Skip to main content

Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 407: debated on Thursday 19 June 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

International Whaling Commission


If she will make a statement on the outcomes of the annual International Whaling Commission meeting in Japan. [120184]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

As you know, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is unable to be present today due to her attendance at the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg.

The outcomes of the 54th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, held in Japan in May 2002, were detailed in the letter of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), of 10 July 2002, a copy which was placed in the Library.

This year's annual meeting, which is being held in Berlin, ends today. I will report on the outcome in due course, but I am pleased to announce to the House that, so far, the UK has achieved all its key objectives, including maintaining the moratorium on commercial whaling and successfully adopting the so-called Berlin initiative. That UK co-sponsored resolution reinforces conservation as a primary function of the IWC and will help to give greater focus to the conservation agenda. The conservation groups have described that achievement as historic.

I welcome the Minister to his new post. I submitted this question before the reshuffle and was told that it might be answered by the Secretary of State for Wales.[Interruption.]

The UK Government have a good track record on whale conservation and promoting whale sanctuaries, and the progress at Berlin in the past week has been good. However, not all countries will abide by the agreements. What positive action can the Government take to bring those rogue states into line?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome and for his recognition of the positive role played by the Government and by my predecessor, now the Minister for the Environment, who has an excellent track record and has achieved so much on this issue. The UK Government will continue to work very hard with other pro-conservation Governments around the world and the relevant non-governmental organisations to ensure that those rogue states, as the hon. Gentleman calls them, come into line and properly address this very important issue of conservation and cruelty.

What about the plight of small cetaceans? Randall Reeves, who is the chair of the IUCN specialist cetacean group, says that they

"are dying in droves every year in fishing nets",
that they
"lose out in the shadow of the whaling controversy"
and that the
"scale of the cetacean by-catches problem was highlighted in a recent survey of boats fishing off north-west Spain."
The number of common and bottle-nose dolphins is now unsustainable. This is a real problem.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a very serious problem. The specific resolution on by-catches that the UK co-sponsored at Berlin has not yet been discussed, but the Berlin initiative itself should have a positive impact on the problem that he outlines. He may be interested to know that the Whale and Dolphin Conservative Society has already called the Berlin initiative

"a positive step for the world's cetaceans",
and that the World Wide Fund for Nature went even further by describing it as an
"historic day for cetacean conservation".
I should also add that the trials that the Government have undertaken off the south-west of England to try to prevent the problem of the by-catch of small cetaceans have proved very successful and we shall try to roll them out next year, as well as talking to fellow EU members to encourage them to initiate similar trials.

I also welcome the Minister to his post. He has got an easy start because the Government have a very good record on whaling, and I have paid tribute to them for that for many years. However, does he share my concern about the increasing use of sonar technology in the oceans, particularly for military purposes, which deafens and kills whales? There have been examples of that in the Bahamas and elsewhere. In particular, will he reflect on the fact that the US Administration, under President Bush, have apparently given permission for the navy to use sonar technology in 75 per cent. of the world's oceans, which could have serious consequences for the whale population? Will he raise that with the American authorities and the IWC?

I would be happy to do so. I admit that I know a great deal less about this subject than the hon. Gentleman, as I have been in the job for only a few days, but I understand that the primary responsibility for the issue falls to the Ministry of Defence. I will ask my ministerial colleagues for their reaction to his remarks.

Agricultural Research (Aberystwyth)


What plans she has to visit Aberystwyth to discuss agricultural research projects being undertaken there. [120185]

Sadly, I have no plans at present to visit Aberystwyth.

Shock, horror! I understand that my hon. Friend's Department finances quite a lot of research at Aberystwyth. In particular, will the Department consider—I hope that it will—putting even more money into research on grass for use in arid areas, as that is of particular relevance to many parts of the developing world?

I certainly agree that a great deal of important work has been done at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth, which is recognised by the Department for Environment. Food and Rural Affairs. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that over the last three years we have funded research at Aberystwyth to the tune of around £6 million for each of those three years. I recognise that it is doing important work on grassland types, which will have a great deal of helpful applications, particularly in arid areas.

First, I congratulate the Minister on his promotion and on having had the burden of fishing lifted from his shoulders. He will understand that Aberystwyth's research work is much bolstered by the scientific output of Horticulture Research International. To that end, is his Department yet able to decide its future grant funding arrangements for HRI and the application from East Malling for support, both of which are central to the future of HRI and its marriage with Warwick university?

