§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I beg to move that the Straw and Stubble Burning Prohibition Bill [H.L.] be now read a second time.
This is not a complicated Bill. It seeks two objectives. The first is to establish a system of licensing for arable farmers who wish to burn their straw. Secondly, it seeks to ban the practice at the end of five years. I have been astonished at the volume of support which this Bill has received from all over the country—from Scotland to the South Coast. This support comes from a host of organisations concerned to protect the heritage and beauty of the countryside and the wildlife for which it provides a habitat. It comes from societies whose aim is to protect public health and to promote outdoor leisure activities.
The Bill has the support of local authority health officers and of some county and district councils and parish councils. But, above all, it has support from people who live in the villages and towns in the farming areas—from housewives exasperated by the ruining of their lines of washing; householders whose newly-painted walls have been defaced; market gardeners with ruined crops; motorists suddenly 202 bewildered by blankets of smoke across the highways, and those who mourn the young couple killed in Yorkshire last summer.
I must tell your Lordships that the vast majority of these men and women want an immediate ban. I could give noble Lords a long and convincing catalogue of the arguments they advance in favour of such a step—the desecration of the environment; the danger to life; the danger to property; men deprived of a livelihood; the effect on public health; the wanton waste of a valuable raw material; the intolerable strain on the fire services at harvest time, and many more besides. I have no doubt that if an opinion poll was taken on this subject there would be an overwhelming majority in favour of an immediate ban.
This Bill does not seek to impose such a ban. It gives five years, under a licensing scheme, so that there could be proper control of straw burning under the watchful eye of the local authorities. This will give time for arable farmers to change their present practice, to acquire the modern machinery which is readily available, and for intensive research to find new ways of using straw for commercial purposes which are profitable to the farming industry. This Bill is not an assault on the legitimate interests of British agriculture or promoted with any sense of antagonism to it.
So far as the proposal to introduce a system of licensing is concerned, I have permission to quote a letter I received from the President of the National Farmers' Union, Sir Richard Butler. In this he says:We believe that there would be merit in some form of licensing and feel in particular that it should be possible to ban serious offenders from hurning straw".Sir Richard goes on to say:You will not be surprised to learn that we cannot support the intention of your Bill to outlaw straw and stubble burning by the beginning of 1989".Continuing, he refers me to a speech by the Under-Secretary in the House of Commons on the 12th December last, when she said: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."—[Official Report (Commons), 12/12/83; col. 822.]That is the view of the Ministry of Agriculture. There is, of course, another point of view—that it is totally irresponsible to allow the agricultural industry to inflict on the rest of the community an obnoxious practice involving danger to life, damage to property, the erosion of amenities and a hazard to health which by long-established legislation would not be permitted to any other industry. But I take the Under-Secretary's point about there being a substantial surplus of straw for which no alternative outlets are available.
By January 1989 the present surplus of straw can be, should be and will be substantially reduced. This will be accomplished in three ways—first, by incorporating straw within the agricultural practice on the farm itself. I do not pretend to be an expert in this particular field. We know that in Canada the ploughing-in of straw is regarded as one way of enriching the soil. We know that in some cases it requires the addition of chemicals. We know that on heavy land special problems arise. We know there is a theory that such a practice may reduce the yield per acre on some types 203 of land. We know that in the case of rape, for instance, it is profitable to clear the land quickly in order to get it sown as early as possible in the late summer for maximum yields. But nothing has convinced me that any of these considerations make the burning of straw essential to good arable management.
Later in my speech I shall have something to say about prospective changes in agricultural policy which will increase the demand for bedding and feedstuffs. But what is clearly needed is adequate research into alternative uses of straw. In a previous debate my noble friend the Minister said that the Government spent £2 million a year on this research. He did not say what form it takes but I understand that it is centred upon the Letcombe research establishment. At present this researches into the long-term effects of straw residue on soil conditions and crop growth, the possible means of alleviating the adverse effects of straw residue on winter cereals and the fate of nitrogen when straw decomposes. I understand that it is now intended to close this establishment in the interests of economy. At a time when intensive research would be of great help to the farming industry and would assist in solving a major social problem which has exposed that industry to public opprobrium, research is to be curtailed or at least interrupted. I have not the slightest doubt that by 1989, with an adequate research effort into alternative uses of straw within the agricultural industry, much of the present surplus would disappear.
Secondly, there is the development of alternative uses of straw as a profitable commercial raw material. Here again the possibilities are many. Take one example—the manufacture of straw briquettes which provide a cheap and convenient fuel. At present the machinery for this has to be imported from Denmark or Bavaria, but an English company will shortly start producing efficient machinery here. With encouragement for the manufacture and marketing of this sort of product not only would good use be made of a valuable raw material but the arable farmer would have an additional source of profit. There is no reason why by such means much of the present surplus of straw should not be used within the commercial market of the United Kingdom.
Thirdly, there could be a change in farming practice. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mr. Leigh-Pemberton, speaking not as a Kent farmer or as Governor of the Bank but as an adviser to the Prime Minister, in his address to the Cirencester conference last month forecast that farming practice would have to change direction. It would move to lower cereal output; poor land would go hack to grazing; the present high levels of production based on subsidies would fall and the demand for straw for feed and bedding would increase. What these three points mean is that by 1989, as a result of new methods of using straw on the farm, the development of commercial uses for straw and a change in the economics of agriculture, the only real argument of the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Farmers' Union against a thoroughly objectionable and anti-social practice will have ceased to be relevant. Yet it will still be possible for farmers to burn straw if a ban is not accepted by that date.
204 My noble friend the Minister will have many criticisms of my Bill. He will say it is not expertly drafted. I myself have several amendments I will move at the Committee stage. I know that I will have the assistance of noble Lords in all parts of the House, for this is no party political Bill, in knocking it into shape. I would welcome the help of my noble friend the Minister and his department in this process.
I should like to see the Bill go to another place with the best possible chance of reaching the statute book. However, I think that even in its present form the Bill conforms to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, has said is so important for any Bill—that it should be,in simple English, which can be strictly interpreted".My noble friend will, quite rightly, point out that in consultation with the National Farmers' Union and the Home Office his ministry has produced a new and more stringent set of model by-laws for adoption by local authorities. I realise that the views and competence of local authorities are somewhat at a discount so far as Her Majesty's present Ministers are concerned. But I think it worth recording that in response to a recent questionnaire circulated to district councils in the major cereal growing areas—and they are the councils which matter—41 out of 45 supported the early introduction of a ban, with strengthened interim legislation, while only four out of 45 thought that improved by-laws alone would adequately protect the community. That means that the authorities responsible for enforcing the model by-laws would be less than half-hearted in both adopting them and subsequently enforcing them.
But the production of the model by-laws does not in any way affect the need for the Bill. There have been by-laws in existence for 10 years and more. I have studied the proposed model by-laws. I must say, frankly, that I do not regard them as in any way adequate to meet the situation. I shall quote from a press release from the Clean Air Society. It states:By-laws have proved difficult or impossible to enforce and offer no redress to those affected across local government boundaries".I know from my personal experience that last year burning of straw and stubble in Kent seriously affected a wide area of South-West Essex across the Thames. The Clean Air Society adds:Only national legislation which affords a simple means of prosecution for an absolute offence will succeed in ameliorating the problem until a ban is put into effect".That, my Lords, is exactly what the Bill is intended to do.
Of course the Clean Air Society is a pressure group, like the dozen other organisations which have written to me in support of the Bill. But perhaps I may remind your Lordships that our great cities have been transformed from the dirt-ridden, fog-bound, unhealthy habitations of our youth, and that this great Palace can now successfully be divested of the grime of the years and can appear in its original beauty. If this can be done for our cities, why should those of us who live in the villages and in the English countryside continue year after year to experience the discomfort, danger and damage which has become intolerable to urban England?
205 One of the glories of these islands, along with their splendid buildings, their historic institutions, their long and continuous history of achievement, is the beauty of the countryside, the gentle and varied character of the landscape and the fascination of bird and animal life which depend upon it for existence. On 31st January last your Lordships' agriculture and environment sub-committee heard representatives from a number of important and responsible organisations whose evidence was summed up in the Daily Telegraph as representing,the accusation that present agricultural practice was the rape of England's green and pleasant land".Of course they, too, could all be dismissed as pressure groups. But there are pressure groups and pressure groups, and I suppose that the most powerful of them is the farming lobby—the National Farmers' Union and the CLA. But I am not asking your Lordships to support the Bill in the interests of any pressure group. I am asking for your Lordships' support in the interests of all those who live in country Britain, who go thither from the cities and towns each year for holiday and refreshment, and all those who seek to preserve the marvellous natural heritage of our islands.
As I have said, this is a simple Bill. Clause 1 makes it an offence knowingly or recklessly to set fire to stubble or straw without a licence. Clause 2 empowers a local authority to grant a licence, imposing conditions which should include the provision of the model by-laws, and perhaps others besides. The great advantage of this process is that it will not then be necessary for district councils formally to adopt the model by-laws. Each will be able to use the powers under the Bill to impose appropriate conditions, including the model by-laws, under Clause 2(2).
Under Clause 2(3) the local authorities may charge for a licence a fee sufficient to defray or cover all the administrative costs of issuing it. It is true that the costs will differ as between local authorities, but there will be no burden on the rates. Then after 31st December 1988 no further licences will be issued and the practice will be banned. Clause 3 sets out the penalties: £100 per acre of burnt stubble, and £5,000 for setting fire to straw.
Living, as I do, in a village in Essex, having in the House of Commons represented a constituency which contains some of the best arable land in the world, I recommend the Bill to your Lordships for Second Reading believing that it represents a solution to a serious social problem. That solution is fair to the farming industry, as well as to those who live in country Britain, and to all those who seek to preserve the beauty and integrity of our countryside. I can assure your Lordships that the Bill has very widespread popular support; of that I am absolutely certain. It seems to me right that the initiative to tackle this problem should be taken in this House, where the farming and landowning interests are so strongly represented. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Alport.)
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, first, I must declare my interest, which I always have to do to remind 206 people that I am a farmer. I burn straw, but I obey the code. My farm is surrounded by Harlow, Hoddesdon and Broxbourne, Epping and Waltham Abbey, not to mention the village of Nazeing, with 5,000 inhabitants, at the foot of our road. So I have considerable experience of the subject. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on the way in which he introduced the Bill, on the extraordinary wealth of knowledge of the subject which he has collected—I presume that he has collected it and that he did not have it all at his fingertips—and on putting it to us so very well. Of course I agree that he has a case; he has a very strong case indeed.
During the last debate on this subject the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, referred to himself as the villain of the piece, and I thought that he was being a little hard on himself. I do not consider myself a villain. Without doubt the Bill is the result of last year's straw burning problems, which were created by a very dry harvest—which was also a very successful one—as well as the winds which were exceptionally strong for that time of the year. Not by any manner or means am I suggesting that the problem arose only last year—it was there before—but it was certainly exacerbated by the weather conditions of last year, and there is no doubt that last year's experience brought it to a head. I must say that for all the years that I have burnt straw—and, as I have said, I am in a district surrounded by built-up areas—this is the first year that I have had a complaint. It was not necessarily about our straw burning—it may have been about many of us—but it was a general complaint about straw burning.
I am often asked by lay people why we burn straw. I try to explain—and sometimes it is very difficult to explain—that the first reason is one of stubble sanitation to guard against straw-borne fungal diseases. I think the noble Lord pointed out that research has shown that if that were not done, there would be likely to be about 9 per cent. less of a crop, which is quite a consideration these days.
The next question that usually follows my explanation is "why do you have these diseases? You did not burn straw in the past." You then start to explain that there is not a sufficiently long break now between cereal crops. Before you know where you are, you are into a long explanation. The noble Lord mentioned the lack of balance between stock and crops. You then start to explain about the Norfolk four-course rotation, which has gone, or, for that matter, the North of Scotland seven-course rotation, which has also disappeared since the last war.
I can perhaps tell a story to illustrate this change. I think that it will interest your Lordships. A friend of mine was entertaining his father and mother at their golden wedding. I must explain that this goes way back to the last part of the last century when farming people in Scotland got married at Hogmanay, New Year's eve, as New Year's day was the only day on which they had a holiday. That meant that they had a day's honeymoon. During the celebrations, the brother of the bride of 50 years ago, who had been best man, shocked everyone by saying "George, you think you have been married for 50 years. You are wrong. You have been married for 51 years" My friend pricked up his ears and said "Nonsense. I have the marriage lines 207 in my desk. I will get them". The brother said "You can get any marriage lines you like. I was ploughing the field at the back of the stable the night of the marriage. It is in turnips this year. Seven times seven is 49 and another two make 51".
At that moment, my friend appeared with the marriage lines and looked at them carefully to discover that the couple had been married on 31st December of a certain year, that they had gone to register the marriage the next year and that a careless registrar had dated the marriage and the registration in the same year. The seven-course rotation in Aberdeenshire had therefore proved much more accurate than the certificate of marriage.
This shows what the noble Lord, Lord Alport, would like us to go back to. The noble Lord suggests that we should revert to what we used to do and that we have five years to make the change back. He will realise, of course, that it has taken about 50 years to go the other way. I should like to hear his arguments on how we can go back in five years unless a benign Government will give us much more stock than at the moment.
