§ 5.14 p.m.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whiny)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend Margaret Beckett to a Private Notice Question in another place on the report of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food. The Statement is as follows:
"The independent Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, chaired by Sir Don Curry, delivered its report to the Government this morning. Copies of the report have been placed in the House Libraries and in the Vote Office.
"The commission was set up in August of last year in fulfilment of a manifesto commitment. I would like to offer the Government's sincere thanks to Sir 116 Don and each of the commission members for the very hard work they have put in over a short but effective period of consultation. Some 1,000 organisations and individuals have offered their views. To undertake an exercise of this type in live months is indeed both a tall order and a considerable achievement.
"I very much welcome the report and the very valuable ideas it contains. The commission has delivered what we asked of it: a clear vision of a sustainable, competitive and diverse farming and food sector, playing a dynamic role in the rural economy and delivering effectively and efficiently the environmental outputs that society demands. We wholeheartedly support its broad analysis a nd conclusions.
"The key themes identified in the report seem to be the right ones. The year 2001 was a desperately difficult year for farming and rural communities. Foot and mouth was a catastrophe, but as the commission's report makes clear, farming's problems are wider and of longer standing. To make farming viable again, it is vital that we improve the links between farmers, their markets and their consumers, and reinforce the relationship between farming, the countryside and the environment.
"I am sure the House will understand that having just received this report I am not in a position to give a view on each of the very many specific and detailed recommendations it contains. I shall pick out key proposals.
"Reform of the CAP is, of course, our longstanding strategic aim. I am very pleased to see that the report endorses the UK Government's strategic objectives in this area.
"As the report rightly points out, we do already have some mechanisms available in the CAP which allow us to transfer CAP moneys out of production subsidies and into broader rural land management and environmental directions. Modulation is one such means, and the report makes ambitious recommendations to step up drastically the role of modulation. The Government accept that we should explore the use of such mechanisms and endorse the need to consider such shifts very serious.
"The commission notes the vital role of farming in contributing to a healthy and attractive environment. Under the England Rural Development Programme we have many schemes in place to enhance and protect the environment and the countryside. The commission's view is that we need to go further. Its proposals for a broad and shallow agri-environment scheme are timely, as we are just embarking on a major review of such schemes.
"The report makes clear that if we are to have a profitable industry, capable of thriving without production subsidy, there is a need for industry to take action to improve its own performance—for example, by cutting costs, by adding value, and by diversification. There is a role for government as a partner in, and a facilitator of, that process. But the 117 commission says that the impetus must come from the industry itself, working within the food chain as a whole. That is why I am pleased to see, therefore, that the report proposes the creation of a food chain centre to bring together all parts of the supply chain with the aim of monitoring and improving competitiveness.
"In other areas covered by the report, such as GMs, scrapie eradication, sheep national envelopes and animal disease insurance, the commission appears to have made recommendations which very much work with the grain of what we have been trying to achieve.
"The report is clear that its recommendations are not just for government, or, within government, just for my department. But we stand ready to work with the food and farming industries as they address the challenges that they face because we need farming to succeed.
"Mr Speaker, we all need time to consider how best to proceed and to assess the report's financial and other implications. But it is our firm intention that the kind of ideas put forward by the commission will make a substantial contribution towards a new strategy for sustainable, diverse, modern and adaptable farming, integrated with the rest of the food chain and taking into account the needs of the environment and rural economy.
"We intend to launch such a strategy in the summer, when the detailed policy measures have been developed and drawn up. We will engage stakeholders across the country in that process, beginning in March, when I hope to meet leaders of the farming and food industries and leaders of environmental, consumer and rural interests to discuss how best we should drive forward the agenda set out by the commission. I shall announce further details in due course".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the Statement to the House this afternoon. I am slightly mystified because he has missed out some sections that were in my report. I hope that he will forgive me if I touch on a couple of those sections. Perhaps I may share them with the House. I also remind the House of my family's farming interests.
On the report hang the hopes of all within the farming community and of those allied businesses that supply them. As the Minister said, the past five years have been dire. Farm incomes have plummeted and on top of financial disaster came swine fever and the foot and mouth outbreak. A healthy farming industry is crucial to the well-being of our people and of our countryside. Tourism was directly affected by its demise.