The right hon. Gentleman, who knows the history of HRI and who knows about the existing complications, is absolutely right about HRI's important role. All I can say at the moment is that we are trying to find a way forward on its funding problems, and we recognise the important role that it plays in horticulture and the value in which it is held.

Fishing Industry


What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the fishing industry. [120186]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

DEFRA Ministers meet ministerial colleagues, including those in the devolved Administrations, regularly to discuss the fishing industry.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am not sure whether I should congratulate or commiserate with him on becoming Minister with responsibility for fishing. In his discussions with colleagues, however, has he had a chance to discuss the clause in the new draft constitution of the European Union that would transfer full control of fisheries to Brussels? Such a move would be disastrous for Scottish fishing communities already reeling from the last Fisheries Council in December, and the clause has been opposed by both the Scottish Parliament and by the Scrutiny Committee on European Legislation in a report this week. Will the Government stand up for the fishing communities of Scotland and ensure that the clause is removed at the forthcoming intergovernmental conference?

Sadly, I have not yet had a chance to discuss that specific issue with colleagues, but I will be going straight from the Chamber to spend most of the afternoon in discussions with colleagues and interested parties from the fishing industry. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right, however, because the Convention recommends no extension of EU powers or competencies over fishing. Marine biological resources have been the exclusive competence of the EU since 1979. Scotland's First Minister made that clear in his letter of clarification of 10 June to John Swinney, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen. If he has not seen it, I have a copy that he can have afterwards.

First, I add my congratulations to the Minister on taking up a post that is very important to my constituents in Fleetwood. They would want me to draw to his attention the special needs of the Irish sea as a mixed fishery, because they have serious concerns about some of the recent pronouncements from Brussels. I therefore take this opportunity to put in an early bid to the Minister to come to speak to the fishermen of Fleetwood so that he can hear directly not only their concerns but their positive attitude to joint working with Government scientists and to work across the Irish sea with other communities, both to safeguard the fish stocks and to develop a sustainable fishing industry.

I am grateful for that kind invitation from my hon. Friend, who is a doughty and effective fighter for her local fishing industry. I am going to try to get around to as many centres of our fishing industry as quickly as possible, as I am critically aware that I follow a Minister with up to 15 years' experience, and I have a lot to learn. I am sure that the concerns that she expressed, which we share, about the proposals as they would affect the Irish sea will be high on the agenda when I listen to what her fishermen have to say.

Congratulations to the Minister on taking control of the nation's fish. I only regret that there are so few fish left because of the disaster of the common fisheries policy. Does he agree that the time has now come to re-impose the 200-mile limit for this nation to take control again of its own fish resources, especially as his distinguished predecessor confirmed recently in the European Scrutiny Committee that that would be lawful?

No, I do not. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has said that he did not say that.

Withdrawal from the common fisheries policy would be neither practical nor sensible. It would entail negotiating a whole series of bilateral agreements with other EU members. I would have thought that there would be a consensus that we need a common European policy on fisheries because fish move around. The way to improve the common fisheries policy is to negotiate improvements, which the Government have an excellent record on doing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new brief and give him a warm welcome. When he held discussions with ministerial colleagues, he probably noted that the former Parliamentary Secretary was regrettably unable to come to an engagement at the Whitby fishing school, which is at the heart of the North sea fishery. When he undertakes his tour of the coasts, will he come to Whitby and meet the fisher-people of the community of Whitby and Scarborough? I hope that he will prove to be as much of a fishermen's friend as his predecessor.

I do not promise to perform miracles where my predecessor did not manage to, but I am critically aware of the potential pitfalls of leaving anywhere out when I make my tour of the country to visit fishermen.

May I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position? He will already know that competence for UK fisheries policy lies entirely with the European Union. However, will he confirm that if competence for that policy were repatriated to the United Kingdom, it would require legislation in Parliament? If further devolution took place—for example the Scottish Executive being given responsibility for the Scottish industry—will he confirm that legislation would also be required in the House?

Forgive me, but I am not absolutely sure whether legislation would be required in the House.

Well, the hon. Lady says that I should say yes but I would rather be completely sure of my ground before doing that. However, there would have to be a change to a European Union treaty, which would require unanimous agreement.