I explained to my lay questioner that stock farming is capital and labour intensive while cereal farming is, of course, the very opposite. The noble Lord quoted, I think, a speech by the chairman of the Bank of England at Cirencester. I think that he was exaggerating slightly and asking a little too much. One's hope is that the questioner will find this a sufficient explanation for blackening all his wife's washing and filling his house with smuts. Frankly, I do not think that it is a good enough explanation. We must first and foremost improve the code. I gather that the Government along with the NFU are in the process of doing this and that we can expect the result shortly.
I am sorry that the noble Lord has so little faith in council by-laws. I believe that the by-laws must be tightened up. I agree with the noble Lord that we should go a step further. He suggested a system of licensing. But this is not clear in the Bill. The noble Lord admitted that the drafting is not as good as it should be and that he will be proposing amendments in Committee. It is not clear to me how the type of licensing that is proposed would work. I would suggest that a farmer applies for a licence to burn straw and that he supplies a plan of the farm showing the position of villages, built-up areas, roads and so on. This should be at least a six-inch or, better still, a 25 inch ordnance survey map. I recognise that these measurements are now probably in centimetres but I have never got round to using them myself.
The licence would be almost automatically granted but there could be exceptions. A field next to a school, surrounded by houses or where a main road ran through the farm might have to be excluded. In general, however, the licence would be granted automatically. With a tightened-up code something very untoward would have to happen before anything went wrong. But, should an accident occur and the code not have been followed, the licence should be revoked for a certain number of years. This is a penalty which most farmers would think about deeply. It is quite a severe penalty, much more severe than the 208 noble Lord's monetary penalties mentioned in the Bill. I am sure that this would have the effect that the noble Lord seeks.
I do not believe that the noble Lord can hope for legislation that will take effect in five years' time. Much could happen before then. I agree with the noble Lord about closing down Letcombe, which is doing a tremendous amount in this line. I hope that work will be continued on other uses for straw. We may find industrial uses. However, that still leaves the stubble. The stubble is important. It is the stubble that carries disease. A system is now being developed, although I have not seen the costings, similar to the tar burning machines that were seen on the roads before planing machines came into use, for burning stubble and controlling it completely under a hood. That might be the answer.
One matter should be examined in respect of the code. I am not sure that it could be included in the code. I refer to some means of keeping down the smuts after burning. What is needed ideally is a shower of rain immediately after burning. You do not always get that. One solution is immediate cultivation but that is not always possible. I have used an ordinary toothed harrow, which helps enormously. It is a quick operation which I would commend. I do not know whether it is practicable to enforce such a proposal. If, however, there is another dry harvest with strong winds and nothing has been done to keep down the smuts, we shall be back to square one. I leave that thought with your Lordships.
Before summing up I should like to relate another story about the wife of a noble Lord who stayed with us for a fortnight during harvest. She saw out of her window a field of wheat, a beautiful golden colour, before it was cut. When it was cut, we immediately burnt the straw and she regarded the black colour as not too unseemly. After that, we ploughed the land which became a beautiful brown. Then, before she left, we had sown rape and it turned green. This illustrates that change takes place quicker than the noble Lord suggests. There is not a huge black area left for any great length of time in the countryside.
To sum up, we subscribe to the main principle of the Bill to control straw burning with codes and by-laws. We cannot go the whole way by banning it completely.
§ 8.9 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords. I wish to make a short contribution to the debate. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Alport, from these Benches that he has a great deal of support for the Bill. As he says, it is not really a party matter, but I commend his approach. It is a matter that needs to be dealt with on a national and not on a local basis. I am sure of that. Secondly, for people to say that they are in favour of the Bill in principle and then to put forward the special type of pleading that we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, is something that I am hound to say does not commend itself to me.
I am a member of the National Farmers' Union as are a number of my family. I hill farm in a modest way and my interests are obviously rather different from those of the corn grower. But the farming community as a whole has indulged in far too much special pleading on this issue and it does them no good at all. 209 Everybody knows that straw burning is a blasted nuisance all over the country. No other industry would have got away with it to the extent that the farming industry has got away with it. In my view the noble Lord is absolutely right: a licensing system is needed in this country and it is a very good thing for this Bill to introduce a time limit even for the licensing system.
I have read with very great care the handouts which the National Farmers' Union has sent, as it always does on these occasions. I have noticed what it has said about the Bill. In my view—and I am speaking now under another hat and as a lawyer—it is a perfectly well drafted Bill; it is perfectly understandable; and it can be easily interpreted. I do not think that there is any difficulty about the Bill for those who want to implement it. If the Ministry has taken the view that the farming lobby against the Bill is so strong that it does not wish to implement the Bill, then it can find fault with it here and there. But there is no reason at all why this Bill in its present form should not be perfectly easily interpreted by the courts.
I do not wish to add any more except to say that the noble Lord is to be congratulated on introducing this Bill into this House. I hope and believe that it has widespread support in the country and widespread support in this House. It has even more support among the farmers themselves than is generally recognised. Many, many farmers are bitterly disappointed at the cautious approach that has been taken by farming leaders in this matter. They think that it would be more appropriate for the enlightened farmers to lead in this particular instance.
In conclusion, I should like to point out, as a man who sometimes buys straw, that I cannot understand why straw is said to be so uneconomic to deal with. I have been unable to buy straw this financial year. I buy big bales of straw and ordinary bales of straw but I have not been able to buy it since 1st April for under something like £44 a tonne delivered. So I cannot see that there is not a very considerable scarcity value as regards the straw which does exist in this country. Your Lordships may wonder what happens in our part of Wales. Farmers turn from buying straw, which would be very good for their land and their stock, to having cubicles or slats which cause the additional environmental problem of slurry. And slurry is an increasing environmental problem in this country. If straw were cheaper the farmer could deal with that problem, and it would be very much better for the country as a whole if we utilised it far more on our farms in the livestock areas.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, if for one moment I felt that my noble friend's Bill would encourage more responsible straw burning, I would support it. But—alas!—if allowed to proceed, this Bill will do exactly the opposite. Why is that so? Clauses 1 and 2 are examples of bureaucracy gone crazy. Each local authority will be able to issue licences in any form that it wishes, as the spirit moves it. So there will be a multitude of different regulations from field to field. We have already seen cases where local authorities have not conformed to the present code of practice, which has led to confusion and chaos, and in the county next door to me it has led to irresponsible 210 burning. Also, the clause smells of Big Brother with no right of appeal. The mind boggles at the administrative problems and the cost. However, I was intrigued by Lord John-Mackie's licensing system, particularly if it were administered by the Ministry of Agriculture. In this respect I think that I have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, who wants a national system too.
Clause 4 bans burning after 1989. Why 1989? Why not 1985 or 1999? My guess is that my noble friend has just guessed; and my guess is that farmers will overcome the problem of straw burning eventually. But guessing does not make good law. If my noble friend thinks that a date will put pressure on farmers to solve the problem, I must tell him that he totally fails to appreciate the basic farmer characteristic, which is—as I know to my cost—impatience and the desire to solve problems. Anyway, what does my noble friend suggest we do with the 6 million tonnes of straw—the 75 per cent. of the straw produced—that is in surplus? Leave it in the fields for arsonists? I have had personal experience of that this year on my own farm. Alternatively, do we put it on the road to Wales or the West Country in the holiday period? I was forced to give up livestock in Oxford by irate motorists who were too impatient to wait for my cows and calves to cross the road. What will the holiday motorist think when he is driving behind loads of straw?
Clause 3 gives me ironic pleasure. Where were the noble Lords who support this Bill when I moved, with my noble friend Lord Caithness, amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill to increase the fine for reckless straw burning to £1,000 and to allow the court to ban habitual offenders? Where were your Lordships?
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, they were not there except for my noble friend Lord Caithness. I would point out that there was a case of farmers leading and the public not following. It is fashionable today for many who cannot think of anything or indeed anybody better to criticise, to take to "farmer bashing". This Bill has an element of that in it. But our backs are still broad; nature forces us to have a sense of humour or (should I say?) resignation.
I would ask your Lordships to consider to what extent my industry has adjusted to modern pressures and I particularly address that question to the noble Lord, Lord Hooson. Seldom nowadays do we hear the attitude: "This is my land; I shall do what I like with it". Although I wonder how many of your Lordships would like to be told what to do, and what to grow, in your gardens and of course not to have a bonfire.
I shall not weary your Lordships again on the essential need to burn straw for environmental, agricultural and financial reasons. I did that during my noble friend's Unstarred Question last November. I fear that my noble friend Lord Alport did not listen to me then and so I do not see any reason why he should listen to me now. What I will say is that this Bill totally fails to appreciate those problems. If any of your Lordships wants to see these problems at first hand, I, my son and my partner are happy to invite you to our farm where, sadly, we have to burn 800 acres each year. If after that visit any of your Lordships, including 211 my noble friend Lord Alport, can suggest an alternative, we would be eternally grateful.
I fear that my noble friend, when he stated that he was not an expert on agriculture, was just a little bit too close to the truth, although I admired his confident crystal gazing on the future of my industry. How I wish I could do the same for myself! The way to solve our problem is to enforce our code of conduct which, as your Lordships have heard already, is being updated, and not by this Bill which will only confuse and, indeed, obstruct. I beg my noble friend to withdraw it.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells
My Lords, I am glad indeed that we are looking at this matter as a fairly quick follow-up to Lord Alport's Unstarred Question last November. I must apologise to your Lordships because if we talk for a long time I shall not be able to stay until the end of the debate as I have to be on duty in Somerset—mostly milk of course!—early tomorrow morning.
I want to begin with, broadly speaking, the very good Home Office model by-laws and say, first, that if the sensible 25-metre firebreak next to houses and other buildings were extended to hedgerows, in my view the temptation to farmers to rip out hedgerows would be greater than ever. I agree with the NFU that it would be much wiser to leave the firebreak for hedgerows at 15 metres.
Secondly, in addition to the fire-beaters required (and this refers to the equipment, not to the people), which is a good idea, there ought to be a mobile water tank and a crop sprayer also on the site of a burn. Thirdly, I am glad that ploughing is not mentioned in the model by-laws as the only method of incorporation of ash. Other methods of cultivation will, of course, keep the ash on the ground, even if not entirely buried under it.
However, at the heart of all this straw burning issue—if I may say so to my noble friend Lord Alport, I believe that we should distinguish, as the Bill does not, between straw and stubble; there is no real difficulty about the latter, and it cleans the ground well—at the centre of our problem is the fact that at the moment there are very few alternatives to straw-burning. As my noble friend Lord Stanley said, ironically, one cannot leave it lying about because of the fire risk. As we have also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, it does not pay to move it to other parts of the country where it is needed. We ought to be thinking about viable alternatives. These must be discovered. In my view, the people to pay for discovering the alternatives are the men who, under God, make the stuff. It is Cloud Cuckoo Land to suppose that Her Majesty's Government will fund research to a greater extent than they are doing at the present. But let the people who grow the cereals produce, say, 20p a tonne (and I have tried this out on a number of my farming friends) for the grain that they have grown, so that much more extensive research can be done. I believe that very many farmers all over the country are ready for such a levy. Indeed, I would say that many are expecting it.
212 I believe that, if pressed, the NFU would agree that the money has to come from the industry. It is concerned, as are so many individual farmers, that the image of farming has become a bad one at quite dramatic speed in recent years. We have heard about farmer-bashing from my noble friend, but I think that it is rather more than that. So many farmers are anxious about the bad image they have begun to get. Modern machinery can lead to environmental vandalism in the wrong hands—and all of us have seen that in various parts of the country; lack of planning controls (and there is a good letter on this in today's Times); and more money about—all contribute to the lambasting of farmers by conservationists and the public alike, which has become sadly widespread. I regret this and laws will not improve the situation by themselves, but action which is seen to be taken by farmers will.
Lest there should be moans and groans from my farming friends (and I have many of them) at this proposed charge on them, let us be quite clear—as most farmers with a conscience are perfectly clear—that the farming industry is on a financial high in comparison with what it was a generation ago. Because of so many grants and subsidies, farmers do not pay a very high proportion of income to the taxman. In toto we are talking of hundreds of millions of pounds in tax concessions to farmers. Therefore, a mere 20p per tonne from cereal growers towards research, producing perhaps a modest £5 million for research work is chickenfeed, if one may borrow from another aspect of the industry, but useful chickenfeed none the less. Who better to use it than the existing National Institute of Agricultural Engineering?—rather than setting up new research units with all the time and capital costs involved.
There needs to be more research into straw-chopping machines as a fitting available for all combines; much work must be done on straw as animal feed so that the stuff can go on being used within the industry. ICI Billingham and Birmingham University are doing some very interesting pilot schemes on this. There has to be more study of what are the right chemicals to break down straw, particularly wheat straw—chemicals which will not contaminate or build up plant disease, or retard fertility. Of course, there must be much more extensive research into the making of building slabs, ropes, packaging, insulation paper and, perhaps above all, fuel. I have some of it with me now, if I am allowed to bring exhibits into your Lordships' House. I watched this being made by a German plant in Leicestershire recently. It cost £40,000 to install the plant, so there are not very many about, but it is only the cost of half a good tractor. Alternative use research is where the money will really be needed if the 1989 or 1990 target is to be kept, and kept I believe it must be.
