Agriculture Bill

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 23rd July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-VII Seventh marshalled list for Committee - (23 Jul 2020)
Viscount Trenchard Portrait Viscount Trenchard (Con)
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My Lords, I acknowledge the expertise in this area of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, but am sceptical that her Amendment 218 would achieve the purposes she envisages and believe that it is unnecessary and indeed could be counterproductive. As my noble friend Lord Naseby mentioned, we already have excellent agricultural colleges, such as Shuttleworth and Cirencester.

The amendment represents an attempt to interfere with the supply of workers in ways which the market may or may not support. It presumes that there is likely to remain a shortage of trained agricultural workers. Is it not likely that further mechanisation will reduce the demand for agricultural workers? Is it not also true that much agricultural work does not require much training and is seasonal in nature? I ask the Minister to confirm that our future immigration policy will recognise the need and provide that foreign workers may be admitted to the UK for limited periods to carry out fruit picking and related jobs.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interests as recorded in the register. I want to speak to Amendment 218 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Parminter, and the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Carrington, and express my appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her introduction of the amendment and for her comments.

The Minister kindly referred in his response to Amendment 12 two weeks ago—was it just two weeks ago?—to work on agricultural and horticultural skills that I have been involved with during the past two years or so. Of course, the coronavirus lockdown earlier this year highlighted how vulnerable we are to disruption when we depend so heavily on a seasonal labour supply from overseas. So I agree wholeheartedly on the need for a strategy to address this vulnerability. However, such a strategy should encompass all labour markets in agriculture and horticulture, not just those of seasonal workers. We are lagging well behind other professions in projecting our sector as an attractive career choice, with no clear signposting, no accurate labour market information, a fragmented and confusing landscape of skills delivery, very few nationally recognised qualifications and no record of individual achievements, including CPD.

A comprehensive skills strategy which includes engaging with schools, FE and HE institutions, the apprenticeship scheme and training and lifelong learning is long overdue. All of us who are involved with the agriculture and horticulture sectors are regularly impressed by the range of skills required to farm successfully, as listed by my noble friend Lord Carrington in an earlier debate and referred to again today. As has been stated, the digital age and robotics will extend the range of skills required to embrace the many challenges we face in a fast-moving world, whether improving productivity or delivering the multiple potential outcomes through the ELM scheme, as well as adding value in exploring markets for our produce.

As indicated earlier by both the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lord Carrington, I have been engaged in a cross-industry skills leadership group which has the widespread support of all key industry organisations. This is not an appropriate time to do a sales job, but the group has recommended the establishment of a professional body to raise the profile of the sector and the exciting opportunities that exist in it, to recognise national qualifications and standards, to establish a single national data source of information, and to provide signposting for both employers and employees to encourage career development and CPD.

I once again thank the Minister for his personal support in trying to achieve these objectives and for the constructive discussions with and advice received from his officials within the department. I have to say that I do not agree with the comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, a few moments ago.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle. I pay tribute to the work that he has done and continues to do on the skills and leadership group.

In passing, I commend Amendment 219 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, because I think there is a problem of affordable housing in this sector, particularly when it comes to migrant workers. We saw an outbreak of Covid recently at a facility where the facilities that were available were less than desirable.

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Baroness Mallalieu Portrait Baroness Mallalieu (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I too support Amendment 220. I remind the House of my farming interests as set out in the register.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, I have wanted to see an end to live export for slaughter for many years. The majority of the animals exported in recent years appear to be sheep. The figures are not clear, but it looks as if the numbers have come down dramatically. However, I am very worried that we may see them rise because we are looking for new trade agreements and deals abroad and there is without question a demand in some places for live animals for slaughter.

The majority of the sheep that currently go are cull ewes going to France for non-stun slaughter for religious festivals. English sheep are cheaper than French ones, and every sheep farmer here knows that the best time to sell your old ewes, if you have the stomach for it, is just before the end of Ramadan. As has been said, the calves that go now come mainly from Scotland and are destined for the continent. They are dairy bull calves, which are a by-product of the milk industry, and are destined either to be killed at about eight months old or to be re-exported to north Africa as adults for non-stun slaughter there.

As we have heard, those animals face very long journey times. The Scottish ones used to go via Ireland, then on a ferry all the way round to the continent, where they were distributed to the countries where they had been purchased. In the abattoir inquiry chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, which produced a recent report, we heard that the most distressing part of the journey is loading and unloading. On these long journeys, particularly with very young calves, that happens repeatedly—many, many times—to comply with the regulations when they are observed.

I understand that the English trade for such calves has largely ended because they are now finding a market in England for further rearing. Rose veal was heavily publicised and marketed, and people are now rearing them on contract for some of our main supermarkets and food outlets. One wonders whether the animal welfare, financial and environmental costs of sending some 3,500 Scottish calves to Europe every year could not be better avoided by good marketing and better provision in the Scottish abattoir system.

