PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

FARM WASTE GRANT (NITRATE VULNERABLE ZONES) (ENGLAND AND WALES) SCHEME 1996

Tuesday 16 April 1996

LONDON: HMSO

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1

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:Mr. John Maxton

Bendall, Mr. Vivian (Ilford, North)

Bermingham, Mr. Gerald (St. Helens, South)

Boswell, Mr. Tim (Minister for Rural Affairs)

Bright, Sir Graham (Luton, South)

Bruce, Mr. Ian (South Dorset)

Budgen, Mr. Nicholas (Wolverhampton, South- West)

Campbell-Savours, Mr. D. N. (Workington)

Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley)

Evans, Mr. Nigel (Ribble Valley)

Hodge, Ms Margaret (Barking)

Knapman, Mr. Roger (Stroud)

Morley, Mr. Elliot (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Pickthall, Mr Colin (West Lancashire)

Shepherd, Mr. Richard (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Speed, Sir Keith (Ashford)

Stevenson, Mr. George (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)

Tyler, Mr. Paul (North Cornwall)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Mr. P. A. Evans, Committee Clerk

2
3 Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Tuesday 16 April 1996

(Afternoon)

[MR. JOHN MAXTON in the Chair]

Farm Waste Grant (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones) (England and Wales) Scheme 1996

4.30 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Mr. Tim Boswell): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Farm Waste Grant (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones) (England and Wales) Scheme 1996 (S.I. 1996, No. 908). May I begin, Mr. Maxton, by saying that this is the first time that I have sat under your chairmanship and that it is a pleasure to me and to all members of the Committee to do so? I would like to begin by explaining our reasons for introducing the scheme. I am sure that the Committee is aware that the phased implementation of the nitrate directive underlies our action. It is fair to say that that directive has always been contentious. It requires us to identify those areas where agriculture has produced a nitrate problem and to introduce controls on practices undertaken by farmers within them. It is a distinct and separate issue from the drinking water directive, although there are some similarities concerning the quantities of nitrate concentration. In this country, in clear distinction from some of our European neighbours, we have taken a targeted approach in identifying areas with a nitrate problem. The resulting nitrate vulnerable zones—they were designated in an order by the Department of the Environment just before this order was laid—occupy only about 5 per cent. of the land in England and Wales. The targeted approach has meant that we have had to draw lines across the country, and in some cases the fields of one farmer may be on one side of the line and those of his neighbour may be on the other side. Indeed, one farm could be split, with part being within a zone and part without it. I farm fairly close to a zone, but my farm is outwith it. I had no part in that decision and had no wish to have any part in it. Defining farms that are within or without areas is a tried and tested method of stirring up controversy among those affected. The alternative would be to designate everyone ab initio. Other strands of controversy are attached to the nitrate directive, but I am pleased to say that we are not called upon to tackle those wider issues today. The issue at hand concerns the assistance which the Government intend to make available to farmers in nitrate vulnerable zones—I shall henceforth refer to them as the zones, with apologies to those with unfortunate memories of the former German Democratic Republic. Those farmers will have to improve their waste handling facilities following 4 controls on manure spreading which will be introduced in due course within the zones. The controls will restrict the amount of manure that farmers may apply to land within the zones, and in the case of light or shallow soils, will set closed periods of the year during which some manures may not be spread. That is necessary because manures that are applied in excessive quantities or at sensitive times of the year will contribute to the pollution of water resources in the zones. To comply with the restrictions, livestock farmers, especially those with slurry-based systems, will normally have to store their farm waste for a period, and those with insufficient land may have to find additional land on which to spread their waste. It is important to keep the scale of the effect in perspective. Of the 8,000 or so farmers in the zones, about one quarter have livestock. I estimate that fewer than 700 of those will be faced with additional storage-related costs of one sort or another. The actual impact will vary considerably depending on the nature and circumstances of each business. For example, some farmers may have to expand their existing storage facilities, while others, such as those with slurry-based dairy or pig units on light soils with little or no storage capacity, will have to instal new facilities. On the other hand, a farmer with a beef herd relying on grass silage or hay for feed and having to spread solid farmyard manure from winter housing is unlikely to be faced with any additional costs as a result of the measures. That is a brief background to the reintroduction of farm waste grants in the zones. As I have said, some livestock farmers in the zones will need to make capital investments to meet their obligations under the nitrate directive. In recognition of that need, the scheme will focus assistance on a range of storage facilities for slurry and other manures. Fixed handling and disposal facilities, which form an essential part of farm waste systems, are also to be eligible for grant. Under previous grant schemes, facilities which separate clean water from dirty water—in other words, those which separate rainwater from fouled water—have not been eligible for grant. However, by diverting rainwater and preventing it from becoming mixed with farmyard effluent, items such as guttering and drainage systems can be cost-effective in reducing the amount of storage required. A reduction in the amount of slurry stored brings a corresponding reduction in the amount to be spread on the land. I am therefore pleased to announce that such items will be eligible for grant aid. It is important that new waste facilities meet the relevant regulations and standards. Farmers will be responsible for ensuring that investments abide by the control of pollution regulations and that they have any necessary consent from the Environment Agency, which takes over the role from the National Rivers Authority, in addition to meeting health and safety requirements. Investments which do not meet those standards will not be eligible for grant. Our aim has been to ensure that the main features of the scheme are as simple as possible to administer for farmers and the Government, and that grants will be available to all who need them. The scheme is similar 5 in many ways to its predecessor, the farm and conservation grant scheme, notably in the rate of grant, which remains at 25 per cent., and the expenditure limit of £85,000 per business. While some will no doubt complain that the grant is not enough, it is the most that can be afforded given the current constraints on public expenditure; and it will provide welcome help to those who need it, including help in new areas such as the separation of water streams. Smaller farmers will benefit under the new arrangements because there will no longer be a separate lower expenditure limit determined by the amount of labour on the farm—merely a cut-off point for the total cost. The scheme will be open to all farmers with some agricultural land in a zone, provided the investment is necessary to help them comply with the directive. As with the previous grant scheme, there will be no need for farmers to obtain prior approval from the Ministry or the Welsh Office. To help farmers decide what is most appropriate for their circumstances, we are also making available free technical advice from the Agricultural Development Advisory Service on the implications of the proposed measures and on the waste facilities needed for compliance. I hope that farmers will take advantage of that advice and of the assistance offered by the scheme and will plan their investments in good time, before the introduction of the measures. The scheme forms part of a package of measures, including the scheme laid by the Department of the Environment on the designation of zones—with which the Ministry has been closely associated—and the consideration of the action plan required in the zones, together with the ensuing regulations. That plan has been subject to consultation, and the responses from the National Farmers Union and others are being considered by the Ministry. The action plan will be published later in the year. The scheme that we are considering is not the action plan. It may well be sensible for farmers, to whom technically the grant scheme will be available from tomorrow, to consider taking advice about what may be appropriate—and perhaps to obtain some necessary consents—and then to check it against the final form of the action plan when it is received. I should again clarify that we are anxious to have a further stage of consultation on the action plan with the industry. We want to take action that will help the nitrate pollution problem but which is appropriate and as unintrusive as possible. The scheme is of real assistance to farmers in nitrate vulnerable zones and it demonstrates the Government's commitment to balancing the needs of an efficient agriculture industry with the need to protect water resources from pollution. I commend the scheme to the Committee.

