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Common Land

5. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on his Department's policy on common land in England. [276579]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): My officials have regular meetings with stakeholders representing common land. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I share an interest in areas that we know well, including Fairwood common on the Gower and other areas in my constituency. The national common land stakeholder group will hold a meeting on 18 June, which more than 30 organisations have been invited to attend. We have also received a number of representations in response to our plans on the implementation of the Commons Act 2006.

Mr. Sheerman: In the 30 years that you, Mr. Speaker, and I have been in this House, I have learned that you are as passionate about Robbie Burns as I am about John Clare. John Clare was forced to work on the enclosures that took the English common land away from the English common people. Since 1870, half of the common land that was left at that time has been lost. What are we doing to preserve common land? Why cannot we do the same as the Scots and start to take our common land back and give it over to community use and to the common people?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend has been a ceaseless advocate of common land and of the work of John Clare. The Commons Act 2006 represented a big step forward and, by October 2012, we will have turned the clock back a little in my hon. Friend’s constituency
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by enabling many of the commons that were refused registration under the Commons Registration Act 1965 to be given a fresh chance for registration. I know that he will take that opportunity to encourage his constituents to make representations in this regard. I share his lament, however, and I can do no more than say:

Those are the words of John Clare.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): On behalf of the House, may I thank the Minister for his contribution to poetry week?

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Encore!

Richard Ottaway: Will the deputy Chief Whip just shut up? This is the luxury of a half-empty House.

An illustration of the good use of common land is to be found uniquely in Croydon, where, under 19th century legislation, the Corporation of London took over the ownership and management of common land. I hasten to emphasise that I have no complaint about that arrangement, but its defect is that accountability for the running of the land lies with the council, while the users have no recourse to the ballot box if a problem arises, as it has in the past. When the Minister looks into the effectiveness of the 2006 Act, will he take that fact into account and try to assess how that democratic defect can be addressed?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point, and I shall be more than happy to meet him to discuss this matter further and to see whether we can do anything. Perhaps we can share a cup of coffee in the Tea Room— [ Interruption. ] And a what?

Mr. Robathan: And a poem!

Pig Industry

6. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the farming sector on the future of the English pig industry. [276580]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): I met Mr. Stuart Houston, the chairman of the National Pig Association, at Morrisons’ new abattoir in Spalding, which I was privileged to open last week. We discussed the progress of the pigmeat supply chain taskforce, whose first meeting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened on 18 March 2009. The taskforce brings together key representatives from all sectors in the pigmeat supply chain, and I have subsequently spoken with several taskforce members.

Paddy Tipping: Has the Minister seen the figure that suggests that 60 per cent. of imported pigmeat does not meet the same animal welfare standards as the pigmeat produced here? Rather than complaining about costs, should we not use this to our advantage and work with producers and retailers to achieve better labelling and to promote the best pigmeat in Europe?

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Jane Kennedy: I entirely agree. There is ample evidence that British consumers actively choose products that have been raised to higher welfare standards. For example, sales of free range eggs continue to grow, even in the challenging economic climate in which we find ourselves. One of the sub-groups of the taskforce that we have established will examine the role of labelling and investigate the progress that we could make through greater transparency to ensure that British consumers are not misled by labels that allow produce raised to lower welfare standards being passed off as British.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Holderness in my constituency has historically been the home of pig farming in England but, like most of the country, it has seen a collapse in production over the past 12 years. Pig farmers in my constituency will welcome what the Minister has just said about labelling, but they are frustrated that this has taken so long. We have a taskforce now, but it has been clear for a long time that meat from abroad that does not meet our welfare standards can none the less, after having a bit of work done to it, be sold as British meat. We must ensure that we reduce the regulations for our farmers so that their high-welfare meat can be properly labelled and thus attract the higher price that it deserves.

Jane Kennedy: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I have met a probably quite significant number of his constituents who have made that very point. That is why the work of this taskforce will be very important. I note his lament that we did not get working sooner than we did, but I assure him that the taskforce is very focused on bringing about practical outcomes that will materially assist pig farmers to counter the damaging imports of products that are then passed off as British products.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register. The Government have been promising this for 10 years. At the Oxford farming conference in January, the Secretary of State said:

He went on to say that discussions with supermarkets were taking place and that a voluntary agreement would be made. We know, because the supermarkets have said it, that there is no voluntary agreement in sight. For all the Minister’s talk of taskforces and meetings, we know that this is just more talk and no action. Is it not time that the Government took another look at our honest food campaign and adopted it today?

