy. This was a major incident and I would like to know what will happen next, and exactly how this should move from here. We have had very few answers from those two inquiries.
My Lords, I will try to give noble Lords as much time to ask questions as possible. I thank noble Lords on the opposition Front Benches for their questions. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her support for this transition. I know that this announcement has been long awaited, not least by farmers but also by this House. I hope that a look at GOV.UK will reveal the depth we have gone into and the easy accessibility for farmers to find out more.
The noble Baroness asked what other measures we are taking. We are offering a range of one-off grants to improve farm productivity. That perhaps answers also the point the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made. We want farmers to produce food and to do so sustainably. We want them to look at natural capital as something to grow, because it will improve the productivity of their businesses in the long term. Many farmers are doing that, but we want to help them to do it better. For example, we are giving grants for slurry management, animal health and welfare, and environmental and access features, and to support the innovation, research and development the sector needs. We are reforming our approach to farm regulation to make it clearer, fairer and more effective for farmers. We will develop a new entrants scheme to encourage the next generation of farmers to bring their necessary skills into managing their businesses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, raised a concern for uplands that I entirely share. Over recent decades, farmers have had to put up with a system that is skewed against the small farmer. Over 50% of basic farm payments would go to the largest 10% of farms. We want to ensure that that money is distributed more fairly. Upland farmers can be paid for actions on moorland, grassland and upland peat, with more than 130 actions in all schemes applicable to them.
All the standards we are introducing in the SFI in 2023 are open to upland farmers. We have tried to make SFI as simple as possible. A very good point was made that smaller farmers tend not to have either the resources of a land agent or the time necessary to do this. Most early applicants to SFI have been very complimentary about the ease with which it can be done. In less than 45 minutes—perhaps the most valuable 45 minutes that they will spend this year—they can access these schemes. The menu is now being rolled out, with lots of different things that are applicable to their farms. Rather than having it done to them, as happened under the system we are transitioning from, they will be able to select what suits their land and business, and to improve their way of working.
Again on upland farms, I am delighted to say that, within the EIP, we have announced an extension of the farming in protected landscapes grant—the first bespoke grant scheme we have introduced since Brexit and, by all measure, the most popular; the money has gone out of the door very quickly. Some 74% of national parks are in upland areas, and farmers in those areas have been able to access more than 1,800 schemes that have seen 84 kilometres of hedgerow planted, large numbers of stone walls repaired, and lots of environmental benefits.
I hope we will see a transition to a scheme that will not only be popular for the wider public, who want to see government support to uphold farmers’ drive to sustainability and environment benefits, but assist farmers to continue to produce food, and to do so sustainably. We want at least 70% of farmers to be in SFI. I hope we will see a big surge in numbers as people see the six new standards we have produced being rolled out.
I will answer the points from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on this and then turn to the crustaceans issue. One of the six standards is an integrated pest management standard. It will provide farmers with at least three things. The first is advice on how to transition their production from one that is reliant on chemicals, both herbicides and insecticides. It will also give them advice on companion cropping, so that they can plant different crops at the same time, the insects and other measures from which can help to control pests on the other crop. This has had considerable success; I have seen it for myself. The last is perhaps the most relevant to the noble Baroness’s question, which is on insecticides. It will give arable farmers help in transitioning away from using insecticides on their farms.
There are plenty of ways for farmers to achieve finance. We have ring-fenced the £2.4 billion that we are spending on BPS, and, as the transition tails off for BPS payments, we are now seeing the environmental land management schemes kick in. Farmers will start to see how they can fill the gap that is being created by the phase-out of BPS.
As I say, we want to make sure we are helping smaller farmers. I think the future is very good, once we can get over this transition period. Undoubtedly some farmers are worried, and some may not survive because of a whole range of extraneous circumstances, not least the spike in commodity prices, but I can see a future for them. They are more adaptable than many bigger farms, and we want to see them having access to a simplified system.
One of the most exciting developments I have seen is the surge of interest in countryside stewardship. Countryside stewardship has increased by over 90%, and more people are participating. We want to see that continue. We have three tiers now. It is easy to migrate from existing schemes to the new schemes, and many farmers are looking at the potential of that.
