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Lord Rooker's closing remarks

in the Agriculture debate May 18th 2006
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I have found the debate fascinating. I really appreciate the tributes that have been paid to the work of my noble friend Lord Bach. They have been unanimous, which is not without significance. I saw him early this morning and will make sure that these comments are drawn to his attention.

I welcome the debate. Before the announcement nine days ago, I was in Northern Ireland. Now I have the chance not only to speak, which I appreciate is important, but to listen. As I have said before, we would not get this debate in the other place. It has formed a checklist for Ministers and I will make sure that it is gone through with a fine-tooth comb. I have been handed lots of comments about what colleagues have said this afternoon; there is no way, in the time available, that I can remotely attempt to do them justice. I want to refer to what each person has said, but dissecting Hansard will provide a checklist for action for Ministers in Defra and in other parts of the Government. I will make sure that it is done that way.
 
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I am also grateful for the personal welcome I have received. As I said to the massed ranks of Defra this morning in Westminster - some 300 or 400 people - I will have to stop saying "I'm back" because it is not MAFF, it is Defra. As I let slip the other morning, it will always be MAFF as far as I am concerned.

I have been a city dweller for most of my life. That point was raised when I was appointed to MAFF in 1997. At that point, the brief was about safe food. My constituents wanted safe food, just like everybody else did, and farmers wanted to produce it. But the point is that I do not see the countryside as a chocolate box lid. I want to make that absolutely clear. I never have done. In fact, I have the proof in one of my old files that I dug out. In 1990, for a brief period I was on the Back Benches so that I could serve on a Select Committee - the Public Accounts Committee. I also decided at that point that I would start to have a look at a few things that I had never done before, because I had been in the other place a long time by then. I draw noble Lords' attention to the Adjournment Debate on rural communities on 5 April 1990 led by the honourable Member for Birmingham, Perry Bar. That was on the Order Paper.

I was stopped in the corridor of the other place a few days before by colleagues and they said, "Hey! What right have you got to debate rural communities? That's our turf". I said, "I don't think you're doing it well enough". I spent some time when I was on the Back Benches visiting rural communities and farms. I remember being in East Anglia in particular and other areas, and taking advice from the experts on land management at the NFU. I prepared that debate, which I then took through my party. The point is that I know what is meant by the rural way of life for rural dwellers and those who work in the rural community. But as my noble friend behind me said, 25 per cent of the population live in designated rural areas even though they are not necessarily involved in rural activities.

I have one interest to declare: when I was at MAFF I actually joined the Soil Association, which was symbolic in a way. It is still there and I see no contradiction. In fact, I was able to argue for GM foods on a television programme. I said that there was less pesticide on them. I am not arguing that today, but the fact is that that is one interest I have to declare.

I need to get another question of my chest. What is my top priority? The RPA and single payment is the answer. There are many priorities for new Ministers, but there is only one top priority. After the questions that I had last week, I was back from Northern Ireland and I headed off to Reading to the headquarters of the RPA on Friday afternoon. I could not have gone any quicker. I have not solved all the problems, but it was important that I went there. I apologise on behalf of the Government for the deep distress that has been caused by the constant promises given in good faith for the money that never arrived. But as people now know, a little more than 85 per cent of the money has been paid. It is already in bank accounts, not just cheques in the post. However, I again apologise for the distress that has been caused.
 
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That is a top priority. I will do everything that I can in working with officials, but I will also be taking advice from all quarters. There will be no no-go areas as far as I am concerned. I am interested in the past because you have to learn from it, but in terms of the future, 2006 has already started. I understand that and the pressures on farmers.

Before I comment on colleagues' contributions, I should say that we have changed the date from 15 to 31 May and we genuinely want all the forms in by 31 May. We have received 70,000-plus. There will be no penalties up to 31 May, but I desperately implore farmers to get the forms in. We discussed this with leaders of the tenant farmers, the country landowners and the NFU last Wednesday afternoon along with the Secretary of State and we said that we desperately needed their help to get their members to get their forms in. There are difficulties with the forms, as we have heard from noble Lords. I accept that, but we want all the forms in if we possibly can. That is the only way that we can begin to assess how we are going to move forward.

We still have to deal with some issues from 2005. By the way, there is no attempt to hold back the 20 per cent. Our intention is to pay that. Indeed, we have already started paying some of the 20 per cent payments for the top-up. I might also add, because I will never have time to deal with everything, that we have already started paying some of the 5,000 hill farmers who have applications above 1,000. There has been a difficulty there, particularly for hill farmers who could not get the money until the single farm payment was paid, but we have started to make inroads - I saw figures yesterday - into that 5,000.

There are the 20,000-odd where the claims are less than 1,000; that is, £600. They have to be paid, but the priority has to be those who need the money as part of their main income. No one is going to tell me that 1,000 is a fundamental part of an income. But they will be paid. We will work as best we can to the dates that have been set out. We are having this assessed and reviewed daily. There is a hands-on approach from the Secretary of State and me, and I will report back to the House regularly.

