Thank you, Mr Speaker, for selecting this debate. I also thank the many hon. Members who have said that they will be present, one or two of whom may intervene during the debate.
This spring has been very dry; March was the driest in 50 years. Suffolk has suffered having had just 13% of its average rainfall across the entire county. Until this weekend, no rain had fallen in my constituency since February; that indicates the general dryness of what we have been suffering. My constituency has a mixture of clay fields, which have been able to absorb some water over the winter, and, predominantly, sand fields, on which a significant amount of agriculture relies.
I recognise that the consumer will probably do okay out of all this, because there is no prospect of a hosepipe ban in my part of England, and I understand that that is equally unlikely in other parts of the country. I also recognise that some farmers welcome these temperatures and are not worried about the lack of rain, because it is producing bumper crops of fruits and similar produce.
If this drought continues, it will affect not only those in rural constituencies but the pocket of every constituent of every Member of this House in six months to a year’s time. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is therefore extraordinary that there is no Opposition Member, shadow Minister or shadow Whip in the House—in fact, nobody on the Opposition Benches at all?
I share my hon. and learned Friend’s great concern. More than 10 of us are in the House, which is unusual for an Adjournment debate. Hon. Friends present represent rural constituencies and urban constituencies. Given that some of our colleagues from across the way claim to represent rural areas, their farmers and constituents will be disappointed.
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to say that this situation will come to impact on every single person in this country. One of the challenges that our farmers face is that irrigation is needed to meet the quality standards that our supermarkets demand for what they will sell on their shelves. This is also about the price that we are prepared to pay for our food. There is an impact not just on the price of a potato or an onion, but on the feed for our livestock because of a lack of forage and hay, which will have repercussions next winter. We will all pay a heavy price for that.
My hon. Friend might be surprised to hear a Member from west Wales complaining about the lack of rain, but does she agree that her point about feed price will have a significant downstream effect on dairy producers, who are beginning to realise that their industry will be affected in six to eight months’ time?
My hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend are right to recognise that this issue will impact on everyone. If our countrymen are happy to see greater imports, perhaps we will be protected from the price surges, but I believe that given the choice most people in this country would prefer to buy British, so we must do something as a consequence.
As I said, this issue does not affect all farmers or all counties across the country, but it does impact on the bread basket of our fair land. In my constituency, spraying has started early. Irrigation has long been part of the agriculture of Suffolk Coastal, which has a similar climate to north Africa. We have imported technologies from Morocco, Israel and similar places in recognition of the fact that we have one of the driest areas, although I recognise that one of my colleagues believes that his area is drier. This issue is impacting not just on agriculture, but on wildlife. Landguard nature reserve near Felixstowe is facing similar troubles and the lack of water is having an impact on biodiversity.
I will come on to the realities affecting farmers in my part of the world. The people who abstract came together in 1997 to form the East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group. They work with the Environment Agency to abstract correctly and appropriately to balance the needs of different water users. Most people have a quota for the year. Some people have taken a gamble by starting to spray early compared with previous seasons. They are concerned that they might be restricted later in the season. Thus far, the Environment Agency has not shown the flexibility that it did in 2009, when it allowed people to abstract later. I recognise that the Environment Agency has been proactive on this front and is working with farmers and other people to manage the situation. I pay tribute to it, because it is difficult to strike the right balance. However, there is no question but that people in my constituency are worried about the potential lack of water for their crops.
Some people abstract from ground water. Thus far, the aquifers are coping, but there is genuine concern about what will be available later in the summer and in the early autumn if there is no further rainfall. The situation is more worrying for people who abstract from the rivers. This matter has been referred to by other Members who are worried about the impact on biodiversity. I believe that we should be more worried about the impact on food and agriculture. Frankly, other things can be cosmetic and temporary, whereas if farming is wiped out in certain areas of our country, it will greatly disadvantage food security.
