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The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): My ministerial team and I have, between us, held or attended seven meetings involving pig farmers or their representatives since the beginning of November. Principal among the topics discussed have been the pig industry restructuring scheme, which has now received full European Union Commission approval and is open to both outgoers and ongoers, and the recent outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia, where I am pleased to say that the final area movement restrictions on commercial pig operations were lifted earlier this week. Producers will also have been heartened by the ending of the export ban on live pigs from Norfolk and Suffolk at midnight last night.
I am sure that the House will want to join me in paying tribute to Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, his staff in the state veterinary service and their administrative colleagues for their sterling efforts in controlling the disease, for representing the national interest so effectively at European Union and wider international level, and for responding so swiftly to the many practical problems that the outbreak created.
Mr. Baldry: I thank the Minister for that statement. However, given the parlous state of the pig industry, will he give the House an undertaking that the funds available for the pig industry restructuring scheme--I think that they come to about £66 million--will be continued, and that if there is any shortfall this year it will be carried
Mr. Brown: I will take the part of the question that I agree with and welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the development scheme. I will give him the assurance that he seeks--this is not a party-political matter. We are all trying to do our best to help the industry through what have been difficult times. I have to consider the representations made to me by the Meat and Livestock Commission, but the appropriate regulations will be laid as soon as and if it is proper to do so.
On the moneys, I fought very hard with colleagues in the Government and with the European Union Commission for the outgoers and ongoers scheme. Having got the scheme in place, I want it to work as effectively as possible. The budget is ring-fenced year by year, and uptake will depend on applications under both the ongoers and the outgoers element. It is also important to point out that it is a United Kingdom, not an England only, scheme.
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Together with my right hon. Friend's colleague, Baroness Hayman, I recently visited the midland pig producers unit near Osgathorpe in north-west Leicestershire. Among the issues raised was the impact of the classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia and the risks it posed for the east midlands, and Baroness Hayman was impressed by the responsible attitude that was taken. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the National Pig Association has suggested a levy-based industry contribution to the compensation scheme and will he undertake to bring before the House as rapidly as possible the necessary legislation to introduce that scheme?
Mr. Brown: I hope to bring the necessary legislation before the House and to make the appropriate arrangements with Ministers in the devolved authorities--it is a Great Britain matter--as soon as and if it is appropriate to do so. I hope that we can proceed on an all-party basis.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about the industry's response. It has responded with great courage and common sense in the difficult circumstances of the classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Minister has been able to help the pig industry by obtaining an 80 per cent. discount on the climate change levy. Will he explain why he has not been able to make the same discount available to the horticulture industry through the introduction of climate change levy farm production agreements?
Mr. Brown: This is slightly off the point, because the question was about the pig industry. However, in the spirit of the season, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, of course, representations were made within Government about the specific circumstances of the horticulture sector.
Mr. Brown: Both the outgoers and the ongoers elements are open now, and I have had discussions with Brid Rodgers, the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, about the specific application of the scheme in Northern Ireland. I appreciate that there is particular interest in the scheme there, and the hon. Gentleman and I met pig farmers in his constituency when I visited Northern Ireland some time ago. The urgency of the matter was impressed upon me then.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): May I take the Minister back to the restructuring scheme? He said that the funds are ring-fenced year by year. We should bear in mind the fact that the action plan of 30 March allocated £26 million for this year and that the Minister of State told me in an answer this week:
Mr. Brown: Neither. It is fair to explain to the House that there was no such scheme under the previous Conservative Government. Having fought so hard for the scheme within Government, it is highly unlikely that I would not want to maximise its impact. However, the hon. Gentleman is on to a good point and I repeat that the budget is ring-fenced year by year. The carry-forward, as the hon. Gentleman knows--or not--is a matter for discussions within Government. [Hon. Members: "Ah!] That should not come as a surprise to anyone who has served as a Minister. I am not the sole master of this matter, but I intend to do my very best for the industry. Regrettably, I cannot say more than that.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): That is exactly the point: does the Minister have the power to keep back that money? If he does not, will he ensure that every last available penny in the first tranche of £26 million for the pig industry reconstruction scheme will be available to everyone who can apply in time? The key consideration is that none of the money is lost, because it is precious. The industry is under pressure and it is much needed now.