I know the Somerset Levels well. I remember being the floods Minister and having to go down there during the floods of 2011, 2012 and 2013. It was devastating. The flooding that takes place on the Somerset Levels comes from the Mendip Hills, which the noble Baroness knows better than me. Farming activity up there can slow the flow of water on to the levels. We are trying to encourage farmers in their water and soil management and in other methods that can be accessed through these schemes, so we can stop the surge of water, Such water often brings with it topsoil, particularly from maize being grown higher up the hill, which floods down into the Somerset Levels. Sometimes after heavy rainfall you can see in an aerial photograph a plume of soil going out into the Bristol Channel. Better soil management will prevent that.
I turn now to the important questions raised by the tragic situation on the north-east coast of England, with the deaths of crustaceans. I entirely agree with noble Lords in their concern about this. It is a great shame that we do not know precisely what has caused this extraordinary die-off of crabs. To condense very quickly a detailed scientific report, it is as likely as not that a pathogen new to UK waters has caused this. It is unlikely that it was a harmful algal bloom causing a loss of oxygen in the water resulting in crab deaths. It is very unlikely that pyridine or another toxic pollutant caused the crab deaths. It is also very unlikely that maintenance dredging, as required to keep the port open, or capital dredging for the new freeport, was responsible.
What do we do now? That’s the point noble Lords rightly raised. The Environment Secretary has considered carefully whether further analysis by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality. We are continuing to monitor wash-ups in the area and encourage local people to report findings. The North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority has created an online reporting tool for local people to use.
There is currently no evidence to suggest that there has been another mass die-off event or that any is occurring in wash-ups that are currently in line with what we would normally expect to see. While a novel pathogen—a disease or parasite—has not been identified, the experts concluded that it could explain the key observations, including mortality, over a sustained period along 70 kilometres of coastline. A particular feature was the unusual twitching of dying crabs and the deaths being predominantly of crabs rather than of other species. That is what ruled out some of the suspected causes. The report was clear in its conclusion that a novel pathogen is as likely as not to be the cause.
We support the local fishing industry in a great many different ways. It is a fact that crab catches across the whole of that area are roughly normal. Some local vessels fishing in particular parts have seen the number of crabs they are able to catch drop off significantly, and we have to find ways of supporting them until populations recover. I do understand that it is very difficult for them, but we have provided a lot of finance to the inshore fleet right around the coast. We want to make sure that that is adaptable and can be used in circumstances such as these.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests. I very much enjoyed the Minister’s upbeat presentation on the situation in agriculture, but I know that, from his own farming experience, he will empathise with the fact that any farming business is a complex series of ecosystems that interact with each other, and a decision on one will affect others in many different ways. Therefore, can he help me by explaining why the Defra strategy appears to be to drip out bits of the environmental programme, for example, piece by piece? One month it is soil, the next month it is hedgerows. Farmers, who are trying to feed the nation and improve the environment, find it impossible to plan a business when these bits of information are dropped out on a fragmentary basis, as I understand it, right out until 2025.
There are two reasons for that. First, we have a programme of tailing out the basic payment scheme and replacing it with ELMS. That requires us to manage the public money properly. Secondly, we want this to be an iterative—a wonderful Civil Service word—process that responds to our understanding of real life. We have had our tests, trials and pilots and have learned from them. In the autumn we had a serious tyre-kicking session on this, which drew some criticism. I can understand why; people were very nervous that we were going to do a screeching U-turn, but we have not. Out of that has now come the announcement of six, as opposed to three, new standards—because farmers wanted to know precisely what the noble Lord said.
It takes time to get this right because, as he says, it is about people’s livelihoods and businesses, and they want to be able to plan for the future. I think farmers much prefer that—or will in hindsight, when they look back on this era—to some big bang moment where we stop one scheme on 31 December and go into another on 1 January. By and large, when Governments have tried that across a whole range of different reforms in different departments, it has been a disaster. We have tried to do this over many years, and in time farmers will understand that they have been able to migrate from one system to another. As a farmer, that is certainly what I want; I understand if other farmers have different views. I want a Government who listen to farmers and change accordingly, and that is what we have tried to do.
