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Pollinators and Pesticides

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 6 June 2013

[Relevant document: Seventh Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2012-13, Pollinators and Pesticides, HC 668.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of pollinators and pesticides.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. Despite the fact that there are so many conflicting events going on outside the House, we have a healthy number of MPs here who wish to participate. I am grateful to everybody for attending.

The debate today is especially appropriate given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Silent Spring”, Rachel Carson’s seminal work on the environmental cost of pesticides such as DDT. It is right that we should revisit the important issue of ecology and the relationship of plants and animals to their environment and to one another.

The Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, conducted an inquiry on pollinators and pesticides from November 2012 to March 2013. We extended it because there were so many new developments as we carried on with our inquiry. We received 40 written submissions and we held seven oral evidence sessions. I thank all the witnesses to the inquiry. It was a unanimous report and I thank members of the Committee, some of whom are able to be present today and some of whom have sent their apologies. I also thank the Committee staff, who did a phenomenal amount of work helping us to compile our report, and put on record my thanks to Chris Miles of cdimagesanddesigns for his generosity in allowing us to use his photograph, “Pit stop” to grace the cover of the report. We are often told how accessible or otherwise House of Commons reports are, and we feel that thanks to him, the cover on our report is fitting. Bees like to go to bright, colourful flowers and we thought we would have the same for our report.

The EAC report was published on 5 April. In normal circumstances we would have been content to wait for the Government response to our report, but given that the European Commission took significant regulatory action in this area on 29 April, shortly after its publication, we felt that a debate was urgent and timely, and on behalf of the Committee I sought the opportunity to hold the debate today.

Let me put on record the favourable response that we have had from many who care about nature and wildlife. I thank Buglife, which affirmed that our report provides robust recommendations for the future of pollinators and the agricultural industry, and Friends of the Earth, whose recent reception in the House was attended by well over 100 MPs, although I was not able to be there myself. That testified how much support there is in our constituencies all around the UK for its bee action plan. The all-party group on agro-ecology welcomed our support. It, too, welcomes the recent decision by the EU to ban three types of neonicotinoid pesticides. The all-party group believes that to be the right decision, and calls for decisions on our food supply and environment to be based on science and not on extreme lobbying and scare-mongering by those who have an immense vested interest.

I compliment my hon. Friend for the report and her work on this issue. While I welcome the decision on particular pesticides, does she recognise that there is a wider question of eco-diversity that we have to address? If we do not, that will be something else that kills off the bee population in future. We must have a different approach to our natural environment in relation to agriculture.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. Our report clearly states that there is no one solution and that we need, as he rightly says, a whole new systemic approach. The core of our report is that we need to get the balance right between scientific evidence and the precautionary principle, but there are very many issues that relate to all this.

We have had further support from many members of the general public and concerned interest groups, not least Bedfordshire Beekeepers Association, which said:

“Your work has been an inspirational example of democratic scrutiny in action…we hope that you will be able to hold government to account and influence policy making both at national and EU level.”

This is exactly what we are doing today and intend to continue doing. This debate is by no means our only follow-up to the report. We are raising the issue today to see how the many things that need to be done can get done, with the direction of the Government.

The Committee decided to conduct our inquiry because the available evidence indicated that insect pollinators have experienced serious population declines in the UK in recent years. For example, we heard—this is quite shocking—that two thirds to three quarters of insect pollinator species are declining in the UK. Indeed, the 2013 report “State of Nature” assessed 178 bee species in the UK and found that half were in decline. For the benefit of the House, I should explain that insect pollinators include not only honey bees and wild bees but other insects such as hoverflies, moths and butterflies. At the moment, the honey bee is the sentinel species for all insect pollinators, which means that most scientific studies involve bees, but given the biological differences between the various insect pollinators, it is vital that the Government monitor a wider range of species. I hope that this is an uncontroversial point on which the Government will agree with my Committee.

I am very pleased to see the Minister nodding. I refer him to our recommendation 13: “Defra must”—I stress “must”—

“introduce a national monitoring programme to generate and monitor population data on a broad range of wild insect pollinator species to inform policy making.”

We felt that that is the bottom line and the starting point of what now needs to be done. As we went through our deliberations and came to reach our decisions, we endeavoured to find as much common ground among members of the Committee as we could before we turned to the issue of neonicotinoids.

Let me move on to the question of why insect populations might be declining. I want to make it clear at the outset that the health of insect pollinators is defined by a range of factors, including not only pesticides but urbanisation, loss of habitat, agricultural intensification and climate change; obviously, weather patterns affect things as well.

My hon. Friend will know that the Government intend to issue—shortly, I believe—planning guidance on biodiversity. Does she agree that councils need to be encouraged and given the impetus to protect and restore bee-friendly habitats in their own neighbourhoods, which would make a real contribution to addressing the point she is making?

I thank my right hon. Friend; she makes exactly the right point, and I absolutely agree. We need safe havens for wildlife, especially in urban areas, although it is not just about urban areas. The planning system underpins the whole issue of our natural capital and biodiversity. If we do not have guidance on how we protect and enhance our natural environment, the bees do not stand a chance.

Throughout our inquiry, the Environmental Audit Committee acknowledged the importance of sustaining agricultural yields, controlling pests effectively and maintaining food security. Indeed, those concerns were reflected in our final report. Equally, we were mindful of the value of insect pollinators as an ecosystem service to UK agriculture. I think that Members will be aware of the various estimates of the agricultural value of insect pollination, ranging from £500 million to £1.9 billion, depending on whether one takes into account the cost of replacement hand pollination. We felt that those issues ought to be given a value and taken into account.

In case anyone thinks that our report is just about a moratorium on certain neonicotinoids, I hope they will have a chance to read it in full and make themselves aware of the cross-cutting nature of our work and the importance that we give to using the common agricultural policy control to help British farming move as quickly as possible to integrated pest management.

As I have said, the Committee considered a range of factors that affect insect pollinators, but we were driven to scrutinise the effects of one family of insecticides—neonicotinoids—by the weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence. For Members who are not familiar with neonicotinoids, I should say that they are a class of insecticide derived from nicotine. Following their introduction in the mid-’90s, they have been widely used in the UK on oilseed rape, cereals, maize, sugar beet and crops grown in glass houses. The body of evidence indicating that neonicotinoids cause acute harm to bees grew appreciably in the course of our inquiry, as new studies were published in heavyweight journals such as Science and Nature. In this case, harm to bees includes increased susceptibility to disease and reduced foraging and reproduction. If Members are interested in the particular scientific studies, I refer them to the Henry, Whitehorn and Gill experiments.

We heard that 94% of published peer-reviewed experiments on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees found evidence of acute harm. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the agri-chemical industry argued throughout our inquiry that the dosage used in those laboratory experiments was too high. In response it is worth pointing out that those studies used dosages derived from the best available data on the concentrations of neonicotinoids that bees encounter in the field.

The agri-chemical industry also likes to cite its own tests as proof that neonicotinoids cannot harm bees. However, the industry studies by which neonicotinoids were licensed for use in the European Union were not peer reviewed and are not open to scrutiny due to the supposed commercial sensitivity of the data. Furthermore, we found evidence in relation to the licensing of imidacloprid which calls into question altogether the rigour of the testing regime.

Against that background, we went on to consider the precautionary principle. By definition, insecticides kill insects. The precautionary question is whether neonicotinoid insecticides have an unsustainable impact on insect pollinators. The 1992 United Nations Rio declaration on environment and development states:

“Where there are threats of serious and irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

That internationally agreed definition of the precautionary principle was later enshrined in the Lisbon treaty and it underpins much of the work that has been done on sustainable development, including when the work of the Rio conference was built on at Rio+20 only last year in Brazil.

Throughout our inquiry, DEFRA used what it identified as a lack of full scientific certainty as an excuse for inaction. For example, at one stage the Department stated that it would require unequivocal evidence of harm before acting on neonicotinoids.

