Agriculture: Regulation — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 29th March 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 7:34 pm, 29th March 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to reduce regulatory burdens on British agriculture.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, the creation of Richard Macdonald's task force on the reduction of regulation is most welcome. Its report is due shortly, so I know the Minister will be limited in his ability to respond to our individual comments. However, I still consider that a debate of this nature will be valuable. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords and thank them for their participation in this short debate. I should remind the House of my family's farming interests and my membership and support of farming organisations and charities. I also record my thanks to the NFU, the CLA, the National Pig Association and the CPRE, all of which sent me briefing papers in advance of this debate.

My main concern is with regulations that affect agriculture, but I should point out that we all suffer from the increase in regulation and the resulting bureaucracy that was the hallmark of the previous Government. Only last Thursday, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, stated that,

"the previous Government produced more than 1 million ... mainly unproductive jobs in the public sector".-[Hansard, 24/3/11; col. 881.]

These post holders implement regulations, process an ever increasing tide of forms, and analyse the questionnaires. We have to fill in those forms and questionnaires, and often waste our time at the end of the telephone because government departments do not appear to read or answer our letters. Speak to any small or medium-sized business and they will tell you of the excessive time given to keeping up with the ever increasing bureaucracy. In a recent NFU farmer confidence survey, farmers cited regulation as the issue of most concern to their businesses.

Farmers suffer just as we do, but are also subject to regulation specific to them and to time constraints that do not affect many of us when we have to respond. Weather is all important. Getting the hay in at certain times is critical, just when regulations say that the registration of the birth of livestock is required. Delay in providing such required information usually results in penalties that are excessive by any standards. The NFUPro magazine last April noted that failure to supply a specific food chain information form prior to the slaughter of any animal may result in the carcass being condemned as unfit for human consumption. There are aspects of livestock control that are important. They should be regulated and the regulations strictly enforced. Other factors should be subject to guidelines, backed up by punishment of those who deliberately flout them. However, why should a farmer who has a number of fields dotted around a village have to fill in forms-movement records-for transferring his sheep from one of those fields to another? Can the Minister tell us whether these existing rules are likely to be reviewed?

Another aspect of regulation that fills me with despair is the lack of computerised information-sharing between Defra and other agencies, resulting in yet more unnecessary form-filling. For instance, in June farmers will be required to complete the census, even though three-quarters of the information is already held on their SFP application forms. This brings to mind the constant barrage of complaints from the farming community about faulty computer systems. The best known culprit is surely the Rural Payments Agency's single farm payment system. My right honourable friend the Minister, Jim Paice, has recently acknowledged that the thing is so faulty that even he cannot make it work within the timetable he had set himself. His statement on 4 March acknowledged that there had been 140 fixes to that computer system. Many farmers are still awaiting their single farm payments, not just for this year but for previous years, and the Farm Crisis Network is overburdened with requests for help. The net effect on our farmers has been little short of disastrous. Talk to the Farm Crisis Network about the despair that it has to deal with. Look at the statistics on these disadvantaged people and on suicides within agriculture.

The original choice of how to interpret the European edict was always going to make implementation difficult, but Germany-the only other country to make the same choice-has managed it successfully. I wonder what lessons can be learnt there. Our systems, on the other hand, have cost the taxpayer billions of pounds in administration alone. On top of that, financial penalties have been levied by Europe for our failure to pay within the required timeframes. British farmers are let down by regulation in other ways, as well as through the RPA. The EU promulgates its directives and member Governments translate them into national legislation. The UK has been in the habit of ensuring that every agricultural and environmental directive is fully incorporated, by letter and in spirit, and gold-plated. Other Governments have not been so fastidious.

Our farmers, for instance, have to comply with a number of welfare standards introduced following European legislation that has not been enforced by other European countries. Many shoppers in the UK know full well that our pigs and poultry are produced in more humane circumstances than in our continental neighbours. Many retailers in the UK are, however, happy to purchase cheaper European products, slaughter and process them, pack them and label them-fully in compliance with existing regulations-as produced in the UK. This is not fair. It matters very much, as farmers who produce food compete in a global market. When someone undercuts their required price, they either accept less and take a loss or fail to make the sale-and take a loss. Good regulation would not allow this to happen, and I hope the Minister will be able to tell us when the grocery ombudsman will be introduced. This appointment is urgently needed.

