§ 12.1 a.m.
§ Lord Alport rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy towards ending the public nuisance caused by straw burning.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must apologise to your Lordships that this important subject is to be discussed at a rather late hour. I do not think that this is entirely my fault. I put down the Question as soon as I possibly could after the Recess as I was anxious that this subject should be discussed before it went into its annual hibernation.
§ I regard it as significant that, so far as I can make out from a study of the Order Papers of both Houses, this is the only occasion on which Parliament is having the opportunity of discussing this subject and the Government are being pressed to take some action. The reason is that although each year, about August or September, there is an outcry over the nuisance and danger to the public caused by stubble and straw burning and the desecration of the country landscape in some of the most beautiful parts of England, by October, when Parliament meets, all this tends to be forgotten.
§ Members for town constituencies do not find that the matter troubles their constituents, and members for country areas are not anxious to tangle with the NFU and their farming friends over a matter that no longer occupies the headlines in the press.
§ But those of us who live in the country, who are associated with the lesser tiers of local government in parish and district, who have seen the dense clouds of smoke, the rain of smuts on the washing lines and the newly painted houses, the danger that occurs on road and motorway which has regularly caused fatal accidents, the ruined crops of the horticulturalists, the blackened fields and burnt hedgerows, the loss of trees and the effect on animal and bird life, do not accept that the present proposals of the Minister of Agriculture are adequate. We believe that this is something in which Parliament should now take an active interest.927
§ The arguments and proposals that I will put before the House at no great length are not based on those of the environmentalists or the conservationists. Both destroy very often the intellectual basis of their case by the vehemence and intolerance for other people's legitimate interests with which they tend to advance their cause. There will continually be new practices in husbandry that will benefit the farmer and add to the prosperity of the nation generally. The age-old patterns of the English countryside have changed and will continue to change. Landscapes do alter. Rare things which have only the virtue of their rarity will disappear and, in the long run, no one will be very much the worse.
§ I am concerned this evening with the existence of a public nuisance that can and ought to be stopped and by which a small minority of the community imposes an intolerable burden during a particular period of the year upon their neighbours and the public as a whole. The ineffectiveness of the measures taken up to now to mitigate this public nuisance are amply demonstrated by the points which I will put to your Lordships.
§ First, the experience of the last harvest covering counties all the way from Yorkshire to the south coast. Second, the fatal accident in Yorkshire which caused a multiple crash as a result of smoke pervading the motorway, and the death of two young people. Third, the farmer in Oxfordshire who was acquitted with costs because he had cleared a 15 metre strip around his field, although the trees in the field had been burnt to a height of 40 feet. Fourth, the fact that the fires originating in straw and stubble burning have, according to chief fire officers of the counties concerned, placed an unacceptable burden upon county fire services.
§ Fifth, the decision of the Essex County Council to call for a nationwide ban on stubble and straw burning. Sixth, the representations made by the Cambridge City Council for parliamentary action to end a major public nuisance. Seventh, the Countryside Commission's call for a ban on straw burning, having given, as they said, the NFU code a 10–year trial. Eighth, the view among county and district councils that, even if the by-laws are theoretically strengthened, it is impossible to administer and enforce them without parliamentary support. Ninth, the view, as I understand it to be, of the Department of the Environment, that they are in favour of banning straw and stubble burning because they, like the local authorities, believe that by-laws, as opposed to legislation, are unlikely to be effective. Tenth, the example given by a very large public company in Lincolnshire which has banned straw and stubble burning over the whole of the many thousands of acres which it holds. And eleventh, the experience of the Rochford Hundred in Essex, which was contaminated by smuts and by dirt originating not within the Hundred itself but blown over the Thames from Kent, and which therefore had no remedy for any damage that was caused.
I could advance many more pieces of evidence that local authority by-laws plus a strengthened NFU code of practice will not protect the public from this serious
annual nuisance. In 1973, the Agricultural Advisory Council produced a report. It dealt exhaustively with the problem of straw burning. It is stated in paragraph 46:
In the Council's view… control would best be exercised at local level through suitably framed by-laws made under the Local Government Act 1933".
It is recommended that the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture should consult to evolve a model set of by-laws, and it endorsed the value of the NFU's code and recommended that it should be reviewed with the object of strengthening it. That was 10 years ago.
§ On 13th October 1983, the present Minister of Agriculture said—and here I paraphrase—that the NFU's code of practice was excellent but needed to be improved, and that he was consulting the Home Secretary about ways in which the model by-laws could be strengthened. Ten harvests have passed and we are in exactly the same position as we were in 10 years ago. In fact the situation is a good deal worse. During those 10 years there has been a great increase in the acreage in the arable areas devoted to the planting of rape and the cultivation of modern varieties of winter barley and wheat which need, for a maximum yield, to be sown as early as is possible. To avoid the delay which would ensue and the additional cost which would be involved if the farmer had to plough in the straw and stubble and treat it with chemicals, the modern practice of burning it has grown.
§ When I was discussing this problem a few weeks ago with an arable farmer who farms 2,500 acres in Suffolk, he said, "If you want my opinion of the reason for straw and stubble burning, it is simply greed". That is a harsh thing to say, but it prompts two questions of the Minister to which I hope he may be able to reply, if not now, perhaps later. First, what would be the additional cost of treating and ploughing in straw and stubble per acre of average land; and, secondly, what is the profit per acre of average land planted, first, with rape or, alternatively, with modern varieties of winter wheat and barley?
§ I know that the Ministry of Agriculture in its brief and from its point of view talks rather menacingly about the problems of moving five million tonnes of straw from A to B in this country and of the difficulties which would be involved. But I know one farmer in Hampshire who buys in straw at the present time and sells it to farmers on the Welsh borders. The fact is that this whole matter has not really been gone into properly, either by the farming industry or, in my view, by the Ministry of Agriculture.
§ When I first entered the House of Commons for a country constituency in Essex, there was much talk about "feather-bedding" the agricultural industry. I have always believed that England, in peace and in war, needs a profitable, efficient, balanced agriculture. But I have been aware—as I think all your Lordships are aware—of the tensions between town and country, between industry and agriculture. For the first time, in my experience at any rate, country folk in the villages—the folk around me in rural Essex—and folk in the country towns feel themselves being victimised 929 in their homes by being compelled to watch each year the woods, fields and hedgerows being scarred and blackened and the great plumes of smoke rising with their ugly menace into the summer sky, and the rain of dirt and grime which falls on their houses and gardens.
§ If the farming community adds to the inevitable antagonisms between town and country the resentment of their country and village neighbours, then they will do so at their peril. If you wish to see this underlined, I recommend you to the series of articles being written by the agricultural correspondent of The Times on this subject in the contemporary copies of The Field.
§ I have no right to speak for the Essex Association of Local Councils, of which I am President, and which is now discussing the problem, or for the Essex County Council, which last month (as I have said) passed a motion calling for a national ban on stubble and straw burning. But, of course, I am entitled to take their views into consideration. Therefore, speaking purely personally, I recommend to the Government the following line of action: first, that the proposed strengthened code of conduct of the NFU should be used to control straw and stubble burning for, say, three years and that, in addition to this, there should be introduced a system of licensing; secondly, that there should be a much improved and more extensive research effort into finding an alternative use for straw, with particular reference to converting straw into pulp for paper-making and using the experience of other European countries, such as Denmark. My noble friend who is to reply will tell us that the Government are already spending £2 million on this, but clearly it is not enough. I would suggest that the industry itself should be called upon to help by a levy on arable lands. My third recommendation is that, at the end of three years, stubble and straw burning should be made illegal, with severe financial penalties.
