HC Deb 12 December 1983 vol 50 cc808-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

1.46 am
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this Adjournment debate on straw burning, which this summer created many problems in my constituency of central Suffolk, in East Anglia generally, and in other parts of Britain where cereals are grown extensively. I am sure that those hon. Members who have stayed to hear the debate are aware of the background to the problem, but perhaps I may briefly sketch it in.

Although straw and spoiled hay have always been burned to some extent, there was no problem of any magnitude until about 10 years ago. Since then, cereal acreages have increased rapidly, and the utilisation of straw by livestock of all types has reduced just as quickly. That has been especially noticeable in the eastern counties, and has created and magnified the need for farmers to burn. Even in the past few months, Aujesky's disease slaughterings have reduced the need for straw for pigs even further. It is not just cereal straw that is burned, but stubble and the residues of rape and pulse crops. During those years, transport costs have increased so rapidly that the traditional baling of straw in the east of England for sale to stock farmers in the west has become uneconomic.

The principal reason for burning straw is that it is the quickest, cheapest and, for many farmers, the only way to get rid of the quantity produced. It allows farmers to prepare their winter seed beds rapidly and to get next year's crop drilled. Additional advantages have emerged in recent years, in that the practice kills off weed seeds and, on heavy soils, helps to break the soil down to allow quick cultivation and the early production of a seed bed. The ash resulting from the burning is rich in potash, which obviously has a fertiliser value. So straw burning has built up during the past few years and has, in many areas, become an integral part of the cereal-growing process.

There have been some examples during the years of problems with burning, but the general public's attitude has been one of unease rather than of opposition. Unfortunately, this harvest time in East Anglia was unusual, in that a long dry spell — which made everything tinder-dry — finally coincided with high winds, which not only fanned the flames where fields were being burned but blew the ash produced far and wide for some time afterwards. In my constituency, that caused problems, not just for householders whose houses were invaded by smuts, but because those smuts blew into the hearts of towns and got into offices and shops.

Indeed, farmers themselves suffered. Crops of lettuces were ruined by ash from neighbouring farms, and standing corn crops were even set alight. There has been damage to hedgerows, trees and woodland, and fire brigades have been called out to fires out of control.

I have heard some people argue that this was an exceptional year and that we must not get things out of proportion. I cannot agree. I agree that it was an exceptional year, but having brought matters to a head, the public's unease has now manifested itself in direct opposition. This problem will not go away, and for the sake of everyone concerned must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

When I say for the sake of all concerned, I refer not just to householders, office workers and others who have suffered as a result of smuts, not just to the damage to the environment where this has occurred. I am just as concerned about the image of farmers in my constituency and elsewhere, which is under severe pressure and which can be damaged considerably — often unfairly — by things such as straw burning.

I want to make it clear that all the farmers in my constituency are concerned about the problems that straw burning can cause. They are acutely aware of the general anxiety that exists and are already making every effort to seek out safer methods of burning. More particularly, they are taking the initiative in the search for alternative uses, an example of which I shall give shortly. They are being aided in their efforts by the NFU, which is also well aware of the problem. It is clearly in everyone's interest to tackle this as a matter of urgency.

I do not believe that there are any simple solutions. This practice has grown up over a number of years. Therefore, an immediate ban or even a too-rapid phasing out would not be either fair or workable, as the amount of straw involved is enormous and alternative uses are not yet available. Indeed, a grave fire risk could be created if in a hot, dry harvest period our fields were left full of unburnt straw for any length of time.

The NFU position is: Our long-term objective is to see burning as a means of straw disposal made unnecessary". That is a helpful approach, although I am not sure that some definite date for ending straw burning completely might not be a good idea eventually, provided that it was set far enough ahead to give everyone a chance to readjust.

At present we produce between 13 million and 14 million tonnes of straw, 50 to 60 per cent. of which is used or consumed on our farms in traditional ways. This still leaves 6 to 7 million tonnes to be dealt with, of which 1 or 2 per cent. is incorporated back into the soil in one way or another. Incorporation or ploughing back is clearly a useful way of getting rid of unwanted straw, and although there are limits to how much straw can ultimately be ploughed back every year, particularly on heavy land, this line ought to be pursued further.

Government research is currently being undertaken into this problem, and I hope that the rumours I have heard about the possible disruption of this research are not well founded.

