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Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

The Minister will be as relieved as farmers in Northern Ireland that recent tests on pigs found with foot lesions at an abattoir in Antrim have proved that foot and mouth disease is not present. Will he congratulate the chief veterinary officer on acting efficiently and expeditiously, and will he ensure that he has sufficient staff to monitor live imports properly, in a situation that remains volatile as far as animal health is concerned?

I am happy to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Bert Houston and his staff. As soon as he was aware of the possibility of the disease, he brought the matter to my attention. I had a long discussion with him about the steps that we needed to take, and they were taken. That shows that the processes put in place following the unfortunate foot and mouth outbreak a few years ago are now working. I am happy to confirm that no such disease exists in Northern Ireland, and consumers should have absolute confidence in the industry there. I hope that everyone will buy its high-quality produce.

One of the changes to the common agricultural policy has been a move away from production subsidies to schemes designed to benefit the environment more. What is the rate of take-up of those schemes? What has been the environmental benefit to Northern Ireland and its farmers?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The Government have been at the forefront of the campaign for reform of the common agricultural policy, which in its old incarnation was distorting internal markets and wreaking havoc on producers in the third world. We have now broken that link with subsidy production and moved towards the agri-environmental schemes that my hon. Friend mentioned. About 12,000 farmers are participating in those schemes, which help to make up some of the income that they would otherwise have forgone. In addition, the schemes are benefiting the environment of Northern Ireland, and, therefore, all those who enjoy the beautiful Northern Ireland countryside.

The Minister is aware that the Ulster Farmers Union recently published a document, “Five Steps to a Better Future”, which the Assembly unanimously adopted in a debate last week. One of the proposals is the removal of red tape. Will the Government actively support that campaign?

I have met the leaders of the Ulster Farmers Union on many occasions to discuss bureaucracy and red tape. Recently, my officials worked with the UFU to reduce to three pages a form which, in its first draft, was 11 pages long, so that was a very productive engagement. My door is open to the UFU and I will certainly listen if it wants to discuss any forms or processes that it believes can be simplified and made clearer.

I must add that we have to balance that against the fact that we are talking about £300 million of taxpayers’ money, and it is right that we have proper accountability for that. It is also right that where some practices are impacting on the environment, we take our responsibilities to the environment and future generations very seriously. We need to balance the need to make processes as simple and clear for farmers as possible with our responsibilities for taxpayers’ money and the environment.