Labelling is key to giving the consumer the right information on which they make their purchases. At a minimum, country of origin should be clearly stated on each product, along with assurance scheme logos. It is surely not right that Thai chicken comes from farms that have not been inspected by the EU for years. Beef comes from countries where FMD is endemic, but we may not inspect it before we accept it. The WTO will not allow us to exclude from our trading agreements livestock, or livestock products, produced under poor or non-existent welfare standards. There has to be a wholesale change in our culture. Instead of multiple regulations contained in multiple instruments of turgid prose, laying out the musts and the must-nots for our farmers, there should be guidelines in simple English. Instead of multiple on-farm and in-abattoir inspections for all, there should be a regime of spot checks and proportionate punishment for wrong-doing.

Richard Macdonald's task force will identify ways to reduce the regulatory burden through the review of the relevant regulations and their implementation, as well as advise how best to achieve a risk-based system of regulation in the future. I hope that it will also consider achieving improvements to farm systems through the use of voluntary agreements. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment is just such a step. I hope that farmers will respond positively, or we may be faced with introducing yet another regulation.

We need a sea change in attitude between farmers and Government. We need to develop a culture of trust: trust of our farmers by officialdom and trust of Government by the agriculture sector. Regulation must be reduced. Regulation should be proportionate and reviewed regularly. Inspection must be reduced for those farmers involved in assurance schemes-they have surely earned their recognition. A clear labelling scheme should be introduced and trust restored.

If we are to meet the challenges of feeding the growing population, we must free up businesses from overregulation and allow them to innovate. I hope that the task force review will herald a new era of working together for the benefit of all.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Opposition Whip (Lords) 7:44 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and to welcome her return to your Lordships' House following her recent illness. We have missed her contributions, and once again she has demonstrated her acumen by securing this important debate tonight, as also illustrated by the number of speakers it has attracted.

Reducing the regulatory burden on agriculture has been a challenge to all Administrations and each has initiated programmes to tackle the problem. It was unfortunately inaccurate of her, in her opening remarks, to try to single out the previous Administration in this respect. The impact on agriculture cannot be overstated. The noble Baroness referred to the recent NFU farmer confidence survey, where regulation was cited, at 64 per cent, as the highest negative impact on business. Anecdotally, one of my neighbours cited it as the reason behind his decision to quit farming.

I declare my interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire. One part of my business was the import and export of cattle, which was brought to an end over the winter of 1995-96, and finally on 20 March 1996, by the announcement from Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health in the other place at the time. The effect and cost of that announcement was immeasurable. This present Government's recognition of the problem was immediate, and demonstrated by the establishment of the Task Force on Farming Regulation, led by Richard Macdonald. It is due to report this summer. For the farming community, nothing short of a fundamental reanalysis is demanded. This must start with the analysis of the scope of each EU directive, policy initiative and UK programme objective. In this review, the influence that can be brought to bear by the supply chain, and especially the retailers, must be harnessed. I refer here to the various sector assurance schemes, freedom food initiatives and other marketing ploys that are demanded of agriculture. Mention should also be made of the proposed supermarket ombudsman.

Both government and industry should turn the telescope round and look at the regulation from agriculture's point of view-the compliance costs, the information that has to be researched and retained, the added load on the business agenda and the incentives and benefits to be derived. Agriculture needs to be able to identity the relevance of the activity to operational improvements, business development and value added. Tackling regulation is often to tackle the symptom, when we really need to tackle the cause. Cutting red tape by introducing a one-in one-out rule is a case in point. Rather, I ask the Minister whether there should be a sunset clause imposed on each regulation, so that the need and relevance of each is systematically reviewed-I suggest five years as a suitable length.

