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My Lords, among the many measures announced in the gracious Speech, I am especially pleased to see an Agriculture Bill. I refer noble Lords to my entry on the register. Agriculture and the wider rural economy will continue to have a serious role to play post Brexit and way beyond. A successful rural economy is vital for maintaining a living and working countryside. A successful living and working countryside is vital to attracting tourism, and tourism is vital to the rural community.
I welcome warmly the Government’s plans to reform UK agricultural policy and particularly the financial support, which must be continued after we leave the EU. I firmly believe that such support must be geared more towards the support of medium-sized and small farmers, rural communities and those who live and work in less favoured and upland areas. More emphasis must be placed on nurturing wildlife and the environment, forming the basis for a revitalisation of both for the future. In this context, I pay tribute to the work of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Three weeks ago, my noble friend Lord Caithness and I visited the trust’s Allerton project in Leicestershire, at the invitation of the research project’s director, Dr Alastair Leake. We walked the farm, being shown beetle banks, specialised cover crops and headlands and areas of completed wilding, all of which produce cover and food around the year for both songbirds and game birds. We discussed the recovery of the populations of a variety of species through habitat support, winter feeding, predator control and changes to agricultural practices designed to conserve moisture and promote the health of soil structure while growing viable crops in an environmentally sustainable way. We were shown the results of minimum cultivation practices, with an improvement to both earthworm populations and organic improvements to soil and soil structures. The trust is a leading world expert in its field. It was a fascinating and valuable visit. While we were at Loddington, we were told that, through a pilot scheme with Natural England called “payment by results”, the trust has shown how giving farmers the freedom to manage their land for environmental good is both boosting local wildlife and motivating them to develop nature-friendly practices.
Game shooting and fishing plays an important part in the rural economy, often providing badly needed jobs and income in less favoured areas. Indeed, wildlife can prosper on well-managed shoots and fisheries. I am a firm believer that game produced by the shooting sports should go into the food chain; it is highly nutritious, low in cholesterol and fat, totally sustainable and delicious. I am enthused to learn that the supermarket chain Waitrose has announced that all game sold by it by the end of next year will be guaranteed lead-shot-free. It estimates that the resultant growth in sales of game meat will be considerably enhanced. Indeed, I had a meeting recently with the chairman of the Services Committee, together with the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who is in his place, and members of the catering establishment of the Palace of Westminster. I learned that our catering outlets here have a policy that game products served must be free of toxic shot. I strongly support any initiative to move forward with lead-free ammunition for game shooting, as do many of my friends who take part in those activities. I doubt whether I will enhance my reputation as a champion of the shooting sports, but my plain view is that if we ourselves do not change our practices, we will have that imposed on us.
I am delighted to learn that the National Farmers’ Union, of which I am a member, broadly welcomes the Agriculture Bill, stating that,
“it presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance and promote British farming”.
There are two final matters I should like to touch on. First, the agricultural and horticultural industries rely very heavily on seasonal workers, as does the rural tourism industry. It is most important that UK farmers and producers continue to have access to the EU labour market, which may include the reintroduction of a seasonal workers scheme.
Secondly, we need to develop further a comprehensive food labelling policy and extend mandatory country of origin labelling to lightly processed meats and some dairy products. In this country, we produce superb artisan, regional and speciality food and drink products. We must enhance the promotion and protection of these iconic products to the very best of our ability, and provide the consumer with accurate, clear information. I agree entirely with the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, on the stunning of animals before slaughter; it is high time we took a route down that path. The consumer must be informed about whether the meat they are eating was killed in a pre-stunned manner or not. It is vital.
In conclusion, through the new agriculture Bill, Her Majesty’s Government need to establish a fully funded agricultural policy with support payments targeted at the farmers and producers who are providing the greatest public good, but who are not being rewarded for this by their market.