What is the risk to rivers? In my constituency, the Blyth is running very slowly. Other parties, such as the internal drainage boards and the water companies, sometimes help by pumping water out to increase the flow. However, some of the farmers in my constituency are facing the reality that, by the end of next month, they may no longer be able to abstract at all. That is particularly worrying. Will the Minister say what co-ordinated action is being taken by the Environment Agency, internal drainage boards, water companies and farmers to understand how we can ensure that abstraction can continue?
I recognise that back in 2006, the last time we had a particularly dry summer, there was some voluntary activity that worked very well. People ended up abstracting every other day, and they managed to cope through that summer. I am keen to ensure that there is similar preparation in future.
I inform the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a practising farmer.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the world is a much more precarious place with regard to food than it has been for many years? Our world reserves are much lower than they have been, and countries such as China are importing much more maize and wheat than they ever used to. A shortage of production in this country for this harvest is therefore likely to have a much greater effect on household bills than it has in the past. Will she join me in urging the Government to adopt every flexible measure that they can, particularly in relation to water?
I thank my hon. Friend for that correct point. In my view, water is the new oil, and we need to ensure that we are careful with it where we can be. We have already seen cases of commodity prices spiking thanks to demand from the far east, particularly China, and we have felt the consequences. I agree that we need to be able to feed ourselves as best we can and not be subject to unnecessary spikes.
The rural development programme has given some priority to the management of resources such as water. In my constituency, the East of England Development Agency has undertaken some relevant projects. I do not have the details, but I am led to believe that 100,000 cubic metres of new storage facility will be made available in the summer. I would like the Minister to give us an understanding of the influence that he could have in helping the future programme of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the existing programmes that are under the auspices of development agencies, to address the real need that exists. I understand that licences need to be made more flexible so that more water can be harvested in the winter, and that the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 changed the parameters so that those harvesting 10,000 cubic metres took on a significantly greater regulatory burden. What can we do to remove that burden and encourage co-operative reservoirs?
I will put in a bid for my area. A tiny part of my constituency managed to get in on the Leader programme, and I know that Suffolk is one of the pilot counties for the “Total Environment” scheme. I hope that we will be able to move forward after 2013 and allow Suffolk to form more co-operatives, so that funding can be diverted towards water storage. That would be good for farmers, for consumers and for the environment, and I am sure the Minister will put his mind to it.
I know that the farming community has great confidence in our Minister. He is a Suffolk man who was born in my constituency, and he was a farmer. [Interruption.] He still is a farmer—I apologise. I was not fully cognisant of that. The industry is looking for flexibility for the Environment Agency and for local farmers and stakeholders, and on that point I am more than confident in handing over to him.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk
Coastal (Dr Coffey) on her initiative in calling for the debate and persuading you, Mr Speaker, to grant her this opportunity. It allows us to focus on an issue that is becoming of increasing importance every day not only to farmers but, as my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has pointed out, to the rest of the general public.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal has rightly said, she represents the area where I was born and grew up, so I have a particular affinity for her constituents and understand the problems that they face.
In the title of the debate on the Order Paper, my hon. Friend uses the words “potential drought”. I asked the Environment Agency earlier today what the definition of a drought is, and I was told that there are a number of definitions, none of which yet fit. Nevertheless, most people in the countryside and most farmers would argue that we are in a difficult situation, which has been described to me as “an intense dry spell”. My hon. Friend spoke of the rainfall in Suffolk, but nationally, we have received only 61% of normal rainfall over the past three months, and in April we received only 24% of that average.
Soil moisture is at a level more usual at the start of June. Despite that, reservoirs are mostly at near-normal levels, but as my hon. Friend has rightly said, rivers are experiencing exceptionally low flows, which I shall come back to. Those low river levels are beginning to impact on farmers who rely on water abstraction to irrigate their crops, but they are also beginning to cause environmental damage and to have an impact on canals and waterways, as my hon. Friend has said.
So far, the dry spell has meant mixed fortunes for farmers. As my hon. Friend is probably aware, this has been a good season in parts of the country where they grow a lot of fruit. The weather has improved pollination rates, and we are getting English strawberries earlier than ever. It is not all bad news, but as she has said, and as I know from my constituency, crops on light and medium land are badly affected.
