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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 3:56 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, the gracious Speech contains many good proposals—26 Bills. Whether we get a chance to debate any of them in detail is something to look forward to. Unless the Government’s —and the country’s—finances are in order, none of them can be implemented effectively. I draw the Government’s attention to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court, earlier. I too am concerned that we may be heading into a boom before another bust and, with our high levels of corporate debt, Britain will then be unable to fulfil many of the things that I believe it should.

As many noble Lords have said, climate change is at the top of the agenda. I sympathise with those who genuinely believe in the need to address climate change who are taking peaceful action. I cannot condone climbing on top of Underground trains, the deliberate destruction of buildings and property or preventing people getting to hospital. That does not do the cause any good at all. Furthermore, the mess that has been left behind for others to clear up is not a sign of anyone who is concerned about the environment.

My noble friend Lord Bates told us a lot about climate change, and the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, reminded us how little it takes for other countries around the world to undo any good we do. We are a bit player in a big world of climate change, and everything must be done on a global basis to have any effect.

I welcome the Environment Bill. I particularly welcome what was said about fly-tipping: that is a step forward. I also welcome the creation of the OEP, which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, called the great white shark. I agree with her: it needs more teeth. It needs to be independent from government and it needs to be independently financed, at least by more than one department—we said that in the NERC report, which my noble friend Lord Gardiner will remember. It must be able to hold the Government to account, and it must apply not just to central government but to local government and all government agencies.

The agriculture Bill is a huge opportunity for us, as we move away from the dreaded shackles of the CAP, but let us remember the context. The world needs to produce 60% more food by 2050, and only 10% of the Earth’s surface is suitable for agriculture. We are only 30 to 40 years away in this country from eroding soil fertility. Sixty-seven per cent of global fresh water is used for agriculture, and 80% of the world’s population will live in towns and cities by 2050. The rural world is a small minority and under great stress, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, just reminded us. Like her, I worry for rural areas.

In the false Prorogation period, I went to France and Spain and was saddened to see how much former agricultural land was now bare and unproductive and not managed, even for conservation. I wondered whether that could happen in this country. I hope that the agriculture Bill is a way forward. I hope that my noble friend Lord Gardiner agrees with me that rural land should be used for producing food and for conservation. The Allerton farm in Leicestershire is a very good example of how this is done. It is run by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. As I have said before, I recommend it as a template to the Government because it has 25 years of solid research to prove that this can be done. We do not want our farmers to become just environmental contractors.

Our diets are going to have to change markedly from the gross excesses of the current day. I look forward to the Dimbleby report and to starting again our committee on food poverty, health and environment. We need to know what new crops Britain can grow to meet that new diet and reduce obesity.

The productivity of farming needs to improve. Let us imagine a situation where the output of one acre could be equivalent to a current 80-acre farm: that it uses 70% less water than now and is pesticide free, with short and secure delivery lines. That is not hypothetical; it is being done three miles from here by a firm called Growing Underground, which is using controlled environmental agriculture. It is a huge success, a world leader and a template for the future. I hope the Government will encourage it, because it will be able to produce the salad crops and the sort of food that we will need in the new diets. It will also impinge on our rural farmers, who are currently growing those crops, but will not be able to competitively match the output. To think that we can have 60 harvests of one crop in a year rather than six—it is a whole new revolution. I know that Harper Adams University is doing a lot of research on this as well.

I turn briefly to two other points. One is the health implications of 5G for mobile phones. Why are local authorities refusing to have 5G masts up put on the pretence that there is a health problem? If there is a health problem, for goodness’ sake tell us about it, but 5G is the basis for getting better rural connectivity. If local authorities will not grant planning permission for masts, the Government are going to be stymied.

My second point is on rural crime. When we debated the rural economy last Tuesday, my noble friend Lord Gardiner said that he was about to go to farms to look at rural crime. What did he learn? Does he agree that crime is a really serious concern in rural areas? Moreover, the fear of crime is twice as much in rural areas as in urban areas.