Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:11 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative 5:11 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I am sure that we all enjoyed listening to three such eloquent and informative maiden speeches. It was a particular pleasure for me to hear each of them declare their interest in agriculture in one form or another.

British agriculture was not mentioned in the gracious Speech as such, but it is an industry that covers culture, education, energy, health and welfare, all subjects for this debate. I declare my interest as a farmer, a former leader of the National Farmers’ Union, a member of so many other farm organisations, and for 20 years I served in the European Parliament and had the pleasure and privilege of presiding over that Parliament for two and a half years from 1987 to 1990.

Consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from and how it arrives on their plates. They often feel disconnected from its origins, and scandals surrounding horsemeat, mad cow disease, bovine TB, foot and mouth disease—I could go on—and animal welfare cause a lot of concern. Demand still increases for the introduction of a new food labelling system, and some research shows clearly that the shorter the journey from production to consumption, the better the quality. Obviously, the key is better marketing.

To achieve food security, we need growth, and we only have to travel north, south east or west across Britain to witness fallow fields, winter crop failures and hills with fewer sheep, following a year which Her Majesty might describe as an annus horribilis.

We are continually reminded that the economic crisis continues and that household debt as a percentage of disposable income increases. Less than 10% of the weekly budget for a family is spent on food. Agriculture must play a major part in economic growth, and I could give many examples of the excellence of growth in production and productivity, from food research through practice with science and a remarkable change in farm structure and technology.

So what now? Our starting point follows such a difficult year that it seems the nation will need this year to import millions of tonnes of wheat. We are also now importing £1 billion of dairy products, and three dairy farmers a week are still leaving the dairy industry. It should be other way around. Globally, it is estimated that by 2020 the world will need 70% more food to be produced, but to increase production we need investment. I welcome the Government’s Autumn Statement on the increase in the annual investment allowance. It would help if we had reinvestment in the building allowance too, which would greatly enable farmers’ further investment. Buildings for stock housing particularly depreciate, with a limited economic lifespan similar to that of plant and machinery.

However, the Government and Defra have respected the Conservative manifesto promises in respect of several issues. The pilot TB wildlife control measures are about to commence. We still slaughtered, this past year, 38,000 cattle in this country with TB. We have seen the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and the introduction of the groceries code adjudicator to see fair play in a competitive market. The review of the Environment Agency and Natural England is taking place. The Macdonald red tape review, dealing with some of the gold-plating of European legislation, is also taking place, albeit far too slowly.

Energy infrastructure is another area where farmers are well placed to capture renewable energy flows while maintaining their traditional role as food producers. They can contribute to domestic supply, supporting rural diversification and jobs creation, and help with sound environmental management and the use of waste products. Biofuels offer huge potential for combating climate change and increasing fuel security. In growth and development, all this calls for agriculture, and the horticultural industry in particular, to employ 50,000 to 60,000 new entrants over the next decade, closing the skills gap for a modern and progressive industry that looks to the future and places an onus on the continuous acquisition and improvement of skills.

It is not often understood or appreciated that the food and farming business employs some 445,000 people. Many more than that are in the background, involved in research. As a farmer, I have received a lot of requests over many years from people saying, “My third child is not quite as bright as the first two. Can you find them a job on your farm?”. My reply has always been: “I employ only young people who have at least four A-levels”. Defra, which serves the AgriSkills Forum, has to make the forum the first point of call on all skills issues. We are fortunate to have the finest agricultural colleges and training facilities to encourage new entrants into farming. The right reverend Prelate mentioned those earlier and one in particular. They serve not just farming but rural interests generally. Many charitable trusts and foundations are now also seeking young recruits. The passion is there; the universities and colleges are full of young people who want to work in the countryside.

Looking ahead, I see other issues looming right before us. An important issue is how the Government are going to implement the proposals for CAP reform. It is of course essential to get a fair deal across borders, but because of the voluntary modulation being proposed and a poor historical allocation in the United Kingdom from the budget, English farm payments are already well below our principal competitors’, so there is a move towards more greening issues. One can understand that, from an environmental point of view, greening may be seen as a preservation tactic to justify a larger European Union CAP budget rather than helping farming to become more competitive or to respond to the growth that is needed.

For the first time, the European Parliament has joint responsibility for co-decision. When our Prime Minister has declared his determination to renegotiate on issues that are of a concern to our country, calls for bringing forward a referendum on our future in Europe are, to me and to many of us, irresponsible. We need a more market-orientated European Union, fewer regulations, less red tape and the freedom to get on with the job that we know best how to do. If the Prime Minister does not succeed in his efforts, so be it, but we should hold fast until we know. One thing he should have on the agenda for decision is the seat of the Parliament, which is something I have argued for over many years. It costs the European taxpayer £200 million to transport people and goods around three places, and it is estimated that it causes 20,000 tonnes of CO2 gas. That is food for thought and, I hope, for action.