HL Deb 19 May 1993 vol 545 cc1813-44

7.51 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what stage has been reached in the consultations on the implementation of the Agri-Environmental Measures (EC Council Regulation 2078/92) in the United Kingdom, which was the subject of the 14th Report of the European Communities Committee. [HL Paper 45].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, when the common agricultural policy was reformed last year many of us felt it was something of a wasted opportunity in that once again a large amount of money was spent on guaranteeing commodity prices and area payments and on many provisions that many people clearly disliked. However, there was one small element in that package which many people looked on with favour and that was the agri-environmental measures on which I am delighted to base my Unstarred Question today.

I am pleased that we have a list of such distinguished and knowledgeable speakers who are to speak on this matter. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to hear the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield. The reform package of June was important in one respect in that for the first time it was compulsory for member states to put forward environmental proposals as part of a common agricultural policy. We must give credit to the United Kingdom Government for having been the trail blazer in many respects; for example, as regards environmentally sensitive areas and the country stewardship scheme. Many of those pilot schemes, which are now recognised as having been precedents in Europe, were clearly in the minds of the members of the Council of Ministers when they decided to accept the proposals for agri-environmental measures.

When we in Sub-Committee D considered the reform of the CAP in the report of July last year, we quoted with approval the verdict of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on the measures. The RSPB stated: These measures are an exciting and positive aspect of the reform. However, we are concerned that these measures have been marginalised in the common agricultural policy. It is not a central measure. Its funding is insecure and it is not integrated with other measures such as set-aside".

We in Sub-Committee D decided to take a further look at these proposals. We produced a short report in December 1992 entitled The Environmental Aspects of the Reform of the CAP. We took evidence from nature conservation agencies, non-governmental organisations, farming unions, the Country Landowners' Association and others. The consensus of view from all those organisations was that the concept was widely welcomed. However, there was concern on the funding base which was clearly extremely narrow. There was hope that there would be an opportunity to have a consultation process which would not work from the top down but rather from the bottom up. In our report we made a number of proposals as to how those measures might be implemented.

Our overall view was that these proposals represented a much better use of money than guaranteeing commodity prices, as the latter course was likely to perpetuate a feeling among taxpayers that the common agricultural policy was a waste of money and was delivering some unsound land use policies. We agreed on the need for local and regional planning and we emphasised what so many other people have told us; namely, that there was a need to integrate the existing often excellent schemes such as the environmentally sensitive area schemes, the stewardship scheme, schemes for nitrogen sensitive areas and the set-aside proposals, both old and new. I am afraid we had to wait until March to receive MAFF's proposals, but we understand that MAFF was preoccupied with other aspects of the reform. We have now just completed the consultation period. We must all recognise that the proposals which will be presented to the Commission by the end of July contain many welcome provisions.

The 20-year set-aside measure now reappears as the habitat improvement scheme. I believe that measure will be widely welcomed. However, it would be more welcome, in so far as arable areas are eligible for that scheme—I hasten to add it does not just apply to arable areas but can also apply to other farming land—if that land could be set against the set-aside requirement for the area payments. I hope the Minister will still challenge that point in Europe.

I am sure that other speakers in this debate will wish to refer in more detail to some of the other aspects of the package; for example, the moorland scheme which is designed to reduce the intensity of farm stock, particularly in conservation sensitive areas. Other speakers may mention the provisions for access to certain non-rotational set-aside land or the provision for helping organic farming. We were pleased to note that a condition of that support was that the farming should contain a conservation element. I believe we all welcome the more flexible approach to managing set-aside which suggests that certain exemptions can be made as regards regulations which might not always be in the interests of conservation.

Our original concern was that there should be an opportunity to develop what are truly local, regional programmes. It was for member states to decide what the zonal programme should comprise. Understandably we have four zonal programmes in this country which comprise England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The respective agriculture departments for those countries have published their proposals. However, that does not of course exclude establishing regional or even parochial plans within those zones. Because of the need to submit the plans by 30th July, I must immediately accept that it would be unrealistic to engage in a debate at what one might call a parochial level. Nevertheless, I hope that that point has not been lost sight of and that it is accepted that a genuine ownership of these schemes at a local level would be highly desirable. That will only be achieved if there is local consultation.

Our other anxiety—I am sure this will be expressed by many other speakers tonight—concerns the level of funding. I understand that 50 per cent. of the funds will come from the common agricultural policy but it would be helpful if my noble friend the Minister could tell us just how much he thinks will be allotted to each zonal programme in Britain; that is to each country in the United Kingdom. There have already been many requests for a simplification of the scheme. The Countryside Commission gave evidence to us. The commission stated: Opportunities for redesigning the existing plethora of schemes and presenting them in genuinely regionally differentiated packages should be taken". Clearly there is some way to go on that. The precedent I wish to draw to the attention of the Minister on what is an extremely far-sighted and helpful scheme for stewardship is that of the Countryside Council for Wales entitled Tir Cymen. It is a whole farm scheme. It operates in only three counties at present. It is a pilot scheme but one which gives an opportunity to any farmer to make a contribution, whether or not he is in an environmentally sensitive area. The farmer draws up a voluntary plan and submits it to any agency which might be prepared to pick up part of the bill. As a result, there is a much more integrated approach.

Again, it is clear that in view of the sums of money available in this package, it would be asking too much to expect that approach to be adopted throughout the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it is an objective which we should have in mind in the long term.

Time precludes me from dealing with more than a very small number of aspects. In relation to the non-rotational set-aside scheme, which was widely welcomed by the Committee, it is important that the percentage of non-rotational set-aside which is required should be as little above 15 per cent. as possible in order to make it more attractive. It is also important that there should be a degree of flexibility in the management of that non-rotational set-aside. The instance of fraud within the common agricultural policy is of concern to many; but to graze non-rotational land in order to establish the type of meadowland which many conservation agencies wish to see would clearly be desirable.

I end by saying that these measures are to be welcomed. They are to be seen as an evolutionary process. They must be meshed in with European directives and other aspects of the common agricultural policy which are perhaps not as green as they might be. Someone recently described the common agricultural policy and these agri-environmental measures as being like a penny-farthing. There is the main cost of the common agricultural policy of £3 billion and then a small wheel of £30 million at the end. I hope that we shall end up with a rather more conventional bicycle.

8.1 p.m.

The Earl of Macclesfield

My Lords, I read the excellent report of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and his Committee with a great deal of interest and the feeling that considerable thought has been given to the problems of the countryside and the best ways forward.

One aspect which has been lightly covered is the question of public access, almost as though when the time comes there will be no great problem in accommodating any more of the public who wish to come, wherever they wish to come. I feel that that is not the case and that there are pitfalls ahead if we do not consider the issue now. First, there is the relationship between town and country. The public tend to think that they are "green": we know that they do not understand the countryside, yet they come out and tell us how to do our job.

In this excellent report there is one small item that I would question; it is relating to educating farmers. I should like to think that that term should be changed to retraining for the future. I believe that we are sufficiently educated to do the job we are doing. I do not feel that the public are sufficiently educated to come out into the countryside. They cause damage, and much of that is as a result of lack of understanding.

There are a large number of very good wildlife programmes on television. It would be very interesting to learn from the BBC the viewing figures for those programmes. I expect that they are rather low. That would demonstrate that townspeople were not taking an interest in acquiring information and knowledge about the countryside. Without that knowledge, they will come out into the countryside without understanding it and cause damage.

With any luck, if the framework suggested in the report is successful there will be less pressure on the countryside from farmers and fewer pressures on farmers themselves. In addition, land will be freed from agriculture. For this purpose agriculture is the growing of crops and the rearing of animals as opposed to forestry, for which we should be seeking more land and the production of more timber, particularly as it disappears in vast quantities down the throat of Brussels, which churns out enormous amounts of paper which we could well do without. We would hope to see improvements in the landscape and in the quantities and quality of wildlife.

With the extensification of farming, there will be a need to create jobs in the countryside for those whose jobs will disappear as a result of the reduction in food production. With the increase in protection of wildlife it is worth making the point that wildlife is already protected in law. Disturbance is against the law. The public do not know that. If one points out that it is illegal to go near certain areas because that would disturb nesting birds, one is met by a blank face.