§ This is not an insoluble problem; it merely needs some determination on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture and a realisation by the farming community of the urgent need for action.
§ I can only add this. If my noble friend's reply does not go a long way beyond the statement of his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture at Blackpool on 13th October, I can assure the Government that, with very willing advisers, I will seek to introduce into this House during this Session a Bill to ban straw and stubble burning. I know it may not get very far, but it may concentrate the minds of the Department of Agriculture and the farming industry on the problem of putting an end to a public nuisance which, if it had been occasioned by some industrial concern, would have been stopped years ago.
§ 12.16 a.m.
§ Baroness Stedman
My Lords, I must begin by apologising to those who are to follow me, but I have to leave the House in a very few minutes. I have already made my apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and to the Minister who is to reply.
I welcome the Unstarred Question and the opportunity which the noble Lord has given for us to 930 air our views, however late the hour may be and however little publicity may arise from it. Over most of East Anglia, and in Cambridgeshire—where I come from—in particular, the problem this summer has been very severe. As the noble Lord has said, it is not confined to East Anglia or Cambridgeshire but it has been nationwide and problems have been raised throughout the length and breadth of the land.
The straw burning code, which was voluntarily agreed with the National Farmers' Union, should and I believe could have provided a degree of protection to the countryside; but is has not been fully or properly applied and serious environmental nuisance has been caused, which the noble Lord has outlined to us. So much so that, as the noble Lord has said, the Countryside Commission, which usually favours a voluntary approach to resolving any conflicts in the countryside, has now withdrawn its support from the voluntary code on burning saying that in 1983 the code has been widely ignored or inadequately implemented repeating the pattern of previous years. That Commission has now recommended to the Government that burning should be phased out after a period of three years and also that there should be an early concentration of research into the problems of the physical incorporation of straw with a wide variety of types of soil.
The Commission accepts that time will be needed to enable improved agricultural machinery to be developed to deal with this problem and maybe all the problems cannot be overcome in three years. I hope that an acknowledgment here tonight by the Government of the need for an eventual ban might concentrate and expand any necessary research over that short period of three years. It is useless for the Government to say that we could strengthen the existing code because the local authorities have no resources to police the operation of the code and there is a real need for legislation.
I must declare an interest because of my fire service background. I was a senior serving officer during the war years, and from 1948 until 1975 I served on my county fire services committee and was the chairman of it for some eight years. I was also during that time a member of the Association of County Councils' fire services committee and a member of the Central Fire Brigades' advisory council.
The guidance in the NFU code is first class, but it is not always followed by the farmers, and in many cases it is not even properly understood. For example, it advises against burning when conditions such as wind and drought are unsuitable. It even attempts to define what these conditions are. But climatic conditions change and change quickly. The farmers are very quick to claim that this is the case when their fires get out of hand. District council by-laws can only specify the width of the fire break, the supervision and the time of burning. Even there, I should have thought that there was an obvious fault in the model by-laws by allowing burning to continue after dark provided that it commenced before sunset.
I have been talking to my own fire officer, and I have from him the position in so far as it affects Cambridgeshire. From June to 30th September, the total number of fires in the county that affected the 931 countryside was 532. Of these, 165 were total straw-and-stubble-related. There were 144 fires during that period in the hedgerows and on the grass verges and embankments, and 44 of these, again, were attributable to straw and stubble burning. There were 27 calls to fires in standing crops caused by neighbouring straw and stubble burning. There were 41 fires involving farm machinery and 29 fires involving farm buildings, stacks and bales. There were another 87 fires in peat soil after the straw had burned away and the soil was still burning. The total number of incidents, including road accidents, resulting in alleged contravention of the burning code amounted to 14.
It costs £50 an hour for a fire engine to go and deal with them. That is an awful lot of fires and an awful lot of hours and a lot of £50s to spend. However carefully a field is burned, you cannot avoid sending ashes and smuts into the sky. Then they fall, as the noble Lord has already said, miles away on some unsuspecting and justifiably angry citizen, and they make a mess of washing, freshly-painted houses and gardens. Very strict anti-pollution laws apply to industry. I believe that agriculture ought to be subject to similar restrictions. Industrialists are forced to spend money to reduce pollution: why not the farmer? As Oliver Walston wrote recently in Farmers Weekly:Must we also insist on a God-given right to pollute the world with complete impunity?There is a need, too, for more education. The Agricultural Training Board itself has produced figures showing that 80 per cent. of the farming trainees did not know or understand the code properly. Many farmers do know and understand, have taken proper safeguards and have no problems. As one fire officer is reported as saying, "For every one idiot there does appear to be a least half a dozen farmers who do know what they are doing". But it is no good the farmers saying there is no alternative to burning or that any alternative would be too costly. Those arguments do not apply when we think about pollution costs to other industries.
We also have to consider the cost to the ratepayers, remembering that farmers do not pay rates. In my county of Cambridgeshire, other ratepayers have spent over £35,000 additionally as a direct result of straw and stubble fires—and that does not include the cost of the whole-time firemen. There are consequential costs as well, such as insurance claims through lost crops, machinery and property. In recent years, after much pressure, the Government increased the maximum fine to £1,000. So far, five of the reported 14 cases in Cambridgeshire have already come to court. The three earlier ones were fined £500, £175 and £50 respectively. On Tuesday of this week, a further two cases were heard in Cambridge Magistrates' Court. The defendants pleaded guilty and were fined £500 and £400. In one case, another farmer, a neighbouring farmer, claimed £15,000 damages from one defendant and has been advised to bring a civil action.
It would probably have helped had there been more prosecutions, but neither the fire brigades, the district councils nor the police have the staff resources to monitor the situation. Also, magistrates are quite 932 clearly reluctant to use the full weight of the law. The problem this year was due to the long dry spell at harvest time, and this was exacerbated by a period of strong winds over a number of days before the farmers cultivated the soil. These factors certainly highlighted the problem this year; but unless burning is either banned or controlled very much more effectively, it will re-emerge each year with public nuisance varying inversely to the wetness of the summer.
There is now genuine fear and apprehension built up in people whose property is near the fields which have been burned. There is the nuisance, the inconvenience and the hazard of smoke, smuts and burnt straw. Then there is the deprivation of the public not only of the use of their own gardens but also of the enjoyment of the countryside. I believe that the time has come to say that enough is enough; and I urge the Government to accept the realistic and practicable suggestions of the Countryside Commission and to ban stubble burning from 1986.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, may I just ask her what she means by stating categorically that there is no alternative for farmers other than to burn their straw? Could she possibly suggest another way of getting rid of it?
§ Baroness Stedman
My Lords, I understand that research is going on at the moment into possible uses of the surplus straw. There is not a lot of straw burning in the Scottish area where grain is grown. In other parts of Europe we do not have straw burning, and there is no reason why we should have to put up with it in this country. There should be, as the Countryside Commission has suggested, a three year delay before the ban comes in, in order to enable more research to go on, perhaps for additional or for improved machinery to come and deal with the problem of straw and for research to be carried out into what other uses can be found for it or how it can be better disposed of.
