HL Deb 06 November 2001 vol 628 cc131-3

3 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of their commitments, made in response to the Better Regulation Task Force report on Environmental Regulation and Farmers, why they are continuing to place environmental regulatory burdens upon farmers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, developing an environmental regulatory framework for agriculture has been, and will continue to be, necessary. However, we are working to ensure that any regulation should be targeted so that it achieves the necessary safeguards while allowing the maximum flexibility and imposing the minimum burden on farmers and on landowners.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I remind the House of my family's farming interest. Can the Minister tell the House how many former MAFF personnel were moved from work on direct consultation and implementation to work associated with the foot and mouth outbreak? How many have been moved back and to what timetable are they working? Can the Minister also quantify the effect that the foot and mouth outbreak has had on the progress of the four environmental directives that are awaiting implementation and a further three that are still being discussed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Baroness the precise number of staff who have been moved into and out of work in relation to the foot and mouth epidemic. It is clear that some work has been delayed as a result of the transfer of staff to duties connected with the foot and mouth outbreak. The bulk of those are now back in place.

On the directives, in some cases we are under time pressures from Europe. Therefore, work in those areas has been less affected than work in other areas. I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree with me that how we deliver regulation, as distinct from creating any new regulations, should now be addressed.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, I understand that a range of agencies impose regulations on farmers. Is the department doing anything to reduce the number involved to a single regulatory body?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with that objective. It is clear that frequently farmers regard the number of agencies with which they deal as a serious burden, as distinct from the fact that they recognise that the regulations themselves are necessary. Within DEFRA we have attempted to rationalise all the regulations and regulatory activity relating to IACS payments. The Environment Agency is looking at bringing together some of the approaches that it operates under different environmental directives. In the long term it would be helpful if we could move closer to a one-stop shop, or a whole-farm type of approach to certification. The Government are addressing that and I am sure that the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food will also address that issue.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, some of the officials referred to by the noble Baroness were moved out of their jobs because they were simply incompetent. Why should they be moved back into the same posts?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not believe that the people to whom the noble Baroness referred—those working on improving the regulations— could possibly fall within that category. There may be instances when people have been moved to priority jobs, simply because the pressure on all staff in the department has been so substantial during the foot and mouth epidemic that their previous work had to be reduced in priority. No implication of competence or incompetence was involved in those moves.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, Recommendation 6 suggests that money should be moved out of direct subsidy and into environmental incentives to a much greater degree. Can the Minister tell the House to what extent that has happened over the past year and to what extent he expects it to happen over the next year, having regard to the current incredibly low level of only 7 per cent towards environmental incentives?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness is addressing the issue of the common agricultural policy payments rather than what happens under regulation. In relation to the payments for the agri-environmental schemes, she is correct. We are talking about approximately 7 per cent, which is a significant improvement on the previous year. It will grow more rapidly to roughly double that size over the next two or three years.

Of course, there are other mechanisms for trying to transfer money from direct production subsidy into environmental and broader rural development issues. We are starting to engage in modulation, which will grow as a proportion of the direct production subsidies in those regimes. Moreover, in the medium term one of our main priorities, in the renegotiation of the CAP, is that we shift expenditure from the first pillar—production-related subsidies—into the second pillar to deal with those wider issues. However, that will take place in the longer term and will depend upon the midyear review and eventually the post-2006 form of the common agricultural policy.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many farmers spend more time filling in forms than farming? Does he also have sympathy for all the trees involved?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is the same issue as that addressed by my noble friend Lady Hilton. I believe that there is a common recognition that farming has to face up to its environmental responsibilities and that, therefore, regulation is appropriate. However, the way in which that regulation is imposed leaves a lot to be desired and, therefore, the range of form-filling, the quantity of inspections and the different regimes with which farmers have to deal, need to be rationalised. I accept what lies behind the question posed by the noble Baroness.

Lord Renton

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we have reached the end of Question Time.