HL Deb 07 May 2003 vol 647 cc1165-8

7.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty) rose to move, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 17th March be approved [17th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, probably the most remarkable thing about this order is that it is the first from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to be brought forward under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001.

The order will repeal Section 68 of the Food Act 1984 and ends government involvement in research and education in the sugar beet sector. The industry welcomes this measure, which will give it complete control over its research and education programme.

In December 1998, following a consultation exercise, the Government announced that they would begin a phased withdrawal from sugar beet research and education and that the NFU, which represents all beet growers, and British Sugar would set up new industry-run research and education arrangements. The legal requirement placed on the Minister to draw up an annual research and education programme would remain until Section 68 could be repealed. The phased withdrawal has gone smoothly and only the repeal of Section 68 itself now remains.

Because the proposal to repeal Section 68 was drawn up prior to the introduction of the procedure for regulatory reform orders, it was not framed as a regulatory reform order and, as a consequence, the consultation process adopted by DEFRA does not reflect exactly the Cabinet Office guidelines. Nevertheless, the department has demonstrated to the satisfaction of both the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform and the corresponding committee in another place that the consultation exercise carried out in 1998 fully satisfied the requirements of the 2001 Act.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee concluded that the proposal to repeal Section 68 of the Food Act was an appropriate use of the powers under the Regulatory Reform Act and would have the effect of reducing a burden on the sugar beet industry. I thank the members of that committee for the time they spent scrutinising the proposal and for recommending it to the House.

The committee in another place also considered that the proposal would remove a legal burden—it is a small one, but it is significant for members of the sugar beet industry—and would not create or impose any new burdens. The order was unanimously approved in another place. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 17th March be approved [17th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].—(Lord Whitty.)

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting this order to the House. As he explained, in future the sugar beet industry will carry out its own education and research functions. I understand that no representations were made to DEFRA during the period set out in Section 7 of the 2001 Act. Therefore, we obviously support the order.

In paragraph 10 of its 13th report the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee concluded: While we consider that the Department is correct to conclude that the proposals would remove a burden, we do not support the analysis used by the Department in reaching its conclusions". I was slightly surprised by that comment. Can the Minister explain, first, whether his department has reflected on it? Secondly, what method of analysis was used and objected to? Lastly, was the acceptability of the method adopted queried by anyone in advance of its use? At present we can judge the position only in regard to the report itself. If the Minister is unable to respond tonight, I should be grateful if he would write to me.

Paragraph 11 explains the department's thinking, saying that two burdens on the industry will be removed. Paragraph 12 disputes that there is a double burden, while paragraph 13 makes it plain that the committee does not support either of the department's arguments in this regard. While we support the order before us, certain comments were made in the report of the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee which have caused me to raise my eyebrows. That is why I am putting these questions to the Minister.

Thereafter, the committee had no real criticisms; indeed, paragraph 22 states that the consultation had been "adequate". However, how the committee could have concluded that the consultation was adequate if it was not convinced of the methodology employed, I am not quite sure. In paragraph 31 the committee concludes: On the evidence before us, it appears that the proposals would be likely to result in substantial savings to the sugar beet industry". I am sure that all noble Lords who take an interest in this sector will say, "Thank goodness for that and we welcome the order".

The 2002–03 17th report from the House of Lords committee concludes that it is appropriate for this proposal to be made under the aegis of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001.

Having made those few comments, we accept the statutory instrument. However, we are anxious to ensure that, in the future, all sugar beet growers should be included in consultation exercises and thus kept in touch with any changes that might take place. The report makes the comment that the NFU acts on behalf of all sugar beet growers, which I acknowledge. However, it is important to realise that certain sugar beet growers may not necessarily be members of the NFU.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, many of the points that I intended to raise have already been covered. However, I wish to make one or two additional remarks. As the noble Baroness has pointed out, it is clear that the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee was concerned about the position of small producers who are not members of the NFU. That is quite an important point and I wonder whether the Minister is himself satisfied on that aspect of the order. However, as has been pointed out both by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, it appears that the committee is satisfied that a regulatory burden would be lifted as a result of the order. I, too, pay tribute to the committee, which appears to have undertaken a good deal of searching work in its approach to the examination of the order.

The Select Committee of the House of Lords is also satisfied with the fact that the burden will be lifted, as is the British sugar beet industry.

I should like to make one or two additional points. Apparently, the current levy stands at 12p per adjusted tonne of sugar beet and is subject to review. I think that I am right to assume that those arrangements will stand and that the industry will contribute in this way. However, if that is not the case, then I should like to be told.

The British Beet Research Organisation is preparing a research programme which in future will not burden the growers, although they will be involved in certain discussions about it. I have visited the Broom's Barn research station and I was impressed by the research being undertaken. I assume that the station will tender for future research and will continue to carry it out, if the powers-that-be are satisfied.

It was interesting to note that, from the educational point of view, beet growers receive a research magazine four times a year. They are given advance warning of issues such as aphids and spraying dates in relation to aphids causing damage. The magazine also ensures that growers are kept up to date on technological developments. All that is worthwhile to ensure an efficient and effective sugar beet industry. Certainly, if the industry is satisfied that the regulatory burdens have been lifted, as are the relevant committees of both Houses, then we, too, are well satisfied that this a right and proper order to be brought before the House.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am grateful for the support for the order expressed by the two opposition Front Benches. In regard to the present arrangements for research, perhaps I may say in response to the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, that the statutory levy ended in April 2000 as a result of the phasing-out process. Since then the industry has funded its own research programmes and a levy is attached to that. In a sense that is not a matter for me or for the House, but I can confirm that the industry funds the British Beet Research Organisation, paid for by the growers and by British Sugar. It is an independent, industry-based organisation which has taken on some of the work previously done under the former arrangements.

All this order seeks to remove is the outstanding residual requirement for the Minister to produce a programme of research, along with the requirement for the industry to participate in the drawing-up of that programme. The financial side has already been passed to an industry-based body.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord raised the issue of representation of growers by the NFU. The sugar beet industry has certain slightly centralised arrangements because business between the growers and British Sugar—which is, in effect, the only customer—is negotiated via the NFU. In that context, the NFU represents all sugar beet growers. So it is slightly different from other circumstances where the union or trade association may have many growers outside; in sugar beet the NFU represents everyone, whether or not they are members. Although the committee expressed concerns about the point, it concluded that the consultation was adequate.

The committee questioned the two elements of Section 68, one of which imposes a burden on the industry, while the other imposes primarily a burden on the Minister. It felt that our analysis that we were dealing with them separately—and therefore claiming, in effect, that we were initiating two measures of deregulatory reform—was pushing our luck a little far. Nevertheless the committee agreed with the conclusions and the overall message that this is a deregulatory measure which removes a time and administrative burden from the industry and supported it.

As I said, because of the time position, the committee accepted the form of consultation, albeit that it was not entirely in line with what is now laid down for the regulatory reform order process. Although the wording is queried, the committee felt that our conclusions and methods were right, even though it would have preferred us to reach those conclusions through a different approach. There is not a huge argument between ourselves and the committee and the industry supports the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.