§ Question again proposed.
§ 6.9 pm
§ Mr. Mark Hughes (Durham)
As an urban dweller, Mr. Speaker, I should like to take you and the House on a journey into the countryside. The first thing that we wish to see this autumn is a field of waving corn. As the report highlights, that which most urban dwellers believe to be a beautiful agricultural scene is different when looked at throughout the season. The field of waving corn had the straw burnt from it the year before. Perhaps it was sprayed with a herbicide in order to kill the previous crop. Specially dressed seed may have been drilled directly into the ground. No one bothers to plough, as that might upset the topsoil. That seed, unless given vast quantities of nitrogen and regularly sprayed with fungicide, would be unlikely to give a reasonable return on any money invested. Farmers are forced along the treadmill of more pesticides, more fungicides and more nitrogen inputs. One looks in vain in that field for wild bees. They were killed off in the early spring when spraying against pests took place. One looks in vain for mushrooms—the fungicide saw to that. There is no point in looking for wild flowers—selective weed killers did them a mischief many years ago.
1622 The field of golden corn is not what it appears. One looks over the fence and sees a little lamb. There is a problem—it has scab because the farmer is no longer allowed to use Dieldrin in the dip. Certain sheep diseases are returning because, under the control of noxious chemicals, farmers are not allowed to use Dieldrin. The sheep, poor animal, is now itching because the town dwellers have imposed limitations on farming.
We look more hopefully at the nearby calf. If it is not being fed on reconstituted poultry manure, it is being fed on silage, either of which can do a major mischief to the countryside. If it happens to be a Canadian Holstein, there is an above-average chance that its progeny will suffer from enzootic bovine leucosis before it is two and a half years old.
The Aberdeen Angus has been bred to the size of a Labrador dog. It is perfectly circular in terms of meat output, but it is not similar to our historic idea of how a beef animal should look. We have to look overseas to the Charolais or other such breeds.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross
There have been strenuous attempts to return to the original size of the Aberdeen Angus, and think that it has succeeded rather well.
§ Mr. Hughes
It has been improved, but there are still many Aberdeen Angus that are about the size of Dexters.
Around the corner we come across a massive pig unit. The chances are that Aujeszky's disease is rampant, while the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sits back saying that it must not do anything about Aujeszky's disease because there have not been enough cases.
In desperation, on this mythical journey, one sees a little babbling brook, stream or whatever. One must beware, because page 133, paragraph 5.20, of the report states:From the point of view of both animal and human health the greatest hazard is posed by Salmonella. In one survey of 187 samples of cattle slurry, 20 yielded Salmonella; in another the slurry from 12 of 54 pig farms was found to be infected.If you, Mr. Speaker, or your family were to drink that water, you could do yourself a major mischief, which the House would deeply regret.
That is the problem of modern farming. It appears to protect the countryside for the benefit of urban dwellers to 1623 enjoy as visitors. The reality behind that euphemistic picture is often totally different. In the pursuit of essential economic objectives, the farmer is being forced to pursue more production, in many cases against his better landsman's judgment. He has to reject the old husbandman view in order to pursue profit, or, if not profit, at least to make ends meet.
§ Mr. Nicholas Baker
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with interest and sympathy. Will he tell us what part he thinks has been played in developing the process by, first, the cheap food policy that we used to have and still have to some extent and, secondly, the loss of agricultural land? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the loss of 20,000 hectares per year is not negligible, as the report states, but a serious matter?
§ Mr. Hughes
It is an important matter. One cannot lose 40,000 acres and forget about them. The cause is not to be found either in the pursuit of a deficiency payment scheme or in the present common agricultural policy. It is neither of those. The fault is that, to maintain relative incomes per head, the agricultural sector has no choice but to intensify its utilisation of every capital input. If it does not do that, the relative incomes in agriculture fall behind. Because of taxation and other reasons, there is an important leakage from the economic activities of agriculture. The yield per acre achieved by higher nitrogen input frequently ends as higher land values per acre for insurance companies and others to cover their necessary insurance risks. The increased gross yield is used as the measure of land values, rather than the increased net yield.
In considering the milk sector, the cereal sector, the sheep sector, and so on, the problems facing farming and agricultural pollution stem from the rat race of increasing production, even if the marginal improvement in money terms is only very slight. In trying to deal with inflation accounting and agricultural business, if land and the increment in land value is excluded, it is hard to see how farming can be profitable. The return on capital employed in agriculture is nothing like the sort of return that is needed and does not justify the increase in land prices that we have seen over the 1624 past three years. The two are totally unrelated. The one is a function of inflation and the other is a function of a restricted guaranteed market. Whatever quantity is supplied, there is a guaranteed price.
Then there is the gap between the cow that will yield 1,600 gallons per lactation, if one stuffs in all the concentrate that one can afford at the front end, and the cow that will for a smaller input yield 1,200 gallons. It is rare that the exact economics of those two tradeoffs are worked out. The farmer is canalised into pursuing the one and he cannot easily escape into the low-cost low-input method of farming.
Much of the problem highlighted in the report comes from the way in which reliance on successive Governments, on deficiency payments and on grants has put the farmer in the frame of mind where more must mean more money. More product is the end. If that is to be achieved by polluting the soil, the air and everything else, so be it.
This is where the report is crucial. I hope that the farming community, for the first time, bearing in mind the other evidence that is growing, will check its impact upon its fellow men.
It is a disturbing factor to have brought home to us that the livestock excreta produced and untreated on farms in this country is approximately equivalent to the excretra of an additional 150 million human beings—three times as much as the muck produced by the human population. That is the measure of the intensification of agriculture over the last 20 or 30 years.
In these circumstances I urge upon the Government the recommendations in paragraph 8.30, on page 220 of the report:46. Intensive livestock units should be regarded as industrial enterprises.47. Treatment systems which reduce the smell problems that may he caused by the storage and spreading of animal wastes have been adopted to only a negligible extent on United Kingdom farms. Cost is an important factor; the intensive livestock rearing industry must come to accept the cost of pollution control.I believe that it is no longer acceptable that the pursuit of this sort of farming is relieved of the pressure that "the polluter pays", and if the pollution is in the gross and aggravated form which 1625 intensive units create there is a need for that polluter to be treated differently from sheep farmers on the uplands, where the droppings of the sheep are scattered over many acres. It is not the same industry or the same problem.
I hope that these recommendations and the use of animal wastes and the method by which they are treated, both logically and as sewage, are taken very seriously indeed by the Government.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)
Like other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, I begin by congratulating the authors of the report on what they have done. The matters into which they have inquired are complex. They are important. In many instances they have not previously been investigated. Therefore, I think that we can say that the report makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of these matters. It contains many recommendations which I for one hope will be reflected in Government policy in the future.
Any hon. Member who reads the report—indeed, any hon. Member who is familiar with agriculture—will be conscious of the great success that has been achieved over recent years by those who work in the industry. I refer to both farmers and agricultural workers. Their flexibility in work practices, their willingness to adopt new techniques and their excellent industrial relations have contributed very largely to the enormous increase in efficiency and productivity that has made British agriculture probably the leading agriculture industry in Europe.
I make here a point arising from what the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) has just said. One facet of this success is that one of the important contributory factors to this increase in productivity and efficiency has been a greatly extended use of intensive husbandry methods and of pesticides and other chemicals. It is remarkable that there has not been a commensurate increase in the environmental pollution attributable to this extended use. I take the point made by the hon. Member in his most valuable speech, but I think that we are entitled to say that, on the whole, the agricultural community has done very 1626 well in this regard. I for one regard that community as one of the most responsible sectiions of our society as a whole.
I turn briefly to the cost implications of the recommendations. Clearly, if implemented, either fully or in part, many of them will cost substantial sums. Mention has already been made in the debate that agriculture is losing about 20,000 hectares of land per year. As the House knows, it is established policy, and one which we hope to carry through and achieve, to increase home production by about 2½ per cent. per annum. This policy of increasing home production on a diminishing land base inevitably results in an ever-extended and increased use of chemicals and pesticides and the methods of intensive husbandry.
This is an expensive business, and if the problem of the farmer is complicated by his being required, in too short a period, to shoulder too much of the financial implications contained in the report, we may find that the burden becomes intolerable. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the cost implications of the recommendations when he comes to consider which of them he wishes to adopt.
I should like to mention briefly three points that arise out of the report. The first is the practice of straw burning. I do not in any way recommend the discontinuance of this practice. Indeed, if the NFU code of practice is strictly adhered to, straw burning does not pose any significant hazard to the community as a whole. As hon. Members who are familiar with these matters will know, the practice has considerable advantages. It is a quick, convenient way of disposing of surplus straw. But there are disadvantages, which those who engage in farming should bear in mind.
The first is the obvious disadvantage that the NFU code of practice is not always adhered to and, therefore, there is a fire hazard. I was rather alarmed to read in the report that the Home Office was unable to give any clear information about the amount of fire damage attributable to the practice of straw burning.
There are other disadvantages attributable to this practice. I travel along the A1 every Friday on the way to my constituency. In the late summer months one 1627 is conscious of the heavy belts of smoke that emerge from fields adjoining the A1. We should not be unaware of the disadvantages that are sometimes associated with the practice. As those of us who know something about wildlife will appreciate, there are also wildlife implications in the practice of straw burning.
Having said all that, however, I think that the practice is inevitable and that there is no reason to discontinue it. But straw itself is a resource which, in certain areas, is capable of an alternative use. In its most obvious form it is a source of energy. Hon. Members will know that there are boilers on the market which can be run with straw and which make a valuable contribution to the energy requirements of a farm. Perhaps more interestingly, there is now an alkali treatment which can be used to transform straw into acceptable animal feeding-stuff. In my constituency there is a successful plant which does just that.
Of course, the House is realistic about these matters. There are problems associated with the cost of collection and delivery of straw. Therefore, I think that no hon. Member would say that all farmers all the time should find these alternative uses satisfactory—in most cases, probably not. But I hope that the farming community will always be alert to the possibility of alternative use and that, whenever possible, it will adopt such alternative use.
The next specific point that I should like to touch on briefly is the question of aerial crop spraying. It is perhaps not surprising considering what a useful tool it is, that there has been a substantial increase in the practice of aerial crop spraying over the past six years. The report shows that in 1972 a total of 274,000 hectares of land were sprayed. In 1977 that had increased to 628,000 hectares, and obviously there has been a commensurate increase in the number of aircraft employed. In 1972 53 aircraft were employed, and in 1977 114 aircraft were used.
As the House will appreciate, having been responsible for much of it, there is a complicated and interlocking network of regulations, rules and codes of practice which regulate the safety and the method of conducting this practice. Whatever the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) may have said on behalf of the Opposition, on the whole the practice has 1628 been carried on in considerable safety. I am not aware of any serious injury that has been caused by exposure to materials sprayed from aircraft. The report indicates, by way of a rough estimate, that each year slightly over 130,000 sorties are flown, and in 1976 only 116 complaints were made, of which the greater part related to low-flying aircraft. If that is so, and that is the evidence, I think that the House is entitled to say that the industry has been proceeding in a safe fashion.
But, as in all these things, there is room for improvement. In my constituency, over the past three years there have been two instances of pupils at a school having been exposed to material sprayed by aircraft—and, sadly, I might add, it was the same school on both occasions. Fortunately no damage was suffered by the pupils, but, as will be appreciated, great anxiety was caused to the parents, the teachers and the children involved. Therefore, I am in favour of making some improvement in the way in which the practice of crop spraying is conducted.
The recommendations in the report are, I think, basically reasonable. It is entirely reasonable that the giving of advance warning should be made mandatory. It is entirely reasonable to say that where it is not reasonably practicable to warn everybody involved there should be no spraying. It is right to say that there are certain areas where there can never be spraying because of the proximity of urban development. And, with regard to the detailed proposals in the report, I am in favour of the presence of a grounds man as recommended by the Commission. Also—and here I adopt the point made by the right hon. Member for Widnes—I think that advance notice not merely of the operation but of the nature of the chemical involved should be given to the local environmental health officers.
Having said that, and of course it is a slightly emotional subject, I come back to the proposition with which I started, namely, that on the whole the practice of aerial crop spraying has been conducted with great skill and with a high degree of safety.