At this point I should like to thank the Joint Nature Conservation Committee for its hard work in the reintroduction of red kites. That example demonstrates that if the public are allowed uncontrolled access and are untrained, we shall not have the red kites. In the Chilterns we lost buzzards some 10 years ago when we were inundated by a camp of diddicoys. It took a long time to remove them. We now have set-aside travellers, and it is almost as difficult to move them with the incompetent legislation which we have. I believe that that is fair comment. We have the kites and I am very grateful for what I see in the skies. The public can still see the birds without having to trample over large tracts of land. If they cannot see the birds in the sky, I do not want the public hunting them because that would only disturb the birds and we should lose the kites as a result. There are certain species on this planet which breed regardless of interference. We are one, and rabbits are another. I am not entirely sure what that says, but that certainly does not apply to the red kite and other birds of prey. They require peace and quiet during the breeding season, as do most species.

There is one problem in respect of access to the countryside; namely, which areas should be open, how farmers should be paid to open the countryside and how they should be paid to close areas of the countryside in order to protect wildlife during the breeding season. The major problem is that the breeding season occurs in the summer when everybody wants to be out in the countryside. It is also the time when big feet do most damage. For example, today is almost the first day of pheasant hatching. Pheasants have already been incubating for three weeks and started laying some three weeks earlier. There is talk of a six weeks' closed season. That is a joke. It would cover the bulk of the summer period. It will still be two months before a family of chicks is able to move out of the way and will not mind interference. There is no point in encouraging wildlife if we are not to have some form of controlled access to the countryside.

So far as I can see, no consideration has been given to what the public would like by way of increased access to the countryside. There is a question of what they should pay and how they should pay. With any luck, as a result, we could reduce the burden of the CAP. In my opinion, and in the opinion of fellow countrymen, the public should pay for the use of the countryside. I accept that we cannot charge them by the mile for the use of footpaths, but the cost of upkeep is borne by those in the countryside. That is not appreciated by those who use those paths.

Again, parking is free in the countryside. Parking is not free when I catch a train to come to London. I do not think that it should be free for people who visit the countryside. In a way that is a subsidy. Like a number of other subsidies, we are better off without it if the public do not appreciate its value. Cheap bread was not a good idea if it meant that people could afford to waste it. It is not a good principle. By the same token, the public might see the countryside in a different light if they were asked to pay to enjoy it. Next door to where I live there is a Forestry Commission area where parking is open. Therefore, the public's day in the countryside is paid for by the central exchequer through the Forestry Commission. That does not seem right.

There are many problems in relation to what use might be made of the countryside. There is probably scope for more riding and for livery stables. However, it is one thing to convert redundant farm buildings for use as livery stables. That does not exercise the horse. If there are to be more people in the countryside, that means more cars, and therefore we do not want horses on the roads. It would be much better if they were not on the roads, anyway: the number of accidents is minimal, but it is still worrying when one drives on country roads, particularly as there will still be large cattle lorries on minor roads. There are problems.

It would be a good idea if we could reduce the problems that exist today. If a farmer could take his land out of farming and use it—if it is the right acreage and so on—for such an enterprise, it might be possible to arrange that the farm was no longer a burden on the CAP. If the farm was self-financing that would be fine. So far as concerns this country, such a change of use requires planning consent. That is not easily forthcoming. However, the concept of yesterday was simply that the farmer would have a livery stable and horses would have access to the road. It might be possible to generate a riding and livery stable, thus ensuring that horses were on land and not roads. That would take land out of farming and at the same time take the cost of the subsidies of that land away from the CAP while the public paid for the facilities that they enjoyed.

There is presumably a need for general picnic and recreational areas of one kind or another for those who do not wish to park on the motor routes to the seaside on bank holidays. Large areas are required in order to allow people to spread out and enjoy themselves. Let us consider the 15 per cent. set-aside concept. Fifteen per cent. of half a dozen small farms does not produce very much for anyone. If it were possible to trade in set-aside, it would be possible to collect together a unit which could be used for the purpose of recreation. It might be possible for that unit to be self-financing. The farmer would run facilities for the public. As legislation exists at present, that would require a change of use and there would be problems. Perhaps even more acreage could partially be taken out of the CAP; it would be another use for the countryside. It would also allow access to areas and at the same time protect the wildlife. If left in peace and quiet I believe that wildlife would happily move to such a large tract of land. The problems arise when people turn up who do not have a clue about what is going on.

At present everyone seems to want to open a golf course. The demand is unclear. It is a long-term project. I have never seen reference to a traffic survey on existing golf courses in planning applications or local reports in the press and so on. Such a survey might well demonstrate whether or not there are traffic problems within the locality which objectors foresee if planning permission were granted. Such a report might well make it easier to make planning consent to go ahead. It might be easier to knock the project on the head because it would attract traffic. However, if we have the public in the countryside, we shall have cars. That cannot be denied. If there are other ideas for the use of the countryside I am sure everyone will welcome hearing them.

I refer to the right to roam. I became involved in access to the countryside in the autumn of 1990. I stayed in the Chilterns. Ramblers designated that area for attack. It was considered that everyone should have the right to roam over non-agricultural land whenever and wherever. I have demonstrated a number of reasons why such access could give rise to a great deal of harm. In October 1990 the Field devoted most of the paper to the subject. I was supported by the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire, the noble Earl, Lord Peel—he will speak in due course—and my redoubtable noble and learned friend Lord Denning. Noble Lords will note that my noble and learned friend has put a Question down for Written Answer on a countryside matter.

There are a number of other reasons why it is necessary to control the public. The word "control" comes into all our lives most of the time. There is no good reason why it should not apply to the public in the countryside. Uncontrolled public behaviour in all ways, shape and form has done immense damage to the planet. People work in the countryside. Would the Health and Safety Executive be happy that a man working with a chain saw could have his concentration disturbed by an onlooker turning up unexpectedly? The onlooker would not stand in the line where the tree was supposed to fall; but trees do not always fall where they are supposed to fall. Who will clear up the mess when matters go wrong? It is obvious to those of us living in the countryside that people should be left in peace and quiet to do their jobs. It is also true that most of us in the countryside take home less pay than people in towns. A quid pro quo is that most of us are able to do our jobs in peace and quiet without large numbers of people around us. It is arguable that if one lets the public loose in the countryside, one alters the terms of employment. That is not fair to those in the countryside even if it is legal.

The flora and fauna are protected in law from illegal disturbance. The chances of the public doing more damage in that respect, albeit unwittingly, would obviously increase. If people damage designated areas, the wildlife flora and fauna will successfully thrive in undesignated areas.

The right to roam would not allow the people in the countryside to take note of those faces they did not expect to see. Many houses in the countryside would be more vulnerable to theft than they now are. I refer to the country house burglary syndrome. It would be far easier for someone to case the joint if he can wander around the woods behind the house. That applies to the Chilterns area. There would be greater unrest in the countryside than exists today; and unfortunately there is more unrest today than existed 25 years ago. We have an increased number of people in the countryside. We have increased car park areas. They seem to attract the petty thieves. We do not have the police; and the police do not have the resources to sort out the problems that arise today. With the proposed increased access for the public in the countryside—assuming that the public takes advantage of what one hopes will exist in the future—will presumably come increased crime and numbers of criminals. Thieves seem to find easy pickings of a relatively minor nature. They break the windows of cars in the car parks with simple tools and take what property is there. It would be nice to think that there would be proper protection for the countryside as and when increased public access occurs.

Finally, there appears to be a need to encourage farmers to accept the new ideas. With the new schemes will come forms. Forms are not popular with country people. They are exceedingly unpopular at present. IACS and CIDs spring to mind. With the mental approach of farmers at present, the Government would be well advised to consider carefully what forms they inflict on the farmers, and the need for consultation. In the last debate there was reference to consultation before legislation was published. In this situation, farmers are confronted with documents which they are expected to complete in no time. The documents have mistakes in them. They are unclear. I draw your Lordships' attention to the new numbering which has been brought into effect by the Minister of Agriculture, perhaps from his hotline: 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 15, 18, 19, 20". Those figures are on the field data sheet of the IACS form. It would have been nice for farming to have received an apology from someone for that, which might well have taken the heat out of the unfortunate notices that appear to be circulating round Ministries suggesting that a rude and angry farmer is coming. Do you blame them, with that mistake in the form?

In conclusion, if the Government want the wholehearted co-operation of farmers in the reform of the CAP, they can achieve most from them by ensuring that all the forms which we receive are examined by a small group of farmers, perhaps from your Lordships' House, before the forms arrive on the breakfast table. Let us face it, there is only one envelope that I like to see arriving and I can recognise it—the one with the cheque. I am grateful for your Lordships' kind attention.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, first, on behalf of the whole House perhaps I may congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, on his maiden speech. It was a wide and interesting contribution to the debate for which we are grateful and we look forward to hearing from him on many other occasions. Perhaps I may also thank my noble friend Lord Selborne for introducing the debate and dealing with the excellent report, which covers an interesting and important aspect of the future of our rural areas.

