HL Deb 18 February 1985 vol 460 cc440-66

6.12 p.m.

Lord Alport

My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of the Straw and Stubble Burning (Control) Bill.

This Bill is Mark III. Mark I was the Bill I introduced in the last Session and Mark II was the Bill that emerged from your Lordships' House, greatly amended, and was killed stone dead by the Government when it was introduced into another place by my honourable friend the Member for Thanet.

I present this Bill to your Lordships in the belief that it represents a realistic compromise between the interests of the arable farming industry and of the general public, on the other hand, who have for a decade or more suffered from the effects to health, convenience and amenity which the burning of straw and stubble imposes on those who live in the towns and villages of Great Britain in the country areas where arable farming is practised, or who go there for recreation. It will, I hope, help to prevent the damage to the environment and to the interests of conservation which the practice of straw and stubble burning entails.

In drafting this Bill I have given a great deal of thought to the arguments and criticisms advanced in the debates we had in the last Session on my original Bill. I have seen the important experimental work being undertaken by ADAS under the guidance of Dr. Davies in Cambridge. I have had the advice of Mr. Benyon, of Leicester University, who has given a great deal of time to the study of the problem. Professor Cracknell, of the Carnegie Laboratory of Physics in Dundee University, has undertaken monitoring of the burning during the recent harvest by means of ultraviolet ray photography via satellite. I have been in touch with the National Farmers' Union. I know from my contacts with the Association of District Councils that, while they still want a total ban, they strongly support this Bill the Second Reading of which I am now moving.

I have also studied the very promising developments which have taken place in the methods of straw incorporation involving, for an increasing number of arable farmers, an appreciation of its advantages. I have noted the advances which have taken place in the industrial use of straw as a fuel and as a raw material. I have now, as well, a better appreciation of the transitional problems which face farmers owing to the differences of size and capitalisation of holdings of arable land and the vagaries of soil characteristics.

All this has convinced me that straw burning as at present practised in Great Britain is both a waste of a potentially valuable raw material and an intolerable public nuisance; it has also convinced me that within four years, if research and development at present being undertaken is maintained and accelerated, alternative agricultural and industrial uses for straw will be available, and that at the end of that time it should be banned; that after the ban the Ministry of Agriculture should nevertheless have power to license burning in special circumstances. I believe that any farmer licensed to burn should make a financial contribution to further research and development, and—of this I am quite certain—that the present by-laws and the NFU code, while helping to prevent a repetition last season of the disastrous experiences of 1983, are not effective.

A comprehensive survey after the 1984 harvest carried out by the Association of District Councils showed, first, that 138 authorities out of the 200-odd which had adopted the by-laws considered that the by-laws were inadequate. So far as I know, only one, Salisbury District Council, refused to adopt those by-laws, although it covers a substantial arable area. One hundred and six district councils said that a ban was the only way of dealing with the problem; 56 were, at the time of the survey, contemplating prosecutions against farmers who had broken the by-laws. Indeed, a photograph taken by the Carnegie Laboratory on the last Saturday in August showed 15 illegal straw fires in areas of Britain which were clear of cloud, and I suppose that there were double that number or even more in the other parts of the country which could not have been photographed.

Further, 143 authorities received complaints from the public, which included allegations of weekend burnings and damage to trees and hedgerows. Your Lordships may have seen reports of one particular incident in Lincolnshire where there was widespread damage. The report of that incident in The Times reads as follows: On Monday winds fanned stubble fires throughout the county causing more than a dozen fires to get out of hand, destroying 74 acres of standing crops and more than five miles of hedges and banksides. Families were evacuated at Reepham, near Lincoln. Mr. Colin Brereton, the county's deputy fire-prevention officer, said yesterday: 'Even fires which were lit in accordance with the stubble-burning code got out of hand, but a number of others have been reported to the district councils, who decide whether to take action under local by-laws.' ". All this took place despite the fact that the weather during the last season curtailed the burning, and it is estimated that 2,500 arable farmers undertook no burning during the harvest at all. The fact that a substantial number of farmers have given up burning, and that a majority have observed the by-laws and done their best to mitigate this public nuisance, shows that the industry is alive to the extent of the problem. Indeed, as your Lordships will remember, the deputy chairman of the NFU recognised in a speech last year that an eventual ban was inevitable.

But I suggest—this is the point made in my Bill—that time must be given for further research into incorporation, as Dr. Tinker of Rothamstead said at a recent NFU conference. There must be developments into alternative uses for straw and the production of the necessary machinery. We must recognise that in certain cases, even after four years (the time given in the Bill for that to take place) straw burning may still be justified in accordance with good agricultural practice, provided that it does not represent a hazard to the public interest. All this is reflected in the provisions of the Bill which I am now moving.

Clause 1 gives the Minister of Agriculture power to prohibit straw and stubble burning, after the straw has been removed, after 1st January 1989, unless a licence has been obtained. This gives four years before the ban comes into operation. It also allows the Minister to differentiate between the burning of straw and the underlying stubble and the stubble itself which, though undesirable from many points of view as the Lincolnshire incident shows, is a lesser hazard. I must confess that it has been brought to my notice that it has some classical precedent in that it is referred to in the Bible. The right reverend Prelates will know Isaiah 47.14 and Joel 2.5.

In Clause 1(2) I have followed the advice of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, that any order should be subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament.

In Clause 2 the Agriculture Minister, after 31st January 1989, may issue a licence to permit straw or stubble burning for the harvest period in any one year. When doing so he must take into account the special characteristics of the soil on the farm, the requirements of good agricultural practice and the location of the land. By "good agricultural practice" I have in mind the particular point that the extent of the arable acreage and the resources of a farm may not make it possible from a financial point of view to undertake investment in the additional specialist machinery which incorporation would need.

So far as the safety of the public and the public interest are concerned, your Lordships will see that the criteria that the Minister has to take into account are the location of the land in relation to housing, hospitals, highways, areas of natural beauty, public recreation and sites of special scientific interest and, in general terms, protection of the environment, the safety of the public, the safeguarding of property and the prevention of damage to health.

In Clause 3 the Minister may require the payment of a fee for the licence. This will mean that the cost of administering the Bill will not be a charge on the Exchequer. In addition there will be a fee of £5 for every hectare, which is about £2 per acre, which will be devoted to research and development into alternative agricultural and industrial uses for straw.

It is possible that by 1989 £5 will be too small a sum to exact for this purpose. At present it means that any farmer obtaining a licence to burn 250 hectares will pay, in addition to the licence, about £600. If the burning takes place over 100,000 hectares the money available for research provided by that would be over half a million or about 30 per cent. of the Government's present financial support for such research and development. Your Lordships may feel that the payment should be £10 or more per hectare rather than the present fee. I happily acknowledge that this idea came from a suggestion made by the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells in last year's debate.

Under Clause 4 no one convicted of an offence against the by-laws after the enactment of the Bill may be issued with a licence. This will eliminate the cowboys and irresponsible farmers. I understand that this, in principle, has the support of the NFU. It will be a powerful sanction during the next four years.

Clause 5 is the same as in last year's Bill. Again your Lordships may not feel that the penalties are sufficient in terms of the inflation over the next four years.

Clause 6 is again the same as in last year's Bill, but the definition of "straw" is extended to include the waste residue of oil seed rape and pea and barley crops. This addition has been made because the Home Office is at present preparing amendments to the model bylaws to include these crop residues.