May I, too, add my words of welcome to the Minister and tell him that he has a hard act to follow? When he starts his tour of fishing communities, I hope that he will start with those at the centre of fishing areas—those in Shetland, of course. Thereafter he may work out to the periphery. He will be aware that the European Commission recently gave an unhelpful ruling on schemes operating in my constituency and elsewhere regarding the purchase and leasing of quota. Will he assure me that he will speak to his colleagues in the Scottish Executive at an early stage as he comes to terms with his brief with a view to establishing from the Commission exactly what can be done to bring the schemes within state aid rules?

I am aware of the issue in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in which proposals have fallen foul of EU state aid rules. I shall examine the implications of that and discuss them with my colleagues in the Scottish Executive and interested parties in the industry. It sounds as though I shall be spending the summer on a grand tour.

Gm Crops


What recent assessment she has made of the potential advantages of GM crops. [120187]

Advocates of genetically modified crops argue that they offer a wide range of potential benefits if they are developed and used wisely. We have commissioned a study of both the costs and benefits as part of the national GM dialogue. This will be published next month. As part of our commitment the public will have the opportunity to consider both sides of this issue.

I welcome the Minister to his new post and congratulate him on his promotion. I hope that he will find GM crops a little more comfortable than fishing. Is he aware of the work of Bengali scientists to develop a protein-rich potato that could improve the diets of 6 million children who are currently malnourished? Does he agree that that is a good reason why we should not throw the whole idea of GM out of the window and that GM crops have potential advantages that must be exploited?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and know of her expertise in the subject. I am aware of that research work. It shows why it is important that we consider each case on its merits. We consider very carefully the potential benefits of GM crops and, indeed, benefits are claimed for that potato. It is also important, however, to consider the arguments in the round. For example, increasing the amount of pulses may result in more protein improvement in India than modified potatoes. We have to weigh up such considerations. My hon. Friend puts her finger on how important it is to look at the arguments fairly and not to take a polarised position on one side or the other.

May I warmly welcome the Minister to his new role and urge him to maintain scientific objectivity before the Government come to a conclusion? In the light of the extraordinary question from his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), to the Prime Minister yesterday, does he agree that GM foods are the most trialled and tested ever in the history of mankind? Given that many millions of people have been eating those foods for the best part of a decade with not one single case of an adverse reaction, does he really think that human feeding trials are the answer? Even if the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton were to volunteer, would it be ethical?

It is important that we question science and look at it carefully. In that respect, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) is right to apply precautionary principles. It is a privilege to follow him in the role that he carried out with such distinction over many years. However, I come back to the point that we must approach the issue on the basis of good science. We need to examine the claims and consider GM foods on a case-by-case basis. The effects on people must also be taken into account.

The matter has been considered by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. It was also examined in the detailed Food and Agriculture Organisation study in 2000. In addition, our Food Standards Agency takes into account the potential effects of toxins and allergies. We cannot ignore those issues. They do not necessarily rule out GM foods, but we cannot ignore them.

May I strongly support my hon. Friend, my successor, in what he said about the need to follow good science? However, since the science indicates that there is still far too much uncertainty about the long-term impacts of GM, as there was in the case of BSE; since science has not yet devised co-existence rules that can fully protect organics against cross-contamination; since there have been no scientific trials of the long-term health or biochemical impacts on human beings of eating GM-free food; and since neither science nor EU labelling rules have yet found a way to guarantee consumers' rights to eat GM-free food for those who wish to, is it not clear that on scientific grounds—I emphasise on scientific grounds—it is not safe, necessary or desirable to commercialise GM crops at this stage in this country until far more testing has been carried out?

I quite agree with my right hon. Friend that more work needs to be done. There are unknowns and more research needs to be put in place. He is right about labelling because whatever the future of GM foods, it is important that consumers have information and choice. He is also right about the need to look at the implications of GM foods in every sense. We need mechanisms in relation to control, potential liability and certainly in terms of co-existence, but those are not yet in place.

First, may I welcome the Minister of State to his new and promoted responsibilities? I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), to the Department's team. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). The Opposition did not always agree with him when he spoke in a ministerial capacity, but his commitment to the environment was undoubted and his courtesy was unfailing in all Commons exchanges. We certainly appreciated that.

Will the Minister now acknowledge both that the Government's great debate on GM crops has amounted so far to six meetings within the space of 10 days, none of which have been held in the main arable areas of England or Scotland, and that the debate will have concluded months before the publication of the Government's own crop trials? Will he give an undertaking that, before the Government announce whether they will give approval to the commercial growing of GM crops, they will not only publish the results of their crop trials but subject those conclusions to widespread debate, criticism and discussion?