It was inevitable that when changes were brought about and confirmed in the reform of the CAP, we should have considerably to reduce the amount of food that we needed to produce on our own land. There were then opportunities which we did not previously have for the use of the land. I have always believed that that opportunity should bring benefit to the whole nation—to use the asset and resource of land to benefit everyone and not to be too limited in what we were able to do with it.

It is interesting that in recent months, even recent weeks, in this House we have debated some of the priorities with which the nation is confronted. We have debated and shown the need to reduce food imports and increase food exports. The Government have confirmed their priority of wealth creation and growth and have shown that they are against regulation. They wish to reduce the amount of regulation with which everyone in the country is faced. We want greater freedom of choice and believe that market demands should decide much of what we do. All sides of the House have shown support for many of those issues in recent debates. We have also shown that we are not happy with central planning and unnecessary central control in many aspects of society and that they are not to everyone's benefit.

The Government have made it clear that they believe that change should be brought about by non-regulatory means and using fiscal policy as much as possible to encourage people and business, or whatever it may be, to change from one direction to another. I particularly wish to refer to the proposals on the agri-environmental measures which the Government have put forward and on which consultation has just come to an end. However, there will be an opportunity for them to take note of the views expressed tonight. I accept that we have an opportunity considerably to improve the environmental aspects of our countryside and to bring more pleasure to people. I suggest that in finalising various schemes the Government should bear certain points in mind.

First, please keep it simple. As the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, said, we should make sure that farmers and landowners are not inundated with unnecessary forms and regulations. Please make it apply to everyone. I do not believe that it is in the interests either of the schemes or the environment for us to divide the country into areas which make it difficult to decide what should be done in one bit and what should be done in another. It is interesting that many areas of high scientific interest which are dealt with in the regulations are not near towns. Yet one of the areas where people most want to make use of the countryside is near the towns. I should like to see much more support for and proposals to help environmental attitudes and open land to the people near urban areas.

I was interested, and agreed, when the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, said that there was an opportunity to charge people. I cannot understand the concept that wherever we go we have to pay but that access to the countryside should be free, at the taxpayers' expense. There is a great opportunity in the scheme to allow farmers to charge for certain amenities which they make available to the public and we could look again at the schemes which we had before the CAP applied to the country, such as direct grant schemes. We could allow grants for capital expenditure which may be needed for setting up car parks, toilets and other facilities that people need and then farmers could charge those who visit them. That could make a difference. In opening the countryside to more people, that aspect could be given much more consideration.

I should like to see a more detailed cost assessment of some of the schemes. Is there a real cost benefit for the public who wish to visit and see the land and make use of the countryside? Under the proposals, is that the most cost-effective way to do it? It seems to me that the application of some of the rules and regulations will be unnecessarily expensive.

I should also like to see a more agricultural or rural economic assessment of some of the proposed measures. As we all realise, the agricultural economy is an important aspect of our whole economy and we must be careful that we do not bring in environmental controls and regulations which might appear good but which have an important down-side in their impact on the people who live and wish to earn a living in rural economies.

I wish to make sure that the schemes avoid unnecessary central planning and management. That is not the most effective way to run anything. The failure of the CAP and criticisms of it have been that it works on the basis of bureaucratic central planning which at the end of the day is to the detriment of everyone. We need to make sure that the money spent on the schemes benefits the landowners and the public who will have access to the land and that it will not go on unnecessary administration.

Finally, I should like an assurance from the Minister that in finalising the various schemes the Government will consider the overall needs of the rural economy in which all those activities take place. The public who wish to use the land should benefit in trying to achieve the various schemes rather than the small numbers of pressure groups which have narrow aims. I emphasise again that the benefits we now have within our rural communities should be used for the advantage of the whole nation, ensuring that our resources and assets in land benefit all of us. We should not be too localised and rigid in the way we apply the various initiatives.

8.28 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I was glad that my noble friend Lord Macclesfield, in his interesting maiden speech, raised the question of access to the countryside—a complex question that merits full consideration on another occasion. He clearly brings to us a deep knowledge of farming which will be of real value to us.

I was a member of the Agriculture Sub-committee under the admirable chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, which produced the report which is under consideration tonight. I welcome the agrienvironmental regulation as an important first step under which, for the first time, European farmers can be paid for conducting their farming operations in an environmentally friendly way. That is progress and I greatly hope that in the period ahead we shall build on, extend and perhaps simplify the new procedures. I am glad to see the efforts which the Ministry of Agriculture is putting into it and I applaud the way in which it is now working increasingly with environmental non-governmental organisations.

We have, sadly, not yet put the environment at the heart of agricultural policy, as a paper published on 4th May on behalf of its agriculture group by Wildlife and Countryside Link, of which I have the honour to be chairman, pointed out. The paper said that the green regulation had been bolted on to the CAP and that over the next three years we in the United Kingdom would be spending just £31 million on the agri-environmental measures, £168 million on environmentally sensitive areas, but £7,630 million on our share of the CAP. Spending on the agrienvironmental measures and ESA together will, the paper shows, amount to only 2.5 per cent. of agricultural spending.

The Link paper argues that priorities should be established and implementation overseen by a panel representing government departments, statutory conservation and landscape agencies, environmental, recreational and farming organisations. That recommendation was also made to our committee by the RSPB, which we endorsed in paragraph 41 of the committee's opinion.

The paper also called for effective monitoring in the Community and the United Kingdom, for good, free environmental advice to farmers and for the measures to be related to the United Kingdom biodiversity and sustainable development plans and the Communities species and habitats directive. It pointed out that existing habitats and landscapes were of greatest environmental value, that a return to mixed farming should be encouraged and that farmers should be encouraged to maintain traditional orchards, cereal and fruit varieties and local breeds of livestock.

The sad fact is, however, that those measures come very late and are long overdue. A huge amount of damage has been done, largely by intensive industrial farming methods, since the Second World War. Wild flowers, insects and birds such as partridges, lapwings, skylarks and several buntings are still declining despite steps taken in recent years. Those noble Lords who live in the country will know of the dramatic decline of the grey partridge in recent years.

A key feature of the new measures is set-aside. I should like to say a word about that, especially as I understand it will be discussed by Community Agriculture Ministers next Monday, 24th May.

I have never been an enthusiast for set-aside. As Dr. Potts of the Game Conservancy said in his thoughtful Massey Ferguson lecture, which is reproduced on pages 86 to 104 of our report, Set-aside assumes that land is the surplus commodity. With the problems of intensification that is, in my opinion, a wholly false assumption". What is needed is more natural, less chemically-based farming methods. But the Community has plumped for set-aside, so we need to try to make it as environmentally beneficial as possible.

The one-year rotational scheme is clearly valuable. Until 1st May, the Game Conservancy says, an abundance of wild life was found on it—partridges being three or four times as numerous as on surrounding land. The RSPB argues that farmers should be allowed to include more than 15 per cent. of their land if they wish, be allowed a mixture of rotational and non-rotational set-aside on the same farm, which seems to me highly desirable, and be allowed to leave the natural regeneration uncut throughout the year.

The Game Conservancy is concerned at MAFF's failure to respond to its fears about the likely catastrophic effects on wildlife, especially on ground-nesting birds, of early cutting of set-aside. Our committee too was worried about that, as it said on page 48 of its opinion. But in the proposed management conditions for rotational set-aside MAFF appears to have proposed making the situation worse by suggesting, replacing the natural regeneration flora with a planted green cover; destroying the cover by cultivation or non-residual herbicides between 1st May and 30th June, and cutting in June". The RSPB shares the Game Conservancy's concern over the rules for controlling set-aside land and is concerned at the popularity since May of the ploughing option, which according to the Game Conservancy is often preceded by heavy rolling, swiping or spraying and has, it fears, destroyed a great deal of wildlife.

I raised that issue last March with Mr. David Maclean, who took it up with Mr. Gummer. But the only mitigating measures are that farmers can apply for an exemption from the cutting requirement for environmental reasons. I doubt whether many farm managers and farm management companies will so apply. At any rate, the DoE seems alive to what Mr. Maclean described as the, potentially damaging effects of the cutting requirement". There are different views about the value of long-term non-rotational set-aside, the details of which are, I believe, to be settled at Monday's meeting. The RSPB hopes that that can be extended to 10 years to maximise wildlife benefits and that land coming out of the five-year scheme should be encouraged to enter. It is worried that too many farmers may return that land to arable on 1st October, when the scheme closes, despite the valuable wildlife habitats that have been created on some of it.