I totally disagree with my noble friend that this date has been plucked out of the air. It is a reasonable date five years ahead which the public and the industry can get hold of and be keen about. I wholeheartedly support this element in the Bill. In 20 years' time country people will look back on the 1970s and early 1980s as those astonishing years when all that God-given material went up in flames. We can and we must stop this waste. Here, to be realistic—and I say this as 213 strongly as I can—with the very likely danger of this Bill never seeing the light of day as an Act of Parliament because of other pressures on Her Majesty's Government, would it not be much better if we devoted our energies to encouraging the Minister to press district councils over their by-laws?
I return to these by-laws, or, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Alport, the lack of them. These by-laws, introduced under Section 235 of the Local Government Act 1972, are either not being made or not being implemented. That autumn 1983 survey, to which reference has already been made, indicates the very patchy use of them. The councils are in confusion. They must have clearer guidance and encouragement from the Home Office, which will know of our debate tonight, whether or not this Bill gets beyond Second Reading. We do not have long before this season's conflagration. To alter one word of Scripture—that is, the numeral—You have a saying, there are yet five months and then cometh the harvest"—(St. John, chapter 4, verse 35.)Indeed, it is very soon. The burning fields, hedgrows and trees—my beloved trees—are almost upon us. If we act now a very great deal of difference will be seen this summer, and the whole wasteful activity can become a thing of the past, and completely so by the end of the decade. Lovers of beautiful Britain look to us for positive leadership, and among those lovers of the English countryside are, in their thousands, the farmers themselves. I submit that it is essential to get farmers on our side. I believe that the great majority of the best of them are determined to be on our side from the word"go"—and "go" I believe is now.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Viscount Ridley
My Lords, I wish very much stongly to support the Bill so ably moved by my noble friend Lord Alport, and I hope that I can keep to the brevity which so far has been established in this debate so that there is no need to burn the midnight oil. I speak tonight as an arable farmer from the North of England who last year harvested over 1,000 acres of corn, by no means all of which was needed and, in fact, we burned only about 5 per cent. I believe that the agricultural industry must realise that it must urgently tackle the problems of straw and stubble burning, and farmers should know that it is in their own interests to move as fast as possible towards a situation where this practice must cease altogether.
Despite the magnificent achievements of the farming industry over recent years in raising production and productivity by a greater factor than has been achieved in any other single industry in Europe, farmers are suddenly finding themselves highly unpopular. This is partly due to the envy which unfortunately often seems to follow success in this country, but I believe much more importantly it is due to their own insensitivity to their impact on the countryside. The noble Lord who will follow me I am sure will give us a long talk about losing hedgerows and other conservation issues. He will do it very well, but I believe that much more serious than that is the annual conflagration which engulfs our countryside and which has annoyed so many people, especially in the eastern half of Britain.
214 The time has surely come when the industry itself must take the lead and support a system of control leading to an eventual total ban. If any other industry had produced pollution of this type and on this scale I believe that Parliament would long ago have acted to prohibit it, and the agricultural industry must suffer much more seriously at the bar of public opinion if it chooses not to face these facts and resists this Bill or something of the kind. The loss of public support in what is inevitably going to be a worrying future for agriculture, with all the doubts surrounding CAP, could be disastrous at this time.
Secondly, I would argue that burning straw is not necessary. If straw cannot be baled or otherwise used, then it can be incorporated into the soil. Last harvest, we used a straw-chopper fitted to each combine. The cost of such a machine came to about £1,800 per 17-foot span combine. The capital investment was between £3 and £4 per acre, which nobody would call excessive.
Of course there are problems with such machines which have not yet been solved but they can be solved. For example, last year was a dry year and that made it much easier. No doubt in a wet autumn we would find ourselves in trouble, but in the North of England we are always in trouble with the weather and I do not think that such trouble would necessarily be worse.
Also there is evidence that chopped straw is slow to rot in the soil and that it might reduce the next year's yield. This is still being investigated. There is no doubt about it, but it can be corrected and we must accept that there is a price that has to be paid in order to solve these problems. We have to pay that price, as any other industry has to pay a price for solving its pollution problems. We have to face up to these facts. It can be done and I believe that this Bill will give a much-needed impetus to the development of techniques and research into overcoming the short-term difficulties in these matters.
I farm on soil which is known as boulder clay in the North of England where the clay is at its heaviest and, as regards its water-retaining properties, I believe there is no heavier soil known in the entire universe. We have proved to our own satisfaction that chopping and incorporating straw can work, so how much easier must it be on the lighter East Anglian soil where the problem mainly arises?
We have heard a great deal tonight about by-laws and codes of practice. I have little faith in these, except as an interim measure, until total prohibition has cone in. I believe that that is what happened in Germany, where the by-laws and codes of practice became so stringent and so many men had to be on the site that all burning ceased and German farmers have now discovered much cheaper and less labour-intensive methods to remove straw by other means so that burning no longer happens in Germany.
We can argue in some detail as to whether the ban should start in 1989 or in some other year. That is a Committee point. It is important that there should be some date to work to which gives us a deadline. I think myself that 1989 is about right, but that is a matter of opinion.
We have referred to licences granted by district councils. Perhaps the county council might be the best 215 authority for that—nobody would expect me not to make this point. They are best fitted to do this because they are responsible for the fire brigades and therefore would have some say in that matter. However, this is perhaps not of the greatest importance. Much more importantly, I believe that the licence should be expensive. My noble friend Lord Alport referred to a fee. I should like to suggest that it might be rather more than a fee. Alone among industries in this land, agriculture escapes rates: yet it places as heavy a burden as any other on the local services. There should be some logical and clear relationship between costs and benefit. I suggested in our debate on local government and finance last October that straw-burning farmers should pay rates on the land which they burn. It was not meant to be a frivolous suggestion and in the context of this Bill it is a serious problem which I would ask the Government to look at. That might be the best deterrent of all to irresponsible straw burning and would go some way to compensate for the considerable cost which fire brigades incur in dealing with straw burning and stubble fires which have got out of hand.
Many farmers on the urban fringe find that local inhabitants like to set fire to the fields just before harvest. We have to see that the farmer who loses his crop is not unduly penalised by something of that kind, which would be a safeguard against an accidental fire. That is, again, a small point.
I hope very much that the Bill passes and I hope I can help it to do so. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, most sincerely not only on his temerity and the courage with which he has brought the Bill before us but also on the way he has introduced it tonight. I hope that if the NFU persists in putting its head in the sand like an ostrich on this matter any longer, it will suffer what would happen to an ostrich if the straw all round its backside caught fire.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Lord Melchett
My Lords, I am also a farmer and we also burn straw and have done so for many years. But I have become increasingly convinced—and am now totally convinced—that it is an unacceptable practice which must be brought to an end. Therefore I very strongly support and welcome this Bill. I am convinced that it is no longer a question in the public mind of how straw is burned, or getting by-laws right and codes of practice right: it is the fact that straw is burnt at all that causes the problem. I do not agree with my noble friend on the Front Bench that we are debating this Bill tonight because last summer happened to be hot and windy. It has been my recent experience when discussing straw burning that every summer nowadays is hot and windy, whatever the actual conditions have been. I have no doubt it will be the same next year, because the problem is caused by the greatly increased acreages of cereals grown and of straw burnt, and the much shorter time period in which this all takes place, because of the greatly increased acreage of autumn drilling which follows harvesting. There is no getting away from that. There are no by-laws and no local authority or anything else which will remove the facts of the case that the greatly-increased acreage of straw being burnt in a short 216 period causes massive public antagonism to the practice and to the farming industry, and we have to stop it.
I was particularly interested in what the noble Viscount said about his experience of incorporation. We farm, by and large, on light soil and it is relatively easy to chop and incorporate straw, as he implied, under those conditions. We also farm some very heavy land right on the coast in Norfolk and I confess to not having tried incorporation there, yet. What he has said tonight will encourage me to do it. That is certainly a major alternative but it is not a new one. We were chopping and ploughing in straw on our farm 20 years ago. There is nothing new about either the technology or the practical problems that have to be dealt with.
More recently a number of quite exciting alternative uses have come to light and I have been interested by the use of ammonia-treated straw which, although for a short period has been rather pooh-poohed, is really quite encouraging, not necessarily for fattening cattle but for feeding cows and store cattle. In particular, it looks as if wheat straw will be turned into a quite useful feed by this method. There are also other uses for straw which have been mentioned and produced in evidence already during the debate.
I also agree with what the noble Viscount said about the problems of loss of yield. I do not think it has been demonstrated that this is a long-term problem. There is certainly a temporary loss of yield but with continuous incorporation year after year, if remedial action such as extra nitrogen application is taken, whether that is a long-term problem, I rather doubt. But if it is, it represents a cost which industry will have to bear.
The main reason for straw burning has become so widespread is the need for speed. As all we arable farmers know, there is the need to get next year's crop in in that magic window in the autumn. The fact of the matter is that if all of us were forced to burn safely, as is the case in other European countries, burning would actually become a slow method of disposing of straw which very few of us would bother to use. That is the case with other European countries with the same cost structure and the same common agricultural policy. If they can manage with that sort of system I see absolutely no reason why our much praised agricultural industry in this country could not do so as well. The idea that it will cause enormous fire risk with all the straw left on the field, when all of us know that we have to get the land ploughed and next year's crop in as quickly as possible, seems to me to be rather an unworthy argument.
If I could turn quickly to what the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, had to say, he criticised the licensing aspects of the Bill. It seemed to me that he departed quite a long way from the rather more moderate position that the National Farmers' Union have adopted on licensing. I was expecting him to welcome the Bill because the only way to achieve the national licensing system which I think he wants, and which I should like to see as an interim measure, is to legislate in Parliament. He knows that as well as I do, because both of us were in our places when we discussed amendments on increasing the fines on straw burning. It was a little unfair of him to suggest that those of us 217 who support the Bill have not taken part in debates on those amendments in the past, because I was here throughout that discussion.
We need legislation through Parliament if we are to have a sensible national licensing system. There is no reason why the sorts of amendments to the Bill that the National Farmers' Union would like to see to achieve the licensing system it wants, could not be made to this Bill in Committee. On the whole, I support all the suggestions that the NFU has made in its brief on licensing. Where we part company is whether an eventual ban is needed. I think inevitably one does.
Other amendments need to be made to the Bill. For example, we use a large quantity of straw to store the carrot crop during the winter to protect it from frosts. The crop is then harvested early in the following spring. That straw which is left in large piles on the fields some time in March or April needs to be disposed of and I find it hard at the moment to think of any way of getting rid of it except by burning it. At that time of year with the dampness and the position of the straw it is unlikely to cause problems. There might be the need for a residual licensing power which remains when a ban on summer and autumn burning is in force to allow straw to be disposed of at other times of the year.
I strongly agree with what other noble Lords have said—and which no farmer in his right mind can deny—that if this was being done by any other industry it would have been banned years ago and the industry would have been expected to bear far heavier costs than agriculture would have to bear if straw burning is banned, as this Bill proposes. The costs to other industries of cleaning up our cities and cleaning up our rivers has been far higher than anything agriculture would have to face if straw burning were banned. I challenge anybody who opposes this Bill to suggest that that is not true. Farmers burn straw because it is the easiest and cheapest method of getting rid of it. It is a sloppy and selfish practice and I believe Parliament must act first to control it and then to stop it.
§ 8.43 p.m.
Lord Saint Oswald
My Lords, this is a debate in which, for perfect correctness, many of the speakers are required to declare some kind of interest and I do so as a farmer in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. But individual declarations of interest do not here refer, as in so many cases, to a single business enterprise but to a whole industry. Some farms, according to soil and environment, are affected to varying degrees, but few, I dare to affirm, can be otherwise than adversely affected by the proposals in the Bill.
The House is bound to recognise and is bound to pay tribute to the public spirited impulse contained in the purpose of my noble friend Lord Alport. However, we are all bound to question whether he is seeking to achieve it in the best or wisest manner. There are many, and I am among them, who consider that the means is definitely contra-productive, and increasing, rather than diminishing, the danger and nuisance which he has in mind. In all frankness I cannot see this as a feud between town and country dwellers and it would be deplorable I am sure to my noble friend if this debate serves to stir up such a feud. Yet he has 218 implied to some extent in this debate and in previous debates that farmers are governed exclusively by self-interest and that the rest of the community are often casual victims. As a member of the NFU since 1953 and as an occupant for a space of the office now far more evidently distinguished by my noble friend Lord Belstead—and also by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie—I have never encountered such a selfish farmer. In his earlier debate my noble friend Lord Alport quoted a arable farmer in Suffolk as telling him, "If you want my opinion of the reasons for straw and stubble burning it is simply greed". Clearly that was the sort of opinion that my noble friend was seeking and, it seems to me, he has taken it literally.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend? That remark was made entirely spontaneously during a visit about something quite different to the town of Ipswich. This was something that this particular gentlemen, who farms 2,500 acres and has no burning at all on it, gave as his opinion for the reason. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will not misinterpret or misunderstand the point that I was making at that time. It is not my opinion; it was the opinion of an experienced farmer and landowner in Suffolk.
Lord Saint Oswald
My Lords, the last thing in the world I want to do is to misinterpret my noble friend, but the context of his quotation was a conversation with this farmer. I have to tell him that when I repeated this, when I read it to the farmers with whom I have spoken, they were amazed, naturally offended and not all that credulous.
