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Rhizomania (East Anglia)

12.30 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter. Rhizomania and its associated problems do not occupy the forefront of every Member's mind. The Minister must be wondering what he has done wrong to have to be in the Chamber for so long today to listen to debates on disease problems facing the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : Westminster Hall debates often provide an excellent opportunity to educate Ministers as well as other Members and it is a pleasure to respond to the right hon. Lady. I have had to become engaged with an issue that had not previously come to my attention, as she rightly suggested. However, the result is that I understand precisely why she raised the matter today.

Mrs. Shephard : I thank the Minister and I hope that he feels the same at the end of my contribution.

The position produced by DEFRA's consultation proposals is causing extreme concern among farmers and growers in East Anglia. The Minister, who will be an assiduous reader of Farmers Weekly, will know that that is causing concern across the board in the agricultural community. I hope that we shall have a positive response from the Minister today.

I shall give an explanation of rhizomania. It is a highly damaging disease of sugar beet, which reduces crop yields and persists in the soil for many years. Since the first discovered outbreak in the country in Suffolk in 1987, the United Kingdom has enforced a statutory containment policy authorised by a protected zone status for the whole country, supported by the European Commission and the plant health division of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, now DEFRA. The policy of a combination of protected zone status and containment has worked well, thanks to a highly responsible attitude on the part of the industry. In sharp contrast with other parts of Europe where the disease is more or less endemic, less than 0.1 per cent. of UK arable beet land has become infected by rhizomania. In France, more than 50 per cent. is affected and in Holland the infection rate is well over 90 per cent.

Since 1987, there have been 211 outbreaks of the disease: 200 in Norfolk and Suffolk, and many of them in my constituency. After the first outbreak, we had a rash of outbreaks in South-West Norfolk, which made us feel like the rhizomania capital of the UK. Of those outbreaks, 68 have occurred this year. That may have caused anxiety among Ministers, but most of us realise that the high incidence of outbreaks this year is due to the exceptionally late crop planting because of bad weather in the spring. This year, by any standards, is atypical.

The low level of infection in the United Kingdom has not happened by accident. The first outbreaks in Norfolk and Suffolk, as I remember only too well, were accompanied by draconian containment measures. They caused hardship not only for all those involved in the sugar beet industry—farmers, growers, hauliers, processsors and so on—but because of the requirements

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for care over soil movements by potato and carrot growers, nurserymen and strawberry growers. At that time, MAFF Ministers kept in close touch with farmers and growers in the industries affected industries and, over time, adjusted and adapted containment policies to ease, where possible, conditions that made economic survival difficult for sugar beet people and others. Because of the hardship and the realisation of everyone concerned that the consequences of rhizomania were grave for the whole industry, since 1987, as the Minister knows much effort has been put into the development of disease-resistant beet varieties that are commercially attractive. It is universally recognised that that is the only proper and viable way forward.

For years, MAFF's plant health division—now under DEFRA—has worked with British Sugar and the National Farmers Union on plant development. So far, one variety, called "concept", has been produced that is economical viable and climate tolerant. Comparable varieties should be available to farmers in two to three years' time. As far as the industry was aware, Ministers supported that on-going work and its timetable, and they were amazed to hear, through the consultation document that DEFRA recently issued on the future of protected zones, that Ministers intended to ditch the policy of containment, apparently in response to demands from the European Commission. On 30 November, Farmers Weekly asked:

Farmers and growers would heartily agree. The Minister and his Government are presiding over the worst crisis in agriculture since the first world war. In Norfolk, where 30 per cent. of the UK sugar beet crop is grown, 10,000 jobs depend on beet production and processing alone. In August, Larking Gowen, a Norwich-based firm of accountants, produced a report of Norfolk farm incomes in the year 2000. It makes gloomy reading and points out that farm incomes fell by 50 per cent. against the previous year. The average profits of the surveyed farms were substantially less than a farm employee's wages. Tenant farmers were found to be working to pay the rent, while living off capital. Farm incomes are at their lowest for 60 years; the strong pound, world commodity prices and the effects of swine fever, foot and mouth, BSE and bad weather conditions have taken their toll.