I add my congratulations to Sir Don Curry and to his commission members for having produced a substantial report that comes forward with 31 pages of recommendations. I accept the Minister's comment 118 that it is not possible for any of us to absorb it in such a short time. That is the background against which we look at the report today. I shall touch on a few of the recommendations. Running through many of them is the central tenet that subsidies and price supports must go—and the sooner the better, in the view of the commission.
Sir Donald and his colleagues are clear that CAP has to be reformed, with a move to the second pillar, and that environmental schemes are to be encouraged, but they must be standardised and their administration simplified. I am sure that the Minister is aware that some farmers are very concerned about the modulation section in the report. They are anxious for it to be phased in and for time to be given to adapt. Does the Minister agree that farmers must collaborate and co-operate in the future? Is he in a position—as he touched on briefly in his Statement—to say how the Government intend to support that?
Will DEFRA accept the recommendation to lead a study into disease insurance, which, after BSE and FMD, is both essential and likely to be impossible for individual farmers to obtain? On the subject of disease—that was the part that the Minister, by mistake I am sure, missed out—will he explain why there are so few searches for illegally imported foods? Will the Government strengthen the controls and checks as suggested in the report? The Statement said:We have already stepped up checks".Will the Minister explain how, where and what?
How do the Government view the report's recommendations on regulation, particularly the suggested move to a whole-farm approach? There is concern that the proposals could lead to yet more regulatory burdens. Will the Government undertake a cost analysis before new regulatory burdens are brought in for the industry? Will the Government ensure that farmers and food producers in this country do not have to comply by themselves when producers abroad do not comply with the same regulatory burdens?
The report recommends that DEFRA should devise and implement a comprehensive animal health strategy. When that is taken in conjunction with DEFRA's letter of consultation on animal welfare, does the Minister intend to pursue the Animal Health Bill at this time? I have noticed the difference between the two.
In the light of the profitability of the horticulture sector, will the Government support the report's recommendation to increase the quota for the seasonal agricultural workers scheme to 50,000 people? Are the Government minded to allow the Horticultural Development Council to engage in promotional activities?
Does the Minister agree that the red tractor scheme should be developed to be the common standard for all food produced in England? Perhaps he might comment on the fact that the report refers a lot to England and does not tend to touch on the devolved countries. Does he further agree that the red tractor scheme could also cover environmental standards and 119 that the Government should fund the establishment of such a brand? Will the Government also agree to the recommended extra £5 million per annum for three years for processing and marketing grants? Does the Minister further agree that the rural enterprise budget should be substantially increased at the mid-term review? The big crux question is whether the Treasury will make the necessary funds available so that many of the report's suggestions and recommendations will be possible.
From the foregoing, it will be obvious that the report is wide-ranging. On this side of the House we welcome the long-term strategy on renewables. We also welcome the section on labelling. In particular, we support the suggestion for compulsory country of origin labeffing. We welcome the accent on local farm produce. We also welcome the suggestion on educating children so that they have a better knowledge of food and of good nutrition. Does the Minister support such ideas, pointing to a profitable future for an industry that is vital to our country's survival?
I remind the Minister of the recommendation on page 109, which says:The key objective for public policy"—that is government policy, not farmers' policy—should be to reconnect our farming and food industry: to reconnect farming with its markets and the rest of the food chain"—and so on. Over the page there is an equally important point:The first question we set ourselves is how we can make farming and food production profitable again, by reconnecting it with the rest of the food chain and with consumersWe welcome many aspects of the report, but I have raised some strong questions. Perhaps we shall have a chance to debate them further tomorrow.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the report. I congratulate Sir Don Curry, who had to bring together an enormous quantity of evidence and submissions in a very short time and has produced a coherent report as a result. That is very welcome.
From a quick read, the report makes many excellent points. As the Minister said at the end of his Statement, it should lead to a strategy. We hope that it will not be simply another strategy that sits on the shelf and gathers dust. I should have preferred it if he had been able to come up with a government response to the report recommendation by recommendation, saying what: the Government intend to do. There are too many government strategies that are not being implemented at the moment. We do not want this area of work to be another.