My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the declaration of interests. How will the Government make farmers confident in this excellent report when they are signing contracts with other countries that will allow people to export into this country and compete with our farmers when they do not have to meet the same high standards we are asking? It is impossible to ask for their confidence unless we stop this activity.
I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding me that I should have drawn noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the register as a farmer. As he knows, and as I have said frequently from this Dispatch Box, it is the Government’s policy that all trade deals should reflect our own high standards in environment and animal welfare, and that remains the policy of the Government.
My Lords, the Minister said that the Government were ring-fencing the £2.4 billion for ELMS, but the fact is that the basic payment scheme has been going down much more quickly than the sustainable farming incentive has been going up, so there is an inevitable gap in farmers’ incomes as a result of all that.
So I ask the Minister: how much of the £1 billion cut from farmers so far will they be able to get back this year through the ELM scheme? If he finds that the take-up is not the 70% that the Government aspire to, at what point will they go back and look at whether or not the factors are right and whether or not the payments are right? We all want it to be a success, but there is an awful lot of finger in the air at the moment, and we need to make sure that all that money does go back to the farming community to have long-term, sustainable farming enterprises in this country. So how much will they get, and at what point will the Government reconsider whether the amount should go up further?
We have tried to help farmers in as many ways as possible. For example, we have brought forward to a half-yearly payment what they are currently receiving in the basic payment scheme, so what they were receiving in one lump sum they now receive six- monthly. That has helped their cash flow.
There are other things, such as the extra money we have put into Countryside Stewardship, which has drawn many more people into the scheme and front-loaded some of that money. The fact that we are setting six new standards now as opposed to the original three that we were going to announce is another example of how we are pulling the money forward. We want to make sure that it is going into farmers’ pockets as quickly and as easily as possible, keeping the application for it simple and getting the money to them through the Rural Payments Agency as quickly as possible.
I cannot answer the noble Baroness precisely, for the simple reason that it is different for every farm. As a farmer looks at the proposals that we have announced, they will be able to see on each standard that there are different things that they can do that fit in with the ecosystem that they farm in—the water management that they want to achieve and the wildlife that they want to encourage, while still producing food—and every single farm will be different. We are also helping through the announcement we made on landscape recovery, allowing farmers to work together in clusters to bring forward schemes. That has been really effective at drawing people into that scheme as well. So I cannot tell her precisely because every farm is different, but that amount is ring-fenced and farmers will be supported through the scheme.
My Lords, I welcome the further update on the transition plan. When the Agriculture Bill was going through this place, pleas were made to the Minister’s predecessor to allow us to amend the two agricultural Acts that are the foundation of the tenancies. Will my noble friend take that away with him and urgently ensure that the tenancy agreements can be amended so that they will benefit? Who will advise the farmers on which applications they can make? Will it be Natural England?
On a positive note, I welcome the eight new agricultural attachés the Government have announced. Can the Minister say in what way they will actually help, for example, farmers in the north of England to reach export markets many miles away?
On the issue of crustaceans, he will be aware that this has had a devastating impact on those who fish for crabs off the north Yorkshire coast. What compensation can they look for, and what foreseeable future in this area of fishing will they have?
I am grateful to my noble friend, first, for reminding me that I did not answer the points made by the noble Baronesses on the Front Benches about tenants. I absolutely agree that we want to make these schemes as accessible as possible to tenant farmers. They are a fundamental part of the tenure of land that we have, from owner-occupiers, statutory tenants under the Agricultural Holdings Act, farm business tenancies, grazing rights and grazing on commons; there is an array of them. I agree with my noble friend that the legislation is a bit out of date. We have an organisation called TRIG, which is bringing together people across farming businesses to try to find a way of reform, although there is not agreement on that. My noble friend Lady Rock’s report has brought forward some measures that have already found their way into the Environmental Land Management Scheme and into Countryside Stewardship. We want to make these as accessible as possible for tenants, and I hope that the changes we made will please them.