Much of the remainder of the straw is used in a variety of ways. Some is treated on farms with ammonia and used for feeding to stock. Some is manufactured into pellets and used as pig food. In my own constituency, firms such as Stramit produce straw board, which is used extensively for partitions in housing and by the building industry generally. Machines are now being introduced to produce briquettes for domestic fuel. In the past, straw has been used to produce paper and various chemicals for use in industry. Some county councils are now experimenting with straw to heat schools, and other obvious examples are the heating of glasshouses and grain drying plants.

One particularly interesting possibility pursued by a group of farmers in my constituency is the chemical treatment of straw to produce nuts that can then be sold to the paper-making industry as a substitute for hard wood pulp. I understand that these nuts are mixed with wastepaper, and are used to produce brown paper for packaging. Without getting too technical, the advantage of this process over normal papermaking is that, as the end product is only packaging paper, it is possible to leave the lignin in the straw. It is the removal of this lignin that causes great effluent problems in normal papermaking.

Since this particular product would be a substitute for hardwood pulp, the saving both in trees and in imports if it was successful is obvious. I understand from the farmers concerned in the project that they have a real hope that it will be financially viable.

Clearly, one could go on making suggestions for alternative uses for quite a long time. The important thing, which must be accepted, is that it makes no sense to produce an expensive form of energy—which straw is—with all the costs involved in terms of land, machinery, labour and chemicals and so on, and then simply to set fire to that source of energy, often, in the process, causing considerable inconvenience to neighbours and frequently, damage to the environment.

Clearly what is needed is a real determination to push forward, to discover more alternative uses for this valuable product as fast as we can. In the meantime, next year's corn is already growing and harvest will all too soon be upon us. It is too much to expect that any significant, alternative uses will be making an impact by next summer. What must be in place by then are carefully and tightly drawn restrictions, which make sense to farmers and to the general public, and which can and will be enforced by law.

The code of practice for straw burning, which the National Farmers Union has worked out, useful though it is, clearly has not been sufficient in itself to solve the problems this summer. I understand that the Government are now working on a new model bylaw. I hope that it will be produced as soon as possible. It is important that the same restrictions should apply nationwide, so that everyone knows exactly where he stands. These restrictions must be spelt out in good time, and clearly, to all corn growers. Perhaps a system of licensing might even be considered if need be, with licences being issued for an appropriate fee, based on acreage, and licences being withheld from offenders. Existing bylaws vary, are often inadequate and have far too seldom been properly enforced. With one notable exception in north Yorkshire, fines of any size have been few and far between. This is not in the farmers' interest. Indeed, many farmers I know are annoyed that bylaws have not been properly applied and that fines of sufficient size have not been imposed. Many of them believe that this would have had salutory effect not just on the irresponsible farmer concerned, but on the whole industry. In my view, most farmers who burn their straw do so responsibly. It is the minority, as always, who give the industry a bad name. That is all the more reason for punishing that minority.

In summary, I believe that, on balance, straw burning is wasteful. This last summer has shown that it can quite frequently be harmful. When carried out irresponsibly, it harms not only the countryside but the image of our farmers who are its custodians. In the interests of the environment, the farmers, and also the best and most sensible use of energy, heads must be put together without delay, with the maximum encouragement and support from the Government, in order that sensible and alternative solutions can be found as rapidly as possible.

1.58 am
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Gentleman have the agreement of the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) and the Minister to intervene?

Mr. Leigh

I believe that I do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Very well.

Mr. Leigh

There is no doubt that straw is literally a burning issue in my constituency. I represent 750 square miles of rich agricultural land in Lincolnshire and my constituency is the twenty-ninth most heavily involved in agriculture in the whole country. Hon. Members would not expect me, therefore, to suggest that straw burning should be banned outright. Such a solution, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) has explained, would have disastrous consequences not only for the prosperity of farmers, but for the whole area, and for the ultimate cost of our food. Nor would such a solution necessarily solve the problem.

According to the local newspaper: Only half the fire calls to Lincolnshire farms during the two month harvest period resulted from straw or stubble burning according to county fire service figures…Mr. David Hill, the Secretary of the Lincolnshire County Branch of the NFU said: 'During the harvest the whole countryside can become a tinderbox.' In Lincolnshire alone we produce more than a million tons of straw and this is at risk from overheating machinery, discarded cigarette ends and children with matches for as long as it takes for farmers either to bale it or, in the case of the 800,000 tons or so for which there is no use to burn it under controlled conditions.' A ban on straw burning would not be a solution to the problem.

I represent not only people involved directly or indirectly in agriculture but the people in 170 villages. A number of parish councils wrote to me in the summer expressing justifiable concern about straw burning. It was a real problem, causing considerable dislocation and nuisance. This has led me to believe that something must be done.

