HL Deb 01 December 2004 vol 667 cc465-8

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the draft European Union regulations on the circumstances in which farmers may or may not perform mechanical operations will be enforced on a national, regional or local basis.

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

My Lords, from 2005, farmers must keep their land in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) if they claim a subsidy under CAP direct payment schemes, including the single payment.

Under EU framework rules, GAEC must cover standards to protect soils, including to maintain soil structure. In England, this measure restricts unnecessary mechanical field operations on waterlogged soil. Agriculture is a devolved matter within the UK, so, within that framework, the regulations are decided separately by each country.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the proposals in these draft regulations in regard to waterlogged soil are total madness—that the Secretary of State will be the one to decide when a farmer can or cannot work on his crops? My Question asked whether decisions will be made on a national or regional basis. Even in one field on a farm the quality of the soil and its waterloggedness can vary. Will the Minister tell the House whether—and, if so, why—the Government are going to support this completely mad suggestion?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I regret that the noble Baroness regards this provision as mad. We are concerned about the quality of the soil. If "good agricultural and environmental condition" means anything, it must mean respect for the soil and how we manage it. This regulation does not come out of the blue; it is a condition for getting a very large payment from the taxpayer via the European Union. The system will replace a lot of the bureaucracy which pre-existed it under 11 different schemes for claiming EU payments. The question of whether you should use heavy machinery in a waterlogged field is clearly a part of how you treat the soil. Therefore, there should be some restriction on so doing.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a single farm can have some soil where you can start work with no difficulty the morning after a day's heavy rain, and other soil where you cannot work for a week after a day's heavy rain? There are times when you have to do so when the soil is waterlogged or lose the whole crop.

I think that these regulations from Brussels put the Minister's right honourable friend at risk of being invited to play God.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the specific English interpretation of the regulations from Brussels—there are similar arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—is to protect the soil. There are exemptions in relation to bringing in heavy mechanical equipment if by failing to so do, even in a waterlogged situation, you lose the crop or you breach contractual arrangements.

Another exemption, to which I assume the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, refers, is that if there has been particularly heavy rain and there is no ability to do anything about it, we are prepared to have an additional exemption in England which is determined by the department and, ultimately, by the Secretary of State. That is not playing God; that is being sensible in interpreting how effective and how restrictive we should be. The basic point of the regulations is that we do not want heavy machinery used unnecessarily in waterlogged conditions.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that this refers to good husbandry, which is very important in establishing an efficient agricultural system? Can he assure me that Defra will avoid excessively gold-plating this particular regulation? Otherwise, we could end up, as usual, following the rules of cricket with the rest of Europe following the rules of baseball, perhaps.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, of course to some extent cricket also suffers from waterlogging. As far as I know, Brussels has not made any rules about it. The noble Lord is quite right that this is elementary husbandry for ensuring that land is kept in good agricultural condition. It must be applied sensibly. This is part of the minimum standard for looking after soil. It will be applied sensibly, in terms of the exemptions to which I have referred and the sensitivity of the enforcement.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, will the noble Lord assure the House that, in applying these rules sensibly, the people making the decisions will have experience in agriculture and in soil management?

Noble Lords


Lord Northbourne

My Lords, it seems that we have some disagreement from the opposition Benches. These people should also have experience in the cultivation and working of soil.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the enforcers of these regulations in general will be the officials of the Rural Payments Agency, who of course are very experienced in all aspects of agriculture.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, perhaps the Minister could answer the first part of the question of my noble friend Lady Byford. Do the Government have any view on whether these regulations will be brought in on a parish, district or county basis? How will they distinguish which areas are considered to be waterlogged? I gather that at one time these regulations were interpreted as applying only in winter. Does the Minister envisage that they could apply all year round?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is no seasonal distinction. Clearly, it rains more in some seasons and in some parts of the country than in others. The regulations are national in the sense that they are English. There are Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish regulations which are broadly similar. In fact, the English ones probably have rather more exemptions than the others, possibly because it rains more in those countries.

The regulations will be applied by local officers as part of their general approach as to whether the farmer is keeping the land in good agricultural and environmental condition, which is the basic European standard. It will be subject to information on rainfall, but based primarily on the condition of the soil.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the Minister did not answer the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about different fields having different conditions. On our farm we have a field which we call "hell-hole" because most of the year it is such a swine to get anything on or off it. It is wet and soggy at one end and dry and dusty at the top end. How will the legislation be policed? What penalties will there be for farmers who do not obey the rules?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as part of the assessment of whether good agricultural and environmental standards have been met, local officers will need to take into account the topography, the nature of the soil and what the farmer is doing in general to keep the land in good condition. As I say, they will be expert people dealing with such areas.

As far as concerns sanctions, I think that the House should look at the matter the other way around. This is a very basic condition for the payment of a substantial amount of money to farmers. The total cost of compliance with all matters, including this, amounts to around 1 to 2 per cent of the total benefit of the subsidy. That seems a not unreasonable condition. Part of that compliance must include keeping the soil in good condition and therefore avoiding unnecessary machinery going into waterlogged fields.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, is this not bureaucracy gone mad? What makes the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, think that the officials of the Rural Payments Agency will know more about the mechanical conditions of the soil than the farmer who actually runs the farm?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is not bureaucracy gone mad; it is ensuring that the farmer operates in a way that gets the support of society as a whole and does the basic job of keeping the land in good condition. Regrettably, it is true that on occasions some farmers have not taken very good care of their soil. Therefore, the regulations should at least give them a nudge that if they continue operating in a way which destroys the quality of the soil, the sanction is that their payment could be docked. But that is the ultimate sanction. Primarily, this provision ensures good husbandry, good condition of the soil and therefore better farming and better landscape.

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