§ 3.29 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Belstead.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Provision of services and goods connected with agriculture and countryside]:
§ Lord John-Mackie moved Amendment No. 1:
§ Page 1, line 6, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment was moved in another place and it took two-and-a-half hours to discuss it and reach a decision. I propose to speak for only a few minutes and to hear what the Minister has to say. We want to see whether we can extract from the 393 Government their actual plans. On Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, made great play of new technologies, new pressures of overproduction, reduced margins, unprecedented change, new demands and changing needs. He then asked a lot of questions, and I admit that there were no instant answers.
§ Is the Minister going to tell us today that these matters are so difficult that the Government have no plans for dealing with them immediately? Clause 1 states that the Minister "may make provision for" the various proposals. Is there anything that the Government are doubtful about? Surely there are parts of Clause 1 which the Government are ready to put into operation immediately; or are they too busy making arrangements to carry out what is proposed in the last phrase of subsection (3), of which more in due course? I look forward to hearing that the Minister will accept the amendment and will let us have a little less of the enabling legislation that we have had so much of in the past. I beg to move.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I wonder whether it would be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak to my Amendments Nos. 2 and 7 with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. They are more or less the same. My amendment, as has been partly stated by the noble Lord, is to ensure a long-term future for ADAS. There is nothing worse or more liable to cause low morale than uncertainty. At the moment, in part due to this Bill being an enabling Bill, there is great uncertainty felt about the future of ADAS by both farmers and ministry staff. Indeed, rumours abound that in future there may be no service at all. My amendment—our amendment, rather—would remove that uncertainty by giving a firm undertaking that some service would be provided.
Amendment No. 7 takes into account that in future it may be necessary to change the role of ADAS. For instance, it is already being given duties regarding advice on conservation, and so as not to limit or restrict in any way the free movement of advice, my amendment allows the Minister to accept this. It also allows the Minister the right to refuse to accept duties involving advice that are plainly unnecessary. This was a point that was made forcefully by my noble friend Lord Belstead at Second Reading and I fully accept it.
§ Lord Walston
I should like to support the general principle of these amendments. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, was absolutely right in what he said about the importance of maintaining morale in ADAS, or rather re-establishing it, as one unfortunately has to say, and about ensuring that there is a long-term future for that invaluable organisation. There can be no question but that the people who are at present engaged in giving this service, not only to farmers but to agriculture and the rural community as a whole, are suffering very much from a feeling of uncertainty as to their future. I accept entirely that the present Government intend to maintain ADAS. I hope that we can have an assurance that they will maintain ADAS at least in its present form, which has been considerably attenuated over the past years.
Both amendments will go quite a long way toward removing the uncertainty which now exists over the 394 future of ADAS. In no way do they run counter to the intentions of this Bill; in fact they do no more than put into statutory form what I believe is the intention of Her Majesty's Government. I hope therefore that the Minister will be able to accept both amendments.
§ The Earl of Radnor
I, too, support the amendments. I think that it is very important at this stage to inject some certainty into the future of ADAS for the reasons that have already been given. This is needed not only to help morale, which I think everyone now knows is very low, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, because in fact ADAS has a very real future. I myself am quite sure of that, and perhaps it will be brought out later in the proceedings when we are discussing other parts of this Bill. Notwithstanding private consultancy firms and other advisory bodies of that nature, I think that at this stage we ought to put certainty into the future of ADAS, and I very much hope that my noble friend will see the importance of this.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I can feel rather sorry for my noble friend because on the Marshalled List he can see all the old hounds which harass him on agricultural matters when Bills of this sort come before Parliament. Their names always keep appearing—the Onslows, the Melchetts, the Buxtons. We could go on for ever really; and even the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, need not look quite so smug sitting on the Opposition Benches.
I should like to support this amendment for the following reasons. First, ADAS now appears to have become more important than it was before simply because, unless we can persuade them otherwise, the Government intend to introduce charges. That is the first reason. The second reason, which it seems to me is very important—and we must congratulate the Government very sincerely on this—is the introduction of Clause 12 which makes the Ministry of Agriculture seriously responsible for running the countryside as a whole rather than just as a food producing machine. Under those circumstances it seems to me that ADAS becomes even more important than it was. If that is allied to the fact that the Government will try—against certain of our better judgments; and we shall come to this matter later—to introduce charges, we shall then push the advice factor back on to the chemical firms, etc. It seems to me that this is why it is very important that the word "shall" should be inserted in place of the word "may".
§ Baroness White
I hesitate to intervene because by now the Minister must realise the feelings of the Committee from all quarters. I entirely follow the argument of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. How do the Government think that they will carry out the obligations which they are accepting under Clause 12 without the help of a really efficient, well trained, alert, highly motivated and enthusiastic advisory service?
