With the Commons empty for half term, Catherine Paice gleaned the House of Lords for scraps of rural business
As noble peers mused their way through a six-hour debate on the Queen’s Speech, few alluded to anything very rural beyond animal welfare and the general environment. But, as Baroness Byford (Con), a tireless campaigner for agriculture and the countryside, pointed out the day before, “agriculture, farming and food production do not feature in the gracious Speech”.
However, Cumbrian landowner Richard Fletcher-Vane (Lord Inglewood, Con) rose to the occasion with a broadside on what he described as “probably the biggest problem facing the agricultural sector in this country” and a “travesty of public administration” – the Rural Payments Agency. “It’s not appropriate and nor is there time available to relate its treatment of my personal affairs, but my experiences are typical. It’s a failed organisation, with which no self-respecting person should wish to be associated.
“It’s more than that – it’s Brexit’s best recruiting sergeant in rural England, which is ironic since it’s the UK’s own delivery arm of EU policy under the doctrine of subsidiarity. Its shortcomings are exclusively the responsibility of DEFRA and it causes untold damage.”
The buck stopped with all DEFRA ministers, he said, apologising to his “good personal friend and MP Rory Stewart” (Con, Penrith and The Border, DEFRA under-secretary of state). “Each of them should have their ministerial pay frozen from the opening of the payments window until the last farmer receives his payment.”
Summing up, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con), parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Department of Transport and the Home Office, sneaked in a surprise contribution, particularly as rural affairs don’t generally feature among his interests.
“Turning briefly to DEFRA,” he said, “we’re setting out ambitious plans to protect Britain’s environment to boost our farming and food industry. DEFRA’s 25-year vision is to make this country one of the healthiest, most beautiful places in which to live and raise a family. Our specific commitments include planting 11 million trees….” At this point he wandered out of the countryside into marine protection and clean city air objectives before returning to an expressed determination to “do more to support jobs and opportunities in the countryside”.
Finally, he noted the food and farming industry “is a £109 billion industry that provides employment for 3.9m people,” repeated the “ambitions plans” mantra and sneaked in a tribute to “the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and other noble Lords who had raised issues about GM crops” and to “the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Featherstone, on the dairy industry”.
Barring a few allusions to the issue of abstraction reform and the review of the EU birds directive, that was about it.