The last point that I should like to make deals with the practice of intensive husbandry. I was, as I always am, greatly impressed by the remarks of the hon. Member for Durham. I am well aware that he approaches this matter with 1629 a great deal of expertise, but there is one point that we should all bear in mind. We talk, perhaps in rather regretful terms, of not being able to adopt a practice of low cost, low output, and I understand the reason. But, leaving aside for a moment the milk industry, where quite different considerations apply, largely because there is no competition from abroad in liquid milk, the farming industry has no real alternative but to adopt these practices, namely, increased emphasis on chemicals, increased emphasis on pesticides and increased emphasis on intensive husbandry. The basic reason why the industry has no choice but to adopt these practices is that everybody else in every other country with which we trade adopts precisely the same approach, and it is impossible to deal with one industry in isolation from another.
The hon. Member for Durham makes a very good point. Of course, those responsible for intensive husbandry units should, at least in part, be responsible for the cost of controlling the pollution. I agree, but subject to this caveat and this proviso. In no sense are the operators of most of these plants culpable. They are merely responding to market forces. Therefore, if there is to be increased cost—
§ Mr. Mark Hughes
Would the hon. Gentleman say, therefore, that in the early nineteenth century the Durham coal owners who employed women and childdren underground because their labour was cheaper were not culpable?
§ Mr. Mark Hughes
So to arrange one's business that one pours poison upon the land and into the waters is, to my mind, to be equally culpable.
§ Mr. Hogg
I think that the hon. Member misunderstands the point that I am making. When I speak of culpability, I refer to the operation of the units themselves. I do not doubt that if polluting matter is poured unchecked into the 1630 streams, those who do it are culpable. That is a different matter. I merely say that the production of a certain amount of animal waste and the problems associated with storing and disposing of it are an inherent characteristic of intensive husbandry. Clearly the problem has to be tackled, but it costs money, and the point that I seek to make is that some of the cost has to fall on the community as a whole, partly through increased consumer prices, and partly—I take up the specific point made in the report—through an improved grants system. This is dealt with at considerable length on pages 140 and 141 of this valuable report.
That brings me to my final point. As many hon. Members will know from their experience in their constituencies and elsewhere, intensive units are frequently found on the edge of urban development. Very often that is the fault not of the farmer but rather of the planner. Under existing legislation, an order can be made, I think under section 100 of the Public Health Act 1936, which closes the plant or substantially curtails its operation. Indeed, such an effect can be achieved under common law or by an application under the Prevention of Pollution Act. The point is that in many cases, and through no fault of the farmer, his activities can be either prevented or substantially curtailed.
The report suggests that where that has happened the court should have the power to award such compensation to be paid by the local authority as may reflect the degree of responsibility of the local authority, which in many cases is responsible for bringing the nuisance into being because it allowed close proximity between the unit and the urban development I agree with that, and that accords with my principles of ordinary justice.
This is a long report and I know that other hon. Members want to speak on this matter, perhaps at some length. Perhaps I might conclude as I began. It is a valuable report. It has been well written, well drafted and well thought out. It adds considerably to the volume of knowledge that we possess. I very much hope that many of its recommendations will be incorporated in Government policy.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
I first start by declaring an interest as an 1631 ex-farmer who gave up at the wrong time and last year had the gall of seeing his farm sold for about 10 times the price he had sold it for. I am thinking of the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), who probably does not have to go quite socap-in-hand to his bank manager, because no doubt the value of his property has risen considerably in the last few years. In addition, I am still a member of the National Farmers Union and have two sons employed in agriculture—I may add, on very low wages.
I agree that the report is a balanced one. It recognises the tremendous role played by agriculture in recent years and also the generally sympathetic attitude of the farming fraternity to our rural environment. As other hon. Members have said, however, farmers are under great pressures with regard to their enterprises remaining viable.
The other place debated this subject on 17 January, and the speeches were of a high quality. I was pleased to hear comments about my noble Friend Lord Winstanley, who has been quoted at some length.
I used to run 60 breeding sows in the open, but in time I gave up because I knew that the only way in which I would make a reasonable return would be to put them inside, penned individually on concrete—just as one can see from the picture in the report—and run a boar around them every six months or so. I looked at various examples and disliked them so much that I got out of the business. It was probably a good thing, because the pig industry has had a rough time over the last three or four years and pig farmers are just about breaking even at the present time. Those who have remained in pig farming must have the patience of Job.
I do not blame farmers who have adopted intensive practices. As the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) rightly said, it is a question of practical economics. I disagree with the report in that I believe that the trend out of livestock farming will increase sharply over the next 20 years and that there will perhaps be a return to intensive cultivation of vegetables and some crops that have not yet been seriously tried in this country. One of my constituents happens to be a man who has played a large part in developing the cultivation of sweet 1632 corn in Britain. He has now branched out into growing garlic and is successfully selling it to the French. Therefore, there are other areas in which we could experiment.
To its great sense, the House of Commons stocks some of the wines that are produced on the Isle of Wight. There are three vineyards there, although, of course, I know that there are others in other parts of the country. But I do not believe that land will necessarily be used so extensively for livestock farming in the future. It is because I believe that in the years ahead we shall tend to become more vegetarian that it is so important to preserve our best arable land from urban development. I fear that the Government may be too lenient in this respect, and I should like them to be much tougher.
I agree that a lot can be done about land on the verges of our towns, and a good example has been set by the Countryside Commission in Lancashire. I believe that we should impose a site value tax on some of that land, because in this way it could be put to beneficial use. At present, too many people are allowing land to lie idle because they expect to receive planning consent sometime in the future and to hit the jackpot. If they were paying some tax to the local authorities. I am sure that the land would be put to better use than just allowing horses to graze on it.
The attitude of the Government to the green belt is perhaps suspect. I think that they may allow some development—
§ Mr. King indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Ross
The Minister shakes his head, and I am delighted, because I hope that we do preserve our green belt. The right hon. Gentleman must admit that allotments are under attack in the Government's latest Bill. In addition, he has rejected Lord Porchester's Exmoor proposals, which were referred to earlier.
§ Mr. King
It was a throw-away line, but I do not know where the hon. Gentleman gets the impression that allotments are under attack. What we are doing—I would have thought that this would have the full support of the united Liberal Party—is giving greater discretion to local authorities to make determinations for 1633 themselves and not telling them that Whitehall knows best.
§ Mr. Ross
I should like much longer to deal with that answer, but perhaps I can deal with it when we debate the Bill. I agree that the Government are giving local authorities power to decide for themselves, but the first thing that they will do is to sell off the allotments because they will be so short of money that they will have to. That will occur just at the time when queues of people want allotments. The Government should allocate money to provide more allotments. I am on the side of the Allotment Society in that regard. If we really believe that we should grow more for ourselves, this is surely an area that we should encourage.
Voluntary agreements are to be welcomed, but when pressure on our limited resources is so great I believe that the Government should provide the necessary legal backing. Surely there is adequate land in our inner urban areas to put a stop to the continuing sprawl into our fast diminishing countryside, particularly in the South and West of England.
We could also do more to preserve our existing hedgerows, especially those that may be lost during road improvement schemes. This matter was raised only yesterday at the townswomen's guild in my constituency. One woman came forward with a suggestion because our county council planned to remove a very nice hedge in order to widen a road. Surely we can try to transplant such hedges before they are destroyed. The National Coal Board has carried out experiments in transplanting trees at a much older age than we used to think possible. Perhaps the same can be done with hedges. If not, at least the new hedges should be planted before the old ones are destroyed, because it is sad to see them being ripped out in that way. In addition, it destroys the habitat of many of our wild animals and birds.
I believe that the new intensive livestock units that are developed in inner urban areas ought to come under stricter planning control and that they should be rated as industrial premises. The right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) described one that exists in his constitu- 1634 ency. I do not think that the rating system should apply when they form part of an agricultural holding in a rural area, but we could perhaps change the rules whereby a building of 5,000 sq. ft. does not come under planning control and two years later someone can add another 5,000 sq. ft.
That happened in my constituency. It was not an incomer but a man whose family goes back many generations. He did it much to the annoyance of people who bought houses nearby. In that instance, I believe that the two-year rule should be removed, and I hope that the Minister will consider that point.
People who choose to live in rural communities must accept some smell and noise from time to time. They never seemed to think of that when I was farming. I remember being telephoned at 3 o'clock in the morning by someone who complained bitterly about the noise of my calves. He told me "You never feed your animals." I tried to explain that I had taken the calves away from their mothers and that they would bellow for two or three days. The reply that I received was "Well, the sooner you move and go to live in a town, the sooner we shall all be pleased." I took the hint and went. But my farm was there long before that person came to live in the area, and I felt that I had a right to some priority.
One of the greatest problems that agriculture must face is the return of the rabbit. Previous Governments should not have withdrawn money from the clearance societies. The amount of food that rabbits consume, both grass and grain, is quite enormous I believe that we shall rue the day that we allowed them to come back in such numbers.
I now turn to the chapter on pesticides, which is my main interest in the report, and the continued use of what is described as organ chlorines on grassland and root crops. The report states that this is on the increase, and it publishes a table which seems to support what it says.
The House will know of the tragic effect that DDT and Dieldrin has had on the number of breeding sparrow hawks and peregrine falcons. In fact, I believe that Britain is now the only place where the peregrine falcon breeds and that it no longer breeds in Belgium. My right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk 1635 and Peebles (Mr. Steel) tells me that they are on the increase in his constituency, and I am delighted to hear it. The peregrine falcon almost left us during the 1950s and early 1960s.Although it has shown a welcome sign of revival, it has been limited to a few parts of the country. If the fear that is expressed in the report is true—that the increasing use of pesticides on arable crops and grassland is continuing—a welcome trend may well be reversed.
I should like to quote from a brief issued by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RSPB has magnificent support throughout Britain and has over 300,000 members. It is a great joy for me to see young people taking such an interest in bird life—a matter about which many people are concerned. I quote:Many birds such as thrushes and blackbirds will feed upon the contaminated invertebrates, and are in turn the food of sparrow hawks and other predators. A detailed study of the sparrow hawk in northern England and Scotland has shown that although Dieldrin residues in eggs have decreased since 1972, the end of the main organ chlorine usage, DDE residues have increased in a number of areas. Since the sparrow hawks and most of their prey are resident in the study areas, the source of the DDE is likely to be local. This contamination is considered to be one of the main reasons why the species has failed to re-establish itself over much of eastern England, following the pesticide crash of the 50s and 60s.The conclusion that can be drawn is that the dangerous and persistent pesticide DDT is still being used on farmland, and this must he viewed with considerable concern since reliable and less dangerous alternatives are readily available. Many bodies including the RSPB agree with the Commission when they state their unhappiness with the continued threat to wildlife through the use of organochlorines and we strongly support the recommendation that the ACP should urgently review the use of these chemicals.I have been asked by the RSPB to put one or two suggestions to the Minister. I quote again:The Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) examined the use of organochlorines, including DDT, and reported in 1964 and again in 1969. The Committee recommended that the use of DDT should be reviewed, and withdrawn wherever possible. The Government of the day accepted those recommendations.But DDT is still in use in some parts of the country.The two ACP reports further recommended that constant surveillance of all organoch- 1636 lorines and other pesticides be maintained, and that the residue levels in people, their diets, wildlife and the environment should be monitored.I ask whether that is actually happening.Since the two reports the ACP has not commented further on the use of organochlorines, and in particular DDT. There is growing evidence—supported by the Royal Commission—that DDT is still in widespread use, and poses a real threat to wildlife. We would like an adequate assurance that the annual published reports on the results of monitoring organochlorine residues in the environment, foodstuffs etc, are to continue and that the monitoring of organochlorines in the natural environment is to be increased. Since alternative non-persistent pesticides are available, DDT should be withdrawn as a pesticide, particularly in agriculture.Our wildlife, and seabirds in particular, faces ever-increasing hazards from pollution—whether it is from oil spillage in our river estuaries or whatever—and we are surely beholden to do all we can to protect it from pesticides used on land. I hope that my pleas will be heard and that action will be taken.
There is an urgent need to co-ordinate the operations of various bodies that deal with pesticides. I trust that the recommendations will be taken on board by the Government.
I also support the call from the Friends of the Earth and other bodies for more research into the use of organic systems in agriculture and horticulture. With the world supply of minerals in increasingly short supply, and with ever-rising costs, that is only common sense It is summarily dismissed in one paragraph of the report, and I regret that fact.