I usually listen to the radio in the mornings and I try to listen to the farming programme. I did so only the other day and I am sorry to say that it seems to me that Mr. Jopling has got stuck in a groove of a long playing record. All he can say is that a further 334 staff of ADAS are under notice or will shortly be under notice 395 of dismissal. Yet it was made perfectly clear on Second Reading that agricultural advice is more than ever necessary when agriculture is not on the up-and-up, as it has been for a number of years, but is in a state of considerable anxiety, apprehension and confusion. The NFU, the CLA and all the other organisations, have made it absolutely plain that they believe that even on the agricultural side ADAS is very necessary and desirable. It seems to most of us who have any concern about this matter that with these additional obligations under Clause 12, ADAS is essential.
There are other matters concerned with the difficulties over charges which we discussed at Second Reading and no doubt the Minister will enlighten us further as to how the Government propose to deal with that situation. But a positive affirmation now at the beginning of the Bill seems to me to be unavoidable.
§ Baroness Elliot of Harwood
I should like to support my noble friend Lord Stanley. This is money well spent. A lot of money gets spent through Acts of Parliament, by ourselves and in other ways and very often we do not get as good a return as we ought. But if ever money is well spent it is spent on preventing disease and illness and improving the conditions under which our cattle, our sheep, and so on, are looked after. It would pay hand over fist to keep this service going. It will not keep going unless the people who work for it are certain that it is to continue and they and the next generation are trained for it. The Government would be most unwise if they did not agree to the amendment which is simply making clear what is a great success and continuing the success under the Bill.
§ Lord Melchett
The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that the Minister was under attack from all the people who usually attacked him on agricultural measures. But when we come to discuss the future of ADAS there is a significant difference. Concern about its future unites all who are interested in the British countryside. It unites farmers and landowners with environmentalists and conservationists and with many other interests. For instance, the water authorities (which I want to raise specifically on a later amendment) are extremely concerned about the dangers of the present state of ADAS and the contemplated cuts.
I wish to make two points. First, whatever the Government say today, whatever they have said in another place and whatever these Ministers say over the next few months, the Bill gives absolutely no commitment to ADAS continuing in any shape or form. Once the Bill is passed, ADAS could be brought to an end by any future Minister of Agriculture and any future Government. We all admire the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, to many of these issues, but nothing that he can say today can change that one jot. That is the legal effect of the changes that the Bill introduces. It inevitably presages sooner or later the end of a state advisory service for agriculture. That is why I believe the Government are making the change that the Bill introduces. It is hard to see any other reason.
There have been massive cuts in ADAS over recent years. Four hundred clerical posts are to be lost by 396 April 1987 and I think 334 scientific and specialist jobs are to go by April 1987. Over 1,000 scientific and research jobs will be lost as a result of cuts in agricultural research. They are to go by April 1987.
This is my second point. There is no doubt that that has already had an absolutely catastrophic effect on the people who work for ADAS. It is a service that depends on the quality of its staff. Any advisory service is bound to depend on the quality of its staff, and the scientific back-up that it has, for example, by research funded by the AFRC. Both have been decimated. The Institute of Professional Civil Servants, which represents the staff of ADAS, makes no bones about that. It says that the morale of those working in ADAS is such that many now wish to leave as quickly as possible. On a purely anecdotal basis, having met a number of young, well-qualified and enthusiastic people over the past 12 months who work for ADAS, I find that the universal story they tell me is that they are getting out. They are either getting out next month to go into private consultancy or in the next few months. They believe that there is no future for them in ADAS. That is the effect that the Bill has already had.
The idea that ADAS will be in a position to take on new responsibilities, functions and wider remits to do with conservation is nonsense. It is disappearing down a tube of spiralling low morale, with cuts in services. The introduction of charges will simply hasten that spiralling decline. Nobody who works in ADAS—and I suspect that this applies even to Professor Bell, who is allegedly in charge, although the Treasury clearly is actually in charge—believes anything different. The service is going down the tube rapidly. Unless we have an amendment to the Bill such as that proposed by my noble friend, I see no future for ADAS at all.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Belstead
Having heard from all round the Committee expressions of view on the importance of ADAS, I wonder whether I may now intervene. From the Benches opposite we heard criticisms from the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and the noble Baroness, Lady White, of how it is developing at the present time. The noble Lord says that the service is not developing; but I disagree, and I hope to explain why.
First of all, let me come to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. It would impose a duty on ADAS to provide advice and indeed goods and services to any person who asked for it on every subject falling within the broad range covered by the clause. Clause 1 represents a much wider range of activities than the existing area in which ADAS is presently required to provide advice. The basis of the law as it exists is that in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1944 there is a duty only to give technical advice and instruction on agricultural matters.
It is clear from the speeches that noble Lords have looked closely at the Bill, but if Members of the Committee care to glance once again at it you will find in Clause 1(1) something very different from just a duty to give technical advice and instruction. There is, 397 first, a commitment to provide goods and services (which of course includes advice) on:the production and marketing of agricultural produce and other food".I am sure that my noble friend Lady Elliot will be pleased to see the word "marketing".
Secondly, there is a commitment for ADAS to be involved in:the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside".That is an echo of the enormously important amendment that my noble friend Lord Sandford persuaded the Ministry of Agriculture to accept, and it did it with a light heart eventually. He was instrumental in getting that provision into the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. There were consultations between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture during the passage of the Bill.