§ 12.28 a.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells
My Lords, if your Lordships will forgive a word of frivolity at this time of morning, I must tell you of one of the more absurd ditties I was called upon to sing in a church in Somerset the other day. It ran:Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning.I shall for ever after now add a mental gloss when asked to sing that song again about "midnight oil" and "straw burning". I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Alport for raising this matter. What we would be looking like if this debate were being televised for "Breakfast Television" I am not quite sure. I doubt whether if the many hundreds and thousands of people who have been affected by straw burning, particularly in 1983, were to see that, they would take a very good view of our procedures.
Straw burning, as many of your Lordships will know, became nothing less than a scandal in many rural parts of Britain this summer. I see this issue —which is why I am on my feet now—as a theological one. It really is to do with how we interpret our responsibilities as stewards of this lovely country that God has given us to live in; so I make no apology for inviting your Lordships to think about a few more 933 features in addition to those that have been so well put by my noble friend and by the noble Baroness opposite.
To help us tackle this task, both in this House and in another place, is the undoubted fact—I have made it my business to talk widely about it—that farmers are expecting something to be done about straw burning. I find that very encouraging and I am perfectly certain it is true, because of the carelessness of some of their number. They know that their image has been badly damaged all over this land and they would be very surprised indeed if no legislation emerges. So we really have a very responsible task before us at this midnight hour. They are watching us, I dare say, to a much greater extent than they usually do and they will be ready to hear the noises from the Palace of Westminster, provided that they are reasonable noises. So I would say—and it seems to me very important—that we must be reasonable in our suggestions and about any new law.
It is totally unrealistic to call for a total ban instanter. You cannot get rid overnight of 5 million tons of surplus straw. To begin to deal with this emotive problem, to tackle the unsightliness and the dirt, to cope with the appalling waste of energy, to show the conservation lobby—who are not all "nutters"—that we really care and to react with responsible seriousness to a situation in which, as we have been reminded by my noble friend, at least two people have been killed this summer, we must move forward simultaneously on two fronts. We must tighten up and deal properly with the enforcing of a code of practice and, I believe, make that code into law.
In Somerset, Sussex and East Anglia this summer, in all of which I was during those amazing eight or nine weeks, I saw the existing code being flagrantly disregarded. I saw burning by night, which is against the code. I saw burning at weekends, which is against the code, and I saw firebreaks much narrower than 30 metres, which is against the code. I am sure that your Lordships, too, saw the code broken in those hot harvest weeks.
The code must be added to, as well. For example, I believe that there should be a clause about turning in the ash within two or three working days or even sooner. And then the prosecutions must begin. Such figures as I have seen on prosecutions—and we heard them just now—are quite pathetically small. Many district councils—andI have made it my business to do quite a lot of ringing around on this—had no idea that they could prosecute. Not a single policeman that I have talked to in three different constabularies was asked to look into the frequent breaches of the code which they observed. The position would be laughable, if it were not really tragic. As we have heard, even those farmers who were brought to book faced a maximum of a £1,000 fine and a £1,000 fine to an East Anglian farmer is much too small. An East Anglian farmer told me that himself. The minimum should probably be around the £5,000 mark to make any difference at all to their practice.
In the main, farmers—and, to my great delight, I live right among them—are very responsible people and, as we have heard, most burning is responsible, but that does not cope with the stupid ones. Can we 934 really, any of us, talk about being responsible when we are wasting so much energy in this appalling way? It is the minority of irresponsible people who must be prosecuted and I do not think there is any alternative to making it the law of the land that this burning must be done properly. If it remains a code—and I urge the Government to hear this—too many farmers will not bother seriously about it.
If the police began to have a duty in the matter, then we should begin to see a difference. District council by-laws are totally disregarded, and they will go on being totally disregarded. Only when that white Rover with those familiar markings drives up to the farmer's door and everyone in the village knows that that car has been there, and only when the local press reports the £10,000 or £20,000 fine will any difference begin to be seen.
But law making must be only one prong in the attack—and it must be an attack—on this dreadful practice. The other must, as we have heard, be research—research into incorporation. Yes, indeed, the straw must be buried. For that there must be far better shredding machines than there are at present. Look at the resources to be found in this country—the expertise in machinery for modern farm use. This wasted carbon and nitrogen ought to get back underground to do good. Two-thirds of France's surplus straw was incorporated this summer. We are talking about 5 million tonnes out of 7½ million. In these days of minimal ploughing there is, as your Lordships will appreciate, a great deal of work to be done on how to get the goodness back where it came from. There cannot be a very quick solution. Three years is probably a little optimistic. But that is no excuse for not working on the problem from now onwards.
Secondly, there must of course be research into alternative uses—in the main, surely, for fuel. A farmer friend of mine in Somerset bought a brand new and quite useless Scandinavian straw-burning boiler for his house a short time ago. It is quite incapable, he tells me, of burning the 11 to 15 bales which it is supposed to burn every winter's day, because, even after a summer like this last one, he found when he got the boiler going three weeks ago that the bales began to sit, as they had last year, in a soggy, smouldering mass inside this practically new boiler. The moisture content was much too high. So there is urgent work to be done on improving straw burning boilers for homes, greenhouses and factories.
Then there must be more research into making proper briquettes—much smaller lumps of straw that can burn properly. This great amount of wasted energy will then begin to be used properly, so that if in 10 years' time the Ayatollahs of the world block up the world's dwindling oil sources, the fossil fuels in the Middle East, we shall by then have harnessed this annually renewable flow of fuel—have you thought of that, my Lords?—for the foreseeable future, as something which can be used properly. Perhaps £2.5 million would be needed for research—a small sum, in all conscience, when you think what Her Majesty's Government are spending in many other directions.
I should like to make two other points. We must explore alternative uses for animal bedding and fodder, with, I think—essentially, for a start at least—a 935 subsidy for moving it around the country. There must be a subsidy for doing that initially. When I think of some of the subsidies that are paid—for ploughing up the land and then the compensation that is paid if you do not plough up the land—I ask, how dotty can we be? Surely a subsidy for moving straw around the country would be a good new subsidy.
Then there is the very doubtful value extolled by some farmers—but always, I find now, with rather diminishing conviction—that burning cleans the ground. There is some evidence, maybe, that farmers can adduce for it, but there is very little evidence for burning, compared with the wholesale evidence, visible to us all, of the damage to the habitat of birds and animals that it causes. It leads to the death of some, although that is rather emotively exaggerated. There is undoubtedly the destruction of hedgerow plants and flowers and, above all, of young trees. We care about replacing the 20 million elms that have gone for ever from our country, yet we tolerate the burning of hedgerows which contain the young trees of 100 years hence.
We must carry the farmers with us; and most farmers want to be carried with us—and I return to the point with which I began. They will be very suprised if we do nothing. What a responsibility upon 15 men and women at this time of night! We must be tough on the careless ones. We must spend enough money to cope with this problem.