That is the whole idea of the dialogue. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is dismissive of the fact that the debate has been set up by an independent group with an independent chair. The fact that we are talking about it now demonstrates that it has been successful in promoting discussion in this country about the pros and cons of GM foods, which is the intention. I was a bit surprised by what the hon. Gentleman said about arable areas—the issue of GM foods goes far beyond simply farming, and is an issue for consumers, the environment and the wider community. It is quite right that debate on that is as wide and accessible as possible. All the information that we have will, of course, be put into the public domain and will be made available in a transparent process. Whatever the outcome, there is no intention whatever to give blanket approval to commercial planting—every application must be treated on its individual merits.

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Is he concerned about the possible transmission of GM spores on farm vehicles, following research in France on the contamination of organic production and the reliability of food labelling on foods which claim to be GM-free at a time when consumers increasingly want to consume organic food and are reluctant to take the plunge on GM, perhaps with good reason?

The need to ensure that organic farmers are not subject to cross-contamination from GM crops is a serious issue, and we are giving a great deal of thought to it. It is an important consideration in the coexistence rules that have to be developed. My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the potential spread of GM seeds and pollen. That applies to any kind of seed and pollen, but the issue has to be taken into account in the evaluation and, indeed, the current debate.

May I congratulate the Minister on swapping one poisoned chalice for another? Will he not admit that the Government, although perhaps not him or his distinguished predecessor, made up their mind in favour of GM years ago, and the public debate is merely window-dressing? In 1999, the DTI invested public funds

"to improve … the take-up of biotechnology applications"
across the country. The sum that was invested was 26 times greater than the amount of money being spent on the public debate. Why does the Minister not admit that, although consumers do not want the stuff, although it could give biotech companies a stranglehold on the whole food chain, and although we need to base decisions on sound science rather than quick science, the Government, but perhaps not him, are already in the pocket of the GM lobby?

I absolutely reject that claim. I have been involved in the discussion of GM on and off since 1997, when I was a Minister in the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have always expressed the need for caution. I repeat that we should not rule out new developments on the basis of prejudice. We must evaluate the scientific arguments for and against, and look at each case on its individual merits. We should not take a polarised position which, I have to say, is unusual for the hon. Gentleman.

Registered Agricultural Holdings


What steps she is taking to arrest the decline in the number of registered agricultural holdings; and if she will make a statement. [120188]

The Government launched their strategy for sustainable farming and food in England last December to promote a competitive and efficient farming and food sector. A similar strategy was published by the Welsh Assembly Government in November 2001. The structure of the farming industry will be determined by the markets and the commercial judgment of individual farmers and growers.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his elevation and you, Mr. Speaker, on your well earned doctorate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]

Unfortunately the Minister did not answer the question that I tabled when I asked what was being done to arrest the decline in agricultural holdings. A written reply that I have just received states that in 1997, there were 77,829 holdings in England whereas in 2002, there were 69,000. The position is worse in Wales, where the number has decreased from 19,300 to 16,800—a drop of 13 per cent. That has a disproportionate effect on the rural economy of Wales. Will the Minister examine the current structure and consider, for example, assistance for new entrants and smaller farms? He shakes his head, but nothing has been done in the past 10 years. It is complacent of the Government simply to talk about marketing when farms are lost daily.

But those changes have been happening since farming began. The trend towards amalgamation has been accelerating since the 1930s; there is nothing new about it. It is difficult for the Government to set any industry in stone and say that it will never change again under any circumstances. It is not possible to do that.

All sorts of changes have occurred in farming. The same farmer may have several holdings that he has consolidated; that does not necessarily mean that farms have disappeared. I accept that there has been a decline—I would not want to pretend otherwise—but that has been in progress for a long time. However, other changes have occurred, with new people, who may have other sources of income, taking on smaller farms. They bring innovation and new ideas.

Farming is dynamic: it changes and adapts. We have a role to play in that through the help that we give farming—in research and development, environmental or marketing support. However, we cannot say that farming will never change: that is up to the drivers of society, markets and, indeed, farmers.

But does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities and other public bodies can recognise the importance of farming in rural economic development? Will he join me in congratulating Monmouthshire county council, which recently decided to invest in a new livestock market that will serve not only south-east Wales but the border areas of England.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Monmouthshire county council on its work. We can do a great deal to support local sourcing, not only through supporting our farmers in the rural economy but in reducing food miles. There are sound arguments for that.