Thirdly, paragraph (c) is a complete catchall:any other agricultural activity or other enterprise of benefit to the rural economy".The difficulty that I have in replying to what has been said is that if we are to keep Clause 1(1)(c) in the Bill—and I hope that we shall—it is asking a lot of the Minister of Agriculture for his advisory service to have a duty to provide goods and services for:any other agricultural activity or other enterprise of benefit to the rural economy",all at the same time.
Let us suppose, if that were to be a duty, that in a soft-fruit growing area the growers and their wives came to the Ministry in London and said: "We have looked at Clause 1(1)(c) and there is a duty on you to provide ADAS services for any other agricultural activity or other enterprise of benefit to the rural economy. We explained to your divisional office that we were starting a jam-making enterprise in the village, but we were told that they were sorry but there were no jam-making advisers in ADAS".
Let me give another example. This is something that I saw only a little while ago. Suppose that on a group of farms the farmers agreed to get together and funnel at least some of their vegetable production in a big vegetable growing area into a freezer plant to make use of the unused buildings on a particular farm. If they go to the divisional office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and say "We want some advice on this"—in fact we could give advice—and at that moment the Ministry said. "We are sorry, but we cannot give you advice; we do not have a specialist at the moment", that would be a statutory breach by my right honourable friend because of Clause 1(1)(c). If we are to have Clause 1(1)(c) in the Bill, which goes infinitely wider than the law has ever gone before, I beg the Committee to think carefully before it lays that as a duty in the Bill on the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
§ Lord Walston
; I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I go along with all that the noble Lord has said; but in the earlier part of his speech he said that Clause 1(1) lays a firm commitment on the Minister. I find it hard to reconcile a firm commitment with the words as printed, "The Minister may make" that does not seem to me to be a firm commitment. It seems that he 398 may if he so wishes, without any firm commitment. I fully accept that the present Minister and the noble Lord are firmly committed, but can he assure us that it will be a firm commitment on successive Ministers?
§ Lord Belstead
That is a fair point that the noble Lord, Lord Walston has made. It is the point around which the debate is turning. Although I realise that there is a difference between a duty and a power, we are I hope showing our, bona fides by not just putting down in Clause 1(1) what has been in the law until now. We are making it a power because we are trying to spread the remit of ADAS much wider than the law has spread it so far.
My right honourable friend the Minister of State said in Committee in another place that the clause was not an opting-out clause but an opting-in one. I thought that that was a happy phrase because by putting paragraphs (a) and (b) on to page 1 of the Bill and adding paragraph (c) we are showing that we mean ADAS to have a wider remit in the future than It has had before.
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, sdot;said that he believes that people will not want a career in ADAS in the future. Last week, we had a week which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food called the Farming and Countryside Week of Events. It was highly publicised. It included a television programme at lunchtime on the previous Sunday in which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, took part, and which was a trailer for the coming week. Some 33 farms throughout the length and breadth of England, with a hill farming event in Wales, were devoted to open days to show that agricultural production and conservation can, truly go hand in hand.
If any Members of the Committee had the opportunity to visit any of those open events they would have found some members of the advisory service from the land and water service, the science service, the agriculture service and the veterinary service, although they are enormously busy in other ways. They were manning those events, ready to show people around and clearly proud of what they are doing.
I have tried to set out the difficulty as I see it with the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has put down. However, we have Amendment No. 2 tabled by my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley, and with it goes Amendment No. 7. The effect of the amendments is to ensure that Ministers and their officials will be in regular contact with the farming industry if there were to be a change made or proposed—I am looking at Amendment No. 7—in the provision of goods or services to be supplied under Clause 1.
My noble friend was restrained when he moved his amendment. I am sure that he will not mind if I say that I think what lies behind the amendment is a feeling, which I have heard in the speeches already, that there may be changes made to ADAS. I have tried to dispel that feeling in what I have already said. The effect of the amendment would be that if there were to be changes, there should be consultations. I believe that is my noble friend's thinking.
399 I could not help but reflect, as I listened to my noble friend's brief introduction of the amendment, on the enormous amount of consultation we undertake whenever we take an initiative of any kind. I am talking for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food but that applies to all the other territorial departments responsible for agriculture throughout the United Kingdom. The list is sometimes as long as one's arm.
The difficulty I see with the amendment is that Clause 1(1) is drawn so enormously wide. It includes not just producers but, as my noble friend recognised in his amendment, other people—those involved in the environment, especially from the point of view of access and conservation, people who might be in the consultancy profession in agriculture, or even people who are in the food industry. It would mean that the consultation which we should have to make, if we were to do what my noble friend Lord Stanley wants in Amendments Nos. 2 and 7, would be enormous.
