HC Deb 01 February 1984 vol 53 cc284-6 4.51 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend controls over the burning of straw and stubble after harvest. The problem that I seek to solve is well known to hon. Members. In late summer last year much of the country suffered from black clouds and flying ash, as 6 million tonnes of waste straw went up in smoke after the harvest. In my constituency, two leading seaside resorts were almost brought to a standstill for three days. Hotels had to close. The beaches were uninhabitable and the roads were sometimes impassable. Inland, several businesses had to shut. A long, dry summer and high winds exacerbated the situation.

The burning of straw and stubble is the disposal of industrial waste and, as more farmers move from keeping livestock to cereal growing, with yields from 3 to 4 tonnes of corn per acre, the problem will get worse unless steps are taken to prevent a recurrence. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the National Farmers Union, and farmers have done much towards finding a solution. Research continues into uses for surplus straw, to turn the millions of tonnes of waste into a commodity, along with research into other methods of disposal. There is good reason to hope that in about five years' time the burning of straw, if not stubble, will no longer be necessary. But it is not desirable now.

Last summer the NFU introduced a code to be followed by farmers burning straw and stubble. It made provisions to minimise the inconvenience caused to the public, and to ensure the safety and protection of the environment. Some farmers—not necessarily members of the NFU— chose to ignore it. Fire brigades throughout the country were faced with hundreds of call-outs at the expense of the public purse. It is not surprising that that caused public outcry.

The NFU was first to respond. As a result of the deliberations of its straw and stubble burning subcommittee, a new and much tougher code of practice is expected to be approved later this month. The Ministry proposes to introduce a byelaw that might be adopted by local councils. It would specify conditions for fire breaks, supervision of burning, provision of emergency water supplies, and the acreage that may be burned at any time. It would also provide for the burial, or incorporation, of ash within 36 hours of the burning.

Neither the NFU code nor the Ministry's proposed byelaw has real teeth. The maximum penalty under the byelaw for a breach of the code would be £1,000. In the radio programme "Fanning Today", broadcast this morning, cereal prices of £120 per tonne were announced. With an average yield of 3 tonnes per acre, it is clear that fines will be no deterrent to irresponsible farmers. I stress that we are trying to deal only the irresponsible farmers.

In its proposals to the Ministry, the NFU called for a ban on burning as one of the sanctions to be available upon conviction under the byelaw. In other words, the NFU sought to make the punishment fit the crime, but that sanction is not possible under a byelaw. It requires primary legislation; hence this measure.

The Bill will give the full force of law to the new NFU straw and stubble burning code, which takes into account not only the Ministry's precautions, but prevailing wind and weather conditions. It will enable the NFU, acting as agent for the Ministry, to issue, at a fee sufficient to cover the administration costs, a permit to every farmer—whether or not he is a member of the NFU — who wishes to burn straw and stubble.

The precedent for such a system already exists. Licences are required for those burning grass and heather, for example, under the Ministry's regulations. Therefore, a permit will be required by law, and will state the conditions of the burn and the penalties for a breach of the code. It will enable the fire brigade to carry out spot checks at any time. Failure to obey the code will mean loss of permit and of the right to burn. That penalty will be imposed not by the NFU, the first duty of which is to its members, but by the fire officer. Of course, it will be subject to the right of appeal.

My proposals are not "anti-farmer" in any sense—quite the reverse. They are designed to protect the responsible majority and to make irresponsible husbandry not worth while. They recognise, as does the NFU, the need to exercise acceptable controls that are fair to the farmer and the rest of the community alike. I have already discussed my proposals with the NFU. More discussions will take place. I should be pleased to receive any suggestion that will improve or simplify the proposed legislation, and ask of the House leave to bring in the Bill.

4.56 pm
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) wish to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Oppenheim

Yes, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) has chosen a fashionable topic for his Bill. Hon. Members only have to mention straw burning these days, and they are guaranteed plenty of media prime time, such is the legitimate concern about the problem of straw burning. I realise that the Bill does not represent an attack on the farming community, but it would not be unfair to say that politicians only have to make hostile noises about farmers to gain the almost undivided attention of the press. It is therefore with some trepidation that I speak against the Bill.

My hon. Friend rightly expressed deep concern about the problems sometimes caused by straw burning, but it should be emphasised that the problems last summer were caused by a minority of farmers, and those who abided by the existing code caused few problems. Those responsible farmers are equally concerned by the actions of the irresponsible few.

The issue has already been fully covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) in an Adjournment debate, and action is now being taken on the problem. Therefore, while I share my hon. Friend's concern about the problem, I do not feel that the Bill constitutes a real advance on the current situation.

Fines under the byelaws are already increasing from £1,000 to £2,000 per offence. Each fanner can be fined in multiple units of £2,000. Therefore, any farmer who offends against the code more than once could be subject to fines of several thousand pounds. Even with the price of corn at £120 an acre, that is a severe blow for someone with a small or medium-sized farm.

There is already provision for banning severe offenders under the Clean Air Act, so there is no need for further legislation to ban offenders. It is also true that the NFU is not advocating registration for straw burning, as has been stated. It rightly believes that that is a possibility, but it also sees the disadvantages in extra bureaucracy and sees no useful purpose in an NFU registration policy.

There is also a danger in making the regulations on straw burning too harsh and stringent. If they are made too harsh, that could result in an unfortunate spate of dropped matches by certain irresponsible farmers. It would be difficult to pin blame on the offender in such a situation.

Although it grieves me deeply to see the waste of potential energy when a field of straw goes up in flames, there is no real alternative yet to straw burning — although the £6 million Government research project into alternative uses of straw is most welcome. Above all, it is welcomed by the farming community.

I appreciate the concern about straw burning, but some quite severe action is already being taken. I propose that we should wait until the summer, to see if the problem remains as bad as it was last summer, before proposing further action.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Jonathan Aitken, Mr. Peter Bruinvels, Mr. David Crouch, Mr. Eldon Griffiths, Mr. Robert Rhodes James, Mr. Robert Key and Mr. William Powell.