Many of the recommendations are on issues that the Liberal Democrats have been advocating for some time. I shall highlight four. The section on young entrants into farming was particularly strong. With out young entrants there will be no future for farming. We were very pleased to read that section. We were also 120 pleased to read the many practical suggestions on the environmental side. I noticed that the Minister left out the words,That position I fully supportfrom the Statement. I hope that that was simply an oversight and not because he does not support that part of the report.
We also welcome the sections on labelling, although the recommendations could be further developed. I look forward to the stakeholder discussions on how that might take place. We also felt that the section on reconnecting the food chain was very strong. The report referred to processing units that could be developed by collaborative ventures and the expectation that RDAs should help in that. Farmers have lacked the ability to process what they grow.
I have some concerns about whether the commission has managed to define the balance between sustainability and competitiveness. We need to grapple further with that issue. Although the report comes up with many good suggestions on how the industry can be more sustainable, it still accepts the validity of the argument for growing food cheap and shipping it far. The report challenges that notion a little when it addresses the issue of animal transport, but it does not present a long-term view. Although it describes a 30-year plan for food and nutrition, it does not say whether, in the next 30 years, it will be sustainable to ship food over long distances, thereby consuming fuel oil. We should address that issue further.
I hope that the Government will give us a debate in their own time so that we can discuss in detail the 100 recommendations. As the Minister said again in his statement, the issues go beyond DEFRA itself. I therefore particularly welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is in the Chamber. Tomorrow, in our Liberal Democrat-initiated debate, I look forward to hearing his response to the report.
The need to change farming habits and the subsidy system are two major challenges. Moreover, as the report says, it will take a very long time to change the eating habits of a lifetime. Changing those habits may take even longer as they are not affected by a subsidy system.
We certainly accept that CAP reform is badly needed, and we have long called for it. However, the United Kingdom Government themselves could do much to address the issue before full reform is achieved. In view of all the report's good suggestions, is the Minister content with the speed with which the shift is being made from the first to the second pillar? Under the CAP rules, the United Kingdom could spend up to 20 per cent of subsidy on the second pillar; historically, we have spent far less. I hope that the Government will consider moving much closer towards that level. The report's suggestions, without the money to back them, will remain as just good ideas. We welcome the report, but we also look forward to the Government acting on it.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I very much welcome the positive response from both Front Benches to the report's general tenor and main outline. As for the Statement that I made, as opposed to that which both noble Baronesses have in their hands, I read out the Statement as it was delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend. The remaining text represents the Government's position on the report, and it would have resulted in a rather longer Statement.
I should clarify one or two matters and perhaps thereby clarify the report's aegis. It is a report on farming and food in England. Although development and pursuit of policy in Europe also is a matter for the UK Government, and is touched on in the report, we shall be consulting very closely on it with the devolved administrations as they may have marginally different views. We have to take that into account. The Government also have to consider both the process and all the detailed recommendations. Additionally, we have to consider the financial implications and the timing. Later this year, we have to engage in very substantial and difficult negotiations on the mid-term review of the CAP and on the longer-term changes to the CAP. The report refers to those changes, and it broadly concurs with the UK Government's objectives in the negotiations.
One of the reasons that we gave the commission a relatively tight timetable was to ensure that we had the clarity of its recommendations, and were able to assist it, in time for the coming spending round, which will end this summer. During that round, we wanted to be able to take into account the full conclusions on the consequent financial commitment. We are therefore saying that the final strategy for English food and farming will be produced in the summer, when we have the final results on the spending side.
Like others, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, picked up on the point that the key objectives and recommendations particularly for farming can perhaps be summarised in terms of "reconnection"—reconnection with markets and consumers; reconnection with the food chain in a positive, constructive and profitable way; reconnection with the countryside and the environment; and reconnection with the rural economy as a whole. The interconnection between farming and food was made very evident during the foot and mouth epidemic.