Locally Grown And Produced Food


What steps she is taking in the EU to enable the preferential procurement by public sector bodies of locally grown and produced food. [120189]

We encourage public sector bodies to adopt purchasing policies that allow local growers and food producers the opportunity to compete for business. Local sourcing is an element of our sustainable food procurement initiative.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but it did not address the question about what he is doing in the EU. We lag way behind France and Italy in local procurement. I draw the Minister's attention to the excellent report, "Relocalising the Food Chain", which Cardiff university produced. It found that

"barriers imposed by EU procurement legislation, while considerably restricting purchasing discretion are not insurmountable."
Will the Minister give a clear and quantifiable pledge to increase the amount of locally produced and procured food in our schools, hospitals and other public bodies, and thereby dispel the Government's reputation for lacking imagination and ambition on local procurement?

The hon. Gentleman has imagination because he has managed to answer his question. I am delighted that he has done that. The EU rules do not prevent local procurement. It is a question of engagement between farmers, food producers and their market. We are trying to help the industry to understand the way in which to get into that market. We have issued guidance, which is publicly available, so the hon. Gentleman can read it. We have provided case studies and advice, and we shall continue to do that to enable people to understand the way in which they can help local producers to bid and succeed. We also need to help the producers to get into the market and supply what their market wants.

As the rest of the ministerial team have been congratulated, may I offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on still being in his job? Does he accept that cheap and prepackaged foods are often stuffed full of fat, salt or sugar, and that that is contributing to an alarming increase in the incidence of obesity, diabetes and ill-health? Is there not a responsibility across government to establish rules for procurement—within EU rules—that would require more fresh, wholesome food? Such rules would obviously contribute to a greater degree of local production and supply of food.

I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations; I am delighted still to be in this role and to be a member of this very fine learn. He is absolutely right: it is possible to set procurement standards that enable fresh local produce to have the best chance of succeeding. He is right to place an emphasis on health and good quality, but we cannot demand that local produce should be included. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) suggested in his supplementary question, however, there are ways of encouraging good quality, fresh and locally produced food to come into the public service. That is the way in which we should approach this.

The Minister must realise that public sector bodies have a problem, in that they have to buy according to best value. When I walk into Tesco's supermarket in Ballymoney, I know whether the lamb, chicken, vegetables and loaf of bread that I am buying have been produced locally in Northern Ireland, because they are labelled. Could the Minister direct all public sector bodies in the health service and education to have the same labelling policy in their restaurants and canteens, so that it would be quite obvious which products had been locally produced? That would lead to a massive increase in demand for such products from the customers. Does the Minister agree with that constructive proposal?

There is a variety of ways in which the choice available to consumers—in public organisations and elsewhere—can be extended. There are two halves to the equation, however. The first involves ensuring that public sector bodies know that they are not precluded from designing their procurement policies in such a way as to promote fresh and local produce, to give it a fair chance while not excluding other bidders. The second involves encouraging UK producers to understand the service that they are providing and to be more competitive through greater collaboration, more co-operative working, and having a greater understanding of the public procurement approach. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that informing people about what they are purchasing and what their choices are is an important part of that.

Departmental Rebranding


If she will make a statement on the purpose of the rebranding of her Department. [120190]

A lot of work has gone into making DEFRA an efficient organisation that serves the public interest and is focused on the needs of its customers. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may chortle, but this is not something that the Conservative Government ever sought to do. We seek to be a Department that is modern, professional and forward-looking. We want that to be reflected by a new sense of confidence among our staff, and for the public to see the effects of change and modernisation. The rebranding exercise is just one part of that work, helping to establish a new identity and explain the role and purpose of the new Department.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm the figures extracted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which show that the rebranding exercise cost £329,000, and that a further £200,000 was spent on putting up new signs? The right hon. Gentleman says that extensive research has helped DEFRA to develop a better understanding of what its customers expect from it. Is it not the case, however, that customers expect something other than invisibility in matters concerning the environment, and something other than disengagement in matters concerning agriculture? Do they not also expect the Department not to waste half a million pounds of taxpayers' money?

