HL Deb 22 October 1986 vol 481 cc266-9

2.39 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to take further steps to reduce the nuisance caused by straw and stubble burning.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, over recent years the Government have taken a number of steps to reduce the nuisance that can be caused by careless or inconsiderate burning of straw and stubble. The indications are that there have been fewer problems during this year's harvest season. A combination of strengthened by-laws, the publicity campaign mounted by the Government, the code of practice issued by the National Farmers' Union and the introduction of the Highways (Amendment) Act 1986 will undoubtedly have contributed greatly to this improvement.

Moreover, as the results of our continuing research and development work on alternative methods of disposal have been made known to the industry, an increasing number of farmers have been able to avoid straw and stubble burning altogether. These are encouraging trends, but we shall keep the matter under review.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that very full reply. I should like to welcome him on the occasion of his first appearance at the Dispatch Box.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in Cambridge, although there may have been some reduction in the nuisance, it has not appeared so? We have had many complaints this year about it. Can the noble Lord say whether, among the alternative uses that he has mentioned, there is one to convert straw into paper? Does he recall that in January of this year the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, gave me a hopeful answer on that? Can the noble Lord say whether any progress has been made?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness for her very kind remarks. I hope that they are justified. I am well aware of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, earlier. Perhaps I may first address the problem of straw-burning in Cambridge, and particularly on the A.45. The local ministry office has not had that drawn to its attention. I should be very grateful if the noble Baroness would give me the details so that the matter can be investigated further.

The Ministry has looked thoroughly at the possibilities for paper-making. There is no doubt that the technology to do it is available, as evidenced by plants that exist on the Continent. However, the paper industry would need to make a very large-scale investment in straw-pulping facilities. In present circumstances it is uncertain whether there would be sufficient economic and technical benefit to justify such an investment.

Lord Alport

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend whether he is aware that a substantial number of farmers have given up straw-burning due to a sense of responsibility to the public interest. They have found that incorporation is much less expensive and can be achieved much more efficiently than originally thought. In those circumstances, as a large number of farmers have given up straw-burning, does he not think that it is time that the farmers who have not shown the same responsibility should be compelled to do so by legislation? Will my noble friend and his right honourable friend consider this situation and perhaps in the next Session of Parliament help to introduce a Bill to end stubble-burning by 1990? Alternatively, perhaps he will support a Private Member's Bill if that were introduced.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am afraid the short answer to that question is no. There have been most encouraging improvements. In 1983 37 per cent. of the straw that was available in this country was burnt. That figure fell to 27 per cent. last year and I hope it will continue to fall. It is far easier for some farmers to cease straw-burning because of the nature of the ground that they farm. There are many farmers in this country who would find it impossible to cease and to move directly to incorporation of straw.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Baroness in her supplementary question referred to the possible use of straw for other products; namely, paper. However, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether the Government are supporting projects for converting straw into building board. I believe that there are very satisfactory technological processes for this conversion and it would appear to be a very useful alternative role for the surplus straw.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the Government are spending £2 million annually considering alternative uses for the remaining 5 million tonnes of straw, which is what the problem is all about. The Government are certainly looking at building board. However, one of the great difficulties that has occurred with that alternative use has been the collapse in the price of oil, which has proved a number of the avenues of research to be less attractive than they were a short while ago.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, apart from congratulating the Minister as a Member of this House on his first appearance, I should like to congratulate him as a farmer on his reply, which will be very well received. Is he aware that, although the technicalities of incorporating straw, mainly on lighter land, have been solved—perhaps I may add on this point that they have been solved by the Scottish NIAE, which the Government have taken in hand almost to abolish—the burning of straw has always proved a sanitation action against straw-borne diseases? However, we still do not know whether the steady incorporation of straw year by year creates a problem of which we are not yet aware. I think the Minister's reply will be welcomed by farmers. After all, it is a very sick code indeed, and I think he will be aware of the difficulties it sometimes raises. Nevertheless, farmers have been much better in attending to it this year.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, perhaps I may first thank the noble Lord for his very kind remarks. I particularly accept his statement concerning diseases in the ground. We are well aware that, for example, in heavy clay soils there are serious potential disease problems.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the first comments of the noble Baroness congratulating the noble Lord and continue by congratulating him on the actual content of his Answer. As a Cambridgeshire farmer, may I disagree strongly with the noble Baroness concerning the impact of straw-burning in that county this year? I ask the noble Lord whether he agrees that the amount of straw burnt both statistically and from casual observation has turned out to be very much less than in previous years.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord very much for his kind remarks. We do not have the figures for 1986. However, from 1983 to 1985 the figures have fallen by the equivalent of 25 per cent., and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to fall.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, I should like to take the opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord in this third generation on his promotion and appearance before us. Perhaps I may point out to him that our farmers have produced the most efficient agricultural industry in the world. This has been a great achievement and they are in considerable trouble through difficulties which are not their own. Perhaps when people are put to the rather minor inconvenience involved here they should comfort themselves that it will soon be over.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, again I thank the noble Lord for his very kind remarks. I am sure that everyone in this House agrees that it is an industry which in some ways has been the victim of its own success. However, I believe that the farming industry as a whole is making a tremendous effort to remove this problem, of which it is becoming more and more aware. The Ministry and the National Farmers' Union have done a great deal of work to make the farmers responsible.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, without dissenting in any way from the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Walston, and joining in the chorus of congratulations to the noble Lord himself, may I ask him to bear this in mind? I know he is aware that straw-burning, even though it may be on a small scale, creates a hazard not only as a smoke screen but also to wildlife, animals, birds and even insects. That strengthens the case for limiting, or even putting an end to, straw-burning wherever it may be going on.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remark. However, the evidence is that wildlife is having a better and better time with the regulations that have been introduced, and the by-laws of 1984 and 1985. If I was living in a hedgerow I should be very happy about the way things are looking!

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, before my noble friend considers any alteration to the very successful straw-burning rules, will he consider the knock-on effects that this could have? For instance, what would we do with the 5 million extra tonnes which would be wandering around? An alteration to the rules would inevitably increase both bankruptcies among farmers and the use of precious fossil fuels; it would also increase the nitrogen level in some of our waters. Finally, I congratulate my noble friend on tackling such a hot number on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, again, I should like to thank my noble friend for his kind remarks and take the opportunity of agreeing with much of what he said. That is why the Government do not propose to ban straw-burning at this time.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that to burn straw is a thoroughly bad farming practice and that farmers who use the monoculture method would have no disease problems if they returned to the system of rotation of crops?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I wish that I was as good a farmer as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, so that I would know about the finer points of his question.