Having listened to the debate and the expressions of view which have been made in the past half an hour, I must of course take these amendments seriously and I must try and make some response to my noble friend Lord Stanley. I could not possibly do it now. I am afraid that the Government amendments did not go down in very good time, but I am sure that my noble friend will forgive me if I say that I have not had a great deal of time to look at Amendments Nos. 2 and 7. It is only 48 hours since they appeared, and we had one or two other things on yesterday. It would help me a great deal if it were possible to look with care at what my noble friend is trying to do to see—I cannot give a commitment—whether I can make some move on the face of the Bill in the direction that my noble friend Lord Stanley is taking.
May I return to my original point on Amendment No. 1? There is a genuine difficulty about laying a duty in Clause 1 if the Committee wishes to retain clause 1(1)(c).
The noble Baroness, Lady White, said that she assumed that the Committee would be hearing more about the Government's concept of charging for the services of ADAS. Not much has so far been said in detail on that in another place. I want to say something to the Committee about the detail of the Government's proposals for ADAS charging. It could wait for an amendment or two, but if the Committee would prefer to hear it on this amendment, I could intervene again.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I have an amendment with the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, concerning charges. Would it be convenient to the Committee if we left the matter until then rather than to do it now?
§ Lord John-Mackie
We must thank the Minister for his reply and for the fact that he has been very much seized of the Committee's feelings on the subject. My amendment was perhaps a little abrupt. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley, made his proposal rather better by attaching Amendment No. 7 to it. On Clause 1(1)(c) I had a note, "consultation point" because I realised that we were asking for a wide commitment from the Government. Unfortunately, I could not read my 400 writing when I was speaking and I had to miss out the point.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment after hearing the Minister's speech, which we all welcome, and the fact that he will look at what has been said in Committee.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 2:
§ Page 1, line 6, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall, subject to subsection (2A),").
§ The noble Lord said: I have already spoken to this amendment. I do not intend to move it.
§ [Amendment No. 2 not moved.]
§ Lord Melchett moved Amendment No. 3:
§ Page 1, line 10, leave out paragraph (b).
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment also deals with the part of the Bill that we have been discussing. But rather than looking at paragraphs (a) and (c), upon which the previous debate concentrated, my amendment takes up the area covered by paragraph (b); namely, advice on conservation, amenity, access and so on. I should perhaps remind the Committee that ADAS was first placed under a statutory duty to provide, free of charge, advice on these issues as a result of an amendment carried in your Lordships' House (not entirely, I believe, with Government support at the time, although subsequently it had strong Government support in another place) to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Section 41 of that Act amended the 1944 Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act to make it a requirement that ADAS should give free advice on these issues—namely, conservation, enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside and diversification into other enterprises that benefit the rural economy—and advice to government departments and other bodies exercising statutory functions on the promotion and furtherance of such diversification.
§ This was done as a result of an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in your Lordships' House. It is fair to say that the amendment was very widely supported in your Lordships' House because of a strong feeling on two issues: first, that it was important that there should be an independent source of advice for people managing land, farmers and landowners about conservation issues and about diversification; and, secondly that ADAS was the right organisation to provide such advice. The objective that all of us had in mind in supporting the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, when he moved the amendment in 1981 was that this was a major way in which differences between, for example, conservation and agriculture could be reconciled effectively and successfully. The idea has a long and honourable pedigree. It was first recommended in the Strutt report many years ago.
§ Much to my surprise and, I hope, to the surprise of all your Lordships, the Agriculture Bill actually repeals this section of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. It does so not entirely overtly, which is why, along with this amendment, I wish to speak to Amendment No. 401 80. Amendment No. 80 is an amendment to the third schedule. Your Lordships will find in Schedule 3, on page 28 of the Bill, a repeal listed to Section 41(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which provision appeared in that Act as a result of the decision taken by your Lordships on the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford.
§ I must say, in passing, that I rather share the worries of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley. I am not sure that the best way forward, in looking at this part of the Bill, is to try to insist that the Government consult a very wide range of interests before making changes. It seems to me much more desirable that we divide out those bits of Clause 1 where we believe that ADAS should continue to provide a service and make those a duty on the Minister, and those areas where we think that there should be a discretion on Ministers as to whether advice and other services are provided in future. I am with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in saying that paragraph (c) is one where there should be discretion about whether or not advice is offered in the future. I do not believe that such arguments apply to paragraph (a) or (b). In particular, in the context of my amendment, it definitely should not apply to paragraph (b).
§ Parliament decided in 1981 that there should be a duty on Ministers to provide the sort of advice through ADAS and on diversification that paragraph (b) and, to some extent, paragraph (c) would cover. I believe that Parliament was right in 1981. Everything that has happened since 1981 should have made us more convinced that the decision was right. It can hardly be said five years later that there is less of a need for advice on diversification in agriculture now than in 1981. The need is incomparably greater. It can hardly be said five years later that the need for advice to farmers on conservation and amenity is less than it was in 1981. With new measures coming from the European Commission and the possibility of environmentally sensitive areas, with which we shall be dealing later in the Bill, becoming a European-wide Community-funded programme, the idea that there is less need for advice in this area now than there was in 1981 is nonsensical. There is a much greater need and much greater importance attached to the matters covered in Section 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act now than there was in 1981. And, goodness knows, the need was pressing enough then!
