HL Deb 26 November 2001 vol 629 cc8-9

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they plan to introduce a licensing scheme for farmers.

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

My Lords, there are no plans at this point, but registration, whole farm certification and various forms of licensing are among the many options which the Government and the policy commission will need to consider to help to build a sustainable, modern farming industry. No decisions will be taken before we have received the recommendations of the policy commission or without full consultation with all interested parties.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. However, I am slightly mystified by it. Only about 10 days ago he was reported in the press as having said that the Government were considering the whole question of licensing.

Perhaps I may declare a family interest in farming, yet again. If the Government are considering licensing farms, who will be responsible for that? Will it be local government, central government or will one person cover all aspects? How will that happen? Will the Government also review the existing regulations and take great care not to impose more regulations on our farmers and horticulturists than are borne by other countries, thus exporting our important food and farming industry?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness was mystified by slightly misleading reports in the press. As I said in my Answer, the Government and the policy commission will consider various options for bringing together the many regulations which presently impact on farmers in the way she mentioned. There could be benefit to farmers in having a form of whole farm certification, dealing with a number of inspectorates at the same time, and pulling together many of the regulations which are presently a burden on farmers. Whether that will amount to full registration or to a licensing system is a second-order question and one which the policy commission and the Government will need to consider. We are certainly not at the point of announcing that we are committed to any form of policy on that matter. A considerable amount of work is needed before I could say how such a system would be administered, were we to go down that road.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is already in place a holding number system which is monitored by his department and by the European Union? Is the reason for the discussion about a licensing system because the system that exists is not being administered to the satisfaction of his department? Does he not agree that the introduction of a licensing system would infringe on the liberties of farmers and, indeed, produce an extra layer of unnecessary bureaucracy?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct; a numbering system exists which identifies pockets of land and holdings on which subsidy is paid. However, that is not the same as the complete registration of farms. Indeed, some of the administrative problems we have had, in particular during the foot and mouth epidemic regarding the movement of animals, have been because that system has proved to be inadequate, with slightly bizarre map readings and other problems arising. A generalisation of a registration system, possibly combined with aspects of regulation and moving into the area of whole farm certification, could mean a reduction in the burden on farmers rather than the opposite.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, perhaps I may first declare an interest, both as the wife of a farmer and as a specialist cheesemaker. Does the Minister realise how much I would appreciate having to deal with one authority for all the required inspections? Secondly, as regards holding numbers, many people who have a small number of animals, say four sheep or two goats, have not appeared as holders of animals. That is an area which needs to be rectified.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree with the noble Countess on both grounds. Moving from a system of multiple regulatory authorities to a single system is difficult. However, I believe that any rationalisation of the process would be of benefit to farmers. As I have said, there are many different ways in which that could be done, whether or not we move to anything like full licensing. Any such system would need to include recognition of the relatively small farmers to whom the noble Countess referred.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, whatever road the Government decide to go down as regards regulation or licensing of farms, I beg the Minister to realise the extra burden that we carry in this country and the extra standards that are set. If they are not required for other foods which come into this country, we shall export not just our farming industry; the whole food sector will also be under threat.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, by and large, the standards which are applied to British farming are almost entirely determined at EU level. Although there are queries about the relative enforcement of those standards, we would defend the view that standards must be the same across the EU. The Prime Minister made clear that there will be no future gold-plating of EU standards as regards agriculture. The question of access from third countries is rather different, particularly in relation to animal welfare and disease controls, and is one that we have addressed before. The Government are looking at ways to improve import checks in that regard.