English Horticultural Sector (Horticultural Sector Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 11:59 am ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:59, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his admirable chairmanship of the committee. We were able to make far-ranging inquiries followed by some very good practical recommendations. The attitude of the Government to all these recommendations was variable; the main point is that we had a lot of Civil Service language full of good intentions and not enough action.

I turn now to that failure of action, to which the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has also referred—the absence of a national horticulture strategy for England. I stress this point about making long-term plans and putting their money where their mouth is, because people involved in horticulture need to know and have some degree of certainty about what the Government’s attitude will be.

I was particularly unimpressed by the reference in the government reply to this being but a snapshot in time. The inference is that everything will change and, therefore, a strategy is of very little purpose. I do not buy that, because it is perfectly possible to revise it at intervals. If that is the Government’s philosophy, I ask my noble friend the Minister if they are about to jettison the grand 25-year environment plan, which could be subject to precisely the same fault.

I turn now to another topic—two, if I can squeeze them in—that relates to research. Unfortunately, since 2003, there has been a notable decrease in the amount of research funding. At one time, Britain was noted as a world leader in ground-breaking research. Frankly, as we have been told by experts, who should know, we are in grave danger of losing this. A lot of the trouble stems from the absence of long-term funding, which again harks back to the horticultural strategy. That has been lost. There is what I call an obsessive reliance on short-term, competitive projects. This does not lend itself to the short term because everything to do with horticulture, whether edible or ornamental—I stress “ornamental”—needs long-term funding. I do not understand why we have this reliance on short-term funding. It is quite clear that it is having an impact on research institutes, some of which have disappeared altogether. The one at East Malling now has between a third and a half fewer staff than it used to, which bodes ill for what we are trying to do.

I urge the Government to think again about this research funding. It also has an impact on the chances of future generations enjoying high-level careers. For example, I believe Reading is now the only university that offers graduate and postgraduate horticulture courses of world renown. The RHS and Kew Gardens offer specialist ones of their own but, frankly, that is not enough if we want to encourage and give an opportunity to younger people to go in at a high level.

I turn now to the slightly lower level, which makes me get hot under the collar. It is quite clear that very little is done in schools to encourage knowledge of horticulture. There is certainly no encouragement whatever for young people to take it up as a career, at whatever level is suitable to them. The whole point about horticulture is that it can offer jobs from a fairly low level, although all of them need some special talent, right up to the postgraduate level.

We have the new T-levels, which are supposed to give a qualification at the end of two years equivalent to A-levels, but they are not widely known about. I am not at all sure that they have been set out in the most useful form. I hope that the Government, or whoever will be responsible for this, will look at the early stages of the various T-level qualifications clearly to make sure that they meet both the aspirations of the students and the needs of the industry where they will be employed. I fear that this has got off to a rather shaky start, as our committee indicated. I am therefore concerned that we have a really good go at making a good job of this, providing young people with really good, interesting careers.

We do not seem to have anything up to indicate the time, but I am pretty sure that I have reached my limit. Ever willing and, I hope, able to keep to the rules, I now end my contribution.