Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:09 pm on 10th December 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 8:09 pm, 10th December 2008

My Lords, before making my contribution to this debate, I wish to compliment the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on his achievements in his ministerial duties at Defra. He was to the Rural Payments Agency what Harry Redknapp is to Tottenham Hotspur football team; namely, a hard-working leader, who used his knowledge and drive to enable team members to function more effectively. His intervention made a difference for many farmers, but it is a pity that the RPA got into such a mess in the first place.

I remind the House of my family's farming interests. This year's gracious Speech is notable for its brevity, sombre tone and lack of reference to farming, agriculture or even obliquely to food—the staff of life. I have no doubt that the normal flood of statutory instruments will cover everything from nitrate-vulnerable zones to the abolition of certain pesticides, which we so direly need to produce good yields. All of these will make it much harder for farmers to produce the food that we need and will add to imports that are produced less stringently by farmers who are less regulated than they are in this country. My noble friend Lady Shephard spoke clearly on the agriculture scene as she sees it.

Farmers are of particular concern to me. Not only do abnormal weather patterns often stop them working, but they face the might of attempts by Brussels to deprive them of the right to use established farming products and techniques. Their elected Government are too disinterested to help, and climate change is causing additional problems for them in the migration of insects and organisms that threaten livestock. Will the Minister confirm the NFU's plea for the suspension of livestock imports from countries affected by bluetongue, and whether it is being heeded?

In this country two groups in particular face ruin, which could greatly affect us all: dairy farmers produce our fresh milk; hill farmers are largely responsible for maintaining the landscapes that attract large numbers of tourists and lift the spirits of so many hard-working families from our towns and cities. The Government have been aware for years of the pressures placed on dairy farmers by supermarkets, which have used fresh milk as a pawn in the game of attracting customers to their malls. The graph of farm-gate milk prices over the past 10 years has been totally unstable. Dairy farmers have been heavily reliant on the banks to even out the troughs, and now their borrowing facilities are being refused precisely because their returns are so erratic.

On 6 November this year the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee slashed interest rates by a massive 1.5 per cent to stimulate the UK economy. That came in the wake of borrowing that the farmers have had to take on, which has risen to some £11 billion. That is a huge figure, which puts particular pressure on the tenanted sector.

Hill farmers, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred, face a different set of problems. They used to receive state funding linking the number of sheep and cattle they produced to the money they received. But the reform of the CAP has decoupled that support and has not substituted sufficient environmental payments to maintain their incomes. It is true that they are not as exposed to the banks as some lowland businesses but levels of income after expenses, which are already low, have been hit by steep increases in the price of animal feed, vets bills and slaughter costs. Some of the worst hit areas are likely to be those operating in the more remote wildernesses of the south-west, the Lake District and those above the moorland line. Their demise will lead very quickly to a takeover of gorse and bracken, and there will be resultant difficulties of access for the public. The dangers of dry weather wildfire will increase, with serious implications for CO2 levels and wildlife mortality.

The current banking crisis is affecting both cereal and livestock farmers who have hitherto used the overdraft for financing seed and stock until they are paid some months later. I fear that this spring may reveal large numbers of farmers, particularly tenant farmers, who will struggle.

I turn to two things that the Minister said. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, reminded us that everybody should have fair and equal access. I was grateful to the Minister for his announcement of the U-turn on the Post Office card accounts. That will help many post offices in both rural and urban areas. I bring to the House another equally difficult problem, which is the future of GPs, particularly those who work from home. In rural areas money will be saved by revoking the power given to GPs to supply medicines to patients attending surgery from homes of more than one mile distant. That concession has been a boon to young mums and their sick children who rely on buses or neighbours with cars to take them to the doctor and to older citizens with difficulties in walking who cannot go the extra distance easily. The White Paper proposes changing the distance requirements for the establishment of dispensing practices. Currently the distance is from the patient's house to the surgery, whereas I gather that in future it will be from the nearest surgery to the nearest community pharmacy. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify that, as clearly it could make a great difference to some GP practices.

I have two other pleas for the Minister. The first is on livestock diseases, the top one being TB. We have little control over some of the diseases coming in but bovine TB is rife. By the end of August we had already killed 25,677 cattle, and it is likely that that figure will rise to 40,000 at the end of this year. This has gone on for years but it is sadly getting way out of control. Will the Minister look at that issue?

Secondly, the Government need to enable skills, research and development in all aspects of business but particularly in agriculture. The research budget was heavily cut—45 per cent from 1986 to 1998—when 17 research establishments were closed, of which only two remain. My final plea is particularly with reference to the soil and soil science. If we are to produce the food that we all agree we need, the future success relies on good science. We very much look forward to the marine Bill, which will have its Second Reading next Monday.