The Conservative-led Government define their objectives in terms of cutting the deficit. I suggest to the noble Lord that nothing less than the effort that is put into that is demanded from agriculture to cut red tape. Has the noble Lord's department interpreted activities in relation to deficit reduction by focusing on the costs of implementing regulations to government, of complying with regulation to industry and interpreting regulation to consumers? I very much look forward to the task force review and whether it can rise to the challenge of remapping the landscape.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

I apologise to the noble Lord but we are under a lot of pressure for time. Three minutes is the limit, and we are now well in to the third minute.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 7:48 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, I also declare an interest as a farmer. In my allotted three minutes, I have two points to make. First, there is no doubt that regulation has helped UK consumers to develop greater confidence in the quality of their agricultural products and the way that we, as farmers, produce them. Taken individually, most regulations and audits have the sensible purpose of protecting the environment and reassuring the public, who are our customers. It is right that nothing should be taken for granted.

However, my second point is: why does there need to be so much duplication? Just to give some examples: a neighbour of mine starts a chicken business and he has to pay someone to help him get through the Environment Agency's integrated pollution prevention and control clearance. Nowadays, you have to employ a professional who knows how to prove you are doing the right thing-doing it yourself simply will not work. Anyway, no sooner has my neighbour got the all clear from the Environment Agency than he has to pay for an environmental impact assessment for the planning authority, which asks all the same questions. One has to wonder why the planning authority will not accept the IPPC-which it would not-and why the form is not the same. There must be ways of consolidating them into one.

On our farm-and I used it as an example, because I do not think we are atypical-we also have numerous inspections and audits. We have comprehensive audits from our buyers such as Waitrose and Tesco. We have local council hygiene standards checks, national dairy scheme checks, combinable crops assurance scheme checks, Freedom Food checks, health and safety checks, HOPS and Cedex checks for our student employment, assured produce checks, Environment Agency checks on both our abstractions and discharges, and of course the Soil Association checks on almost everything. They are all probably justifiable in their own way but put together they are a complete waste of everyone's time.

In an ideal world there would be one inspector who came on to my farm and really got to know how we work and went through everything everybody wanted to know or to test on the farm. He or she would be under contract to all the government bodies, all the associations and all the supermarkets to impose whatever standards they required on whatever farm. Even if the process took two days on each farm, and involved subsequent random checks, it would be a considerable saving in man-hours all round.

I feel sure my approach is oversimplistic, but I do hope that Richard Macdonald's working party will come up with something along these lines.

Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative 7:50 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, we all await the result of the Task Force on Farming Regulation led by Richard Macdonald, but I congratulate my noble friend Lady Byford on securing this time for a preliminary debate. As she said, every sector of society suffers from excessive burdens of red tape, rules and regulations, not all from Brussels, but in agriculture the time spent complying with a data request is increasing.

Regulations cost money-money that is being spent unnecessarily in times of recession. Under the previous Government, the Better Regulation Programme measured the administrative cost alone of meeting regulations in the private sector to be £458 million. This does not include the compliance cost of the general regulatory burden on business. The Institute of Directors estimates the cost of business regulations to be almost £112 billion, of which farmers are very much a part.

In this short debate there is no time to speak of the specific areas. I appeal to my noble friend the Minister and I hope he will agree that we end the so-called gold-plating of EU rules; that we reduce the number of forms needed to register a business and move towards a one-click registration model; that we cut red tape by introducing a one-in, one-out rule; that we end the tick-box regulation culture and target inspections on high-risk organisations and improving professional standards; and that we do as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said and impose a sunset clause so that regulations can be regularly reviewed.

The burden of regulation, as we know, is at its heaviest with inspections, and different agencies have been found to inspect to different standards, bringing the looming risk of penalty and appeals on the understanding that regulatory requirements become crystallised.

Finally in the context of overregulation, planning authorities often cause problems, sometimes determined not by Government but by national parks and very much by local authorities through the localised Bill, and we need quicker and more positive decisions. Successful businesses need helpful understanding from planning authorities, particularly as agriculture moves into production energy and makes good use of waste.

Photo of The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds Bishop 7:53 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, I too am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for pressing this question and enabling us to have time to discuss it. I want to make two points.