§ I am suggesting in these narrow areas that we leave the law as it was when your Lordships approved it in 1981 and that we leave Section 41 of the 1981 Act unamended and unrepealed. This means that the Ministry of Agriculture would be under a duty to provide, free of charge, advice of the sort listed in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, very broadly on conservation and diversification. If it was right in 1981, it is doubly right today that we should do this. I hope that the amendment will have the support of noble Lords on all sides of the Committee and that it will not be open to the objection that the noble Lord has raised in respect of my noble friend's amendment, Amendment No. 1. I beg to move.402
§ Lord Belstead
I have listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. The Government yield to no one in their view, which coincides with the noble Lord's, about the importance of giving first-class environmental advice—something, incidentally, I accept, that the advisory services benefit from as well as the recipients. I know perfectly well, having worked in the Ministry now for three years, how much one learns from going to see people and hearing what they have to say as well as how much clients, in the case of the advisory services, are learning from ADAS. It is fair to say that an enormous amount has gone on in recent years in relation to training in ADAS. There have been regional conferences at which speakers from many conservation and environmental agencies have been welcomed to address officers in the advisory services. I assert that the expertise of ADAS today, not only on agricultural production but also on environmental advice, is on the up and up.
However, the noble Lord presents a difficulty with this amendment for two reasons. I hope that the noble Lord will not mind my saying that it is, first, technically defective. This does not of course mean that the thrust of his argument cannot be fully debated. Obviously, if the amendment is technically defective the noble Lord will be able to put down a replacement. However, for the record, my advice in respect of Amendments Nos. 3 and 80 is that because Section 41(1) of theWildlife and Countryside Act 1981 relies on powers in Section 1(1) of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1944, and as the latter will be repealed by this Bill, the effect of the amendment would be to remove Ministers' powers to provide advice on conservation altogether. That is, I know, something that the noble Lord does not intend in the amendment. With respect, therefore, the amendment is not technically quite correct.
I resist the amendment, too, on the basis that there are genuine reasons as to why we are bringing in charges for the advisory service. We believe that this will give to us in the Ministry of Agriculture and in ADAS proper signals as to what the farming community and, indeed all others who are in touch with ADAS really want from the advisory services. Without going over the ground in the previous amendment again at any length may I simply say in one sentence that it also gives us the chance to spread the net of ADAS wider in Clause 1(1)—far wider than it has ever been spread before.
I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, does not agree—because that is not the effect of his amendment—with what I have just said. But I think that it might be for the convenience of the Committee if I seized this opportunity to explain how we intend, if Parliament agrees, to make good the undertaking which was given by my right honourable friend the Minister that the Government do not have any plans to introduce charges for the kind of advice now provided to farmers free of charge on conservation, animal welfare and rural diversification.
My right honourable friend said this quite openly on 7th November last year. He said this because the Government's purpose is to help protect the countryside by encouraging farmers and landowners to seek advice on conservation matters. That is why this part of the work of ADAS, together with advice on 403 farm diversification, and animal welfare, will remain, as we intend, free of charge. Noble Lords, will say, "All right, how will you do it?" Because almost all ADAS advice these days is bound to have an environmental element it would not, I think, be practical to give a list in a statute of those types of advice which can be said to be environmental and those which can be said to be not environmental. Only the circumstances of each case can determine whether, say, advice on a pesticide application programme by a farmer is being sought primarily in order to protect his crop at a lower cost, or whether what he wants to do is to have a talk with the adviser to find out how he can better reduce the risk to birds and insects.
Therefore, whether the adviser should offer free or chargeable advice in an individual case should depend, we believe, upon the adviser's answer to the question: for what purpose is the advice primarily being sought? If the adviser judges that the client's primary objective is to improve the running of his business, we are proposing that the advice would be chargeable. On the other hand, if the adviser judges that the primary purpose would be environmental, the advice should be free. "Environment" here would mean anything primarily designed to conserve or enhance the natural beauty of an area or its flora or fauna, or geological and physiological features or to prevent environmental pollution.
The duty of the ADAS adviser to decide whether advice is being sought primarily for economic or for environmental reasons places an important responsibility upon him or her. The Government believe that ADAS advisers are well qualified to bear this responsibility by their ability, knowledge and experience of the farming conditions and of the farmers themselves among whom they work. But cases may arise where there would be disagreement or genuine doubt about the primary purpose for which advice is being sought. In all cases the adviser must leave no doubt whether he or she considers the work to be chargeable or not.
The adviser must not commit the client to fees without making that clear in advance, and if there is any disagreement the adviser must postpone giving the advice until it is resolved. It is our intention, if there is disagreement which cannot be settled in a discussion between the farmer and the advisory service, that the farmer may appeal to the local regional panel whose members are independent and whose recommendation the Minister would normally accept.