4.40 pm

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): May I also say how nice it is to see you in the Chair today. Mr. Maxton? The wider issue of nitrate vulnerable zones is very important and is a matter of some concern to the farming community. The general principles alone are 6 worthy of debate. I do, however, appreciate that today's debate is simply on the farm waste grant scheme within the nitrate vulnerable zones. The Opposition welcome a grant scheme for farmers. We also welcome what the Minister said about the advice that will be available from the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. That will be a useful service for farmers, which we know will be welcome, and it emphasises the valuable role that ADAS plays in its present form within the farming community. I hope that is noted. I represent a constituency that is affected by nitrate vulnerable zones. It is probably no surprise to the Minister to hear that north Lincolnshire is included in those areas. While many farmers recognise the need for controls in areas where there are increasing levels of nitrate in the water supply, there is a genuine debate about zoning among farmers within the zones, which are not necessarily areas with increasing nitrate levels in the water supply. Nevertheless, we welcome the fact that there will be some financial support. One can, however, argue about the level of support, and I take issue with the Minister over the spreading of manure. He was right to say that about 25 per cent. of the 7,500 farms included in the zones have livestock. Of course, that is all the more sensitive because of the BSE crisis and the profitability of the beef sector for farmers in that category who will experience particular hardship in trying to meet the requirements. But to return to my own experience in my constituency, while the majority of farms in the zones are predominantly arable, there is a considerable livestock element; and although these fields are in the arable sector, they have always been important as a method of disposal for manure—particularly for the pig sector, and formerly for the poultry sector until the building of a poultry manure-burning power station at Flixborough. Some livestock farmers will certainly face increased costs in terms of storage and transportation of manure because of the restrictions of the zones. They are excluded from the grant scheme but were included in the old farm conservation grant scheme. As I understand it, if they are not within a zone they will not be eligible for the grant.