In that sea of problems, sugar beet has, in many cases, been the lifebelt keeping farmers afloat. The industry is still reeling from the implications of the Government's "everything but arms" initiative. Now, they have signalled their intention to deal the industry another body blow by abandoning the containment policy, which has been a success and is affording the necessary time to the industry to develop a proper long-term solution. The industry wants to know why that is happening, and I hope that we will get answers today.

According to the DEFRA consultation document, the UK's protected zone status for rhizomania comes to an end in March 2002. Decisions are therefore needed to

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If those are the choices, the Minister must explain why he does not propose to continue the status in the consultation document, but only to modify or end it. Why has he prejudged the issue? Why does he not put to the industry all the choices that his document lays out?

The document claims that there are doubts in Europe over whether the UK is meeting the legal requirements for protected zone status. That is not borne out by my most recent information from the Commission, which I will come to in a moment. His other claim, that there is

can be totally countered by the self-evident fact that he is not willing to allow the industry the two or three years needed to complete its work and perfect those varieties. The real reason, as is becoming usual with this Government, is that they are not willing to devote resources to agriculture. I hope that the Minister will come clean on that matter.

For information, I will briefly lay out the consultation proposals as they stand. They are: first, to maintain a protective zone in the UK outside Norfolk and Suffolk; secondly, to drop protective zone status for the whole country; and thirdly, to retain protective zone status for selective non-beet-growing areas, such as Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and certain parts of England, to provide

I hope that the Minister is aware that his decision to exclude the proposition that protective status should continue, has caused extreme disquiet in the industry. Meetings held by the NFU in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire over the past few days have produced very little support for the strategy. As the regional NFU director, Sandra Nichols is reported in the Eastern Daily Press as saying,

The premise for the Minister's stance—that there are doubts in Europe that the UK is meeting the legal requirements for protective zone status—was comprehensively countered at a meeting between Robert Sturdy MEP and the EU Agriculture Commissioner's chef de cabinet last week. Mr. Sturdy was told firmly that Europe

Alun Michael : Will the right hon. Lady tell us where and when that meeting took place?

Mrs. Shephard : I certainly will. Speaking to the Eastern Daily Press on 1 December, 2001—and I can give the Minister the full report—Mr. Sturdy said,

I would be very happy to give the Minister the full cutting so that he can take up the matter.

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Alun Michael : We have seen the cutting and made inquiries about it. We are reliably informed that the meeting did not take place as described in the cutting.

Mrs. Shephard : It is up to the Minister to convince us of that. Mr. Sturdy is a perfectly honourable man, he took the trouble to have the meeting and he has asked farmers and growers to write directly to the Commission. It will be interesting to see the nature of the replies that they receive, given the information that he has given to them.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): There is of course a reverse side to that and it would interesting if the Minister could categorically say that the Commission had asked the UK Government to come forward with these proposals.

Mrs. Shephard : No doubt the Minister will come to that in his remarks, but perhaps at the same time he should dispel any doubts that might have been caused by a letter from DEFRA to those invited to the rhizomania technical review meeting on 28 November. The letter quite clearly stated:

In other words, the decision has been taken, so why are we having the consultation anyway? I expect that the Minister will want to clarify that.

I turn now to the proposal that a protective zone should be maintained in the UK, outside Norfolk and Suffolk. I point out in passing that proposition No. 3—that there should be protected zone status for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and parts of England that are important for growing and exporting seed potatoes—rings a bit hollow in East Anglia, which is also important for growing and exporting seed potatoes.

I wonder whether the Minister knows how the potato industry works in East Anglia. I wonder whether he knows about the importance of field vegetables, or of the investment made in recent years by farmers in irrigation schemes to grow potatoes and field vegetables. Does he realise that his proposal would result in enormous extra costs for those farmers and possibly in the failure of their businesses?

What advice does he have for such farmers about the arrangements that they should make if they grow potatoes and other vegetables in Norfolk and Suffolk that then have to be taken to Cambridgeshire for processing? That movement is far from uncommon. Three quarters of Norfolk's total potato production is moved across the county border for packing and processing. If we accept the proposition to exclude Norfolk and Suffolk from the protection zone, how will that arrangement be policed? Will teams, or swarms, of DEFRA inspectors examine the loads of vegetables that travel across the border? What will be the costs to producers? That has not been thought through.