All those factors are part of the report and are interrelated. However, I do not think that there is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller suggested, a conflict between sustainability—which is the keynote of the report—and profitability. Profitability is part of sustainability. We shall not succeed as a food and farming industry unless profits can be made in the industry and unless the industry has a prosperous future. Environmental sustainability—which was a very important part of the report—economic sustainability and social sustainability, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford referred, are all objectives that have to be taken into account.
122 The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned various points of clarification. Perhaps the key issue—and the one that has proved most controversial outside this House, in contrast to the general welcome for the report—is modulation. Modulation is the mechanism that already exists in the CAP to transfer from the first to the second pillar. I appreciate that farming organisations have some concern about it and that traditional methods of subsidising farming will be reduced to the extent that we adopt the modulation proposals.
The Government have some difficulty with the modulation proposition in that, under the rules, the money can be spent on only a relatively small range of expenditure. If we are to go for the report's recommendation of 10 per cent and beyond, it will be necessary to discuss with the European Union and our colleagues the need for greater flexibility in modulation. Therefore, in principle, we support the modulation system and the type of targets outlined in the report. However, we shall need greater flexibility in order to use it effectively.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, also asked how the Government would support farmers during that process. Many of the report's detailed recommendations on advice, support, marketing and processing require the Government's consideration. Broadly speaking, we accept the general direction of those recommendations.
The noble Baroness also asked about disease insurance, which is a very important and complex issue. Today and later this week, the department is discussing the issue with insurance and farming representatives.
The noble Baroness asked about imports. There is clear concern about the effectiveness of import controls. I have just three things to say on the disease implications of illegal imports, and I have said them to the House before. First, I recognise that, as the report says, more needs to be done. We are addressing the issue in both European regulations and our own enforcement.
Secondly, quite a lot has been done to increase the number of checks of commercial goods in containers and of checks at airports. However, I think that more needs to be done to inform the travelling public and on checks and enforcement. There may also have to be greater co-ordination between the various agencies. I hope to make some immediate proposals on that issue.
Thirdly, in containing the spread of disease, import controls and checks are no substitute for effective biosecurity and effective restrictions and movement controls. Even countries that have very tight import checks and controls still have occasional incursions of disease. The point is that, regrettably, those countries are able to stop the spread more effectively than we were able to do in the past months.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, also raised the issue of regulation. Broadly speaking, the Government are very much in favour of the commission's recommendations on moving towards whole-farm 123 forms of certification and a much broader basis for regulation, rather than a multiple and cumulative range of regulatory authorities that farmers have to deal with. It is a more holistic approach. Although it is difficult to get there from here, we agree with the objective and shall pursue it.
The noble Baroness also asked about the Animal Health Bill. I intend, for immediate purposes, to pursue the Bill in this House because we need those powers should the disease regrettably recur for one reason or another in the coming months. Although there is the longer-term issue of animal health and animal diseases, and the parallel issue of the broader rationalisation of animal welfare procedures, the Animal Health Bill is needed now—as the noble Baroness will have heard me say on Second Reacting.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Miller, supported some aspects of the commission's work. Certainly the recommendations on new entrants are important and need to be developed. I fully support the general direction of recommendations on the environmental side, despite the fact that I did not read them out. Labelling is an important issue. The issue of support for the industry in terms of processing grants and so forth is also important. As regards seasonal agricultural workers, the figure of 50,000 is perhaps one we would have to consider. We have already had one increase in the seasonal agricultural workers quota and we are considering a further one. That will, of course, also be the subject of an announcement by the Home Office in relation to managed migration for non-professional jobs more generally which will be made relatively soon.
There is much that is positive in the report and there is much that we need to continue to debate. My noble friend Lord Hunt will deal with some of the issues in the broad ranging debate to be initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, tomorrow. No doubt we shall return to these issues at a later stage when we have engaged with the stakeholders and during the process of coming up with our strategy for what I hope is a sustainable, prosperous, environmentally sensitive, safe and nutritionally effective policy for food and farming in general. This is a very, very good start. I again thank the commission and I thank the noble Baronesses for their broad support.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, will my noble friend, whose general approach I applaud, say something about the report's remarks on closer liaison between the farming industry and consumers and the role that the Government will play in that regard? Will he say something about the co-operation that is now envisaged with regard to the devolved areas, particularly in relation to subsidies and the environment? Finally, what role does he envisage—perhaps it is too early to comment on this—should be played by the Government as regards environmental payments?