First, I know from my contacts just how pressurised an industry farming is. Clergy in the dales area of Ripon and Leeds-Swaledale, Wensleydale, Nidderdale and so on-report consistently on the pressure, sometimes desperation, felt by farmers, and mental illness has become a significant factor in the life of many agricultural communities. I pay tribute to the work done by clergy and ministers in helping to speak to farmers and to share the real pastoral concerns of farmers in those areas. Farm Crisis Network in particular helps those in difficulties and tries to give advice to those who have become entangled in the regulatory process.

No one doubts that regulation and inspection are needed in the farming industry as elsewhere, but the experience of inspection can often appear punitive rather than encouraging. How will the Government ensure that the inspectorate is helpful rather than punitive in its approach? There is a widespread feeling that the inspection regime is not proportionate or consistent, and this damages the health and well-being of the whole rural community. There is a need for better training of the inspectorate.

Secondly, can the Minister tell us how the independent role of the rural advocate is going to be expressed, given the abolition of that post? For more than a century a rural advocate in one form or another has been part of the countryside scene. I have heard nothing but praise for the way in which Dr Stuart Burgess has been able to express the voice of our rural communities. It remains crucial that there should be an independent way of informing policy-making, because the agricultural industry is particularly complex. The pressures are distinctive; the rural communities are very far from the concerns of London, or Leeds for that matter.

I have two questions. What do the Government have in mind to reduce stress on farmers by better training for inspectors, and how is the independent voice of the rural advocate going to be expressed in the future?

Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench 7:56 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, first I declare an interest in that I farm in a small way and have about 120 acres of trees. To add to the basic agriculture, I wish to refer to the regulatory burden on private commercial forestry, which is an important part of many farming enterprises.

The state, through the Forestry Commission, produces nearly 70 per cent of UK timber production, which is almost a monopoly, but it is also the regulator, which is an unhealthy situation for us all. For example, as a landowner you currently need to apply for permission to put new land into forestry and also to take land out of forestry, as that is a change of use. However, the Forestry Commission presumably does not have to ask itself this and it can do what it wishes. A landowner, having gained permission to plant and probably doing so with a grant of public funds, produces a crop ready for harvesting after at least 40 years. This time, he now has to apply to the state for a felling licence to harvest a crop that the state grant-aided specifically for that purpose when it was planted. This appears to be madness and jobs for the boys.

This brings in another issue-the distortion of the timber market-as the time taken in obtaining felling licences restricts the ability of producers to react to the changing demand and prices of timber in the short term. This does not apply to a grain producer who can sell where he likes. However, the private timber producer has to gain permission from a monopoly state producer and is therefore likely to miss the boat. In addition, the state producer is hide-bound by five-year plans. For example, during last year timber prices rose by more than 50 per cent for some packages. The sawmills that we use were screaming for more timber. A few weeks ago I was talking to a state forest harvesting manager and I asked him why they did not fell some very suitable timber that I knew of at this high price. His answer was that he could not do it as it was not programmed within that year of his five-year plan.

There are two points. First, it is no wonder that our state forests are so uneconomic if they cannot be more flexible. Secondly, the price logically became as high as it did as a result of demand and inflexible supply. Therefore in a period of low prices and oversupply the opposite might occur. State forests will continue felling and oversupplying and the price will go even lower. The forestry section of agriculture in the UK is not being allowed to operate in a free market. The burden of state regulation, control and interference in this sector is far too great, and I ask the Minister what the Government are going to do about it Privatisation of some state forests at the right price might well be a good option, but the whole business operation needs looking at.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 7:59 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, globally, agriculture faces some long-term trends. As my noble friend Lady Byford said, there is a growing population, climate change, changing diet and competition for agricultural land. One would have thought that there were good opportunities for agriculture in the EU, but the EU is going backwards compared with the rest of the world. Our yields are flat. They are growing in America, Brazil and almost everywhere but in the EU due to overregulation. It was madness of the EU to bring in the regulation on chemicals and pesticides when there was no alternative. As a result, billions of pounds of investment and innovation money has gone out of the EU, and particularly out of the UK, which was so advanced in this field, and has gone to America and Canada. Jobs and some of our best brains have gone there-and one cannot blame them when one lives in this highly regulated environment, as we do as a result of the EU.

