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Farm Regulation

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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What measures she will take to relieve regulatory burdens on farmers. [113308]

My Department is firmly committed to ensuring that the regulatory burden on farmers is proportionate and that any regulation is applied in a way that causes as little inconvenience to farmers as possible. Our strategy for sustainable food and farming sets out proposals for a whole farm approach that will bring together regulatory requirements affecting farmers in a single coherent framework.

I am grateful for that answer. Does the Secretary of State agree that when there is a single regime, British farmers should have parity of treatment with others? If I may exemplify the point, my farmers are concerned that under the common agricultural policy review, agri-environment schemes may be enforced more rigidly in this country than in Europe. Secondly, my horticulturists are concerned that they must obtain licences for trickle irrigation while massive housing developments are allowed without regard to the need to extract more water to provide for those developments.

I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that agri-environment schemes are enforced more rigidly here than elsewhere in the European Union. Certainly, however, we believe that there should be parity, and that there should be proper enforcement, with the relevant requisite disciplines, right across the EU. Indeed, that is part of having a common agricultural policy. Equally, I am not conscious of a particular problem with regard to water whereby horticulturists are treated differently and worse than others. I will certainly look into the point that the hon. Gentleman raises, however, as I assure him that it is no part of our approach to want to see UK producers disadvantaged.

In discussion with farmers in my constituency last week, although they were not over-delighted by the number of regulations, they recognised that many of them are necessary. What they really felt needed to be addressed, however, was better co-ordination by the Department of the information provided, instead of having to fill in the same information on several different forms at a time. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, while recognising that regulations are necessary, she will look at improving the technology to ensure that farmers do not have to do as much paperwork?

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that this is a matter of some considerable importance. Indeed, we are investigating now, in consultation with stakeholders, what kind of information would be most helpful to them and in what way we can best make it available. We would, of course, have to make the business case for the requisite systems to provide such information. I wholeheartedly assure him, however, that we are very mindful of how infuriating it is to be asked repeatedly by different groups of people for precisely the same information. That is exactly the kind of practice that we are trying to reduce.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a regulation that is disadvantageous not only to British farmers but to European farmers is the temporary ban on the use of fish-meal in animal feed, which sets us against imports from outside the European Union. The reason for that ban was bovine spongiform encephalopathy and testing. Is she aware that there is now a proven test, using microscopic analysis, that has been submitted to the EU and which can distinguish between fish meal and mammalian protein, which means that the temporary ban should no longer exist? Will she make representations to the EU to get the ban lifted as soon as possible so that our producers may use that excellent protein?

The hon. Gentleman will know, I am sure, that the Government share his concern to an extent, and we did indeed make representations on that issue. I also agree that it is important to press the Commission to examine that potential further step speedily. However, the first step is to ensure that the test is evaluated as quickly as possible. If it is successfully evaluated and it works in the way that is suggested, we can press for it to be taken into account, and I assure him that we shall do that.

On the animal byproducts regulations, will the right hon. Lady confirm that we are now in the absurd situation in which the European ban on burying fallen stock came into force at the beginning at the month, but no implementing legislation has been introduced in the House to give effect to the ban or to provide for penalties for breaching it? Ministers are whispering behind their hands that everything will be enforced with a light touch for three months or so, but several local councils have already announced a strict enforcement policy. Farmers and councils alike deserve to know exactly where they stand, so surely the right policy would be for the right hon. Lady to announce a delay on enforcing the ban until the new national collection scheme is in place and operating.

I think that there is a misunderstanding. The new national collection scheme is not a necessary prerequisite of the regulations' implementation. We urge farmers to sign up to the new national collection scheme because its purpose and effect is to lower the costs of implementation. We anticipate and hope—although we must always be cautious about making assumptions about how the House operates—that the regulations will be in place by the end of the month. Most farmers are clear about where they stand, although they may or may not like it.