In medical research, there is a huge issue with drug companies not publishing inconvenient data. Does the hon. Lady feel that that is a serious problem with neonicotinoids?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point about commercial confidentiality and the lack of transparency. We hear a lot at the moment about lobbying and related issues, but if the agri-chemical industry wishes to make claims about the value of its products, it must open up the evidence to full scrutiny. There is no case for hiding behind so-called “commercial confidentiality”. That prevents the open, transparent and informed policy making that is so badly needed. I agree with the hon. Lady and her point relates to one of the recommendations in our report.

When the weight of peer-reviewed evidence rendered untenable DEFRA’s position on the need for unequivocal evidence, it claimed that it would commission the Food and Environment Research Agency to conduct a realistic field study to resolve the matter. That study was not peer reviewed and it was, as one witness to our inquiry presciently pointed out, clearly too small to provide conclusive results. It was undermined by fundamental errors in its execution, such as placing the various hives that were used in the experiments outside on different days of the year.

Our view on the study, which was that we should not accept it, was confirmed by the European Food Safety Authority on Tuesday, when it identified the same weaknesses as we did.

I am glad to see the Minister nodding his head. The conclusion was that there was no reason for EFSA to change its view.

DEFRA told us that its pesticides policy was underpinned by the precautionary principle. I fear that in this case, that statement of intent has not been matched by DEFRA’s actions. Interestingly, the private sector appears to be more willing than DEFRA to implement precautions. In the course of our inquiry, we heard that major do-it-yourself chains such as B&Q, Wickes and Homebase were withdrawing neonicotinoids from sale for domestic use, and supermarket chains such as the Co-operative have prohibited their suppliers from using neonicotinoids in anything other than exceptional circumstances. I also welcome the press release from Waitrose, which states that it is looking to do the same in respect of flowering crops.

As our report was taking shape and we were having involved discussions among ourselves, we had to extend the length of our inquiry to take account of developments elsewhere, because it was clear that we were being overtaken by events such as the European Commission’s regulatory action. Although the growing weight of published scientific research did not impress DEFRA, it led the EC to take action. The EC is responsible for licensing chemicals for use in European agriculture. It instructed EFSA to draw up new risk assessments for neonicotinoids in relation to bees. The revised risk assessments led the EC to propose measured regulatory action, with a two-year EU-wide moratorium on the use of three of the five neonicotinoids on crops that are attractive to bees.

The EC proposal was put to a qualified majority vote on 15 March. As we all know, the vote was inconclusive and the UK abstained. The hung outcome of the vote allowed the EC to implement the appeal procedure, which led to a second vote on 29 April. I understand that between 15 March and 29 April, there was intensive lobbying and negotiation in Europe. Indeed, I went out personally to present our report to the European Commissioner. Finally, the EC amended its initial proposal. It recognised the need to delay the introduction of a moratorium to allow the seed supply chain time to adjust, which was a recommendation of our report. That is an example of how my Committee focused on the practical outcomes for the agricultural sector. We did not want to make any knee-jerk recommendations and we wanted there to be time for the matter to be properly understood and acted on.

In the second vote, on 29 April, the UK shifted from abstention to active resistance by voting against the proposed moratorium, despite the concessions made by the European Commission. However, countries such as Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands all voted for the moratorium, which will consequently be introduced across the EU on 1 December 2013.

What effects will the two-year moratorium have on UK agriculture? First, I want to highlight that when neonicotinoids were banned for use on maize in Italy, there was no negative effect on yield. Secondly, the moratorium will prevent farmers from using neonicotinoids on

“crops that are attractive to bees”,

which of course excludes sugar beet, crops grown in glass houses and winter wheat; it is quite a proportionate measure. Thirdly, neonicotinoids are a relatively recent innovation. Oilseed rape, for example, was a viable UK crop before the introduction of neonicotinoids in the mid-‘90s.

Some have argued that a moratorium on neonicotinoids will lead farmers to spray greater quantities of other more environmentally harmful pesticides, such as organophosphates and pyrethroids. However, it is open to DEFRA to ensure that that is not the case. It is clearly in the interests of the environment, food security, minimising resistance among pests and maximising agricultural incomes that the least possible amount of pesticides is used in agricultural production. Indeed, in talks I have had with different bodies they have said that such a moratorium will mean that there must be a focus on what to do and what alternative proposals to come up with, so that we incentivise a more healthy approach to crops.

To that end, integrated pest management is a broad approach to plant protection that minimises pesticide use and encourages natural pest control mechanisms. By 1 January 2014, all pesticide users will be required to adopt IPM under the European directive on the sustainable use of pesticides. If UK farmers practise IPM, the argument that a moratorium on neonicotinoids will lead to unfavourable environmental outcomes does not hold. I believe that was very much a deciding factor in the Committee’s reaching its unanimous decision.

DEFRA does not appear to have prioritised compliance with the directive on the sustainable use of pesticides. The directive states:

“Member states should adopt…quantitative objectives, targets, measures and timetables to reduce…the impact of pesticide use on the environment.”

However, a DEFRA official dismissed such targets as “meaningless”, which sits uneasily with the Department’s stated commitments to integrated pest management. Indeed, our report was halted or delayed because the Government were slow to make a full response to that European directive.

Other than the recommendations on the moratorium of certain neonicotinoids, the importance of monitoring the health of pollinators and the introduction of integrated pest management, many other detailed issues arise from the Committee’s report that relate to risk assessment and risk management. Those include reforms involving the European food safety authority, where our Government, should they wish to, could take the lead, CAP reform and recognising the importance of less secrecy and greater transparency in the risk assessment trials undertaken by the agrochemical industry—the point raised by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). I am disappointed that the Government have chosen to delay their response to our report, which was due this week, but I look forward to their detailed response on the work we have carried out. For now, however, events have moved quickly and DEFRA did not take our advice when the issue was raised by the European Commission.

In conclusion, I have three questions for the Minister. First, I believe DEFRA has said it will commission further field research on neonicotinoids and bees. Will that research be published in a journal and be peer reviewed? Will the Minister consider commissioning the British scientists who participated in the Gill and Whitehorn studies, rather than FERA, whose previous report was discredited? Is it DEFRA policy to reject all laboratory studies—and, by extension, scientific method—as a basis for action? Secondly, how will DEFRA ensure the effective implementation of the sustainable use of pesticide directive? Thirdly, will the Minister explain what changed between the first EU vote on 15 March, when the UK abstained, to the second EU vote, on 29 April, when the UK voted against a moratorium?

The UK public are concerned about bees and pollinators. When I raised this at Prime Minister’s Question Time, he stressed the importance of the precautionary principle. As we look forward to the summer, people’s minds will be on gardening and planting, and farmers’ minds will be on planting and harvesting. It is critical that we hear from the Government on how they will respond to the EU moratorium.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, not least because I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee. I thank our Chair for the excellent leadership she has provided with this report and others. She is right on the importance of establishing a broad agreement, which the Committee did in its report—we have always achieved such agreement in previous reports, too. That is a good illustration of the Committee’s effectiveness, which I hope will continue, because we will do important work on investment in the green economy, which will result in a thought-provoking and important report.

I am a former farmer, so I am familiar with the pesticides argument. I was principally a livestock farmer, but I could not escape other types of farming. I fully support the report’s recommendations. It is important that we recognise that bees are essential to our environment and to successful farming. That is well illustrated by my constituency—Stroud is recognised as world bee place. We have done a huge amount of work to promote the protection of bees, including wild bees, which are also at risk. I am extraordinarily proud of my constituency’s bee protection reputation.

It is important to recognise that there are more threats to bees than pesticides. We have heard about bee starvation and bee diseases such as varroa—I hope I pronounced that correctly; as a Northumbrian, I sometimes get my vowels slightly mixed up. We also know of a variety of other threats to bees. We should recognise that the Government see the problem and are taking action with the bee protection plan. I hope the Minister outlines how extensive that plan is, because we need to demonstrate that the coalition Government are determined to protect bees.