The report mentions fish farming, which is a hobby-horse of mine. With our rapidly deplenishing stocks in the sea, this new industry surely needs encouragement. If the water authorities, supported by the committee, are to demand the right to intervene and regulate their development, I fear that this necessary source of food is likely to go into reverse. I ask the Government not to give way too easily on some of the pleas that are now being made to them in this respect. The same remarks apply to watercress beds
My final remarks relate to straw burning, to which the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) referred. I am amazed at the way in which farmers waste straw. I have seen bales of straw 1637 lying out in January and February. I find that incredible. Farmers have gone to the trouble of baling the straw, and then have not taken it inside. That costs a lot of money. Most farmers, as the hon. Member for Grantham said, follow the NFU code of practice. However, many thousands of yards of hedgerow have been needlessly destroyed through carelessness. That applied particularly in the hot summer of two or three years ago. Sometimes I think that it is not always accidental. Precious habitats have been lost in that way, fire brigades have been called out, and a great deal of local authority money has been spent unnecessarily.
My local branch of the NFU has successfully persuaded the county council to drop a clause in its Bill, which will come before the House shortly, giving legal effect to the code. The NFU persuaded the county council that it could monitor it itself. I hope that its faith in its members will be justified. Straw is a product of which we should make more use rather than burn the many thousands of tonnes that we do every year. I believe that we should spend more money on research into its uses rather than wantonly destroying it by burning.
§ Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)
I often find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) when he speaks about agriculture. He and I stopped pig farming at the same time, and for the same reason.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is not unacquainted with a certain part of the Isle of Wight where the landscape is being transformed—with taxpayers' money. I can never understand the justice of taxpayers being coerced into giving a grant to a farmer to make his farm more profitable, although there may be a case for giving a grant to a farmer to compensate him for continuing with a hedgerow which would otherwise be less profitable.
All hon. Members have paid a tribute to the Royal Commission for the way in which the report has been produced. I found it not only interesting but, mercifully, most readable. The Royal Commission obviously was concerned about, and spent a considerable amount of time considering, the question of aerial spraying. I should like to comment on that.
1638 There cannot be any constituency in the country where aerial spraying is practised more than in my constituency. There are far more arable acres there than in any other constituency. It is also totally flat and safe for pilots to spray aerially. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) said, it is an area where it is necessary to use the method of aerial spraying, because other methods are more difficult on the land.
The matter is causing great concern in my constituency. The practice has increased enormously. A few years ago, only 50 aircraft were engaged in the practice. There are now twice that number. In recent years there has been a startling increase in perinatal deaths. The number of such deaths in South Lincolnshire is appreciably more than in the rest of the country. There seems to be no obvious reason for that. South Lincolnshire is a healthy area, longevity is common, there is good perinatal care in our health services, and our housing conditions are satisfactory. The South Lincolnshire area health council has carried out a study, but so far it has reached no conclusion.
What has concerned the council is that there is a measure of circumstantial evidence. There have been examples where mothers-to-be have been afflicted by aerial spray and then subsequently suffered the tragedy of a perinatal death. The Minister who is to reply to the debate may be aware that I have raised this subject with his Department. So far, not much progress has been made. I hope that the Department will not be complacent about it. There are some disturbing facts. If, as a result of the study, the accusing finger is eventually pointed at certain types of aerial spray, the Government may be condemned for being complacent about it at this stage.
Having said that, I do not wish to be thought critical of the pilots who are engaged in this sometimes very dangerous work. There have been deaths already, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West is only too well aware. The pilots are very careful, and in the main the companies concerned with this kind of contracting work take every care possible. However, I know quite a number of smallholders and small farmers who have had their crops sprayed—inadvertently. I appreciate—when their larger 1639 neighbours have engaged contractors. I hope, therefore, that the recommendation of the Royal Commission that it be made mandatory that notice should be given to adjacent farmers will be implemented. There are rather too many large farmers in my constituency, I regret to say, who have a somewhat high-handed attitude towards their smaller neighbours. Claims which are made against the large farmers are not treated as sympathetically as they ought to be.
In the course of the debate, a great deal of attention has been paid to the paragraphs in the report relating to what is loosely called factory farming. I always regret it when supporters of factory farming say that this has all come about because of the demand by the housewife for cheap food. I do not think that it is altogether her fault. In my opinion, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is very largely responsible. In the last 30 years, hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers'money—an enormous sum in all—has gone towards paying for the cost of erecting intensive farming buildings. Some of it is paid by way of grantaid—a direct gift, as it were, from the taxpayers—but a substantial part of it goes out indirectly by way of tax reliefs.
I declare an interest in this matter, for only two or three years ago my holding was visited by an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I was not present at the time, but I am told that he was most helpful. He gave certain advice about putting up an intensive beef unit. I am given to understand that the grant of taxpayers' money that is on offer is quite substantial, but, better still, so long as the unit is reasonably profitable, the tax relief will also be very satisfactory. Why invest in pasture land, at more than £1,000 an acre, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a soft touch?
As I said at the outset, I used to have a pig herd. I got out of that activity because of unfair competition. I had to ask myself—as did the hon. Member for Isle of Wight—whether I should carry on with the traditional methods of stockman ship or go intensive. I thought that there would be no pleasure in going intensive.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
I understand my hon. Friend's reasons for disliking intensive husbandry methods. He blames the 1640 Revenue for its allowances, and one thing and another, but is it not true that, if did not adopt intensive methods of farming, he could not compete in pig meat with, for example, the Danes, who adopt these methods?
§ Mr. Body
I appreciate that such methods are used in Denmark, although my experience in that country suggests that they are not as extensive as some people might think.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) was mistaken when, in his contribution earlier, he said rather sweepingly that every country has to do this and that, therefore, we must do it. I am concerned at the moment with a decision about an intensive beef unit. It would be a great mistake for me to contemplate that without the help of taxpayers' money and if at the same time we were to allow into this country the beef that would be available from the Argentine, from Uruguay and from Australia.
My hon. Friend may know that 80,000 head of Australian cattle have been burnt because there was no outlet in any world market—still less over here—for that meat. If I may say so, my hon. Friend was much mistaken in his remarks about beef, although I appreciate that he was on much stronger ground when speaking about pig meat and poultry.
Almost all our pig herds in this country are now going over to very large intensive units, as has already been pointed out. What disturbs me is that these units are getting larger and larger. The larger they become, the greater the problems of pollution. It would not be feasible for any of these large units, costing sometimes £100,000, to be erected if people were using their own money or if, like my hon. Friend the Member for Devon. West (Mr. Mills), they were going to their bank manager and borrowing money at the present interest rate of 20 per cent. These units are feasible only if a substantial part of the cost is underwritten by the taxpayer. We should all be particularly concerned with this matter—andno one more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer or anyone else who has in mind any cuts in public expenditure.
Some of the buildings that are being erected have not a very high degree of aesthetic appeal. Indeed, it is very sad 1641 to see so many of the older farm buildings falling into decay and being replaced, at public expense, by rather ugly concrete constructions. Travelling around the countryside and seeing these new buildings, the taxpayer could say to himself "I have paid for these buildings to go up." He could also ask himself "Why should I pay for these buildings to go up?"
The sternest critics of factory farming are the stockmen, and certainly not the woolly-minded spinsters living in suburbia. Top-class stockmen—a diminishing band, I regret to say—feel very strongly about some of these practices. By "top-class stockman" I mean someone who will nurse a sickly calf or an ageing sow without the use of any drugs or who will take positive pleasure in looking after the stock in his charge.
I cannot believe that anyone but a moron can derive any positive pleasure from working in the semi-darkness of a battery house or walking up and down a line of sows that are tethered in one position for four months on end. That kind of practice does not advance the cause of good stockmanship. It is a great worry for those of us who want to see agriculture progress upon more satisfactory lines.
1642 Pollution will increase as a result of some of the present factory farming practices. That must happen so long as units get larger and larger. The Government, by financing such a large proportion of the units, must ask themselves whether they are largely responsible for this potential increase in pollution. It cannot be enough for the Government simply to accept the recommendations set out in the Royal Commission's report. The Government need to ask themselves whether they should continue to underwrite the cost of factory farming.
If the State would stop distorting the cost of production—I think that it is the view of the present Front Bench that this is a philosophy of the rest of our thinking—a great deal of this problem of pollution would diminish and come down to a tolerable level. For 30 years we have pursued a policy of high-cost, high-output farming. That may have been right. But there may now be reasons, not only of pollution but of the finite nature of resources—fertilisers, oil and so forth—which make us think again and ask ourselves whether we should pursue not a wholly alternative approach but certainly a move towards a lower-cost and lower-output system of farming.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
Like the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), I must declare an interest as a practising farmer. I was extremely interested in the remarks of the hon. Gentleman, particularly those concerning the possible correlation between aerial spraying in Lincolnshire and the amount of perinatal mortality in that area. That is a matter for considerable concern. No doubt the Ministry will consider the matter and we shall hear more about it. Like other hon. Members, I must compliment the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on producing such a readable, complete and useful report and survey of this rapidly changing field. I can perhaps bask in reflected glory for a moment. One of the members of the Royal Commission is my distinguished constituent Professor Murdoch Mitchison of Edinburgh university.
Many constituents in rural areas must find it odd that, in a week during which the House decided that it had not enough time to debate fully matters concerning rural school buses and the cost of school meals for families in rural areas, we have been able to find a whole day to talk about matters such as sewage sludge and the consumption of processed poultry manure by beef cattle.
I should like to pass on to an area in which the Minister knows I have an interest—
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to be unfair. The references to school transport related to the debate in Committee, not on the Floor of the Chamber.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
I accept that. I was trying to make the point that a number of our constituents will find it odd. I am glad that we are holding this debate. It has been useful. It has been a debate of high quality.
The Minister knows my interest. So, too, do you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for you had the misfortune to be in the Chair at 7 o'clock in the morning of 19 December. If it was not you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it must have been someone else.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
I was not signifying dissent. 1644 I was simply saying to myself that it was no misfortune.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
I am delighted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that. I am referring to an Adjournment debate last month on the subject of pesticides, which ranged over some of the points covered in this debate. I mentioned on that occasion that agriculture was the third most dangerous industry in the United Kingdom, after the construction and mining industries. That point has to be taken into account alongside the efficiency factor to which hon. Members have referred. I also mentioned on that occasion—the Minister referred to the matter in opening the debate—that the agrochemical industry has been one of the spectacular growth industries since the war.
It is true that at the time of the war virtually no arable or grassland acres were being treated regularly with artificial chemicals. Now, literally every arable or intensive grassland acre is treated at least once every year with some kind of chemical. This has been a major growth industry. It has been an enormous help to farming and has helped the industry to increase production. However, this explosion in the use of pesticides and herbicides exposes the rural environment and workers in the farming industry to a number of potentially nasty chemicals.
As the Minister knows, I am concerned about a number of factors largely concerned with the education and information provided to people directly involved in the industry. The main priority of the agrochemical industry is to serve its customers and to sell chemicals. I should like to quote an instance in my experience when that priority has not been in the best interest of the farmer or the environment.
Two years ago I had a field of cauliflowers which were being decimated by cabbage root fly. The advisory literature indicated that the most suitable chemical to deal with the problem was Dursban. I asked the local merchant but was told that it was very expensive and unobtainable until the next day. He suggested that I should use DDT, which was cheaper and available. That was probably good commercial advice, but, as 1645 the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) said, DDT is nasty stuff. We should not swill it around too liberally. That is an instance where information is perhaps insufficient, and it shows that some of us are perhaps being inadvertently irresponsible.
I should like to refer to the working of the Government Advisory Committee on Pesticides. This distinguished committee has served the nation well. I am, however, a little worried that it consists of 10 academics and 15 civil servants but no one with practical direct experience in the farming or forestry industries. That shows a gap, although, admittedly, the Royal Commission does not pick up the point. It says that the ACP is a purely voluntary, advisory organisation. It does not exist within a statutory framework, and the Royal Commission advises that it should, perhaps, be made a statutory authority.
I refer to another problem of pesticides—that of farm workers and tractor men who work with these substances. They do not always get the advice, training or facilities that they need when they are exposed to dangerous chemicals. We do not really know enough about the amount of poisoning that occurs. According to the Health and Safety Executive there were only 32 cases of poisoning in 1978. I suspect that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I am convinced that many more people who may have taken risks out of rashness or ignorance have suffered, or may be suffering from, long-term complaints which may be very difficult to diagnose because we do not know enough about the after-effects of these chemicals.
The Royal Commission refers to the Ministry's excellent advisory booklet entitled "Approved Products for Farmers and Growers". We have established that only 12,000 of these booklets were sold last year. If we assume that 10,000 have actually landed on farms and compare that with the total number of farm holdings in the United Kingdom—about 258,000—it means that, at best, only one farmer out of 25 possesses a copy of this useful handbook.