However, the Game Conservancy's research shows that permanent set-aside cannot begin to restore numbers of the declining wildlife. It probably does more monitoring of that than any other body. MAFF should take its views very seriously and seek its advice, which I am sure would be constructive. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, who is to speak shortly, is of course a pillar of the Game Conservancy and can speak for it with much more authority than I can.

On specifics, the conservancy has suggested a shift of the date of destruction of the crop from 1st July to 15th July, the use on appropriate parts of set-aside of selected herbicides, ploughing of natural regeneration restricted to derogation and grazing with appropriate safeguards.

The question of grazing is of central importance. I recognise that there must be safeguards against farmers using what is grown on set-aside to provide income, but at present grazing is, for example, strictly prohibited on some of the options under the potentially very valuable 20-year habitat improvement scheme. But the RSPB points out that it is, for example, almost impossible for wet grassland to be managed under set-aside without some form of grazing; and that grazing is also important to help encourage the development of species-rich grassland and to prevent heathlands becoming rank. There is no reason why such grazing should increase surpluses of beef or damage the livelihood of hill sheep farmers. It could be done by not allowing breeding stock onto set-aside, which would then not attract ewe premia or HLCA payments or increase the Community budget. I greatly hope that we can argue that case for the permitting of some grazing at next Monday's meeting. I believe that our view might well prevail.

I should like to make one other point about the habitat improvement scheme. I understand that the Commission may have just concluded that land which is put in the scheme will not count towards the farmers' set-aside quota. That may force farmers away from beneficial options. Those who want to create chalk grasslands, wet grasslands and heathland—for example, to help conserve stone curlews—may be disadvantaged and discouraged from entering the scheme. I hope, therefore, that at Monday's meeting the Minister will, with his colleagues, seek to overrule the Commission so that land put into the habitat improvement scheme can count towards a farmer's set-aside quota.

It is important that in the interests of all forms of our wildlife we should try to get all this right. I very much hope that to that end MAFF will continue to work closely with the non-governmental organisations whose views I have quoted.

8.38 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lord Selborne for introducing this timely debate and to congratulate the Select Committee which he chaired, which took copious evidence in making its report, including written submissions from Mr. Raven of the SAFE Alliance representing some 26 groups, including the Soil Association and the British Organic Farmers. I should say that I am a patron of the Soil Association. I should like at this point to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, on his excellent maiden speech. No doubt we shall be hearing more from him in the future.

It is a historic moment for the British organic situation that MAFF and the EC have recognised organic farming officially. This is the first time in 50 years. I shall, if noble Lords will permit me, confine myself to the subject of organic farming, to which the report gives some space but to which as yet no confirmed sum of money has been allotted by the ministry. Council Regulation 2078, which was discussed, particularly emphasises and recommends organic farming as a basic method of implementing its recommendation. Indeed, twice the preamble mentioned organic farming and there is an implied reference in Article 1 describing the purpose of the scheme. It is specifically in Article 2.1[a] dealing with the provision of aid, which is very close to the heart of the matter. That is especially so with organic farmers who, from what I am sure are the purest motives, have sacrificed their time and money in the cause of the environment over many years.

The question of the environmental benefits of organic agriculture is crucial to the discussion. The certification standard of the SYMBOL scheme administered by the Soil Association delivers all those requirements and many more. I am a fervent supporter of subsidiarity and its implementation by the Government, but in this instance it appears that the organic farmers are certainly getting the worst end of the case. I am not sure that I am quite so keen as I was in the past.

I understand from the ministry that £42 million is to be spent on ESAs but from the noble Lord, Lord Moran, I heard that the figure may be £146 million, which I welcome. Indeed, I welcomed every word of his speech. So £42 million is to be spent on ESA and related projects this year. They do not necessarily do a great deal more for extensification farming than organic farming does and indeed mainly less so. The Stewardship campaign has been nominated for £3.5 million. I welcome that generosity, especially in view of the fact that it is quite clear that organic farming is at least twice as efficient in delivering the reforms. Perhaps I may ask my noble friend whether he can tell us that organic farming will be funded in proportion.

As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, also said, the set-aside figure is between £700 million and £800 million. Those are very large sums of money which are being spent everywhere. But none of those activities espouses and combines the principles and discipline of organic farmers, who are already delivering the required 15 per cent. and more in extensifying farm production. Organic farming delivers the CAP requirements, as the regulation clearly states. The Commission believes it and I suggest that we should also do so.

But to enable our farmers to live and thrive in the market-place with organic produce from UK farms, the industry needs to achieve a basic and critical mass. It cannot compete while its farms are isolated and disparate against competition from our EC partners, with up to £100 per acre in subsidy. We need a cohesive and compact industry. At the moment there are some 86,000 acres currently in hand but widely spread. The regulatory system is there. MAFF recognises the UK registered organic farmers scheme and the Soil Association, as well as the Soil Association SYMBOL scheme, which is recognised by all organic farmers as the key system which would deliver the controls necessary to put in place organic farming. The organic farmers need positive help to implement the CAP proposals. They are there, willing and able to deliver that requirement without any further bureaucracy.

There is also an additional and important point to be made about the size of eligible organic farms. Many are of smaller size than the minimum proposed by the Ministry. It is important that all farms which are UK registered in the organic scheme should be eligible for support from the ministry. Organic farmers must have support at least at the level granted to schemes by our EC competitors. I believe that that is virtually acknowledged by MAFF and indeed by my noble friend on the Front Bench. Perhaps I may pay a small tribute to him for the help and generosity that he has displayed to me and other members of the organic operation, with which I believe he has some considerable sympathy.

But the recognition has not yet been translated into support. We know that German support is at least £206 a hectare. Over three years the total conversion to organic farming in Germany is 234,000 hectares—over half a million acres—while the plan for 1993 is for a total of 274,000 hectares; that is, 677,000 acres, which is, incidentally, exactly one third of the land proposed to be set aside in the UK. Organic farming in Germany is one third of our total set-aside.

As a result of the subsidies, the German and Danish organic farmers account for most of the EC slice of the UK market, accounting for 60 per cent. of organic produce sold in the UK. The resulting deficit in the balance of payments may be relatively small in the overall context but it is growing at an alarming rate. With the present growth rate it is expected that the value of the organic produce in the UK will be something in the region of £1 billion by the end of the century.

We believe that it is realistic to convert 350,000 hectares, or over 800,000 acres, over some five years at a cost of £35 million and a saving to the Treasury in reduced support prices of £5.25 million. At the same time they will deliver the positive achievement of CAP reforms needed on a permanent basis. If the Germans can do it, so can we. The CAP suggests that we can do it and so we should.

I am largely quoting from the paper submitted to MAFF by the British Organic Farmers and the Soil Association. In it they show that the Treasury stands to gain from organic farmers at the rate of £15 an acre through reduced claims for set-aside, reduced claims for arable compensation and reduced claims for cereal intervention, storage and export refunds. Is it a coincidence that the proposed figure of £1.2 million which has been bruited about the corridors over the present organic acreage of 86,000 is just £14 an acre? The Treasury seems to have done its sums very well and is making a quiet £1 an acre on the deal.

Organic farmers deserve better than that. I believe that noble Lords will agree with me on that. I am sure that it was not the intention of MAFF to allow such a situation to arise. But to prove that, it must put its money where, to put it politely, its best intentions are.

In respect of the certifying agencies, those carrying out the statutorily required function, as it is to be, have received no remuneration for their work so far. Indeed, the SYMBOL scheme has been financed by charity. To carry out a statutory function without payment, or indeed to finance it by charity, is most unusual. I believe that arrangements are in hand but I should be glad to hear the intentions of the Minister from my noble friend. Included in that is the important question of training newly enrolled organic farmers.

I look forward with keen interests to the remarks of my noble friend in commenting on what I have said. In the meantime if any noble Lord wants to have a copy of the Soil Association's submission, I should be very glad to let him have it.

8.47 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend for tabling this Question. Nobody is better qualified than he, both as a practical farmer and as the chairman of JNCC, to discuss such matters. We are very grateful to him. I also want to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, on his maiden speech. I confess that when I first saw his name I was not quite sure who he was. But when I came into the Chamber and looked across, I recognised him because the last time I saw him was on television when he and I had been involved in a rather controversial programme on public access. I am delighted that this evening's debate has not so far been as controversial. It was quite obvious from the contents of his speech that he feels very passionately on the subject. As other noble Lords have said, I hope that we shall hear from him again, not just on this subject but on other matters as well.