I really appreciate this debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Vinson. It has been a bonus for a new Minister to have the opportunity to listen to widespread opinions. His was an incredibly thoughtful speech, most of which I agreed with. I am not saying that there was any point I disagreed with, but that I understood and agreed with most of his points.

The fact is that the landscape is man-made, and we have to pay for it. If people in this country want the landscape of the countryside, they have to pay for it, because it is man-made - it is not nature. Making the connection between food production and the landscape, as other noble Lords have said, is a key element of what we are trying to communicate. There is no question that so far we could have made a better job of that.

In his early comments the noble Lord made a key point, which others have made, including my noble friend Lord Corbett and the noble Lord, Lord Livsey,
 
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about co-operative marketing. We are no good at it. We have to get the farmers and producers to get a bigger grip on parts of the food chain. They will only do that by co-operation. It cannot be done working as individuals. Maybe it is just something in the British psyche. The Germans, the French, the Italians and, in certain areas, the Spanish have more producer control over the food chain, which has to be a good thing. That is not an attack on the supermarkets, but if the producer is only getting back 8p in the pound, something is clearly wrong. Producers feel beleaguered, particularly with regard to milk. I understand that, and I will do what I can to push that forward, but it has to be self-made, as someone said. You cannot force people to co-operate, just like you cannot force them to be good neighbours.

My noble friend Lord Christopher and others raised the issue of food security. I am as concerned about food security as I am about energy security. There are some real issues relating to the issue. There is not time to get into the detail, and I do not want to quote lots of figures, but the UK is 73 per cent sufficient in the food we can produce in the country. We are 60 per cent sufficient in all food, as there are some foods we cannot produce. Food security is important, particularly because, as I think the noble Countess mentioned, if there is a problem with oil and transport there is difficulty picking up imported food.

My noble friend Lord Christopher was the first person in the debate to mention bovine TB. We will come back as quickly as we can as a result of the consultation, as I said in answer to the Question the other day. It is a difficult issue. I have reviewed some of my files, because I received Professor Krebs's report and set up the Bourne inquiry of the independent scientific group. I have seen quotes from scientists in 1998 saying, "In five years" - or seven, because of foot and mouth - "we will have the definitive answer about TB, what it is caused by and how much it will cost". But we haven't, have we? And yet I have to go with the science. My department is more reliant on science than most others in government. I am catching up with issues and I am finding that the science at the moment is not as clear-cut as we were promised when we set up the inquiry.

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, gave me a quote that I shall use for ever when he referred to us as, "we peasants". Four Earls, a Countess and a Duke, and the Earl says, "we peasants". But I will be asking questions about the issues he raised about the maps and so on.

My noble friend Lord Tomlinson referred to the reform agenda. There is such an agenda. It is true: farmers want reform. Some 5 per cent of farmers are producing some 50 per cent of the output, so there is a great dislocation between the sizes and output.

I have visited small average farms in Northern Ireland run by family partnerships with the farms being passed on to the son. Those farmers used modern technology. They did not use glitzy hi-tech but had good returns; in other words, they made a go of their farms. The key was that they embraced reform.
 
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The noble Earl, Lord Peel, asked about modulation. There are serious issues in that regard which I encountered when dealing with agriculture in Northern Ireland. I dealt with modulation in connection with rural development programmes. Discussions and decisions on that are ongoing. The noble Earl mentioned the landscape and cheap meat imports from animals that were subjected to poor welfare standards. That has been a constant complaint and I suspect that there is more than a grain of truth in it. We must tackle it as our producers will be damaged if we do not ensure that everyone else follows the rules. It is not a free for all; it is a regulated market. If it were a free for all, we would all go down because there is no way that we can compete with those abroad who are cutting corners. The noble Earl also mentioned the hill farm allowance. I take the point that he made about the payment and about the system continuing until the new one is established.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that the British Government have no plans to leave the European Union, which is the point that he made. I understand where he is coming from. My noble friend Lord Corbett asserted that the healthy independence of farmers had stopped co-operation. He picked that up from the years he spent as a journalist on Farmer's Weekly, as he said. My noble friend gave us the example of a small but successful pig producer. That farmer is making a go of it. I refer to the issue of whether the vast majority of the population know where their food comes from. The degree of ignorance is enormous in that regard. We need to devote more attention to that issue in as positive a manner as possible. My noble friend also laboured the need for housing for the large percentage of families who live in rural areas so that they are not driven away. I fully accept the usefulness of the report that was published this week.

I shall need a separate brief for the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. I give the commitment that I shall seek to meet his challenge. His words struck a chord with regard to the work that I undertook at the former MAFF. There was a fairly large budget for the science base. In the next couple of weeks I shall be visiting two of the laboratories. I refer to the usefulness of the research budget and the ways that things have changed since the days of Rothschild. However, as I say, I need a separate brief to respond to his speech but I shall meet his challenge with regard to the science councils.