It was disappointing that the UK did not vote in favour of the moratorium on neonicotinoids, but the moratorium is in place. As our Committee Chair correctly noted, that reflects the concerns and interest the Committee has spelt out. We had a lengthy debate on the seeds supply chain, and recognised that, for any moratorium to be effective, it would have to start later than we envisaged, which is right. It is good that Europe noticed that as well. The changes our Chair outlined are extremely welcome. It is good that the Government, through the field studies we have heard about, are determined to recognise the importance of the impact of neonicotinoids.

Transparency is critical. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) noted, there are too many occasions when one wonders how much we really know about what is being discovered or being hidden, so this matter would benefit from true transparency. I urge the Minister and the Department to consider the transparency of field studies, so that we know exactly what is going on and what the tests reveal. As the Chair noted, maize in Italy did not really suffer as a result of neonicotinoids being banned, but that is just one example. Everybody would benefit from more study and a more comprehensive understanding, including pesticide manufacturers. One problem that has to be borne in mind is that banning one type of pesticide might mean that other pesticides are used in an uncontrolled way. We have to monitor the use of all pesticides, especially when withdrawing neonicotinoids, as using different pesticides might make matters considerably worse. I am sure the Government are minded to do that.

On the wider question of the common agricultural policy and overall farm management, as we move towards a reformed CAP it is important to recognise good work, such as that done by the Environmental Stewardship scheme. I would like to see more farmers using such schemes, and for those schemes to become more tailored towards the kind of issue we are debating today.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about further reform of the CAP. I am sure he is aware that recent reforms to the CAP have given national Governments discretion to switch subsidies to agri-environment schemes, which could bring in much more bee-friendly habitats. Does he agree that the Government ought to be taking that step, rather than going on so much about what might be done in the future? Let us use what we have got now.

The Government are a Government of positive action. We are a coalition Government. We benefit enormously from having Conservatives on one side and Liberal Democrats on the other, and I am certain that that combination will bring about exactly what the right hon. Lady says.

The right hon. Lady raises an interesting point about what amounts to the devolution of the CAP. From its inception, its impact has been characterised by either dominant nation states promoting certain types of produce, or, as in this case, by policy filtration, with different levels of government influencing outcomes by changing the nature of the policy. That was particularly prevalent in the early days in certain Mediterranean countries with regard to olives and so on. We should recognise devolution, but it is a double-edged sword. We in this country are able to do the right thing, but can we always guarantee that that will be the case in other countries that might have other priorities? I welcome those changes in the CAP, but urge the Government to do as the hon. Lady suggests. Indeed, I would go further and argue that we need to amplify the CAP’s impact environmental protection. It needs to be understood more clearly by the wider public. If people understood its more positive implications and outcomes, we could generate greater support for the CAP.

To sum up, I think it is right to have the moratorium on neonicotinoids and that it was postponed to allow the supply chain to adjust. It is necessary, however, to maintain a weather eye on neonicotinoids, so I welcome the Government’s commitment to field studies. It is important that they be conducted transparently and that their outcomes be made transparent. It is also important to recognise the value of good management and the impact that the reformed CAP can have. I would like more farmers encouraged down that path. In broad terms, we should celebrate the fact that many organisations—including those in my constituency I mentioned—are doing a lot of good work for the protection of bees. We should be supporting and welcoming those local solutions. Gardeners, too, have a responsibility, because in the past they have used neonicotinoids. It is important to recognise that all of us—I indulge in a spot of gardening myself, though I do not use neonicotinoids —should promote good practice wherever it is necessary, and it is necessary in our gardens, as well as on our farms.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who is a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee, and I join him in paying tribute to the leadership of our Committee Chair, not only on this vital inquiry, but on all our inquiries.

I strongly support all the conclusions and recommendations in our report, but my interest in what is happening to our pollinating insects goes back quite a bit further than last November, when we started taking evidence. In fact, it probably dates back more than 40 years to when I was at agricultural school and undertook a course in apiculture. The certificate I secured at the end remains a treasured possession. More recently, about three years ago, that interest was further spurred by a 2009 report produced by the organisation Buglife, which our Chair has already mentioned, and the Soil Association. It was a review of the scientific literature on a group of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids on non-target insect species.

Although the combined evidence in the report was not conclusive, even at that time it rang serious alarm bells that should have received an urgent response from the Government. I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the subject, which a surprising number of Members from across the House attended to express their shared concern about the potential threat posed by these pesticides to a vital group of invertebrates—pollinating insects. Since that debate, thanks to intelligence supplied by Buglife and other environmental organisations, I have tried to keep track of further research and, when significant, have drawn it to the House’s attention through early-day motions and other parliamentary means.

As our Chair said, last autumn, the Committee decided to conduct what has turned out to be a major inquiry taking evidence from the organisations she mentioned. The first thing the Committee had to recognise was that many of our pollinating species appeared to have been in decline for some time. Of course, when we look at pollinators—especially any threats to them—the first focus is usually honey bees. That has been particularly the case in Europe and the USA in recent years, with alarming reports of what is sometimes called colony collapse on an international basis.

As a result of their economic significance, honey bees attract far more scientific attention than any other pollinator. Their decline has been ascribed to a range of causes—pests and diseases, such as the varroa mite, which has been mentioned, along with weather conditions, poor nutrition, poor husbandry, urbanisation, agricultural intensification, habitat degradation and the use and misuse of pesticides. However, honey bees are not the main pollinators in the UK—far from it. Ninety per cent of insect pollination is done by the thousands of other, wild pollinators—other bees, hoverflies, butterflies, carrion flies, beetles, midges, moths, and so on. These other pollinators are not monitored or studied like honey bees, so we do not know exactly what is happening to them. However, we received disquieting evidence from some witnesses of how, as the Chair has said, two thirds of wild pollinator species are declining, including moths, butterflies, hoverflies and bumble bees. We were told that of the 25 UK bumble bee species, two or three—no one is sure because the research has not been done—have already become extinct, while probably 10 others have suffered large range decline.

We were advised that DEFRA has a bee unit that does a good job of monitoring honey bees. There are 70 Government scientists dedicated to researching honey bees, but just part of one scientist looking at the health of wild bees. That has to change. We cannot afford to remain ignorant about our wild pollinators. That is why we call in the report for DEFRA to introduce a national monitoring programme to generate and monitor population data on a broad range of wild insect pollinator species. If we do not really know what is going on, we cannot make the right policy decisions to halt decline.

Most people looking at pollinator decline would come to the conclusion that, at least in most cases, multiple factors are at play—those that I have listed for honey bees and perhaps others. Most of our witnesses who addressed the wider picture accepted that there were probably a range of causes. However, the representatives of mainstream farming and especially the agrichemical industry were absolutely adamant that the decline had nothing to do with pesticide use and especially not the use of neonics. Our Chair has described how neonicotinoids work, which I will not repeat, but I will add that they are systemic, which means that they get into every part of the plants that are treated with them. Pollinating insects absorb them and carry them back to their nests or hives, even though they are not the target species.

My hon. Friend is making some interesting points. Does he think, as I do, that the Government perhaps need to rewrite their national pesticides action plan? There are methods other than the use of chemicals. They ought to be encouraged so that farmers and horticulturalists do whatever they can to reduce the chemical pressure on the environment and the pollinators.

I completely agree, and I am coming to the Government’s pesticides action plan, which is actually an “inaction plan”—to be quite honest, it is a disgraceful document.

We looked at the pesticide approvals regime at EU and UK levels, and found a system flawed at both. Put simply, it works like this. The chemical company puts together the scientific data to support its application and submits a dossier to the regulatory authority in any EU member state. That authority’s experts make their own assessment, which is set out in a draft assessment report. That is then reported to the European Food Safety Authority, which conducts a peer review by experts from other EU countries. Its conclusions are sent to the Commission, which makes a proposal—for approval or not—to the Council of Ministers. After approval, companies can apply to the regulatory authority in any member state for permission to market their product. The regulatory authority in the UK is the chemicals regulation directorate of the Health and Safety Executive. The CRD prepares a scientific evaluation, which is considered by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, which is a statutory, independent body that advises Ministers on whether approval should be given.