When replying to my Adjournment debate last month, the Minister said that he thought that the booklet was too technical and that it would not really be much use 1646 to tractor men or farmers. In that case, it should be made more readable and more usable for people who are involved in the industry. The booklet is being printed, so I cannot see the point of compiling such a technical document if it is just to lie around in the Ministry's offices. I strongly endorse the Royal Commisson's advice that the booklet should be available to everyone who must handle pesticides.
I wish to refer briefly to the chemical 2,4,5-T. I talked about this during my Adjournment debate last month. We know that this chemical almost invariaably and inevitably contains very small quantities of a horrible contaminant called dioxin. This is one of the most toxic chemicals known to man. We also know that the Governments of Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and the United States have suspended its use.
The Minister said when replying to me thatthe highest rate that 2,4,5-T is used in this country, mostly in forestry, the amount of dioxin distributed is the equivalent of one grain of sugar spread over a football pitch."—[Official Report, 18 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 594.]I am glad that the Minister is as confident as that, because his advisory committee is not. It said:The Advisory Committee is not however satisfied that a reliable analytical method yet exists for the determination of such very low levels of TCDD in formulated products.Therefore, I do not know how the Minister knows that there is so little. In any event, there is a specific recommendation by the Royal Commission that our authorities should liaise with the American authorities on this issue. The American authorities have for the past several months suspended the use of the chemical.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)
I merely wish to repeat what I told the hon. Member during his Adjournment debate, namely, that our advisory committee liaises constantly and regularly with the Americans on this subject.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
In those circumstances, I find it difficult to understand why the Americans have suspended the use of 2,4,5-T and we have not. No doubt the Minister will want to say more about that when he replies to the debate.
1647 I pass on to chapter IV of the report, which refers to nitrates. These pose a real problem. There is a nitrate content in the water supply which poses a danger to health, particularly that of babies and small children. Also, high nitrate levels in water have a serious effect on rivers. A great deal of nitrogen fertiliser, which is distributed liberally on the land, gets washed away in the rain, goes down the drain and runs into rivers. The effect of nitrogen fetriliser is to make green leaves grow, and the green leaves that are present in rivers are weeds. Therefore, rivers such as the Tweed in my constituency have long stretches that are choked with weed growth caused by nitrates in the water. The presence of nitrates in that river is the result of farmers putting the stuff on their land at enormous expense.
The Royal Commission says that the right way to control this is to find ways of purifying the water. I suspect that to a large extent the problem will cure itself. Nitrogen fertiliser is now so expensive that I expect many farmers will find that it is no longer worth their while to spend all that money growing weeds in rivers.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned straw burning. I have spent a lot of time burning straw, and I recommend it to hon. Members who want to get rid of their pent-up, aggressive and destructive instincts. The sight of what one match can do to a field of straw gives one a glimpse of a sense of power for which many Back Benchers, particularly on this side of the House, crave.
The only problem is that having set one's field of straw on fire one must face the irate housewives in neighbouring areas who have hung their washing out to dry downwind of the fire. That is when the real difficulties begin.
The Royal Commission rightly states that more straw is grown as a by-product of cereals than could usefully be used for bedding cattle, manufacturing and packaging and so on. According to the report, in 1976 2 million tonnes of straw was burnt in the fields. Having been in a field in which straw was burning, I can confirm that it produces a considerable amount of heat. I shall not suggest that farm workers should be given concessionary straw to burn in their grates, rather like the miners' concessionary coal, but I suggest that we have here a useful source 1648 of heat on farms. It could usefully be tied in with cereal farming enterprises, because cereal farmers already have the wherewithal to handle bulky bales. At harvest time, while they are handling bales of straw, they consume a lot of diesel oil to heat the grain dryers. I suggest that it might be worth while for people in the Ministry to devise ways of constructing boilers or burners which would burn straw on the farm. That heat could then be put to the useful purpose of drying the grain, thereby saving a great deal of energy.
The most controversial part of the report is chapter VII, on planning and related matters. It suggests that intensive livestock units should be reclassified as industrial units for planning purposes. The National Farmers Union is protesting about this, which seems a little odd, because for a long time it has tried to tell us that farming is no longer a way of life but an industry. The problem with intensive livestock farming is that it produces more slurry and effluent than can safely be spread on the limited acreage of land of these intensive farms. When it is spread, it stinks to high heaven. It pollutes watercourses, and in some circumstances it can poison the land.
We must keep this problem in proportion. I have a number of intensive livestock units in my constituency and I have never had a single complaint on this matter. The Royal Commission has pointed to ways of improving a potentially difficult situation. Existing planning regulations are, to an extent, invidious. If my neighbour in the next village wishes to put in a dormer window or erect a porch, he must get planning permission. If I, a farmer, wish to put up a 40 ft high building covering 5,000 sq ft, I can do so without asking anyone's permission. I can also do more or less what I like inside it.
In another area of Scotland this practice has led to problems. A farmer taking advantage of the planning loopholes built a shed for his intensive pig enterprise. A year later the building had to be shut down because the structure had not been properly planned and a poisonous effluent was percolating through the concrete floor into a watercourse and poisoning fish. If that building had been subject to planning permission in the first place, that would not have occurred.
1649 I understand that Humberside county council has taken some useful initiatives in this context, and I believe that the Government should heed the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Most responsible farmers have nothing to fear from planning controls. Those of us who are not poisoning water supplies, wrecking the soil chemistry or creating excessive smell nuisances have nothing to fear. Those who do cause such problems will be caught sooner or later. It would be much more straightforward if such enterprises were subject to planning controls.
The Royal Commission has produced an excellent report. Its penultimate recommendation is that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be responsible for controlling pollution in agriculture. I look forward to hearing the Minister.
§ Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)
I declare an interest as a practising farmer. The Royal Commission makes many recommendations about agriculture and there is no doubt that if they were all implemented it would prove extremely expensive. The report recognises that and recommends action on certain problems in the industry. However, some of the recommendations, if implemented, would raise difficulties for agriculture that do not currently exist.
I wish to deal with two specific problems highlighted by the report. The first concerns smell. This is the reason for some of the most serious complaints against agriculture. The smells are associated with the keeping of livestock on an intensive basis, and if the waste handling system is based on the movement of slurry there is no doubt that such movement gives off considerable smell.
The influx of former town dwellers who have been given permission to build houses close to intensive livestock units gives rise to serious complaint because very often such houses have been put up after the establishment of intensive livestock units. It is rare for traditionally managed livestock units to cause offence to the genuine countryman.
The intensive rearing of livestock and the movement of townspeople into the country will continue, and I am sure that the number of complaints will increase. 1650 Environmental health officers appear increasingly willing, according to the NFU, to issue abatement orders in the case of farm smells, and, unhappily, there is no objective test of the offensiveness or nastiness of the smells.
Invariably in these circumstances farmers are treated arbitrarily. Subsequent legal action usually involves the farmer in considerable expense. The farmer is then involved in further expense in attempting to control the smells. Ultimately, some units may have to pack up entirely.
When the problem arises as a result of new housing development on the edge of intensive livestock units, the Commission has recognised that the principle that the polluter should pay should be amended. It has recognised that the local authority should compensate the farmer for any modifications that have to be made as a result of complaints about offensive smells. I welcome that suggestion.
The most serious problem is that even where a farmer has erected a unit that can incorporate adequate equipment for the control of offensive smells, there is no tried and tested method of control that can be recommended. More research should be done on this problem so that we can effectively control the smells which emanate from these livestock units before legislation is introduced.
The second problem concerns the Commission's proposal to introduce the industrial classification to cover intensive livestock units. That will give rise to new problems for farmers. They will face the possibility of paying rates to local authorities and new planning, pollution and, possibly, factories legislation will then apply to that kind of farming.
The Commission's reasoning is that such units are usually separate from the farm and are not affected by the variables of weather and soil. The assumption that some of these units are built away from farms is correct. However, the majority of them are an integral part of the farm.
The products from the wheat and barley side of the business are often used in the intensive livestock unit as pig feed. The manure from the pig enterprise is spread back on the land to provide nutrition to the following year's crops. With 1651 machinery and manpower being switched between the livestock unit and other farm activities, such units are, I believe, an integral part of many farming enterprises.
In relation to the pollution hazard caused by the rearing of large numbers of animals, the Commission says that control should be exercised by the extension of existing arrangements rather than by radical new methods. The implications of the industrial designation are that all intensive livestock units will require planning permission. Despite what has been said, the majority of these units are already operating under such conditions. Therefore, the introduction of a new designation would have little impact.
The introduction of the industrial designation would, however, bring a liability to pay rates to the local authority and intensive livestock farmers would be heavily penalised. Such a measure would obviously have an unfair and distorting influence on a productive and rapidly developing sector of United Kingdom agriculture.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson
I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) concerning the imposition of rates on farms. Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that that would be of enormous benefit to local authorities in rural areas which are at present deprived of substantial revenues from the biggest industry within their boundaries?
§ Mr. Marland
That may well be, but if rates are an extra cost to be met by farmers it inevitably means that production costs will increase. Farmers may, as a result, have to look for higher returns from the market.
Agriculture is already subject to supervision under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The Commission says that it does not wish to add, without very good reason, to the number of official bodies with which farmers have to deal. That is very much in line with the thinking of the Secretary of State for Trade, and I hope that that fact will not go unnoticed by my hon. Friend.
Agriculture has, traditionally, been separated from other industries in receiving Government support and control. That system was instituted initially to ensure the stability of basic food supplies. 1652 Historically, much political unrest has been caused by food shortages. Even today the availability of a steady supply of home-grown food is a vital necessity. The peculiar position of agriculture has existed for many years and the alteration of one component such as planning with its implications for rating can clearly be seen to have far-reaching consequences.
The immunities that agriculture now enjoys are a quid pro quo for the controls that it suffers. To tamper with any one element is to distort the balance that we now enjoy. If the intensive livestock sector were to be treated as industrial, it would in justice require to be freed from the controls that now restrict it. It seems to be appropriate to follow the Commission's suggestion that an extension of the existing system, where necessary, be pursued rather than any radical change.
There is a pollution risk associated with intensive livestock units. Funds require to be devoted to research and development to control smells without delay. Research must be undertaken to find ways in which smells may be controlled. Water pollution takes place from time to time. However, existing agricultural practice is adequate if properly followed. The few instances of significant water pollution indicate the need for careful monitoring and good publicity so that farmers are fully aware of the hazards.
Farmers are deeply concerned with caring for the countryside. We must ensure that we do not put unreasonable demands upon them so that their businesses and the good will that they extend as guardians of the countryside for the rest of the community are in no way impaired.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
I feel that I am somewhat on my own when I say that I have no interest to declare. The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) stated that he is a practical farmer who has been involved in farming for several decades. I was interested when he said that he found the report of value in the sense that it enabled him to realise the extent of the changes in farming techniques over the past decade. He explained that he had taken the changes for granted and that the 1653 report brought them into his consciousness as a practical farmer for perhaps the first time. He felt that that impact may be one of the major benefits of the report.
I join with hon. Members on both sides of the House in saying that the report is valuable and timely. It is the report of a group of distinguished citizens who have added to their already considerable reputation. I only hope that the praise that the Minister has lavished on the report will not be a prelude to his Department wielding the axe on the quango. However, I do not fear Ministers even when they come with praise.
We are debating a subject that is potentially explosive. There is a vast amount of emotion within the environmental lobby. That stems from the original Rachel Carson days and scare stories concerning the consequences of the increasing use of chemicals on the land. On the other hand, we have the traditional wish of the agricultural industry, so eloquently advanced by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland), to be left alone by the Government. The effect of the message is "Keep out of my sunlight."
It is significant that the report has been greeted so warmly. It has been welcomed by both sides of the argument. That is a considerable tribute to its objectivity and the thoroughness with which the subject has been approached. I recognise that from the Minister's viewpoint he cannot win. The report has been brought to the House and debated at an early stage. That should be welcomed, and indeed, it is. On the other side of the coin, the Minister has been unable or unwilling to indicate his preliminary thinking. He has been reluctant to indicate how his Department is reacting to the recommendations that are contained in the report. I wish that the Minister had given a greater indication of the reaction to the report. I accept that he cannot win the argument if it is put in those terms.
A reasonable starting point is that the continued use of pesticides is necessary for our food supplies and for our standard of living. As my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) said, the use of pesticides is necessary for not 1654 only our own standard of living but that of Third world countries. There are substantial developmental implications. We cannot turn the clock back even if some might wish to do so.