My Lords, many recommendations in the report indicate ways in which the Government can 124 help in bringing farmers in closer touch with consumers. One of the problems with the present subsidy process is that it distorts price signals and market signals to which farmers relate. We believe that a more direct and a more business-like approach, if you like, to farming and its output and also to relationships within the food chain is important. Suspicions and distortions result from the food chain being so extended and remote. particularl in certain sectors. The Government will help the industry to address those problems through the proposed food chain centre. We need to co-operate not only with the industry but also with the devolved administrations in our response to the report.
As regards environmental payments, clearly one of the considerations for the Government to develop in negotiation with the European Union is how exactly we can shift from pillar one to pillar two and the nature of the environmental support that we intend to give. The commission suggests that we should have a broad and shallow entrance level for agriculture to meet basic and important environmental standards. That seems to us sensible. Many current agri-environment schemes need rationalising both as regards their scope and their bureaucracy. It is a complicated matter bat I believe that the commission has it broadly right.
§ Lord Boardman
My Lords, I am a farmer in partnership with my elder son who is the working partner. I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement but I am concerned about it. Like most noble Lords, I read it quickly and 1. am riot able to discuss points that no doubt will arise on food, retail supermarkets and the like.
However, as regards farming, I found it unhelpful. The prospects for farming, which is going through a bad time, are conditional upon making fresh terms as regards the CAP. I believe that the noble Lord referred to the year 2002 in that regard, but it is clear in the commission's report that no progress at all will be made before 2005 or 2006. Without serious alterations to the CAP, the scheme to strip farmers of more subsidies—I refer to the modulation payment and moving from one pillar to another—will only worsen their position. I find that extremely depressing.
The Minister also referred to various provisions for better business training. I do not think that farmers want to be faced with further bureaucracy. During the foot and mouth crisis they suffered immensely from the amount of form filling that was required. The form filling that was required in order to move stock about was quite terrifying. The document referred to trade associations being formed or merged. The NFU used to be feared by Labour governments. Indeed, it is still powerful. I hope that it will exercise its power well in proposing amendments to the commission's proposals.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord made those comments with regard to the NFU. I regret that the NFU has in part rejected a major part of the report. I believe that constructive discussions with the NFU and further consideration will persuade 125 it that, at least in outline, there is much in the report that will help its members and the future of farming. We shall listen to it but it is noticeable that the NFU is the only outside organisation which has condemned a significant part of the report. I accept that it will have problems as regards modulation. I have said that the Government will also have some problems with modulation in its present form. We need to find a way of achieving what the report's objective as regards modulation attempts to achieve. I hope that we can do so in conjunction not only with the NFU but also with the other elements within the food chain.
The commission's proposals seek to put more money into farming, land management and the rural economy than is the case at the moment. I say that cautiously as that has to be considered in terms of the spending review and we must conduct our own internal negotiations. However, on the basis of the report, no farmer should fear that less money will be allocated to the economy with which they are concerned. However, the nature of it will change. Instead of having distorting production subsidies, the subsidies will increasingly be directed to man management and the delivery of environmental objectives. Over and above that, the ultimate objective is that farmers should operate as any other business. I believe that that is a desirable outcome for most farmers.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I again declare my financial interest as an organic farmer with a dairy herd. Given our climate and our efficiency at producing grass, I find it surprising that the Statement says nothing whatever about self-sufficiency in milk and milk products and the need to balance imports and exports. I also find it strange that there is not one single solitary word in the Statement about organic farming, although it is mentioned in the report's recommendations. Are the Government aware—they must surely be—that at the present time 70 per cent of the growing consumption of organic food is imported? Would greater emphasis on that sector not help to reduce cereal surpluses, to increase biodiversity and to provide the sustainability on which everyone is so keen at the moment?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the noble Lord will find that a substantial part of the report deals with organic farming, additional support for organic farming and other measures to increase environmentally sensitive farming. Therefore, organic farming is picked out as an area which deserves further support. As regards targets for self-sufficiency, Sir Don Curry made it clear that that was not an appropriate matter for the commission to consider. We are dealing with a global, competitive environment. However, we obviously believe that the steps that the report recommends the Government to take would lead to a high proportion of our food being produced by British—or, in this context, English—sources. It is therefore not sensible to have a Stalinist plan stating that 79.3 per cent of our production should be for our own consumption. The plan gives to the farming sector and the food chain as 126 a whole the ability to provide good, safe, nutritious food for British consumers. Its ability to meet that is, in a sense, up to it and not a matter for government.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I have to declare a very peripheral interest in that I am the tenant of a farmer, who farms the farm that I used to farm for 35 years. I now rent my house from him, so I have an interest in that I live in the middle of the farm.