Mr. Boswell: I can clarify that. The purpose of the grant scheme is to assist farmers within the nitrate vulnerable zones in dealing with their part in the problem of nitrate pollution in accordance with an action plan, which will follow. It does not, therefore, go outside the zones. In certain cases, however, either a facility may be located outwith the zones, or a farmer who has land both inside and outside a zone may site the facility technically outside the zone, provided it is for the benefit of land within the zone. I hope that explanation helps the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Morley: That is helpful, and it confirms my undestanding of the matter. I am talking about farmers who are outside the zones but who use fields within the zones for the disposal of manure. I hope that that issue can be considered because it is the cause of some concern. 7 Another cause of concern that has been highlighted by bodies such as the NFU is that, although the grant scheme clearly covers guttering for the separation of rainwater from slurry—a welcome provision—it does not extend to roofs. If we are to put capital investment into storage and handling facilities that keep rainwater away from slurry, surely it is logical that the grant scheme should provide for a roof as well as for guttering? I should welcome the Minister's comments on that issue. The NFU also argues that the rate of 25 per cent. is a small proportion of the overall rate. The old farm conservation grant scheme rate was 50 per cent., before being reduced to 25 per cent. Past schemes have made grants at a higher rate, so it is logical to argue that if a 50 per cent. rate was previously acceptable to the Government they should reconsider the 25 per cent. rate offered under this scheme. Naturally, the NFU is arguing for a rate of 100 per cent., but even if that is unacceptable, there is nevertheless room for discussion. There is a genuine argument in respect of that issue, and a need to listen to farmers' representatives. That argument also applies to the limit of £85,000, which is also the cause of some concern to farmers. Only £0·8 million has been allocated to the scheme, which does not appear to be a large sum when one considers that 7,000 or 8,000 farmers will be affected. Is the scheme cash limited to that £0·8 million, or will extra resources be made available if demand exceeds that sum?

4.47 pm

Mr. Boswell: I thank the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) for the welcome that he extends to the scheme. I shall respond briefly to the questions he raised. My response to his questions about the advisory service is more general than the hon. Gentleman's rather narrow point. We are very much seized of the importance of the advisory service's rôle as a supplier of information resources to the Department. Whatever arrangements are subsequently concluded will reflect the importance that we attach to that role. The hon. Gentleman—perhaps wisely—did not trespass at length on the general issues relating to nitrate vulnerable zones. Farmers may feel that their actions have brought the figures down below the qualifying levels—I think that that was the hon. Gentleman's point. We shall review the zones this year. That review will be the first that is required in respect of water quality and the level of nitrates. I would be misleading the Committee if I were to suggest that there will be any easy de-designation, but the Government's mind will be open to any results that emerge from the review. It is self-evident that if action were taken in anticipation or at the beginning of a programme designed to meet the requirements of the nitrate vulnerable zones, and thus pressures were 8 lifted, that might in itself send the figures up again. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that point. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the spreading of manure and touched briefly on the topic of the day—BSE. I remind the Committee that there is no evidence of the isolation of the agent in manure or slurry; neither is there any evidence of transmission between cattle in the same herd, other than from some external source of infection. It therefore seems that the transport of manure would not be a BSE problem. I understood the hon. Gentleman's point about importing into nitrate vulnerable zones manures which have traditionally come from outside, but given that the objective of the directive, of the designation and, indeed, of the support that we are giving through the grant scheme is to reduce the amount of nitrogen applied, thereby reducing nitrate pollution, it would be illogical, despite the difficulties, to permit that continuing disposal, especially within certain limits.

Mr. Morley: I was not arguing for permission to continue disposal because the logic is that to reduce nitrates, we must control manure spreading. I was saying that because of that restriction, livestock farmers who have traditionally used adjacent fields on nearby farms are possibly faced with costs of storage because manure may have to be stored before it is transported longer distances by tankers. That is a cost for them, and outside the zone they will not be eligible for the grant.

Mr. Boswell: We are operating on the principle that the polluter pays. We are to some extent modulating that in this case, because we recognise the particular problems likely to arise within a zone. There is an overall amount of resources that can be committed and we want to make the best possible use of it. It is true that there was a higher grant under the old farm and conservation grant scheme, but that was scaled down. As I explained to the Committee, we are mirroring the exit rate from the farm and conservation grant scheme. We spent more than £150 million of public money on pollution control under the provisions of the earlier FCGS. That was money well spent, but it is not appropriate to provide resources on that scale in current conditions. That point also applies to the roofing issue raised by the hon. Gentlemen. Although roofing may be desirable in relation to the amount of polluted material, it seems to be cost effective in this context only in areas of very high rainfall. The hon. Gentleman will notice from the map that most of the zones in England and Wales are in areas of lower rainfall. It would not be cost effective to extend the scheme, certainly by comparison with guttering, which we are now supporting. The hon. Gentleman also asked about available resources. The commitment is £0.8 million a year for a period, which is an estimate. Technically, the schemes could run for up to seven years. We will consider whether it is appropriate to continue them for that period, and further parliamentary procedure and some 9 consultation will be required to rescind them any earlier. We took that carefully into account in determining the demand from the number of farmers likely to be affected. The hon. Gentleman asked what our reaction would be to unanticipated demand. I cannot commit Government resources in advance, but we would have to consider that as and when it occurred and act appropriately in the circumstances. We believe that the figure, which represents a substantial amount of public 10 money over several years, will be sufficient to do the job in the areas covered for the farm livestock enterprises which might be affected. With those remarks, and repeating my appreciation of the hon Gentleman's welcome for the scheme, I commend the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Farm Waste Grant (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones) (England and Wales) Scheme 1996 (S.I. 1996, No. 908).

Committee rose at seven minutes to Five o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Maxton, Mr. John (Chairman)

Bendall, Mr.

Boswell, Mr.

Budgen, Mr.

Evans, Mr. Nigel

Knapman, Mr.

Morley, Mr.

Shepherd, Mr. Richard

Speed, Sir Keith

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D.