The public expect those things from us, and that is what we are trying to give them. There is a little disingenuousness in the hon. Gentleman's question. The work to which he refers includes scoping the project, producing briefing and listening to consumers. It has been suggested that that money has gone into producing a new logo, and I would like to correct that. The direct cost of the new DEFRA logo was £24,000. It is part of a change in the culture and the capacity to deliver on the part of the Department.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the review being conducted by Lord Haskins could inevitably lead to further rebranding of the Department? Does my right hon. Friend accept, first, that all change causes uncertainty and that it is important to complete the process as quickly as possible; and secondly, that although policy and delivery may be different, it is important that, even if they are separated, there are means to communicate and link up those two aims?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. First, any reorganisation—any uncertainty—causes problems because it takes people's eyes off the ball of delivery. We will do all that we can to avoid that. Secondly, on the link between policy and delivery, the wrong policy well delivered is not good news, nor is the right policy badly delivered. We need good policy and good delivery, which is what we are working on.

I do not think that there will be the necessity to rebrand the Department, but there may be changes in relation to the agencies that are part of the DEFRA family and how things are delivered, for instance, through the regional development agencies, local government and so on. The likelihood of some changes in those directions is indicated by the statement of principles that Lord Haskins has already put in the public domain.

Does the Minister understand the justified resentment in our rural communities at time and money being wasted on rebranding exercises when, to take just one example, his Department's Rural Payments Agency is persistently late in delivering to British farmers the payments to which they are entitled and on which the cash flow of their businesses may depend? Is it not time that he started to treat effective service delivery as rather more important a priority than rebranding?

I suppose that there is some resentment when people are told by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that rebranding is not necessary. Of course, he skips the necessity to improve the quality of services, policies and delivery, which is all part of the same issue—improving quality and improving delivery.

The point is that the new Department takes on enormously important responsibilities for the environment and all the things that are necessary for life and the quality of life; for farming and food; for rural economies; for fisheries; and for the issues that we have already talked about today. People need to understand that we are changing in the direction that the public and our consumers want. As much as the hon. Gentleman tries to obscure it, that is what we are doing—but there we are, that is the Opposition we have got.

Indeed, the examples of incompetence and poor priorities go much further than British agriculture. Will the Minister confirm that, because the Government got their sums wrong over the cost of implementing their right-to-roam legislation, they are having to cut their vital villages grant programme in this and future years? Is it not time that he committed himself to delivering a fair deal for the countryside by concentrating first on good housekeeping and practical policy delivery rather than on slogans and spin?

Well, that sounded like slogans and spin to me, but it gives me the opportunity to correct some impressions about the Countryside Agency's spending. There were fears that it would be far too high and that that would dramatically affect the vital villages programme. That has been brought under control. There has been a short-term suspension of activities in the vital villages programme, which I think is unnecessary. I have made that clear to the agency.

The hon. Gentleman criticises the Rural Payments Agency. It has vastly improved its performance and we are investing a great deal of money in the IT that will enable it to do so even more responsibly. I see that a certain amount has been invested in rebranding the Conservative party. I agree that that is a waste of money.

Fallen Stock


If she will make a statement on the disposal of fallen stock on farms. [120191]


If she will make a statement on the proposed scheme for collecting fallen stock. [120195]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

The response to the letter that we sent to livestock farmers in April asking for expressions of interest in joining a national fallen stock scheme has been disappointing. In the light of that, we are considering whether the scheme should now go ahead, and if so in what form.

In welcoming the new Minister, may I also pay tribute to the former Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), whom I found to be both able and courteous?

Does the Minister agree that many livestock farmers may not have fully realised the implications of the European legislation? The Minister for the Environment shakes his head, but would not more people be attracted to the scheme if it were already up and running? Farmers will have great difficulty in disposing of fallen stock, especially if the Minister for Rural Affairs has his way on the hunting ban.

The hon. Gentleman may have a point when he says that if the scheme were up and running people might come on board, but I do not agree that we could have done more to publicise it. We have debated it for over a year, we have written to every livestock farmer in the country, and we have extended the consultation period. The response we have received does not suggest to us that people are not aware of the scheme; it is just that not enough people have responded.

Although the response was disappointing, as the Minister says, it is possible that those who did respond were the main livestock farmers. The response may have come from the larger holdings, where the scheme could work. Will the Minister look at the details of the responses from both England and Wales, and establish whether the scheme could be made to work initially? Other farmers could be persuaded to join subsequently.

Will the Minister also take account of the experience of Scotland? The scheme is going ahead on most farms there. Meanwhile, leeway is being given to upland and remote farms in, for instance, mid-Wales, where stock can be left to feed the rare red kite population. That combination could prove successful. Will the Minister look into it and ensure that something is done and that farmers are not left in limbo?