It is also I believe a real opportunity for using God-given heat. And to me, one of the best points about it all is that it provides a hopeful note to end on. By comparison with so many of the intractable problems which come before us in this House and in another place, here is a problem that can be dealt with; I find that a super thought to go to bed with, if your Lordships will allow the phrase.
All of us who revel in beautiful Britain can be grateful that we have been given an opportunity to discuss this very important matter; one that affects so many hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen. I hope that we shall hear from my noble friend the Minister tonight that Her Majesty's Government intend to take urgent action.
§ 12.41 a.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for giving us the opportunity for this discussion—although I regret it comes so late at night and that it will receive so little publicity because, as previous speakers have said, this was—if your Lordships will forgive the phrase—a burning issue for a good deal of this Summer.
The value of the farming industry should not be underestimated; and I am sure that noble Lords who have spoken already do not underestimate its value. It is of enormous value to our economy. In fact, British farmers are the envy of many countries in Europe for their efficiency, and they are to be commended. But it is their very success which is causing the difficulties that we are debating tonight.
As cereal production grows, so does the volume of straw and stubble to be disposed of. In East Anglia—and I do apologise for returning to East
936 Anglia, but I happen to live there and thus know a little more about that area than anywhere else—the amount of wheat grown has increased by 50 per cent. in the five years to 1980. This trend is continuing throughout the country and of course creates the 5 million tonnes of straw which have to be disposed of.
At the same time that this increase has been going on, public expectation about clean air has become higher—and also, public awareness of pollution dangers. Burning has been with us for some time, and probably there is a case to be made for stubble burning, which does clear weeds and disease and which, if properly controlled, does not cause the degree of nuisance which straw burning causes. It is the vast quantities of long straw which have caused most of the problems in East Anglia.
As always, failure to exercise restraint and common sense has produced a backlash which may now exert much greater control over farmers than would have been the case had they followed the very good code of conduct produced by the National Farmers' Union. Many organisations are now demanding a complete ban on burning of both stubble and straw, and they are not likely to be satisfied with less.
The noble Lord, Lord Alport, mentioned district councils but there are other organisations such as the Society for Clean Air and many other conservation bodies who join with the district councils in asking for a complete ban.
The code produced by the National Farmers' Union was largely ignored. It was not ignored by just a few stupid farmers, as I believe was claimed earlier. The Farming News reported towards the end of the summer that 80 per cent. of farmers did not seem to know of the code's existence—and this despite the fact that the NFU did circulate it quite widely in June of this year.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has said, many other industries of equal value to our economy have to comply with regulations to eliminate or reduce environmental pollution. There is no logical reason why farming should be exempt. Farmers claim that burning is the most cost-effective way of disposing of their waste. Would it still be cost-effective if they had to pay all the associated costs? I see a nod from the Benches opposite and I hope that we may have an explanation of that in due course.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, pointed out—I again apologise for coming back to Cambridge—the cost of fire calls was £35,000 over a very short period of time and that sum had to be borne by the ratepayers. There had also been numerous instances of overhead power cables being tripped by debris from blown straw with resulting power failures. An important local firm lost production for some time, as it has in other years, not just in this year, because of pollution interference with their computers. The large acreage under grain and the different range of cereals means that burning is going on for many weeks.
Since it is now November and memories are short, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the size of the problem. I have in my hand a dossier covering 23 counties which has been produced by the National Society for Clean Air, in which they list an enormous 937 number of incidents—if one can call them that—of pollution and danger caused by the practice. I will not at this late hour weary your Lordships by repeating them; but I will just remind you of one or two. Hospitals in some cases had to re-sterilise their dressings which had been covered with smuts and soot; a blanket factory had to stop production; open air swimming pools became unusable. This may seem a frivolous thing to farmers engaged in food production, but it meant considerable cost to the owners of the pools, whether they were private or public, because they had to be drained and the refilling had to be paid for by the owners. There were many cases of produce in shops being spoiled, many complaints of discomfort from people with health problems, particularly chest problems. There were serious incidents on major roads; in addition to the two people killed, there were many accidents which involved pile-ups, fortunately with no serious injury but with considerable loss to the people driving the cars; and the domestic difficulties are really too numerous to mention.
There has been damage to other farmers' crops, and farmers have complained bitterly about this this year as never before. In Cambridge, where I live, we lived in a haze of smoke and smuts for many weeks. On 20th August the evening paper reported the fire service as saying that at one stage on that day all fire engines in the whole county were out and desk staff were being used so that others could rest. An assistant divisional officer was quoted as saying that the whole of Cambridgeshire seemed to be alight.
What are the alternatives? Stubble burning is probably acceptable, as I say, if controlled; but the burning must conform to the code. I believe that if the NFU code had the strength of law behind it—perhaps that is what is necessary—it would be effective in controlling stubble burning. Straw is a different matter. It is a valuable commodity. It can be treated to provide animal foodstuff, I believe by the injection of ammonia. I do not know what that would cost, but I am sure that figure can be given by someone more knowledgeable. Straw can be compressed into briquettes for fuel, and I gather considerable research has gone on in Silsoe College. There has been a report by Dr. Larkin on the subject of other uses of straw, and that is one of them. It can be and is being made into building boards, and they are very successful because they do not warp. It can also be made into pallets and boxes. More uses, I understand, are being researched.
There are many farmers who do not burn straw but find other uses for it. There are parts of the country where straw is badly needed, and many farmers are willing to pay considerable costs to have it transported to them, particularly in Wales. All too many farmers behave irresponsibly and will, again, have to be controlled. If the Government reply to this question is unsatisfactory, there are many in this House and in another place who are determined that action will be taken to prevent a repetition of this year's inferno.
§ 12.50 a.m.
§ Lord Wise
My Lords, we are indeed grateful to my noble friend Lord Alport for raising this Question this evening, because controversy has ranged over the vexed question of straw burning for perhaps the past 938 10 years or so. I regret having to admit that we in the farming community have only ourselves to blame. A rift has developed between us and other country people because of this problem. At times I think it is evident that a lack of consideration and, indeed, a lack of thoughtfulness for other people has been shown. We have been carrying on, year after year, in the same old way, causing annoyance, causing danger and creating antagonism, until now the anti-burning strength of feeling is so great that a total ban is very much on the cards.
Having said that, I would add that at the present time and until other outlets are found a total ban on straw burning would create very considerable and possibly insurmountable problems for farmers, especially in the larger corn-growing areas. So what is the answer? How do we dispose of the huge tonnage of unwanted straw each year? The Ministry is spending about £2 million annually on research into straw disposal, and that is a good thing. But I am astounded that after all this time we still have only guidelines on straw burning. We have as yet not been told how it must be done for the safety and convenience of everyone.
There is so much difference of opinion regarding burning. Do we burn it in rows? Do we spread it, or chop it? Burning in the early morning when the dew is still on the ground is fine in theory but completely impractical. It is my experience that the straw just fizzles and goes out like a damp squib. The immediate incorporation of ashes into the soil is an excellent idea in theory. It prevents all the smuts from blowing for miles around. But I wonder how many advocates of that practice have tried doing it on a dry, rock-hard, heavy clay soil? It is not easy, and it is a very expensive operation.
Burning straw after the combine is beset with problems, but until we have discovered alternative uses for this commodity it must continue. However, controls must be made tighter. Possibly licences could be granted, and revoked if necessary. It may also be prudent to ban burning in close proximity to villages and other communities. In any case, I think we need legislation, or the by-laws should be strengthened, and penalties for infringements made much greater.