There are dangers as modern developments in the impact of farming technology challenge traditional assumptions. It is not sufficient to say, as the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West argued, that traditionally farming has had certain immunities. It is clearly expressed in the report that the nature of farming has changed rapidly as a result of various developments. That forces us to reassess many of our traditional views. That must be so whether it be planning or a series of other topics. There has been rapid change, and that has been especially due to the vastly increased use of agrochemicals and an increasing use of intensive livestock developments.
Farming cannot be left alone, because due consideration must be given to its impact on each one of us, especially on our environment. In many ways a number of the recommendations contained in the report challenge the assumptions that led to the Government's present policies. I say in no partisan spirit that that relates to the role of the Government. Much depends on voluntary regulations, but manifestly they are not sufficient bearing in mind the likelihood of greater intensification. An examination is required of the long-term effects of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides away from commercial pressures. It is clear that the industry has a partisan stance. We require a statutory body to consider the totality of the effect of agrochemicals on our environment.
The Government's reaction to the Porchester inquiry on Exmoor is not a happy precedent for where the line should be drawn between immediate farming pressures and the impact on the longer-term environment. An objective report was prepared by a well-respected figure. It contained recommendations which would have provided a solution to the problem from all environmental points of view. They could not be followed voluntarily, in spite of what the hon. Member for Devon, West said, because of recalcitrant farmers in the area. The result of Government inaction is that the swallowing up of moorland is proceeding apace. That is not a happy precedent 1655 for the Government's reaction to the report. That leads us to reassess overall Government policy, the effect on planning—
§ Mr. Anderson
No. The moorland which was the precise area of study of the Porchester report is being lost. The Government are making planning grants and ploughing up is taking place. In spite of the reasonable recommendations contained in the Porchester report, the Government, by their inaction, are allowing the erosion of moorland to continue.
§ Mr. Anderson
Surely, it is clear that a loss of moorland is continuing. If the Minister can tell me that a stop has been put to the loss of moorland on Exmoor, I shall be delighted to have the figures.
§ Mr. King
Many figures have been bandied around. I fancy that the hon. Gentleman has received some of those figures. They have been clarified, and those that have been bandied around have been proved to be wildly inaccurate. I should not like the hon. Gentleman to make such generalisations unless he is in possession of the information.
§ Mr. Anderson
I certainly recall that the figures I received showed that there was continuing erosion of moorland. If the Minister can provide me with figures to show that the figures given to me were inaccurate, I shall be only too delighted to say that regulation without moorland conservation orders is succeeding. I await the evidence, which I shall look at objectively.
As regards the effect of technological changes on the traditional attitudes towards agriculture, I ask to what extent we can justify planning exemptions where, at a certain stage of development, the agricultural productive process takes on an industrial character. On grounds of principle, I would suggest that such parts of the agriculture industry should be put on a par wih the rest of industry in relation to the impact of various Government 1656 policies. I put that forward as a general proposition.
On the question of finance, there are clear resource implications as a result of the recommendations contained in the report. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) made a point about this. He said that the use of pesticides achieved greater yields and provided cheaper food to the consumer. He went on to say that if we were to impose constraints on our farming community there would be financial implications.
There is a suggestion in the report that greater responsibility should be placed on the staff of the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. This comes at a time when the staff of ADAS is being run down, and, therefore, a reassessment of Government policies is needed here.
At the time I was reading the report, I was also reading a report on industrial dereliction entitled "Dealing with Dereliction". It is a report by the Lower Swansea Valley research project team. The overall impression I gain from that report, which gives me cause for anxiety, is that there was a degree of uncertainty in the scientific community about the long-term effects of these chemicals on the food chain and the ecological system as a whole.
That report was sponsored by Nuffield. The scientists were assessing an area of extreme industrial dereliction and were looking at the toxic effects of metals on the soil and means of revegetating the area. When questioned, they said that they needed to conduct further research into those matters because of the effects on the soil and, hence, the food chain, and, indeed, the direct effects on health in the area. This leads to a considerable amount of fear about the effects of nitrates.
In the report the Commission gives a fairly clean bill of health to the effects of nitrates. Yet we know that one significant feature of these agrochemicals is the speed of application of new techniques. One can think of other areas. In the medical field, for example, the speed of application of drugs such as thalidomide throughout the country without adequate research has led to adverse effects on human beings. Perhaps the call for more research should be given greater consideration by the Government.
1657 The hon. Member for Grantham also mentioned the need to accept the cost implications in the sense that if we saddle our own industry with extra costs it will be less competitive with imports, because competitors may not be saddled with the same costs. That is a valid point and argues for a greater degree of cooperation, not only with the American environmental detection agency as regards exchange of research information but also with our major competitors in the EEC, to ensure that our own domestic industry is not put at a disadvantage.
To many outsiders it appears that the Ministry of Agriculture, more than any other sponsoring Ministry, has traditionally been the mouthpiece of the industry: putting it bluntly, that it has been a pressure group for farmers. To some extent this is confirmed in the report, which charges the Ministry by saying that in the past it has been unduly defensive on pollution matters and protective of farming interests.
If the report does nothing else, I hope it will encourage the Government to force the Ministry of Agriculture to reorient its view on environmental questions. It is clear that the initiative for action should be with the Ministry of Agriculture and not with the Department of the Environment, though that Department must have overall responsibility. The Ministry of Agriculture has the greatest impact because of the daily dealings it has with farmers. The Ministry of Agriculture has the respect of farmers, and this will have consequential effects on the organisation of ADAS and the training of its personnel. A point has already been made about the relatively low take-up of the booklet entitled "Approved Products for Farmers and Growers". The Ministry of Agriculture could do much to improve communication with the farming industry.
Intensive farming can be said to be different in kind from traditional farming. Those who argue that intensive farming should be treated differently from other industrial enterprises should have the onus placed on them as regards planning controls and the application of the normal principles applied to industrial processes—for example, making the polluter pay.
The report has been timely and useful. We accept that our agriculture is a 1658 remarkable success story, much of which depends on the efficient use of chemicals. But even the longer-term interests of the industry and farmers, if not of the financial enterprises which now control so much of our land—the accountants have taken over and land values have become the yardstick rather than agricultural criteria—coincide in many ways with those of the environmentalists who argue for greater monitoring and constant reassessment of the effects of technological changes. There are real hazards. It is an area where experts are often unclear about the end effects of the products that are put on the market.
The Commission has rendered a valuable service. If it has given to those of us who are interested laymen, to farmers and to the policymakers in the Government a new consciousness of the revolution over past decades, it will have rendered a signal service.
§ Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. Unfortunately, I am unable to declare an interest as a farmer, but I was brought up with livestock, running a cattle market. I was brought up with farmers and at times worked on farms. I thought that I knew a little about farming. However, the immense progress over the past few years has left me far behind.
I left Strasbourg at 6 o'clock this morning. I had to get up at about 4 am to catch an aeroplane. I saw the report for the first time a couple of hours ago, and I am afraid that I do not know my way about it. However, it is a fascinating report.
In case I forget, I wish to mention first the conclusion on page 216 about the loss of agricultural land. Quite frankly, the intensification of agricultural practices that might be necessitated by loss of agricultural land to urban development by the year 2000 is not a negligible factor. As a practical man, I believe that the assumption in the report is wrong.
Alice Coleman, who is the foremost agricultural expert in the country and to whom I have listened with great interest on three or four occasions, believes that at least 100,000 acres is being lost to agriculture every year, although some of that might go to forestry. That has been 1659 occurring for 10 years. There is a great loss of agricultural land. That must necessitate increased production from the remaining land. Good land is taken. It is flat, and it is easy to build on green fields. We must face the problem of that major loss in our overcrowded island.
It has been said on several occasions that we cannot depend on nitrogen and other fertilisers. The cost will increase with, for instance, loss of cheap oil. We shall have to rely more on irrigation. We should use irrigation more and more to increase the tonnage per acre on the remaining land. I hope that Ministers will give thought to safeguarding supplies of irrigation water.
I am not in the least opposed to nuclear power. We have to have it. In my constituency a nuclear power station is being considered for the River Ouse. The Anglian water authority believes that over the next 25 years the greatest demand for irrigation water will be in the Fens area. The water needed for a nuclear power station is potable, fresh water which cannot be used again once it has gone through the process. It has to go into tidal waters and out into the Wash. The water required would be sufficent to supply 1 million people a day—more than the total number of inhabitants of the county of Norfolk. It is a misuse of potable and irrigation water.
In the autumn I was engaged in a valuation on a farm. I found there turnips sown on stubble by aerial spray. That is an interesting development. However, there are enormous dangers from high-tension cables. The pilots are brave, capable and intelligent, but they are being limited in their work because of these cables across the Fens.
In my constituency three or four years ago, there was a nasty accident between an RAF pilot—who was the commanding officer of a large aerodrome in Lincolnshire—and a pilot who was crop spraying. It was a one-off accident. Co-operation in an area in which there are many RAF stations must be word perfect.
I recall an exhibition showing how to conceal large buildings in the landscape by colouring. Green is the worst possible colour for fences and the tops of buildings. Usually, it is a hideous bright green, which shows up more obviously than other colours. Gun-metal grey can 1660 be used with great advantage. I hope that there will be planning consultation for large buildings, not merely intensive farming units. In my area we have mainly corn storage buildings, and they also can spoil a beautiful countryside.
I hope that we shall have a great deal more research into the use of straw. The factories that have started up have had problems with haulage costs and the end product is therefore uneconomical. Straw will not be burnt if these factories are viable. I do not like to see straw burnt in the countryside. Clouds of smoke on highways are a hazard. However much care is taken, each year hedges and hedgerow trees are destroyed. Nowadays there are too few men on farms to put out fires once started. If we find other uses for straw, straw burning will die out.
Norfolk is one of the few counties that has increased its population over the past seven or eight years. For health and other reasons, many people have moved to Norfolk from London, Essex and other-built-up areas. I am afraid that everyone expects to be able to walk his dog in the countryside. We are an arable county, and people cannot do so. It is difficult for townsfolk to comprehend that farming is a business. It is an industry and has to be profitable. People cannot wander as they will across farmland in an arable county.
Finally, a form of pollution that I should like to see removed is farming by pension funds—I stress farming, and not land owning. They do not farm at all well in my area. They destroy village life, because of their movable work forces. Big machinery is moved from one farm to another. In short, they do not support village life. They have pushed up prices largely because they want to retain possession in order to sell with vacant possession. It becomes impossible to buy land in competition at £2,000 an acre. The rent on that would be impossible for a young man who was entering into farming. It is a serious matter. There is a dearth of places for young men to farm their own farms.
There are many matters upon which regulations and the introduction of legislation are urged, but, although the report is extremely good, I hope that people will be persuaded rather than that we will find it necessary to introduce more and more regulations, which will need more 1661 and more people and will cost more and more to carry them out. I hope that we shall not be faced with even more Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Acts, from which we have suffered in the past.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)
I enter the debate with great trepidation. First, I am not an expert on agriculture or on pollution. I have been greatly impressed by the contributions from a succession of ex-pig farmers in the House. However, I represent a constituency which is part of one of the finest farming areas in the United Kingdom. I venture to say that Ayrshire potatoes and cattle are as famous as Ayrshire Socialists.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Equally productive, yes.
Farming and mining coexist side by side with only the occasional problem. I should like to highlight one of those problems today. I enter into the argument with trepidation, further, because it is a complex and technical field. When I went through the report I came upon strange words such as eutrophication, methaemoglobinaemia and dribble bar booms—whatever they may be. Therefore, I shall refer to one matter that has been of particular concern to me recently and to my constituents. The matter is dealt with fleetingly in chapter VI, "The effects of pollution on agriculture". There is a section which emphasises the importance of water supply to farms. Recommendation 67 states:Pollution of farm water supplies does not constitute a serious problem although continuing care is needed in a number of areas.I hope that the slight complacency which seems to be contained in the first part of the recommendation is offset by the last part.
Over the past decade, water authorities, with the support of Government legislation and the necessary Government finance to back that up, have done a great deal. In Scotland, a survey in the early part of the decade showed that 8 per cent. of all Scotland's rivers were grossly polluted but that 20 per cent, of those in the industrial central belt of Scotland were polluted. However, by 1662 1975 the pollution in the central belt had been reduced to 5 per cent. There is now a danger of regression and a reversion to the original bad position, first, because of the expenditure limitations of the Government in two areas. I say this as a precautionary note and not in any aggressive way to Conservative Members. I am worried about the effects of capital expenditure cuts on our sewerage system. The system is one of the best in the world, but it has old plant that needs replacing. In order to maintain the system at the present level without any improvement, capital expenditure must be kept to the present level.