At Question Time last week, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the House that she would this week convene a water meeting with water companies and with farming and environment groups to ensure that we are properly prepared for prolonged dry conditions. That meeting took place today, and I am happy that I coincidentally have this opportunity to inform my hon. Friend and the House of some of the outcomes.
My hon. Friend has referred to 1976. The situation is very bad in our part of England—the east of England—but it is not yet a repetition of 1976, which has gone down in the annals of history as probably the worst ever event for farmers. I add that in the past three years, EEDA, to which my hon. Friend has referred, has assisted in the construction of some 26 farm reservoirs, of which there were very few back in 1976. At today’s meeting, we were told by farmers’ representatives that the latest estimate was for a 12% reduction in cereal yields, although that hides a massive range—some estimates suggest that some farmers will experience a 50% reduction.
The impact on the horticulture sector, in both fruit and vegetables, is much more variable. As I have said, top fruit and soft fruit have generally benefited, whereas vegetable production has needed irrigation much earlier in the season than usual, as my hon. Friend has rightly said. That means that growers who have a limited amount of water to use, whether from a reservoir or abstraction rights, must think about rationing their usage.
The picture on livestock farms is one of concern—mainly about costs, particularly following a prolonged winter—but it is not yet one of panic, although I stress that we are only in the middle of May. In the dairy sector, the National Farmers Union advice is that the dry weather has brought forward the grass silage harvest, and boosted grass-sugar and energy levels, which has benefited those in good grass-growing regions.
Further east, back in our part of the world, and in the drier parts of the country, the dry spring will mean that there is less grass to cut or to graze cows on this spring. For all areas, re-growth will be stunted if there is a prolonged dry period. At a time when concentrate feed is very expensive, as my hon. Friend has said, reduced forage crop yields could mean substantially increased costs to farmers throughout the rest of this year. It is also worth mentioning that a poor cereal harvest—cereal farmers are experiencing very short straw—will mean a shortage of straw, much of which is exported for livestock from the east to the west of the country.
As my hon. Friend has said, it is clear that the main problem is for farmers who do not have reservoirs, who do not abstract from groundwater and who abstract from our rivers. Farmers have to compete for those abstraction rights with water companies, which abstract for human consumption, and with other industries. Overall, therefore, there are diminishing supplies. At this morning’s meeting, we felt this was an issue of great importance, and I can tell the House that we will be arranging a further meeting shortly specifically to consider the competing priorities for abstraction.
I emphasise that all Ministers in the Department recognise that, as my hon. Friend has said, both yield and quality of produce are affected by water supply. We do not wish to see farmers restricted unnecessarily, but obviously none of us can guarantee that those restrictions will not be required. I was not aware that, as she has suggested, farmers already believe that they will be restricted by the end of this month. I will consider that point tomorrow. However, the Environment Agency assured us today that it is trying to work with farmers to minimise the consequences. The point was raised—this is very relevant in today’s world—about allowing farmers with reservoirs to top them up during any summer surges. As we have seen over the past few years, we get horrendous summer storms. In a draught, there can suddenly be torrential storms, and it seems sensible that on those occasions, when there is a surge in the river, they could be used to top up reservoirs. That will be looked at.
Irrigation is not the only problem, of course. Farmers, particularly in my hon. Friend’s area—I know it very well—which has large areas of light-land forestry and heath land, are concerned about the potential impact of fire during this dry period. We will continue to work closely with those on the ground to warn the public, wherever possible, of the risks of fire in those circumstances. As she has mentioned, however, there are also the problems facing habitats in wet areas resulting from water drying up.
Taking a longer perspective, last week the Secretary of State published a Command Paper setting out the strong economic, social and environmental case for ensuring that our infrastructure is resilient enough to cope with the effects of climate change. Who can tell whether today’s circumstances are the result of climate change? None of us can. None the less, the document pays particular regard to water infrastructure, which will need to cope, we believe, with hotter and drier summers, more extreme weather events and changing precipitation patterns in the years to come.