I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s points on exports. I am pleased to see that we have recently agreed exports of pig meat to countries such as Mexico. This fills the gap created when markets were cut off for China. Our attachés, embassies and high commissions abroad will be working hard to secure better export opportunities for high-quality British food, so I hope that we will see a better future for that.
My Lords, the north-east fishing industry, despite the great popularity of its crab and lobster products in mainland Europe, has faced a series of challenges. The one the Minister described today has been the most devastating. Alongside that, the industry has had to find ways of getting products to market in Europe, which has proved far more complicated as it has to be done within 24 hours in most cases. In the case of Holy Island, new problems, of which he is aware, may be posed by marine protection zones. Is there a focus in his department on ensuring that we continue to have a north-east of England fishing industry, given all these difficulties?
Absolutely. Regarding Holy Island, as he knows, we are holding a consultation, which is causing great concern. I have had letters from a variety of people, including the Archbishop of York, on this matter. I know it is causing serious stress to individuals, and we want to resolve it as soon as possible; that is the point of a meaningful consultation. The people managing that fishery need to know that we are listening to them. We will make an announcement very soon, which I hope will set their minds at rest.
The noble Lord and my noble friend also asked about support for that fishing industry. We want to see more biomass in the sea, so fishermen in the north-east of England feel that they can have a sustainable stock of fish to exploit in years to come. Everything we are doing is about driving towards sustainability. The greatest friends of protected marine areas should be fishermen. As we saw in a report I wrote for the Government before I took this position, in other parts of the world the greatest supporters of marine protection are fishermen. Outside those areas, they see biomass moving into an area, which they can then exploit. We want to see a good future for fishermen all around our coasts.
We have plenty of time. I think it is the turn of the Cross- Benchers, and then Labour.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer, as set out in the register. I also express my thanks to the Minister and his department for the progress on and development of ELMS so far. I emphasise “so far” because there are still some areas of concern, and my two principal ones are as follows.
First, the implementation of biodiversity net gain becomes a legal requirement at the end of this year. We need to know how land set aside for BNG relates in terms of payment to land incorporated in ELMS, as this could be a major income opportunity for farmers. Secondly, there is a need for immediate clarity from Defra and the Treasury on income and capital tax treatment and reliefs, as well as the possibility of VAT on BNG and other aspects of ELMS, including woodland. I would be greatly relieved if the Minister could respond on these two points.
The noble Lord is right that the biodiversity net gain target becomes effective from November this year. We are working hard with other departments to ensure that that rollout is happening. I know that contracts and covenants are already being worked up by famers and their advisers. We see this as an income source from which they can benefit, and we want to ensure that it happens. This absolutely dovetails with what they are doing with environmental land management schemes. In addition to the noble Lord’s point, next month we are due to publish our green finance strategy, which will try to create the right degree of regulation in a market which some people refer to as “the wild west”, because you see all sorts of players offering farmers and land managers enormous sums of money, some of which is greenwash. We want to focus that, so we are working effectively to get ESG money and other funds invested in our natural environment through farmers and land managers in a meaningful way. As the noble Lord said, there are also tax concerns. We are in discussions with the Treasury on that, and we will ensure that we keep your Lordships abreast of those developments.
My Lords, tempted as I am to put the case of the challenge for upland farmers in County Durham, I actually want to concentrate on the crab deaths. First, I thank the Minister for the correction I have just received to the Parliamentary Answer he sent me yesterday. I understand that all these issues are challenging, including this one. It is challenging because we do not yet know, and the Government must admit in their report that they do not yet know, the precise nature of what has caused this awful problem. I know the Government want to rule out dredging, but they are not yet in a position to do that, so can he assure me that any future dredging will be monitored very carefully? When the steelworks closed in Consett, we saw the results of processes that nobody had thought about. I am sure that will also be the case around the Redcar works, where stuff got into the river from both the steel and chemical works. Will the Minister ensure that the Government continue to monitor the effects of dredging and that they come up with a firm plan to restore the health of the sea, so that not just fishermen but tourists have confidence to go to those magnificent beaches again?
