On February 26 the House of Lords had a short debate (what used to be known as an Unstarred Question but we have abandoned such traditional labels) on this very subject. Lord Willoughby de Broke asked HMG "what is their assessment of the effect of European Union regulation on British agriculture".
As there are several peers still in the House who know about agriculture and some who even understand the intricacies of the CAP the debate was quite interesting and I thoroughly recommend it to readers of this blog. But here are a few meaty quotes from Lord Willoughby's speech, to keep everyone going:
I declare my interest as a member of that disgruntled group of farmers. I farm in Warwickshire and I am disgruntled because during my time in the Lords I have served on the committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who is in his place, and have spoken in many debates, including debates in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2008. I think that in nearly all those debates there were calls for reform of the common agricultural policy. I think that both Front Benches in this House have always agreed with the idea of reforming the common agricultural policy. However, what has happened after all those fine words? Where are we now? Has anything changed? Has the common agricultural policy become less bureaucratic, less centralised and less corrupt? No, it has not. Has it made farmers any more prosperous? No, it has not. Actually, things have got worse, as I will explain.The point is one that we make over and over again but it has not sunk in yet even after all these decades: it really does not matter what farmers in this country might want (and having worked with them in a previous reincarnation I can certainly affirm that many of the demands are completely unreasonable and often made by one sector at the expense of another one) or what our own elected politicians might proclaim. There is no possibility of getting our way in the structure as it stands.
The beef and sheep sectors are suffering under overregulation, passports and identification schemes, many of which are unnecessary and certainly very burdensome and time-consuming for stock farmers. Arable farmers are regularly stripped of their ability to grow profitable, healthy and viable crops at a time when they are being enjoined to feed an ever increasing population, but the rules from Brussels make it more and more difficult to do that. I take the example of winter wheat. One of the big enemies of winter wheat is the black-grass weed. Over the last couple of years, the most effective black-grass herbicides have been gradually withdrawn against the advice of our own very independent and expert Advisory Committee on Pesticides and that of the previous government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington. However, their advice does not really count. What counts is what goes on in Brussels. The ayatollahs in Brussels decide what we are going to do and we have almost no say there any more. The rules are decided by the agricultural bosses in Brussels in the Commission and are subject to qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, where we are regularly outvoted.
As the Minister will remember, the humiliating position of having no say in what goes on in agriculture in this country was underlined last summer when the Commission, spurred on by demonstrators dressed up as bumble-bees, suspended the use of neonicotinoid seed dressings for oilseed rape and other brassicas. Yet again, our Advisory Committee on Pesticides was against this, as to their credit were the Government and the Minister. Yet again, we are being forced to enforce a policy with which we do not agree.
The rule of unintended consequences will now kick in. Large acreages of oilseed rape have been damaged. The percentages are arguable, but these acreages have certainly suffered. According to Home Grown Cereals Authority estimates, about 40,000 acres of oilseed rape last autumn had to be destroyed, abandoned or re-drilled. The consequence of that is that as oilseed rape is a major food for bees and pollinators, there will be less food for them: there will be less oilseed rape. Now that neonics are banned, farmers will use airborne sprays. They have to be put on at flowering time. This initiative by the Commission will definitely damage bees more than was the case when we had neonicotinoid seed dressings—but welcome to the EU, and have a nice day.
The rest of the debate and the Minister's reply is quite salutary. Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dormer, for the Liberal-Democrats, decided to use her speech for the purpose of attacking UKIP's agricultural policy, which, according to her, veered from the slightly batty to the blatantly obvious.
One effect of the tabling of this debate was to make me look at UKIP’s agricultural policies. I was most surprised to see that number one on its agricultural policy list is to impose stronger controls on bush meat. Controlling bush meat, with all its health implications, is clearly very important, but that is not really a British agricultural issue. It is not in competition with beef or lamb. To mix my metaphors, it is a total red herring. That is an issue for the Home Office and border controls. The second top policy of UKIP is to support the trial culling of badgers for the control of bovine TB if veterinary opinion substantiates it. That is not original. It is common to all sides of the House so there is nothing to disagree with there. The third is that UKIP supports the principle of science before emotion on any agricultural topic. Who does not?Actually, as it became obvious, the EU does not necessarily, still preferring the precautionary policy, much touted by various NGOs who, as we know, are paid for by tax money.
Then there were several examples of CAP regulations that were actually not that bad or even quite good, which is not to be denied. Even a stopped clock, as we know, is right twice a day. The question is not that but exactly how much rubbish do we have to accept in order to have some reasonable decisions, which, presumably, could be made in this country.
Some hope has been expressed in the wake of statements made by Commissioner Hogan, by Lord Caithness among others:
There has been an encouraging start by Commissioner Hogan, however, who has said many of the right things. I hope that he is more in the MacSharry mould than his predecessor. In his keynote address to the NFU conference in Birmingham two days ago, Commissioner Hogan said that he had made simplification a top priority for his work programme in 2015. He went on to say that he had launched a comprehensive screening exercise of the entire CAP to identify which sections may need simplifying. He went on to say that more than 200 Commission regulations implemented the common market organisation will be reviewed and simplified. If 200 are being looked at, what is happening to the others? Why are they not being looked at? In what timescale will this happen? How will we hold the commissioner’s feet to the fire? He has said the right things; how will we make him perform?The fact is that every incoming Commissioner makes simplification his (or her) priority and every new Commission and new Presidency intends to cut back red tape and deregulate, possibly even decentralize within limits allowed by the acquis communautaire, which means not at all. It is a little odd that people should still find statements and speeches of that kind hopeful.
However, the really interesting speech is the one by the Minister, Lord De Mauley. It is very rational and full of good intentions as well as of a list of British attempts to achieve something, change something or prevent something within the CAP. What it is a little short on is actual achievements. I am afraid, Lord Willoughby de Broke's point is proved by the Minister who may well agree but cannot openly say so.