There are potential markets for all these animals at home and on the hook overseas. The campaign to sell rose veal was successful. Mutton was once highly prized but became unfashionable, despite the fact that, slow cooked, it has a great deal more flavour than highly prized new season spring lamb. With better marketing and promotion, it could be prized again. You never see it advertised in a butcher’s shop, yet I, as a sheep farmer, am often asked for it. I believe that the latent demand is there.

We are just about to embark on a number of important trade deals. As a livestock-producing nation, our products are likely to be in increasing demand, particularly in the Middle East and elsewhere where grass does not grow as ours does. We can, and must, expand our overseas markets, but, as the Government and their advisers say we should, slaughter the animals here, close the point of production, and export them dead, not alive.

We have heard a number of times during the long course of this Committee that we have wonderful, high animal welfare standards. In many areas, we do, of course, but we cannot simply shut our eyes and look the other way once we ship the animals that we have produced over national borders. I share the frustration of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and look to the Government to keep a promise at last.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle [V]
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 220. There is absolutely no question that we must maintain the highest standards of animal welfare. In the farming sector, we are proud of our standards and reputation for such standards, so we must not tolerate or condone bad practice. We must stamp it out and ensure that the regulations are enforced.

However, I am concerned about the amendment. The export of live animals for slaughter is without question an emotional issue and generates lots of public concern, as it has for a long time. When I chaired the Meat and Livestock Commission it invested in widespread research into the impact of transport on stress levels in sheep, cattle and pigs. As the noble Lord, Lord Trees, said, we should slaughter animals as close to home as possible and add value wherever possible so that we benefit from the marketing of those products in local, mainstream or export markets. We absolutely should do what we can to achieve that, but, as has been said, the reality is that animals suffer the most stress when being loaded on to and unloaded from lorries, not during transport, provided that the lorries comply with EU legislation, such as on journey times, and have the correct facilities on board.

I have always found it rather odd that crossing the 22 miles of water of the channel is such a major problem. It is misleading to believe, as has been stated, that all animals are likely to be mistreated as soon as they arrive. The reality does not support this belief. All the EU abattoirs that I have visited—and I have visited a lot—were of the highest standard, although I confess that I have not been to abattoirs in central Europe. Finished sheep and cattle travel much further than 22 miles from islands around the United Kingdom, including Shetland and Orkney, to the UK mainland for further finishing and for slaughter. Many lorries transporting animals for further fattening or slaughter in the UK travel 220 miles, never mind 22 miles across the channel. As the noble Lord, Lord Trees, mentioned, it is also often difficult to determine whether animals are being moved for slaughter, further fattening or breeding purposes, so it would be extremely difficult—almost impossible—to police the reason for movement.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering
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My Lords, I have every sympathy for the sentiments behind Amendment 220, but I query the basis on which it is drafted. I experienced early on the concerns that people rightly have about the trade of live animals for export. It first came home to me when I was an MEP back in the mid-1990s and represented the port of Brightlingsea in north-east Essex. The trade was closed over Dover and moved to Brightlingsea so, mindful of the concern, I boarded the ferry and saw the movement of the animals from the truck on to the ferry. I must say, they were transported in much more comfort than any North Sea passenger, from my experience of ferries at the time.

I urge the authors of the amendment to go back to the RSPCA and, I am sure, Compassion in World Farming, to check the veracity of the allegations. It is true that 20, 30 or 40 years ago—I pay tribute to the work that my noble friend Lady Fookes has done in this regard —there were horrendous tales of the live trade in animals but, when you got to the basis of them, many were not in this country or even on this continent. I was appalled at that time to see that videos were being made and shown in schools in north Essex and south Suffolk to try to drum up support for banning the live trade.

As the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, just said, you have to be very careful to differentiate between animals that are being exported for fattening and slaughter and those that are being exported for breeding, showing and other purposes; as he rightly said, it is difficult to differentiate between the two.

I would like to see the live trade as it currently exists, certainly between here and mainland Europe, which I understand most of it is—that is, for every live animal that is exported, only six or seven are carried in carcass form. It is a very limited trade, it is highly regulated, and no farmer in their right mind would like to see an animal stressed by transport because the meat would be worthless and there would be no market for it at all.

There is a scenario that we seem to have lost sight of in this amendment: new subsection (6) cannot possibly apply to Northern Ireland because of the Northern Ireland protocol. I hope my noble friend will set out that it is simply not going to happen there.

I also hope my noble friend will take the opportunity to say—and I take great comfort from this fact—that if it is true that we are leaving the European Union and the transition period will end at the end of this year, the rules of the World Trade Organization will apply. I think the RSPCA is well aware of that fact. Under the “most favoured nation” clause and non-discrimination treatment, the likelihood is that the WTO would rule to prevent any such ban on the import or export of live animals under that principle.

With these few remarks, I hope my noble friend will continue to reassure us that this minimum, highly regulated level of trade can continue, but there are implications from the protocol and the WTO that I am sure he would wish to have regard to.