In seeking to resolve the problem we should recognise that up to now it has been approached in the wrong way, as an issue of farmers versus the rest. We should accept straw is a waste, like waste in any other industry. As in other industries there has to be a code of conduct setting out how it should be disposed of by the farmers. Local and central Government have a responsibility for the disposal of the waste.

I believe that the farmers must tighten their code. This they are doing, though the NFU and local authorities such as east and west Lindsey in my constituency must be more vigorous in their prosecution of offenders. Good fanners, the overwhelming majority, recognise the fairness of that. They take great care and resent the activities of a few who sully the names of the many.

The Government must pursue their excellent research into alternative uses. Straw is a national resource which, in the interests of our environment and conservation must be exploited and not simply burnt away in a puff of smoke. Exciting new processes to harness straw exist, for example in board making in my constituency. If we pursue them, the whole community will gain.

2.1 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) on raising this important issue for debate this evening. This season's burning of straw and stubble caused a great deal of concern to the public, which I know many Members of this House share. Much of the damage and nuisance took place in and around my hon. Friend's constituency, and indeed elsewhere in East Anglia, though other parts of the country suffered too. We had a traumatic experience in my constituency in north Kent.

The Minister of State would have liked to be here. He is a neighbour of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central and particularly wished to be here but he was required to attend the Council of Ministers in Brussels.

My colleagues and I at the Ministry of Agriculture were extremely concerned at the extent of the problems associated with this year's straw burning, and we resolved to take action to ensure that the risk of any repetition would be reduced to the absolute minimum. The first step that we took, early in September, was to seek to establish precisely what the main problems had been and why they had occurred. This was achieved quickly through a review by my Department's regional offices. As a result of this review, my right hon. Friend the Minister announced on 13 October his intention to discuss with the Home Secretary ways in which the model byelaw could be strengthened. This forms the basis for all the byelaws made by district councils. The majority of district councils in cereal-growing areas do have such byelaws and a number of prosecutions have been and are being pursued.

Most of the trouble associated with straw burning in this year's dry weather conditions would have been avoided if a small and inconsiderate minority of farmers had not ignored the commonsense provisions of the existing National Farmers Union code of practice on straw burning. I believe that more stringent byelaws, based on a strengthened NFU code, will go a long way towards reducing the problems arising from straw burning.

In the discussions that we have held with the Home Office — in which the Department of the Environment also participated — we found substantial scope for toughening up the model byelaw. It is hoped to put a revised draft of the byelaw to the local authority associations for comments very shortly, so that district councils will be in a position to adopt new byelaws in time for next year's harvest.

I am extremely conscious that tougher byelaws and a strengthened code of practice—measures to which I shall refer again in a moment—are only part of the solution. It is important at the same time to try and find other means of disposing of straw, and towards this end my Ministry has for some time been involved in a major research and development programme. Because straw is a bulky, low value material whose collection, transport and storage can involve substantial costs, the major part of the straw crop must be disposed of either on the farm where it is produced, or nearby. The core of our research into straw disposal is therefore aimed at ways of incorporating chopped straw into the soil to minimise deleterious effects on crops and cropping programmes. Studies are also being carried out to improve the feeding value of straw for livestock. The use of straw as a fuel and in horticulture and for certain other uses is also being looked at.

Incorporating straw into the soil takes longer than burning and can thus result in a reduction in the area sown to winter cereals. On all but the lightest of soils it is likely to reduce the yields of the following winter cereals. It also requires more cultivations for satisfactory seed bed preparation, and this means much greater energy usage. As part of the programme of research into this method of straw disposal, a series of experiments is being conducted by the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering and the Agricultural and Food Research Council's Letcombe laboratory to examine the effect of incorporation at depths of between 5 and 20 cm. The examination covers different soil types, machinery and effects of sowing dates, and comparisons will be between straw chopped and incorporated, straw burnt in the field and straw baled and removed. Work is also under way to investigate the effect of straw incorporation on the availability of nitrogen to plants and possible methods of increasing the rate of straw decomposition in the field.

Research is also under way to seek to make straw more effective as an animal feedstuff. If straw is balanced with cereals and protein supplements it can take the place of hay in diets of many cattle. New techniques are being developed to improve the feed value of straw and research is being undertaken to investigate the effects of materials such as sodium hydroxide, ammonia, urea, sulphur dioxide and also straw-fermenting bacteria. Various feeding trials are being carried out with store cattle, dairy heifers, dairy cows and housed ewes. At present, however, the chemical upgrading of straw is on only a small scale, generally, because of the cost of the process and difficulties in using some of the chemicals.