I could have presented your Lordships with a mass of detail about the relevance of different types of soil to straw burning; the effect which the practice has on the environment; the damage and discomfort it has inflicted on neighbourhoods during the last harvest which have been reported to me; the outcome of the research that has been undertaken by Rothamstead, Letcombe and ADAS during the last 12 months; the developments which have taken place in the industrial use of straw; the availability of new machinery for incorporation, and a great deal more besides. But I will spare your Lordships all that. I am convinced that legislation to ban straw burning is certain within the next five years. It is in the public interest that this should be done. It is also in the interest of the arable farming industry that it should be done in such a way as to take full account of the problems and the interests of those whose livelihood depends on arable farming.

I believe that this Bill meets all these considerations. It is fair to the farmers; it will protect the public; it presents no administrative expense to the Government; it supports research and development and it penalises those who, irresponsibly, bring the farming industry into disrepute. I hope that I shall have a constructive response in this House from my noble friends who represent the farming industry and from the Minister who will later give us his comments. I beg to move.

Moved, That this Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Alport.)

6.27 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the one thing we must do is to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on what he has described as his Mark III effort. I had it down as Mark II: I had forgotten about Mark I. His persistence is to be admired, and also his persuasiveness, because he has done much research into everything that has happened since the last Bill. He has included what the councils have done, and the number of fines and the damage, including that unfortunate case in Lincolnshire. I am not sure where he obtained all his particulars about the number of farmers who have given up burning, but he made an interesting point there. There is no doubt that the noble Lord has persuaded himself, and is now doing his best to persuade us and everybody else, that a complete ban will be necessary in due course.

The noble Lord approached me earlier, when he put the Bill forward at First Reading, and said that he had given me almost everything I wanted, going by what I said in the Mark II debate last year, particularly on the licensing issue. I certainly put forward the idea of licensing, but I wanted to make it automatic: that someone was licensed to burn straw, and if that person went against the regulations and the by-laws the penalty would be a ban for a short time—perhaps for only a year, but the period could go up to a ban for life. That was my idea on Second Reading. I feel that his idea of making people apply for a licence, while still charging for it and adding to it a sum of up to £10 per hectare, must be a major job. He said that it would not cost the Ministry anything extra. I would doubt that very much. To carry out a licensing system of roughly, I would say, 100,000 cereal-growing farmers in this country would be a pretty big job in itself.

The noble Lord made the point in the Bill, and in his speech, about what could be done with straw. He said that he would require £5 or £10 per hectare (or whatever he managed to get hold of) for research. I think that the Minister will probably give us the figure, but I understand the Government are spending a very large sum of money at the present moment, and there is no lack of commercial research into all the uses that could be made of straw. So I do not think that that is really necessary. I, myself, along with my youngest son, who farms with me, have looked into what we might do if the noble Lord was successful and straw burning was banned. One thing we looked into was the case of making it into fuel that could be used in normal households, and not in big straw-burning boilers. The cost is very high. We bought a few bags of it to try in our wood-burning stove. Although it is very good and this particular manufacturer mentioned that he could not meet the demand, against the same weight of wood there is no comparison whatever. It really is quite expensive, although it produces heat and a nice fire.

We all know that during the war an enormous amount of straw went into paper-making, but people do not like paper with straw-coloured bits and pieces through it. They want a nice, clear sheet of paper. Use for packing cases seems to be a good suggestion; and, of course, we and a lot of people are using treated straw for stock feed. So I do not think that the noble Lord can say that there is not enough research going on into the use of straw. I would remind him that some six million tonnes (as I think is the figure) of straw is burned every year; and it is a major job to get that into anything other than incorporation. Incorporation is all very well. There are arguments both ways. You have to put on more nitrogen to break it down. On strong land, the kind on which I farm, it is a very difficult job, particularly if it is a wet year. Also, there is some evidence—I do not know how accurate it is—that you can actually do harm if it is not properly incorporated over quite a few years.

The point that I should like to make is that since the noble Lord's last Bill we have had the by-laws which were created with the help of the NFU and everybody concerned, and I think that, on the whole, these bylaws have been fairly well obeyed. Admittedly, there have been cases where accidents occurred. But these were not necessarily created by the breaking of the by-laws. They were sometimes created by outside agencies altogether, having nothing to do with the actual burning of the straw.

I should like to criticise three points in the by-laws. One is the heaping of the straw, or what is done to carry out the by-law which says that you must remove straw 25 metres from any hedge, tree, telegraph pole and so on. The method usually used is to sweep the straw into heaps 25 metres away, and burn it. My experience has been that that has given more heat and burned the hedges or the trees or what-have-you worse than if you had burned it lying flat as it was combined. That is one point. I have had that confirmed by quite a few other farmers.

The other thing is this question of not burning at weekends or holidays. At harvest time we work a seven-day week. A lot of people work a seven-day week all the year round. We happen to be dairymen. During the harvest, we work a seven-day week and for very long hours. In my opinion, it is quite ridiculous that for over a period of a month, probably, there is a regulation that we cannot burn on a Saturday (or, for that matter, a Sunday) although the straw is then dry enough to burn. You could easily have a whole week wet, and it would be a very bad thing if that happened and a farmer could not burn on a Saturday.

After all, it is not a very big thing: two or three weekends in a whole year if straw burning were allowed instead of being prohibited.

There is another small point, and that is the phoning of everybody—your neighbours, the fire brigade and the district council. I had to phone several times, and I could hear the sigh at the end of the phone as we phoned the fire brigade in Harlow, who had probably had 20 to 30 phone calls inside an hour to say that some people were going to be burning straw. My neighbour said to me, "Let's have a pact. Let's stop all this phoning and such-like". I think that may be exaggerating the matter, but I wanted to make these points on the by-laws.

I, personally, and we on this side of the House, take no great exception to the noble Lord's Bill, but we are not sure that it is going to do anything more than the by-laws are doing at the moment. Frankly, as a farmer, I do not see that we can stop straw burning as an agricultural process. The noble Lord made several points. There is the question of stubble sanitation. There are continuous cereal growers in much of the country, and we must look these days at stubble sanitation, which is very important. Straw burning is one of the things that helps sanitation to a tremendous extent.

As I say, we take no great exception to the Bill, but when it comes to Committee stage there will be some amendments that we shall put down on the question of licensing, and so on. Otherwise, I should not like to think that the noble Lord is correct in saying that he is certain that in five years' time there will be a complete ban on straw burning. He mentioned the fact that that would be of great benefit to various people, including farmers. That point I am not so sure about, if I may say so.

6.38 p.m.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alport, brings these Bills before us—this is the third one—and puts his case with great eloquence. Many of your Lordships may feel that this particular model is not nearly so traumatic as far as farming is concerned as the previous ones. But I would suggest that, even if that may be so, that is no reason why it should ever become an Act because I think that it has a lot of undesirable features to it. I admit that there has been trouble this summer, again, much to my sorrow, but I think that it was very small compared to previous years. Once more we had a dry harvest; although, looking at the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, I know that in the eastern counties it was damp, because I passed that way at the end of harvest.

But I should like to point out to your Lordships that in every community of people, whoever they may be, there are always one or two people who put themselves beyond the pale, and farmers are no exception to that. I am quite certain that whether or not one uses a satellite, one will always be able to find people doing wrong at harvest time. This is a point to which I might return later, because I feel that the definition of "harvest time" must carry with it some difficulties in a Bill of this kind.