I entirely accept the point that the noble Baroness makes, and her passion for that area is well known. In doing his survey, the Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Henderson, pulled together 12 leading experts in their field. They are listed in the report, and they have looked at this in the way scientists do. It is sometimes frustrating that you cannot ever get a clear, black-and-white answer to a scientific question, and sometimes there are mysteries, but I hope that this is not one of the mysteries that will always elude us. However, when talking to the scientists and really pushing them to find out whether we gave them the right remit, all the answers I received satisfied me that Professor Henderson, who is a deeply respected public servant and scientist, pulled together the most effective group possible, and they have produced a report that indicates what is very unlikely to be the cause.
Two types of dredging have gone on in that area. One is maintenance dredging, whereby very small amounts of the depths of sediment are removed. We tested that sediment before it was put in a licensed part of the sea, and the levels of pyridine were absolutely inconsequential in terms of its ability to cause the crab deaths. The other one is capital dredging for the new port, and the dates for that are interesting. In December 2020 capital dredging took place, but not actually on the freeport; the deaths occurred in October 2021, some months afterwards; and in September 2022 there was capital dredging in the freeport, after which there were no deaths. The fact that, largely, only crabs have been washed up is really extraordinary, so we want to ensure that we keep an open mind. I absolutely give the noble Baroness the assurance that we are also willing to look at other—
My Lords, I have two questions about the agricultural transition. First, the Minister is very enthusiastic about the number of farmers who would take it up. Does he have any estimate or is that too difficult to find? Secondly, what happens about monitoring practices of farmers who do not sign up? Is there a process for that?
On the crabs, Gary Caldwell, a senior lecturer in applied marine biology at Newcastle University—so, a well-respected expert—says that there is no direct evidence for disease among the crabs, and that very high levels of pyridine were found in the crab carcasses. The next stage of dredging will move a million cubic metres of riverbed seven miles out to sea. The noble Baroness asking the previous question asked whether there will be very careful monitoring of that so that we do not have a repeat occurrence.
On the farmer situation, about 2,200 have entered the sustainable farming incentive to date. That is not particularly surprising, because the amount of money that was available was between £22 and £60 a hectare, and now there will be considerably more. There will be farmers who will not join the scheme because they can farm profitability without support, or for whatever reason. We monitor or collect data from farms right across the country. It is vital that we do, so that we know what crops are being planted and where. It will feed a very important piece of strategic work that I am sure the noble Baroness will support: the land use framework, which is coming forward.
The noble Baroness referred to Dr Gary Caldwell. Professor Henderson has been in touch with him on a number of occasions. There was a rumour that he had somehow been excluded. There is a paper trail of emails between Professor Henderson and Dr Caldwell. I can only rely on the evidence we have seen, in the report from the 12 eminent scientists, that indicated that the levels of pyridine were “very unlikely” to be responsible—we have to be very precise in our language here. We will keep our minds open and make sure that developments in that area address the points the noble Baroness makes.
My Lords, I draw attention to my farming interests in the register. Does the Minister agree that perhaps the most susceptible group of farmers in these difficult times are those on marginal land which is rather too good to be supported through the upland support schemes? Those are very often smaller farms on not good land. Is there anything in the Government’s proposals tailored specifically for this particular group in the margins?
I thank my noble friend. His knowledge and interest in this subject are of course really helpful. We want to make sure that precisely those farmers are able to access these schemes. In fact, they are the people most often able to deliver the kind of benefits we want, in reversing the decline of biodiversity, hitting our net-zero targets and hitting our tree-planting targets. There is something in there for them, particularly in the upland areas. If they are farming areas that have either upland or lowland peat, there is a standard that would be of particular value to them. I also draw farmers’ attention to the hedgerows standard. Farmers are used to hedgerows, and they are restoring their number to deal with those that were taken out with government grants in the 1970s. They know that if they can manage those hedgerows in a different way, it can have enormous benefits, both in carbon and biodiversity. I really hope they will benefit from these new standards.