I will look at the details of the responses. From what I have seen during the few days in which I have been doing my job, I believe that there has been a bigger response from the bigger producers, and a bigger response from Wales and Scotland. That does not help our calculations, however. After my meeting with representatives of the fishing industry this afternoon, I shall discuss the matter during my first meeting with farming industry representatives, taking into account the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

The aims of the fallen stock scheme are laudable. The Minister may be surprised to learn, however, that farmers in my constituency must travel as far as Haverfordwest and the constituency of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) under the current scheme— journeys taking more than two hours—although there are local, established incinerators that could be brought up to standard. Will the Minister clarify the guidelines on grants that may be available, and specify the standard that the incinerators should meet?

I will look into that. I understand that the issue of grants is currently being investigated, as are the guidelines on the standards of incineration.

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend.

I know from meetings I have had with farmers in my constituency that there will be great disappointment if the scheme does not take off. What about the BSE testing scheme? Will that still be in situ, and will beasts aged both under and over 24 months still be picked up free of charge?

The BSE scheme will remain in situ. The issue of the age of carcases i s under review. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's recognition—reflected, I think, on both sides of the House—that the scheme the Government came up with earlier this year is a good one. It is disappointing that there has not been a more positive response.

Leaving aside the substantial shortcomings of the scheme that has been proposed, will the Minister focus for a moment on one unfortunate side product? I use the term advisedly.

I understand that all the ash that will be produced from the incineration of the 200,000 tonnes of fallen stock each year will have to go into landfill, which contrasts starkly with what happens to ash from human crematoriums. If one's granny dies of black plague we can spread the ash on the garden, but if one's horse dies of old age we cannot. Will the Minister reconsider the regulations involved so that the ash can be put to better use—for instance, by being spread on the land?

The hon. Gentleman is rather unfair when he describes the scheme as having shortcomings. It is a very good scheme. It offers—it is still on the table—good value for money for producers of all sizes. The charges that were being talked about represented good value for money compared with the fees that producers would pay if they had to dispose of the fallen stock themselves in the free market. On the specific question of the disposal of ash, I am ashamed to admit that I was not aware of that problem, but I will look into it and write to the hon. Gentleman, if he will allow me.

The Poultry Farming in the United Kingdom Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, is conducting an inquiry under my chairmanship into the British poultry industry. Two days ago, we heard from the two national organisations for egg producers and meat producers that they have a significant problem with the disposal of dead birds, which number many millions a year. What access to any fallen stock scheme was offered to them? Would not that help to improve the viability of the scheme?

Yes. As it stands, large poultry producers would be eligible for the scheme. However, as I said earlier, because of the low number of responses to the Government's consultation, we may have to have another look at that matter. I am also aware that many of the producers that my hon. Friend talks about already have their own solutions to the problem, such as incineration on-site.

Gm Contaminations


When she expects to issue guidelines on liability for compensation in the case of GM contaminations. [120196]

We expect to receive a report next month from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops and associated liability issues. We will consider that issue further in the light of that report.

Can I return to the issue of the economic implications of contamination, particularly for organic farming, by GM crops? When will the Government issue guidance on specific liability, which I believe the commission judges to be a political, not a technical issue, and on an industrial compensation scheme, on which the Government would have to take a lead? Without guidance and leadership on those two issues, it will be impossible to make rational decisions on the future of commercial use of GM crops.

As I mentioned earlier, we recognise that co-existence raises issues, including whether it is possible to agree threshold limits in relation to crops, how those can be measured and how that fits in with the organic sector's rules. Of course, there are issues of liability, regulation of the use of any crops, declaration, description and control. Those are quite complex issues. The report that has been commissioned will be helpful in guiding the Government on what the best way is of shaping that. Those issues are still under discussion. The national dialogue that is under way will also be helpful in obtaining people's views on the best way forward on those points.



If she will make a statement on EU discussions on reform of the common agricultural policy. [120198]

As my right hon. Friend is aware, crucial negotiations between EU Agriculture Ministers about reform of the common agricultural policy got off to a positive start last week and resumed on Tuesday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently heavily engaged in trying to secure a deal that will benefit farmers, consumers, the environment, developing countries and world trade.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that replacing the common agricultural policy with a policy of sustainable rural development is the best way to reconcile the interests of farmers, world trade and developing countries? Which countries in the EU are supporting such an approach, and, in particular, what discussions and support are we getting from our German partners, who have a lot to gain from that approach?