There is no real need to track over again all the reasons why farmers burn straw. They were covered very thoroughly a year ago, or even less than that. We discussed here the fact that the plant breeders had produced much better crops for us, which, combined with the skill of the farmers, carried to the grain plants a lot of corn but left on the ground a tremendous amount of straw, compared to previous years. We discussed the matter of cereal diseases and how these had to be combated. We discussed the business of saving fossil fuels and we discussed not least the fact that it might be rather cumbersome to license this particular operation which, I submitted, anyway had become a part of agricultural husbandry.

The Bill now before us is much the same, and the arguments put forward in favour of burning, done extremely carefully, are as good now as they were a year ago. But I think there are two points of difference that we should look at. The first is—I have touched on it already—the attitude of farmers and the adoption, as the noble Lord has so rightly said, of the by-laws by a large number of councils, though not Salisbury. I have to admit that I farm two miles south of Salisbury, but it was nothing to do with me, and I can assure your Lordships that without the benefit of the by-laws we objected to not being allowed to burn on Sunday; people in Wiltshire have behaved impeccably well.

I believe that the whole attitude of farmers and the way that they have gone about this question, together with their awareness and their care have shown a very considerable improvement on previous years. It seems to me that the suggested guidelines—suggested by the Government and then adopted by councils—is a better way forward than this Bill would appear to me to be at the moment.

The second point of difference is, of course, the Bill itself. It represents a postponement, so far as I can see. Unfortunately, so far as I can also see, in essence nothing else much has changed at all. It contains roughly the same kinds of procedures and much the same kinds of penalties. So far as I am concerned, the authorities are still left with the same impossible judgments relating to all manner of matters, ranging from soil types to public health and atmospheric pollution. Short though it is, it appears to me as an impracticable Bill which I believe would be very, very difficult for the Ministry of Agriculture to administer fairly. There are too many things to be decided upon and there are too many imprecise statements in it.

There is another matter I should like to mention; it is the whole question of postponement. We are talking about this Bill being enacted in 1989, and here we are—not very late, but late enough—on a Monday evening on 18th February 1985. With the greatest respect, I think that we should be debating this Bill in 1988. I honestly believe that bringing these Bills forward one by one—because I imagine we shall be looking forward to the next mark and the next mark—represents a waste of parliamentary time and of the time of your Lordships.

I should like to finish by going briefly into the details of this Bill. I think that it would be very hard for the Minister to decide who should and who should not be licensed. I believe that the matters which are raised under subsection (2) would be even harder and would make it almost impossible to be fair; I refer to soil types and that kind of thing. It would lead to all kinds of conflicts. The cost of the licence—although the noble Lord would disagree with me—sounds very severe. Farming profit, or so it seems to me anyway, is probably going to descend by a percentage—about 12 or 15 per cent. As I said on the last occasion, this seems the wrong time to penalise the farmer. Let us hope that by 1989 things will be looking up again in the countryside, but we cannot be quite sure of that.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has covered the research aspect very well. It is being researched; I think it is being researched by the Government, and also privately. I have myself put some money into an affair which is examining the relationship between a yet-to-be-invented baler and the Heston—I think it is called—a high-density baler, because the density of bales is very pertinent to this whole question and also to the transport aspect.

Perhaps the vaguest of all the matters in this Bill is that relating to the harvest period. This period surprises me. If any of your Lordships were present for the Food and Environment Protection Bill, you may remember that I was rapidly corrected by my noble friend Lord Belstead, when he was able to tell me that the Definitions Act 1978 considered water to be in fact land. I have a fairly mixed farm and my harvest period goes on the whole year round. I harvest milk, I harvest pigs, I harvest all kinds of things. It is a Committee point, perhaps, but to think of "the harvest period" is as awkward as thinking of straw. What is straw? That must be defined at some stage, perhaps in Committee, and we need to know whether potato haulms come into it or not, and so on.

I think I have spoken quite long enough. Your Lordships will know that I am against this Bill, because on the whole—and I am sure I am right here—I think it is unnecessary. It is very reasonable to expect further and steady improvement, as the noble Lord himself more or less said, in the behaviour of farmers over this difficult question—and difficult question it is—of straw burning. I think the Bill is impractical and has been brought before your Lordships at the wrong time. I do not know whether or not your Lordships are going to give it a Second Reading, but I must admit that I hope it does not reach the statute book.

6.49 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I do not know whether I am right in the impression that the proceedings so far—perhaps it is pushing my luck a bit to say so—seem to be rather less inflammatory than they were at this time last year. We have had a very moderate speech from one farmer, the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and a very full account of the reasons why another farmer, the noble Earl who has just sat down, would not like this Bill to have even a Second Reading. They have expressed their views in very reasonable and moderate terms.

I should like to say to the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, that the Private Member's Bill, or the promoter of a Private Member's Bill, has, if I may use an agricultural metaphor, a very hard row to hoe. Very often he has to come back Session after Session before he succeeds. A very notable example was the Bill to enable a man to marry his deceased wife's sister, which Gilbert and Sullivan called "that annual blister". What I should like to say to the noble Earl is that the Bill was eventually enacted, and so I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, upon his persistence. I hope that this Bill, if not enacted this year, will be so next year.

Certainly I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has done a very great deal to improve the Bill and has taken on board most if not all of what I consider to be the valid criticisms that were raised at the Committee and Report stages of his Bill last year. For myself, I still consider it right to legislate for a fixed date beyond which straw and stubble burning will be controlled and only exceptionally allowed under licence. This was the relevant recommendation of the Standing Commission on the Environment, which reported just about this time last year. It was a very authoritative body and, if a body of such distinction reports to that effect, it should carry very great weight with Parliament and with the Government.

I should like to give credit where credit is due. It would be churlish not to because I am quite sure that the farming community, in particular the cereal farmers, took a most responsible attitude during the last burning season. I know there were one or two exceptions—the noble Lord, Lord Alport, mentioned one, in Lincolnshire, I think, and no doubt there were others—but there was nowhere near the same irresponsible burning as there has been in previous years. One might really have expected there to be more incidents than there when one considers what a long hot summer it was.

This improvement was to a large measure due to a realisation on the part of farmers that they must be good neighbours. There is a much greater feel of cooperation—dare I say almost friendliness?—between those who farm and those who care for the environment. Great credit must be given to the National Farmers' Union for drawing up its code on straw and stubble burning. I hope that the farmers themselves will take some comfort from the fact that their image, which was somewhat tarnished, is buffed up by their very good record last year. It is now rather brighter than it was in the view of the general public.

I have one or two detailed points on the Bill which I shall reserve for Committee stage. I shall not follow the example of the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, and detail them, except to say that I am slightly unhappy about the licensing under Clause 2 being carried out by central Government. I wonder whether it should not be done more locally, possibly by local authorities. Perhaps I have not read it correctly but it seems to be such a regional matter that it should be licensed in the regions and not centrally.

My major point concerns the amendment of the Highways Act 1980, the provisions of which are totally inadequate. I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for giving me in a Written Answer of 5th July last year details of what had been put in the NFU code. The code refers to the offences which may be committed under Sections 131(1) and 161(2) of the Highways Act 1980 and advises farmers to burn well away from public roads and not within 100 metres of a motorway or dual carriageway. That is more like it but I do not think that something of such importance should be dependent upon a code drawn up by the NFU and the observance of that code by farmers.

