HL Deb 09 February 2005 vol 669 cc791-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made on the implementation of The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food.

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

My Lords, The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food is a comprehensive, long-term plan for the future development of the industry. Much progress has already been made through, for example, the implementation of the 2003 CAP reform deal, the launch of new agri-environment schemes, successful pilots for the Whole Farm Approach, the launch of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy and helping the food chain as a whole to improve competitiveness by supporting initiatives such as the Food Chain Centre and English Farming and Food Partnerships.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that the Curry report is only one of a number of strategies available to the Government. I refer also to the rural White Paper, the Haskins review and the rural delivery review. Which of those strategies takes priority and how do those concurrent policies mix with the Curry report itself? Would he please clarify the situation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord seeks clarification. The food and farming strategy relates to the development of the food and farming industry while the rural strategy relates to the broader prosperity and well-being of rural communities. While there is an overlap in part, both strategies are being pursued with vigour, and I hope to make an announcement relating to the rural strategy very soon. We are conducting a coherent policy to address our rural responsibilities and those for the food chain.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, can the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, explain how the Government's determination to develop agriculture—I believe that he referred to the development of agriculture—coincides with the fact that the agriculture sector is becoming less productive and less rewarding?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the agriculture sector is not becoming less productive. Its efficiency and productivity have improved significantly. Although a slight downturn in income was recorded last year, that followed three years of substantial increases in income, albeit from a very low figure for 2000. Noble Lords will know that agriculture was deeply affected by both the exchange rate and subsequently by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Agriculture has made a significant recovery, but it has a long way to go. Part of that recovery is improving its relationship with the rest of the food chain, which is exactly what the Curry review and the strategy are about.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although some people may have benefited, the question of whether one has made money or seriously lost it depends entirely on what type of farming one is involved in?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, agriculture is a diverse private sector industry, albeit that there is a strong public ethos of support for it. There will be winners and losers. Substantial restructuring has taken place in agriculture, resulting in larger units and the departure from the sector of a significant number of smaller operators. Although that may have been distressing for some people in some areas, by and large the net effect of that restructuring has been to improve the efficiency and long-term competitiveness of the industry.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, what are the Government doing to remedy the decline in self-sufficiency in temperate foods in this country? Will he also give special mention to biofuels and oilseeds?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the development of biofuels, which I strongly support and hope to see measures brought forward in support of, does not count towards the food balance because, by definition, they are non-food. Biofuels have the potential to be useful and profitable adjuncts to the agriculture sector.

Turning to self-sufficiency in food, we are still 74 per cent self-sufficient in products that can be produced in the UK. Virtually no other industry achieves anything like that level of self-sufficiency. Although the percentage has come down a little over recent years, it is still substantially better than it was in the 1930s or, indeed, during most of the previous century.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, is not the ultimate measurement of success or otherwise in the farming industry related to the value of farm properties and the price of land? Can my noble friend tell us whether the price of land is going up or coming down?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the price of land has risen significantly in most parts of the country, after a slight hiatus when there was uncertainty about the direction of the common agricultural policy. As no more land is being created, I suspect that its price will continue to rise and that land therefore represents a major asset to landowners and those who own long leases.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, given the Minister's reply to the previous question, could he please explain to the House how the increase in the value of land, to which he alluded, helps tenant farmers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in many circumstances it does not help tenant farmers. The Government are seeking to address aspects of the tenancy situation. A recent report from the TRIG group suggests some improvements in tenancy arrangements which, it is hoped, would encourage a move towards longer-term and more stable tenancies for whole-farm tenants. Ultimately, however, there is a market for tenancies as there is for land. Land is scarce; the price of land is going up; and therefore the balance between the landowner and the tenant in most cases shifts in favour of the landowner. In those circumstances, it is the duty of the Government to protect the position of the tenant.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, the switch to the single farm payment system for supporting agriculture has led to the appearance of an increasing number of articles predicting that land at present being cropped will be taken out of agricultural production entirely. What contribution does the Minister think that development will make to sustainable agriculture?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the choice that will be available to farmers over how to use their land as a result of the single farm payment will mean that farmers can use their land to its maximum profitability, subject to various environmental considerations. Some farmers will not use all their available land for traditional agricultural processes, some will diversify, and some will look to alternative uses. I do not expect to see a significant reduction in the amount of land under agricultural cultivation as a result of the single farm payment. Indeed, in some areas, we may see more land being used. However, other developments are taking place, and some agricultural land may be used to provide, for example, affordable housing-thus addressing what everyone agrees is a major problem in rural areas.