In the report on innovation in agriculture that we are undertaking in Sub-Committee D, we have evidence from Rothamsted Research, that:

"The disjunction between restrictive regulation in the EU and the lack of resources for agricultural research and innovation is probably the biggest threat to the long-term viability and competitiveness of EU agriculture".

My noble friend Lord Henley has a huge job to turn that round.

More locally, could my noble friend tell me whether there are any plans to change the highly overrestrictive sheep regulations as a result of foot and mouth disease? Having tags in both ears has caused huge problems, including animal welfare problems, as some of the lambs are running around without ears, having been tagged too early. I have just heard that on Exmoor the tags that have been used, which had been authorised, are now no longer acceptable and farmers have to buy new tags.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, about farm inspections. They are highly costly and need to be restructured. But perhaps the greatest threat to farmers is the draconian subsidy penalties, whether for cross-compliance or anything else. Small farmers cannot tolerate that; they make mistakes quite innocently sometimes, and they are not the people to be persecuted, but sadly that is what happens. I hope that the Macdonald report will bring that to the fore and that the Government will change many of the regulations and the severe penalty regime that are currently in force.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan UUP 8:02 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for initiating this timely debate. Agriculture is a devolved matter, but we are speaking about British agriculture, and I trust that a few words and examples from Ulster are germane to the wider debate. Although it has been many years since agriculture was a mainstay of the British economy, even in a rural region such as Northern Ireland it is still an important source of employment and wealth creation. Indeed, during the recent recession and ongoing economic turmoil, Northern Ireland's agri-food sector has been one of the few industries to continue to grow and prosper. It has grown and prospered despite the best efforts of regulators in Belfast, London and Brussels to smother it in red tape.

Ridding the sector of unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy is, as we have discovered in Northern Ireland, no easy task. We do not need a bonfire of red tape; rather, we need to adopt that robust, age-old farming practice of slash and burn. Two years ago, after not inconsiderable effort, the Ulster Farmers Union welcomed a report from the Better Regulation Task Force, a creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was apparently going to stop the pernicious spread of farm bureaucracy. In particular, there were concerns about burdens caused by farm inspections, the single farm payment scheme, the administrative stress induced by TB policies, and the stupefying complexity of guidance notes and terms and conditions issued to farmers for every scheme and regulation imaginable under the sun. What, you may wonder, happened to such laudable ambitions? What, indeed. One year later, the Ulster Farmers Union was bemoaning the abject absence of action by Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture. Despite having accepted nearly all the recommendations identified the year before, the department was making slow headway in actually removing any red tape. Indeed, the most tangible outcome appears to have been the creation of that great oxymoron of government, the working group, to consider further action.

Talk, as they say, is cheap, and farmers in Northern Ireland want action, not words. They had been promised that the administrative burden on farmers and agri-food businesses would reduce by 25 per cent by 2013, saving them upwards of £15 million in the process. I rather fear that they will have to wait somewhat longer. There is nothing sedate or comfortable about the fiercely competitive market in which farmers operate; we are all part of the global village, with every possible foodstuff available in and out of season. There is no fat in the industry and no capacity to carry unnecessary administrative burdens. I commend the noble Baroness for securing the debate and encourage those responsible for regulating to pause before putting pen to paper and to consider the anxiety and annoyance that they spread in farmhouses throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble Conservative 8:06 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for securing this debate and express my own delight to see her back in harness. I declare my interest as a partner in the family farm, a member of the NFU and a board member of the Countryside Alliance. It seems almost a national condition to embrace bureaucratic regulation, gold-plate it and then complain about the red tape that we have to endure. We need to focus on trusting people more and, whenever possible, to have a much lighter touch. Of course we all recognise the need to have high standards, especially with public and animal health in the spotlight. Yet regulation must be fair and proportionate and take into account that British farmers already have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world.

We must create an environment in which small businesses across the country in every farm can recognise a helping hand and not a heavy one. Tomorrow the Countryside Alliance rural awards will be held in your Lordships' House. The winners will be beacons of rural excellence, yet across the board regulation is identified as stifling initiative and enterprise.