On the face of it, the whole thing sounds quite rigorous, but we found significant flaws. First, as our Chair said, the pesticide manufacturers that commission the research to submit to the regulators keep control of that research. In practice, that means that the data on safety under which a chemical is licensed are not put into the public domain, denying effective academic access and, therefore, independent criticism. In contrast, some of the academics who gave evidence to us reported that their research was openly published, which meant that where it showed a link between pesticide use and pollinator decline, defenders of the agrichemical industry would go through their work with a fine-toothed comb looking for a way to rubbish it, sometimes deliberately misinterpreting it to do so. We believe that it should not be beyond the wit of humankind to ensure maximum transparency without threatening genuine commercial sensitivity.

Another problem with the process is that, up to now, the EU approval system has explicitly addressed only the risk to honey bees. That probably would not be too bad if the honey bee were one of the more fragile and sensitive pollinators. If that were the case, and it survived exposure to a product, it would be likely that other, tougher pollinator species would be fine. In fact, we heard evidence that the honey bee is probably the most robust of the pollinators when it comes to pesticide exposure. Bumble bee research, for instance, shows the clear detrimental impact of neonicotinoid use. Some pollinators, such as hoverflies, have very different life cycles from any bees, and therefore have different exposure routes. Such pollinators remain unconsidered at present. We urge DEFRA to introduce a representative range of sentinel pollinator species in UK pesticide risk assessments, and to work for the same arrangements across the EU.

We also came across an example that showed that, however good the approval system might be in theory, it can fall down badly in practice. The neonicotinoid imidacloprid had to be re-evaluated in 2006. Germany’s regulatory authority produced the draft assessment report. One of the properties to be assessed was the propensity of the pesticide to accumulate in soil and water, and the assessments were carried out in two trials here in the UK. The results of the tests were misreported in the draft assessment report, however. It concluded that

“the compound has no potential for accumulation in soil”.

That is exactly the opposite of what the trial evidence showed. When the European Food Safety Authority conducted its peer review of the German assessment, it identified the pesticide’s apparent tendency to accumulate, and concluded:

“The risk assessment to soil dwelling organisms cannot be finalised because the assessment of soil accumulation is not finalised.”

This formed part of the text of the EFSA peer review sent to the Commission, so one might have expected that body to refuse approval until the accumulation question had been answered.

The European Commission Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health considered EFSA’s report and, astonishingly, gave imidacloprid its approval, stating that it presented

“no unacceptable risks to the environment”.

There was no mention of accumulation in soil. That was a clear and dangerous failure of the assessment process. We argued that the process needed to be tightened up by empowering EFSA to include in future peer reviews action points that the Commission must address.

We looked at the growing body of evidence linking neonicotinoid use with pollinator decline. This was taken seriously by a considerable number of academics, but dismissed by the agrichemical companies, mainly for two reasons. First, they claimed that the trial doses were higher than would be used in practice. Secondly, they stated that the experiments had been carried out in the laboratory or only partly in the field, and claimed that they could trust only field trials. That Orwellian mantra, “Field trials good, laboratory trials bad”, was repeated often during our inquiry.

DEFRA’s real underlying attitude to assessing the risks of pesticide use was inadvertently given away in a 2012 document, “Neonicotinoid insecticides and bees: the state of the science and the regulatory response”. As our Committee Chair has said, the Department stated that it needed unequivocal proof in order to support a moratorium.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making these points. This sums up the flawed basis on which permissions were being given throughout the whole regulatory procedure. We are now presenting the Government with the opportunity to take a leadership role, and we want them to follow up exactly on the recommendations in our report.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will now conclude my speech, as I have gone over the 10 minutes you suggested, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It is true to say that very little of what is discussed in this Chamber is beyond dispute. Indeed, only on Tuesday, a scientific hypothesis that has been shown to be supported by 97% of scientists writing about it in a review of 12,000 papers—namely, anthropogenic global warming—was nevertheless merrily being debated by hon. Members as though that near certainty did not exist. Questions concerning what is happening to bees and pollinators, what the causes are and what role pesticides may or may not play in the problems that we have heard this afternoon are occurring with bee populations are far less certain than that. It is thus potentially a matter for a great deal of dispute.

I want to reflect on the related problem that we as legislators have in addressing those issues and deciding how best to take action on them. The Select Committee’s work on this issue was an exemplar of how to go about that when the members themselves are not experts. Interestingly, however, as we have heard, the Environmental Audit Committee has rather more experts on it than one might think in respect of those who hold a certificate in apiculture. Also, several members are active or former farmers who have a great deal of knowledge and information about how these things work in general. The Committee did not go about its business in any kind of sensationalist manner. It operated carefully, quietly and at some length, seeking a large range of thoughts, opinions and experts in order to shed some light on what is a very knotty problem.

The problem was well summed up in a book published recently by the Canadian author, Douglas Coupland. He posited as a starting point of his novel that bees had been declared extinct. Then, across America, five people were found who had been stung by bees, and they were all arrested and immediately investigated by scientists on the basis of that apparently counter-scientific fact relating to the continuous existence of bees. Douglas Coupland was, I think, a little unscientific in setting out a world in which there were no bees, without taking account of the large number of other pollinators that exist alongside bees.

We know from the evidence produced before the Select Committee that the problem is not just about honey bees; in fact it is not just about bees as it is about all the pollinators that operate in our environment in such a fundamentally important and basic way to ensure that our ecosystem continues in a recognisable way. If the sort of declines that the Committee heard about are to continue at the same rate over the same sort of period, not just several bumble bee species but large numbers of bumble bees will be extinct.

The Committee was told that 600 solitary bees can pollinate as well as two hives containing 30,000 honey bees, so it is not just about honey bees. As our Committee Chairman mentioned, they are a sentinel species, but it is nevertheless the case that hoverflies, butterflies and all sorts of other pollinators are in steep decline. We were told that 66% of larger moth species in the countryside are declining, as are most of the bumble bees—we were told that six species had declined by at least 80% in recent years. As we have heard, hoverflies are declining, and 71% of butterfly species are declining at an alarming rate. We do not have data on the vast majority of the other pollinators, and we have to take some of those sentinel species as indicators for those other species, but we certainly do know that something is beginning to go seriously wrong with the species that pollinate our crops, flowers and food.

So I do not think the Committee had a choice in the conclusions it might reasonably draw from the material presented to it, given that, as legislators, we have to make choices when we are not necessarily complete experts in a subject. We are responsible for what happens and we have to take the best shot we can in terms of getting the best evidence available to inform our judgments. The evidence that came before the Committee demonstrated clearly a strong relationship, not only where neonicotinoids were used, but, for example, where crops were routinely dusted. Farmers cannot purchase oilseed rape seeds in this country that have not been dusted. Whether or not they think there is a problem with their crops, they simply have to plant those crops, which have, systemic within them, the effect of the neonicotinoid with which they have been dusted.

The Committee heard about the various studies done by Henry, Whitehorn and Gill, which demonstrated a strong causal link between neonicotinoids and an effect on bees in a laboratory. We also heard about the continued difficulty in conducting adequate field trials. One person who contributed to our evidence suggested that getting scientific certainty from field trials would cost about £20 million and take 10 years, if that is what one wanted to do. So we cannot deal in absolute scientific certainty on these things and, in terms of decision making, nor should we. The conclusions that the Committee reached on what should be done about neonicotinoids are absolutely right, given what we, as legislators, are charged with doing. I continue to be a little dismayed about the extent to which it appears that this is not quite the route the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking in its representations on pesticides, pollinators and bees.

I welcome the notion that further, and, we hope, much less flawed, field trials will be carried out urgently, which can get further indicators to the fore. I also welcome the idea that we should try to ensure that integrated approaches are brought to the fore in the future management of pesticides. It has been implied—the Committee unanimously felt that this was not the case—that there are no alternatives to neonicotinoids if they are taken off the roster of usable pesticides for those plants. I hope that we can use different methods of pesticide management and ensure that the crops are well maintained, with advice and assistance from DEFRA, in a way that a number of people say is not possible to do.