Clearly, if it was correct in 1980 to make provision under Sections 131 and 161 of the Highways Act, there is no doubt that, now there is a greater realisation of the danger to the public from burning close to highways, the Highways Act should be amended, and amended soon. I should have thought that, if the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is to flourish, this would be a very good means of incorporating amendments to the Highways Act. Alternatively, if the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is not to be kindly looked upon—I very much hope that that is not the case—there could be a separate Private Member's Bill in order to amend the Highways Act 1980.

I should like to say once again on this very narrow question of burning near highways that I give credit to the NFU because not only did it issue this guidance but that advice was featured by the Agricultural Training Board for use in training courses for farmers and farm workers on the safe burning of straw and stubble. The message is getting out, but to rely on a code and on the voluntary observance of the code is not good enough when the general public are put in danger, as they certainly have been when there has been very bad straw burning—not so much stubble burning—by highways.

6.57 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I should like to join my noble friend Lord John-Mackie in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on his persistence. The noble Lord has two qualities: persistence and independence. Both have been recognised by the party of which he was previously a member. In fact one might say that they have been conceded to him in your Lordships' House—not that we notice any difference from the time before, but I thought he put a very formidable case indeed before us this afternoon.

I am, quite frankly, a little surprised at the catalogue of complaints that local authorities have received during the last harvest. My own observation in Surrey led me to believe that there had been an improvement, possibly because the guidelines against stubble burning over weekends seemed to be observed more fully than before. But this is a matter of public interest and concern, and the farming industry, like all other industries, must adjust itself to the wider well-being of the public at large.

The burning of stubble, especially at weekends, when many people are hoping to get some more peaceful enjoyment of the countryside, is a public nuisance and it really ought to be banned as a public nuisance. In some parts of the country stubble burning has to be added to the other nuisances—aircraft and motorways—which are growing in number as there are additions to the range of human experience and enjoyment. This matter must be looked at from that point of view first of all.

We have to ask ourselves why it is that this has become a nuisance. When I was young, I spent most of my boyhood in a very beautiful part of agricultural countryside in Leicestershire, in the Vale of Belvoir. I do not remember any burning of stubble in those days. It seems to me that stubble burning is a development of more modern cereal growing methods—probably due to the kind of machinery that is now used in cutting and harvesting. The farming industry should adjust its methods to overcome this particular problem.

Another reason why we are more conscious of stubble burning today than in the past is the large increase in the acreage now under cereal crops. When we are sniffing the smoke and cleaning all the smuts off the tables in our houses, we are entitled to ask ourselves this question: what is all this in aid of? I heard some astonishing figures the other night to the effect that only one half of our cereal harvest last year was needed for home consumption, both for the baking industry and for animal feedstuffs. The rest was being taken over at intervention prices by the EEC; so more than half is being grown for storage. It may be grown to sell cheaply to Soviet Russia—what else may happen to it I really do not know. But far too much acreage is now apparently under cereals. Other cereals may take the place of wheat, oats and barley and there is a great deal of discussion concerning that matter at the present time.

I believe that a good deal of change will come about in the pattern of agriculture over the next five years, and that it will be likely to help rather than hinder the purpose of this Bill. As to what other crops could be grown is a matter for discussion and consideration. but they may not require quite the same treatment on the ground as is apparently needed, in the view of the farming industry, in the case of conventional cereal crops.

Be that as it may, this practice is one that we should prepare to get rid of. All concerned should make up their minds on the fact that the public and Parliament will not stand for this a great deal longer. It may be that agriculture will have to lower its self-esteem in the economics of the country. In some respects, agriculture has attained a position of eminence in our economic life which the next few years may diminish to some extent. So the purpose of this Bill is one that we should support.

In introducing Mark 3 of this Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has shown tolerance in meeting the criticisms which were levelled against his earlier versions. This Bill is so tolerant that it would be wise of the agricultural interests to grab it while it is going. As the years go by, the approach of Parliament and the public is likely to grow more severe.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, I, too, bridle a little at the licensing provisions, but these are only a measure of the tolerance which the noble Lord has introduced into his Bill. I would hate to think that this could be the beginning of a straw and stubble burning licensing authority, or anything of that kind. The centralisation of licensing always has its dangers because one knows what bureaucracy does—it multiplies. It cannot escape from the institutional life of which bureaucracy becomes a part. There can be no informal treatment of the public. They are all entitled to the same considerations of their claims as anybody else. We have to bear in mind that all bureaucracy is the administration of the law, and that requires much greater care than any other kind of administration. I should hope that by 1989 the need for any degree of licensing will be very small.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, he must remember (and I know and am taking into account his age) that when he was a boy living in the Vale of Belvoir, there was simply no grain grown there at all. I remember an old huntsman telling me that he used to ride all the way from Lincoln to Belvoir Castle without crossing a ploughed field. Also, is my noble friend suggesting that we should cut down food production, irrespective of what is happening at the present moment, when 800 million people in the world are living below a decent level of nutrition?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

Yes, my Lords, I take all those points into consideration—but there is no clear indication at the present moment that surplus production in foodstuffs in some countries is reaching the third world of starving millions. The organisation of the world's food supply really needs brushing up. A fresh look needs to be taken at the organisation of the world's food in order to see how the world is going to be fed. There will be economic aspects attached to this; there seems to be no escape from that. That has to be so either at Government level or at private level, but money will enter into it—either in the form of taxation or in the form of profit on production.

Not even the Soviet Union has rid itself of economics yet. There will be impediments. I fear, in the way of the redistribution of food production; but let us see how that works out, too. A good deal may happen in many directions over the next five years. It will be very sad if something does not happen, for the world cannot go on as it is at the present time; something better must be done. However, I do not believe that this Bill will make any real difference to the level production of foodstuff production that we should be capable of achieving in the years to come. It is a question of technique, of machinery, and of plant genetics. All modern development and research can be brought to bear on this problem.

I hope that we shall support this Bill again today, and eventually give it further consideration, as may be necessary, and pass it in a suitable form before we have finished. That is needful. I do not know how many times one must go on doing this before someone takes better notice. Since the Government killed this Bill stone dead in another place last year, they cannot kill it any more dead in another place this year. I hope they will not try to do that. I hope that in another place interest will be taken in this Bill and that it will be given a fair wind there. It deserves that, and I feel that there will be a good deal of support for it. Once again, I support the Bill, and if the House is in a mood to divide, then I shall vote for it.

7.10 p.m.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, notwithstanding some of the objections which have been raised against this Bill, not least by the National Farmers' Union and the CLA, I am bound to say that, in principle, I find myself in support of this Mark III Bill. I say "in principle" because I think that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has gone some way to undermine the whole principle and essence of this particular Bill, which is a requirement for licensing, as opposed to his previous Mark II Bill.

There are some rather obnoxious aspects in the Bill which I do not think many of your Lordships could accept. For instance, we have already dealt with an outright ban, but he kept referring to a ban in 1989. The business of asking farmers to pay £2 an acre for straw that is burnt will be quite unacceptable to the farming community. There are other similar objections. To say that anyone who breaks or goes against the current model by-laws will be banned from having any form of licence in the future is terribly draconian. If we could put issues of that sort, which are Committee issues, on one side and look at the principle, which I believe to be a requirement to have this activity properly licensed, we may be able to view it in a slightly different frame of mind.