I hope that the old politics of agriculture will not squash the report and make it impossible to move in relation to it. There is much vision in it. For the first time, it looks in the round at the whole question of the way in which we grow our food. There is much in it on which I hope we shall move forward.
I say to the Government that everything depends on their moving forward in relation to the CAP. Most of what is suggested in dependent on the CAP being changed. Modulation will help a little. We know that there are problems for everyone in that regard; that approach involves flexibility in one area. It is very important for the Government to press on in this context and to stop prevaricating when they meet our friends in Europe.
The situation with the devolved administrations is rather strange because the remit did not say that only England was involved. However, the report states on many occasions that it is talking about England. Obviously, the CAP, supermarkets, the food chain and disease relate to the whole of the United Kingdom. It is extremely important for the Government to get the devolved administrations to look very seriously and imaginatively at the report; they should do so now, rather than wait, and begin talking with the Westminster Government about what they will do. This is a UK matter. I beg noble Lords not to be so negative about the report that we do not get anywhere.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I welcome those remarks. It is important for us to engage the devolved administrations, who have produced their own government strategies. There may be differences between our approaches because there are different types of farming in different parts of the United Kingdom.
We must have an approach to the CAP that suits all parts of the UK. Reform of the CAP is key in that regard. To be realistic, we shall probably begin to negotiate the mid-term review after the French elections later this year. In that timescale, we shall begin to address the longer-term changes in the CAP, which will come into effect after 2006. In terms of changing the direction of the CAP, this is a crucial time, in view of internal pressures and the pressures from enlargement and the World Trade Organisation agreement. The next two years will see an enormous amount of intensive negotiation on the CAP. That will very much be a government priority.
§ Lord Rea
My Lords, the Minister will be aware of my interest in food and health. Chapter 5 of the report has some extremely useful recommendations. In fact, 127 they are so good that they could form the basis of—but not the complete policy towards—a national food policy.
The report promotes one rather nice scheme in particular, which is called the "Food Dudes Programme" and which is intended for schools. The report states:The programme has two main elements: video adventures featuring hero figures called Food Dudes, who like fruit and vegetables and provide effective social models for the children to imitate: and small rewards (stickers, notebooks, pencils) to ensure that children begin to taste the foods".The report contains another interesting recommendation. It states:We note … that the scheme will demand 1.5 million tonnes of fruit",for the school fruits scheme,which English farmers are well-placed to provide. We challenge the industry to rise to this challenge".The Government need to give the industry some help in that regard. Fruit production in this country has suffered greatly from imports from the EU and other parts of the world, and many of our orchards have now been grubbed up. The industry will need quite a lot of encouragement to replant and increase production of the sort of fruits that children like.
I appreciate that that is a question partly for the Department of Health and partly for the Departrnent for Education and Skills but what are the Minister's thoughts on how to encourage farmers to grow more fruit?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the recommendations on health and healthy eating, particularly in schools, are an important part of this whole jigsaw. My noble friend Lord Hunt reminded me that he recently launched the "five free fruit" scheme—I believe that that is its name—in the West Midlands. It is important that part of the education commitment and the public sector commitment generally should encourage better eating. If the programme is rolled out and generalised, as the commission recommends, there will be a steady, positive and large potential market for English fruit growers. That is the biggest incentive for orchards marginal orchards—to reconsider their targeting and marketing. Perhaps more importantly for the long term, if we get children eating the amount of fruit that the Department of Health schemes intend them to eat, they will continue that habit for the rest of their lives. To plant an orchard for 40 years is a pretty good investment.