We remain in a world in which there is an enormous amount that we do not know. I hope that DEFRA will monitor developments involving non-bee pollinators much more closely, will keep them well to the fore in the views that it expresses and the action that it decides to take, and will continue to look at the evidence that is being produced about elements that are thought to be having an impact on colony decline. I hope that its consideration will bring together such issues as varroa mite habitats, food availability, husbandry, and, indeed, climate change, in order to create a more complete picture of what is going on.

Let me emphasise again that we do not know the details of what is going on. We do not know what is the prime cause of decline. What we do know is that there is a decline, that it is very serious, and that we can do things about it. That is the essence of what the Committee is saying in the report. It does not seek to provide all the answers; it does not look for a silver bullet; but it does suggest that there is a strong case for taking action. I hope that DEFRA will take precisely the sort of action that we need, in order to ensure that our pollinators are healthier in the future and our ecosystem revives as a result.

The debate about pollinators and pesticides tends to be seen as a debate about bees and the decline of our bee population, but, in fact, more than 250 pollinating insects are threatened with extinction, including more than 50% of all wild bee species. A third of European butterfly species are in decline, with about 10% at risk of extinction. Over the last 70 years two species of bumble bee have become extinct in the United Kingdom, and six of the remaining 24 are listed as endangered.

I was recently told by a constituent who is a county moth recorder for Gloucestershire that, according to “The State of Britain’s Larger Moths 2013”, produced by Butterfly Conservation and Rothamsted Research, Britain’s moth population has declined seriously in the last 40 years, and more than 60 species have become extinct since 1900.

There are about 400,000 species of flowering plants. While some rely on wind to move pollen and a much smaller number rely on water, the vast majority—about 90%—depend on animals and insects to transfer pollen between flowers. The considerable decline in pollinators to which some of my hon. Friends have referred today poses several risks, but in particular it poses a risk to our food supply. Bees are thought to be responsible for the pollination of about a third of the food eaten by the world’s population. Twenty per cent. of the UK’s cropped area is made up of pollinator-dependent crops, which include most fruit and vegetables.

I must confess that, as became clear when I met representatives of Friends of the Earth to discuss their campaign, I tended to think of bees as flower pollinators, and had not really thought about the food chain. However, almost all blueberries, grapefruits, avocados, cherries, apples, pears, plums, squashes, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and macadamia nuts, along with many other products—I think that cabbages were mentioned—depend on the foraging activities of bees. Moreover, pollination is responsible not just for the quantity of food but for its quality, in terms of both taste and nutrients. Watermelons that are visited more frequently by pollinators tend to have darker fruit with a richer flavour. It is estimated that without bees, the availability of vitamin C could drop by 20%.

The decline in pollinators also poses an economic risk. Their value to the UK Government is conservatively estimated to be £430 million per annum. Unless we halt the decline in British bees and other pollinators, our farmers might have to rely on hand pollination, which could cost farmers £1.8 billion a year in labour and pollen alone. That is increasingly happening in China, causing food prices to rise.

There is also a risk to the environment. Pollinators are important for the quality of our gardens, parks and countryside. Their decline gives us a worrying early warning indication about the health of our environment. Tony Juniper says in his book, “What has nature ever done for us?”:

“While governments would not consider neglecting our spending on power networks and transport infrastructure, the ‘green infrastructure’ was taken for granted.”

He goes on to say:

“We clearly possess the means to keep the world’s pollinator populations strong and robust, if we want to. All we have to do is invest in the many practical and often simple steps that will take us in that direction.”

What are the remedies? I have received hundreds of e-mails from constituents, many of whom are gardeners, witnessing the decline of the bee population. They are also helping to create bee-friendly gardens and habitats to help bees to thrive. Unlike some rural areas, which can be a monoculture in terms of pollination potential, Bristol’s parks, gardens and even buildings are being used as rich sources for flowering plants. Cities have great potential as places for restoring habitats for bees.

The Welsh Assembly is leading the way in taking action. It is currently consulting on its draft “Action Plan for Pollinators for Wales”, published in April. I have been urging the Bristol council member responsible for the environment, communities and equalities to adopt a pollinator action plan for Bristol along the same lines, given the importance of this for the Bristol area. A range of decisions taken by the current mayoral cabinet, from planning issues to management of public spaces, could have an impact on bee numbers. Indeed, local authorities could take proactive action to protect and create habitats for bees and other pollinators.

Bristol is an ideal city to take the lead in reversing bee decline. We have been shortlisted alongside Brussels, Glasgow and Ljubljana to become European green capital for 2015, and we will find out next week whether we have won. We have a well-deserved reputation as the most sustainable city in the UK, with organisations including the Soil Association and the Environment Agency based in the city, and with our growing number of innovative green businesses and community-led initiatives. We were one of the first cities to set up a food policy council, which is driving sustainable food policies for the city, including by increasing the amount of land available for allotments, and Feed Bristol is running its “get growing” garden trail this weekend; the public can visit 27 sites and be inspired to get growing.

I am delighted that a project to plant flower meadows across the city has won the mayor’s genius award for its efforts to transform the urban environment for pollinating insects. This urban pollinators project, led by the university of Bristol and working in partnership with the city council’s “meadow Bristol” project, is planting flower meadows in Bristol’s public parks and at schools, turning them into a haven for pollinating insects, as well as a beautiful display that everyone can enjoy. On 17 June in Bristol there will be a seminar called “bees, blooms and Bristol”, at which Professor Jane Memmott of the university of Bristol and others will be talking about how we can make Bristol even more pollinator-friendly. I hope that when the Government issue their planning practice guidance on biodiversity, which is expected soon, they will work with councils and the Welsh Assembly, giving them the guidance and impetus they need to protect and restore bee-friendly habitats.

Finally, I want to turn to the issue of pesticides. It was remiss of me not to congratulate at the beginning of my speech the Environmental Audit Committee on its work. Scientists have stated conclusively that neonicotinoid pesticides pose unacceptable levels of risk to honey bees. I hope the Government will adopt the Committee’s recommendation that they should rewrite their national pesticides action plan to incentivise farmers to use non-pesticide methods of pest control and set out a route for reducing overall pesticide use. There needs to be a real shift towards more wildlife-friendly farming in the UK.

I was pleased that the Committee investigated the use of pesticides both on agricultural seed and on plants and seeds sold by garden centres. One constituent, a secondary school teacher who has been planting a wild meadow in the school where she works, recently wrote to me when she was appalled to discover that the plants she was buying to attract insects could actually be harming them. I am pleased to learn from the report that many of the UK’s largest gardening retailers, including B&Q, Wickes and Homebase, have voluntarily withdrawn non-professional plant protection products that contain neonicotinoids, but I urge the Government to accept the Committee’s recommendation that we should implement a full ban on the sale of neonicotinoids for public domestic use, to help create an urban safe haven for pollinators.

My final point is about the EU vote. As we have heard, the UK Government were one of eight Governments who voted against a ban, but thankfully the vote was carried by a narrow majority and the UK will not be able to opt out. The press has carried reports of intense secret lobbying by British Ministers on behalf of chemical companies in the run-up to the vote. In a letter released to The Observer under freedom of information rules, the Environment Secretary told the chemicals company Syngenta that he was “extremely disappointed” by the proposed ban. He said that

“the UK has been very active”

in opposing it and that

“our efforts will continue and intensify in the coming days”.

We know that the Government said that they opposed the ban because they felt that there was insufficient scientific evidence from field trials to justify one, but I would be grateful if the Minister explained why the Government went beyond that in working so closely with chemical companies to oppose this moderate two-year suspension while further tests are carried out.

I congratulate the Environmental Audit Committee on its report. Out of all the Committees in the House, it has produced some absolutely fascinating reports, such as its report on protecting the Arctic and the report on green investment that is coming up. This has been a very interesting debate.