An equation exists. In broad figures twice as much grain is grown as 10 or 12 years ago and increased yields are a matter for scientific congratulation, not the outcome of greed. This creates a vastly greater quantity of straw which has to be disposed of in some manner. There are many manners. One manner is unquestionably to chop it behind the combine, to plough it into the land with large-tined machinery and to incorporate it conveniently into the soil. To effect incorporation, however, quantities of nitrogen have to be added and I have not heard that mentioned today; I have not heard it. This exacerbates a totally separate public anxiety. We are told that there is already a harmful surplus of nitrogen in the soil and in the water supply. We are told so by no less a body that the Royal Society. Its report Nitrogen Cycle Study Group Conclusions and Recommendations, Section 5, on the freshwater environment states; ominously, your Lordships may consider:Water quality within the United Kingdom is a matter of national concern, as needs for fresh water increase, and as water quality becomes affected by the urbanisation of populations and by agricultural practices which, to increase crop production, require changes in the land use and the addition to the land of increasing quantities of fertiliser nitrogen. Most of the fixed nitrogen from the atmosphere, from urbanisation, moves through the lakes, rivers and aquifers of the United Kingdom on its route to the sea".This means that it affects the public water supply. This, I should have thought, would cause disturbance to my noble friend and to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, who spoke before me, who is such an admired protector of the environment.
§ Lord Melchett
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I thought he was going on to say that it would be welcomed because he has made the point that straw in the soil uses nitrogen and is therefore likely to reduce the problems which the Royal Society and others have drawn attention to.
Lord Saint Oswald
My Lords, no, my understanding—on the advice of far more learned farmers than myself—is that to combine the straw with the soil considerable proportions of nitrogen have to be added which will eventually add nitrogen to the water supply.
There are, as I have said, many methods of disposing of straw. Burning, if responsibly carried out—that is the operative factor to which I shall return—is a harmless way of disposal while avoiding this new hazard.
Before turning to the critical contrast between responsible and the irresponsible straw burner, I should like to comment on the confidence expressed by my noble friend Lord Alport that a variety of other methods of disposal exist or will soon exist. I have earnestly sought, inside and outside the farming industry, some evidence of those methods of disposal. The stock-rearing areas, Wales, for instance, are already provided to capacity. In the realm of new technology, as has been said today, farmers are likely to be impatient of seeking new methods of technology. I have discussed at some length with an extremely enterprising farmer in North Yorkshire a machine which he has adopted and proved to his satisfaction, the existence of which may gladden the heart of my noble friend Lord Alport. It is called the Glencoe Soil Saver and can be bought from the United States. Because it ploughs deeper, it can create a better ratio as between soil and straw and so reduce to some extent the use of nitrogen—although by no means does it eliminate that use. But it is a method sought by individual farmers and an individual farmer. It is practical only on certain types of soil and, of course, it requires additional capital costs, fuel, use of machinery and man-hours at a time of year when man hours are at a premium. A straw chopper can only spread evenly to a maximum width of 14 feet. The particular farmer to whom I have spoken at some length makes extensive use of pig slurry to assist the process; but pig slurry is not available everywhere.
These are problems which face the individual farmer. Others who have been diligently seeking alternative methods of straw disposal are the Agricultural Food Research Council and the British Glasshouse Research Institute who are experimenting with fungus to decompose straw. But neither of these bodies nor others, so far as I have been able to discover, are within reach of a solution and none of them guesses that they will be within reach by 1989. Five or six further bodies are applying their resources to this well-recognised problem. My noble friend Lord Alport has dealt foreseeably on the better use of machinery, or the use of better machinery, for incorporation of straw and soil. It did not seem to me that he had fully taken into account the problems comprehended here, created in large part by the great variety of soils cultivated for cereal production and the demands of good husbandry.
220 Even the most expert of farmers have only been able to establish guidelines and, at the risk of wearying the noble Lord and the House as a whole with technical factors, it seems right to mention one or two of those factors. Machinery must be heavy enough to penetrate and bury at all times, however hard the ground. It must never block up, as piles of unburied material or uncultivated areas would create problems for the ensuing crops. It must have a work rate that will allow it to keep up with combining. Harvest work has to be organised in a way that straw burying goes on at the same time as combining. The farmer must be prepared to apply nitrogen in some form to assist the initial breakdown of the straw in the soil. Under perfect conditions—and I would not argue with my noble friend on this—soil can actually be improved in this way. Such conditions are rare and the means extremely expensive.
I had hoped that by substantially deleting or persuading my noble friend to withdraw subsection (4) of Clause 2 we could satisfy serious farmers without prejudice to the industry. But other important parts of the Bill refer to licensing and literally nobody directly involved considers such a system practicable: local authorities, fire brigades and the Ministry itself all agree, so far as I know, on the impossibility of giving the required notice of a need to burn. British weather is so unpredictable that prognostication of a Force 3 wind, no great wind, arising between evening and morning cannot be provided with any confidence. Who, in fact, can ask for a licence at that short notice?
In the meantime, the most disturbing feature of my noble friend's Bill, if it were to become law in its present form, is that it would not prevent straw burning; it would prevent responsible straw burning. It would leave this inflammable substance on the fields at the mercy of vandals and also of careless picnickers or passers-by. The grain-bearing areas of our country would become a patchwork of tinder. I am perhaps more conscious of this than some others because my part of Yorkshire is vulnerable and victim to vandalism throughout the year and to vandalism by fire continuously during the summer months. That does not mean that I would wish to live anywhere else or be anyone but a Yorkshireman. It is, however, an occupational hazard of being so privileged.
There is nothing geographically singular in this predicament. In my own South Yorkshire area in 1983, out of the total of 119 fire brigade calls to quench straw and stubble fires which had grown out of hand, 81 were due to vandalism; in 21, the farmer was held to be blameworthy and no cause could be traced for the rest. In the same year, the Bedfordshire Fire Brigade tackled 74 such fires, 56 caused by children playing with matches, three caused by farmers in breach of the present code of practice and present by-laws.
When 15 neighbouring farmers called on me last week in my home for a morning's discussion, it was notable that the most vehement of them—I might almost say the most passionate in his objection to the ban—was not an arable farmer but a dairy farmer with a milk retailing business. He had suffered extensive and repeated damage to his fences and outbuildings as a result of tires started casually or mischievously—for 221 the main part mischievously. He regarded responsible burning as his best protection and we spoke among ourselves of the weapon of punitive fines on farmers who failed to adhere to the new code and the new by-laws. He and others regarded this as a means of separating the unpredictable and indefensible from the foreseeable and necessary. It will not be difficult, as has been suggested, to draw the line between "responsible" and "irresponsible" burning in this context.
I urge my noble friend Lord Alport and others suffering the same understandable anxieties as he, to count upon the new by-laws, a draft of which has been sent to him as it has to me. They are infinitely stronger, more comprehenive and more detailed than those in existance today. Sensible farmers believe them to be right, although they contain some prohibitions that place a heavy burden on the industry on harvest time. Doubt is sometimes expressed on the enforceability of by-laws as distinct from measures on the statute book. It is apparent that some local authorities have been stricter and some have been slacker than others. The undeniable fact is that local authorities have the powers and they need the votes to keep them in power to exercise those powers. They are now being offered stronger and wider powers. The public certainly wish to see the powers applied; the Government so wish and the National Farmers' Union itself wishes the offenders to be penalised.
Stiffen the penalties if you will, my Lords—the penalties of irresponsibility. Ninety-nine per cent. of farmers would accept this. It is only the 1 per cent. of "cowboys", as they are stigmatised within the industry, who will suffer as they should. I hope that my noble friend will be persuaded to see it in this way and withdraw his Bill tonight. Otherwise, in some numbers, good sense will overcome affection and we shall feel obliged to vote against his measure.
§ 9 p.m.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I, too, must declare an interest as a farmer and as a burner of straw. Before I start, I should like to take up the point that there are various ways of burning straw. You can go for a complete burn, which is a damaging and very hot affair, or you can wait till conditions are a little more suitable; a little damper. Perhaps you will not get the perfect farming answer, but you will do less damage. I must admit, too, that I am very conscious, as are a lot of farmers, that there have been complaints this year. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, I think that last year was a very dry one in my part of the world and there was a dry harvest the year before; we do have damper ones. But, like the noble Lord Lord John-Mackie, I had complaints from people this year—not I hope because of myself, but because of the generality of farmers burning straw. The complaints were usually from housewives who said that soot and so on had got into their houses.
But, having said that and having painted that background, I cannot agree with my noble friend's Bill, for a number of reasons. We should look a little at the background. It has been tracked over fairly thoroughly by everyone, but I have to say something. Over the last few years, the increase in cereal yields has been very dramatic and with it has come a fairly dramatic increase in straw production. Also, 222 unfortunately, there has been an equally dramatic increase in the fungal diseases and there have even been some new ones appearing on the scene. The increase in yield has produced the straw and it has to be got rid of somewhere. The industry is producing more than it can consume itself and more than people outside the industry want.
The right reverend Prelate held up a nice little briquette. I was not sure whether it was for fuel or was a breakfast cereal, but that is obviously an alternative and one should look at the alternatives. We have heard a great deal about incorporation and we have also heard a little about feeding cattle in a better way than with raw straw. I do not think anyone has mentioned urea mollasses, caustic treatment and things of that sort. We have also heard of fuel.
The practicalities of the matter are that none of these is a real alternative at the moment. Your Lordships heard what goes on in Germany, but looking around I should not like to incorporate on my farm all the straw that is grown today. I started farming in 1950 or 1951, when nobody burned anything at all. Crops were a great deal lighter and we used to try to plough in the stuff with wavy discs on our ploughs. These days, we are trying to preserve fossil fuels, but then we had to double-plough all our land to make a decent job before selling anything.
Another matter which has not been mentioned, and I may be criticised for mentioning it, is that this seems an unfortunate moment to try to increase farmers' costs. There has been a slight reduction in their net incomes and I can see quite a severe reduction coming along. So this does not seem quite the right time to impose a prohibition of this kind, when the matter might be dealt with in a better way.
To come to the Bill itself, it is very brief, but the process of getting permission to burn straw would be far from brief and might take a very long time indeed. I am not very experienced in planning affairs, but I have certain urban experience. A most important point is that you should never ask for planning permission in town situations during harvest time, because the planners are always on holiday and do not meet. I do not know how that problem would be overcome, but the fact is that it would be a bedlam situation. I declare quite strongly that I am very much against local planners getting into not only country affairs, but such detailed country affairs as this, because—to go back to the beginning of my speech—burning is a part of husbandry whether you like it or not. It is like cultivation and is an integral part of the farming system until something better is thought of. Whether the problem will rectify itself by 1989 or later, I have no notion.
I support very much the code of practice, but it should be tightened up. Much more important is that the NFU should have some discipline over its members, so that they obey the code of practice. We are all very suspicious about codes of practice. They do not have the force of law and someone has to convince farmers that they will make themselves very unpopular indeed if they do not do things properly.
I do not want to be negative tonight and I should like to make one small suggestion. I know that the width of a fire break is outlined in the code of practice. I also 223 know that, occasionally, Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bills pop up in your Lordships' Chamber, covering a multitude of sins that happen in the countryside. One thing that might without any trouble be given the force of law behind it is the width of the firebreak around any field where cereal trash is to be burned. I would not like to say what the width ought to be; that is for others to decide. However, it would be a perfectly simple law to administer because you would be able to see whether people had done it wrong.
In my opinion, one of the mistakes so often made is that the firebreak is made from the bottom of the hedge or from the edge of the fence, when it should be made from the point where a plumb line is dropped from the outermost twigs of the hedge—the sapling, the oak tree, or whatever it may be in the hedge. That is the only legislation I should like to be enacted. Now that farmers are very well aware of their unpopularity I hope that they will have more good sense and will do things better. I should like to ask my noble friend on the Front Bench whether or not that might be a possibility.
I should be unhappy if a Bill such as this came on to the statute book and the planners became involved in day-to-day farming practice. It would be a real muddle so far as permissions were concerned and it would not serve well either the country or the farming community.
§ 9.9 p.m.
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, my own interest is remote, in that when I go to the country I tend to go to the North-West of England where straw is scarcely ever burned. I suppose the only nuisance that I have to put up with is the odour which comes from the neighbouring farms, which use silage instead of the more pleasant-smelling hay. I read very carefully the Unstarred Question which was asked in November of last year when I was not a Member of this House, and I have listened to all of this debate—except, unfortunately, most of the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alport—so there is no need for me to rehearse all the arguments for and against. And as a late speaker in the debate I have to make up my mind, as has everybody else, whether or not the time has now come when the NFU code and the use of local authority by-laws should be replaced by national legislation. That is the issue. It is always difficult to decide whether or not education and persuasion—and perhaps the use of local powers—can do the trick or whether statutory compulsion nationally should be introduced.
I am convinced that the time has now come for there to be central, national legislation. Farmers and local authorities have been given enough time to do something effective, but they have not done so. During the debate on the Unstarred Question I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, who said that, according to Farming News, 80 per cent. of farmers are unaware of the existence of the NFU code. Only last summer 80 per cent. were unaware of it. If that is the case, clearly this more mild régime of code and by-law has not worked. Therefore the time has come for something to be done, and a Bill with time limits is, I believe, the 224 answer. As Dr. Johnson said, if a man is about to be hanged it concentrates his mind wonderfully. That is exactly what the Bill does.
The speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, leave me very little more to say. The case for legislation has been made out, not so much by them as by the lack of any effective progress since the NFU code was drawn up 10 years or so ago. The time limits in the Bill would not, in my view, concentrate the mind of just the NFU; they would also concentrate the mind of Her Majesty's Government in finding—and funding, perhaps—alternative uses for straw and for research. For instance—this is something which has not been touched on so far in the debate or indeed in the Unstarred Question—there are undoubtedly likely to be advances in bio-technology. Certainly the biodegradability of straw should be the subject of urgent study. In that connection, I am glad to see that Sub-Committee one of the Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships' House is beginning a new inquiry into the case for greater co-ordination between agricultural and environmental research. The sub-committee's first meeting is to be held on Wednesday, 22nd February. Perhaps that subcommittee may take note that straw and stubble burning presents a perfect example—a paradigm—of the need for greater co-ordination of research into agriculture and the environment.
My own view is that the passing of this Bill will greatly strengthen the case for an urgent solution to this problem. Research, other uses, better opportunities for buying and selling—all these and many other ideas will be pursued with much greater urgency than if this Bill is not passed. For that reason alone—but for many more which I will not add—I strongly support the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he asks for a national scheme—but how does he reconcile that with Clause 2 of the Bill, which will allow every local authority to do every single thing differently? I am with the noble Lord on the question of a national scheme, and that is the code of practice, but how does he reconcile Clause 2?
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, if I may just answer that question, I am very glad indeed to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, is with me on a national scheme. The immediate answer is that we should vote on the principle of this Bill, which may be amended in Committee. Indeed, there are a number of details that I should like to see amended. Not least, perhaps the Bill may incorporate something like the polluter pays principle; as I am on my feet again, perhaps I can mention that. Industry is subjected to the polluter pays principle and I see no reason why agriculture should not also be subjected to that principle. It would mean, perhaps, something like a levy on cereal farmers, who may then contribute directly towards the urgent solution of finding alternative uses for straw and stubble, so that the Bill can effectively come into operation in five years' time.
Lord Saint Oswald
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down again, when the noble Lord—whose 225 beautiful soul I have known for many years—says that the polluter pays, does he mean just the guilty polluter and not all those in the same industry as the polluter? My argument throughout my speech was that the careless, casual, irresponsible polluter should pay.
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, if I may jump to my feet just once again, it is the industry as a whole which pays under the polluter pays principle.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Viscount Hampden
My Lords, I shall be extremely brief, as the evening is getting on. A point about which I feel strongly is that my noble friend Lord Alport has felt it necessary to bring this Bill notwithstanding the fact that the industry is trying to put its own house in order. Certainly in all the discussions I have had or attended since last summer, farmers have been very well aware of the problems which were caused by the freak summer of last year. But my noble friend still feels it necessary to introduce a Bill to limit straw burning. That therefore assumes that a number of farmers will wish to use the licences. That point worries me considerably because, with the best will in the world, I cannot see how a local authority—and I believe this point has been made by my noble friend Lord Radnor—can in the height of the summer issue licences, which they must obviously approve individually, to a great many farmers in one particular district.
My other point is that the local authority which has been designated in the Bill is the district council. District councils are an amalgam of old town councils and rural district councils. Certainly in the part of England where I live the number of councillors who come from the urban areas or towns very much outnumber those councillors who come from the rural areas. District councillors are dedicated, unpaid people who are very interested in maintaining the fabric of the areas they represent. I should hate a Bill to come before Parliament which in any way created friction in that fabric and which caused councillors who are normally performing their duties very well to find themselves fighting with each other. It is the whole question of the licences which worries me considerably.
§ 9.19 p.m.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, I, too, must follow the example of others and declare an interest as a farmer. I also partake, of necessity, in the burning of straw and stubble. Many of us here tonight, and a great number of people in the country as a whole, would welcome the underlying principles and feelings which have prompted my noble friend to move the Second Reading of his Bill on the ticklish problem of straw and stubble burning. However, I must regretfully say that this Bill is rather like the curate's egg, it is good in parts, and it leads one to wonder very seriously whether we should allow this Bill to proceed any further than its present stage at this time.
The worst aspect of the Bill lies in Clause 2(4), under which in effect any straw or stubble burning would be illegal in five years' time. I must say to my noble friend that it simply is not good enough to make proposals and provisions for the abolition of an activity which is known to be necessary, albeit somewhat undesirable, 226 without making any proposals at all, constructive or otherwise, as to replacement with some better method of operation. He merely suggested rather vaguely that perhaps in five years' time there will be other means of using straw, and so on and so forth. It is not a firm suggestion about what is going to be done. I suggest that we must not legislate on something until we know what is going to come out of it.
The obvious increase in cereal production, with the equally obvious decrease of livestock husbandry, has aggravated the situation whereby the majority of cereal growers have simply little or no outlet for the majority of their surplus straw. There are some parts of the country where there will be farmers crying out for it and there are other parts where the farmers have no requirement for it at all. It is all very well for people to suggest that straw should be transported from one end of the country to the other, but, unless the enormous costs involved are appreciated and understood, and it is recognised how thoroughly uneconomic it would be for the producer or the consumer, it really is simply not a practical proposition.
Furthermore, this Bill makes no differentiation between straw and stubble burning, and the two are very different indeed. Stubble burning of itself does not produce a substantial amount of smoke, nor indeed does it produce a great deal of residual ash, but it does produce a high quality phosphate which is extremely beneficial to the cereal grower. There are certain types of stubble, and in particular there is oilseed rape stubble; the production of oilseed rape in the country has increased very greatly. My noble friend might be able to give the exact figures; I have not got them, but it has gone up a lot. Speaking personally, I suppose I have gone from 50 acres to 250 acres in the last five years in the production of oilseed rape. There is no known way of getting rid effectively of the stubble that is left after harvesting this highly productive commodity unless it is burned off. If a ban were to be put on stubble burning I suppose we should have to give up growing oilseed rape, which is a very effective crop.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I understand, having taken advice on this, that the terms of the Bill do not include oil-seed rape, or what is called residue of that sort.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
Well, my Lords, I am very glad to hear it; it is the first time I knew that and it may be the first time your Lordships knew it. The residual remains of oilseed rape when harvested are stubble, call it what you like. When it is burned, I should like to know how anybody is going to tell the difference between the farmer who is burning oilseed rape stubble and the farmer who is burning his wheat stubble: we should get into the most awful confusion.
The NFU have produced this magnificent code. Here, with respect, I do not think I can go along with the noble Lord, Lord Henderson. I find it very difficult to believe that 85 per cent. of the farmers in the country are unaware of the code put forward by the NFU and which is printed in the CLA journal. I am sure that most landlords, and I will speak for myself, make a habit each year of drawing their tenants' attention to that code. I find that difficult to understand.
227 I agree that farmers have brought great discredit on themselves by failing to observe the basic elementary principles of safety and common sense and, at times, by ignoring the code. They have only themselves to blame if we now find ourselves discussing this with some urgency and concern tonight. However, just because a few have broken the rules and not observed the guidelines and displayed a marked lack of common sense, it does not necessarily mean that everyone should be tarred with the same brush. A great deal more work and research must be put into the more efficient usage of straw, whether it be for fuel, for animal foodstuffs or whatever, until there are good grounds for Parliament to effectively ban the burning thereof.
I turn now to the licensing system proposed in the Bill. I have a great deal more sympathy with this proposal in principle and I very strongly support it. There is already a system within local authorities for granting licences to farmers who wish to burn moorland after the close of the season. It should not be terribly difficult to devise a method whereby a similar system could be extended to low ground farmers who wish to burn stubble, provided the person to whom the licence is granted behaves with propriety and common sense and within the guidelines of the NFU and any by-laws that might pertain at the time. The bad boy who breaks the rules will get his fingers rapped if he causes a nuisance to all and sundry, to say nothing of a danger, and will find that he does not get his licence 228 renewed. He will have only himself to blame if that results in difficulties in his farming operations.
However, before such a system can be introduced it must be very carefully thought through before making it law. I believe I am right in saying that at the moment negotiations are being conducted and consideration is being given to this matter by the CLA, the NFU, other authorities and, I believe, the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture. I should have thought it would be better to leave this matter, having had a jolly good council on it and the underlying principle being generally supported by all. Some of us are seriously worried about going too far along this road with this Bill because even if it receives a Second Reading—and I hope it will not—I question whether the right amount of time is available to consider the extensive problems which will come out from all these discussions before the Committee stage. We can then have a Committee stage in a couple of years' time.
Therefore, I hope that my noble friend will take on board the point I am making. It might make it easier for him if my noble friend Lord Belstead is able to confirm that the Government are seriously looking at this problem and will tackle it with a good deal of determination and perhaps later bring in appropriate legislation on whatever is thought to be the best measure after consultation with all concerned. I hope that my noble friend will withdraw the Bill hut, if he does not, he knows that I will vote against it. If it obtains a Second Reading I shall certainly table an amendment at the next stage to delete the proposal to abolish straw burning in five years' time.
§ 9.30 p.m.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, while I very much sympathise, as does everyone else in this House, with the aims and hopes of my noble friend Lord Alport I believe that they are totally impracticable at the present time or, indeed, in the foreseeable future. Much has been said tonight and on many other occasions in this House and in another place, which has its own Bill, and I will obviously try not to repeat those arguments.
Farming is a balance and due, in part, to European policies we in this country have tilted the balance on straw production so that we have about 6 million tonnes of excess straw a year to get rid of. If our farmers are not allowed to burn it I am sure that it can be disposed of by the costly application of acids and fertilizers. I venture to suggest that that is far more detrimental to our environment than any effects of burning, but presumably that is what my noble friend wants. Of course, that is until he gets the first thunderstorm after the acid and the nitrogen have been put on. Instead of the high winds of last summer we will have a good thunderstorm and they will wash straight through into the rivers—and down to Colchester where my noble friend will suddenly wake up to the fact of the damage that is being done, and we shall have another Bill before us.
In his speech on 9th November my noble friend devoted only one paragraph out of 19 to alternatives to straw burning, and I am afraid that today he was not much more constructive. It is so easy to criticise, as is apparent, but it is much harder to find the right and practical answers. There are several factors to be taken into account. One that has not been mentioned, and is perhaps the most important, is location. Regrettably this Bill applies to the whole of the country. It might be feasible to ban straw burning if the country's northern border was the centre of Colchester, but thankfully it is not. The long, balmy summer days that one has in East Anglia, with good weather and an early harvest, do not apply everywhere else. In the Lowlands of Scotland the harvest could be eight to 10 weeks behind that near Colchester, and the difference between a farming profit or loss depends on the ability to burn straw and stubble in order to plant the winter crop.
§ The Earl of Onslow
No, no. Will my noble friend give way? My Lords, with the greatest respect, this is hot air. I notice the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, is commenting on that. I grow 600 acres of corn. I do not burn a single piece of straw and it does not make any difference to my farming profit or loss.
The Earl of Caithness
Exactly; he has answered his own question. My Lords, we are dealing with people's livelihoods and I am most concerned that my noble friend can discard this matter so lightly by not even mentioning it.
230 We have had a debate about the difference in soil types, and the advice is by no means clear as to what soils can incorporate straw. Much depends on the stability of the soil. My noble friend Lord Ridley has that lovely boulder clay that can absorb straw. It is going to be a different matter on the Cotswolds where there is very little top soil. Let us get this matter into perspective. Conditions are not general throughout the country; they vary. Until the problem is sorted out and effective remedies are found for land that is not suitable for straw incorporation, further research must be carried out.
Reference has already been made to the fact that no difference is made in the Bill between the types of straw, let alone straw or stubble burning. Each has different characteristics and has got to be dealt with in a different manner. My legal advice is that rape straw is included in the Bill, and so is pea straw, which might require an acid in order to get rid of it. My noble friend must look at this point again. Based on the way the Bill is drafted, my advice from an agriculture Q.C. is definitely that all these things are included, and this could lead to very grave concern.
§ Viscount Ridley
My Lords, will my noble friend give way? As we are on to rape, which is a subject dear to your Lordships' hearts, I should like to say that rape straw is much the easiest of any crop in the country to incorporate. It chops up much finer than any other straw and is much the simplest and quickest to do. Also, because it comes to harvest a great deal earlier, as your Lordships will know, it has much more time to do it; so the argument about rape straw holds no water.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, the argument does hold an awful lot of water, because, again, it depends on the type and structure of one's soil. This is the important thing. Much has been made of the NFU code, but let us remember that we have been debating for hours about how effective is the NFU. Not all farmers are members of the NFU. Although it is an admirable code, we need a national code. This is the line we must go down rather than the one in the Bill. Where the rogue farmers have broken the code, my research shows that quite plainly it is the local authority by-laws—their inadequacy and inconsistency—that are to blame for not bringing those farmers to account. They ought to be brought to account, but they are not. The case which my noble friend Lord Alport mentioned was a classic case where the by-laws were so ineffective that the NFU told the local authority, "Do not take this man to court, because your case is so weak". What did the local authority do? It took the man to court and had costs awarded against it.
