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House of Commons

Thursday 8 March 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Thursday 15 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

Veterinary Surveillance

1. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): What steps he is taking to maintain a national veterinary surveillance structure. [151384R]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Effective veterinary surveillance is a key element of public and animal health protection. A thorough review of current veterinary surveillance measures was issued for consultation last year. We are currently developing strategy proposals that will draw on responses to the consultation, the findings of the BSE report and any lessons to be learned from recent disease outbreaks.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister will appreciate that the question was tabled before the foot and mouth outbreak, in which both his and private vets are doing a splendid job.

First, will he consider the specific issue of the importance of using modern information technology in veterinary surveillance, both in reporting and exchanging information and, possibly, through imaging, in diagnosis? Secondly, more widely, will he take seriously the concerns that have been expressed by the British Veterinary Association, which are also relevant to the present problem--that there must be adequate continuing resources for a system to work effectively?

Mr. Brown: The issue of resources is at the forefront of my mind, but I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the unqualified assurances that he seeks in response to both parts of his question. I thank him for his kind words

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about the state veterinary service and the veterinarians who have come from private practice and from abroad to help us with the current foot and mouth outbreak.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Will such resources as will be available in the next few months be sufficient to tackle the current crisis, and what plans does the Minister have to ensure that services continue beyond that? It seems clear from the Phillips report that one of the real problems was the run-down of the state veterinary service over many years, which needs to be reversed. What will happen when the vets who have come from abroad depart, resulting in a huge gap in the professional advice that is available to us?

Mr. Brown: The state veterinary service is about to employ almost twice as many veterinarians as it usually would, and some are employed in specialist capacities rather than as general veterinarians. The service is ably led by the chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamore, on whose advice I rely in managing the current foot and mouth outbreak. I have told him that he is to have the resources that he needs to control the outbreak, and we will argue about where they come from afterwards. Of course, the issue of resources will have to be kept under review, and that and the findings of the Phillips report will form part of our consideration of what has happened once we have the disease under control. At the minute, however, all efforts must be focused on getting the disease under control. That is our priority.

Horticulture (Packaging)

2. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): What recent meetings he has had with the Horticultural Trades Association to discuss the impact of rules on packaging on the horticulture industry. [151385]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): I last met representatives of the Horticultural Trades Association on 1 February. The meeting covered a range of issues of interest to the horticulture industry, including the question of plant pots as packaging.

Mr. Chope: Does the Minister agree that the decision of the Lord Chief Justice in the plant pot case on 29 January was potty, and that it would be much better for the Government now to introduce emergency legislation to change the regulations so that they have the same impact on our horticulture industry as the equivalent regulations introduced in Holland, France and Italy under the same EU directive? Does she further agree that the court has misinterpreted the intentions of the House when it passed the regulations, and will she take urgent action because, apart from anything else, the Government are already imposing a substantial burden on the horticulture industry through the climate change levy?

Ms Quin: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the prime responsibility for the packaging regulations lies with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. In my discussions with the Horticultural Trades Association and others, I have made representations to my colleagues in the DETR, as well as to the European Commission. One of the aspects that the hon. Gentleman

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raises is the important one of how the regulations are being implemented throughout the EU. A number of countries have taken the same view as the British court, but a number of others have not. This is such an important matter for the horticulture industry that we need to move forward on the basis of a common approach to the regulations.

Agrimonetary Compensation

3. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If he will make a statement on future payments of agrimonetary compensation. [151386]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture announced that he intends to draw down £171 million in agrimonetary compensation for the beef, sheep and dairy sectors, including all of the £156 million in optional compensation. The cost of that to the United Kingdom taxpayer is £129 million. This latest allocation of agrimonetary compensation is in addition to the £629 million already paid since 1997.

Mr. Heath: May I wholly welcome the drawing down of agrimonetary compensation? I observe, however, that the spin that suggests that it is a response to foot and mouth disease is unhelpful. The money was already necessary and was asked for long before the foot and mouth outbreak.

I have two particular questions. First, in respect of the distribution of agrimonetary compensation this year, what is the qualifying date for payments made on a headage basis, and will it be affected by any slaughter policy for foot and mouth? Secondly, and more difficult, will the money be provided for dairying according to quota held or quota used, and will that delay the process?

Finally, what will replace the current agrimonetary compensation system when it runs out this year? What moves have the Government made to establish an alternative process within the European Union?

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman asks about five questions in his so-called supplementary question. We are informing farmers about a number of issues. Entitlement relates to the current holding and to the current circumstances of farmers in the different sectors concerned. I hope that he will welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister secured European Commission agreement to make the payments to farmers much earlier than they would usually have been made. Of course, the foot and mouth disease informed our decision on the allocation of the money. Every time we have decided whether to pay out such money, we have had to consider conditions in agriculture and in the sectors that are entitled to such payments. For that reason, foot and mouth disease is an important part of the background to the compensation, especially as so much of the bill for agrimonetary payments is paid by the British taxpayer, despite the fact that they are called European payments.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): The farmers of Monmouthshire do not often pay compliments to Agriculture Ministers, regardless of their party, but they are currently paying particular compliments to my right

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hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and his colleagues for the way in which they have drawn down agrimonetary compensation and handled the foot and mouth epidemic. Will my right hon. Friend consider other measures that would help the movement of ewes in lamb, including those that are on tack, to enable such sheep to be brought back home in order to lamb at this difficult time?

Ms Quin: I very much welcome my hon. Friend's comments, which accord with those made to us by farmers and farmers' organisations throughout the country.

On his final point, we are trying to consider the matter as sympathetically as possible while ensuring the strictest controls to prevent the movement of the disease. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture plans to say something further about that later today.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Minister might be aware that some sections of the livestock industry have not been able to benefit from agrimonetary compensation. Their problems are typified by the call that I received from Mr. Tom Fare, a pig farmer in my constituency. He told me that although the licensing scheme introduced by the Minister of Agriculture thankfully ensures that he is now able to market some of his pigs, he is at the mercy of a marketplace that he feels is not working to the advantage of pig farmers. He also worries about the additional costs associated with slaughter at this difficult time. Will she and the Minister of Agriculture consider those circumstances, especially with regard to those who do not benefit from agrimonetary compensation?

Ms Quin: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about which Ministers have obviously been concerned. He knows the European system well and is aware that agrimonetary compensation is available to some livestock producers, but not all of them. That is why we have brought forward money that was available under the pig industry restructuring scheme to try to help pig farmers. He made the important point that we have started some movement--albeit limited--of animals to slaughter in order to help farmers, including pig farmers. Obviously, we must keep the situation constantly and sympathetically under review.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Yesterday, the Chancellor referred to a great many people and industries in his Budget speech, but he announced nothing new for farmers or farming. Will the Minister of State confirm that agrimonetary compensation is specifically designed to compensate British farmers for the weakness of the euro? It was needed long before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease was confirmed two weeks ago. Will she also confirm that agrimonetary compensation is an inadequate response to the financial damage caused by foot and mouth disease?

Ms Quin: Agrimonetary payments are part of the response, but the Government are introducing a range of measures on foot and mouth disease. I appreciate that, on the whole, the Opposition have supported them, but they have a short memory about agrimonetary payments. They did not make such payments when in government; perhaps they believe that we have forgotten all the arguments that farmers directed against them in the late

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1980s about amounts of compensation and their failure to revalue the green pound in the way in which farmers wanted. We have not forgotten, even if the hon. Gentleman has.

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