My noble friend Lord Belstead rightly pointed out on the previous occasion that we should try these model by-laws to see how they work, and so on. This we did, and I am delighted to feel (as I am sure everyone else is) that they are working and that they are seen to be working. That is absolutely splendid. I do not think that by-laws administered by local authorities is the right way to deal with the administration of the control of straw and stubble burning. To start with, the local authority is not the right department (for want of a better word) to deal with this. The Ministry of Agriculture should be the department to issue licences. Secondly, I am not sure that by-laws are good enough in this instance. There is a great deal of strong feeling about having straw and stubble burning banned altogether, as we have just heard. If we could be seen to be going some way towards meeting the understandable objections from the people whom one might call "the outright banners", it could take some of the wind out of their sails and take a little of the carpet from under their feet. If we could be seen to have a licensing system and have the matter more legally under control, I cannot see that it would be doing the farming community any harm and it would achieve very much the same objective as the model by-laws are achieving at present.

The system of licensing and the granting of a licence could incorporate all the provisions and the guidance given in the model by-laws as to how one should burn straw, when one can, when one cannot, and so on. In this respect, I support the plea of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, to allow the burning of straw and stubble at weekends and not just limit it to what one might commonly call the working week. During harvest time the working week, as far as I am aware, is virtually 24 hours a day for seven days a week. It is quite unreasonable to suggest that no burning should take place at weekends. I hope that my noble friend Lord Belstead listened to what the noble Lord said, and perhaps we could have a look at it for next year's guidance on model by-laws.

My noble friend Lord Radnor was very concerned about how the licensing system would work, and raised every conceivable difficulty that he could think of because, I think, he is basically opposed to the principle of the Bill. I do not honestly see there should be any difficulty. At the moment we have a law which states you may not burn heather in this country, or in Scotland, outside certain dates. If you need to do so you apply to the local office of the Ministry of Agriculture for a licence to burn heather. I do this frequently, and I have never been turned down. I may have been asked the reasons why and have had to explain that, for example, it has been a very wet winter and it has not been possible to get it done, and so on, and have been told to make sure that I tell the fire brigade and to make sure that I do certain things. It is all perfectly fair and correct, but one must have a licence. It presents no difficulty. One has to think about it. If you leave it to the last minute, that is obviously being rather careless; but if you ask in good time—say, a month ahead— there should be no bother.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, I do not think I raised all manner of difficulties. I think the word I used was "cumbersome".

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, my noble friend is most probably perfectly right, but I am afraid I did not in fact hear the word "cumbersome". Any regulations can be cumbersome, and I could not agree with my noble friend more; but, as I said earlier, it is more desirable to have this legally licensed rather than under a by-law; that is my point.

I believe the Bill to be necessary for the reasons I have given. I think that the outright banners will win the day if we are not seen to be doing something to meet their objections. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the essence of this Bill is the principle of licensing, and nothing else. We all agree that control of some sort is required. The question is: how? Do we rely on model by-laws, as they are at the moment, and the local authorities, or do we have legislation organised by the Minister? I support the latter course, and, therefore, in principle I support the Bill.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I do not intend to restate yet again the case that farmers should be allowed to dispose of straw by burning. Your Lordships have been over that course too many times, and, at the risk of being out of order, the weight of this file on the subject, as your Lordships can see, bears testimony not only to the correspondence on it but also to the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Alport.

The question I ask your Lordships—and it is the same question as that asked by my noble friend Lord Mountgarret, but I put it slightly differently—is whether the Bill is necessary, whether it will serve any purpose other than perhaps engendering a little heat, or whether it will disrupt and harm the progress that has been made by the industry, helped by the Ministry of Agriculture, to improve the arrangements for the safe disposal of straw. That progress has been admitted by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I believe the Bill will hinder that self-evident progress, will waste your Lordships' time in repetition and will uncessarily inconvenience the ever-willing staff of your Lordships' House.

There is ample evidence that the present system of by-laws, drafted in line with the National Farmers' Union's code of practice, is working exceptionally well. That has been admitted on the Floor of the House this evening by, I believe, every noble Lord. It has been effectively enforced. Indeed, as a farmer I would say it has been viciously enforced by local authorities—contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Alport, said last year, as reported in column 247 of the Official Report for 14th February 1984, when he said to me, referring to the code of practice: 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". The noble Lord should try saying that to some of those who have disobeyed the code this year. He would learn from them some very interesting agricultural language. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, who brought up this question of enforcement, will also ask some of those who have broken the law and been before the courts.

Lord Alport

My Lords, may I just interrupt my noble friend for one moment? Is he referring to the code, and, if so, what sanctions are in fact behind it, or is he referring to the by-laws? I should be interested to know whether the NFU in fact fines its members if they break the code or puts them in gaol. What does it do?

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord would ask me that question. I think that he is splitting hairs. The code is put forward, and from that code the by-laws have been drawn up. It is the by-laws that enforce the code. Almost without exception—we have heard from my noble friend Lord Radnor about various small exceptions in Salisbury —in the arable growing areas the by-laws are virtually in line with the code.

So far as the details of the Bill are concerned, there are inevitably many flaws. Clause 4 appears to envisage both a licensing system and an existing bylaw. Clause 2 places an intolerable burden on the unfortunate official who is to decide who is and who is not to be given a licence—a point brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and my noble friend Lord Radnor. That would separate farming burners from non-farming burners. There is a parallel problem, and I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Alport, to come to Anglesey to see what has happened in the case of less-favoured areas, when one farmer is less favoured and the next one is not. It has put farmer against farmer. His licensing scheme could well do the same.

Sadly, I fear that the noble Lord was too busy last year to visit my straw-burning farm to see the problem, so I expect that he will be too busy to come to Anglesey to see a similar problem. In fairness to the noble Lord, why should he so inconvenience himself for me? He is not a farmer. In fact he stated that his straw-burning Bill last year was an excursion into agricultural politics. I hope that his concern for agriculture will extend and blossom. As an industry we have the odd problem which we should very much like to solve.

But one rule that the noble Lord seems to have ignored—and it is common to agriculture, industry and indeed war—is to reinforce success. The code of practice, backed by by-laws, has most certainly been a success. Why, in the name of heaven, change it when it is just getting off to a good start? The noble Lord has not shown me that he knows more than the Ministry of Agriculture or indeed the industry, who have worked out the code, or that his licensing system is better. That is the question on the Bill. Is his idea better than ours and the ministry's?

It may be that the noble Lord feels that I have been unduly harsh about his Bill, and so I have to give him credit for reminding the industry—and I really mean this—of the seriousness of the problem; the industry knows it. We have learnt our lesson. I have even left my flock in the middle of lambing to come to tell him on the Floor of the House that I realise the seriousness of the problem. We shall continue to realise that and to improve the code and the other advances that we have made this year.

In the interests, I believe, of better and safer straw burning, of not wasting your Lordships' time and that of those who serve us here, of keeping the peace between farmer and farmer and of not increasing bureaucracy and indeed costs. I cannot, I am afraid, support the noble Lord's Bill.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, I should like to say to my noble friend Lord Alport that I think that this Bill is more reasonable than the previous one. I congratulate him on the way that he has gone into this and on his better appreciation now of the difficulty that the industry is in. If licensing were to be brought in, I think that it would certainly be much better done by the Ministry of Agriculture.

May I say a word about my position in this? I farm; I rarely burn straw, luckily, but I understand the position of others who need to do so. I also have a lively appreciation of the need to maintain the quality of life in the country, and I do not like to see it unduly affected any more than does anybody else who is not connected with agriculture. But it is important to accept a reasonable balance, and I hope that I can represent that. If one lives in the country, one must within reason accept the sights, sounds of and smells of agriculture. That has always been the case.