My Department has supported an investigation by the Paper Industries Research Association into straw pulping processes, with a view to its use as paper or board. Straw is suitable, however, for only some types of paper making and packaging, and the total potential straw consumption for these purposes is estimated to be no more than about 650,000 tonnes.

In the longer term, use as a fuel could provide a substantial outlet for surplus straw, although at present this use is not economic on a large scale. If plenty of straw is available on a farm, it can be used for domestic heating purposes, and to dry grain and hay, at a cost which is likely to be competitive with oil. There is, however, the inconvenience of hand firing the farm boiler and disposing of the ashes. Off the farm, straw is not generally competitive with industrial coal and would present problems in relation to its bulk and the need for considerable capital investment. Research and experiments are taking place to produce a high density field press and to improve the use of straw burners and heat exchangers for crop drying. Improved methods of storing straw to keep it dry are being assessed. The National College of Agricultural Engineering is examining the potential of straw for use as an industrial fuel. The Department of Energy is examining the possibility of supporting some demonstration projects using straw as an industrial fuel.

Where appropriate, results from that research are incorporated in the advice which ADAS gives to farmers. In addition, my noble Friend, the Minister of State has brought together a group of experienced individuals representing farming, scientific and industrial interests to discuss the development of alternative uses for surplus straw. In total, the Government are spending nearly £2 million on research into alternative means of disposing of straw. Despite that substantial effort, however, I cannot hold out the prospect that in the foreseeable future alternative uses will be found for more than a small proportion of the surplus.

A number of possible solutions have been proposed to the problems associated with straw burning, and I should like to deal briefly with those. Some have suggested a total ban on burning, possibly to take effect after a short interim period. It would not be responsible or practical to impose a ban on straw burning so long as there remains a substantial surplus of straw for which no alternative outlets are available. The result would inevitably he large quantities of unwanted, inflammable material left lying around the countryside, which could be a serious fire risk. Without the protection afforded by the byelaws and the code of practice, any malicious or, indeed, accidental fires caused in those circumstances would carry far greater risks to life, property and wildlife than would controlled fires under the arrangements I have outlined. The very real risk of that occurring is underlined sharply by information we have from the fire services of two counties where straw burning takes place—the only two for which we have data—where in both cases more than two thirds of the straw fires to which the fire services were called were believed to have been ignited not by the farmer but by children or vandals.

A further consequence that cannot be ignored is the harm a ban would do to the interests of cereal farmers, the vast majority of whom are responsible people who take every precaution when burning straw and stubble. In the absence of suitable alternative outlets, and so long as incorporation of the straw into the soil imposes significant difficulties, straw burning will remain an essential farm husbandry activity.

The problem of straw and stubble burning is not easy to tackle, and it does not lend itself to simple solutions. The Government are convinced that action must be taken to ensure that the risk of a repetition of this year's experience is minimised, and the most sensible and practical means of doing that is to strengthen the local authority byelaws and the National Farmers Union code of practice.

The amendments that we are considering are intended not only to provide additional safeguards to life, property and wildlife, but to reduce the risks of pollution by ash and smuts, which were the cause of so much concern this year. It may be possible, for example, to require a wider firebreak around the area burnt. Additional supervision by responsible staff would help to keep fires under control. Restrictions on the times when burning may be carried out — for example at weekends and on bank holidays — would minimise the disturbance to the public. Other possible measures being considered include limiting the maximum areas of straw that should be burned at any one time, further limiting the times when burning should be permitted, and measures that would prevent the spreading of smuts and ash.

The Government have already taken action to ensure that local authorities have adequate power to enforce proper practice through the courts. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is also likely to propose an order next spring increasing maximum summary fines generally, so that local authorities making new byelaws next summer may be able to prescribe even higher maxima, perhaps up to £2,000.

These possible changes to the model byelaw will go a very long way towards minimising the risks associated with straw and stubble burning by compelling farmers—under threat of substantial penalties—to take suitable precautions before, during and after burning their straw. The revised National Farmers Union code of practice will complement the strengthened byelaws and give additional guidance to farmers on sound and safe practices. These measures to make sure that such burning as is carried out is performed in a safe and considerate way are complemented by our research programme, the aim of which is to reduce the need for burning by developing viable alternative means of disposing of the surplus straw.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Two o'clock.