HL Deb 27 January 2000 vol 608 cc1669-70

3.25 p.m.

Baroness Byford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the new rules under Part I of the Arable Area Payments Guide will be beneficial to wildlife.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, we are concerned that the clarification to the rules on field boundaries set out in Part I of the latest edition of the Arable Area Payments Guide should not be detrimental to wildlife. The guide urges farmers that, if they need to adjust the width of a field boundary, they should seek advice on minimising any environmental impact of such a change.

Baroness Byfo rd

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Does she not agree with the RSPB, which last weekend said that these subsidy changes are out of step with the Government's environmental objectives as they will reduce the important areas for wildlife, such as field margins, and may even lead to the greater destruction of hedges? Surely that is something the noble Baroness will riot wish to see.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we would certainly not wish to see those kinds of detrimental effects. We have advised farmers who face a problem that we do not want them to cut back their hedges, some of which may be legally protected, too severely or to plough right up to the base of the hedge. In some cases, the answer may be to adjust a claimed area. That goes back to the ruling about being able to claim these payments only for cropped areas. In other cases, it may be possible to enter the land into set-aside or into an agri-environmental scheme. So there are some alternative courses of action.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, do the Government intend to issue a detailed memorandum on the document that is mentioned in the Question—Part I of the Arable Area Payments Guide? If the arrangements as set out in Part I are carried through unamended, by how much will the individual payments to farmers deteriorate and by how much will the cost to the Exchequer therefore increase?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is difficult to give the precise figures for which my noble friend asks because at the moment we do not know exactly how much land will potentially be affected. I understand that on a sample of around 5 per cent of arable land perhaps 4 per cent of fields within that would be affected. It applies only to land that is used for the cultivation of cereal, oil seed, peas and beans. It is highly unlikely that pasture and forage fields will be affected. Crops such as potatoes and sugar beet are totally unaffected. My noble friend asked for a detailed memorandum. I shall certainly check on the usual procedure, but the document referred to is an explanatory guide that is published on a two-yearly basis and updated every year. It is in the form of guidance notes to farmers to help them to fill in their IACS forms. I am not sure whether it is therefore appropriate that it should be subject to parliamentary procedures.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the regulations will be retrospective?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not believe that the regulations will be retrospective in looking at claims made for past years. The Court of Auditors and EU visits have considered the IACS scheme in some detail. As the noble Earl is probably aware, in this country farmers have been able to claim on the basis of fields recorded in the Ordnance Survey, but there has always been an understanding that that is a surrogate for cropped areas and that within that no more than 2 metres of uncropped areas should be the subject of a claim. We are responding to the concerns raised by the auditors to ensure that there are no improper claims, and it is prudent for us to do that to protect the taxpayer and individual farmers.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, will the Government ask MAFF to make an assessment of the impact of these regulations on wildlife? If that assessment discovers that there will be particularly big problems for wildlife, what are the opportunities to review the decision and their time-scale?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is not a decision to review the situation. What we have done is to clarify the regulations for payments to be made under the arable area payments scheme. As to the main question put by the noble Baroness, both arable field margins and species-rich hedgerows are priority habitats under the UK biodiversity plan. MAFF is the lead partner with responsibility for increasing those habitats, and we must monitor what is going on. We have grant-aided over 5,600 miles of hedgerows. The additional funding for country stewardship schemes which has been announced will allow us to do even more, which means that we shall increase the number of hedges and field margins through other schemes.