Thus far we have decided to proceed by way of a code and by-laws. I am not convinced that it is necessary or right to superimpose a licensing system on top of that because it could well prove counterproductive. The ministry input for licensing might well be better spent on research into other disposal means. I think that the input into licensing would either be highly significant or else there would be virtually a total ban on straw burning. I am not sure whether one really feels that that is the right approach.

I think that we must be making a great deal of progress as it is. That is my experience. There has been no great trouble over this in the area of Sussex where I live. The straw-burning season was certainly considerably less intrusive than before. Many of the councils in Sussex have adopted by-laws. It is possible that my noble friend the Minister will be able to enlighten us about that. But I believe that it has gone very well. The code has—must one not admit?—made straw burning a pretty inconvenient and difficult exercise now. Quite apart from the code, there have always been the difficulties imposed by wind and weather, the presence of roads and of overhead cables from neighbouring houses, the Clean Air Act, and so on and so forth. All the indications point to these restrictions having an increasing effect which will continue over the next few years, during which, I am quite sure, we shall see less straw being burnt.

I am quite sure that farmers would rather not burn straw if they can avoid it. There has been a notable interest in alternative means of disposal, be it incorporation, treatment for animal feed, or whatever. Wherever one goes—to agricultural shows and elsewhere—there has been much consideration of it. I have great confidence that British agriculture will prove very adaptable over this, as it has done over so many other matters. Despite the heavy pressure the industry is under, I am sure it will respond the best it can. I understand that there is considerable Government expenditure on straw-related research. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister can give us a little information about this.

There are several smaller matters, relating to the Bill, about which I am not happy. I cannot see that we should have the same objections to stubble burning as we do to straw burning, because there is nothing like the volume concerned and it is the volume that produces the ash which I believe is one of the greater problems.

When I read the definitions in the Bill, I see that the licensing will give authority to the "owner or owners". I think the licence should definitely be issued to the occupier, because otherwise the liability may fall on the owner of the land and I do not think that that is appropriate.

However, I must say that I do believe that the present approach is best and I do not favour the Bill. After all, the code is always open to review. I do not think that one should impose an additional control system. I should have hoped that my noble friend Lord Alport would be satisfied with again having drawn the attention of the House to this matter and that he might not have felt it necessary to take the Bill further.

7.33 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, to start with, in all honesty, I must declare a slight vested interest in this debate, in that my employer might be involved in machinery that would be ancillary to the disposal of straw. But, having said that, I can say that my particular specific employment with that firm is in a field that is not directly related. Therefore I feel that I can speak without any constraint in this debate.

I want to raise two specific points directly. The first is in terms of the efficient utilisation of resources. In the week when we have heard the very sad reports of a mother and her two children dying of cold in this capital city of ours, London, I think it is relevant that we use every opportunity, every occasion that we have, to investigate and promote alternative forms of energy from whatever source. We must recognise that to burn straw and stubble in the open fields is a complete waste of a resource that could effectively be utilised in a number of different ways.

I think a number of noble Lords speaking prior to me have identified the concept of using straw as an alternative fuel. In this day of modern technology, of biological advances, it is not too abstruse to think in terms of straw being a useful chemical resource. I just put that forward in the hope that some research may have been done and we may hear of some research on that basis. However, even if we consider straw and stubble simply as a fuel resource, it is a very significant fuel resource.

The other particular aspect that I should like to raise is the aspect of equity, equality. We must all be aware that there are various by-laws or self-imposed restrictions by the farming community on the burning of straw and stubble. By the very fact of the different geographical location of farms and their relationships to motorways, hospitals or urban communities, that will involve a certain penalty on those farms that are located close to those, one might say, significant intrusions into the farming scene. I suggest that if we arrive at a situation where all stubble burning is banned except where there is a financial penalty that the farmer may incur to engage in stubble burning, that will be a positive advantage to the farming community, in that it will set them all on an equitable base: they will all have to desist from stubble burning.

I hope that the inclusion of a specific time for this Act to come into being—although no doubt in Committee this specific time will be argued over one way or the other—will give an incentive to those organisations which are engaged in the research, development and production of facilities to deal with the residue that is left, if straw and stubble is not burnt—dare I say it?—to the benefit of the community at large. I think that that aspect of the Bill here before us is very useful. In finishing, I indicate my support for this Bill and hope that we can give it Second Reading.

7.38 p.m.

Lord Wynford

My Lords, may I please say that I fully support my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley in what he says, and perhaps I may add just one or two remarks of my own. Is not the cart being put before the horse by this Bill? A date is selected for what amounts to complete prohibition, except under licence, on the burning of straw and stubble. That date is selected completely without reference to the alternative methods of disposing of the straw, including the method of incorporation, which no doubt will take its place.

What will happen about the public nuisance? The noble Lord, Lord Alport, referred to straw and stubble burning as a public nuisance. What of the public nuisance of huge numbers of lorries moving about our roads—roads large and small—with high loads of straw around which and over which the recreating public, who are driving behind, will not be able to see? What will happen when this situation arises at the very height of the holiday season? The mind boggles at this situation. I believe that the public will then become even more frustrated. I believe I can hear them crying out, "Why don't they burn it in situ and let us get on the roads?"

7.39 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, you will not be surprised to learn that I support the intention behind Lord Alport's Bill, as I have supported his earlier efforts. It is questionable as to how much of the improvement which took place last year—and there was an improvement—was due to the weather (becaue the conditions of last year were considerably better from the straw burning point of view than they were in 1983), and how much of the improvement was due to a fear of legislation, because there was so much publicity given and so many sabres were rattled during the autumn of 1983 that I think people were very much more careful in obeying the by-laws.

I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, that had the code remained a code and not been turned into by-laws, I suspect that we would not have had, even with the better weather, such a good summer in 1984. A good summer is a relative term. There were still, as the noble Lord, Lord Alport said, a considerable number of difficulties caused up and down the country. I shall not go through all the figures again but I have the same ones. I checked with my own authority this morning to make sure that I was right. They said, "We had a good year. We only had 35 or so serious complaints". If that is a good year, think what it is like, my Lords, in a bad one!

My noble friend Lord John-Mackie said that you cannot stop burning as an agricultural process. Indeed, up to now, we have not been able to do so. I learnt only today that it existed in mediaeval times when it was known as swealing. So it has been with us for a very long time but not on the scale that we now endure. The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, said that 1988 would be a more appropriate time to bring forward the Bill if we want action in 1989. With the greatest respect, we have to give very much more notice of intention to bring in this kind of control. The time period suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is just about right.

The legislation to be created by the Minister is correct but I support the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, and, I think it was, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that the licence should come from the local authority. They know their area. They know the characteristics of the farms in their area. They even know the characteristics of the farmers. In fact, there is scarcely a local authority that could not provide a good guess list of which farmers would keep their licences and which would not.

The solution, finally, will only emerge when we find a real alternative use for straw. That is something we have not yet done. I have the excellent report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with which I am sure all noble Lords are familiar, which was issued last July. It is an excellent document and very objective. It seemed to me, in wading through the very difficult sums, that the most significant and the most optimistic exercise from the point of view of research would be the creation of a papermaking mill in this country to make paper from straw. My noble friend Lord John-Mackie said that the quality of paper made from straw pulp was unacceptable. However, that was duing war time. There are now much better ways of doing it. I should like to quote briefly from the report which states: It must be stressed that the foreign experience is that straw produces a very acceptable pulp for papermaking which compares favourably with wood pulps". I shall not continue at great length because it is rather boring for noble Lords to have it read to them. However, later in the report, one discovers that of 6.7 million tonnes of paper consumed in a year, we produced 3.2 million tonnes at home When one considers that we had to import over 3 million tonnes of pulp or wood, one sees that there is a real market for the paper. When one also considers that in order to achieve that pulp, forests have had to a be felled, which is against all the wishes of most conservationists I know, there seems an added incentive to pursuing the idea of paper pulp as an alternative means.