I am also worried about the effects of revenue reduction. It will mean that river purification boards will begin to freeze posts in their establishments, vital posts such as inspectors who monitor pollution and enforce our legislation. I know that from my contact with the Clyde river purification board in my constituency. If the posts are not filled, there is a danger that the improving situation will revert to the bad position of the past.
I should like to refer to another danger—the increase in the problem of pollution from a large number of abandoned mine workings. It is particularly true of Scotland, but it applies throughout the United Kingdom. The problem, in the technical jargon, is that of erruginous discharges. Conservative Members will know that that means water that is low in organic matter. It often contains ferric and ferrous salts, sulphates of aluminium, calcium, magnesium and even free sulphuric acid.
Unfortunately, there are a number of bad examples in Ayrshire. The most recent is in my constituency. The River Girvan is one of the worst cases. The Dalquharron colliery at Girvan overflowed last year. The water is now pouring at the rate of thousands of gallons a day into the River Girvan. It is spreading over farmland and polluting fields, which have to be taken out of use. Where it entered the River Girvan it has killed all the fish—fish which were there as a result of careful stocking by the River Girvan Improvement Society, which society consists of representatives of local fishing societies.
The water of the River Girvan deposits an unsightly red ochre along the banks. 1663 When it reached the harbour it successfully killed all the barnacles on the boats and was deposited around the precincts of the harbour. Even more seriously, if that is possible, the water is used by a local factory. if the problem is not dealt with soon, it will put hundreds of jobs in jeopardy. It is an urgent problem. The director of the Clyde River Purification Board said recently to me that the volume of ferric and ferrous salts in the river is 1,300 parts per million. The previous highest level that he had seen was 100 partsper million. Therefore, the river is 13 times more polluted than the most polluted river that he had known of in the past. The director also told me that the aluminium in the river alone was enough to kill all the fish, without the ferric and ferrous salts.
There is a number of possible remedies which I hope that the Government will consider. Mine water can be diverted to the sea or another place where it is less harmful. The mine can be completely sealed off. The acidity can be neutralised, or the acid can be treated to recover the products. The surface water that drains into the mine can be diverted so that it does not enter the mine. I pay tribute to he Scottish Development Agency, which moved quickly and agreed to carry out a study into the possible methods of dealing with the problem. That is yet another instance of the value of the agency.
The implementation of any of the schemes would involve money. It might be expected that the National Coal Board would deal with the problem, but it avers that it is not legally liable. However, I am glad that that will soon be tested, thanks to the Procurator Fiscal, who, with the support of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate, is taking the issue to court. We shall have a test case for future use.
Even if the National Coal Board is responsible, it has limited resources. Those resources—and more—are needed for new investment in coal mines. Money must come from somewhere. It should come from a Government source—whether local, national, or European. The European Community should come up with the money. First, it has issued a directive as regards pollution. Secondly, the Front Bench will know that the Prime Minister has been anxious to reduce our 1664 payments to the EEC by the sum of £1,000 million.
If we were to get money from the Community for that sort of pollution, it would help to reduce the deficit. I know that it will be difficult for the Minister to reply at such short notice. However, can he tell me whether the Government will support the approach that I have made, on behalf of my constituents, to the European Commission for assistance with the scheme? I do not expect an immediate reply, but I hope that the Minister will indicate that he will look into the issue. I hope that I shall receive a reply giving his support.
The problem is growing and it needs to be dealt with. The House felt that stronger legislation was generally needed. In 1974 it enacted the Control of Pollution Act. That Act deals with other aspects of pollution that are covered by the report. Parts of that Act require statutory instruments before they can take effect. This Government and—to be fair—the previous Government did not introduce the necessary statutory instruments. I hope that the present financial restrictions will not be used as an excuse for not implementing all parts of that vital Act. It would be a false economy. After a decade of clear improvement in the pollution of all our rivers, stretches of the Thames and of the Clyde have become clear and pleasant. It would be sad if there were any reversion to the polluton of the past decade or, indeed, to the pollution of the past century. It would be unfortunate for farmers and for the whole population.
§ Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)
During the past decade we have seen a growing concern for the environment. That concern has been expressed in Britain and throughout the Western world. We have seen the growth of significant pressure groups and, in some instances, the creation of political parties that are pledged to fight for improvement.
The debate has reflected the concern that exists throughout the country. To some extent increasing concern for the environment reflects a demand for higher standards. People rightly seek an improved quality of life. They seek an improvement in the environment, whether that relates to the urban environment or—within the context of this debate—to 1665 the rural environment. It also stems from growing industrialisaton and the development of industrial technology.
The growing concern for pollution and the environment does not derive from a desire for higher standards in the countryside. It is simply a consequence of the application of science and technology to agriculture. Severalhon. Members have already said that we must see the application of science and technology to farming as a great success story. We have achieved, particularly in Britain, tremendous advances in the production of food, and that has been of benefit to mankind.
We have a large agriculture industry that involves not only farm workers and farmers but fertiliser manufacturers, chemical manufacturers, machine manufacturers, research workers and all the other elements that make up an agriculture industry. Those workers have a record of which this country can be proud.
With the advance of those techniques, agriculture has intensified. That has created a number of pollution problems. Hon. Members have speculated whether the trend will continue. Perhaps massive intensification in the application of fertilisers and pesticides will inevitably continue. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) was right in saying that in the short term it appears that that will continue. It may well be that we are moving towards a turning point, especially in relation to the sharply increasing costs of energy inputs.
It is interesting to note that there have been a couple of reports comparing the dairy sector in Britain with that of Ireland and, more recently, comparing our dairy sector with that of France. The most recent report, which took a substantial sample of farms in Britain and France, showed that whereas our intensity of production was much greater, and our output per cow was much greater, the profitability of dairy farming was not greater. That stemmed from the heavy use of costly inputs of feed, buildings and capital equipment.
It may be that we are moving towards a position in British agriculture, especially with the sharply rising costs that derive from the finite nature of fossil fuels, at which the rate of intensification will slow down.
1666 Some hon. Members referred to the comment in the report that the loss of agricultural land would have a negligible effect on the rate of intensification. There has been some misunderstanding of that observation. The report is not saying that the rate of loss of agricultural land is unimportant, as was implied by one hon. Member, but not by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins), who quoted the report accurately.
There has been a suggestion that the Royal Commission argued that we should not be concerned about the loss of agricultural land. That was not the argument. It suggested that, when considering all the factors that have been driving towards increased intensification, the loss of agricultural land is not likely to be one of the most important issues. That is undoubtedly a correct conclusion.
The question of the loss of agricultural land is raised often in the House. I agree that we should be concerned about the rate of loss. I am anxious to ensure that everything is done, in terms of planning, to minimise that loss.
When hon. Members raise the issue, I think of many of my constituents who live in cramped housing conditions, in tenements or in relatively modern council blocks, who would love to have a house with a garden. Inevitably, the improvement in living and housing standards that is badly needed, and that I believe will continue to take place in Britain, must mean that individual households occupy more land.
We should consider that as a challenge and not as something that we should fight. We should ensure also that in so far as it is practicable the development should take place on the poorer agricultural land rather than the best agricultural land.
I wish to put a technical question to the Minister, although I understand that he may not be in a position to answer it when he replies. I was intrigued by the observation in the report that whereas in Scotland there is a small proportion of grade 1 and grade 2 land, the proportion of the high-quality agricultural land that had been lost for urban development was staggeringly higher in England. I should be grateful if the Minister would consider that matter. The Royal Commission did not take it any further. It is a matter that ought to be considered, 1667 and some attempt should be made to explain why it is the position in Scotland.
I move on more generally to the problems of agricultural pollution that are highlighted in the report. It is fair to put these problems under two broad headings. There are, first, the problems that arise from the application of manmade substances in agriculture. Secondly, there are the problems that arise from the intensification of crop and livestock husbandry practices. It is the first category—the application of man-made substances, whether they be fertilisers or pesticides—that causes the greatest concern.
It is fair to say that the report was most concerned with pesticides. It must be said—I do not think that anyone has disputed it—that the industry's record and the record of the control bodies—the committees appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture—and our overall arrangements for the control of agricultural chemicals are good. I do not think that anyone would claim—certainly the report does not do so—that these arrangements have served us badly. That is not to say that they cannot be improved.
The Royal Commission recommends a number of improvements, with most of which I agree. I shall not go through them all in detail. That is not necessary, and time does not allow for it. I think it is fair to say that most of the recommendations have found broad acceptance already—for example, by the Agrochemicals Industry Association.
The proposal that we merge the pesticides safety precautions scheme with the agricultural chemicals approval scheme is sensible. It may take time to achieve, but I assume that the Ministry will accept it in due course. The proposition that it be put on a statutory footing—provided that we are not talking about a massive input of new detailed regulations and bureaucracy—is one that I also think commends itself to most people.
The suggestion that we need more information on the level of application of various agricultural chemicals in different parts of the country is acceptable, although it will cost money to collect the data.
Therefore, I think that the general recommendations are not very controversial. However, the Royal Commis- 1668 sion was right to focus attention on the importance of improved training and improved understanding of the way in which to apply these chemicals. My own view is that the suggestion that there should be a commercial pesticides operator's licence and that we should think in terms of creating a skilled group of people who will be trained and recognised as such in this area deserves serious consideration.
I touch on two specific matters that were dealt with at some length in the report. The first is the controversial question of 2,4,5-T, which was raised in this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who also raised it in a very successful Adjournment debate towards the end of last year. I do not think that 2,4,5-T is an easy issue. I found it a difficult issue when I was in government.
As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, we asked the independent committee under Professor Kilpatrick to look at the whole question of 2,4,5-T because of the evidence that had become available and that had led to considerable concern. A full report was produced, and I accepted it. It is fair to say that the present Government continued the investigation. The report said that the committee would look at the new data that had come from Oregon claiming that there was a correlation between the application of the chemical and, in effect, the associated impurity and the proportion of miscarriages. The committee has looked at that data and has concluded, first, that there is not a correlation and, secondly, that if their were a correlation it would not necessarily mean that there were cause and effect.
I am afraid that there has been more evidence and there has been growing concern. I think that the Parliamentary Secretary himself would acknowledge that we are not just talking about groups that have pressed this in a rather sensational way, picking up, for example, the Vietnam situation, which has no parallel with the chemical that is used in this country. Undoubtedly, there has been growing concern and there is some evidence—I am not saying that it is justified, in the sense that the evidence is valid— 1669 that has led trade unionists, and particularly workers who have to deal with these substances, to become very concerned.
I think the fact that the Trades Union Congress has now taken up this matter—I had the privilege of speaking to one of the members of the committee earlier this week—is significant. I do not advocate a ban on the use of 2,4,5-T, but I believe that the concern has reached such a level, particularly in relation to some of the instances that have not been examined, that the Government would be wise to ask the independent advisory committee to look again at the question, and particularly at the evidence that is causing concern in the trade union movement in relation to the potentially harmful effects of the use of this chemical.
Secondly, I come to the question of aerial spraying. I remember, when I was in the Ministry, receiving some correspondence on this that led me to believe that there was quite a bit to be desired in many respects in relation to the right of redress and the difficulties which an injured party had in securing justice in this area. A number of important recommendations in this area are made in the report. I believe they are very sound and practical. I do not think there can be any question but that this is a real problem. The Beekeepers' Association has been concerned about it for a long time. Many people raised this issue, certainly in correspondence, through their Member of Parliament when I was in the Ministry of Agriculture.
The report recommends that there should be an advance warning scheme, that this should be mandatory and, perhaps more crucial, that, where it is impracticable to warn the occupiers of adjacent land because of their numbers, aerial spraying should simply not be used. It recommends the use of a ground marker—that is, an individual who has to be on the ground when the spraying is taking place, who knows what is being sprayed and who is able to inform anyone who inquires what area of ground is being sprayed and what it is being sprayed with.
§ Mr. Hawkins
I wonder whether it really is practicable to give mandatory warning to all the people the report recommends, and how the hon. Gentleman 1670 feels about it. Does he not feel that this would almost prevent aerial spraying from being carried out?
Secondly, does, in fact, "markers on the ground" mean people? I have always thought that it meant flags put out on the ground, which is done in my part of the world.