The farming community has long been to the forefront in seeking tighter controls for, as my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley has said, we tried to insert an appropriate amendment into the Criminal Justice Bill 1982, but to no avail. I was rather surprised by my noble friend Lord Ridley, who supported that amendment on 21st July 1982. At that time he said, as reported at col. 929 of the Official Report:I confess to being an unrepentant straw burner and hope to be able to go on doing so".231 He continued:I am afraid that the conservation lobby, if this thing gets out of hand, will achieve a total ban on straw burning. This is the danger we face. The deterrent has got to be realistic".Nothing that my noble friend said this evening convinced me that he had good reason to change his mind, other than the fact that he had an excellent harvest and was able to chop a bit of straw and incorporate it. I hope that he will—
§ Viscount Ridley
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend again, but I must say that there have been two quite distinctly savage burning harvests when a great deal of Britain has caught tire. That is what has changed my mind.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, I was actually coming on to that point, and my noble friend's intervention has probably provided a very good introduction to it. In regard to the matter of fires, I think that I can best reply by referring to an answer given by the honourable Member Mr. Mellor in another place on 3rd November 1973. In reply to the honourable Member Mr. Tom Cox, he said, as reported at col. 427 of the Official Report, that there were 87 fires in England in which straw or stubble was reported as the material first ignited and which resulted from intentional burning. There were also 1,442 tires in which the same material was first ignited, but was ignited accidentally or maliciously. That is the point: this Bill does nothing for those circumstances but blame the farmer. The noble Lord, Lord Alport, sits there in Colchester and says "Horrible black clouds, a lot of soot—blame the farmer"—
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear that I do not actually sit in Colchester. I live in a village about five miles out of it, in the midst of a highly developed arable area.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, indeed, as the noble Lord has said, the area has excellent soil, which the rest of the country does not benefit from.
The best way to proceed, and the way that I should like this matter to proceed, is for my noble friend Lord Alport to withdraw his Bill and for all of us to support my noble friend on the Front Bench and the Ministry in what they are trying to do to get a national model by-law, really make it effective, and take the rogue farmers to task in a big way.
§ 9.37 p.m.
§ Lord Ironside
My lords, I confess that I am not a farmer and I hope that the House will forgive me if I show some ignorance of things agricultural. But in essence the Bill is not a farmer's Bill, it is very much a non-farmer's Bill. I live in Essex, where the county council supports a ban on burning—in the same county as the noble Lord, Lord Alport—and I have had to call the fire brigade to my own property in the past, which is entirely surrounded by arable land, as is his, in order to deal with fire from adjacent straw burning.
232 I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on introducing the Bill which I think is commendably short and to the point. Also, I do not think that we need waste time on debating the background leading to its introduction, as I think that it is more appropriate to look at the sense of what is proposed, and at the broader issues involved, in an attempt to try to put the matter into better perspective.
I have seen the model bye-laws which are now before local authorities and I have been able to compare them with the NFU code of practice which has generally been regarded as a helpful set of guidelines. But having read them, I feel that they are incomplete in many respects, and I think that they were drafted at a time when attitudes on burning were not so polarised as they are now. It is a 1982 document and it must have been compiled as a result of experiences gained over a number of previous seasons. Nevertheless it makes a start in getting to grips with the incineration problem, and I think that the NFU should be encouraged to improve it.
The Bill identifies the straw burning practice as an offence and provides for penalties. It proposes a scheme of control and also a date for banning the practice. If we look at the first issue, we see that in recent years, nuisances and pollution have both been the subject of legislation, and that this has had the objective of trying to create a better quality of life in the intensely developed world that we now have around us. The Clean Air Act, the Control of Pollution Act and others have all created a range of offences that can no longer be dealt with just as simple statutory nuisances. Therefore, it follows that it is not out of place to class the straw burning practice as an offence. In fact, it is already controlled under bye-laws, and I think that there is now a compelling need for parliamentary action. But I am disturbed by what is said in the latest ADAS report of 1982 about crop husbandry—that the best start to the winter sowing is "guaranteed by a good burn." I think that this is a most unfortunate use of words. In no way can it be identified with husbandry which implies good practice. Here, I disagree with my noble friend Lord Radnor. It is merely a cheap way out of an awkward problem. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, about this.
The control suggested in the Bill is that a system of licensing should be established, and in the terms suggested I would support this subject to certain qualifications over the period involved. But I think that the conditions imposed should take into account more than just the protection of the environment and convenience and safety of the public. We must have due regard for livestock, occupied and unoccupied buildings on adjacent land, enjoyment of the environment and the use of footpaths and bridlepaths on the arable land being burnt. The model bye-laws do not seem to take these things into account, although they take account of the methodology of burning. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the model bye-laws would form the basis for some of the conditions which would be imposed under the Bill on the farming community by local authorities.
The root question is that if bye-laws are used they are only applied on a voluntary basis and not all 233 county councils will want to adopt them. Some of them will argue that they have no problem at all, and others will say that although they have a problem, it is not sufficient to justify the introduction of new bye-laws. Surely, what is needed is a uniform approach to control in all our counties. I feel that there is a case for legislation in order to establish a common practice and see that it works. The NFU guidelines are universal. So why should not the regulations be universal as well?
The last point in the Bill is the crucial one concerning banning which I think that we should consider more carefully in relation to what I call the agriculture chemical energy axis, or what perhaps could be loosely called the agricultural future and what was obviously discussed by the Governor of the Bank of England when he addressed the people at Cirencester. It can be argued that a ban could affect the structure of agriculture in a way that we do not want to see. But, as we look at straw year by year, we realise that it is not so much a waste but more a renewable resource. The facts are that 250 million tonnes of biomass or lignocellulose material are produced every year in the United Kingdom of which 60 per cent. is attributable to agriculture. It is the most abundant organic material on earth, and in the United Kingdom 12 million tonnes of it ends up as waste, including 6 million tonnes of straw.
If you do not burn straw, you can incorporate it in the soil. If you do not do that, you can process it. In the intensive farming countries we are faced with these choices unless we take the view that we can buy our way out of the straw problem by importing grain from the extensive farming countries merely for the extra cost of shipment. But it would alter the structure of our agriculture which I think would be completely unacceptable. Incorporation is not, I understand, fully developed at the moment. But I think there is some concern from the United Kingdom point of view that a project on incorporation at the Letcombe Laboratories may be affected by the cutbacks in agricultural research and the merger which will be taking place with Rothamsted. My fear is that work on finding alternatives for the use of straw will slow up, just when it is necessary to do more work. The National Farmers' Union is said to be concerned enough to consider a levy on cereal growers to sponsor further research at Letcombe themselves. Also, I understand that developments in Denmark are proceeding well, and that the Minister has recently been over there to see what success they are having with incorporation. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to tell us more about that when he comes to reply.
To my mind, the most satisfactory way to deal with straw is to process it. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the work of the ICI Agricultural Division at Billingham towards the development of a biomass refinery to produce fuels and chemicals. I am told that they are at the stage of flushing out the chemical options for the front end process based on the hydrolysis of the ligno-cellulose using catalysts which will produce a number of streams to the various product ends. The project is being supported by the Commission in Brussels, and hopefully may reach the commercial plant stage in 1987.
234 In France, AFME—which is the French agency for the rational use of energy—is putting 150 million francs into a pilot plant at Soustons to produce one tonne a day of acetone butanol in 1987 by a slightly different but slower enzyme hydrolysis process, a route not favoured by ICI as I understand it.
Also in France the co-operative at Lierville, west of Paris, is operating a dehydration plant fuelled by straw, and apparently successfully producing animal fodder on a profitable basis. In fact 100,000 tonnes of straw are supplied by farmers on a 20 kilometre radius from the plant. The plant is said to have cost 2½ million francs in 1981; it makes annual savings of 900,000 francs, and has a two years and ten months' payback period.
In France there is no legislation to forbid straw burning, but local authorities are empowered to control burning or to forbid it in the interests of public safety. I understand that no public complaints about straw burning have been recorded and local authorities seem to be able to deal satisfactorily with the problem. But it must be remembered that out of the 25 million tonnes of straw occurring in France 2–3 million tonnes are burnt; 4–5 million tonnes are incorporated; and the bulk of the remainder goes for animal feed. The problem is much larger there, but powers exist to forbid burning and I think that that is an important fact.
From what I have observed—taking into account work in France and the United Kingdom—I think that it is not unreasonable to introduce a ban in 1989 and if one looks at this date I do not believe that my noble friend is guessing at all. I think that he has taken into account the prospect of commercial processing plant being available within five years, and clearly this date is based on that factor.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to intervene? Would he not agree that the banning of straw burning by 1st January 1989 is one of the worst red herrings of the Bill because under Clauses 1 and 2 the local authority could ban it as soon as this dreadful Bill is passed?
§ Lord Ironside
My Lords, I was going to say that I believe that we do not wish to force the scientific community into overreaching itself in order to produce commercially viable processing plant, but I believe that a date for the ban can be set now and reviewed before coming into force, so that Parliament can, if necessary, decide to delay it for a further period.
I believe that the Bill is necessary and I also believe that it is necessary for the Government to support pilot plant projects to get straw processing out of the laboratory and into commercialisation, because burning is now seen for what it is—a distasteful practice which also produces ash which invades our houses, and it cannot be allowed to continue in this way. I hope that this Bill will go further and I shall support the Second Reading.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he says that he does not want to overstretch the scientific resources, but what grounds does he have for saying that by 1989 there will be some form of processing? He has said so in his speech. Can he tell me?
§ Lord Ironside
My Lords, I cannot be certain that there will be, but I believe that the prospect is very good. I have evidence from colleagues in industry whom I have consulted that things are moving ahead in this way, so that there is a strong prospect of commercial processing plant being available within five years.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, would it not be more appropriate to wait until there was such a processing plant and then to go ahead on these lines?
§ Lord Ironside
My Lords, I think that it is possible for the Bill to be altered in Committee so that we can review the date nearer 1989.
§ 9.52 p.m.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, if one is driving up a road, there is possibly nothing more unpleasant than to see great clouds of black smoke drifting across the motorway caused by farmers obeying the code. This particular habit of straw burning is one of the most anti-social habits producing pollution that is allowed to continue at the moment. We in the farming industry are receiving extremely bad press and publicity. One only has to read the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Economist and several other magazines to appreciate this. Those publications which I have named are not normally associated with the trendy Left-wing, conservationist fringe—the looney side of it; they are serious magazines pointing out a very serious problem. It is extremely unfortunate that my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley seems to be totally and utterly unaware of the bad press and the bad publicity farmers are receiving and of their unpopularity.
I particularly want to avoid that, and one of the most sensible and reasonable ways would be to ban straw buring within five years. As I have already said, I do not burn straw, partly because we manage just to be able to sell it or give it away; and partly because I am very worried about the trees, of which there are still a few in the middle of fields, and the hedges, of which I still have a few. It has a deleterious effect on wildlife however carefully the code is obeyed. It has a polluting effect. Those are the reasons why I do not burn straw.
Admittedly, I do not live in East Anglia, but my noble friend Lord Ridley, in a nice and concise speech, has shown that it is perfectly possible to change from a straw burning regime to a straw incorporating regime within two years. It may be of interest to your Lordships to know that on 23rd January the Surrey committee of the Country Landowners' Association passed a resolution to the effect that it would advocate the banning of straw burning within five years. That is a lead, although I do not think it is the only one; but much concern has been expressed in the CLA on this particular subject.
I agree that the licensing provisions of the Bill ought to be tightened up in that there are not sufficient guidelines under which licences are allowed. However, that is a Committee point. That is a different point. It has been shown that the by-laws are very difficult to enforce and there are extremely few prosecutions. There was of course the ghastly case on the A1 when 236 accidents and deaths were caused in last year's harvests in Yorkshire. If there had been no straw burning, however irresponsible the man may have been, whatever may have been the background, those people would still have been alive today.
It seems that my noble friend Lord Ironside has covered all the points that I was hoping to be able to cover on the technical version of the use of straw for alternative fuels, and so on. He also made another valid point: that the Minister should be able to change the date, 1st January 1989, if he can persuade both Houses of Parliament that there is a good reason for changing that date. There may be a case for bringing the provisions regarding fines more in line with what the Home Office are doing: I believe there is a Home Office scale of fines which has been introduced in criminal justice legislation. But these are all Committee points. We should stop straw burning and, as someone said earlier, nothing concentrates a man's mind more than the prospect of execution the next morning.
§ Lord Moyne
My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I ask whether he grows oilseed rape and, if so, how he manages to dispose of the straw without burning it?
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I have grown a little oilseed rape and we chop the straw and incorporate it.
§ 9.56 p.m.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, I wonder whether I might say a few words before the noble Baroness speaks. I grow corn and it is grown very close to the hills, and I am lucky because the hillmen descend on me and remove all the straw and take it back up to the hills where they do not grow corn. I am also near to ICI and it is quite possible that when ICI get a plant—they are quite capable of getting one: they have the technology—they could take that straw, because again the farms near me are within reach. But one has to think of the farmers who are neither close to a big plant nor to the hills and who therefore have a much greater problem than the people who can get rid of their straw.
The only other point I wish to make is that in Clause 2 it is suggested that the licence will be granted by the council. My noble friend made the point that councils vary enormously, and every council has a different point of view: this could mean that it was intolerable for the farmers. Furthermore, there arises exactly the same position as occurred with the old heather-burning rules, when the county executive committee used to decide whether somebody could burn heather, on application. The application used to go in; the executive committee used to meet probably a fortnight later. They would eventually say yes or no, but the decision was often made some three weeks after the application was put in. By that time, there might well be a drought or perhaps a flood, and the permission was quite valueless. If you ask a committee to make a decision, and then it is many days before the decision is given, the weather will be totally different from when the application was put in, and it is pointless. If permission has to be given it ought to be given, immediately in accordance with what the weather is, and at the moment the man wants to burn the straw.