First, I very much welcome this package. It is very positive and the Government deserve our congratulations. But it is another scheme and part of the plethora of schemes that we all have to contend with in the countryside. I hope and pray that one day we will be able to get things a little bit tighter, a little closer together; with not quite so many organisations and schemes so that the landowner, farmer and, indeed, the public at large can understand a little more of what is going on.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Wade, who made that point. He said that the scheme should be more simple and open in the countryside. Having said that, of course money is scarce; we have to have our priorities. It is right that more money should be spent on areas such as sites of special scientific interest and so forth, which perhaps deserve more attention than the countryside at large. But my noble friend's point is well made and, in principle, I certainly agree with him.

I was interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moran. As vice-chairman of the Game Conservancy and chairman of the Research Planning Committee, I spend most of my life going round praising Dr. Potts. It is very nice to have someone else say it for me. I shall not have to mention Game Conservancy, therefore, as the noble Lord has done it for me, and I can concentrate my remarks this evening principally on one aspect of the agri-environment package; that is, the uplands.

I see the moorland scheme as a further step by the Government in attempting to redress the balance between sheep grazing and the extensive loss of habitat that we have seen principally since the war and, of course, since the introduction of the subsidy system. As has already been pointed out, there is a considerable amount of money attached to the overall environment package. But like other noble Lords I wonder, after the six ESAs have been funded from it, what will remain for all the various schemes and for the wider countryside. Whereas I welcome it enormously, I wonder whether it will have the impact that we are led to believe it should have.

I am bound to say—I know that it is easy to be wise in retrospect—that if environmental conditions had been imposed from the word go on those in receipt of subsidies, we should probably not be in this position today and should not have to spend this level of money. But that is past. I hope that, if new farming production subsidies are introduced in the future, the Government will pay careful attention to the fact that they must ensure that the environment is looked after and that environmental considerations are part and parcel of any such subsidies.

We have seen considerable changes in the hills. I welcome the new definition of "overgrazing". I welcome also the additional powers which MAFF regional officers have to tackle on an individual farm basis or on common land, either through the common as a whole or on a regional common basis, the problem of overgrazing. At the moment it is being tackled under the HLCA system. I believe I am right in saying that my right honourable friend the Minister is attempting to have it extended to include the ewe premiums as well. I sincerely hope that he succeeds.

There is one major new initiative on which I should like to touch. It suffers under the rather unpleasant term of "de-coupling". But its intention is good. It is a scheme which has been largely thought up by the NFU in conjunction with the Moorlands Association. It is simple in concept. It takes some of the headage payments and substitutes or translates them into an area payment, all on a voluntary basis. In other words, the farmer would have the choice to keep x per cent. of his ewe stock on the headage basis and convert the remaining percentage into an area payment. His gross margins would increase. His profit at the end of the day would certainly remain the same and might indeed be greater. The environment would benefit and, perhaps most important of all, it would not cost the Exchequer a single penny. I hope that that is something that my noble friend and his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture will take seriously when they come to consider it.

Returning specifically to the moorland scheme, I am pleased to see that the Government recognise that there is a problem of overgrazing on common land. I hope that the moorland scheme within the agrienvironment package will not be sold short regarding the commons. There is a real opportunity, even if only a few members of a common participate in the scheme, to see a real recovery in heather. I have done it myself. I have seen it done in other areas. It would be a great shame if it was the Government's view that all commoners had to participate in the scheme before it would work. That simply is not the case. It can work and I can show it.

There is one further point on that. Some say that before such a scheme could work we would need legislation on common land in order to create statutory management committees. But the scheme would be voluntary anyway. Therefore it would not change regardless of whether we had statutory committees. I urge my noble friend to ignore the plea for legislation on common land before the moorland scheme comes into effect under the package. I can assure him that it can work if it is given the opportunity to do so.

Another point is the question of temporary fencing. I know that a number of individuals and organisations are against fencing on common land. I see my noble friend Lord Barber, ex-chairman of the Countryside Commission, sitting across the Chamber. I know that his ex-organisation—if I may call it that—was not in favour of fencing. But it is a cheap and effective tool in helping heather regeneration. Provided stiles are put in at the appropriate places where fences cross footpaths, I do not see why they should not be used.

Another point concerns cattle. Cattle do an immense amount of damage to the uplands. I would hope that any scheme that applied to sheep would also incorporate cattle. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, touched on another important point; that is, grazing on set-aside. It seems to me highly desirable to link the uplands with the lowlands to ensure that sheep that are being removed temporarily from the uplands to allow heather regeneration, are allowed to graze on set-aside land—set-aside land where the green crop at the moment is being cut, which is doing damage to quite a lot of ground nesting birds; sometimes it is rolled; later it is ploughed, thus disturbing the insect life. If we could marry the two, uplands and lowlands, in this way, as I am sure must be possible even under the EC regulations, it would be of enormous benefit. I ask my noble friend to consider that.

On the question of stocking rates—I do not want to go into them in detail because it is a tricky problem as they can vary enormously between the various types of moorland, whether it be heath or blanket bog—having seen the recommendations in the package, I believe that the rates are a little too high as they stand. The existing ESA proposals and the recommendations put forward by English Nature both indicate that the Government would have to be a little more generous with their money for the package to work as effectively as they would like.

Finally, my noble friend Lord Selborne mentioned the whole farm system. That is something which we must look at much more readily and seriously than we do at the moment. It is not very sensible to look at habitats in isolation; they must be looked at in a holistic way. Certainly, considering the matter from an ornithological point of view, birds do not stay in one place. They move and change according to nesting and feeding habitat and so forth. That is something which we should perhaps try to incorporate more satisfactorily than we do at the moment.

I hope that my noble friend will excuse the number of points that I have made. I hope that he will recognise the intention, which is to be constructive and helpful. I look forward very much to hearing what he has to say.

9 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, we have had a quiet debate. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, will be a little disappointed that he has not aroused the fire that he did on Monday night. Nevertheless, he has produced a most admirable report on an extraordinarily difficult, diffuse subject. Everybody is interested; everybody wants to improve the environment and just about everybody knows how to do it, with the result that the objective is not clear.

I liked the report, the things it said and I appreciated the difficulties which were pointed out. I particularly liked paragraph 54 which states: In the context of long-term planning the Committee would also like to stress the need for payments for long-term schemes to be indexed linked, or otherwise guaranteed. That is because we have already seen the damage done by changes in taxation policy and in forestry in this country. It is very important that any scheme to improve the environment is long-term because it is an extremely long-term job.

I would also like to comment about the objectives which are set out very nicely in the report, particularly the one which refers to reducing the polluting effects of agriculture. With enormous respect to organic farming and to extensification, we must realise that intensive farming and modern farming are absolutely vital if we are to feed the world. If we went organic, we might have a good deal of good food, but we would not have enough to feed the world. We would certainly have no problem with surpluses. I am not against organic farming; I am very interested in it. I was a member of the Soil Association for years. It is right and proper to produce organic food if the public want it, but we must realise that intensive farming is here to stay and that to reduce pollution needs a great deal of long-term research of a scientific character to produce sprays which do not pollute; and machines which use less chemicals to achieve the same result. There will have to be research into the biological methods which do the same thing without ill-effect.

The other danger we face from diversity is the number of people who are interested. The RSPB is a most admirable body. It does a great deal of good work. It is also extremely rich, which is also a very useful thing to be. Its activities range over a wide field which sometimes I feel might lead to grave trouble if applied fully by the Government. I have picked out a couple of items from its admirable paper: No goats should be allowed where shrubs and other vegetation have survived grazing on cliff ledges and steep stream banks". The inspector of goats will have a great deal to do as he chases around. It is an important point.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, will be pleased to note that the RSPB says: Away-wintering of sheep should be granted on a discretionary basis and the sheep should not be transferred to land susceptible to environmental damage". I dare say that that is true, but all these factors would require a great deal of policing. The Minister would be chasing round with his civil servants doing too much. Therefore, I believe that we have to be fairly practical, particularly as the sum of money is fairly small and has to be spread in the direction where it can he most effective.

Another factor is the grants for forestry. Because farmers all over the country are taking up the planting grants, that is very hopeful, and that the continuation of the grants would be quite reasonable. I can see that being quite profitable and, if not profitable, no money will be lost and great pleasure will be gained out of planting considerable areas of farmland.