I am extremely grateful for the warm welcome given by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. She does not hold back at all even though I think that she likes me. The noble Countess made it absolutely clear that there is a problem with farming and that it has an uneconomic, unstable base. Yesterday she gave me a letter, which I have read and submitted to the department, on the stress caused to families who have an outbreak of bovine TB in their herds. In the past I have visited farms during outbreaks and have witnessed the stress that that caused to farmers. As I said the other day when I answered a question on this point, no one ever
 
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approached me about sick cattle except farmers. Plenty of people moaned about badgers but we do not obtain food from badgers, although I am told that in the 1920s badger ham was considered a delicacy. However, I should think that it would be illegal today. If cattle become ill, there is a real problem. People and families who work on the farms have physical contact with those cattle every day and suffer enormous distress if the cattle become ill. I understand that and have seen it at first hand in Gloucestershire and on a farm that I visited in Staffordshire where there was a very severe outbreak. Therefore, I fully understand the situation. I will try to make more such visits but that must not get in the way of the top priority of dealing with the RPA. That is more important than visiting farms. I am not immune to that but there is a serious issue here.

The noble Countess also referred to isolation among farmers. We have made more money available to tackle rural stress but I accept that that does not solve the problem. We have to stop the stress occurring in the first place. I can remember being told about people putting on their Sunday best queuing up at MAFF's regional offices for the IACS day, and it was a question of meeting people who you would not normally see and of social intercourse and talking to other people. That has gone; the markets have gone in some ways, and they were the gel that held the community together. That is not there now, and that means that people are more isolated, under more pressure, with more change, and that can cause massive illness, which can lead to tragedies in some cases.

On the beef ban, I looked up my notes yesterday, and I thought, "Hang on, there is something funny here". After nine years as a Minister, I only made my first visit to Brussels on 3 May to feed Northern Irish beef to the assembled crowds, including some customers who were going to buy it. That is a big success for the industry, and it is a tribute to officials, farmers and the whole meat industry to get the ban lifted. It is true that it has taken 10 years. Our beef has been more checked over and more tested by the Euro vets than anyone else's beef. We cannot use food safety as a marketing issue because that is not on, but we can market our beef as more checked and better tested than anyone else's in Europe, because so many hurdles were put up before us over the years, and we passed every one of them. The corollary to that is when the Euro vets come to check us, as they will do later in the year, we cannot afford any negative reports. I accept that some people say that there is the 24-month rule and the other rules. I have to look into the deboning and the transport of the bones back to the abattoirs. We cannot afford to have anyone saying, "The Brits are cutting corners and they are taking risks with food safety". We have to get through that check and test later in the year. I hope that we can rebuild our industry, which was worth £600 million a year for a couple of years before the ban was imposed.

My noble friend Lord Young paid tribute to the work on the gangmasters legislation, and it is a very successful operation. We had a good debate on that the other day. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, gave me the
 
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benefit of his time 18 months ago for a day in the country looking at various aspects, for which I am incredibly grateful. He made the point regarding TB and the single payments. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, made a trenchant speech. He does not like my department; I accept that and I will do my best to make him love everyone who works there, including the Permanent Secretary, who is always available and is on the job 168 hours a week like Ministers. We do not measure the way that we do it by clocking on and off. Those days are gone; you are available all day every day. I will get him to learn to love Defra before I finish.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised the issue of the tallow decision and the burning in the renderers. I accept that he complains that it took too long to get that decision. There is an issue to be raised there, and I fully accept the legitimacy of what he said. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, raised the issue of producers, and I have touched on that. I cannot do justice to what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, and I will have to come back on some of the points. I will write on the issues that I have not covered. I cannot change that date of 31 May. I cannot impress enough that farmers must get those forms back to us. She raised the question of the abattoirs, and I will be looking at that because it is an issue for the Food Standards Agency in some ways. I do not want to preside over the demise of the small abattoirs; I was trying to stop that when I was there before. It is the responsibility of the Meat Hygiene Service, and farmers and food are now my responsibility.

I make the same offer that I have made before, and this is not done in a negative way. If anyone can find a regulation that we are operating that we do not need to operate, or somewhere we have gone way beyond the rules in a way that we do not need to, tell me what it is and I will get it changed. There is no reason why we should operate more than an inch beyond what we need to do, given all the pressures that are on us. I have said this before to agriculture and farmers, and I have also said it to the fishing community. It is genuinely meant, but people do not come forward with specifics. I make the offer genuinely; I can take a fresh look and a fresh start. If we can find anywhere we are over-regulating way beyond what we are required to do by law, we should not be. We are not in the business of gold-plating. We need to get gold in food production for the whole of the food chain - for the producers, the retailers and everyone working in it. They deserve the gold, not us putting gold into regulations.

5.04 pm
Lord Vinson: My Lords, the Minister's closing remarks have been exactly what the whole House wanted to hear. It was a draught of commonsense. It typifies what this profound debate has produced - people are not interested in who is right, but what is right. The various party spokesmen summed up much better than I could, and the debate showed the depth and breadth of experience in this House. On behalf of this side, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part and reiterate to the Minister that if this is the way that
 
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he has started, by God, he has set a wonderful precedent to continue. Thank you. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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