§ 9.59 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, this seems to be an evening for credentials. I cannot claim to be a farmer but I should say that I was brought up in a farming community and have had a good deal of first-hand experience of working on a farm. Secondly, I live in Cambridge, which, as many of your Lordships will know, was in a ring of fire for the whole of last summer, or so it seemed. It was probably only six or eight weeks, but it seemed as if it was forever. Thirdly, I am very concerned about the environmental aspects of this particular problem.
A lot of points have been made tonight. I should like to compliment the noble Lord, Lord Alport, not only on bringing forward this Bill but on his stamina, because I think he is going to need it to see him through the degree of opposition which his Bill seems to have aroused. May I say at this stage that I hope he will not yield to the opposition? I hope that he will see it through to Committee stage. He will certainly have my support and I suspect a great deal more support than has been shown in the Chamber tonight.
Although it is a long time since the events of last summer—I do not propose to go through it all again for I am sure your Lorships are all weary of the many examples—it is true that people have not forgotten that time. Last year was particularly bad and it will take more than reassurances from the National Farmers' Union or anyone else to make people believe that legislation is not now needed. There is still a good deal of coverage in my local press, triggered off by the new by-laws being brought forward from time to time and by an occasional late prosecution of a farmer for breaking the by-laws last year. It so often happens, particularly in rural communities, that the fine imposed on the farmer is not commensurate with the difficulty he has caused. There was a case in Newmarket recently of a farmer being fined £25, which is an absolute nonsense in view of the problems caused.
We are aware that last year's difficulties were not caused by all farmers. Much of the public anger could have been avoided if all members of the farming industry had accepted the advice of the NFU or had simply used their common sense. But some of them did neither and now the price has to be paid.
In the report of the Select Committee on the European Communities, called The Polluter Pays Principle, to which the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, has drawn attention, there is a definition of what pollution means. It reads:the consequences of discharge into the environment of materials which, in the short or long term, are offensive and socially unacceptable".In winding up the debate on 14th November 1983 on the EEC report, the Minister said at col. 1109:The government do, of course, recognise that PPP"—that is the "polluter pays" principle—should apply to agriculture as it does to the rest of British industry".—[Official Report, 14/11/83: col. 1109]
Straw and stubble burning undoubtedly qualifies as pollution in those defined terms and it would appear from the Minister's summing up that the Government 238 will expect the industry to be responsible for the financial consequences of abatement. This should comfort the reverend Prelate, who, unfortunately, is not here to hear it. This is a point that was raised by a number of noble Lords. I believe that there was a question about whether only offending farmers should pay. I do not think this happens in other industries. There is a levy which controls pollution and which covers all members of a particular industry. I assume that it will be the same for farming.
The consequences—the payment, if your Lordships like—may include reduced yields for a time, because I appreciate that burning straw and stubble is the easiest and cheapest way of disposing of the residue, but that is the price we pay for living in an over-crowded island with a population whose expectations include the right to clean air. It is at last being recognised that agricultural issues cannot be separated from environmental ones. That explains why I am here on the same Front Bench as my noble friend Lord John-Mackie. I offer him sympathy. I cannot offer him, I am afraid, the degree of support that I think he would enjoy.
The problems of air pollution which are caused by straw and stubble burning are at least limited in time, but the destruction of wildlife habitats is more deadly in its long-term effect. Public awareness of and concern for our rapidly diminishing flora and fauna has grown dramatically in recent years. Concerns that were once associated, as another Lord has said, with fringe groups, and perhaps not taken too seriously, are now matters of great interest to an ever more active and growing number, especially of young people. In this House, as perhaps nowhere else, there is understanding and sympathy for the concept of one generation holding the land in stewardship for the next. As our heritage of open land diminishes, so it becomes more important that each generation should be even more vigilant in its care for what is left.
Now to the Bill before us. Licensing has caused a great deal of comment.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, before the noble Baroness goes on to the the Bill, she referred to the fact that we burn because it is easier and quicker. Could she tell me how one deals with unstable soils—not heavy soils but unstable ones?
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I do not think that I can tell you how to deal with unstable soils any more than I can give an answer to many of the other questions that have been asked about the alternative uses for straw. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henderson: unless we have the threat of a ban I do not think that research will be carried out as is necessary.
To come back to the licensing, if I may—
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I ask only to give a little assistance. In the matter of pollution in the water industry, people were told to find answers to this, and they found them. That, surely, is the answer to the question of my noble friend Lord Stanley. I love helping the Opposition occasionally.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. On the question about licensing, there seemed to be a feeling that, as someone said—and I 239 think it was the noble Lord, Lord Saint Oswald—one would wake up in the morning, decide that the wind was right and rush off to get a licence from the local authority. My understanding of the Bill is that the licence would be given not for a particular operation but to a particular landowner or farmer. If he is sensible, he will apply for a licence in plenty of time, long before his harvest is ready. In fact, one would hope that the licence, when granted, would cover him for more than one season. It is merely, as I understand it, that one is licensed as a suitable person to operate burning. A person would lose that licence if he proved himself to be otherwise. The noble Lord, Lord Alport will no doubt correct me if I am wrong.
The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, was very concerned that planners would dabble in agriculture. I do not think that that is envisaged in the Bill. My understanding would be that there would be a degree of expertise in each local authority responsible for granting the licences in the way that we have building control operatives at the moment. They would be capable of granting licences without crossing too many t's and dotting too many i's.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, they would be without real knowledge of the subject. That would be my worry.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, certainly if you put planners in that would be so, but I cannot imagine that a local authority would ask its planning authority to issue licences for agriculture. I should think they would be perfectly capable of producing the right expertise.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I would expect it to be the county councils, not district. Does the Bill say otherwise?
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I think I can help the noble Baroness. It does, in fact, say the district council. They are the authority which has to adminster the licence.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I think that this may be something which would have to be amended on Committee. I agree that many of the other points that have been brought up tonight are committee points, and not suitable for debate at Second Reading. With great respect, I think that there will have to be some amendments and this might be one of them. I am convinced that the expertise will be forthcoming. It is most unlikely that a planner would be asked to issue licences for burning. That covers licences, I think, which seemed to worry a great many people.
The noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, was very concerned that we should not try to legislate until we had all the alternatives available for the use of straw. To him, I can only make the same point that unless we legislate we shall never get the alternatives. We have the example of Europe, we have the example of many other countries where straw burning is now almost unknown and, as usual, we are lagging behind. I see no reason why we should. We must now put pressure on 240 the Government and anywhere else we can to make sure that we catch up. The expertise is there, in some cases for the asking. We do not even have to do our own research—
Lord Saint Oswald
My Lords, since the noble Baroness has done me the honour of mentioning my intervention. Clause 2 states:shall specify the periods during which straw or stubble may be burnt thereon".This gives—
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I am very happy to give way and to try to answer the noble Lord's question, but may I point out that I am not the originator of this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Alport, is the originator. He will be summing up and I am quite sure that he can deal with any points that I have not covered. I did not consult him before this debate, so I do not know what was in his mind. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, raised a point about a residual power to burn straw in winter. Again, that is something which could be raised in Committee. There will obviously have to be a sensible approach to used straw which is unfit for other purposes, and I should be very surprised if this point could not be covered in Committee.
Those are probably all the questions that I feel I can take on. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, will deal with the rest. But it is encouraging that the results from elsewhere are available to us and I hope that we shall take advantage of them. The threat of a complete ban on burning will provide an incentive not only to research, but to those farmers who at the moment ignore the code of the NFU. I have questions on two aspects of it which, again, I shall wish to raise at Committee stage. I am uncertain whether the five-year proposal is realistic. It might be that we shall have to seek to extend it. But I will take advice on that and we will no doubt come back to it at a later date.
As the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, said, there is a difference between straw and stubble burning. Stubble burning used to be an accepted practice and, properly controlled, I believe that there is still a place for it. It overcomes difficulties of destruction of pests and it prepares the soil for cultivation. But it also means that cultivation will need to follow very quickly, unless we are to have a nuisance of ash. It also means that it must be completely controlled; otherwise, we shall have hedgerow destruction. But, with those reservations—and they are not complete reservations; they are questions which I hope to answer before the Committee stage—I hope that the Bill w ill go forward. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on producing it and I look forward to the Committee stage.
§ 10.13 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)
My Lords, I have listened very closely to this interesting debate and to the wide range of views which your Lordships have expressed, including the somewhat divergent, but nonetheless extremely interesting, speeches from the noble Baroness. Lady Nicol, and the noble Lord, Lord 241 John-Mackie, from the Front Bench opposite. When my noble friend Lord Alport raised the question of straw and stubble burning in your Lordships' House last November, I tried to give an indication of the measures that the Government were proposing to take to deal with this issue, and I should just like to say a very little about the action which the Government have taken since before I offer a view on my noble friend's Bill.
First, my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture was as concerned as any of your Lordships at the problems associated with last season's straw burning. Although, as the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said, a major cause of the problems was the unusual weather conditions of last summer, we were determined to take action which would reduce to the very minimum the risk of any repetition of the damage, the danger and the nuisance on the scale experienced, and I can quite understand from the speech of my noble friend Lord Ironside how he feels about some of the troubles which he may have experienced in the past in this way.
Therefore we commissioned immediately a review of straw burning on a regional basis. This demonstrated to us that the problems had been very widespread and related not just to damage but also to a very substantial problem of smuts and ash. It showed also that most of the trouble last season could have been avoided if the common-sense provisions of the existing NFU code of practice had always been followed.
Because the local authority bye-laws provide an existing framework and can be updated in time for this year's harvest, we believed—indeed, we still believe—that the best prospect for achieving stricter controls rapidly is in that way. The fact that maximum fines for offences under the bye-laws have been increased from £200 to £1,000, and are likely to be further increased in the not too distant future, is, we think, an additional reason for doing it in that way. Therefore in concert with the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture has undertaken a thorough review of the model bye-law. That is the document upon which district councils' bye-laws are based. We did that after harvest last year and sent out the document last month for comments by the local authorities and other interested parties.
The amendments to the bye-laws which the new draft contains are intended not only to provide additional safeguards to life, to property and to wildlife habitats, but also to reduce the risks of pollution by ash and smuts which were the cause of so much concern last year. One major problem, for example, concerned the size of the fire-break needed. My noble friend Lord Radnor referred to this point. I should like to make it quite clear that the new draft tackles this question by increasing the fire-break from 15 to a proposed 25 metres. A requirement to have additional supervision by responsible staff to keep fires under control is included, as is a requirement to have a mobile water container and firebeaters in the fields throughout burning. Also, additional restrictions on the times when burning may be carried out—at weekends and on bank holidays—are designed to minimise the disturbance to the public at large.
242 In order to reduce the risk of creating major thermal currents which lift the smuts into the atmosphere, to be deposited elsewhere, and so as to facilitate the control of fires, the draft also imposes a limitation on the areas which may be burned at any one time. And—we are here meeting a point made by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie—the draft requires farmers to incorporate ash and smuts into the soil within a short period after burning.
Your Lordships will forgive me if I say that I gained the impression from some of the speeches that your Lordships may feel that in some way bye-laws are not a deterrent and do not provide an adequate penalty. As I have already mentioned, the maximum penalty for infringing straw and stubble burning bye-laws is now £1,000, and the Home Secretary is now preparing an order increasing maximum summary fines generally so that local authorities making new bye-laws this summer may be able to prescribe an even higher maximum. It is probably going to go up to £2,000.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting my noble friend, but can he tell us how many people have actually been fined the maximum of £1,000 for infringement of the code, or what the actual maximum fine ever imposed has been?
§ Lord Belstead
No, my Lords, I am afraid that I do not have those statistics, but the point I am trying to underline is that the local authority bye-laws are the law of the land. They can be, and, indeed, are, and should be—
§ Lord Belstead
No, my Lords, not at the moment. I have listened for a very long period of time and I am now going to make my speech. In answer to my noble friend, the point which I am trying to underline is that the local authority bye-laws are the law of the land. They are enforceable, of course, in the magistrates' courts. I know that my noble friend will accept from me that £1,000, with the possibility—indeed, the probability—of a £2,000 maximum fine, which would be for each offence, is, I believe, a realistic penalty.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I am so sorry—I did not mean to interrupt my noble friend. I was under the impression that those provisions only became the law of the land if they were adopted by the district councils as part of their powers. If a district council does not do so, then as far as that part of the country is concerned, it is not the law of the land at all.
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right, and I am glad he is underlining that it is highly desirable for district councils to adopt these very sensible proposals. May I move on and say that the bye-laws are complemented by the code of practice which the NFU believes should also be strengthened in terms of both its content and tone. We support the NFU in this. I may say that it has taken a highly responsible and very firm attitude throughout this whole business. The Ministry and other bodies on the NFU's working party are assisting in a revision of the code which is already in hand.
