Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Peter Lilley:

    My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as the owner of a smallholding with a few sheep and poultry, albeit in France and outside the purview of this Bill.

    This Bill is profoundly conservative in two senses of the word. First, it is Conservative with a large “C”, because the Conservative Party is, and always has been, about conserving all that is best in our country that we have inherited from our forefathers and wish to hand on to our successors. But secondly, it is conservative with a small “c” in its desire to resist any change, which is very widespread in this country, going way beyond the Conservative Party. The Bill, to some extent, enshrines that desire to keep the environment unchanged, as it is. But the environment in this country is largely manmade. Before man set to work, it was covered with dense and impenetrable forest. No one proposes we go back to that, apart from a few extreme rewilders.

    The environment has changed considerably over our lifetimes. I was brought up in the outer suburbs of London, a few hundred yards from the first farm. I used to enjoy watching the horse-drawn ploughs ploughing the small fields. The landscape at that time was a patchwork of small fields surrounded by hedges, which changed over time, partly as a result of mechanisation and partly as a result of EU subsidies encouraging farmers to dig up their hedges and have larger fields. We need to be conscious that we cannot freeze time. Had we tried to do so, food production would be lower and the cost of living higher, and we would have to import a far higher proportion of our food than we do.

    There is a paradox at the heart of the Bill: the environment is largely the result of human action, not human design. It is the spontaneous creation of the actions of thousands of farmers, foresters and landowners serving millions of consumers. Yet, we assume in the Bill that it needs a centralised, guiding bureaucracy, a 25-year plan, vast apparatus of law and regulation and subsidies diverted from promoting food production to providing environmental goods. Is all this necessary? We certainly need to prevent the environment being despoiled by plastic, waste, litter, industrial waste and unregulated pollution. But, quite possibly, those problems would be better dealt with by individual measures relating to each, rather than by setting up some central, guiding, Soviet-style planning apparatus to preserve what was never the creation of human planning.

    But we are where we are, and where we are is outside the European Union, so we have to decide what our own environmental rules, policies and principles should be. Fears were expressed during the referendum campaign, and subsequently, that we would set lower standards than those enshrined in the laws we have inherited from the EU. We certainly do not want to see lower standards, less clean air or less pure water. But there are many dimensions of regulations apart from higher and lower. We should aim to make our regulations simpler to comply with and outcome-based rather than process-based, creating as few barriers as possible to entry into agriculture and elsewhere and as few barriers as possible for small operators, rather than privileging the large landowners and industrial farmers.

    We can now relate our regulations to our national circumstances. In doing so, we should be able to apply the precautionary principle in a more rational and pragmatic way than has been the case in the European Union. Someone described the way the European Union approaches the precautionary principle as “You should never do anything for the first time”. Of course, if there are real reasons to fear harm from some new process or innovation, we should take precautions. We should, perhaps, allow pilot projects before licensing more widely. Certainly, we should take into account experience elsewhere. But we should not rule out anything and everything from which anyone can imagine a threat, particularly when those threats are invented by those who are fundamentally anti-science, anti-industry and anti-prosperity.

    I hope we will be open to using GM crops. I declare an interest here as Rothamsted was in my constituency when I was an MP. Wonderful research is done there into GM, CRISPR and conventional development of new species, always with due concern for risks. As a result, new varieties are created that require fewer pesticides and herbicides and produce more output with less fertiliser. I hope we can take advantage of the research and adopt an approach based on measuring costs against benefits in our regulations. I recall that some EU directives did not do so. We must all take a more balanced and proportionate approach. I support the Bill but with grave reservations.