Jane Kennedy: I have followed the campaign with interest and I welcome the fact that it is raising the profile of British produce and expressing concerns about the potential for British customers to be misled. I do not feel challenged by it in the way the hon. Gentleman might hope, however, because I believe that the actions we are taking will lead to real proposals that will bring about material differences for the pig sector. What we have to do is work not just with pig farmers but with the whole supply chain so that each part of the chain, including British consumers, takes on board its responsibilities to ensure that where choice is exercised, it works to the benefit of British farmers.

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Bovine Tuberculosis

7. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): What recent steps his Department has taken to combat the spread of bovine tuberculosis; and if he will make a statement. [276581]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The TB eradication group was set up in November 2008 to make recommendations on a plan to reduce bovine TB in England and move towards eventual eradication. Alongside our current control measures, we are developing vaccines for cattle and wildlife through research and the development of the badger vaccine deployment project.

Mr. Jack: I thank the Secretary of State for his courteous answer. He will be aware of the continuing and mounting concern at the spread of bovine TB—and not just within the cattle population. Last year, for example, 119 cases of the disease were found in animals as widespread as cats, dogs, alpacas and goats. In view of the Secretary of State’s reply, particularly on vaccination, will he tell me whether he has yet reached a conclusion? What will happen when diseased badgers are captured in the course of the vaccination process? Has he found a way of testing those animals to dispatch those that clearly have bovine TB?

Hilary Benn: The right hon. Gentleman’s point about the emergence of the disease in other animals might be partly explained by the fact that bovine TB was made a notifiable disease only in 2006; we do not know the full extent of its incidence previously, so one would expect more reporting in view of that change. Secondly, it remains the case—despite best efforts—that there is no reliable in-field test, which answers the right hon. Gentleman’s question about badgers with TB. Clearly, however, one thing that will have to be looked at in developing the deployment project is how to deal with the problem he raised, which he has discussed with me previously. Identifying in the field a badger with TB, as opposed to one without it, is not quite as easy as some argue.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There can be nothing more distressing to a dairy farmer than seeing the destruction of a herd as a result of positive testing for TB. That is made even worse, however, when asymptomatic cattle tested positive solely on the basis of the gamma interferon test, and the Department refuses to allow a confirmatory test to establish whether the cattle have TB but simply goes ahead with the destruction of the cattle. How can that possibly be sensible for public health policy or, indeed, given that compensation has to be paid, for the Exchequer?

Hilary Benn: I understand, as do all hon. Members, the traumatic impact that bovine TB has on farmers with affected stock. The gamma interferon test is a valuable addition to our armoury in attempting to deal with this disease. The skin test and the gamma interferon test have different qualities and it is right that we should use the latter alongside the former. It is not always the case that lesions can be found post mortem, but that does not mean that the animals do not have TB. There is a difference in the specificity and the sensitivity of the
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two tests. I have looked carefully at the issue and I think that the gamma interferon test should be part of the armoury, but I understand completely farmers’ feelings when apparently healthy animals are culled.

Topical Questions

T1. [276594] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Department’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. The Rural Payments Agency has now made full single payment scheme payments to more than 102,000 farmers. That represents 96.2 per cent. of total claims and 96.5 per cent. of the total fund. The RPA is working to make the remaining payments as soon as possible.

David Taylor: There have long been pre-stunning requirements for animals slaughtered for food, but exemptions have been made for religious slaughter, mainly affecting halal and the slaughter of lambs. Will the Minister come to a meeting that I have organised after the recess to view a video produced by EBLEX—the English Beef and Lamb Executive—that shows the effects of such slaughter? It cannot be allowed to continue and we must end those exemptions. It is cruel, unacceptable and antediluvian. We must make progress on this issue, and I hope that the Minister will be able to attend the meeting that I have organised.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): I will be happy—perhaps that is not the right word—to come to the meeting and view the video, although I shall do so with a sinking heart. My visit to an abattoir for pigs and cattle last week sharpened my awareness of the issues. We have a long tradition of religious tolerance, which has led to the exemptions that my hon. Friend mentions, but I will come to the meeting and I will talk with him about diary arrangements. I am aware that this is an issue of acute concern across the UK.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We only have 10 minutes for topical questions, so questions and replies need to be brief.

T2. [276595] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In the golden age of Prime Minister Blair, back in June 2005, he said that the EU rebate was directly linked to common agricultural policy reform. That was four years ago. Does the Secretary of State really believe that that has been achieved?