§ Lord King of Bridgwater
My Lords, I welcome the report, but time is not on the side of the Government or the commission. Perhaps I am influenced by my constituency experiences—my constituency in the west country contained a large number of traditional family farms. The most difficult meeting that I had last year was with a constituent farmer, who asked me to come and see him, his wife and two sons. He asked whether there was a future in farming. I could not honestly say to them—they had a 200-acre farm—that I believed that there was any future in farming.
128 The Government's plans and the commission's proposals depend on people. Although there is praise for the proposals about new entrants, as the Minister rightly said, sustainability means profitability, and that means a rewarding career. Unless there is an early prospect of that, there will be a rise in the number of farms that have no successor and which have not had a machine or boot on them for the past two years—I believe that the relevant figures in the report are understated. I could point to land in my constituency to which that applies; hundreds of acres have simply been abandoned because it was not worthwhile continuing. The greatest challenge that we face is that of trying to maintain the industry's morale while these sensible changes are introduced.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I partly agree with the noble Lord—this matter is part of the challenge that we have to address and the future of relatively small farms is an important part of the jigsaw. Some people have reacted by saying that all of our schemes would prejudice small farms. In fact, the shift to environmental land management support might benefit many of the farms to which the noble Lord referred.
Having said that, there is no doubt that farming is going through a period of change and that there will be some restructuring. Some farms will merge and some will drop out. The proposals give there the prospect of a longer-term support system, which the public in general and—probably—governments of all parties would continue to support. The present system of support for such farms, which involves production subsidies, has a distorting effect on the market and on consumer prices. That does not have political support in this country or in a large part of Europe. That is why we have to negotiate our way out of the arrangements.
One of the benefits of successfully improving the CAP would be that at least some of the small farms would have a more sustainable future. I cannot guarantee, and the Government do not attempt to reassure, everybody that they will be here in four or five years' time. However, if we take a 10-year timescale there is a positive future for such farms and a real future for the industry as a whole.
§ Viscount Bledisloe
My Lords, one passage in the Statement which the noble Lord did not read is:Where we need to regulate, we should seek to do so in better and smarter ways which take account of the burden of regulation upon those on whom they fall".Although he did not repeat it, I am very relieved to have heard the noble Lord say to the Front Benches that that is part of government policy.
However, does he recognise that it is wholly unrealistic and, indeed, depressing and frustrating for farmers to be told that they must become competitive when the supermarkets to which they seek to sell can buy food much cheaper from places overseas which do not have the same regulatory controls and standards? What are the Government going to do to compensate farmers for the additional burdens that they have to 129 bear by reason of regulations in this country which do not apply in countries which grow similar food and export it to us?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I accept that much of the way in which we regulate and enforce regulation in this country presents a burden to farmers both in terms of time and, consequently, expense. On the other hand, I also believe that in the UK and in Europe as a whole there is likely to be a continued demand for regulation on safety, environmental and animal welfare issues. Our aim is to rationalise the system of enforcement and regulation.
However, to talk of compensation, except in very specific circumstances, seems to me to be looking backwards and to be an example of the problems which governments have in relation to farmers. The farming lobby has frequently come to us for money following every little jib and jab of change in circumstance when really it should be looking to the bigger picture. I believe that the leaders of the farming unions accept that.
This is a framework for a bigger picture, and we do not want to return to the situation whereby farmers look for a couple of hundred pounds here and a couple of thousand pounds there. We are looking to a longterm, constant and sustained framework within which farmers will operate and which everyone will understand. Within that, a big factor will be the reduction in the complexity of bureaucracy and in the multiplicity of the number of regulatory agencies with which farmers have to deal. That is an important objective of the Government and it is reflected in this report. I accept the implications of that.