But that situation does not apply to the whole countryside. If we are to have only odd patches planted by different farmers, we shall not achieve the kind of effect found on the great estates of the past or indeed of the present. Nothing is more enjoyable to me just now than going around the countryside of Angus, particularly around Glamis, where areas have been well planted with beautiful trees which are now mature. It is absolutely wonderful. For people to say that the countryside is ruined is absolute rubbish.

However, in the main, those areas are concentrated around the house. They are called the "policies". Very often there is very little afforestation in the rest of the countryside.

We need to look at local schemes. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned that the regional schemes are very important regional plans and that the efforts of different farmers and estate owners should be co-ordinated in producing rides which the public can enjoy in a continuous line over many people's land. Such a proposal would need to be looked at because it would involve a great deal of work.

I have not gone into any detail because I do not know the detail. It is up to the Minister to tell us how he is going to proceed. However, I think that we must guard against the enormous multiplication of forms. We have already seen the forms for the reduction of set-aside, which have been a great trouble to many people. The Minister kindly wrote to me, detailing the number that we would have to deal with. It horrified me, as no doubt it horrified him. I hope that simplification will come. The idea is good, but the future looks fogged with good intentions and not enough money. I look now for a little direction from the Minister.

9.8 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and to congratulate his committee on producing an excellent report. After the skirmishes that we had on Monday on potatoes, it is nice to see that the House has returned to the sweetness and light with which we usually discuss Select Committee reports. I join other noble Lords also in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, on his maiden speech. He made some thought-provoking remarks about access, jobs and wildlife, each of which is a subject that needs a debate on its own.

Discussion of the report also enables us to consider the agricultural environment a little more widely. There is, I fear, something of a tendency when discussing agriculture and the environment sometimes to leave the impression that farming, farmers, farm workers and food production are somehow incidental to the apparent prime aim of preserving wildlife habitats and producing a wide range of environmental benefits. The background to all our discussions of environmental matters should be the realisation that farmers, farm workers and the industries ancillary to agriculture are producing some 70 per cent. or more of our temperate food requirements. There would be little point in having the very best agricultural environment if we thereby substantially reduced our food production capability. Almost all our environmental policies in agriculture should be ranked according to their reversibilty because, as we are reminded by Mr. John Gummer, there is always the possibility that seven lean years will follow seven good years.

Having said that, I have felt for a long time that we have not given enough attention to ways of developing less intensive and more environmentally friendly methods of farming, certainly as an alternative to set-aside. I refer to the "greening" of the CAP as mentioned in paragraph 40 of the report. Suggestions for such an approach were referred to in the evidence that was given to the committee. I certainly hope that over time the package of agri-enviromental measures can be adapted to allow farmers to farm in a less intensive way if they wish to do so. The Labour Party, for example, produced proposals for a "green premium" before the last election to grant-aid farmers who decide to farm less intensively. I know that many other organisations have produced similar proposals.

In paragraph 44 of its report the committee supports the principle of aids to convert to or to continue with low input farming, provided that nature conservation requirements are included. When the Minister replies he might be able to tell the House what view the Government take generally of the encouragement of low input farming.

The departmental view has certainly changed in recent years. It was not so very long ago that I tried to arrange a seminar on low input farming. When I invited ADAS, the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, to take part, it refused to do so unless I changed the title to "lower input" farming—that is a connoisseur's distinction, but one which was very important to ADAS at the time. Also, I think that it is correct that up to comparatively recently there was no research anywhere on organic farming which was sponsored by the Government. However, that has now changed to some extent.

There is clearly a change of view now regarding environmentally friendly farming, but the amount of money to be devoted to it compared with the total cost of the CAP shows how far we have still to go before it becomes a substantial feature of agricultural policy. That point was made by a number of witnesses to the committee.

One of the most welcome features of the CAP reform package as it finally emerged was the removal of the discrimination against larger farms which was in the original proposals. I am the first to congratulate the Government on their negotiating skills in achieving that—and that is the first time that I have said that. If the original proposals had been implemented, the chances of getting a real environmental input in this country would have been much reduced because we have so many larger farms compared to the rest of the EC. If we had put them at a substantial, if not a ruinous, financial disadvantage, we would have certainly reduced their enthusiasm for environmentally friendly farming.

There is a theme which runs right through agri-environmental policy and it is reflected in the evidence to the committee and in its report. It is the acceptance of environmental protection as a public good which must be paid for. But the problem then is, despite what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, that the "public" cannot really be the customer as such and the governments of member states must become the surrogate customer and use taxpayers' money to pay for the perceived public good. That is a very important principle. Free market economists would say, "Let the market sort it out", but this is an area where the market cannot sort it out. As I say, the Government have to act as a surrogate customer and use the taxpayers' money.

It is unlikely that payments for public goods will replace the loss of farm income resulting from attempts to control the cost of the CAP. That is a point mentioned in paragraph 58 of the report.

The agri-environmental measures have to be viewed in that light. They are not substantial enough in absolute terms to have a marked effect on farm incomes in total. The crucial question is: do they tend to point in the right direction so that they can be developed and strengthened over time? The committee seemed to give the measures two cheers at least, although there are clearly many detailed questions still to be answered. We can all agree that the simplification of the current plethora of schemes is overdue. I agree with the recommendation in paragraph 41 of the report that a panel should be established to draw up and oversee the proposed zonal programmes. Perhaps the Minister will be able to indicate at least the direction of the Government's thinking regarding the more localised zones which have been mentioned and how they might be defined.

I agree with the committee that the forestry proposals are too broad and must be made more specific. That subject needs a debate of its own. We know that Regulation 2078/92 and the committee report referred to the importance of training. It is a shame that there is to be the change in the status of the Agricultural Training Board. That seems to conflict a little with the emphasis on training in the agri-environmental measures and the committee's report. It is still not clear how the Government propose to develop the rotational and 20-year set-aside programmes to obtain the maximum environmental benefit. I agree with the committee's recommendations regarding the 20-year set-aside set out in paragraph 47. We should regard this as an ideal opportunity to maintain the properly managed environmental benefit that it is hard to perceive resulting from rotational set-aside.

There is an important point about rotational set-aside which could affect considerably the possibility of developing environmental benefits from the programme; that is, the possibility of penalty set-aside for 1994 and subsequent harvests. I do not believe that that point was mentioned in the committee's report. I put down a Question for Written Answer on the subject. In fact I received the Answer today. I emphasise to the Minister that it is important that farmers know as quickly as possible whether they have to set aside more than 15 per cent. of their arable land next year for penalty set-aside. The Question I asked was: when the Government expect to announce whether or not there will be penalty set-aside … so that farmers can take this into account when preparing their cropping plans". The Answer I received was that the Government: will make an announcement as soon as we have received all this year's claims for arable area payments and established whether any of the United Kingdom's regional base areas have been exceeded".—[Official Report, 18/5/93; col. WA 84.] I understand that, but can the Minister give us an indication—I shall not hold him to it—of when the ministry thinks it might be able to tell farmers? If there is a substantial set-aside next year, that may have an effect on the take-up of the 20-year set-aside, and I am not sure that that point has been picked up. As I say, the Minister might like to comment upon that when he replies.

To conclude, perhaps I may return to the important point of simplification. Most farmers are now pretty confused by the plethora of schemes which are available or which will become available as the measures are implemented. There is a strong case for the requirement, as phrased by the NFU, that all schemes offered by the Government to improve the environment should be delivered as a strategic whole.

In today's post I received some information about its farming from Sweden. I received two excellent and beautifully produced documents. One is called Environmental Goals of Swedish Agriculture: A Cleaner Future. It summarises what it regards as the contribution of society. It is worth considering. It states: Agriculture is an integrated part of society. A stable agricultural policy and a biological, ecological and economic responsibility from society is thus a fundamental condition for achieving positive developments in the environment. In order to achieve the targets, a condition is that society participates in, foremost, the following sectors". There is then a list of sectors, but I shall quote only one or two: Increased inputs on research aimed at developing ecologically suitable cultivation systems with regard to production level, environmental influence and economy of natural resources". The last point is: That the State will, foremost, consider the improvement of knowledge, information and extension before restrictions are introduced in the shape of laws and regulations". The other document is a statement by the farmers called The Swedish Farmers' Revolt. I believe it is intended for schools and the public generally. The Swedish farmers then make this statement: We, the farmers of Sweden, shall create the purest form of farming in the world. We are halving the use of chemical pesticides. We are reducing the use of fertilisers. We are refraining from giving animals hormones or antibiotics to increase their growth. We shall respect each animal's needs and behaviour when raising it. We shall improve the handling of farmyard manure so that nitrogen leakage will be drastically reduced. We are directing our research towards environmentally-friendly agriculture which is in harmony with the cycle of nature itself". I am well aware of the differences between Swedish agriculture and our own, but those statements include some interesting ideas of the way those farmers are approaching the whole problem of environmentally friendly farming.