One of the biggest regulatory issues facing British livestock farmers is the complex and ever-changing rules surrounding animal movements. Rather than evaluating and improving existing regulations, layers of regulation have been overlain by further layers, in many cases involving complex duplication. Until recent changes implemented by the Government, the bizarre situation existed whereby farmers had to notify cattle movements either on line or by post within three days. Many were based in uplands where there is still limited internet access and the returning envelope was supplied by second-class postage. For some of the most remote areas of the country, this is an awful lot to expect from our postal service. What is more absurd is the fact that EU rules state that national Governments may set their own limits on notification between three and eight days, yet Britain opted for the shortest possible time. My intention is not to make a partisan point in highlighting that example, but how on earth did we get ourselves in that position when we had the ability to be more flexible and yet chose the most draconian option? Flexible regulation can result in a significant reduction in the amount of paperwork for farmers. This flexibility will assist a sustainable and profitable farming sector and help British farmers to continue to produce the top-quality meat and produce for which they are justly renowned.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:08 pm, 29th March 2011

I declare an interest as an owner and joint manager of farmland in West Dorset.

Two out of three farmers complained to the NFU last year that red tape was their greatest concern-greater than prices or the economy or the CAP. Defra admitted that the cost of its regulations had reached £458 million, with the greatest impact on farmers. The good news is that common sense seems to have arrived, and the new Minister, Jim Paice, believes that more trust should be vested in farmers, because they know which practices work best and which do not-and he is one.

I am amazed at the stamina that farmers and owners have displayed in coping with so many rules. The culture of political correctness has to change, and I am sure that the Minister will set that out in his reply. We need a new official attitude that states that if we do not need it, we do not want it. Rules intended as improvements have become burdens. With our economy under pressure we cannot afford the luxury of unthinking legislation. There must be no gold-plating of EU rules, especially when it is known that other member states do not comply, as the noble Baroness said.

Does the Minister agree with the NFU that the impact assessments, while they may include a section on rural proofing, are,

"too often ignored or not considered fully"?

I support the Commission's new proposals on the progressive greening of the CAP and more sustainable agriculture, but I am also concerned about the duplication among the various environmental agencies. We have small tracts of woodland and pasture, including SSSIs, that involve at least four agencies: Natural England, the Countryside Agency, the Forestry Commission and Defra. Can the Minister assure us that designations need not involve so much bureaucracy in future?

Finally, I turn to badgers. Here I can draw directly on our experience in West Dorset. When are we going to follow the Welsh-subject to the court case-and issue farmers with licences for four-year culls in definable areas of the south-west? I know that this is not without problems. They have been outlined in an excellent Commons briefing paper.

Furthermore, can Defra further simplify the bovine TB testing procedure? One farmer whom I know complains that Defra is not collecting animals fast enough, perhaps because of the shortage of vets. The noble Baroness has already mentioned a review of the movements of the animals. Once they are tested positive, too much time elapses, they are kept in isolation longer than necessary and the risk on the farm remains. On top of that, under the 60-day test, four more months of quarantine mean that animals still have to be fed and there can be no sales.

Is the Minister aware that the testing rules are applied differently from county to county? For instance, in Devon, tested animals with the correct ear tags and showing fitness to travel are collected faster because they do not require an inspection, so much more must be done online, and this of course is the most welcome form of deregulation.

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 8:12 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, normally when winding up for the Opposition, I would hope to be able to acknowledge most, if not all, of the speeches. However, given that I have only three minutes, as others do, I think that even if I attempted to list all the names of speakers I would run out of time. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will excuse me for not picking up on many of the excellent points that have been made in this debate. I would like to compliment all noble Lords who have spoken on having been able to make quality speeches within such a restricted timeframe. I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, both on securing this debate and, given that she first tabled it some time ago, on showing patience and tenacity in managing to bring the debate forward today.

The issue of the burden of regulation in agriculture has been around for a long time, as my noble friend said. Indeed, I remember complaints about the gold-plating of EU directives from the days when I sat on the European Parliament's agriculture committee, so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, so I know that these issues have been around a long time. I believe that the previous Labour Government were involved in a number of efforts to seek to reduce the regulatory burden in agriculture from 1998 onwards. Indeed, there was the Hampton review, the Better Regulation Task Force report, Regulation-Less is More, the attempts by Defra to try to simplify regulations and legislation, and some results that the department achieved in consequence.