What would happen to the valuable seed potato export business of, for example, Mr. Tony Bambridge, who farms in Marsham in the constituency of my

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hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson)? Mr. Bambridge ships seed potatoes worth £150,000 to the Canaries and Europe. He said:

He added that the Canaries, which take about 120 tonnes of locally grown seed would refuse further orders, because they will not accept seed from non-protected zones. What advice does the Minister have for Mr. Bambridge? Has he taken into account the proposals' effect on the rural economy, which has been devastated over the past five years?

We heard in the previous debate about the close relationship between farming and the rural economy. We heard an interesting illustration of the interrelationship in Norfolk, in which we were told that for every one job directly concerned with agriculture, there were 14 others in the broader rural community. Nowhere can that be more true than in sugar beet, and the production of potatoes and field vegetables. The processing, packing, haulage, labelling and marketing of those products account for a huge sector of the rural economy in East Anglia. There is fear that if we simply ditch the current protected zone status without carefully considering the implications, it will threaten that rural economy further.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of my next point, but I will rehearse it because it will be good to have it on the record. Many farmers have diversified into vegetable production, which is the kind of change that the Government claim to support. At least one of the propositions would pull the rug from under that diversification yet again. The Minister will say, correctly, that he is consulting on the proposals and that the consultation will last until 14 January. I hope that he will say also that DEFRA will be required to define its stance at a meeting well before 14 January—in other words, next week.

What stance will DEFRA take in advance of the consultation's completion? I do not know, but the Minister today has the chance to explain it and allay the industry's fears. As a member of a listening Government, will he undertake not only to listen but to hear what farmers and growers are saying? Will he place what he hears into the wider context of the despair and frustration felt by all in agriculture and in the broader rural community at the lack of understanding? Will he listen, hear and change his stance? We await his response.

12.49 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on initiating our debate on a difficult and intractable problem that seriously affects farmers in her constituency. She has left me little time to reply, but I shall do my best.

I acknowledge the experience, both from her ministerial and her constituency work, that the right hon. Lady brings to the debate. She has considerable knowledge of the sugar industry, but she is wrong to suggest that the industry should have been surprised by the terms of our consultation. This is a good example of the value of Westminster Hall debates. Rhizomania

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means little to most people, but it has the potential to do harm to an important section of the farming industry. It requires sensible and constructive debate.

The right hon. Lady will appreciate that the topic falls outside my portfolio, but I have discussed it in detail with my colleague, Lord Whitty, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has personally engaged with the issue and wants to make progress. We appreciate that farmers in particular areas, such as the right hon. Lady's part of the country, are adversely affected, but we must face up to realities.

One view, expressed last week in Farmers Weekly, is that we should vigorously defend the country's rhizo-free status. That is everyone's sincere desire, but how can we realistically argue for such status when we are clearly not rhizo-free? The right hon. Lady referred to an article in the Eastern Daily Press, which suggested that Europe was not worried about this country's disease status. We were concerned about those remarks. Firstly, plant health falls under DG Sanco and is therefore the responsibility of Commissioner David Byrne. Officials here spoke to Commission staff, who confirmed that no such meeting occurred and that no such statement about the protection zone has been made.

I must make it clear that we are not ditching anything. The protection zone can be proposed only by the Commission, which is not prepared to do so because of the lack of support by other member states. I can provide the details. Our consultation was a response to that clear position.

The right hon. Lady made passing reference to the "everything but arms" initiative, but it was not our initiative. Only last week Lord Whitty was congratulated by farmers on the good result in Europe to protect the sugar beet sector.

Mrs. Shephard : Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael : The right hon. Lady has left me little time to respond to a long debate.

Mrs. Shephard : I gave way twice.

Alun Michael : Very well, but it will diminish the reply even further.

Mrs. Shephard : Several points could be made. First, I doubt whether the Government would have done anything about "everything but arms", were it not for the intervention of the official Opposition. Secondly, does the Minister agree that the right way forward for the sugar beet industry is to develop disease-free varieties? Will his proposals afford the industry enough time to complete that necessary work?

Alun Michael : The right hon. Lady's signature on the early-day motion proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) demonstrates some support on the Opposition side for our approach. However, she diminishes her case by seeking to make it partisan, just as she diminishes the time available for my reply.