My right hon. Friend takes us into some of the detail. I believe that the plenary session reconvened a few minutes ago. We are still talking and negotiating. There seems to be a common agreement among all parties that we must get an agreement and that the common agricultural policy must be reformed. As I indicated, we are working hard to achieve the right deal. I am sure that she will agree that we have the best negotiator in the business in the Secretary of State, who is seeking to achieve those outcomes for the United Kingdom.

It is nice to see you back in the Chair, Mr. Speaker. I ask the Minister to look very carefully at unsupported crops, as it is growers who are already out of the subsidy culture who stand to lose most as a result of the current proposals.

We certainly look with interest at the situation regarding unsupported crops. The Government's general approach is to help all producers—supported and unsupported—to do their best to meet their market's requirements and to be their competitive.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is absolutely crucial that the European Union is able to enter into the World Trade Organisation discussions in September with significant changes to the common agricultural policy already agreed. Does he agree that a slightly amended CAP— rather than radical reform—is probably not worth having, and that it would be in Britain's and the developing world's interests to push this issue to the limit, instead of agreeing to a slight compromise to satisfy the French Government's unreasonable demands in the current negotiations?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State is the sort of person who will ensure the very best outcome from any period of negotiation. We should await the outcome of those discussions, but my hon. Friend is right to say that a meaningful agreement on CAP reform would be the best possible starting point for our entering into the WTO trade talks at Cancun in September. For the moment, however, we need to contain ourselves and wait and see what emerges from today's discussions.

The Financial Times reported last week that the French and the Germans have entered into complex secret negotiations on the subject—would you believe it?—of the takeovers directive. The Germans have made huge concessions and blown a hole in the Fischler package in return for concessions on the takeovers directive. We are pleased that the Secretary of State is currently involved in the negotiations, but I rather hoped that the Minister would come to the Dispatch Box today and give us a bit of news from the front. What line is the Secretary of State taking in those negotiations, will the Minister reassure us that she is indeed fighting British farmers' corner, and what does he hope the outcome will be?

I am not going to try to predict the outcome of talks that are taking place as we speak. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the line that the Secretary of State will take on behalf of Britain and British agriculture will be a tough one. She will do everything that she can to produce the best possible outcome, and it would enhance the hon. Gentleman's reputation if he were to give her proper credit for the way in which she has fought for us on the international stage. On the Financial Times report, I would simply say that our discussions ought not to be driven by what we read in the newspapers.

Fishing Industry (Northumberland)


What recent assessment she has made of the (a) state of and (b) prospects for the fishing industry in Northumberland. [120199]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

The north-east of England fleet has been numerically stable in the past two or three years. The Northumberland fleet will continue to benefit from access to prawns and to shellfish stocks.

Does the Minister agree that he would do well to travel to Northumberland pretty soon to enhance his knowledge of the problems faced by fishermen in the region? They have lost much of their cod fishery, are in the process of losing their salmon driftnet fishery, still have no licensing system to protect their shellfish fishery and are worried about the future of the prawn fishery, to which the Minister referred. Should not all of that be fairly high on his agenda?

My grand tour of UK fisheries during the summer is expanding by the minute. I am aware of the problems faced in recent years by the fishing industry that the right hon. Gentleman represents, but I should point out that the salmon driftnet fishery is a voluntary scheme that has proved—he will correct me if I am wrong—popular in his area. Of course, it will have very beneficial effects on the number of river salmon, which will also benefit other people.

Abattoirs And Slaughterhouses


What measures her Department is taking to support small and medium-sized abattoirs and slaughterhouses. [120200]

We are encouraging the use of investment grants within the England rural development programme to help to improve the abattoir industry's structure, processing and marketing. We are committing resources to the Meat Industry Forum and are actively participating in its work to improve the competitiveness of red meat food chains.

The problems associated with the reduction in the number of small abattoirs have been well rehearsed, and many existing abattoirs are concerned about the impact of the animal by-products regulations. What is being done to help the smaller slaughterhouses, for which the cost of disposing of blood will rise from £16 per tonne to £60 to £80 per tonne?

We are helping, and working with, the industry to develop an action plan to address some of these issues. As I have said, grants are available within the England rural development programme to help smaller abattoirs become more competitive. I accept that things are not easy for small abattoirs; indeed, this has long been a difficult issue. We must help and support the market, rather than looking for a magic wand to take away those problems.