From these Benches I certainly do not oppose the current Government's efforts to tackle this problem and indeed wish the Macdonald review every success. I would like to ask the Minister a little bit more about the timing of the review. In the initial announcements of the task force, it was intended to report early in 2011. I also know that issues of significant concern were supposed to be raised with Ministers as soon as they arose through that process. It would be good to know from the Minister whether any such issues have been raised up to now and whether he can give us an update on when the report will be published. Finally, in order to respond fully to the comments that have been made in this valuable debate today, I ask the Minister to ensure that we will have a debate at much greater length once the review is published and its recommendations have been established.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 8:15 pm, 29th March 2011

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. First I will deal with the last point made the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. Obviously that will be a matter for the usual channels, but I am sure that she and others will find a way of debating Mr Macdonald's report when it comes through in due course. As regards the timing of the report, I appreciate that there has been slippage, as there often is on these matters. However, it is very important that these things are got right, as it were, before they come out. The current plans are that the report will appear in May-this year, I stress-and I look forward to discussing it at that time.

I also thank my noble friend for bringing forward this debate in the dinner break, and I thank all other noble Lords who have spoken. I think all noble Lords will appreciate that I will not have time to deal with all the questions that have been put to me; nor would it be appropriate for me to respond to all of them as quite a lot are matters that Richard Macdonald will be considering in his report. I will briefly run through some of the suggestions that have been made, then say a word or two about the Government's general attitude to regulation, about the Macdonald review and how it was set up, about what it is proposed should be done, and a little more about the timescale. I hope that will satisfy noble Lords who have spoken.

As I said, there have been a large number of questions put to me. For example, my noble friend Lady Byford, talked about the lack of proper IT communication between Defra and its various agencies. I accept that we do not always get these things right and we could do more. She also talked about the groceries code adjudicator and when we were likely to see legislation on that. I dealt with that matter a day or two ago in relation to the Public Bodies Bill. It is in hand and we hope to be able to produce something in due course. The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, talked about the need for more sunset clauses in all regulations, again something that we would like more of. However, I cannot make any categorical assurance about that, particularly in advance of the report. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, spoke of there being far too much duplication. Again, we should look at that and I very much hope that Richard Macdonald has it in hand.

My noble friend Lord Plumb spoke of having no gold-plating, which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, echoed. We all think that is right and we do not want gold-plating of matters that come from Europe. My noble friend also talked about the need for more one-click registration modelling. Again, I accept that point, as it ought to be looked at. He also talked about targeting inspection on high-risk people rather than on others, which he made a good case for. I am sure that Richard Macdonald will look at it. He also made the good point that we should make more good use of waste. I assure him that I have very much been involved with our waste review, which is due out in May or June this year. I hope that my noble friend looks forward to the publication of the waste review, which obviously goes much wider than farming, in due course.

The right reverend Prelate spoke of the need for better training of the inspectorate. Obviously, we can always improve the training and I, again, take that on board. I also note his comments on the role of the rural advocate, although I think that I dealt with that when I spoke only last Wednesday on this matter on the Public Bodies Bill. On forestry the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, talked about the conflicts between the dual roles of the Forestry Commission. Again, we have highlighted that in the past and the new panel on forestry announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will look at that in due course.

My noble friend Lord Caithness looked at some of the problems facing sheep farmers with EIDs. I can assure him that my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Jim Paice, certainly highlighted this matter to Commissioner Dalli when he came over to England. I suggested that it might be quite a good idea-I think this suggestion originally came from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose-if we took Commissioner Dalli off to one of the big sheep markets such as Longtown, which is very near me, to show him what confusion EIDs were causing and what chaos there was with just how many were falling off the sheep.