§ Mr. Strang
I think that the hon. Gentleman will find, if he reads this section of the report, that the term "ground marker" is used to refer to an individual.
I think that the level of concern is justified. It really is quite outrageous that people should be affected in the way they have been in the past—people in the countryside suddenly being subjected to a torrent of the spray. That is quite unacceptable. There are risks involved. No one is suggesting that this practice should be banned, but I think that the controls must be made much more effective. I accept that this will mean that there will be less aerial spraying than would otherwise be the case.
I turn to the other area of man-made substances, to which the Royal Commission devoted a chapter in its report. I refer, of course, to the use of fertilisers, particularly nitrogenous fertilisers. I think it is fair to say that the Commission's findings are encouraging, in that it feels that some of the concerns that have been expressed are not justified. But the most important conclusion in relation to fertilisers—this comes out again and again in the list of recommendations—concerns the need for more information and research. The report uses the words "in vestigate", "study" and "research" all in relation to the use of nitrogen fertilisers, the effect of the leakage of nitrogen into the soil and especially the whole question of the level of nitrates in drinking water.
In passing, it is interesting that the Fertiliser Manufacturers Federation, the National Farmers Union and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are all agreed that the rate of application of fertilisers will decline. In fact, I believe that it will be some time before that happens. It is rather ironic that in the very week of this debate—on 28 January—the Ministry issued advice to growers in which it said thatnitrogen is a key factor in achieving high yields of cereals.1671 It went on to discuss the issue. The whole point of its press release is to advocate increases in the level of nitrogen application to certain crops. Admittedly, in the case of winter wheat it is a fairly small increase, but it is interesting that such a press statement is issued at a time when the Ministry is predicting that we shall use less fertiliser and when there has been a tendency in the debate to talk in those terms. I do not criticise the Ministry for that. On the contrary, it is a reflection of the research and evidence that is available.
The press statement brings out a point that is worth making about some things that the Royal Commission said with regard to the need to apply less agricultural chemicals. The fact is that the farmer makes a commercial judgment. If he is a good farmer, he will apply the chemical or fertiliser up to a level that maximises his net returns. That is an approach which leads to maximum productivity and efficiency.
Another problem area arises out of the intensification of livestock and crop husbandry practices. First, there is the question of straw burning, which was raised by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). I am sorry that I did not hear the speech of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), but I believe that he also touched on this subject. I feel, just as I do about aerial spraying, that this is an issue over which there is legitimate ground for concern.
I was brought up in Perthshire, where there is continuous cereal growing and burning of straw. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian comes from East Lothian, where there is even more continuous cereal growing and burning of straw. But, frankly, the scale of the problem in those areas is as nothing compared with the problem that exists in areas such as Suffolk, East Anglia and perhaps even Lincolnshire.
My impression is that there is a great deal of unrest in those areas among country dwellers. Indeed, a constituent of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) approached me this week because she knew that the matter would be raised in debate. She sent me a useful collection of press cuttings and correspondence outlining the 1672 scale of the concern about this issue, for example, in the county of Suffolk.
It is true that we have the report of the Advisory Council for Agriculture and Horticulture in England and Wales—incidentally, one of the quangos that the Government have abolished. But that report was published back in 1973. We are all agreed that we want to see less straw burnt and more of it used, either as feed for livestock or as a source of energy. Anything that the Government can do to encourage that is to be welcomed. Research and work continue on this subject. Indeed, the hon. Member for Grantham referred to the use of urea and other compounds to make this a better feedstuff for livestock.
However, in many areas the code has not been effective. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West nod his head. There are areas of the country in which there is intensive cereal growing where people are subjected to conditions that are quite intolerable. I hope that the Government will look again at the question of straw burning.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
I should like to clarify one point. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government should look again at the matter. Is he suggesting new controls, or prohibition?
§ Mr. Strang
There are a number of options open. A radical option would be to give local authorities—the regional councils in Scotland and their equivalent in England—powers to ban straw burning. That option would be radical and extreme, and I do not advocate it. However, the code of practice must be looked at again.
The National Farmers Union made a bold and brave attempt, and, undoubtedly, that has led to some improvement. However, there are still a number of farmers who are not following that code of practice sufficiently. I am not suggesting that there is an easy solution or that there should be an outright ban, but the level of concern in many parts of the country is such that it is not sufficient to say that there should be a code of practice, that the matter should be left there, and that we should wash our hands of it.
I turn now to the question of intensive livestock production. Smell and slurry constitute problems. I strongly commend the suggestion that more research work 1673 should be carried out and that greater attention should be paid to the problems of smell and to the disposal of slurry when grant applications are made. I believe that Labour Members are right to accept the recommendation that there should now be some planning control of intensive livestock units. I accept that there has to be a definition. Incidentally, I am not suggesting that they should pay rates. It would not be sensible if one section of agriculture paid rates and another section did not. Parliament has the power to change the legislation in order to preserve the status quo on rates and to require planning permission when this type of development takes place.
I have not had time to deal with all the points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) raised the problems which he faces in his constituency, which come under the general heading of pollution in agriculture. Undoubtedly that is a problem in some areas, and the Government have always accepted it.
The point that comes through in the report time and time again is the need for more research. Much research is being carried out at present. It may be difficult to get an undertaking from the Government that they will spend more on research in this area, but the very minimum that we are entitled to expect is that there will be no cutback on the research which the committee deems to be desirable. I hope that some attempt will be made in the context of Government policy—a policy to which I am opposed, because I believe that the cutbacks in education and research are against the national interest—to respond to the many recommendations calling for more information and more research in these important areas. They are areas of national concern, which will be of greater concern to people in the future. The Government will be doing a great disservice if that is not reflected in expenditure on these facilities.
I support the recommendation that the Ministry of Agriculture must play a more central role in agricultural evolution. We are served with an excellent Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. From reading the report of the debate in the other place, I had the impression that the Minister in his reply was a wee bit un- 1674 easy that the ADAS officers would have to police this matter and that it would affect their relationship with farmers. I can see that point of view, but I believe that they are very often the best people to get to grips with this issue and to ensure that it becomes more central to the application of Government policy in agriculture, in relation to grant aid or in other areas.
The debate has been striking because of the unanimous acceptance that we are dealing with an important subject and with a report which strikes the right balance. We are talking here about the right balance between the cost of pollution to the community and the benefits arising from the application to agriculture of relatively new techniques.
Sir Hans Kornberg and the members of the Commission have done Parliament and the nation a service. We should not lose sight of the fact that these eminent people, who have very busy lives to lead, voluntarily gave up their time in order to serve the nation in this way. They have produced a realistic report. No one could say that it advocates extremist conservation or environmental policies. Almost all the recommendations are practical. Parliament has seen fit, and rightly so, to debate the report within a few months of its publication—first in the other place and then in the House of Commons.
But what really counts is the Government's response to the report. Although we cannot expect all the recommendations to be implemented this year or next, I hope that there will be a positive response. There are areas, such as aerial spraying and straw burning—to mention just two—in regard to which we do not want to go another season with nothing being done.
I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies he will be able to be positive and to give Parliament, the Commission and the nation an indication that the Government intend on this occasion to take effective action. We all know that there are many Royal Commission reports with which we agree but which are never implemented. On this occasion, the nature of the issues is such that we hope that the Government will give priority to the implementation of many of the very valuable recommendations of the report.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)
My right hon. Friend has already paid tribute to the quality of the Royal Commission's report and the valuable work to which it bears witness. I thoroughly endorse that and add my gratitude—and that of my Department—to his for the work of its members and secretariat. The high standard set by the report has been reflected in the debate that we have just heard.
As my right hon. Friend said, the Government are still digesting the conclusions and recommendations contained in the report, so it is particularly timely to take the wisdom of the House on them. Valuable contributions have been made by hon. Members, and these will be of great help to us in arriving at our priorities in relation to the various courses proposed. However, the House will appreciate that, as has been said, we have to take account of the resource implications of the proposals. We cannot do everything at once and we have to decide on the order of priority, having regard to the work which is already in train and possible ways of reorganising our efforts, particularly on research, to take account of changing circumstances and the areas singled out by the Royal Commission for special attention. In this latter connection I am bound to say that in some respects the Royal Commission has not given us full credit for work which is already in progress.
Hon. Members have made a number of important points and I shall seek to deal with as many as time allows, but before that I should like to make some general comments. The first relates to the reception that has been accorded to the report by interested parties, including those who gave evidence. Some people feared that the Royal Commission would be blinded by environmental matters, to the exclusion of proper consideration of the needs and the environmental contribution of agriculture. I am happy to say that these fears were not realised.
Both the National Farmers Union and the British Agrochemicals Association have remarked on the balanced, unbiased and objective approach of the report. It is abundantly clear that the Commission 1676 displayed a proper and wholly welcome sense of realism regarding the basic condition required to enable agriculture—our largest single industry—to continue to be efficient and competitive.
However, I would not go so far as to say that all the Royal Commission's recommendations were greeted with enthusiasm by the industry and its kindred industries. Equally, however, there is certainly no feeling abroad that the very real and legitimate interests of the industry have been disregarded or minimised. Such a feeling would be hard to justify in the light of the impartiality and balance that are the hallmarks of the report.
It is inevitable that one of the major areas of interest and concern to the Royal Commission would be pesticides. This is wholly proper in view of the importance of these to the prosperity of agriculture, in which, of course, I include horticulture, and the consequences of their use both to mankind and to the environment. I am happy, however, that the Royal Commission has paid a richly deserved tribute to our safety record in this respect, which owes much to the pesticides safety precautions scheme and to the work of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides over the last 20 years. presently under the distinguished chairmanship of Professor Kilpatrick. A number of hon. Members have echoed those views.
The pesticides safety precautions scheme is a non-statutory but none the less formal agreement between the Government and the industry, covering all pesticides for use in agriculture and food storage and related areas. Under the scheme, pesticides are cleared for safety to human beings, animals, wildlife and the environment generally before being marketed in the United Kingdom. In addition to the clearance of pesticides under the pesticides safety precautions scheme, there is a voluntary scheme—the agricultural chemicals approvals scheme—designed to help users select products of known performance to deal with particular pest control problems. Products cannot be considered under this scheme unless they have first been cleared through the pesticides safety precautions scheme.
Mr. Anderson: Has the Minister any comment to make on the subsequent 1677 monitoring of these pesticides? I notice that the British Agrochemicals Association was sceptical about the yellow card-type scheme. What proposals, if any, have the Government for monitoring the effects of these chemicals on the land?
§ Mr. Wiggin
Any evidence that is available is immediately fed back by the farmers concerned, through my Department, and also by the manufacturers. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides is prepared, at any time, to look again at a chemical that has come under suspicion. One particular chemical, for example, has been looked at no fewer than eight times. This monitoring process is continual. Vigilance is the watchword. It would seem, happily, that so far the advisory committee has been successful.
It is important to put on record the laborious way in which both the Government and the chemical industry seek to see that the public are not harmed. To minimise the risk of products finding their way on to the market without first being cleared under the pesticides safety precautions scheme, another scheme, the British agrochemicals supply industry scheme, has been introduced. Under this arrangement, agricultural merchants undertake to sell only pesticides cleared through the pesticides safety precautions scheme. Members of the British Agrochemicals Association, the BAA, representing the manufacturers of about 95 per cent. of the active ingredients of pesticides marketed in Britain, have in turn undertaken to supply only to members of BASIS.
The Royal Commission made three broad recommendations about the operation of these schemes. The first of these recommendations, that the pesticides safety precautions scheme should be combined with the agricultural chemicals approvals scheme, is acceptable to us. Indeed, discussion with the agricultural and pesticides industries were in hand on a proposal to amalgamate the safety and efficacy schemes before the Royal Commission recommended this. But there are a number of practical problems to overcome. For example, the agricultural chemicals approval scheme at present covers only crop protection products, and to develop efficacy regimes for those now outside would clearly take some time.
1678 The second of the Royal Commission's recommendations concerning the status of pesticide control schemes will require further consideration. Although the report recommends that a combined scheme should be given statutory recognition, the Royal Commission proposes that the present system should continue undisturbed so long as it continues to operate successfully. Nevertheless, it wishes Ministers to have reserve powers to control pesticides.
