Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:25 pm on 16th May 2012.

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Photo of The Bishop of Hereford The Bishop of Hereford Bishop 6:25 pm, 16th May 2012

My Lords, like others, I pay tribute to the eloquence, insight and wisdom of the two maiden speeches that we have heard. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, I wish to focus for a moment on the groceries adjudicator and welcome the statement in the gracious Speech that there will be,

"legislation to establish an independent adjudicator to ensure supermarkets deal fairly and lawfully with suppliers".

That, surely, is good news, and is certainly welcomed by the church, by many other organisations and, of course, by farmers and suppliers.

The church has been pressing successive Governments since 2007 to put protection of farmers and other suppliers on a legislative footing. Our landmark report, Fairtrade Begins at Home, produced by our Ethical Investment Advisory Group, highlighted the sometimes pernicious practices of supermarkets, which farmers and suppliers have, alas, to accept as a fait accompli of doing business with them. The revised Groceries Supply Code of Practice has been a move in the right direction but needs the adjudicator if it is to work effectively and give the protection which, sadly, is still needed. However, we do not need just any adjudicator. We need one who will have sufficient powers to ensure compliance with the code, including powers to fine at a realistic level if the code is breached and correction is not achieved by other means. It is also vital that the adjudicator is able to initiate investigations where they are needed and indicated by reliable evidence from different sources, including third parties such as trade associations and whistleblowers. All supermarkets that behave ethically and deal appropriately with their farmers and other suppliers will have nothing to fear from this welcome piece of legislation.

Although the announcement is welcome, there is much more that can and needs to be done to continue to support farming and rural communities in a wide range of areas, to which there was, sadly, little reference in the gracious Speech, but where I continue to hope that action will nevertheless be taken. Let me mention some of them. Over the past few weeks, dairy farmers have seen the price of a litre of milk fall by 2p. I am told that in some cases this now means that the price they receive is 3p or even 4p below the actual cost of producing the milk. This is clearly unsustainable and hugely worrying, not just for the farmers and their families but for us all since we have already seen a large number of dairy farmers go out of business, and, I regret to say, are poised to see many more do the same. That does not help us achieve food security or protect such a key area of the industry. Government action on unfair milk contracts, and the breaching of contracts, would be welcome, and would surely help this vital area of our farming.

It is good that slightly more young people are training to enter farming. I say this against a background of farming creating 2.2% more jobs last year and becoming more profitable and productive over the past five years. Yet there is an urgent need to do more to arrest the decline in the number of young people in farming, as well as in the countryside more widely. There is, of course, a complicated web of factors that influences an issue such as this. Among those factors is a paucity of university and higher education posts, an associated lack of research-based work opportunities and, linked to that, continuing slow broadband speeds, affordable housing, a lack of rural public transport, fuel costs and struggling rural services-all the things with which we are very familiar but which still need urgent attention. Constructive steps can be taken in many of those areas. For example, the reintroduction of a rural housing enabler would help a good deal, as would assistance with fuel poverty and revisiting the vexed issue of post offices, not least when we hear about more bank branches closing.

The announcement of proposals to reform the electricity market is welcomed by the church as a supporter of community energy. In relation to that and to the energy Bill, I would add that I hope that, in considering what I think is referred to as the nuclear option, the Government will give real and serious consideration to investing in the use of thorium, which, like others, I see as a far safer and genuinely greener alternative to uranium.

Not surprisingly, I am compelled to point out that the proposal to charge VAT on repairs to listed places of worship is utterly misguided. It is a policy which, if carried through, will cause huge damage and, I think, outrage across the country, especially in small rural communities. Some 45% of the nation's grade 1 buildings are churches.

I also feel compelled to register the continuing urgent need for the vexed and hugely damaging matter of bovine TB to be properly addressed. The industry and most vets remain committed to a badger cull as one of the necessary measures to control the spread of the disease, while also supporting further work and research on vaccinations as a critical piece of the picture. Unless the primary wild vector is tackled, there will be no chance of eradicating this dreadful disease, even if everything else possible is done.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will not only register the serious issues referred to but ensure that the right kind of groceries adjudicator is put in place, that action to support dairy farmers and eradicate bovine TB takes place, that further work is done on a whole raft of other pressing rural issues, and that there is a restoration of zero VAT rating for our listed places of worship.