Skip to main content

Farmers (Regulations)

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 1 March 2012

We published the Government’s full response to the farming regulation taskforce on 21 February. There were more than 200 recommendations, and our response sets out clear commitments to take action and to address most of the recommendations. We are already working to implement those commitments in partnership with the farming industry, and an implementation group chaired by Richard Macdonald himself will ensure that we deliver on them.

I thank my right hon. Friend. The House will know that Herefordshire is blessed with some of the finest farmland and farmers in the country, but many farmers in my constituency who are members of voluntary schemes such as “Freedom Food” are keen to know whether such schemes will be given a lighter-touch regulation and inspection regime, as recommended by the red tape review.

I cannot be specific at this stage about the “Freedom Food” scheme, but the principle to which my hon. Friend refers is absolutely correct. I assure him that the principle of earned recognition, under which farmers are already being inspected regularly in certain farm assurance schemes, will be used as a form of risk assessment to minimise inspections on holdings.

With regard to regulatory burdens on farmers, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that a replacement seasonal agricultural workers scheme is in place when the current framework is removed at the end of 2013?

My hon. Friend is entirely right—the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is an essential source of labour, particularly for the fresh produce sector. We fully recognise its importance, and my Department is working closely with the Home Office to ensure that the industry’s labour requirements will be met after 2013.

Farmers in Fylde will welcome the Minister’s response, but can he assure me that he will resist any further measures from Brussels that seek to undermine the Government’s good work on deregulation?

I am glad that my hon. Friend added the last bit, because to say that we would not implement any further regulations might be counter-productive. I can assure him that we will fight very hard against anything that we believe is against the interests of the British agriculture and food sector or the British economy. That has always been the case, and we will continue to do our very best to oppose such measures.

What steps will the Minister take to put in place regulations to ensure that the Schmallenberg virus is not extended and does not create problems for farmers who still have good-quality lamb available for sale?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to address that issue, which also comes up later on the Order Paper. We do not believe that any regulation on the Schmallenberg virus is necessary. The important point to note is that all the evidence of it that we are now seeing—the deformed lambs and a few deformed calves—is from infection caused last autumn in the midge season. We are working closely with the other member states in northern Europe, where the disease was found earlier than in the UK, to develop the science. A year ago we had never heard of the virus, so we are having to develop all the basic science to move forward with tests and maybe vaccination.

I begin by wishing all Welsh colleagues dydd gwyl Dewi hapus, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) reliably informs me is “happy St David’s day”. I hope I have not offended anyone with my pronunciation.

We are grateful to the Minister for his speedy offer of a meeting with the chief vet on the Schmallenberg disease, which we hope to have early next week. As the Minister says, there is much that we do not yet know. Has the arrival of the virus in England led to any changes or pauses in the implementation of the Macdonald report?

The short answer is no. At this stage, we do not see any need to change the decisions arising from the Macdonald report. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her thanks for the briefing by the chief vet. It is important that all Members are properly informed about the disease. When her party was in government it kindly briefed me on such subjects, and it is only right to reciprocate. She will be aware that I wrote to all Members about a fortnight or three weeks ago with a very clear exposition of the situation.

I thank the Minister for those comments. May I suggest that it might be useful for the chief vet to meet all Members of Parliament to give those with badly affected constituencies the opportunity to question him?

The Minister argued against the disease being made notifiable in the EU. Will he explain why, when many farmers want it to be notifiable so that scientists can build up the full picture and help develop the effective vaccine that we all want? What steps has he taken to scale up the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency so that it is not overwhelmed by testing as we enter the peak lambing season? How much will that extra resource cost and who will pay for it?

On the last point, I assure the hon. Lady that, as this is—I will not say it is an emergency—obviously very urgent, we are finding the necessary resources. It is only right and proper that we do so. I cannot give a figure because it is all changing as we go. The chief executive of the AHVLA is addressing the issue of its resources. I am afraid that I have forgotten her first point.

I am grateful. The advice from the vets is that that is not necessary. We are receiving a tremendous amount of information from the private veterinary sector and, of course, samples from those in that sector and some directly from farmers, which all go into our labs for testing. As she implies, I urge all farmers to report any particular evidence. At the moment, we do not see any need for notifiability, but the matter is under review.