I would liken the NFU's code for straw burning to the Highway Code booklet. That seems to be an apt comparison, for there are always further things to be taken into consideration. Surely it is primarily just a question of common sense, which, alas, also often appears in many cases to be lacking.
It does seem appalling that straw to the value of a few hundred million pounds, if one were able to sell it, is burned each year. That is why I am glad that the Ministry is continuing research into its profitable utilisation. It is obvious that the costs of baling, stacking, handling, haulage, and so on, make it a completely uneconomic proposition to supply to the Welsh and West Country farmers who farm livestock. It cannot be supplied in any appreciable quantity because of that. I think it could well be more realistic to bring the cattle to the straw, and for this reason I welcome the research into ammonia straw treatment, which I understand improves its feed value.
939 The world is now probably using more wood for paper pulp than it produces. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, I, too, should like to see the Government support with both advice and finance a feasibility study into the turning of straw into paper pulp. There are other, endless possibilities which I shall not elaborate on at this late hour. I certainly look forward to the time when straw burning can be profitably eliminated.
§ 12.55 a.m.
§ Lord Tryon
My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for introducing this Question. I do not think any of us was surprised to find it on the Order Paper when we came back after the Recess. As most of us sat there watching the smoke blackening the sky we realised that it was only a matter of whose name such a Question might be under and how it was phrased. It is not surprising that we are debating the matter, but my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for putting down the Question.
A number of apologies have been made for its being so late at night. I shall certainly be quick. I have almost no notes at all. On the publicity point, I hope that the various farmers' newspapers will acquire their copies of Hansard tomorrow and will write this one up. We cannot expect the Press Gallery to be very full.
I start with a quick declaration of interest which is more of a qualification to speak. I am not directly a farmer, but I own tenanted agricultural land, am a trustee of a number of major estates and sit on various of the head office committees of the National Trust, although I am not in any way wearing that hat tonight. I speak almost entirely from my experience during this past harvest and in August in particular, when I was either in Wiltshire, where I live, or driving around very large parts of the country.
I watched most carefully what the farmers were doing in their straw burning activities close to me and elsewhere. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells was too kind to farmers in saying that it was only a minority who were flouting the code. From my observations, certainly, it is a very substantial majority indeed. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said that 80 per cent. of farmers in some parts had never heard of the code. That more or less coincides with the figure I was going to give of 80 per cent. who were totally, utterly and completely flouting it.
We have heard a lot about the code tonight. There is a copy in the Library for anyone who wants to read it at some future moment. I shall certainly not quote from it at any length. The front page has a summary which I shall not read out. It basically contains nine points. Day after day it was perfectly easy to see farmers breaking every single one of those points. I qualify that slightly. One is to:Notify the local fire brigade if required by a local by-law".I did not ask whether the farmer had done that so I cannot speak on that one. The other points are things one can actually see, such as:Never burn when wind conditions are unsuitable. Ensure burning is responsibly supervised",and so on. These points were flouted day after day. It was not just an irresponsible minority. In my view it is 940 the vast majority who have brought on their heads the condemnations that we have been hearing tonight.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells also said that he thought that he was exaggerating when he mentioned animals being killed. I can assure him that he was not exaggerating. It is not by any means unusual for animals to be killed in two particular circumstances: one is where farmers set fire to a field by going the whole way round the outside and burning in to the middle; the other is burning at night. Both of these practices are very common and animals are killed in considerable numbers. In Wiltshire I had experience of a number of hares being badly burnt. Some of them were burnt to death. Others were not quite burnt to death, but they had to be finished off afterwards. So it is no exaggeration to say that animals are killed. Hedges are burnt, and I am cynical enough to believe that sometimes they are burnt so that they can subsequently be removed. The farmer can then say that the hedge is dead and finished, and it might just as well be lifted out.
Normally I am not at all anti the farming community. I have great respect for most of the activities of farmers, but this practice has become completely out of hand. A number of councils have by-laws, but I must ask the Minister how many prosecutions have been started as a result of the burning following the last harvest. I suspect that it is very few indeed; and, as we have already heard from several speakers, the fines are fairly derisory relative to the scale of farming nowadays.
So far I have done nothing but castigate the farmers for their irresponsible burning. What should we do about it? I think that we have already heard in one form or another the answers that I would give. In my view, the problem requires two things, as do most matters in life: a stick and a carrot. The stick I think must be to reinforce the NFU code of conduct, to get it into law in some form or another. Whether it should be done through local councils or centrally through the Government, I do not know. However, the code should be given teeth, and it should be made absolutely clear that if it is not working properly within two or three years, it is to be followed by a total ban on the burning of straw. That would give people time to think and really concentrate. I do not think that they have yet taken to heart just how much of an environmental problem this practice is causing.
As to the carrot, we have heard a little about alternative uses of straw, and I believe that every possible encouragement should be given to the innumerable uses, some of which are profitable, which I think are in various people's minds. I expect that we shall hear of more of them later in the debate. But every possible encouragement should be given to other uses of straw, so that the burning nuisance can be discouraged by the economic alternative uses as well.
§ 1.4 a.m.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords. I should like to echo the words of my noble friend Lord Alport and say that, quite frankly. I rather deprecate the necessity to discuss this matter at such a late hour. I was going to say, "such a late hour of the night", but it now seems to be an early hour of the morning, or very nearly "Breakfast Time" (as mentioned by the right reverend 941 Prelate) with Selina Scott, or someone. Frankly, I believe that we have lost an opportunity to show ourselves, this House, to be very concerned about the deep sense of feeling throughout the country, especially this year, regarding the apparent nuisance and damage that is caused by irresponsible straw burning in particular, but I shall not go so far as to say stubble burning, which is a different matter altogether.
I realise that business is terribly difficult to organise in this House or another place. I would have thought, however, that an issue of this sort might have been raised at an hour when the House was perhaps slightly fuller, when tempers might have become a little more heated and when a few correspondents from the press were still around and awake. However, having said that, it is terribly late, and I do not want to keep your Lordships very long.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
Yes, "Hear, hear!". Who said that? My noble friend almost put me off my stride! Seriously, I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Alport. Although sympathising with his views, I think he carried them a little too far. It is a little unfair to suggest that farmers burn straw and stubble purely for greed. That is not right. It is an economic and practical farming practice, particularly in relation to the burning of stubble, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said.
I think that up to a point the noble Lord was gilding the lily. On a personal note, I am sorry that he should have raised the matter of people's deaths in a tragic accident on the A.19, which involved a personal friend of mine. The matter is still sub judice. If he had been in possession of the facts as I know them, I think he would have been a little more careful than to have raised the matter. If it was possible for him to withdraw that comment, I would be extremely grateful.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I think my noble friend will recognise that my other noble friend, to whom he is referring, is rather in a postion at the moment in which he is unable to reply.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, I just wanted to raise that point. If our predecessors of 50 years ago were around today, they would be relatively surprised to hear the House talking about this matter. Fifty years ago, straw was a very valuable and, indeed, rather scarce commodity. I am not that old, but I can remember hill farmers going on their hands and knees begging for permission to cut bracken as bedding for their animals because straw was in such short supply.