Hilary Benn: As I indicated in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier question, we continue to work hard to try to reform the CAP. There is a wider debate about the size of the European Union budget, and that will come up again when the next financial perspectives are debated. As always, the Government will seek to achieve the most effective expenditure of EU funding, and there will be a discussion about the contribution of different EU member states.

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T3. [276596] John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware of the millions of pounds that the scrap metal industry has invested to recycle scrapped cars efficiently, but that industry’s certificate of destruction is not acceptable under the Government’s new scrappage scheme, so it cannot play its part in increasing the number of cars recycled. Will he or his Ministers meet representatives of the industry to see how they can increase the volume of cars being recycled?

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that problem. I am happy to meet him and representatives of the industry, as he suggests.

T5. [276598] Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend meet me and Jody Scheckter, the former Formula 1 racing champion, who has a sustainable farm at Laverstoke park in Hampshire? He is trying to get an anaerobic digester, as well as composting to the finest level, but he cannot get an anaerobic digester in this country and is on a two-year waiting list to get one from Germany.

Jane Kennedy: I am surprised that he cannot get one. I would be very interested to know the reasons for it being blocked. It is clearly a new technology—actually, it is not that new—that we have to embrace and we are seeking to encourage it at every level. I would be delighted to talk to my hon. Friend and possibly to visit the farmer whom he talked about.

T4. [276597] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): How has New Zealand been able to reduce over a 10-year period the number of TB-infected herds from levels similar to our own to being close to TB-free?

Hilary Benn: Each country has taken a different approach, but if the hon. Lady is raising the issue of culling, I noted with interest the recent remarks of the Opposition spokesperson on this subject. I was slightly disappointed that what he put out made no reference at all to the 10-year study that involved culling 11,000 badgers and the conclusions of the independent scientific group report. If we are going to deal with this problem, as we are all determined to do, we must have regard to the evidence about what works and what does not work. What we are seeking to do, in particular by developing vaccines, is to find an effective method of dealing with the problem. As the independent scientific group study in the UK reported—the study was carried out over 10 years—culling has been shown not to meaningfully contribute to the control of bovine TB.

T6. [276599] Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Hon. Members will remember the tragic death of Archie-Lee Hirst, who was savaged to death by his family rottweiler over the Christmas holidays in 2007-08. Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look at the private Member’s Bill promoted by our hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) with the support of the Communication Workers Union and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? It aims to make owners responsible for keeping their dogs under control even on private property. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement on that?

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Jane Kennedy: I met our hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and representatives of the CWU earlier this week. I am studying both her Bill and the Bill that is being debated in the other place. I appreciate the public concern, but a raft of measures is already in place. We need better enforcement and we are encouraging greater enforcement. I do not have a closed mind on either Bill and I am studying them carefully.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): It has emerged in the last 48 hours that one of my constituents has removed 50 ft of sand dunes in St. Anne’s to improve the view from his house. It turns out that that is a legal act and, from inquiries with English Heritage, it seems that it does not have any powers to deal with this removal of an important coastal feature, with all its impact on biodiversity. Will the Secretary of State have early discussions with English Heritage to rectify this problem?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): This matter has come to my attention and I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has raised it. We do not know the full particulars of the story, because it has only come to our attention within the past 24 to 36 hours. I am more than happy to investigate and to speak to the necessary bodies and authorities to get to the bottom of this and to see the best way forward. We all share his concern for the protection of one of our most valuable resources—the natural environment.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Now that it appears that my right hon. Friend is going to deal with Jody Scheckter’s problem with his anaerobic digester, there is a farmer in my constituency—I will not give his name, but I have already written to her about the matter—who wants some help, too. His only claim to fame in the sporting field, compared with that of Jody Scheckter, is that he has a grandson who is a national hunt jockey. Can she help?

Jane Kennedy: Irrespective of the sporting prowess of those who are seeking to establish anaerobic digestion on their premises, I am working very hard with DEFRA officials and the regional development organisations that are responsible for channelling the funding for such projects to ensure that they get exactly the help that my hon. Friend seeks.

T8. [276601] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Secretary of State may be aware that we are soon to launch the friends of the River Rom group in Romford. It will be a community organisation of local activists working to enhance and restore pride in our local river, from which our town gets its name. What support does the Department give to groups working in the local community to ensure that rivers are properly looked after and maintained, and restored to their former glory?

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