The scheme, according to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, would put farmer against farmer, as other legislation has done. But the licences are only lost, or gained, if it is viewed that way round, by good practices. We want to see good practices by all farmers. Surely, that is within the reach of all farmers. I am happy to say that this very afternoon I held up the farming community, in the context of another Bill, as an example of how a money making organisation could learn to live with the requirements of good environmental practice and the needs of the community. The farming community has gone a long way along this road—to an extent that would have been unbelievable only a few years ago. I am sure that, in the matter of straw burning, they will be able to take whatever steps are necessary to reach the right point, given time.

In the meantime, we have to keep up the pressure. If we sit back and do not do anything, everyone will forget again, the by-laws will lose their force and the code of practice will come to naught. It is only by measures such as the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has suggested that we can keep the issue before the public and keep it particularly before the farming community. I hope that the Bill will be taken through all its stages and that it can eventually become law.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask why she feels that there could be a paper mill to make paper out of straw when practically all the paper mills that make paper out of wood have closed in this part of the world? We are sending our timber to Norway to have it repatriated as pulp to cash in on the cheap hydro-electric power. Her proposal does not seem realistic to me.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I was quoting from the report which undoubtedly expressed our need for paper pulp. The Government are looking for ways of creating what they call real jobs. This seems an excellent way of doing so. It seems to me that investment in this kind of industry would be good for the country in many ways, in creating jobs and in service to the farming community which would help it to overcome this difficulty. I believe that it is possible.

7.47 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, this Bill takes a different approach from the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, a year ago, but I have to say that it raises new problems. Before adding the Government's voice to what your Lordships have been saying in this short debate, may I remind the House of what the Government have tried to do since we debated the noble Lord's previous Bill a year ago? The summer of 1983 was, of course, an exceptional one. The very dry weather and high winds made for difficult burning conditions. We received many justifiable complaints. That was a source of real concern. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture was determined that such a situation should not recur in 1984. We felt that stricter local authority by-laws offered the best prospect of achieving good controls in time for the 1984 harvest. Those new model by-laws were issued in March last year. The noble Lord, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, gave an account of the number of local authorities which had adopted the by-laws; but, basically, they were adopted in most of the areas in which cereals are grown.

To minimise inconvenience to the public, the new by-laws introduced a ban on burning straw or stubble at weekends and on bank holidays—a matter that has been discussed this evening and which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, mentioned as though a ban did not exist in the by-laws, whereas it does. The area that can be burnt at one time was also restricted both for reasons of safety and to minimise the problem of smuts being carried up into the air on thermal currents created by the heat. Ash is not allowed to be left lying on the surface of a field for more than 36 hours. The requirements for fire-breaks were considerably strengthened, as were the requirements about the supervision of burning operations. The maximum penalty was increased, as your Lordships will remember, to £2,000 under the inflation-proofing arrangements of the Criminal Justice Act 1982.

All these changes were intended to provide greater protection not only for people but also for the environment in general. In addition, we put a great deal of effort into publicising the need to observe the by-laws by using press, media and television to the full, by sending advice direct to farmers, and by using agricultural shows and other events to get across a slogan which was coined—namely, Burn Straw and Nothing More. The National Farmers' Union also produced an excellent new version of its straw and stubble burning code, with advice about good burning practice and a summary of the by-laws. A copy of that went to every cereal grower in England and Wales.

The reason why I have ventured to catalogue those matters is that, as I think all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate this evening have recognised, the result was a very considerable improvement in 1984 and a sharp fall in the number of complaints. I am not complacent about this. The Government recognise that weather conditions were very much better than in the year before. On the other hand, there was of course a record grain harvest, and the new by-laws must have had a very real impact in dealing with the very heavy quantities of straw which were produced.

There is still room for improvement; I should be the first to say that on behalf of the Government. We are now looking at whether additional measures are needed, particularly in regard to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, about the heat generated by piling up straw along the edge of a fire-break, even though it is within the field and as much as 25 yards away from particularly vulnerable objects, which was one of the improvements the bylaws brought in. We are also looking at the important point which the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, raised about the great dangers when smoke crosses roads. Farmers cannot relax, I know, after a comparatively better year, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Radnor that there has been a great improvement. I believe this shows both that the industry is genuinely trying to set its own house in order and that the model by-laws can provide an effective means of control.

One of the messages we tried to get across last summer is that there are alternatives to burning, and farmers should use them whenever they can. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, for recognising that a lot of research and development is going on. If my noble friend Lord Monk Bretton will forgive me, I shall not embark on any great explanation of this, even though he asked for some information, except to say that the publication which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was good enough to bring with her to the House today was produced by what was called a straw utilisation group, drawing together farmers, industrialists, researchers and representatives of Government departments, which tried to find solutions and produced that particular report.

We have found that in many cases we have got answers to the technical problems. I think the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, was asking why, as there obviously are answers, they cannot be followed. The difficulty is the critical economic problems, particularly the problems arising from the very high costs of handling and transporting straw, which so often make the use of straw not competitive economically with other materials. Although certainly some progress is being made regarding alternative uses—indeed, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alport, that certainly some progress is being made with more incorporation—we are nonetheless left with 5 to 6 million tonnes of straw to be disposed of each year. Apart from everything else, it is a fire hazard in itself, and it really is far better to burn it under controlled conditions than to wait until there is an accident or someone sets it alight involuntarily.

This Bill gives an option of prohibiting straw and stubble burning at any time after 1st January 1989. It would also allow certain farmers—for example, those working with heavy soils, where incorporation would perhaps present problems—to continue burning through a licensing scheme. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has included a good deal of latitude in the Bill. I appreciate that there is no obligation to introduce a ban by a specified date. Nevertheless, without taking Committee points, I would say that there are considerable difficulties in this approach.

Is Clause 1 intended to allow a partial ban, for example, limited to certain geographical areas? Having listened to the noble Lord, I think it is. That would make for different standards in different parts of the country and it would face the Government of the day with a whole series of almost impossible decisions about what the practice ought to be in each individual district. Is Clause 2 intended to give the Government discretion to introduce a country-wide licensing scheme to control rather than ban burning? Again, having listened to the noble Lord's speech, I think that the answer is, yes. I would say only that if this Bill were to become law, it certainly would need to put something in the place of the by-laws. I say that because the straw and stubble burning by-laws are made under Section 235 of the Local Government Act 1972, which specifically precludes by-laws if provision for that purpose is or may be made under any other enactment. The legal advice I have received is that the by-laws would almost certainly become null and void in January 1989 if this Bill became law, even if Ministers did not feel that 1989 was the right time to bring in a ban.

However, annual licensing would impose an enormous administrative burden. This was a point made by my noble friends Lord Radnor and Lord Stanley; and I think with reason. We are talking of the possibility of about 25,000 licences being issued, as compared to only six licences which were issued for heather and grass burning last year. I think it is reasonable for my noble friend Lord Radnor to say that it would be cumbersome to have to reach all the various value judgments that the Bill would try to lay upon the licensing authority in deciding whether or not a licence should be granted.