What has happened is that livestock is a non-profit-making exercise for many people today. More grassland is ploughed out, more cereals grown and therefore, there is an increased amount of straw. One cannot dispose of it economically. Unless and until that situation is reversed, it will be difficult for anyone to come up with a sensible suggestion to get rid of surplus straw other than by new methods of technology for translating surplus straw into energy, foodstuffs or suchlike.
942 The suggestion that there should be legislation to enforce the code of conduct that has been drawn up by the National Farmers' Union in consultation with the CLA, is probably going too far. It is a perfectly good code. Many farmers observe it up to the hilt. Only a few ignore it, or make a mistake. The whole issue mushrooms up; everyone is thrown into a bit of a "wobbly", and the whole issue gets out of context.
It would be very difficult to suggest that the code of conduct should be put into law. For a start, how would we enforce it? I do not know. I am not sure that that is quite the right answer. But I do think that in some way, perhaps through an advertising campaign, or by encouragement or what you will from the Ministry of Agriculture, farmers should be made rather more aware of the deep concern—and very right deep concern—of the people who live in the countryside about the damage that may be caused if they ignore the very sensible code of conduct.
I should like to make one last plea. If there were to be, as a result of our debate or considerations in the Government, any legislation as regards the burning of straw, I hope very much that it would not extend to the burning of stubble. The burning of stubble is sometimes an absolute prerequisite and sometimes essential in a farming operation. I think that my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley will confirm that the stubble will not burn properly if a field has been combined properly. I would agree with him up to a point. But there are other crops, such as oil seed rape, where the stubble is about 12 inches above the ground.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I am sorry, I thought that my noble friend was talking about straw.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, my combine obviously operates in a different way from my noble friend's combine. The only way of getting rid of oil seed rape stubble effectively, is by burning. The danger of stubble burning is far less than that of a pile of straw burning. So if this matter does go as far as legislation, I hope that the matter of stubble burning will be treated in a slightly less heavy-handed manner.
§ 1.13 a.m.
§ Lord Energlyn
My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Viscount in the clear distinction he has made between straw and straw stubble. The scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that to plough raw stubble into the soil is not a beneficial process, but rather almost a detrimental one. So the practical approach, which is centuries old, of burning stubble is a sensible thing to do.
Having said that, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for raising this very vivid question which concerns, as he has said, everybody. But in doing so I should like to take the opportunity of expressing my praise for the work done by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, succeeded by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in setting up "think-tanks" long before public opinion 943 provoked them into action. The first one was on anaerobic digestion. It was a remarkable piece of work and they practically created a new industry as a result of it. Now we have the straw utilisation "think-tank". There are about 20 units in this country associated with agricultural straw who attend this committee without even charging expenses, and they discuss with the chairman—and our present chairman is the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—the various problems connected with the utilisation of straw.
To run away with the idea that nothing has been done, or to run away with the idea that there is no commercial profit in the utilisation of straw, is false. The trouble is that all the commercial propositions are bedevilled by the physical characteristics of the straw: the collection of it, the transport of it, et cetera. When nature invented the tube, she invented a tube to produce corn, and that tube had to be rigid and resist attack. So to degenerate that tube either in the soil or by chemical means is an exceedingly difficult matter. It is too naïve to think that you can digest straw just like that, and the animals have to beware of this. So the enzymes of the stomach have to be taken care of. Therefore, straw can be fed in voluminous quantities to animals if the quality of the tube is of the right consistency and the tube is of the right consistency and the tube is of the right dimensions.
I should like to give an illustration of the range of expertise that the Minister has so imaginatively brought together. I think it would be productive if I went through them. First, United Farm Production is represented; then the Paper Industries Research Association is represented, and it has revealed all the difficulties of converting straw into pulp. The ADAS agricultural service is represented, as is Stramit Industries Ltd., which produces some fabulous building materials; and Scanfield Boilers Ltd. which designs boilers to burn straw and such like hydrocarbons. Then there is the Microbiological treatment of straw by Dr. Lynch, which is quite a dramatic piece of fundamental research, in which he is trying to transmute the lignin of the tube into digestible material, digestible in the sense that when it reaches the soil its nitrogen content is enriched and it is virtually a good manure. That has great possibilities and it is well advanced.
Then we have Strawtec, with their great range of commercial products. As far as air pollution is concerned we have New Air Technical Services giving us advice. Then we have Reading Agricultural Consultants giving us advice, and the Agricultural Research Councilis represented, as is the Royal Agricultural Society of England, the Chief Scientists' Group, MAFF and Marshall Sons and Company, Limited. Then we have farmers, such as East End Farm Ringstead, Norfolk, represented; Abbott, Trower and Company Limited, Passat Heat Ltd., Perrysfield Farms Limited, another farming group, and Unitrition International Limited are represented.
Here you have about 20 units that are in process of the utilisation of straw, but they can only make minute inroads into the five million tonnes which we have asked farmers to produce. I should like to place on record the excellence of the work of the Ministry of Agriculture not only in these two fields, but in so Many 944 fields of agriculture. This is why British agriculture is the success story of this century.
§ 1.18 a.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I can see that I shall be cast in the role of the villain. So be it. But, as usual, I ask for your courtesy to listen to my case. If your Lordships can answer the following questions, I can promise that the next time I appear on this matter I shall appear in the third row of the chorus.
Before any decision on straw burning is made, will the following points be considered? First, do the Government still agree with my noble friend Lord Ferrers, when he answered on behalf of the Government on 20th December, 1982, that straw burning is an essential agricultural practice? Do the Government and the noble Lord realise that if straw burning is banned, there will be a vast increase in the amount of fossil fuels required to incorporate it in the soil, for which the industry has been, and still is, castigated? Moreover, the disease risk will increase and lead to greater use of pesticides, particularly fungicides, for which, again, the industry is being castigated. Are the Government and noble Lords aware that, if a straw-burning ban were made, it would make British agriculture less competitive, with all the consequential problems of higher food prices and, worse still, a further burden on the common agriculture policy? Noble Lords should note that there is no straw-burning ban in any EEC cereal-producing country, only controls.
What will the industry do with this six million tonnes of surplus straw? Put it on the road? I farm in Anglesey and I farm in Oxfordshire. I burn all the straw in Oxfordshire and it does not pay me, even though I put straw in at a nil price, to cart it to my farm in Anglesey, where I want it. That is the size of the problem. Would we leave this six million tonnes on the field and let it be a danger? Incorporating straw is uneconomic on many soils, particularly the unstable soils, and it is impossible to do that on some of the Oxford clays. Recent demonstrations, I am sorry to say, have confirmed me in this opinion. Maybe some could be used or incorporated.
I ask my noble friend whether he would agree that there is a great danger of generalising from one soil or one farm to another. I think my noble friend's farm in Cambridgeshire was quoted; the Walston farm. I know the Walston farm well. We in agriculture would call it child's land. Of course one can incorporate on that sort of soil, but one cannot on some of my Oxfordshire clays. My noble friend Lord Alport talks about average land. I have yet to meet an average anybody, let alone average land.