243 At the same time, it is important to find other means of disposing of straw. Towards this, the Ministry has for some time been involved in what all your Lordships have talked about—research and development. Of the 12.8 million tonnes of recoverable straw produced in 1983, I am told that there was an economic demand for some 7 million tonnes and some more was incorporated into the soil. That left about 5½ to 6 million tonnes to be disposed of. That is a formidable quantity of straw, and as many of your Lordships in this debate have shown that you are aware, the Government are committing almost £2 million annually to research into straw utilisation and incorporation.
The major part of the straw crop is likely to be used or disposed of on the farm where it is produced. The bulk of our research is accordingly geared to this. Many of the alternatives being researched—such as straw for fuel, paper or packaging—certainly offer prospects of success, but on a localised basis because of the difficulties of moving this bulky material around. But we have to face the fact that relatively cheap materials are competing in the market for these alternative uses of straw. Much of the Government's efforts are also being based on improved methods of incorporation of chopped straw into the soil to minimise the deleterious effects on crops and cropping programmes. Many of your Lordships have referred to the substantial obstacles which have to be overcome in that respect.
I believe that my noble friend Lord Alport would do well to visit those who are conducting research in straw incorporation, who would be able to explain to him the effects of toxic residues and increased slug damage which decomposing straw produces, and who will be able to warn my noble friend of the dangers of disease carry-over with the possible need for yet more fungicide and herbicide sprays and for the need for yet more nitrogen to be applied after straw incorporation—as my noble friend Lord Saint Oswald mentioned.
The complexity of this subject—and I admit that it is complex—was brought out by my noble friend Lord Saint Oswald when he told your Lordships' House about the contact he had with someone using a very deep form of plough called the Glencoe Soil Saver. My noble friend told me about this in a private conversation we had last week. I regret to say that it was only about 24 hours later that I opened my newspaper to read that a learned body whose name I now forget had complained that very deep ploughing had ruined archeological remains in a particular part of the country. I felt that one was, perhaps, back to square one.
However, I assure your Lordships that we in the Ministry will certainly stick to the task of trying to overcome the problems of soil incorporation. I will just make it absolutely clear to my noble friend Lord Alport that whatever the plans for Letcombe Institute, research into straw incorporation will most certainly continue.
If I may say just a word about the Bill, the proposal to ban completely in five years' time does immediately run up against the problem of finding alternative 244 economic uses for straw. It is no use having the technical knowledge to make straw into fuel brickettes, into paper or board, or into anything else, if at the end of the line the customer chooses an alternative cheaper product. In saying that, of course I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, talking about the higher value feed which can be made from the straw, and I accept absolutely what the noble Lord said. But there is a product which is being produced from, I would guess, the noble Lord's own straw; it is being done by a method which is obviously excellent, and I am as delighted as anybody else, and so are the Government, that this should be economic. But I think the word "economic" has to be borne very much in mind here. I would therefore say that I believe that research and development will increasingly provide new outlets, but it does put the responsibility on my noble friend Lord Alport to show that these new outlets can be achieved economically within five years, and I am sorry but that is something which my noble friend this evening has not done.
Nor would the threat of a ban make the technical problems of incorporation any easier to overcome. A ban on burning would result in a risk of far greater damage to the countryside through the unwanted material being left lying around and constituting a positive invitation to accidental or malicious fire. In these circumstances there would be no fire-breaks, no supervision, no fire-fighting equipment, no limitation on the area to be burned and no incorporation of the smuts after burning.
The other objective of the Bill is to seek to control straw and stubble burning until 1989 by means of licences issued by the local authorities. Here the Bill does not specify the conditions governing the issue by the authority of licences. As I understand it, if an authority chose to do so it could, under this Bill, take a policy decision to refuse to grant any licences at all. Such a policy, in effect a local ban, would give rise to all the problems of disposing of the surplus straw to which I referred earlier. I really think that to be fair, and to ensure even application across the country, the licensing system would need to be constrained by some criteria laid down by the legislation as to when licences were to be withheld or withdrawn. The conditions attached to licences would need to be set out and the implementation of the system would have to be subject to some sort of appeal procedure.
All these elements would require a considerable input of manpower and other resources, bearing in mind that straw was burned in 1983 on some 25,000 holdings. The potential of such a licensing system for bureaucracy and delay, as my noble friend Lord Radnor rightly said, really does not need spelling out. The enforcement of controls under licences would be no easier a task than the enforcement of the bye-laws. The bye-laws have the one enormous advantage over licences: they do not require an elaborate bureaucracy to establish and to implement.
Finally, may I reiterate that the Government are taking tough action so that straw and stubble burning should be very strictly controlled. The impact of our action will I believe be felt this year when the new bye-laws are adopted in time for harvest, as I very much hope will happen. Our proposals I believe are sensible and fair, taking account of all the interests 245 concerned. I welcome the opportunity which my noble friend's Bill has given to set out the prompt and fair action which the Government have taken to meet public concern on this matter. I ask my noble friend to give the new bye-laws a chance to work, and I hope that if my noble friend will do that he will feel it right not to proceed with this Bill.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his invitation. I think I replied to most of the points he made in criticism of the Bill when I made my opening speech. I anticipated, among other things, that he would regard the bye-laws as the linchpin of the Government's policy. The bye-laws depend on the action of district councils to adopt them and then to enforce them. It is at that level that the whole of the success of the Government's policy of control, such as it is, is maintained. If the district councils have the power and the responsibility for adopting bye-laws and enforcing them, surely they could be the authority which has the right to issue the licences rather than the county council or on a national basis.
I should like to say how grateful I am to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. An enormous number of points have been raised. I would possibly be wrong to try to reply to them all in detail—if I could, which I cannot. In any case, I have had the help of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, in replying to some of the most important ones. However, in regard to licences I do not believe that it would be difficult for district councils to issue and administer the licences. It would not substantially increase the manpower required, and so on. In any case, as I pointed out in my opening speech, there would be no additional cost to the ratepayers with this system. The district councils are the right level because they know the countryside and the farming areas on which they will administer the licences better than the county councils.
I do not think that there will be delays. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, rightly said that the applications for the licences would be made earlier in the season. I am assured by those who represent the Association of District Councils that they see no difficulty whatever in carrying out the administration of the licensing system.
I have listened to the speeches made this evening and I have also received communications from some of my noble friends, and others, who have been unable to be present tonight. For instance, the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, said in a letter which I received this morning:Just a note to wish you the best of everything for the Second Reading of your Straw and Stubble Burning Bill on Tuesday".He added that he only wished he could have been here to speak in strong support. He goes on to say:If no one else makes the point I have evidence (including some horrid photographs) of burnt animals and birds. The gamekeepers around here have to go around after strawburning finishing off maimed hares that are dying of their injuries and there are plenty of charred corpses too".It is a point to which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred. What I am seeking to illustrate, on a point that many may feel is not relevant to the big problem we are dealing with, is that straw and stubble burning as such is a matter of concern for a large number of 246 people in this country. They are not townspeople, as my noble friend Lord Saint Oswald seemed to indicate, but country people who are interested in the integrity, beauty and maintenance of conditions of every sort in the environment. It is country people who are asking for an immediate ban, not the townspeople who are not affected unless they are on holiday and see what is being done. This is not a feud between town and country. It is something which the country folk—not, perhaps, the farmers—wish to see happen.
I have carefully taken into consideration the views which have been expressed to me both before and during this debate. There are certain amendments I would wish to make in Committee if your Lordships give the Bill a Second Reading. I would give powers to local authorities to revoke a licence in the event of the licensee being convicted under the provisions of the Bill. That is in accordance with Sir Richard Butler's letter. I would ensure that a licence is not unreasonably withheld by any district council. That answers the point made by one of my noble friends. District councils would be compelled to issue the licences and if they refuse to do so my third amendment would operate. It would provide the right of appeal to an appropriate court of law in the event of a refusal to issue a licence or on the withdrawal of a licence. I think that answers a number of the points made and a number of anxieties expressed by my noble friends who are concerned with the agriculture industry.
I would also consider at Committee stage making one further amendment. It would answer a good many of the real anxieties that lie behind the speeches which have been made this evening. The amendment would be to delete subsection (4) of Clause 2, which entails the banning in five years' time, and replace it with a provision along these lines:(3A) The Secretary of State may by order direct that after 31st December 1988 no further licences shall be issued and that all licences issued before that date shall be withdrawn.That means that the Secretary of State, at the end of five years, may by order in council direct that no further licences shall be issued and that existing licences shall be withdrawn. The amendment would also provide that:(3B) No order shall be made under subsection (3A) above unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.An amendment of that sort would deal with the worry that a number of my noble friends had that by the beginning of 1989 some of the solutions to this problem would not have been found. For instance, if I am wrong in my forecast that the present surplus of straw will more or less disappear in five years' time, the licensing system, which has the support of the NFU, would continue to operate. Again, if public outcry this harvest time or next were to reach a crescendo, demanding an immediate ban, the industry would still have its right over the next five years to adjust itself to meet the situation. It will be protected against the demand for an immediate ban.
As I said in my opening speech, the demand that has reached me from a very large number of quarters is not for a ban in five years' time—regardless of what the agricultural industry may argue in this matter—but for a ban now. But the industry would be protected by that amendment from an immediate ban because it would 247 be in the power of the Secretary of State to issue an order at the end of five years. That is the argument that would be used by the Government against an immediate ban. It would also have the advantage that, with the knowledge that the Government have power to ban after 1988, the industry would have a strong incentive to find a means of absorbing the surplus straw on the farm and encouraging the use of straw for commercial purposes.
What is just as important, the National Farmers' Union and the CLA will have every reason to ensure that their members take into consideration the public interest and observe the NFU code. My noble friend Lord Stanley said something about enforcing the NFU code. It cannot be enforced. The NFU have no powers to enforce it. It is simply something that is put on paper and sent out to farmers. They are asked to observe it and they do or do not, as the case may be. Another very important point—I hope I have made clear the amendment I am considering—is that if this Bill is passed the public will know that, if the present practice continues and, in accordance with public opinion, becomes intolerable, Parliament can ban straw and stubble burning after 1988.
True, it is a compromise, in what I regard as the traditional spirit of our politics where a clash of interests arises, as it has arisen in this particular case. But I think that with the amendments, the Bill would meet not only the fears of my noble friends here, but also the interests of the general public in the country districts, which the Bill is intended to represent—
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, before the noble Lord continues the Committee stage, before he proposes to re-write the Bill, would it not be more suitable to bring in a new Bill, with all the amendments, because this Bill now seems to be totally out of date?
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I am taking the time of your Lordships' House for this second reading at a very late hour, and I believe that I would be entitled to be slightly affronted by the impression which some noble Lords have given that I bring the Bill before your Lordships' House, use the time of the House, and a great deal of my own time, simply in order to withdraw it at the behest of what would appear outside this House as being a strongly entrenched vested interest in this House, and I have not the slightest intention of doing so.
I must say to your Lordships that I shall take the Bill through all the stages that I can in your Lordships' House, and if it is defeated, I shall bring it in again next year, until the time comes when the ban is brought into effect. That may be in circumstances which would be far less agreeable to the farming industry than those which this Bill at present reflect, but it would certainly be in the interests of the British countryside.
I think it right that I should issue a warning to those of your Lordships who have threatened, and apparently intend, to divide against the Second Reading of the Bill, who intend to have its throat cut tonight by defeating the Motion for Second Reading, despite, apparently, the amendments which I have undertaken to introduce or to consider at Committee 248 stage. I warn those noble Lords that their action will greatly harm the agricultural industry. If the Bill is not passed, every farmer who burns straw or stubble at the next harvest, irrespective of whether he follows the bye-laws or the NFU code, will be regarded as a bad neighbour, as being guilty of an anti-social act, and as someone who is intent only on protecting his own interests and who has a callous disregard of everything else. But if the Bill goes forward, there will be protection for the farmer because your Lordships' House will have agreed that the farming industry will have a proper opportunity to put its house in order and at the same time bring in a ban if it is necessary, at any rate at the end of five years.
I have given undertakings with regard to three amendments of importance. I have promised to consider a fourth, which I hope I shall have the opportunity to discuss with the department and other interested parties. I feel very strongly about this matter, and I hope that on this occasion the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. In that hope I commend the Bill to your Lordships.
§ 10.43 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the Bill shall be now read a second time?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 27; Not-Contents, 21.
|DIVISION NO. 5|
|Alport. L. [Teller]||Masham of Ilton, B.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||Melchett, L.|
|Cork and Orrery, E.||Monson, L.|
|David, B.||Moyne, L.|
|Fanshawe of Richmond, L.||Nicol, B.|
|Grimston of Westbury, L.||Onslow, E.|
|Halsbury, E.||Raglan, L.|
|Henderson of Brompton, L.||Rea, L.|
|Hooson, L.||Ridley, V.|
|Houghton of Sowerby, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Ironside, L. [Teller]||Tordoff, L.|
|Kagan, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.||White, B.|
|Caithness, E. [Teller]||MacLehose of Beoch, L.|
|Cornwallis, L.||Monk Bretton, L.|
|Davidson, V.||Morris, L.|
|Effingham, E.||Mountgarret, V.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||Radnor, E.|
|Enniskillen, E.||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Faithfull, B.||Saint Oswald, L.|
|Gisborough, L.||Stanley of Alderley, L. [Teller]|
|Hampden, V.||Suffield, L.|
|Howard of Henderskelfe, L.||Wynford, L.|
§ Resolved in the time affirmative, and Bill read a second time accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.