As my hon. Friend has said, water may well be today’s oil—or tomorrow’s oil at any rate—so to help realise the Government’s vision of a well-adapted infrastructure network that can continue to support our economy, our infrastructure operators have been instructed to prepare climate risk assessments under the Climate Change Act 2008. My noble Friend Lord Henley will publish those assessments from water companies this Friday.
It is clear from what my hon. Friend and I have said that rights of water abstraction are a major issue for farmers. Work is going ahead, in consultation with farmers and a wide range of stakeholders, on the water White Paper, which we have already announced and hope to publish this autumn. We are considering whether to reform the water abstraction regime to facilitate investment, not least in reservoirs, and to respond to increased variability and the reduced availability of water owing to climate change. Of key interest to farmers will be the potential in such reform to increase the regulatory certainty in the abstraction regime in order to help farmers invest in storage.
My hon. Friend has asked me about the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and the regulations on reservoirs of more than 10,000 cubic metres. She is right that the Act allows the extension of the Reservoirs Act 1975 to those reservoirs in the 10,000 cubic metres to 25,000 cubic metres capacity range. Reservoirs that pose negligible risks to public safety will not be regulated. Many farm irrigation reservoirs are remote from built-up areas and are of low-embankment height, and that includes reservoirs currently regulated under the 1975 Act. I hope that goes some way to allaying her concerns.
While I am talking about reservoirs, perhaps I should respond to my hon. Friend’s point about the rural development programme for England, through which, as she has rightly said, our development agency has assisted the 26 reservoirs to which I have referred. Even though regional development agencies will cease to exist—many are being phased out now—I assure her that the rural development programme for England, which we are bringing back in house at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will continue. I am not going to make light of the point that finances are obviously tight, and there have been some—I hope relatively small—reductions in the amount of money available. However, the overall programme and the assistance under it will remain in place for the rest of the programme.
Of key interest to farmers will be regulatory certainty. We are working closely with our farmers to develop that reform. In our approach to the White Paper, we are also considering a package of shorter-term measures to facilitate trading in abstraction licences, which should assist farmers managing their water use efficiently. It may surprise my hon. Friend to know—indeed, it surprised me—that there are farmers with abstraction licences who do not use them. Indeed, I discovered that there was one close to my home only over the weekend—the farmer is now thinking about using it. That is the situation, so the ability to trade licences would be a step forward.
We are also funding research into a wide range of issues, including investigating ways to improve water use. My hon. Friend referred several times to the use of spray irrigation, which is by far the commonest form of irrigation, although most people would accept that it probably wastes the most water. It is worth pointing out that those who use trickle irrigation are not subject to abstraction licences, so the more that we can do to improve water usage for irrigation—with more effective and perhaps novel strategies—the better. We are also investing in research that aims to anticipate the effects of climate change, so that we can be more accurate in helping people find the best ways to adapt. There is obviously also an issue when it comes to developing new and sustainable ways of providing livestock with sources of potable water, including novel methods for harvesting, storing and delivering water from rainfall, as well as from traditional sources such as rivers and streams.
Finally, if I may say so, I am really pleased that my hon. Friend proposed this debate. Indeed, it is also novel to see so many hon. Friends present, which shows the level of interest in this issue, which, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is a common subject of discussion among farmers, as I expect that you find in your constituency too, Mr Speaker. The weather has always been a subject of conversation, but this year more than ever, because farmers are understandably concerned. We do not know what the next few weeks hold. The Met Office forecast for the rest of May is not very encouraging for those who want rainfall, but beyond that none of us is prepared to speculate, least of all me. However, I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal that we take the issue seriously. Today’s meeting was really a stock-taking exercise to establish what the situation is, so that we can be in a better position to react, within the realms of feasibility for any Government. I assure her that I am not about to become the Minister for drought and that I will not do a rain dance or anything like that. However, I hope that I have assured her that we are concerned and are doing all that we can to free up the system and ensure that her farmers and mine, along with those in other affected parts of the country, are able to produce the best crops that they can in difficult circumstances.
Question put and agreed to.