Following my last question I ask the Government what are their plans for helping Letcombe and the Weed Research Organisation? These two agricultural research centres are foremost in research on soils and straw. Can my noble friend assure me that their work will continue at an even greater rate? They are fearful that they may have one of the cuts that have been wandering around lately.
Do the Government and noble Lords realise how difficult it is to do anything practical in this world, be it in agriculture or industry? Both are beset with rules 945 and regulations, and those who have never done a day's practical work in their lives for reward should, I suggest, like the right reverend Prelate, have some sympathy, which he certainly did. It is so very easy to criticise.
Before I finish, I was asked one or two questions by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. We burn approximately a million acres of straw and the cost or the saving in cost of burning that straw, if we are talking about greed, is roughly £30 to £40 an acre, so we are talking of a figure between £30 million and £40 million. She also raised the problem of soots. I have great sympathy for her. I have soots in my house and my wife is not frightfully thrilled when we do. Recent research has shown that soots are not as polluting as ploughing in that straw, putting nitrogen on it and letting it rot down.
There was one other question about the energy that we are wasting by burning. It is a sad thing to say, but it costs more and we use more energy to collect that straw, put it somewhere and make it into energy than the value of the energy that at the end of the day it throws off. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, and, I hope, the Weed Research Organisation and Letcombe will make strides in this.
I think that I can save time by one minute. What I should like to ask and to follow up is this. How many cases have been taken up by local authorities under the straw burning by-laws? I follow this up because, unless these are made to work, we are not going to go forward very fast. Further, last year I moved an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to allow courts to ban habitual offenders. Will the Government think again about accepting that amendment? They did not do so last year.
When my noble friend looks at further regulations to control straw burning, will he be very careful not to over-legislate. In my opinion, the banning of burning at week-ends is counter productive. It encourages burning on Friday nights and regulations on burning up wind on wet years is, of course, impossible. Burning has always been an agricultural necessity. It was quoted by Virgil and, as the right reverend Prelate will no doubt quote to me, in the Bible.
I ask noble Lords and the House to give my industry time. I agree with the noble Lord that we have not, all of us, seized the problem. We will, pray God! Help us to improve on research and our methods; and, most important, help us to enforce our code—which I do not think has been enforced. We have not had a lot of help from the courts in this matter or maybe from the police. Try to be tolerant to those who have to do the practical work because, as the right reverend Prelate has pointed out, Nature is a difficult person to serve even though I believe her to be fair. Unless we give this form of help and co-operation and go forward, I think I shall have to remain reluctantly the villain of the piece.
§ 1.27 a.m.
§ Lord Bishopston
My Lords, we have had a good debate tonight and we should pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alport. There have been very good speeches which I would not want to repeat, especially from my noble friend Lady Nicol, from the right 946 reverend Prelate and from Lord Energlyn, with his scientific appraisal of the problem which was very valuable. It is rather late tonight and there is some stubble around the Chamber on the chins of noble Lords. I feel that it is a serious matter and that if one were to take a straw poll of public opinion, one would find many people wanting urgent action. There are one or two questions I should like to put very briefly to the Minister. First of all, I believe that this is a subject of concern on several fronts. Straw burning destroys a substance which ought to be used to enrich the soil and ought to be used for other purposes. One wonders what research has been done by MAFF, not least to link up some of the research detailed by the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, in relation to the use by farmers of alternatives to straw burning. Secondly, straw burning produces the dangers of spreading fire, with the destruction of valuable assets and resources. It is dangerous to road users and traffic; and, thirdly, and not least important, there is the threat to conservation, the threat of pollution and effects on wild life, animals and the soil.
One needs to know what the Government are doing—and I have no doubt they have been active in this matter—to make these alternatives available to the farming industry. The NFU have claimed there are no alternatives to disposal by burning in fields; One wonders what the NFU itself has done in research or with sponsored investigation into the alternative uses. Yet the NFU says there is no alternative to the present practice. Indeed, the NFU backs the code but admits that it has not worked. Indeed, it refers to the severity of the problems created by failure of the code by inconsiderate and reckless straw burning. Why does the NFU say that the code of practice is adequate to prevent damage if they admit that the main problems are those of observance?—because if there is no observance of the code, then the code is really quite ineffective and it certainly shows that the code is quite inadequate.
They say that prosecutions should be brought where by-laws have been infringed. One wonders how many prosecutions have been brought. In reply to a Written Question in the other place on 27th October this year, when the question was raised about the number of motorway accidents known to have taken place in 1983 as a result of straw or stubble burning, and how many people had been killed in motor accidents so far in 1983 as a result of straw burning, smoke palls, and so on, the Minister replied that the accident report supplied by the police did not give information as to the cause of accidents as such. So we are completely in the dark, it seems, about the evidence which we ought to have on which to form a judgment.
Of course, noble Lords will remember that, when we debated this matter last year and the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, I think made the point about the Justice Bill, noble Lords did vote against the Government and, if I remember rightly, increased the penalty to a thousand pounds fine. It really shows how strongly noble Lords on all sides of the House felt at the time about the need for a much more stringent penalty. Whether this is adequate in the light of the situation might be considered. So there may be a case for an increase in penalties.
947 There is the risk to life, which is most important, and also the great cost of local services, such as the police and fire brigade, to the public sector at a time when stringent cuts are being demanded in other directions. And, when one wonders about the cost to the public sector, and also prosecutions of course, to the Question on 2nd November this year, "How many prosecutions were made in 1983 of people accused of the negligent burning of straw and stubble?" one gets a reply from the Minister to the effect that the records of court proceedings available do not separately identify such prosecutions. So we have no idea how many prosecutions take place.
Then, of course, if one talks of the cost to the public sector of having the fire brigade, which could cost hundreds of pounds in each case, a reply was made on 28th October in the other place to a Question concerning charges levied on farmers who called out fire brigades to deal with such burning. The reply was that, by virtue of Section 3(4) of the Fire Services Act 1947, no charges may be levied by fire authorities for fire fighting. So there again, if the fire brigade is called either as a precaution or because of a fire, then there is no cost upon those responsible, and one wonders whether the cost should be borne by the ratepayers, especially at a time when the farming industry itself is derated. I believe these are some of the points to which the House is entitled to expect replies.
I feel that there is an urgent need now to review the by-laws and the code to ensure enforcement and possibly heavier penalties for infringement. I believe that consideration ought to be given as to whether offenders should be prevented from burning straw in the future and, in addition to fines, whether there should be consideration given to enforced licensing, a point which the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, raised a moment ago. After all, as a result of these operations many are put at risk and even placed in danger.
Finally, of course, there should be a review of the conservation aspect. In framing future legislation and codes of practice, there should be the widest consultation. All these points are very important and I think it would be unfair to attack the industry generally, because most farmers are responsible and it is a matter of trying to do justice to the image of farming.
In conclusion, in the light of the comments made by the right reverend Prelate and of his presence here now, I think it might be worth while suggesting that those who burn the straw and scatter the soot upon the land should sing:They burn the straw and scatterThe soot upon the land;It will not seem to matterUnless we take a stand.We hope the Minister will be able to say tonight what steps are being taken in this respect.
