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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The hon. Gentleman refers to disease control, but what is the official Liberal Democrat policy on vaccination? He will be aware that Lord Greaves, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats in the other place, has called for immediate vaccination, but I am not entirely sure if that is the hon. Gentleman's policy.

Malcolm Bruce: It might be Lord Greaves's policy. The policy on vaccination has been recognised; it is an agreed international policy, to which we have signed up. Indeed, I have said on several occasions that the policy cannot be changed half way through a crisis. I certainly think that vaccination should be considered, but it would have been quite wrong to change the policy mid-term. I have also said that the role that quarantine could play should be considered. A public inquiry should look into those issues—that is what it is for.

Common sense tells me, and it should tell the House, that the rundown in the quality, availability and volume of advice for the Government has been a factor in our problems, and we should consider what we need to do to raise our defences once again, to ensure that we can monitor and control disease penetration into this country. Frankly, our ability to establish public confidence internally and any significant export operations in the long term depend on our being able to reassure people that we have the matter under control, and we patently have not had it under control for the past 10 years or more.

I want to press home a point made by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who asked the Minister—he did not get much of a reply—about the rural commission. It was a Labour manifesto pledge. It was set out as though it was a radical cultural change and, indeed, a justification for the creation of a new Department. Six weeks have passed since the election and we are getting no information—

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): Six weeks and it has not been done!

Malcolm Bruce: Not only has nothing been done, but we have not been told how and when it will be done and who will be involved. There is plenty of speculation outside the House about the rural commission. One such speculation is that it will be entirely an internal Government commission, that it will not involve outside consultation, that it will be by Lord Haskins and that it will report by the autumn. If that is not true, will the Government tell us what is true, and then we shall all know what we are working with. In the interests of the Government who say that they wish to engage, how on earth can Opposition politicians or those in the wider community contribute to such an operation if they do not know its format and timetable? Why are the Government so coy? It would be helpful if Ministers would give us a little more information than they have so far.

Some useful experience is emerging from Scotland, which has had a Rural Affairs Department—at the Liberal Democrats' insistence—for two years. In the past two

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weeks, my Liberal Democrat colleague, Scotland's Minister for Rural Development, Mr. Ross Finnie, has produced a useful forward strategy for Scottish agriculture that contains some valuable pointers. Particularly welcome is the rebalancing of £70 million in recognition of the fact that farmers need to diversify their income base. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary jeers, but his own party endorses and supports those proposals, which could usefully be adopted by a new Department.

The suggestion is that farmers should be able to apply for funding to support not just farming operations, but environmental management, tourism and other business projects that can generate income and employment opportunities. That approach has also been reinforced by Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament in their review of the common agricultural policy. Co-ordination and clarification of the relationship between the Department headed by the Secretary of State and the Departments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be helpful.

I shall give a constituency example. A rendering plant in my constituency operates to a rather poor standard and that generates many complaints and much trouble. However, when we complain to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, we are told that it is powerless to enforce controls because it has been told by DEFRA that the overriding responsibility is to process and render the consequences of foot and mouth. That may be the case, but environmental standards should not be compromised at the same time. Who is calling the shots? Why cannot we have both effective rendering management and good environmental standards?

The Scottish strategy also recognises the need for UK-wide and EU-wide initiatives on livestock movements, which I have mentioned; on a scheme for establishing traceability in sheep, which is clearly difficult but desirable; on eradicating scrapie; on reducing the number of transactions involving live animals; and on buy-out schemes for farmers approaching retirement. They are all useful initiatives and I hope that they will be the subject of genuine debate. A commission could usefully consider them, and practices being developed in Scotland could inform that process.

If we are considering a holistic approach to rural services and to the rural economy—something that the hon. Member for South Suffolk was anxious to stress—more vision will be needed. We tabled an amendment to the motion, because simply cataloguing the problems does not take us very far. It is important that we find ways of moving forward.

It is true that post offices continue to close and are doing so at an accelerating rate. Transport services are also under threat. The Secretary of State said that 2,000 new bus services had been introduced, but I presume that she meant in England or in England and Wales. In Aberdeenshire, 1,600 services were withdrawn last month because Stagecoach, which is suffering from the losses on the railways, felt unable to sustain them and the local authority was quite incapable of finding the money to keep more than a fraction of them going. We are not moving forwards, but back.

Community hospitals in rural areas are under review and, in many cases, rural authorities do not have the resources to pick up the pieces. The Secretary of State also said that there had been only two school closures—

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presumably in England—but there was one in my constituency in the last 12 months. It took place under a Labour chair of education and was approved by a Labour Education Minister despite the highly dubious case made.

When services are cut and closures take place in rural areas, no one takes responsibility for the transfer costs to the citizens living in those areas. Agencies say that they cannot sustain the cost of a service, so they close it down and they pass the cost to people in rural areas to pick up. The Government should consider requiring any agency to capitalise that cost and for it to be taken into account before any closure goes ahead. That might very well alter many of the decisions made.

The irony is that more and more people are moving into the countryside when services are diminishing. That is madness. We need a moratorium on the reduction in services and we need—I hope that we will get it—a radical approach in the new Department to rural policy and services. However, it would help if Ministers could provide us with some answers before the House rises for the summer

5.13 pm

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): I welcome the opportunity to say a few words in the debate and I very much welcome the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The new Department can successfully bring together countryside interests in a forward-looking way and an environmentally sustainable way. Both aspects are important. The new Department should certainly see agriculture as part of the wider rural economy and in the wider context at regional, national and European levels. That is vital if agriculture is to recover from the foot and mouth disaster.