I, too, congratulate the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), and her team on the very thorough work they have done in this report. I also want to take the opportunity to express my concerns about the Government’s commitment to reversing bee decline, particularly in the light of the decision to vote against an EU-wide ban on neonicotinoid insecticides.

The need for action to reverse bee decline is highly urgent. All species of bee in the UK, including wild bumble and solitary species as well as managed honey bees, are suffering steep decline. In the last century, the UK has lost 20 species of bee and 47 surviving species are considered to be vulnerable or endangered. Such a rapid decline in bee populations, not just in the UK but across the world, poses a serious threat to global food production, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has just mentioned.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that about a third of all plants or plant products eaten by humans are dependent on bee pollination. The vital importance of bees to our environment and economy has long been known to the experts, but the critical role of our natural pollinators is only beginning to gain a wider appreciation.

Imaginative national campaigns, such as the Friends of the Earth campaign for a bee action plan, have had an impact in informing people about bee decline and gathering momentum for a comprehensive strategy from the Government. It is clear that the importance of the issue has also hit home in countries such as France and Italy. Italy is not always known for its interest in the environment, but it has led the way in banning certain types of pesticide before the moratorium was voted on by the EU.

For those of us who have been waiting for the Government to step up to the mark and action a comprehensive plan to reverse the ruinous decline in the UK’s bee population, the recent decision by Ministers to vote against the EU ban on neonicotinoid insecticides came as a blow. Thankfully for the bee population, the weight of support for the ban among other EU member states enabled the European Commission to proceed with a two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, but the UK’s action confirmed the Government’s fundamental misunderstanding of their responsibility on the issue and betrayed a worrying lack of insight into where their priorities should lie.

DEFRA Ministers are hiding behind the need for what they call “clearer proof” of harm to bees caused by neonicotinoids. Indeed, they attempted to discredit the findings of the European Food Safety Agency, which concluded that the insecticides represented a “high acute risk” to honey bees and other pollinators, by pointing out that they were based on the results of lab tests rather than “field evidence”. There were those that hoped that by capitalising on the difficulty of obtaining field evidence they could get away with maintaining the status quo.

The UK field study cited by DEFRA Ministers as proof that neonicotinoids did not pose a risk to bees was pronounced hopelessly inadequate by EFSA. The bumblebee hives intended as controls in the experiment had been contaminated by neonicotinoids, and the study was found to be deficient in a large number of other ways. EFSA also expressed pointed concern about the manner in which the authors had

“elaborated and interpreted the study results to reach their conclusions”.

Needless to say, the study was brushed hastily under the carpet and Ministers were forced to stop touting it as sufficient proof that a ban was unnecessary, but the disregard for suggestive evidence that neonicotinoids cause harm and the massaging of scientific evidence to suit current policy causes real concern. Most troubling is that the Government have completely missed the point: in this situation, given the potential truly devastating effects of bee decline, it is the Government’s duty to act with appropriate caution—a duty they have utterly failed to recognise. In other words, DEFRA Ministers must apply the precautionary principle, as set out in the 1992 United Nations Rio declaration and the Lisbon treaty. It is not for the Government to entertain a value-based preference for false negatives—a desperate willingness to conclude that neonicotinoid pesticides are safe when they might not be. As the Environmental Audit Committee report states,

“economic factors should not blur environmental risk assessment and risk management, where the protection of people and the environment must be paramount.”

The sense of disappointment in the Government’s actions on bee-harming neonicotinoids is compounded by the fact that this is exactly the sort of issue—one that has far-reaching and potentially devastating environmental and economic implications—that we expect the UK to champion. We of all countries have always had a reputation for thorough scientific research, real concern for the environment and respect for the precautionary principle, and that the Government did not decide to take a proactive leading role in tackling bee decline related to pesticide use reflects very poorly on our nation’s attitude to environmental issues and severely damages the UK’s reputation for diligence and responsibility regarding the environment. The Government have not lived up to expectations. They should have had the foresight to lead; instead, they have allowed themselves to be beaten around by the big companies—a point my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East made clearly—and left us trailing behind.

Now the Government must seize the chance to make a fresh start. The two-year moratorium on the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides on crops attractive to honey bees will provide an opportunity for DEFRA Ministers to carry out careful and impartial monitoring of the effect on bee populations of the removal of pesticides. That will be a positive action that demonstrates the UK’s appreciation of the seriousness of bee decline and its commitment to working to reverse it. It will also demonstrate the UK’s support for the work of the European Commission, which also plans to use the two-year suspension period to review new scientific evidence on how pollinators are faring more generally.

The Government must also overhaul their national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides. It was necessary to take legal advice on whether the action plan complied with the minimum standards of the EU directive, which strongly suggests that the Government failed to see the directive as an opportunity to address the wider issue of pesticide use. In fact, UK use of insecticides on crops pollinated by bees remains on a steady upward trend. The Government must abandon their irresponsible, lacklustre approach and rewrite the action plan to incentivise farmers to use non-pesticide-based methods of pest control, making sure to include targets, measures and timetables for the reduction of pesticide use overall.

The Government must also recognise their duty to apply the precautionary principle. Given what is at stake, DEFRA must commit itself to erring on the side of caution in matters relating to bee decline and in future complex matters relating to the protection of people and the environment. The Select Committee observed:

“There is no compelling economic or agricultural case for neonicotinoid use in private gardens and on amenities such as golf courses”

and said that that might provide DEFRA Ministers with an immediate opportunity to prove their commitment to the precautionary principle.

It is time for the Government to turn themselves around and to move away from their disappointing behaviour on neonicotinoid insecticides by accepting the European moratorium with grace and applying themselves to tackling the harm caused to bees by pesticides. They also need to look more widely at their policy on bees and work to formulate and introduce a comprehensive bee action plan to save threatened habitats, promote bee-friendly farming and construction practices, and guide councils and the public on how they can protect our nation’s vital pollinators.

On pesticides and on all these measures, the UK Government must take the lead. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that a UK-wide moratorium on the three neonicotinoid pesticides is fully in place by the deadline of 1 December? Will the Minister prove his commitment to countering the bee decline by setting quantitative targets for the reduction of all pesticide use and working hard to encourage the use of alternative pest management methods, as the EU directive requires? Will the Minister follow the example of the Labour Welsh Government’s draft action plan for pollinators, which sets out measures to help all bee species across all policy areas, including farming, conservation and planning? If so, when will he implement a UK-wide bee action plan? I very much hope that the Minister will be able to provide some answers this afternoon.

I begin by echoing other Members’ tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) for initiating the debate. Her Committee has published an important and powerful report on the subject and I commend all members of the Environmental Audit Committee for producing it. I am sure the Minister has pored over the document in detail and will give us his thoughts on it later this afternoon.

Outstanding contributions have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Martin Caton), the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). As usually happens when Front Benchers wind up these debates, we tend to be left with only the task of repeating many of the points that have already been made. It reminds me of the old saying that at any meeting everything that has to be said has already been said, but not everyone has said it yet. So I shall plough on regardless.

The debate around neonicotinoids has brought the decline of bee and pollinator populations into sharp focus. The profound effects this will have on the future of horticulture, agriculture and the wider environment cannot be overstated. Bees and other pollinating insects play a vital role in our food supply, providing essential pollination services estimated to be worth £440 million to UK agriculture each year, as well as enriching our natural environment and biodiversity.

Two months ago, in April, I convened what I ambitiously entitled a bee health summit, which was attended by leading academics, environmental groups, biotechnology companies, farming unions and representatives from leading apiary organisations. I apologise to the Minister for forgetting to invite him. I am sure his contributions would have been worth while. Predictably, there was a lack of agreement on the topical issue of a ban or moratorium on neonicotinoids, and the evidential base was hotly contested. It is clear that pesticides currently play an essential part in achieving high levels of crop production in the UK and elsewhere, providing affordable food for consumers and contributing to our food security. Getting the right balance between the benefits of natural pollination services and the benefits of pesticides to crop production is crucial.