I suggested that the by-laws had shown themselves to be effective and to be fair. Under this Bill, as it stands, only the owner could hold a licence or be prosecuted for an offence. I agree with my noble friend Lord Monk Bretton that this is something which would certainly have to be clarified. If I may say so, another point which would need to be attended to is that there is no procedure for review if someone is banned from applying for a licence. That is contained in the Bill, which says that if you are convicted under local by-laws then you would be banned from making such an application. I cannot immediately think of any other legislation which imposes that kind of penalty for an offence of that nature.

I hope that I have said enough to suggest that there would be some very real practical problems in proceeding with the Bill as it stands. The year 1984 was markedly better than 1983, and I hope that, with normal weather, this improvement will be maintained in 1985. The by-laws and the NFU code ought to be given a chance to do their job, whereas if we were to have this Bill I think that the farming community will wonder why their genuine efforts to improve the situation last year are to be rewarded in this way. If my noble friend Lord Alport will forgive me for saying so, I do not think this is the way to proceed. I hope that my noble friend will not proceed with the Bill.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, if I may intervene before the noble Lord sits down—

7.59 p.m.

Lord Alport

My Lords, may I thank those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and who have set out their views? I should like to thank the Minister, my noble friend Lord Belstead, for the much more sympathetic way, if I may say so, in which he has treated this particular Bill than was the case with my earlier efforts—Mark I and Mark II—on the last occasion. I should like to thank also the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, who was absolutely right in saying that part of the object—not the whole object, but part of the object—is to keep up the pressure. I have not the slightest doubt—and plenty of evidence has reached me—that the fact that your Lordships went through the whole process of debating the Bill last year was noted in the country districts of England and, no doubt, Scotland as well, and they realised that every effort had to be made to prevent some of the disasters that took place in 1983. I can assure your Lordships that it has not only been the code which has achieved this: it has also been the rather long and late periods that we have devoted to discussing this subject, which received much more publicity in the provincial press than they ever received in the London press.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said that there would be an automatic licensing—or at least that is what he would like. Of course, after the granting of the first licence, unless the conditions change, the licence would presumably be issued without further difficulty each year—each harvest period—to the farmer who applied for it. If the ownership of the farm changed, then a new licence would have to be obtained by the new owner. The noble Lord said that he did not think it was necessary for the farming industry to make contributions to research because so much money was available anyhow. However, the noble Lord omitted one point. The public do count in matters of this type. What the public would like to see is the agricultural industry paying and providing funds themselves for research rather than relying entirely upon the Exchequer and the general taxpayer to provide the money for research into new methods of disposing of straw or using it industrially.

My noble friend Lord Radnor comes from Salisbury. Perhaps he does not know, but I can tell him that the reason why the Salisbury District Council did not adopt the by-laws was that the majority of the members of the Salisbury District Council are farmers or members of farmers' families, and they voted against doing so. So perhaps if there were a change of complexion of the district council it might not be one of the very few district councils in agricultural areas that did not adopt the by-laws. I can assure my noble friend—because I have made special investigations into this matter—that through the Agricultural Development Advisory Service and the Grain Council there would be no difficulty in being able to inform the Ministry of Agriculture of the differing character of the soils in which the farmers are growing their crops when the application is made. It really is not a great administrative problem.

My noble friend the Minister said that at present licences are issued by the Ministry for other things. I am quite certain that there would be no great bureaucratic problems involved if licences were issued for straw and stubble burning. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, whose support I willingly acknowledge once again and for which I am very grateful, talked about the surplus of grain. This is one of the problems, one of the paradoxes of the present situation. There has been tremendous success, but what is the result of the last harvest? I may have the figures wrong, but I thought I saw on the television the night before last that the cost of storing the surplus grain produced in the last harvest was £300 million. If that figure is right, then certainly the cost is very great. Our problem is that we are increasing the production of grain at a time when we cannot use it, and we are doing so in a way which at the same time—as I have tried to make clear in my remarks to your Lordships—is causing a substantial public nuisance.

There have been many other matters raised but I do not want to keep your Lordships too long. However, I must make a suggestion to my noble friends on this side of the House in particular who have spoken for the arable interest. Perhaps I may mention that I have also received the whip from the National Farmers' Union and it seems to me that the whips of the National Farmers' Union are responded to with greater alacrity than sometimes the Whips provided by my noble friends in this House.

However, I must say to my noble friends that they must look at themselves in the mirror of public opinion. Many years ago public antagonism was directed at the "beer barons" who used their influence to safeguard and promote the financial interests of the industry in which they were engaged. Today the talk is about "grain barons"—the arable farmers who by straw burning create a major public nuisance, who allegedly oppose efforts to prevent that nuisance, who are intent on their own financial interests and who pursue them regardless of the health, convenience and safety of the public. The National Farmers' Union realises the dangers which increasing public anger at certain aspects of modern agricultural methods has aroused among the general public. Yesterday in the Sunday Times, the agricultural correspondent, Mr. Moore, wrote as follows: The union has become alarmed that, in the past few years, public interest in farming has focused on the grants and subsidies farmers receive, as well as issues like stubble-burning, hedgerow scrubbing and even defiance of the law … To counter this unfavourable image, the union is to launch a publicity campaign, and may also use billboard and television advertising on specific issues". Support for this Bill—admitted even by the National Farmers' Union to be a great improvement on my Mark I and Mark II—would be a better indication of the industry's determination to acquire public understanding and esteem than all the clever and expensive copy and design of some advertising agency. For instance, a lady wrote to me after the last harvest to say that she had nursed her dying husband through the sweltering weeks of the last harvest period when he was desperately in need of the comfort of fresh air. She wrote: My husband's bed was downstairs, near the French door, which mostly had to be wide open as it was so very hot. It certainly was most distressing to find my husband and all the bedclothes again and again covered in sooty 'bits', some quite large. Somebody was stubble burning again! How do you clean a patient, who is in the most dreadful pain and cannot move on his own, and all the bedclothes, perhaps more than once as day, without causing him further distress, pain and discomfort? Once I even tried to 'hoover' him clean.". Your Lordships may say that that is one small incident, but that is the type of problem which this is producing for countless people—not perhaps in such dramatic and sad circumstances—in villages and homes all over the country. The farming industry must understand this. If they do not understand it, then I can assure them that, although my efforts may always be frustrated and defeated, in due course the practice of straw and stubble burning will be banned, and in that banning consideration will not be given, as I have tried to do in my Bill, to the needs of the farming industry. In any event, the lady to whom I have referred will not be impressed by the most ingenious posters concocted by the National Farmers' Union. Despite the code and the by-laws, I had a sheaf of letters from all over the country after the 1984 harvest asking me to continue my efforts.

This is not a waste of your Lordships' time. In this particular case your Lordships are giving time to something which is of great importance to many people. If my noble friends defeat the Second Reading of this Bill or, for example, at the Committee stage attempt to emasculate it by amendment or by some procedural device (as happened last year) then, with your Lordships' permission, this Bill will be withdrawn and introduced into the other place. It will then be for the Government to decide to order their Whips to kill it by procedural means, thereby giving the impression that they are dancing to the tune piped by the National Farmers' Union. It will also provide an interesting commentary, as far as concerns the people who have suffered year after year from the practice of straw-burning all over the country, on the sincerity of the attempts of the arable farming industry and the National Farmers' Union to put its house in order.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at ten minutes past eight o'clock.