I do not intend to concentrate on the foot and mouth crisis, however. That is not because I do not consider it serious, because it obviously is; nor is it because I am not prepared to defend what my colleagues and I did in the previous Ministry. Indeed, I welcome the inquiry and believe that some of its findings will place the Department in a good light. However, given the scale of the disaster and the stark differences between the recent outbreak and that of 1967, about which I have spoken several times, it will certainly be true that not everything was handled perfectly,

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Farmers in my constituency are usually very critical of Ministers, but they have paid tribute to the work of the right hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) while they were office. I thank her for meeting my constituents during the outbreak to discuss their problems and remind her that at such a meeting she expressed sympathy for those who had to experience the burial of carcases in vast quantities at Widdrington. She said that the Government needed to recognise their contribution when forming future policy. Is she still of that view?

Joyce Quin: Indeed I am. The right hon. Gentleman's constituents made a strong case. That site is located in a part of the country that has experienced many environmental problems over a long period. I thank him for his kind words. It is my experience that one is paid more compliments on leaving government than as a Minister in government. None the less, I am grateful for his comments.

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I want to consider the future of farming and agriculture. By contrast with the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), Labour Members are of the view that farming has an important future. Food production is agriculture's role first and foremost. I believe that the British farming industry can supply a good proportion of our food requirements, and that applies both to meat products and to the fruit and vegetables that are produced by our horticulture sector. No doubt we will continue to import products that we cannot produce ourselves, but I hope that we can rebuild our export markets.

Labelling is important and I do not accept the Conservatives' criticisms of the Government on that. Country of origin labelling, which exists for fruit and vegetables and some meat, is an important aspect of giving consumers information and allowing them to make an informed choice. I hope that Ministers will continue the work of the previous Department in stressing concerns about labelling at a European level and by increasing the amount of clear and accurate information that consumers across the single market can expect.

Marketing schemes are important to help farmers add value to their products. As a Minister, I was struck by some of the successful marketing schemes, such as the fell-bred marketing brand in the Lake district. Successful work on branding has also been carried out in Scotland, Wales and parts of England. Those schemes help to build consumer loyalty to brands and often help them to buy regional and local produce, which is often a good trend.

I was also much taken by the growth in the regional and speciality food market. I pay tribute to some of the regional food organisations, in particular Taste of the West, which has a good record in promoting regional foods in the south-west and winning markets much further afield. Co-operation along the food chain is important, and for that reason I hope that the code of practice, which will mean that supermarkets treat their suppliers reasonably and fairly, will work. I am sure that those of us who are interested in these issues will be keen to monitor its operation in the weeks and months ahead.

The role that agriculture plays in countryside and environment issues must be taken fully into account. When we are looking at the relationship between farming and the environment, we must consider things like support for organic farming. I believe that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), has been taking part in a debate on organic farming in Westminster Hall. I know that he personally has a long-standing commitment to that sector, and that the Government have considerably increased the funding for organic farming.

Happily, the Government have expanded the countryside stewardship schemes, which go back several years, and it is important that they continue to do so. We must recognise that there are parts of conventional farming that are much more environmentally sensitive than they used to be. I think of the programme linking the environment and farming—known as LEAF—and of the fact that much modern farming equipment is able, even when it is applying pesticides, to target crops much more sensitively than in the past. Developments in conventional farming are making it more environmentally benign. All those issues will continue to be important.

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I strongly believe that the regional dimension is important to the future of agriculture in our country. That is why I welcome the fact that MAFF, now DEFRA, has appointed staff to the Government regional offices to ensure that agriculture is fully factored into regional economic strategies. We need to consider the role that agriculture can play in exploiting and developing the economic potential of the different regions. I hope that the regional development agencies will give full weight to agriculture in their strategies and exploit as effectively as possible the links between rural and urban areas and between farming and food industry jobs. Regional economic growth and jobs will depend on such initiatives, which will be enormously helpful to the future of agriculture.

No speech about the future of agriculture would be complete without a reference to the common agricultural policy, and indeed the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred to it in his contribution. The policy is still in need of profound change, but the prospects for that change are better than they have ever been. The CAP is not appropriate in the present circumstances, because it supports certain agriculture sectors and not others.

The policy has been slow to reform, so it has tended to be backward looking and only with great difficulty can it withstand pressures from the World Trade Organisation and enlargement of the European Union, as well as pressures for greater compatibility between environmental protection and agriculture policies. As I said, however, the prospects for change are greater than ever before; certainly, a helpful start was made with the development of the second pillar of the policy, the rural development regulation. That has allowed the introduction of schemes that are more flexible in their support of agriculture sectors and more forward looking on the subject of how farmers can add value to their products.

The changes agreed, especially at the time of the Berlin summit, are helpful, and we have seen in the European Council of Ministers that an increasing number of Europe's Agriculture Ministers take a more forward- looking and reformist approach to the common agricultural policy; the change in Germany is particularly positive. During my last months as a Minister at MAFF, I was aware of the growing number of allies that the UK Government were gathering in relation to agricultural reform.

It will be important that the UK Government protect British interests and make sure that any new rules that emerge from the proposed changes do not give unfair advantage to one party or another. However, I believe that the UK Government are excellently placed to build alliances with like-minded countries, so I conclude by wishing my colleagues every success in that important task of reform.

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