§ 1.35 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alport for raising this Question this evening. The concern which has been expressed by all your Lordships who have spoken over some of the consequences of straw and stubble burning 948 this summer has, I must admit, closely reflected the very substantial postbag which my colleagues and I have received on this issue. The Government are most concerned to do everything possible to prevent the damage and, indeed, the danger caused this year from recurring in the future. My right honourable friend announced last month the measures which we intend to take towards this end, but it is right just to pause for a moment to consider the reasons why burning is widely practised.
It is worth remembering that it is not so long ago that this country had to import a very large proportion of its cereal requirements. Successful plant breeding and developments in husbandry techniques have meant that the United Kingdom is now a net exporter of grains. The advantages which this turnaround brings to our balance of payments do not need any spelling out from me at this hour of the night.
Inevitably, a greater production of cereals has, however, resulted in a greater quantity of straw. Some 16 million tonnes are produced annually, and when livestock, horticulture, straw for packing, for construction and for fuel have made their claims, there remains, as some of your Lordships have said, about 6 million tonnes which have to be disposed of by other means. On the farm, only two alternative means of disposing of this unwanted surplus are available—either incorporation into the soil or burning. Some farmers find incorporation satisfactory, but I say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Stanley that in many circumstances this option is either impraticable, where the ground is very hard or stony, or is distinctly disadvantageous when compared with burning.
Your Lordships ought to be aware that current trials at the Agricultural Research Council's Letcombe Laboratories have shown yield reductions of up to 29 per cent. in winter wheat when drilled on heavy clay soil. High cereal yields are being achieved, of course, partly by timeliness of sowing, and a major disadvantage of straw incorporation is the time it takes. A further disadvantage is the energy that it uses in terms of cultivation, as my noble friend Lord Wise said, often in rock-hard conditions.
My noble friend Lord Alport asked me about costs, and about setting those costs against the profit which can be made. I should like to send a considered answer on paper. At this stage, I would just say that we made an assessment, with the advice of the advisory service, and came to the conclusion that the costs of not burning on heavy land could be as much as £40 to £50 a hectare.
Then, on the other side of the coin, as the noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, said very simply at the beginning of his speech, burning gives a better seed bed—or words to that effect—and assists in suppressing weeds and disease. As my noble friend Lord Stanley asserted, we have to face the fact that straw incorporation may well require the increased use of pesticides; just to give one simply and homely example, in order to prevent slug damage.
In going into details about the reasons for burning, I assure the House that I am in no way complacent about the problems which this causes. The Ministry of Agriculture has been actively involved over the years 949 in seeking ways of minimising the risks through assistance to the National Farmers' Union in drawing up and revising the union's code of practice on straw and stubble burning, through widespread publicity and advice to farmers on the need to observe the provisions of the code, through support for the recent five-fold increase to £1,000 in the maximum penalty applicable to straw burning by-laws.
Each year we regularly review the experience of straw burning, and this year, because of the particular problems which resulted from the unusual weather conditions in July, August and early September, my right honourable friend instructed the Ministry to undertake a more detailed and broadly based review. This established the nature and extent of the problems caused. I have to say that the very worrying picture which has been described in all your Lordships' speeches this evening is the same as the result which has come back to us from our review.
In view of this, we are determined to take action to prevent so far as possible any recurrence in the future of problems on this scale. The NFU code of practice has proved to be a valuable guide in the past, but this season has demonstrated that the code needs to be strengthened. I know that the NFU—who have throughout reacted in a highly responsible and most responsive way and with the greatest concern for those who have been affected by nuisance or damage—intend to make the necessary changes to the content of their code and to make it more emphatic in tone. My department will give them every assistance.
In addition, my right honourable friend has announced that, together with the Home Office, we plan to revise and strengthen the model by-law, upon which district council by-laws are based, which gives councils the powers to compel farmers to exercise care in burning. We are looking carefully at the times when burning should be permitted, the areas of straw which should be burned at any one time, the need for sufficiently large firebreaks around the edges of fields in the light of what has happened this year and in the light, may I say, of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells said about the neccessity for tree preservation, particularly at this time after the tragedy of Dutch elm disease. We are also looking at measures which would prevent the spreading of smuts andash—perhaps the thing which, above all else, caused the trouble this year. I believe that action along those lines really would meet many of the 11 points which my noble friend Lord Alport read out. I would just say to the right reverend Prelate that the local authority by-laws are enforceable at law in the courts.
A number of your Lordships, and in particular my noble friend, have called for an outright prohibition on straw and stubble burning. But a ban on burning would leave millions of tonnes of surplus straw lying around the countryside awaiting disposal. Outlets for the straw would not suddenly appear just because of a ban on burning. I am grateful to some of your Lordships who very much recognise this fact. The most likely outcome would be that instead of straw being burned under controlled conditions, it would be exposed to accidental or malicious burning, with all the attendant dangers to life—including wildlife—and to property that it would bring.
950 I ought to say to the House that the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association have written an extremely long and interesting letter to the Home Office, saying that many members of the association—I must not misinterpret what they say in their letter—feel that there would be far more danger in a total ban.
The detail of my noble friend's suggestion was that the Government should announce their intention to ban straw burning after a three-year period. But this cannot provide a satisfactory solution unless we are reasonably sure that sufficient alternative outlets for the surplus straw will become available within that period.
Finally, I come to the point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston: what about research and development? Many noble Lords have mentioned the amount—£2 million a year—which is being spent by the Government. This is so. Because of the high costs involved in gathering, transporting and storing such a bulky, low-value material, the major part of the straw crop is going to have to be disposed of either on the farms where it is produced or close by. So the main thrust of our research effort is directed at means of incorporating chopped straw into the soil to minimise the deleterious effects on crops.
We are carrying out a wide range of experiments on different soil types and at varying depths, with many types of machinery, to try to find the best methods of incorporating chopped straw into the soil. I would say to my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley that we regard the work at Letcombe as important, and that we shall do our best to ensure that it is continued. But I cannot say more than that at the moment. What I can say is that there is progress. But as I have already said, there are problems in different seasons.
In addition, we already know of ways to improve—as the noble Baroness said—the feeding value of straw, to process straw into briquettes, and to make use of it in paper and board. But the uptake of these developments is restricted by the cost of collecting and transporting such a bulky material. My noble friend Lord Ferrers, when he was at the Ministry, gathered together a group representing farming and scientific and industrial interests in order to discuss the potential uses for surplus straw; The noble Lord, Lord Energlyn, spoke in very generous terms about the group of which he is a valued member.
One of the developments that group heard about at its last meeting only about one and a half weeks ago was the production of a high density press for facilitating the handling of straw which is now being developed by the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering in conjunction with a private manufacturer.
There is only one question to which I feel that I ought to give a specific answer at this late hour. The noble Lords, Lord Stanley of Alderley, Lord Tryon and Lord Bishopston, all asked me about prosecutions. I understand that more district councils than ever before intend to prosecute for offences under the by-laws this year. I was told that as a result of our review a total of 57 intended prosecutions are expected in my own part of the world—in the eastern counties of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and 951 Essex combined. Four were expected in the south east region, and three possible in the north region.
So we are devoting a great deal of research and development to alternative uses of straw. The problem does not lend itself to easy solutions, but we are going to keep at it. Meanwhile, I believe that the other measures that I have outlined this evening will go a long way to preventing the problems we have all experienced this year, and which I assure your Lordships we will do everything possible to try to prevent happening again.