The problem is at its greatest in Norfolk and Suffolk, but we need to take into account the needs of growers in the rest of the country. That is evident in the options on

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which DEFRA is currently consulting the industry. DEFRA set out the position as realistically as possible in a consultation document published last month. We need to engage the industry on how best to move forward. I hope that that debate will help the industry to respond. Lord Whitty and our officials will work with the industry to develop the best possible strategy.

We would be more than happy to listen to alternatives to the three suggested options, but the right hon. Lady well knows that the debate on how to deal with rhizomania has gone on for years. No one has yet come forward with a magic wand. The Government's role, as it was when the right hon. Lady was a Minister, is to help an industry that rightly prides itself on its efficiency and competitiveness to deal with a serious problem that has dogged it for years.

The solution is neither simple nor a matter for the Government alone, and the industry must continue to be proactive in coping with the problem. There is no quick fix. The suggestion that the UK has a chance of defending its rhizo-free status does not move the debate forward, because it cannot seriously be suggested that that is a realistic option. All protected zones are subject to annual reports that suggest their continuation, and those reports are reviewed to see whether the status is justified. Our status is due to expire at the end of March 2002, so we are reviewing future options.

Areas in which the disease is established—where it is known to occur and where official eradication measures have proved ineffective for at least two successive years—cannot be recognised as protected zones. Rhizomania must be considered to be established in the UK, especially in Norfolk and Suffolk. We fought hard for the last two extensions of the whole zone, and several member states have made it clear that they will not accept any further extension. It is a non-starter to try to negotiate that, which will not come as news to the industry.

The European Commission and most member states have long challenged the validity of the UK's claim to meet the criteria for protected zone status. Nevertheless, officials successfully argued for several extensions between 1993 and now. The last extension was in 1999, and the industry was warned that no further extension would be considered acceptable. That uncomfortable position was made clear in meetings with the industry, which representatives of the National Farmers Union and British Sugar attended, and it was reinforced in subsequent correspondence.

If an outcome is desirable but not achievable, it does no one any favours to ignore reality. That is why Lord Whitty made it clear that standing still is not an option. The ideal way forward would be to develop an eradication programme to combat this degenerative disease. The argument is that if the disease can be

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isolated, which it can, it should be possible to eradicate it. However, neither the Government nor the industry have yet identified a way to do so without restrictions that would totally disrupt the industry. For some years, the industry and the Government have worked together to manage the disease, and they were doing so when the right hon. Lady was a Minister. She acknowledged that in a 1994 MAFF news release when she said that MAFF's policy was to contain the spread of rhizomania in Britain as far as was practical and reasonable.

That was an accurate and reasonable statement. Even then, the right hon. Lady was not talking confidently about eradication. There is no easy solution. The problem is that the disease is difficult to eradicate, and the immediate challenge is to limit its spread while making progress on other fronts, such as the development and introduction of disease-resistant strains. Given the long period—10 to 15 years—over which the disease develops before symptoms appear, any extension of the disease over the next two or three years will be the result of existing infections rather than any newly introduced infection.

That is why we have proposed three options, of which the right hon. Lady is aware, to maintain a protected zone for the UK outside Norfolk and Suffolk. The first option would end the regulated pest status for rhizomania in Norfolk and Suffolk, which would release some 3,000 growers from regulatory control. The second option would drop the protected zone status for the whole country, which would end official involvement in the disease. Statutory notices would be lifted from the 209 growers who have rhizomania outbreaks on their land. The third option would be to retain protected zone status for selected non-beet-growing areas. Certain areas would retain protected zone status to provide safeguards for exports. Some surveillance would continue to be required in those areas to ensure that rhizomania remained absent and that any growers with outbreaks of the disease on their land would remain subject to statutory notice.

There is no doubt that the industry and Government will have to co-operate and work hard, but neither officials nor the industry have yet found some magic that will change the whole situation. The industry's challenge is to respond as positively and constructively as possible to the consultation document. My ministerial colleagues and I have indicated our willingness to listen to any suggestions. Lord Whitty will certainly fight the UK case in Brussels, but he must show that the industry and the Government have a sensible, united approach that reflects the facts. Everyone must accept that the status quo is not an option. I urge the right hon. Lady to seek to persuade people in her constituency—I have no doubts about the importance of the topic and the effect that it will have on them—

Mr. Win Griffiths (in the Chair): Order. We now come to a debate on house improvement grants.

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