My Lords, it is indeed late and I will be brief, but I want to talk on a topic on which there was some discussion in another place, namely the environment; not the political environment, thank goodness, but the climatic environment. At this point, I need to declare an interest in that my wife has family farming interests in Devon.
We all know that the countryside contains wonderful environmental features—waterways, meadows and forests which we all know and love. Polling by the Country Land and Business Association, of which I am a member, shows that more than eight in 10 members of the public think that the Government should spend money on preserving and managing the countryside. It is a fact that many of the rules and regulations that govern how we care for the environment and the wider countryside have their beginnings in European Union law. We must ensure, therefore, that the Bill is not used to reduce these protections. However, the UK’s exit from the European Union also represents a chance to enhance how we care for the environment and introduce policies that deliver on UK priorities, rather than focus on the needs of 28 different countries. The Government’s 25-year plan for the environment is a welcome starting point but there is much more work to be done to make these plans more specific. Much of what is proposed will require significant investment from a range of sources consistently delivered over decades, well beyond the scope of the Bill.
Key to ensuring that the UK continues to be a leader in promoting and protecting the environment post Brexit will be farmers and landowners, who frequently undertake much of the work that is often taken for granted—I particularly remember this, as an Agriculture Minister in Northern Ireland and an Environment Minister here. From storing water to help prevent flooding, to providing habitats for wildlife, farmers and landowners take these responsibilities very seriously. British farmers produce the highest quality affordable food that is greatly valued by the British public and is the envy of people all over the world. The farming industry directly employs 400,000 people and more than 70% of the UK’s landmass is used for farming.
More widely, farming underpins a food and drink industry that contributes more than £100 billion each year to the UK economy and employs 3.8 million people. It is a vital part not just of the rural economy but of the national economy. However, I am concerned that, having clearly set out his environmental credentials, the Secretary of State has yet to do so for farming. He must do this as a matter of urgency: farming must not be forgotten or left behind in a drive to deliver environmental benefits. We need to remind ourselves that what we eat every day, including, I say very humbly, here in this House, is almost certainly a product of British farms and British waters. I urge the Government to ensure that they do not just rely on this Bill to protect the environment but also, crucially, to ensure a thriving and value-for-money agriculture sector.