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Topical Questions

Volume 557: debated on Thursday 24 January 2013

DEFRA’s focus remains on growing the rural economy, improving the environment, and safeguarding animal and plant health. As well as responding to events such as the flooding that affected the west and south-west of the country over Christmas, we continue to explore new ways of ensuring that we are able to deliver DEFRA’s priorities more effectively, placing our economy and environment on a sustainable footing. This ranges from triennial review of our delivery bodies—the Environment Agency and Natural England —to a new integrated system for common agricultural policy payments. We must strive for better outcomes through greater efficiency, integration and innovation.

Given the devastating impact that bovine tuberculosis continues to have on our farmers, will my right hon. Friend update the House on the most recent assessment he has made with regard to the deployment of a vaccine in cattle?

Last week I met Commissioner Borg, the EU Health Commissioner, to agree a way forward for developing a workable cattle vaccine. A provisional timetable has now been agreed, and a copy of the letter outlining this to me has been placed in the Library this morning. It acknowledges the UK’s leading role in pressing forward on a cattle vaccine. and for the first time recognises that we are on course to deploy a vaccine. The legal and scientific process could take up to 10 years. In the meantime, we will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to check the progress of this terrible disease.

I am in receipt of evidence showing that several horses slaughtered by UK abattoirs last year tested positive for phenylbutazone —or bute—a drug that causes cancer in humans and that is banned from the human food chain. It is possible that those animals entered the human food chain. Is the Minister aware of this?

I understand that the Food Standards Agency carries out checks in slaughterhouses to ensure that equine animals presented for slaughter are fit for human consumption, in the same way as it does for cattle, sheep and other animals. In addition, the FSA carries out sampling and testing for phenylbutazone and other veterinary medicines in meat from horses slaughtered in this country. Where positive results for phenylbutazone are found, the FSA investigates and takes follow-up action to trace the meat.

I am not clear whether that was yes, the Minister knew, or no, he did not. Either way, I am astonished that he has not raised the issue. The public have a right to know. It is a very serious development. What steps will he now take to ensure that illegal and carcinogenic horsemeat stops entering the human food chain? Last week, when I asked about difficulties with horse passports, he dismissed my concerns. Will he now review his short-sighted and reckless decision to scrap the national equine database?

I think that the hon. Lady misunderstands what the national equine database did. The records of horse passports continue to be retained by the passport issuing agencies. There is no difficulty in tracing the use of a horse passport, so to suggest that the national equine database was required to do that is simply erroneous.

T2. One of the largest employers in my constituency is Edwards of Conwy, the makers of the finest sausages in the United Kingdom. It has recently won a significant new export order to Malaysia. What work can the Department do to ensure that this country’s fantastic food producers get as much support as possible to export our product? (139082)

The one controversy that I will not enter into is the question of who makes the best sausages in the country, because it will never end. I congratulate Edwards of Conwy on its success and entrepreneurism. Export is a key way of creating growth and I am committed to supporting our farming and food and drink sectors in doing so.

T3. We are still waiting for an announcement on irresponsible dog ownership and dangerous dogs. When will we have that announcement and what will it cover? (139083)

I can only say that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have published a consultation on the issue. We have received 27,000 responses and we have to do justice to them. We will make an announcement about the way forward soon and I am sorry that I cannot give a more explicit assurance.

We believe it is a valuable tool in the fight against wildlife crime, not only domestically but internationally, where there is great and worrying evidence of large-scale organised criminality that is affecting the survival chances of some of the most iconic species. I am delighted that we, along with the Home Office, have been able to continue the funding of the unit and we hope that it will continue its great work.

T5. Last year the Secretary of State said that there would not be a Commons vote on repealing the Hunting Act 2004. Will he reassure the overwhelming majority of the British public who support retention of the Act that there will be no vote at any time in this Parliament? (139085)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is declared coalition policy to have a free vote on this issue at the appropriate time.

T8. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for launching the global food IF campaign yesterday. The UK runs a large deficit in food, so what can the UK do to increase food production and make its contribution to the global situation? (139088)

The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. When we talk about sustainable agriculture, we need to have in mind our need to feed not only the people of this country but the people of the world. We have to have a clear strategy on how to get to the point where every sector of agriculture in this country has not only maximum efficiency and effectiveness but sustainability.

T6. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that cuts to the Food Standards Agency have not and will not compromise meat hygiene inspections or the agency’s ability to ensure that meat is legal and safe? (139086)

I seem to have answered a lot of questions recently about the Food Standards Agency, which is a matter for the Department of Health, but I will soon be giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on exactly that subject, and I hope that I will be able to set out exactly what the FSA does and does not do. I hope the hon. Gentleman will look at that evidence session and the conclusions of the Committee.

As a prelude to my hon. Friend’s much looked forward to visit to the Committee, will he assure us that there is less chance now of horsemeat entering beefburgers and other parts of the food chain, and that the checks on frozen and processed food are as strong as those on fresh food?

I certainly hope that that is the case after all the publicity over recent weeks about what was done in Ireland, and that we can assure my hon. Friend’s Committee that the FSA is working effectively and in collaboration with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to ensure that every single abuse of the process is tracked down and dealt with effectively.

T7. It took the Government nearly two years to respond to the original consultation on irresponsible dog ownership, and it is now 10 months since they announced their further consultation. Ministers are showing appalling complacency on the issue, and Members want to know when they are going to get their act together on it. (139087)

Many colleagues behind me are asking, what about the 13 years of the Labour Government when nothing was done? I have already said that we plan to bring proposals forward soon. My noble Friend Lord de Mauley is working closely with the Home Office on a variety of associated issues, and we will make an announcement shortly.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his impassioned speech at the Oxford farming conference in defence of agricultural innovation. As we consider areas in which we might renegotiate our relationship with Europe, will he comment on the importance of a European framework that supports science and innovation in agriculture?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for his work in pushing for development of the agri-science sector. That was one issue that I discussed with Commissioner Borg last week, and we are determined to push ahead and examine every technology that could help advance our agricultural industry.

At last week’s fisheries talks, the Scottish pelagic fleet took a 15% cut in mackerel quota, in line with scientific advice, to compensate for the overfishing of Iceland and the Faroes. What action will the Minister now press the European Commission to take, and when can we expect to see it?

I had a meeting with the pelagic sector yesterday, at which I assured it that we would take every measure that we possibly could. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the UK fleet has done the right thing despite the fact that the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea was based on the activities of countries such as Iceland and the Faroes. I am absolutely with her, and we will do our best next week in Brussels to ensure that the Commission understands how important the matter is to Britain.

The second wave of city deal bids offers great potential to rural communities in wider areas. Has the Minister seen the Swindon and Wiltshire city deal bid so that he might consider whether that partnership offers a blueprint for extending the benefits of city deals into neighbouring rural economies?

I am really impressed with what is happening in Swindon and Wiltshire, and I want to use it as a model around the country. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it further.

T9. Will the Minister confirm that legislation to ban wild animals in circuses will be included in the next Queen’s Speech, or can we expect more delays on that important animal welfare issue? (139090)

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in the debate on a private Member’s Bill on Friday, we will very shortly introduce a draft Bill. That will then be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and it would be quite wrong for Ministers to prejudge what further progress that will result in.