Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:43 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative 6:43 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, we have heard very fine speeches so far. I realise that we are only half way through, so I shall try to be brief. Hearing the valedictory speech from my noble friend Lord Eden reminds me that the time is coming for many of us to follow suit. However, we are not ready yet and are still involved, particularly in agriculture.

I speak as a farmer, as a past president of the National Farmers’ Union, as a former chairman of an international policy council based in Washington and as a past chairman of the agricultural committee of the European Parliament. Therefore, I have a bit of experience of these things and my brief today is to speak about the remarkable technological and scientific changes in agriculture over the years.

Those changes have taken place through both publicly and privately funded research. Growth, as we can all understand, is entirely dependent on the results of applied research, and I hope that the Minister will agree that more research is imperative to be competitive in a freer market. Farmers and growers are free to take advantage of scientific development. If they are allowed to do so, that will make an enormous difference.

There are four points on which I wish to speak. The first is CAP reform and the second is competition. I also want to say a word or two on energy in the context of agriculture, and then to talk about an important part of the whole of British agriculture—education and training.

There are many questions about future policy—questions that proponents of leaving the European Union have to answer, such as on access to Europe’s single market, where 75% of our exports go. Would we have access to immigrant labour? At this time of year, it is essential, particularly in the fruit industry. There is also a question about the future of payments and the effect on consumers. There are many things to debate but they are for future discussion.

I want to say a word about the common agricultural policy. The present policy, which should have been simplified last year, has in my view created more complications for farmers then they have experienced since 1973, and I have been involved in nearly all the negotiations that have taken place over the years. I may be exaggerating if I say that there are probably consultants advising farmers at the moment on dealing with the rural payment scheme, particularly in relation to environmental issues. Many, of course, are racing to complete within the next two weeks.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s plans to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union. It provides us, I believe, with the opportunity to simplify the common agricultural policy. There has been a failure to issue guidance on present policy in a timely manner. It is an application that has, in my opinion, proven not to be fit for purpose in England. As well as failing to communicate the impact of non-compliance, the policy has left many farmers with a very difficult predicament.

It therefore has to increase market orientation and competitiveness in a large global market. I fear that we are involved in yet a further example of gold-plating policy. I do not wish to decry Defra, which has been extremely helpful, but Defra itself often finds aspects of policy difficult to explain to farmers.

On competition, the enterprise Bill could bring significant changes and benefits to agriculture. Following the Macdonald report, I recognise that progress has been made on reducing red tape but I am sure that the Minister will accept that there is still some way to go. He may like to comment.

The proposed single inspection scheme should reduce the regulatory burden on farmers without compromising standards. Inspection criteria have to be consistent across the country and throughout the European Union, which requires inspectors to have a good knowledge of the business, wherever it is.

Deflation is causing real problems, with food prices falling—down 3% in the first half of this year. Nowhere is the pressure more obvious than in the dairy sector. Many—up to three a week—are leaving the dairy industry and this is on top of the pressure caused by TB eradication, with more than 250,000 cattle culled in Great Britain since 2008. I remember when, in 1964, we had the privilege of announcing that we had totally eradicated bovine tuberculosis.

Climate change, of course, will mean the need for a growth in production for the home market and exports and the need to provide raw materials from agriculture for the largest manufacturers in this country, with its ever-growing population.

Finally, on energy, I support exactly what the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said. The Government have the right to focus on security, but this has to come from diverse sources of energy. Land-based renewables, solar energy, wind energy and biofuels all have a key role to play in the mix. This is an important diversification, helping to protect profitable farming and first-cut grass. I have been around a bit. I have seen grass fields already mown for, I believed, the cut to be put into silage. But in fact it is not. A lot of it goes straight into a digester instead of into the cow. That, in itself, tells the story of farming changes.

In education, do we have young people coming into agriculture and with rural interests? Yes, we do. A focus on skills and job creation is vital as agriculture continues to develop as a high-tech industry. The gracious Speech specifically mentioned the duty of Ministers to report annually on job creation and apprenticeships. The good work started under the agri-tech strategy should ensure that the industry has the skills to develop further. Our universities, colleges, management courses and apprenticeship schemes do a great job. Quite often, I have the privilege of interviewing young people. They are full of enthusiasm to work in agriculture, horticulture or on some rural development. They have the ability to take the industry forward in a competitive spirit and a will to preserve our rural environment.

I have a dream, occasionally, that I am still a young farmer, enjoying the facilities for training through leadership courses and universities. I wake up believing that there will be a great future, if young people are given the freedom to work in the rural environment. We must give all our encouragement to it.