My Lords, the Minister said that there were no other deaths, but independent marine experts claim that there have been deaths of bivalve shellfish, octopuses, barnacles and algae and there is growing evidence that seal populations were affected. If the assumptions in this new report are accurate, it suggests that we have a discrete, pathogenic, multi-species serial killer committing ecocide. That is significant because it is also in an area that is coterminous with the blast radius of the explosion of the Teesside furnace, which was demolished by explosion with the dust cloud scattered across the sea. I am sure the Minister must be worried about that level of death in the sea. Can he at least try to challenge the notion that there is a multi-species element to this, because I think the report focused just on crustaceans?
I absolutely accept the noble Lord’s point. I want to make sure that my language is correct, because there are a lot of conspiracy theories at the extremes; then there are the absolutely genuine points made by people such as the noble Lord, who want, quite rightly, to ensure that they are addressed.
Although a novel pathogen—a disease or parasite—has not been identified, the experts concluded that it could explain the key observations, including mortality, over a sustained period along a 70-kilometre coastline. The report makes clear the unusual twitching of dying crabs and the deaths being predominantly among crabs rather than other species, and it concluded that a novel pathogen is as likely as not to be the cause.
That leads us to ask, “What now?”, which is why we are talking to Cefas to make sure that we are monitoring this issue. We are also talking to the IFCA about the measures that it brought in and making sure that we are drawing on the evidence of citizen science and other scientific organisations—some of which have understandably been taking part in campaigns on this. We recognise that, as yet, we do not precisely know what the cause is, but we want to.
My Lords, on the hypothesis that the cause is indeed a novel pathogen, the Minister will know that in respect of red belly disease in salmon the original hypothesis was a novel pathogen, but the hypothesis now is an existing pathogen with a novel stressor. Has the review looked at the possibility of an existing pathogen caused by a new stress element? If not, why not? Does the Minister agree that that should be looked at?
The noble Viscount makes a very good point. One of the things that the review looked at was what was going on in the sea at the time. He is absolutely right that there are factors that can affect species and their ability to withstand a pathogen if such a pathogen exists. Those factors can include storm and tide effects and other human effects; they were certainly considered as part of the review and will be considered in any future reviews of this work.
My Lords, during the passage of the then Environment Bill, my noble friend’s predecessor as Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, promised the House that there would be a soil health action plan and that it would be a “key plank” of the Government’s policy. When is that promise going to be honoured?
I am not sure, because I was not involved in any commitments made at the time of that Bill, but I will certainly look into it and contact my noble friend. I should say that soil is absolutely at the heart of our agricultural reforms. We want farmers to use it in a way that means we are protecting it. There are certain areas, such as lowland peat, where the soil is being depleted at an alarming rate. We want to make sure that the measures we have introduced are used to protect and maintain soils; and that soils can be used for all the things we want, such as cleaning up rivers and protecting our environment.
My Lords, can I ask the Minister if the lobsters and crabs from the north-east are safe to eat or are they poisonous?
I can absolutely assure the noble Baroness that they are safe to eat. The FSA advice is that they are safe to eat and that there is no zoonotic effect on human health from crabs that have been found dead and have been examined.
My Lords, it is the turn of the Labour Benches. There will be time for the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, to speak afterwards.
In the light of the answer that the Minister gave to my noble friend, can he tell the House whether his own adviser, Professor Henderson, has recommended to him further action or research that should be undertaken? The Minister also referred to a wider group of interested people who will want to know what has happened in this tragedy; sometimes, things occur in nature and we do not understand them. Will the action taken involve a wide range of scientific societies, including, for example, the Royal Society of Biology?
Absolutely, in addition to the organisations I listed earlier. The initial views are that finding something to which we can attribute the cause is unlikely, but Professor Henderson has suggested that the university sector will be well placed to extend research in this area, and he is working with it to see what further research can be done.
My Lords, I declare my agricultural interests as in the register. I would like the Minister to return to the reply he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Deben, when he explained that British agriculture and those engaged in it would not be, with their products, competing against people who operate under lower environmental and welfare standards. How does that square with the remarks of his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Lainston, on the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill, where he told the House that the standards in Australia were lower than those in this country?
Our policy is that agricultural products taken in as part of a trade deal cannot be imported into this country if they fall beneath our standards of animal welfare and environmental protection. That is the policy in the agricultural chapter of the Australia deal; it is the first time such a chapter in a trade deal has said that.