At the summit, there were passionate calls to support the use of the precautionary principle, which have been echoed in the debate today, to protect against further decline while additional evidence is gathered and analysed. These calls were countered by some bee health experts, bee organisations and, yes, the companies that produce neonicotinoids, which took a more cautious line based on the lack of any assessment of the impact of a ban on farmers’ use of alternative pesticide products and the impact on UK food production and food security.

Such divides are not reserved to the UK, and a split in opinion was also observed at an EU level. However, now that the Commission has approved an EU-wide moratorium on the three types of neonicotinoids beginning in December 2013, it is vital that the Government work with all parties concerned to ensure that any negative, unintended consequences on bee health—for example, the hon. Member for Stroud referred to the wider use of spray insecticides—do not materialise.

What plans do the Government have in place to support farmers in the build-up to and during the moratorium? Does the Minister agree that the moratorium provides an excellent opportunity to help farmers and growers to adopt integrated pest management and reduce the use of pesticides in line with the Government’s own pesticides action plan? Does the Minister agree with the Society of Biology, which has pushed for adequate and stable investment in agricultural research and environmental monitoring, in order to avoid periodic crises where sufficient evidence has not been available for necessary policy decisions? Will he outline how the Government will take advantage of the breathing space afforded by the moratorium to bridge the current gaps in scientific knowledge on the effects that neonicotinoids have on bees and other pollinators?

It is crucial that a monitoring programme is put in place to assess the full impact of a moratorium and the effect that it will have on wild and managed bees and on farmers and their crops. Will the Minister assure the House that an effective monitoring programme will be put in place? I am sure that he, like me, is aware of significant concerns raised in the scientific community that two years will not be sufficient to monitor the effect on bee health of a moratorium on neonicotinoids, not least because of the multiple variables in the natural and farmed environments.

I see the Minister nodding. Does he agree that those concerns should not deter the Government from co-ordinating the most effective scientific monitoring programme possible so that we can learn from the moratorium period?

Although divides will undoubtedly pertain over a ban on neonicotinoids, during my bee health summit there was unanimous demand for a coherent strategy to reverse the decline in bee numbers and a recognition of the complex factors that need to be addressed, which go well beyond pesticides. Indeed, many warned that a ban on neonicotinoids could be seen as a panacea for the wider range of measures necessary to tackle bee decline. A moratorium does not represent a silver bullet.

The first event that I attended after being appointed to the Front Bench just over a year ago was the Friends of the Earth bee breakfast. I soon got over my initial shock and disappointment—nay, anger—at the lack of breakfast actually being served, because the point was to show what would be available to eat in the event of a world that no longer had bees. That was a very clever, though frightening, way of getting the point across. I can assure Members that people did finally come forward with the toast, butter, honey and jam. They made the crucial point that neonicotinoids and pesticides were important, but only as part of the wider environmental impact that is resulting in bee decline and hive collapse.

There are many causes behind pollinator decline, including changes in agricultural practice in the UK and across Europe; the growth in monocultural crops; the removal of hedges and other wildlife corridors; the increased use of fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides; bee pests, including the Varroa mite and deadly pathogens such as Nosema; and the effect of climate change on patterns of flowering, hibernation and food availability. Those are all contributing to falling populations of bees and other pollinator insects. I have frequently voiced the opinion that if we allow ourselves to see the moratorium on neonicotinoids as a silver bullet for bee decline, we become complacent, think “Job done,” and fail to address the many other important issues that we face. It is clear that there is no single solution to the multiple threats that pollinators face, and that is why it is vital that we do not see the moratorium as a panacea.

Labour believes that the Government have a crucial part to play in reversing falling populations. We commend Friends of the Earth for their work in promoting their national bee action plan, which would put a comprehensive set of UK-wide measures in place to tackle the many drivers of pollinator decline. Though Ministers have cited a number of Government-led initiatives to improve bee health, these ultimately fail to meet the scale and urgency of the task in hand. Current failure to tackle habitat loss, which needs to be approached from both a conservation and a planning perspective, is a prime example of where the Government are failing to make headway. On the conservation side, in their biodiversity strategy for England, “Biodiversity 2020”, they have not set out specific measures to help threatened bee species or to protect or restore habitats most important to bees, such as lowland meadows and upland hay meadows. Worryingly, DEFRA’s latest habitat trend data show that those habitats are in decline. Will the Minister ensure that they are urgently restored and that specific measures are put in place to help threatened bee species?

The Government are set to publish planning practice guidance on biodiversity. That is an important opportunity to give councils guidance and impetus to protect and restore bee-friendly habitat through the planning system. However, so far there has been no evidence that the Government are planning to take that opportunity or even to issue the guidance for public consultation. Has the Minister spoken yet with his colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government regarding this matter, and if so, has he impressed upon them the importance of the issue?

Labour will continue to work with farmers and horticulturists and with bee and environmental organisations to create a future of secure and affordable food produce from a natural and farm environment that minimises the risk to our pollinators and enhances our countryside, wildlife, habitats and biodiversity. In order to do that, I urge the Government once again to use the moratorium period to fill the gaps in scientific knowledge of the effects of pesticides and to bring forward urgently a comprehensive national bee action plan to reverse the awful decline in bee health.

This has been an extremely good debate and I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) and her Committee for their report. She knows that we have had a short delay in responding to her, for the precise reasons that she had a short delay in producing the report. The circumstances have been changing quickly and we want to get it right, so I apologise to her and her Committee for that. My noble friend Lord de Mauley is responsible for this area, but the hon. Lady will appreciate that it falls to me to respond to the debate in this House.

I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) for his balanced remarks, which showed that this is a complex issue. I am interested in it, not least because as Minister for agriculture I know that bees and pollinators are crucial. I cannot underline sufficiently how important pollinators are to agriculture and horticulture, so of course I have that interest.

I also have an enormous personal interest in the issue. I spoke from the Opposition Benches about bees for a very long time. I spoke on the subject right back in June 1998, when I said:

“We need a step change in investment in the investigation of bee disease if we are to stem a worldwide phenomenon that is lapping at our doorstep and has the potential to become a crisis, both for the insect population and in economic terms”.—[Official Report, 17 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 204WH.]

That is what I said in 1998, so people are now free to quote that back at me, but I meant it. We were arguing then in the context of very little work at Government level on bees. It took the best part of a decade before we pressed the previous Government to start taking the issue of bees and pollinators seriously, which they did: we now have the national bee unit and I think we now need to go one step further in our approach.

I welcome the opportunity to highlight what the Government have been doing in relation both to pollinators and pesticides and to our future plans. We take this issue extremely seriously. It is crucial. Contrary to what some have said, specifically in relation to neonicotinoid insecticides, we have kept the evidence under close and open-minded scrutiny and we continue to do so. We will restrict the use of insecticides. Obviously, neonicotinoids are now dealt with under the moratorium, but we will deal with others as well, if the evidence shows that there is a need to do so. I will come back to that point later.

The hon. Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Glasgow South pointed out that pollinators face many other challenges. It is critical that one issue, such as the use of particular pesticides, does not dominate the debate, because so many other individual factors, when taken together, have a complex effect on our pollinator population.

The Minister has said that the Government will take action if the evidence shows that they need to. Will he explain how that relates to the moratorium delivered by the European Commission?

I will come back to the specific issue of neonicotinoids in a moment. The moratorium is in place, so we will, of course, fully comply with it. We do not not comply with decisions of that kind. I will return to the evidence, because it is a critical issue.

I repeat that bees are essential to the health of our natural environment and the prosperity of our farming industry. The “Biodiversity 2020” document has been mentioned. We have set ourselves the challenge of achieving an overall improvement in the status of our wildlife and preventing further human induced extinctions of known threatened species. We have put a landscape scale approach to biodiversity conservation at the heart of “Biodiversity 2020”. It is vital that that approach is effective in helping to conserve our most threatened species.