We know that there is a great deal to be done by government, non-governmental organisations, farmers and others if we are to obtain the full benefit of the agri-environmental measures. The report has examined the subject thoroughly. The committee and its chairman, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, are to be congratulated on producing an excellent report.

9.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, I believe this has been a useful and informed debate. It has focused on many of the issues raised during the public consultation on our proposals. Many contributions tonight have also referred to the conclusions of the report prepared by the Select Committee on the European Communities chaired by my noble friend Lord Selborne. I join other noble Lords in welcoming that report and in thanking my noble friend for initiating the debate.

Before I reply to points raised by noble Lords, I should like to say a little about the Government's thinking in developing the proposals which we have put forward. Our starting point has been warmly to welcome the Agri-Environment regulation. The Government actively encouraged and supported the adoption of the regulation and it was, as many noble Lords mentioned, a major step forward in the development of the Community's policy in bringing environmental considerations to the heart of the CAP. We have sought to grasp the opportunity afforded by the Agri-Environment regulation in a positive and imaginative way.

Secondly, we are mindful that this measure cannot be seen in isolation from the rest of the CAP. Our proposals will be most effective in securing environmental benefits if farm support generally is adjusted to take greater account of environmental considerations. It is for this reason that the Government remain committed to further changes to "green" the CAP. We have already made progress with the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances scheme, in which environmentally damaging overgrazing is discouraged. We have also incorporated environmental safeguards into the set-aside management rules. We plan to carry forward this initiative and are continuing to press for the integration of appropriate measures of environmental protection into other support payments.

Thirdly, in implementing the agri-environment measure, we have taken the view that wherever possible we should build on the proven success of existing schemes. Central to our proposals is therefore a further expansion of the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme to new areas, bringing the total to 44 throughout the UK. ESAs have been widely acclaimed by both farmers and environmentalists and their expansion has also been welcomed. The proposed new schemes have been tailored to reflect the environmental character of each area.

In England we are also proposing to designate up to 30 new Nitrate Sensitive Areas which will build on and extend the approach pioneered in the pilot NSA scheme. These are areas where the National Rivers Authority advises that changes in farming practice will help protect groundwater sources affected by rising nitrate levels.

We have indicated that we wish to introduce some entirely new environmental schemes as well. Our proposals for a moorland scheme and a habitat improvement scheme are both targeted on specific environmental gains; enhancement of the nature conservation value of moorland in one case and creation and extension of wildlife resources such as saltmarsh and water fringe habitats in the other. My noble friend Lord Peel concentrated his speech on the moorland scheme and I shall deal with the points which he raised in a moment.

Environmental requirements are also included in our proposed organic aid scheme, which fulfils an outstanding government commitment. My noble friend Lord Clanwilliam welcomed that. Our proposals to create new opportunities for public access on land in ESAs and in set-aside offer an important new element in agricultural schemes which will encourage public enjoyment of the countryside. The noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, directed his remarks to that area. The proposals will build on experience gained with pilot schemes operated by the Countryside Commission.

The consultation period on the main package of proposals has now ended. We have received a large number of replies; the proposals have been widely welcomed and their objectives commanded broad support. We have also received a great many detailed comments on specific aspects of our proposals, and on the relationship between them, and we are considering all of these carefully. Today's debate has provided further food for thought before we finalise our plans.

Although not part of the agri-environment programme as such, we have also been consulting on set-aside. Many noble Lords directed their remarks to that subject. The large number of comments we have received reflects the public's interest in set-aside. It is far from being our idea of an ideal policy but we have to make the most of it and I am therefore very gratified by the strong endorsement we have received for our proposals for exploiting its environmental potential. How we now proceed will depend on EC decisions on non-rotational set-aside. We have received support for our negotiating objectives and we will continue to press for EC rules which enable us to make the most of set-aside environmentally.

Finally, before I turn to points raised today, I should say a word about funding. All the schemes which form part of our programme will attract a financial contribution from the EC but I must underline that EC part-funding is not a pot of gold: the UK is a significant contributor to the EC budget, so the greater part of the funding of these schemes is provided from our national resources.

Against that background, it reflects the importance that the Government attach to the agricultural environment that we are sharply increasing expenditure on it. UK expenditure on the ESA scheme is planned to rise from £14 million in 1992-93 to £64 million in 1995-96. In addition, UK expenditure on the other proposed new schemes is planned to rise to £31.5 million in 1995-96. Moreover, to this has to be added expenditure on the countryside stewardship scheme, planned to be some £10 million in 1995-96, and other schemes which form an important part of the Government's policy and which are funded by it. In all, the Government have made a major commitment which I think all noble Lords will agree is good news for the countryside and good news for farmers.

My noble friend Lord Selborne, asked about the funding of the measures in each of the four territories. For the £64 million ESA budget, the breakdown is: England, £43.5 million; Scotland, £8 million; Wales, £8 million; and Northern Ireland, £4.5 million. For the £31.5 million that we have allocated to the new agri-environmental measures, the breakdown is: England, £19 million; Scotland, £6 million; Wales, £5 million; and Northern Ireland, £1.5 million. That excludes the cost of administering the scheme by agriculture departments. Fifty per cent. of eligible expenditure on all agri-environmental schemes will be reimbursed by the EAGGF in Great Britain and 75 per cent. will be reimbursed in Northern Ireland, which qualifies for special help from the EC budget.

There are differences between the proposals for the four territories; for example, different options are proposed under the habitat improvement scheme, reflecting varying environmental circumstances in different parts of the United Kingdom. And of course, each ESA is unique, reflecting the environmental character of the area. However, the basic structures of the schemes are on similar lines.

My noble friend pointed to the need for local consultation and for local ownership of schemes. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about the idea of a panel to oversee such programmes. We have consulted widely on our proposals, drawing comments from a range of voluntary, professional and local bodies. We have received much advice from individual local authorities and bodies such as county wildlife trusts and parish councils. All their views are being carefully considered. We are already setting up local liaison groups for each of the ESAs which will meet as often as necessary to ensure that local anxieties are taken into account. I assure my noble friend and the noble Lord that the point has not been lost sight of.

My noble friend Lord Selborne asked why the country could not be divided up into various bio-geographic zones. We take the view that that is not necessary. All the individual schemes, except the organic scheme, will be targeted on the areas where they will be most environmentally beneficial. For that reason, we see no grounds for limiting the organic scheme geographically. To cover a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, we shall be monitoring all schemes, as we do now with ESAs, to ensure that the environmental benefits targeted are being produced.

My noble friend Lord Selborne directed some of his remarks towards set-aside, and in particular the percentage that the Commission may propose for non-rotational set-aside. The Commission has now produced its proposal for the percentage requirement for non-rotational set-aside. The proposed rate is 20 per cent. As my right honourable friend the Minister made clear at the April Agriculture Council, our view is that the percentage requirement should be set at a level consistent with the technical evidence on the effects of non-rotational set-aside, but no higher. My right honourable friend will continue to negotiate to achieve a fair rate for UK farmers.

The noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, in a wideranging and stimulating maiden speech made the point that we should make the most of set-aside land. I agree with that objective. That is why we issued such a substantial document containing proposals for increasing the environmental benefits of set-aside. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, asked about land which is due to come out of the five-year set-aside scheme and how it would be treated. We are pressing for producers to be able to set aside more than the minimum percentage requirement under the arable area payments scheme. That should be especially helpful to those coming out of the five-year set-aside scheme. The Commission appears to be open to that idea and we shall continue to argue for it.