I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, for reminding us that although I am a mere English Minister in these matters, the debate was related to British and UK agriculture. I note what he said about the position of Northern Ireland and the other devolved parts of the United Kingdom. We certainly discuss all these matters with our devolved counterparts. At the moment, we are in rather a strange phase in that although they are still in office, we do not know who they will be in a short while, but we will resolve that in due course.

My noble friend Lord Gardiner spoke about animal movement regulations. Yes, I agree that they are very important for disease control, as my noble friend made clear, but that is something which we have to get right. Again, I hope that Richard Macdonald will look at that in due course.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, raised that perennial and very tricky question about badgers and bovine TB. All I can say is that any decision we make will be based on the scientific evidence put in front of us. We will obviously watch carefully what happens in Wales and examine it. The important thing is that we make the right decision at the right time, based on the evidence put before us. I and my colleague Jim Paice have already taken advice from our scientific adviser and the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government. That advice will be listened to and studied when we make the appropriate decision.

I want to say a word or two about the Government's general attitude to regulation before I get on to Richard Macdonald and his review. Only a week ago, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made the importance of better regulation quite clear in his Budget Statement. I stress "better regulation" rather than deregulation; the important matter to get across is of getting regulation right. He made clear the importance of that in supporting growth and a green economy. That goes much wider than agriculture and across the whole of industry.

In doing so, the Chancellor spoke of our commitment to reducing red tape on businesses to allow them to grow and to support our economy. That was supported by proposals for regulatory reform. To support that objective, as we know, my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture announced the establishment of the industry-led task force on agriculture last year. I stress that an independent, industry-led task force to deal with these matters. I regret to say to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that its remit covered purely England but I am sure that the devolved Administrations will want to look at the matter. The task force was set up to look at ways of advising the Government on improving approaches to regulation affecting farmers, growers and food processors. The key to this is that the task force is both independent of government-we await its report with interest-and led by industry. As I said, it was set up in June last year. The Government want to understand what farming and food processing business are concerned about and what the solutions to their problems might be. That is why we have asked the task force for advice. I understand that the chair and members are now in what one might refer to as the home straight and are preparing for their final meeting on 4 April, which is next week. We hope that they will publish their report later in the spring. We are looking to see that happen in May, just after the local elections.

I can inform the House what we have asked of the task force. We invited the chair and members to be bold in ambition and wide-ranging in vision. We have made clear to the task force that the context for its work was-I quote from its terms of reference-

"In support of a more competitive farming sector that contributes to the economic recovery".

We asked the task force to,

"identify ways to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers and food processors through a review of relevant regulations and their implementation, and advise on how best to achieve a risk-based system of regulation in future".

We asked the task force to do so-I stress this element of its remit-

"whilst maintaining high environmental, welfare and safety standards".

I give an assurance to the House that this review is not about compromising on outcomes or standards. It is not a "bonfire of regulation" that some have demanded and others have decried. It is a way of maintaining standards while moving towards a more risk-based approach of doing business. It is about better regulation-I again stress those words.

To address three aspects of the task force's terms of reference, it has focused on three main types of problem. First, it has set out to identify disproportionate and overcomplex process, implementation or enforcement, with a view to changing to a simpler, risk-based and outcome-driven approach. Secondly, the task force has looked at unnecessary or outdated measures with a view to revocation or, where they are EU-based, renegotiation. It is important to remember that it is always possible to renegotiate matters in Europe, difficult though it might seem at times. Thirdly, it has aimed to identify the gold-plating of regulations in the past with a view to making recommendations for alternative approaches and the removal of unnecessary burdens.

The farming industry has risen to the challenge of collecting evidence and has provided ample food for thought. More than 350 responses have been received from individual farmers, trade associations and non-governmental organisations. Because this is an independent report it is not for me to pre-empt what the task force will say but it has made it clear that the main thematic areas of its review are farm animals, growing and crops, food processing, business and management, paperwork, environment and land management, and the single payment scheme and cross-compliance. Looking at overlaps and duplication between inspection processes is also an important part of the review.

I do not think that I ought to try to pre-empt what might come out of that review or-this is equally important-how we will respond to it. However, I welcome this opportunity to have said a little about how we set up the review and what we hope will come of it. I again thank my noble friend for introducing the debate.

Sitting suspended.