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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:57 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 12:57 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, it is a huge privilege and joy to follow my noble friend—if I may call her that, as we have worked together, as she has said, for many years in Leicester Cathedral.

Her journey through the Church of England has been remarkable. She originally came from the Wirral and, as she has told us today, her grandparents have a long association with Bristol. She began her ministry in 1990 as a chaplain at Gloucester Cathedral, where she met and married Michael and was ordained a priest in 1994. That year she moved to become canon pastor, and later vice-provost, of Coventry Cathedral. She became the first woman to lead a Church of England cathedral in 2000, as Provost and then Dean of Leicester. In that role she led the Cathedral Church of Saint Martin, Leicester, a city with significant diversity and areas of great deprivation. In 2012 she was appointed Dean of York. As she told us today, the finding of Richard III in Leicester gave us, as a small cathedral, a huge challenge. From having probably 35,000 visitors, we were landed with 160,000 visitors in one year. It became a huge challenge, in which my right reverend friend played a very important part.

In 2009, she was elected chairman of the Association of English Cathedrals, the representative body for cathedrals, and she is serving her second term on the English Roman Catholic Committee. She was chair of the Deans’ Conference and in 2013 she was elected as one of the female representatives in the House of Bishops. We warmly welcome her today and we are deeply grateful for what she has brought in sincerity, breadth of knowledge and commitment. We particularly look forward to her work on human trafficking, to which she has committed herself.

I should first declare my own and my family’s farming interests as set out in the register. The contents of the Gracious Speech are to be welcomed. Today’s principal topics for debate are interlinked. While my contribution will be mainly about agriculture, horticulture, fishing, animal welfare, food production and the environment, I shall also highlight the importance of three other proposals which are not included in today’s debate.

I welcome the commitment to support and strengthen the NHS, the proposals to reform adult social care and the commitment to ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education. These are much-needed commitments, but I draw to the Minister’s attention the fact that in rural areas the challenges are greater than those in urban communities. It is simply more expensive for departments and local authorities in rural areas to provide those services. This, plus the fact that the funding formula gives less per head of population to rural areas, makes the task an even bigger challenge.

I welcome the Environment Bill introduced into the Commons two days ago, and I look forward to debating the proposals set out in the agriculture, fisheries and animal welfare Bills announced in the gracious Speech. For the first time, the Environmental Bill sets out environmental principles which will be enshrined in law. It introduces legally binding targets and will establish a new office for environmental protection. The Bill covers a vast range of issues from waste and resource efficiency to air and water quality. It introduces charges for single-use plastic items, extends producer responsibility to ensure a consistent approach to recycling and introduces a deposit return scheme, so there is much in this Bill. It also has an important section on nature and biodiversity, and it formalises conservation covenants, to name but a few. All these aspirations are to be welcomed. The proposed new office for environmental protection will be yet another non-departmental body. Its independence and financial security will be crucial if it is to succeed. It must be adequately staffed and funded. We can think of other such bodies which have seen their budgets squeezed over the years, resulting in cuts to services and aims unachieved. What assurances can the Minister give that realistic support will be given to this new body?

We await the details of the agriculture Bill. Will it be exactly the same as the previous Bill which was held over in the Commons last year or, as with the Environment Bill, will it cover a wider range of aspirations? Under Henry Dimbleby, the Government are setting up a new national food strategy which is committed to providing safe, healthy, affordable food. Will that consultation finish in time and will its conclusions be included in the Bill?

The importance of the food industry, which is worth some £122 billion and employs 4 million people, cannot be underestimated. Agriculture and horticulture are the backbone of our food industry, which grows a wide variety of the crops that form our staple diet. Farmers are at the start of the food production chain, but like any business they need to be profitable and able to increase yields and invest in the new technologies which are transforming the way we produce our food these days. Farmers produce not only food, but energy crops, and at the same time they look after the environment. The work of LEAF is a good example of what can be achieved.

The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards and UK farmers will continue to commit to them, but on leaving the EU, concerns are regularly expressed about leaving the EU and the importation of food which may not be produced to the same standard. These concerns and possible tariffs—I am grateful for the commitment made by the Government to making concessions on some of them—are making UK farmers concerned about their future. Lowland and upland farmers are particularly vulnerable, so I am grateful to the Government for their commitment to continue to pay for support.

I thank the Government for taking broadband across the UK. The recent announcement of some £5 billion towards this will be welcomed by businesses, many of which are based in rural areas. I believe that the gracious Speech contains exciting opportunities across the generations. It has a bold vision, and I commit to working on the Bills it proposes.