My noble friends Lord Peel and Lord Selborne asked about grazing on set-aside land. I recognise that grazing may, in many cases, be the optimum method of managing grassland; but there is no prospect of the EC Commission accepting grazing on set-aside. There are good reasons for that decision. Without the introduction of arable quotas, grazing at commercial levels would undermine the purpose of set-aside. The idea of low-level environmental grazing is an attractive one in theory, but it would be virtually impossible to control both here and elsewhere in the Community and could lead to widespread abuse.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, mentioned particularly the effect on wildlife of the cutting requirement in set-aside. We are sensitive to the concerns about the effects of set-aside cutting requirements. We received many comments on them. But we have to strike a balance between control measures to prevent fraud and the interests of wildlife. Of course, we are very ready to consider requests for permission to delay cutting where there is a particular risk to wildlife on the land. As respondents have acknowledged, in our proposals for set-aside management next year, we have sought to give as much flexibility as possible; for example, it may not be necessary to cut sown covers; the use of non-residual herbicide will be permitted instead of cutting or cultivating and derogations from the rules will continue to be available. But, at the end of the day, we must ensure that the scheme is not open to abuse.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked when we would be announcing whether or not there would be penalty set-aside. As I indicated in my recent Written Answer to the noble Lord, we shall make an announcement once we have received all this year's claims for arable area payments and established whether any of the United Kingdom's regional base areas have been exceeded. It will obviously take a little time to process all the relevant information, but we shall inform farmers of the position as soon as possible. I cannot, unfortunately, be more specific than that at this stage—much as I would like to be.

My noble friend Lord Selborne and the noble Lord, Lord Moran, spoke about the habitat improvement scheme. They asked, in particular, whether arable land set aside under that scheme could count against the 15 per cent. set-aside requirement. We shall continue to press the EC Commission to allow arable land withdrawn from production under the habitat improvement scheme, and the farm woodland premium scheme, to count against a farmer's non-rotational set-aside obligation. In the consultation there was full support expressed for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, pointed to the benefits of grazing on land within the habitat improvement scheme. We recognise that grazing is desirable in many circumstances from an environmental point of view. Grazing at commercial levels will not be allowed; but where it is compatible with environmental objectives, some, as it were, lawnmower grazing at low stocking levels may be possible subject to EC agreement and appropriate controls. In this matter, as so often, we seek the advice of the Game Conservancy and other bodies.

The noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, as I have said, directed his remarks chiefly to the public's enjoyment of the countryside and emphasised the desirability of increasing public access. I can assure him that we are conscious of the need for new public access not to conflict with the needs of wildlife. We would not expect to encourage access where that is likely to arise. However, we believe that where public money is being used to encourage the conservation of the countryside, it is also right to encourage opportunities for responsible access to that countryside.

My noble friend Lord Clanwilliam spoke particularly about organic farming, of which he is a knowledgeable enthusiast. I hope he will forgive me for not covering all his questions. He referred in particular to our proposal for a minimum hectarage requirement. Many respondents to the consultation wished to see the proposed minimum hectarage of 10 hectares, and 50 in less favoured areas, dropped on the grounds that it would disadvantage the many small producers who currently farm hectarages below those limits. We shall be considering carefully how we can respond to that suggestion. My noble friend also mentioned the current German scheme to encourage organic farming. I understand that that scheme is available to producers of certain agricultural produce who undertake to reduce output by at least 20 per cent. That can be achieved either by taking land out of production or by introducing less intensive ways of farming, including conversion of the total farm to organic production.

Our own information suggests that payments vary according to the Lander involved and that the maximum amount payable would be a little less than the £215 that is sometimes talked of. The German scheme ends this year but will be replaced by one based on the European Community regulation for agriculture and the environment. Our own level of support for organic agriculture will be determined in the light of the current consultation exercise on our environmental schemes and of course taking account of expenditure priorities and the need to control public expenditure. It will not involve the commitment to reduce output which features in the current German scheme.

As my noble friend will recognise, the UK was one of the prime movers in securing the inclusion of organic agriculture within the agri-environment regulation. Having done this, we have consulted on a conversion scheme that would be available throughout the UK, and we have also sought views on the possibility of payments to those producers who have already converted. These are major initiatives. I fully understand that the organic movement would like rather more but my noble friend should not overlook the big steps that we have already taken.

Moving one step away from organic farming, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about the Government's attitude to low input farming. Several of the agri-environment schemes we are proposing encourage different forms of reduced input farming. We in any case encourage farmers to minimise input use to the economic optimum. Where we expect farmers to reduce inputs beyond that in order to achieve specific environmental benefits, we offer financial incentives. We spend nearly £50 million a year on environmental R&D, much of it related to minimising the use of inputs.

Turning to the moorland scheme, my noble friend Lord Peel asked what provision will be made for common land to be included in that scheme. Much agricultural land in the LFA is common land. Our consultation document on the moorland scheme therefore sought to ensure that there would be scope for commoners to participate. We proposed that they should be permitted to enter the scheme at the discretion of the MAFF regional director, subject to certain conditions. In particular, we felt that it would be necessary for all right-holders who exercise their rights to enter the scheme and for any others who maintain an active interest—for example, by membership of a commons association—to undertake not to graze livestock on the moor during the life of the agreement. Those conditions mirror those in place for the environmentally sensitive areas scheme.

I recognise that some organisations would like them to be drawn more loosely. My noble friend shares that view. We shall of course reflect carefully on the responses to the consultation. However, I am sure that my noble friend will recognise that the scheme will need to avoid the situation where one or more graziers could frustrate its objectives by declining to enter an agreement and increasing their own stocking numbers.

My noble friend also asked whether the moorland scheme rules would allow temporary fencing. We have received a number of comments about erecting temporary fences on land covered by the scheme. Some organisations were in favour of their use as a tool to encourage heather regeneration. Others felt that fencing should be prohibited because it would detract from the open character of the land. We shall need to consider all those responses very carefully before final decisions are made, but I take particular note of my noble friend's remarks.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. Returning briefly to the question of commons, does my noble friend agree that on most common land the numbers of stock are registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, and therefore the possibility of farmers increasing those numbers and filling in the areas that have been vacated as part of the moorland scheme should be prevented if the MAFF regional officer is doing his job properly?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes a telling point. I am grateful to him. We shall take note of that point.

My noble friend also asked why only sheep were to be included in the scheme. I appreciate the point that he made about the inclusion of cattle. However, targeting the scheme on sheep maximises the potential for environmental benefit given that the deterioration of semi-natural vegetation from heavy stocking levels is most commonly associated with grazing by sheep.

My noble friend made some pertinent observations on the greening of CAP support. It is important to be clear, as I know he already is, that our moorland environment was created by traditional livestock farming and cannot be maintained without continued grazing by sheep. If it were not for HLCAs the upland LFA environment would undoubtedly suffer. I accept, however, that in some places heavy stocking levels have caused deterioration of heather and other typical moorland vegetation. Where serious over-grazing causing serious damage to the vegetation is involved we already have powers, as my noble friend mentioned, to reduce or withhold hill livestock compensatory allowances. Of course, those allowances constitute only one element of the support available to hill farmers. My right honourable friend seeks to extend the powers we already have to the ewe premium.

My noble friend spoke about the concept of voluntary de-coupling, in other words providing for a proportion of CAP livestock headage payments to be paid on an area basis. I can see the environmental attractions of that idea, but it would represent a major restructuring. I do not believe that it is likely to be negotiable in Brussels at the moment.

My noble friend Lord Wade pointed to the need to take account of the requirements of the rural economy. The fundamental point here is that environmental schemes offer an alternative source of income for farmers and landowners. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his acknowledgement that those schemes are a worthwhile step in the right direction.

The noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, bemoaned what he saw as the unnecessary imposition of forms on farmers. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, echoed that sentiment. We are well aware of the need to minimise the burdens that we impose on farmers. We spend a great deal of energy trying to keep the forms as simple and understandable as possible. I am gratified that farmers' representatives have acknowledged that. However, ultimately farmers are receiving large amounts of public money and that money must be properly accounted for. We have a duty to safeguard the public purse against fraud.

All the points that have been made in today's debate will be taken into account as we now proceed to take decisions on the final shape of these new agri-environment schemes. Those schemes form part of the trinity of measures available to the Government in influencing our farmers and landowners to take good care of the countryside: guidance, protection and reward. We spend nearly £50 million a year on R&D which forms the basis for the guidance that we give to farmers through codes of practice, through direct advice and through demonstrations and example. To ensure that basic standards of environmental protection are met, we set out the requirements in statutory form, for example to prevent pollution and to ensure that farmers who benefit from taxpayers' support do not degrade the countryside, as I have already explained. But there is a limit to what can be achieved by advice and protection measures. So, we reward farmers for stewardship of the countryside that goes beyond normal good agricultural practice.

In this we have led the way in Europe. We were the first to introduce ESAs in 1987 and the scheme has attracted the admiration of many other member states. Now, thanks to our pioneering efforts, all EC countries have to offer a range of environmental schemes to their farmers. In the 10 years from 1986, our expenditure on environmental management schemes will have increased from zero to over £100 million. On any assessment, that is a substantial amount to devote to conservation and enhancement of our countryside. We expect our farmers and landowners to show that it is an investment well made.