I emphasise that the Government realise that cases will arise from time to time where a farmer and his adviser may have agreed to discuss a technical or economic farming problem and that a fee would be charged. But then the farmer takes advantage of the visit to raise a quite separate environmental issue. Of course, the conversation might go the other way—starting with an environmental matter and moving on to something about husbandry. ADAS advisers would have discretion in such cases to use their honest judgment in deciding how much of their time had been devoted to advice primarily with an economic purpose, and how much on environmental matters. But once again the adviser would be required to let his client know, when the discussion switched 404 from the free to the chargeable, that a charge ought to be made.
I am sorry that I have been rather long-winded. This is the first time that the Government have tried to set out honestly and clearly what it is that we intend, if Parliament agrees, to achieve the undertaking given by by right honourable friend on 7th November last year—that there will not be charges in future for conservation, animal welfare and rural diversification. In doing this we are therefore trying to provide three things: first, clear guidelines for the ADAS officers to judge in the circumstances of each case whether the advice is environmental; secondly, flexibility to exercise judgment within those guidelines in discussion with the farmer; and, thirdly, a right of appeal where the farmer cannot accept the adviser's judgment. We believe that this will secure the objective of encouraging farmers to seek advice that will protect and enhance the countryside. But I assure noble Lords that the Government will watch closely to see how matters develop and will revise the instructions to ADAS if experience shows this to be necessary.
I have used the amendment of the noble Lord as the vehicle to make this statement. The noble Lord will forgive me if I return to my original point. I must resist this amendment for the reasons that I gave at the beginning and because , with respect, the amendment is not technically correct.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Sandford
I wonder whether I may make one or two comments on the response of my noble friend to this amendment. On the technical difficulty that he raised, it was not I, when I moved the original amendment, who introduced the tortuous form of wording that Members find in Section 41, which makes it difficult to amend the repeal in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, indicated in his amendment. I think that is a relatively trivial point. It is quite clear that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, is seeking to avoid a watering down of the objective of the original Clause 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
My noble friend on the Front Bench has not answered the main point which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, made; namely, what has happened in recent years to reduce the need for the Minister of Agriculture to have a duty laid upon him to provide advice on conservation free of charge to farmers? That is the point to which we need to address our minds and to which I want to return at the Report stage.
What has happened is that the Ministry of Agriculture, which did not like this amendment in the first place and resisted it to the extent that it could (but was defeated), watered it down to the extent that it could in the Commons and has sat pretty lightly on it ever since. It is now using the opportunity of this Agriculture Bill to water it down even more on the pretext—and I think it is a rather flimsy one—that with the introduction of charges for advice on mainline agriculture it is necessary to divest itself of a duty to give advice on conservation and to limit it to discretionary power only. I do not think that is good enough.
§ Lord Melchett
May I take up that point? The noble Lord has made some interesting and I think thoroughly confusing points about how charges will or will not be implemented. However, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that we may return to that on a later amendment.
I have a number of questions that I should like to ask the noble Lord on that. How he will make charging, or not charging, work is not the question in my mind at the moment, as the noble Lord suggested would be the case. The noble Lord says that all the services which the Government are under a duty to provide free of charge under Section 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act will continue to be provided free of charge by ADAS. The question in my mind is this. Why repeal Section 41 in those circumstances? That question has not been answered.
§ Lord Belstead
Perhaps I may once again briefly intervene. I think that both my noble friend Lord Sandford and the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, are upbraiding me from each side of the Committee for not addressing myself to what they regard as the fundamental question. Just for once perhaps I may throw the ball back, because they have left me in some perplexity. If, for reasons which I deployed when I dealt with Amendment No. 1, the Ministry of Agriculture intends to introduce charges for the advisory services—and I realise that there is a difference of view on this—somehow or other there must be a way of drawing a dividing line between where you charge and where you do not charge.
There is no difference between my noble friend Lord Sandford, the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and the Government on the desirability of not charging for conservation. Indeed, on 7th November last year my right honourable friend gave an undertaking that the kind of advice now provided to farmers free of charge on conservation, animal welfare and rural diversification would remain free.
The whole point of the quite long statement which I was prepared to make and which I was waiting to read out for the first time (because we have been unable to get down to the detail of what is a difficult problem until the Bill arrived in your Lordships' House) is simply to try to show how we believe we can fulfil the assurance given by my right honourable friend and, in doing that, ensure that we are genuinely not charging for conservation advice, although it is our intention to charge for general agricultural advice.
If my noble friend, or the noble Lord opposite, can show that in my statement I have not drawn the line in the right way, I would be very ready to listen. That is what a Committee stage is all about. However, I have tried to show what I believe would be a workable approach. I beg the Members of the Committee not to sweep what I have said out of the way.
§ Lord Sandford
My noble friend is putting up an even thicker smokescreen about charges. The criticism which is being levelled by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and which I share, is that my noble friend and his department have used this opportunity to divest themselves of a statutory duty and have put in its place a discretionary power, and my noble friend has not justified that move.
§ Baroness Nicol
I find this quite confusing, because it seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and my noble friend Lord Melchett specifically asked about keeping a duty. Then we heard a long and very interesting speech about charges, which presumably we shall have to hear again when we come to Amendment No. 11. We still have not received an answer to the point about duty. Can the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, give us that answer, and then perhaps later we can deal with the charges point, on which we are all hoping to comment?