Mr. Brown: There has been a great deal of interest in both aspects of the scheme--the outgoers and the ongoers. There has been a substantial number of applications and the amount that is spent will depend on how many we receive. I fought very hard within Government for that
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Between October l999 and September 2000, the period for which we have the most recent figures, about 1.4 million tonnes of meat were imported into the United Kingdom from third countries and other European Union member states.
Mr. Robertson: I thank the Minister for that brief statement. Does she recognise that, according to recent press reports, some imports from the continent have been from countries with a history of BSE and that some of the imported cattle are over 30 months old? If that is the case, what discussions does she intend to have with EU Ministers on that matter?
Ms Quin: First, it is important to realise that important decisions have been taken at recent Agriculture Council meetings about strengthening the controls throughout EU countries for meat that goes into the food chain. I welcome that for two reasons: first, because it shows the importance that other EU countries attach to strict controls, and secondly, because it evens the playing field for our producers who have borne BSE-related costs for some time.
However, on food safety I remind the hon. Gentleman--I must stress this--that that is a matter for the Food Standards Agency and we will take its advice on such issues. The hon. Gentleman will know that agency staff recently visited France, for example, and the agency has issued several public statements on these issues. I am keen that its responsibilities for food safety are widely recognised, particularly since the House voted for the agency to undertake those responsibilities.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a problem with processed meats in particular, and we can deal with that only if we bolster the number of consumer protection officers in county councils and unitary authorities? She is right to say that the Food Standards Agency has responsibility for these issues, which simply draw attention to the reason why we need an independent agency, particularly when we consider the earlier lamentable performance over BSE. We should consider the yo-yoing of the Conservative party rather than the ho-hoing to which Conservative Members keep referring.
Ms Quin: My hon. Friend is right to remind us of the agency's role, but the rules on processed products were drawn up by the previous Government. The agency is considering the issue. In European forums, the agency and the Government have been active on labelling so that we can give consumers more information.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Is the Minister aware of the problems experienced by many hygiene inspectors in trying to ensure that meat entering the country meets our high standards? They are unable to do so because of the lack of proper labelling, of a traceability scheme, and even of any real Government guidance. What discussions has the Minister had with her ministerial colleagues here and in Europe to try to plug that gap?
Ms Quin: I am certainly not saying that the legislation that we inherited was perfect in that respect--it was not. However, I exonerate this Government from the charge of failing to issue guidelines or to work with the Food Standards Agency in its issuing of guidelines. There has been a lot of contact with local authority officials who have responsibility on the matter, and we have been backing up their efforts at a local level by the action that we have been taking with our colleagues at a European level.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Should not our single objective be to ensure easy and unrestricted access for our beef products to every country in the European Union? Under no circumstances should we follow the hysterical advice given by the Conservative party, which, for anti-European reasons, simply wants to block the import into the United Kingdom of products from France and elsewhere.
Ms Quin: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We export a lot of meat, such as lamb to France, and farmers throughout the country are keen for us to safeguard that trade by our co-operative approach and action within the European Union. However, there is now much wider recognition of this country's strict controls, and it is good to see that recent decisions made at a European level follow the example of some of those controls.
Ms Quin: Indeed I will not. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that my right hon. Friend has explained the position regarding the rules that we inherited from the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a member. Nothing that my right hon. Friend has said has contradicted that legal position.
However, let me in turn congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the inconsistent record of the Opposition Front-Bench team: he managed to contradict himself within 24 hours on this very issue. He was quoted in the Financial Times of 24 November as saying:
Ms Quin: If we followed the hon. Gentleman's example, we would end up isolated in Europe on the issue, instead of having the rest of the European Union on our side. I note that the hon. Gentleman did not deny the quotes attributed to him. He has to be consistent--he cannot have it both ways. He must either approve of the Food Standards Agency, which I understand to be the overwhelming will of the House, or be in favour of party political meddling in food safety issues. We know where we stand: on the side of the independent Food Standards Agency.
Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): The point is that my constituents are wondering to whom they should turn for advice. To whom should they listen? Should they listen to the advice of the Conservative agriculture spokesman, who has already contradicted himself, or to the advice of Sir John Krebs, chairman of the independent Food Standards Agency, which produces fully informed scientific analysis, rather than the sort of bigotry we hear from the Conservatives?
Ms Quin: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Food Standards Agency was set up with those specific responsibilities. Having entrusted it with those responsibilities, we should let it get on with the job that I believe it is already doing most effectively.