The third point concerns the booklet "Approved Products for Farmers and Growers", which has been mentioned several times in the debate. I said previously, and I repeat tonight, that while I understand the wish that this booklet should be distributed free of charge to farmers, I implore hon. Members to have a look at the booklet and ask themselves whether that type of informative leaflet will be of any great use. It used to be free, and I remember having a copy, but I never had the time to look at it. Usually one seeks instructions on chemicals from the information placed on the drum or container, or from the local merchant who will advise one on the best ways of using various chemicals. It would cost perhaps £150,000 a year to distribute the leaflet free, and that may well be a case of throwing good money away without increasing safety. However, we are prepared to consider the views of hon. Members and interested organisations on this matter.
As both the hon. Members for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) mentioned 2,4,5-T, I repeat what I said in the debate last month about America's advisory committee, which said:After extensive review of the data we find no evidence of an immediate or substantial hazard to human health or to the environment associated with the use of 2,4,5-T or Sorbex on rice, rangeland, orchards, sugar cane and the non-crop uses specified in the decision documents.I gave the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian that information last month and the position remains the same. That is the view of the Americans.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh. East mentioned the question of the TUC's interest in this chemical. My right hon. Friend the Minister meets the secretary-general of the National Union of Agricul- 1679 tural Workers, and only the other day he mentioned this matter to him. The Minister said then that if there was new evidence at all that this chemical had proved dangerous to any member of that union or anyone else, the Government would take that evidence to the advisory committee. Sadly, since that meeting there has been no evidence forthcoming from the union except that it is seeking information from abroad and that this will take some time. As it is composed of responsible people, I hope that the TUC's committee on this matter will be sensible and play fair, because we are perfectly prepared to accept evidence if there is any. However, it is no good after eight or nine looks at this to tell the advisory committee to look at it again when there is no evidence to work on. The worldwide opinion of those in the know is that we are worrying unnecessarily. The evidence that has come forward has all been examined and found wanting.
The question of DDT was raised. We all accept that this has very serious effects. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides has been kept aware of the possible problems of advising a continued and very limited use of DDT products. Its members from the Nature Conservancy Council and the National Environmental Research Council have kept the committee well informed on these matters. Present policy is to phase out DDT as soon as adequate alternatives become available. An EEC directive prohibiting the use of certain organic chlorine insecticides has the Government's full support. Monitoring activities and the results of bird population studies and studies of pesticide residues occurring in birds and/or their eggs are regularly brought to the attention of the advisory committee. I assure hon. Members that this matter will continue to receive close attention.
I have already mentioned that the Royal Commission did not give full credit for work already in progress. For example, it made a number of recommendations on pesticide research. Many hon. Members have mentioned this. The Royal Commission called for more work on strategies to delay the onset of resistance, research on the monitoring of pest and disease incidence, new techniques of pesticide application and a strong commitment to further research into integrated pest control. We shall review the commitment of Government resources to 1680 this type of work. As an indication of our present concern, entomologists and plant pathologists in my Department are spending 30 per cent. or 40 per cent. of their time on these areas of work, including a substantial amount of time on the development of integrated pest management—a concept which goes further than integrated pest control in the consideration of safeguards for the environment.
Similarly, we are fully seized of the dangers of misuse and are considering what can be done to minimise it. It is not easy to legislate against misuse. The existing laws in this area are difficult to enforce and this will be true also of any bans which one might be tempted to impose on products which tended to be misused.
There is also the problem that we would, in effect, be throwing the baby out with the bath water, since legitimate uses as well as misuses would be ruled out by a ban. I am convinced that the best answer to misuse and overuse of all kinds is the development of a more professional attitude to the use of pesticides as recommended by the Royal Commission.
The proper training of those involved in the storage, sale and use of pesticides is the key, and the British agrochemical supply industry scheme is a major contributor in this area.
Hon. Members have mentioned the problem of nitrates and I understand—though I cannot go into the matter at length—that it is just as much the presence of phosphates as of nitrates that causes the harmful by-product in the water. Whether or not this problem would be affected by any substantial change in fertiliser usage is not clear, but of course we shall look at this matter. Nitrates are not as widely to blame as they are sometimes held to be.
Farm wastes were the third major area examined by the Royal Commission in relation to the effects of agriculture on the environment. As my right hon. Friend has said, a number of recommendations were made. These were related to intensive livestock units and to what one may call good housekeeping practices in the disposal of waste in the form of excreta and of pesticides wastes.
This is a question which runs naturally into the planning issues considered by the Royal Commission, which made a very 1681 helpful analysis of the problems of pollution arising from the operation of intensive livestock units. We shall need to consider very carefully the recommendation that these problems might be eased by bringing all intensive units under full planning control and that there should be controls over their operation.
I do not want to get involved in arguments for and against at this stage. I have listened with care to the views put forward, and it is only right that I should draw the attention of the House to the problems that might be raised.
One major problem is that of definition. I have previously referred to the so-called intensive units advisedly, since it is far easier to use such a term than to define it. Definitions used for other purposes would extend control unnecessarily. For example, the farm animals welfare code refers to a unitdepending on the operation of automatic feeding equipment.Such a unit would be neither large nor intensive.
It would be foolish to think that the problems have been caused by the siting of some livestock units. It is a fact that a number of large units have been developed subject to full planning permission. Suggestions have been made to the effect that there are other more suitable means than the planning legislation for dealing with pollution problems caused by such units. Perhaps it could be some form of anti-pollution legislation tailored for the job. We shall explore this, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) mentioned disease risks from intensive units. It is true there are some risks, but my departmental advice is that following storage, spreading and a subsequent interval before allowing livestock on to the land the risks are minimal. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) mentioned bio-fermentation—
§ Mr. Hawkins
I said that I knew that a large outbreak of fowl pest occurred from some of the buildings. I do not think that the risk is minimal, and I hope that this point is kept under review.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I think that my hon. Friend well understands the circumstances in which bacteria will survive. What I have said is that if the material is dried 1682 and the sun gets at it, it will be sterilised. Quite clearly, if one moves waste from a diseased animal house there is a risk that it will be passed on. I merely made the point that there are long-standing agricultural processes and usages that minimise that risk, but it exists.
Bio-fermentation was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West. My Department's ADAS has been active in developing the technique. There are still some reservations about the possible disease risks that are associated with feeding the products to livestock.
The Commission rightly turned its attention to agriculture odours. It is an emotive subject, and that is not surprising. I have great sympathy with those who live close to intensive livestock units. My sympathy does not end there. There is a large mushroom farm in my constituency which at certain times of the year causes considerable troubles because of the smell that it produces.
The Commission observed that special difficulties are caused when existing livestock units are overtaken by urban development. It is only in a minority of instances that problems arise. The majority of so-called intensive units are run without causing serious inconvenience to neighbours.
The Commission drew attention to the limited use of treatment systems for farm animal waste to control odour. Cost is an important limiting factor. However, research continues at various establishments to seek a solution to the problem.
Aerial spraying has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes), and my hon. Friends the Members for Holland with Boston (Mr Body) and for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). The Royal Commission made a number of recommendations designed to improve the precautions taken during aerial spraying.
The pilots require substantial experience and professionalism of a degree that is as great as that which applies to any in the aviation world. They are licensed and strictly supervised by the Civil Aviation Authority. The Air Registration Board seeks to ensure that the aircraft comply with all the regulations. They are extremely stringently bound by licensing and regulations. We shall take 1683 up with the CAA the Royal Commission's recommendations.
There is a requirement to give warnings to occupiers of adjacent property as far as that is practicable. The problem with aerial spraying is that the weather changes. When there is a good spell, the contractors wish to move on and to work quickly. There may be a change in the programme or in the requirements. It is very much an instant matter.
When an aeroplane flies low and is seen to be producing a chemical, it is understandable that great fears are aroused in the minds of those who see it and experience it. Anyone who has stood underneath an aircraft that is crop spraying will know what I mean.
Any complaints that are made about aerial spraying are immediately followed up by the CAA. It is of interest that, on average, only one complaint per licensed aircraft has been made in recent years. If there are any breaches of the regulations, warnings to and prosecutions of the pilots or companies follow. I should be reluctant to see the use of such an extremely efficient method of distributing chemicals and fertilisers precluded because of the odd mistake. It is an issue that we shall consider with the CAA.
Straw burning has been referred to by a number of hon. Members. I know that it arouses great concern. Anyone who has witnessed a field of dry straw burning in any sort of wind will realise that it is a fairly awe-inspiring sight. It is noisy and it is hot. There is a great deal of smoke. Everybody says "My goodness, what a waste". However, it is a highly beneficial process for the farmer. Lord Stanley of Alderley said in another place that he reckoned that straw burning was worth as much as £35 an acre to him. He will have assessed the value of the burning operation and set that against the money that he could obtain for his straw. He is a farmer.
No one likes waste, but in straw burning there is an economic factor. If the straw is worth more than the benefit obtained from burning, farmers will sell the straw. I hate the thought of licensing or prohibiting straw burning. Unlike some hon. Members, I observed during the summer of 1979 an almost universal compliance with the code of the National Farmers Union. If the hon. Member for 1684 Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has substantive figures that demonstrate that many farmers have not complied with the code, the NFU will be interested, as will my Department.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross
If the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back to 1976, he will remember the problems that we had. The public were extremely worried. Had it not been for the quick action of the fire brigade, we should have lost an important area of the Isle of Wight. That is why local authorities are concerned, and the hon. Gentleman should not brush that concern aside.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I understand that the process can be dangerous, and that is why the code exists. I should be interested to know whether in that case the code had been complied with. I understand the danger. I have had accidents with straw burning on my farm. The code is stringent and time consuming to operate, and there is, therefore, a temptation to avoid it. If there were legislation, I wonder whether the farmer would be any more inclined to do what he had to do. To prohibit burning of material in the countryside would be an enormous and difficult step. However, we have listened with care to what the hon. Gentleman said, and we shall consider the matter.
A number of hon. Members raised the question of the quality of river water. Consents are being reviewed in the light of the discharges made. There is no question, however, of lowering the standards of river waters.
Part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 strengthens the powers to control discharges to sea and land. However, expenditure considerations mean that we cannot move as quickly as we should like towards full implementation of the provisions of the Act.
The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) mentioned departmental responsibility, and that is perhaps important in relation to the Government's attitude. There is an inherent conflict between the interests of environmentalists and farmers. It is the Government's duty, in our Department, and that of my right hon. Friend to see that the conflict is minimised, in the interests of the environment and of agricultural production. 1685 However, I do not accept the Royal Commission's assumption that my Department has been unduly defensive. We have considered, and will further consider, departmental responsibility in those areas.
Both my right hon. Friends seek to try to minimise conflicts of interest between agriculture and the environment and constantly meet to discuss the areas in which there might be conflict. We accept that there is room for general oversight of environmental matters by the Department of the Environment and for consideration of an increased role for my Department in relation to specific problems.
It is accepted in principle that ADAS should have a greater involvement in the pollution aspects of agricultural practices. In considering that, we must have regard not only to the functions and responsibilities of the various pollution control authorities but to the special relationship between the agricultural advisory services and the farming community.
The right hon. Member for Widnes said that the man from Marsham Street was less likely to be welcome than the man from MAFF. That is so. I do not wish to argue with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services, but in a strange way my Department is close to its customers. The farming community trusts the professional views that my officers hold. They have an understanding of the interests of agriculture as well as of the greater interests of the whole nation in environmental matters. That is a way of dealing with the problem.
The question of land on the urban fringes is too great for me to deal with tonight. It is not wholly relevant to the report. Dr. Coleman has discussed these problems with me, and they are also a matter for my right hon. Friend in the 1686 Department of the Environment. We are conscious of the difficulties.
The trend to "horsyculture", as it has been called, and the "urban fringe", as Alice Coleman calls it, are serious problems which have rightly been drawn to the attention of planning authorities as well as the Ministry of Agriculture.
Despite the changes that have taken place in British agriculture in recent years, the fact remains that the sector of the population most likely to be concerned about the continued balance and well-being of the environment is the farmer himself. To him the countryside is not just a place where he spends his all-too-rare moments of leisure time it is where helives and on which his livelihood depends. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to attempt to deny that there are some areas where there are conflicts between agricultural and environmental interests. This debate and the report have brought some of them out. It is a question that is well to the forefront of the Government's preoccupations, as I hope I have demonstrated.
It is too early to give the Government's response to the report, but the report and the debate are very welcome, providing, as they do, a new foundation for the development of policies on agriculture and pollution. We have done a good deal to square the circle of reconciling the needs of modern life with the preservation of the quality of that life. In these terms, Her Majesty's Government welcome the seventh report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution and urge the House to take note of it.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ That this House takes note of the Seventh Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution relating to Agriculture and Pollution. (Cmnd. 7644.)