Nature improvement areas are beginning to make a difference for species on the ground. The 12 Government-funded NIAs are by no means the sum total of our ambitions. We want to see that approach rolled out more widely by enthusiasts across the country. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is seeing exactly that in her city. We want that to be extended and it is clearly already happening.

We want to make environmental stewardship more effective. As the House knows, we are in the process of negotiating CAP reform. It is not clear what the outcomes will be. We do not know the extent to which greening measures will be in pillar 1 or pillar 2, or the exact recipe that will emerge from our decisions on agri-environmental schemes that derive from pillar 2 or voluntary modulation. This matter is a key consideration in that context and I will certainly be pressing for it in the outcome.

The European Scrutiny Committee has requested a debate on CAP reform. Will the Minister say when that is likely to be scheduled?

I am responsible for a large number of things in my Department, but the scheduling of House business is not one of them. In my previous post, I might have been able to give the hon. Lady an answer, but in my current post I cannot. To be honest, now would not be the best time to have that debate because we are just reaching what we hope will be a conclusive meeting of the Council of Ministers. After that, we will have a much clearer idea of the outcomes and how they will be effected in the UK.

We recognise that there is still a need for targeted conservation action for our most threatened species. Natural England’s species recovery programme is designed to help with projects to support priority species, such as the short-haired bumblebee. Many Members have made the point that we are talking not just about the honey bee, but about many other native bee species and other non-bee pollinators. My noble Friend Lord de Mauley has announced that he is considering the development of a more holistic health strategy to cover all pollinators. He has been meeting interested parties, such as Friends of the Earth, to explore what added value that approach could bring.

We will continue with our wider work to understand and counter the various factors that harm bees and other pollinators. DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser and Ministers have met a number of interested parties to discuss that work, including non-governmental organisations. We will seek to host discussions with other stakeholders over the summer.

As I have said, there are many things that we do not yet understand about the reductions in pollinator populations. There are many major factors, including the varroa mite, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), foulbrood and the undoubted effects of climate change and environmental and ecological changes in this country. That is why some experts are very unclear as to the quantifiable effect of pesticides. The British Beekeepers Association keeps an open mind on that, as do we. We want to know what the connections are and to see the evidence.

Let us return to the issue of pesticides. As we heard in the debate, the European Commission recently adopted a ban on the use of three neonicotinoids on crops that are “attractive to bees” and on some cereal crops. The ban also covers amateur use, so the Government do not need to bring in an extension.

It is documented that we did not support action, the reason being that we had urged the Commission to complete a full assessment of the available scientific evidence, taking into account new field research that we had carried out. Let us talk about that because it is a serious issue. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North asked whether we reject laboratory evidence, but of course we do not; it is extraordinarily important. However, we would like some coherence between what we see in the laboratory and what we see in field trials. That does not make field trials the only thing that matter, but such a correlation is not presently there.

From laboratory tests we are clear that neonicotinoids have a toxicity for bees. We do not know, however, what the exposure is in a natural environment, and the two things go together. Many things are toxic but do not create a deleterious effect in the field simply because the exposure is too low. That is where we must do a lot more work, and that is exactly where we are commissioning it. We were clear that the work done by FERA was by no means a satisfactory field trial. We never pretended that it was; it had to be done quickly to meet a timetable—set not by us, but by others—to give at least some indication of whether that correlation was there. Incidentally, I will not accept criticism of FERA scientists on that basis. They are extremely good and do their work in a totally dispassionate and independent way on the best scientific principles. They were asked to do a quick piece of work—which they did—and that is why it was not peer reviewed, as would be normal practice. We felt it was important to put the matter in the hands of the Commission, which was about to make a decision on a highly contentious subject.

I make no apologies for recognising that there is, of course, a strong imperative to look at evidence that suggests a toxic consequence and, where possible, to take a precautionary approach to these matters. However, a precautionary approach is not as two-dimensional as sometimes suggested and must take into account the consequences of the action in question. The hon. Member for Glasgow South mentioned the economic consequences, and of course that is a factor, although not an overriding one.

Of far more concern is a point also raised by hon. Members about alternative pesticides that are fully legal under EU law and that it would be perfectly proper for people to use, such as pyrethroids, organophosphates or carbamates, because the potential is that they would be even more damaging to the pollinator population. That concern does not mean that we should not take action against neonicotinoids if the evidence is clear that they are causing problems in field conditions, but it was not unreasonable to say that the paucity of field-trial evidence was astonishing.

I do not have portfolio responsibility for this matter, but when I looked at it with a view sympathetic to what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North was saying, I was amazed at how little evidence there was in field conditions, which I think exposes a failure of the scientific world to address the problem. I hope that we can play our part in persuading others across the European Union to take a more rational view of where we concentrate our research so that we get the evidence we need, and that is what we are trying to do. Although our assessment is that the risk to the bee population from neonicotinoids, as currently used, is low, we may be wrong and evidence may come forward from trials that shows otherwise. If such evidence is there, we shall, of course, accept it, but we need more complete evidence than we currently have.

The European Commission has committed itself to a review of evidence by 2015, which we want to be founded firmly on a strengthened scientific evidence base. We will play our part in that and are currently talking about the design of field trials that might be in place during the moratorium period, so that we can gather evidence, not just on the honey bee, but on other bee species as well. The FERA research was on the bumblebee rather than the honey bee. It is important that we understand how other species are affected.

I take a great deal of pleasure in knowing how much my hon. Friend knows about the subject and how sincerely he takes it to heart, but does he understand that some of my constituents see the careful words he has just spoken as indicating that the Government are ducking and weaving? May I ask him, in the nicest possible way, whether the Government will be in a position to take a decision when the further research is done or whether they will want still more research to be that little bit more certain?

Let me be very clear—I am not the world’s greatest scientist, although I have a scientific degree—that we cannot have scientific certainty; we can have only a balance of probabilities based on evidence. We think that the evidential basis for the decision is weak because we do not have evidence from field trials. If the evidence suggests that laboratory results are replicated in field conditions, we will want to take a decision, because we want to protect our pollinator populations. That is important.

I have very little time left because the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North needs to respond to the debate. She asked three questions, including one on the precautionary principle. I hope I have explained our approach on that. She asked about the research and the difference between laboratory and field studies, and about the EU directive on the sustainable use of pesticides, which I believe the Government will implement in full. More work needs to be done on pesticides across the board. It is a misrepresentation to say that the wicked seed companies are pulling the wool over the eyes of the rest of the world. We need transparency of evidence so we know exactly what is happening during the regulatory process and beyond. We are speaking to those companies to ensure that they provide the greatest possible transparency.

The hon. Lady asked what changed between the abstention and the decision to vote no. The answer is that we pressed and pressed again on the need to commission the evidence that we believe would have given a sound basis for the decision, but we did not secure agreement. That is why we are in the position we are in.

The Government are determined to do everything we can to protect our bees and pollinators. They are essential not only to our economy, but to our environment and our ecology. We will take all necessary steps to do so.

This has been a useful debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Martin Caton), for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). The Environmental Audit Committee will consider what we can do to support my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East in her efforts to make Bristol the capital of green cities. We have had the Friends of the Earth breakfast. In view of our debate, the question is whether, at quarter to 3 or two minutes to 5, there is honey still for tea.

The Committee has sought to produce a timely and considered report. We intend our recommendations to be part of an ongoing process of parliamentary scrutiny. It might be in our interests that the Government response will be delayed, just as the integrated pest management report was delayed—it might be in our interests if the delay means we will get a more informed response, and if the Committee will have greater engagement on how such multifaceted issues can be developed. The breathing space of the moratorium we have as a result of the European Commission might help to take the debate forward, and we would welcome a fully informed response from the Government. However, we do not want the Government simply to dismiss the Committee’s work, and we do not want the lack of targets and everything else in the integrated pest control plan to continue. The Committee is a team and this has been a team effort. We want to engage with the Government on how we can ensure, working with farmers and business, and all those people in the British countryside—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).