§ Lord Belstead
With respect, I think that I answered the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, when I spoke on Amendment No. 1. I made it clear in answer to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, in relation to Amendment No. 1 that, because we are drawing the remit of ADAS in Clause 1(1) of this Bill infinitely wider than it has ever been drawn before, we want to make it a power. I gave two examples of ways in which, if we made Clause 1(1) into a duty, people could come to the Ministry of Agriculture and cause great difficulties for the ministry, because the remit had become wider and wider. It would mean that the duty to provide advice and advisory services had become yet wider and wider. I did not think that that was reasonable. I particularly hung it on the peg of the fact that Clause 1(1)(c) is such a wide catch-all that it would make it impossible to hang that onto a duty.
As part of that we are debating Clause 1(1)(b), and so far as conservation, rural diversification and animal welfare are concerned, my right honourable friend gave an undertaking on 7th November last year. It was given in the clearest possible terms and it was that we did not intend to make charges. That therefore leaves us with one final responsibility to discharge, and that is to decide how we draw the dividing line between what is charged for and what is not.
I have devoted a lot of time to saying how I believe that dividing line should be drawn and, with respect, not one Member of the Committee has come back to me and said that the dividing line is drawn in the wrong way.
§ Baroness White
We are being led from confusion into confusion in this matter. Apart from the noble Lord the Minister it appears to all of us who have spoken so far that a more determined effort to redraft Clause 1 would bring us to a much more satisfactory situation than that in which we now find ourselves. After all, what is to prevent the Government from putting paragraph (c)—which one must recognise is extremely wide—as a permissive power but leaving the other two, (a) and (b), as statutory duties? I am no draftsman, but I am quite certain that, given the will, it is by no means impossible to retain the duty which is included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, to which my two noble friends (and for the moment, the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, is my noble friend) have drawn attention.
I have great sympathy with the Minister. He has been extremely assiduous in his duties in this Chamber. Had he not had to spend his time on the subject of gas, for example, we might have had more sense in this particular Bill. I suggest that this problem is not insuperable. The trouble is that we have these 407 three paragraphs which, with the abandonment of the first amendment for the time being, have been left as permissive when virtually all of us present wish to make two of them at any rate absolute duties. I cannot believe that there is no way in which this can be redrafted.
§ Lord Belstead
Perhaps I may speak at this stage because I want to pose two questions. The key element of Section 41 is that advice must be provided free, but that is to farmers, and Clause 1 of this Bill is not just wide in substance; it also has no restriction as regards farmers. First, does that not create some problem in knowing where to draw the line? Secondly, if the noble Baroness is saying—and I quite understand what she is saying—that there is no problem here, that we simply keep a duty, as it was in Section 41, but we leave paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 1(1) of the Bill as they are, we still have to decide how to distinguish between the free conservation advice and advice which is not free but which is concerned with husbandry. In practice we must actually draw a dividing line when an adviser visits a farm. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady White, how she would do that if it was not done in the way I have suggested.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I suspect that in rising I shall perhaps add more confusion to the debate rather than anything else. Throughout the whole Bill—and I go back to the core of the Bill—it seems that the ministry has had a major strategic change of policy, which is to look at the countryside as a whole rather than just as a food-producing unit. I welcome that totally, completely, utterly and wholeheartedly because I believe that it is a great and gallant step forward.
However, we are then slightly crabbing on ADAS and we are clamping the performance of ADAS. ADAS is the machine that we have. It is full of very good people. At the moment it suffers from a slight morale problem, which I hope we can overcome, because ADAS will be there to give us the advice.
It seems that the feeling of the Committee is that Clause 1(1)(a) and (b) should be compulsory, that paragraph (b) should go back to Section 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and that paragraph (c) should be allowable rather than compulsory. Having taken a major step forward in its thinking on the countryside, can the ministry not take the last little bit in its stride?
§ Lord Walston
The Minister has asked a specific question. He has told us how he proposes to draw the dividing line between the sort of advice which is paid for and the sort of advice which is not. The noble Lord has asked those of us who disagree with him if we will give him some answer as to a different form of dividing line. My answer would be, as I said on Second Reading, as the noble Lord may remember, that in principle I am entirely in favour of the farmers paying for advice which will increase their profit but not paying for advice which improves the environment. After considering this, and listening to the noble Lord very carefully, my opinion is that it is impossible to 408 draw a satisfactory dividing line between those two functions carried out by the same individual on the same farm at the same time. While it would be worth doing if the savings were really going to be very substantial to the national Exchequer, as I understand it the amount expected to be received in governmental terms, is pretty minimal.
I would say it would be far better not to attempt a dividing line, not to attempt to have this allocation by the official of the amount of time he spends on one and on the other, and an appeal procedure, and all the rest of it, that the noble Lord has explained to us, but rather to say that the job of the official of ADAS is these two completely inseparable jobs. When he goes on to a farm, whatever it may be for, whether to give technical advice on crop production or whether to give environmental advice, as a friend of the farmer, as an expert with a pretty wide remit, with wide knowledge and experience, he should be able to combine all these operations. He comes to give advice on sprays, and at the same time he gives advice on small things which can be done for the environment, and vice versa.
Therefore, it is something wherein without an enormous paraphernalia of bureaucratic timewasting, it is impossible to achieve any satisfactory dividing line between the two. That is why I would hope that the noble Lord the Minister will come to the conclusion eventually—sooner rather than later—that the game is not worth the candle, the amount of money to be saved is not worth this paraphernalia, and certainly not worth the potential loss to the environmental protection which is an increasing obligation and responsibility of ADAS.
§ Lord Melchett
If I may say so, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Lord, Lord Walston, have successfully widened the debate on a narrow and simple amendment, no doubt as a result of the enthusiastic encouragment they received to do this from the noble Lord, Lord Belstead.
This is a simple, narrow amendment which looks solely at the repeal of Section 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. There is no difference between the Government and myself about the fact that the advice given under Section 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act will continue to be given free. That is agreed. We do not need to argue about that.
Perhaps I may put to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, the same question as he has already been asked by myself and by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. May I ask him to accept a couple of things in order to try and avoid the Committee going off at a tangent again? Can the noble Lord accept for a moment that I agree with him that there should be a charge for advice given under Clause 1(1)(a) and Clause 1(1)(c) for the sake of this amendment. I am moving an amendment which only affects Clause 1(1)(b), and for the sake of this amendment I accept charging for Clauses 1(1)(a) and (c). Perhaps I may also ask the noble Lord to accept for a moment that I think he has got his dividing line in exactly the right place—there is no argument about that whatsoever—for the purposes of this amendment.
But there is still a question that the noble Lord has not answered. If he is going to continue to give this advice free, and if he has the line in the right place and he is charging for the other things, why does he need to 409 repeal Section 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act? Why does he need to remove the duty on him to continue to give that specific advice free? That is the question.
§ Lord Belstead
I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has asked that question, because it is a perfectly fair one. The answer to it is, if I may be absolutely honest, that in drawing a line which I have made a statement about we would be having to use the words I have already used, "an honest judgment". It would be possible if the farmer believed, or indeed not only the farmer under Clause 1(1) but someone involved in the food industry or in rural diversification—maybe a whole variety of people—but if the recipient believed the line was being drawn in the wrong place, I have said in the statement I made there would be a right of appeal to the regional panel of the Ministry whose advice the Minister almost always accepts. So we believe this would be the right way of going about it.
But it would be very much more serious to say that there had been a statutory breach when you are having to draw a line using your honest judgment. It cannot be an exact science. That is an honest answer.
§ Lord Melchett
If I may say so, at last we have got to the nub of the question which this amendment was designed to address. We have spent a long time—the clock has not been restarted, but I think it is about 66 minutes—getting to what I had hoped the noble Lord would have said after I moiled the amendment, and then we could have embarked on the debate which I hope we can now embark on, which is what this amendment was designed to address our minds to.
As I understand it, what the noble Lord is saying is that if you introduce charging for any part of the ADAS advisory service, it is impossible to have a statutory duty on ADAS to provide any advice, however narrowly drawn that advice might be because in practice there will always be a boundary, and you will always come up against a statutory obligation to give advice.
What I do not follow from what the noble Lord said is what the implications of that would be. If the noble Lord the Minister has said that it was his policy to give free advice on conservation and diversification, and that is what ADAS are under instruction to do, and the farmer then appeals, surely he would have a right to go to court to enforce the Minister's policy against ADAS, just as the farmer would have the right to go to court if the Minister is under a statutory duty to do the same thing. Or is that in effect what this is taking away—the right of farmers to go to an independent tribunal to get the Minister to carry out the Minister's policy? Are we talking about the difference between an advisory panel making a decision, or a farmer having the right to take the Minister to court? Can the noble Lord tell me that?
§ Lord Belstead
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has put his finger again on a point. We are talking about the difference between an appeal to an advisory panel, which is well understood, certainly by farmers in all localities. There are a large number of appeals going on about the extension of less favoured areas, for 410 instance. The farming community know very well about this. We would not be talking about an appeal to a court.
§ Lord Melchett
It seems to me that that raises serious issues. So far as I know, the Government have not admitted that this is the case up to now, that what they are doing by making all this advice simply a discretionary power rather than a duty is preventing anybody insisting that they carry out their policy and give advice on these matters. Frankly, I find that unacceptable, and I hope the Committee will find it unacceptable. Certainly I shall want to come back on Report stage with an amendment which does not have the technical defects which the noble Lord kindly pointed out to the Government's version of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and insist that the the Minister should have a statutory duty to give advice on matters which the Minister is saying he will do anyhow. If that means that the Ministry ends up in court for not carrying out their duty, I do not see that that is a great advantage to anyone, except possibly the Minister. It will be a great advantage to the farmers and the countryside as a whole. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.