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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The Government plan to allow the reopening of some livestock markets from 11 February, subject to biosecurity conditions. Further details will be announced shortly and placed in the Library of the House, published on DEFRA's website and made more generally available.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Does the Minister realise just what problems there are in trying to get cattle and sheep off places such as Exmoor? One market now serves that area. The market at Bridgwater has gone completely and there is trouble opening Taunton. Will he ensure that the decision to reopen is madeI am glad to hear the date of 11 February and hope that there will be a full opening on that dayand that DEFRA does not impose licences or put other obstructions in the way of that? If it does so, social deprivation on Exmoor will continue, and it is getting desperate.
Mr. Morley: We are not interested in putting obstructions in the way of the livestock sector but in bringing it back to normality without taking a risk, for example, with latent disease in some of the sheep flocks. We made our proposals available to the livestock industry on 18 January. We have had extensive consultation with the sector because we are trying to strike a balance between ensuring proper biosecurity and minimising risk,
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Despite the excellent impact of the market towns initiative on Leek, is my hon. Friend aware how anxious communities and farmers are to reopen the livestock market in Leek when the necessary biosecurity measures have been implemented? That would have a huge impact on the morale of farmers and everyone involved in the rural economy. I urge him to ensure that such markets can open as soon as possible.
Mr. Morley: I understand the case that my hon. Friend makes and how important livestock markets are to the local and regional economy. For that reason, we are in the final stages of our proposals and I am sure that a workable scheme will be in place to achieve the balance that I have outlined.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Is the Minister aware that livestock markets are the only method by which livestock farmers can get a fair and transparent price for their animals? It is a matter of the greatest urgency that livestock markets, such as Chelford, which lies within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and also serves my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), can operate fully at the earliest opportunity. Will he ensure that costs associated with licensing and all other safety measures are kept to an absolute minimum so that those markets, which are at the centre of rural agricultural activity, can open again to serve the livestock producers of this country?
Mr. Morley: I assure the hon. Gentleman that administration costs will be kept as low as possible. I emphasise again the risks of spreading disease. We need to think carefully about that, and it is not an issue of contention between us and the livestock industry. I accept what he says about the importance of livestock markets and their social function in communities, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). However, a range of innovative ways to market livestock have been developed and we should not rule them out. We want to encourage all sorts of innovation and enterprise, wherever that may be, while recognising the role of livestock markets.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I visited Poland on 13 and 14 January and had one-to-one meetings with the Agriculture Minister and the Environment Minister. I encouraged Poland to play an active and constructive part in preparing itself for European Union membership, congratulated the Government on reaching a conclusion
Mr. David: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. I am sure that she will agree that EU enlargement, including Polish membership, cannot wait until we reform the common agricultural policy. Does she also agree that the development strategy is extremely important post- enlargement and that there is already a great deal of common ground between the Polish Government and the British Government?
Margaret Beckett: I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says. The UK Government have always taken the view and approach that CAP reform should be pursued, and we strongly support enlargement. We wish to pursue those separate developments in parallel, but I agree that one is not conditional on the other. I also agree that it is important to do what we can to support rural development. He is right to identify from our discussions that the Polish Government see eye to eye with us on a number of issues.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): During the Secretary of State's discussions with her Polish counterpart, did she have an opportunity to discuss the role of good administration in a representative democracy? I wrote to her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), the right hon. Lady herself and each of her Front-Bench companions. Since March, I have sent no fewer than nine letters on matters concerning their Department. I tabled a written parliamentary question in November which was not answered, nor were any of my other letters
Margaret Beckett: In so far as I followed it. If the hon. and learned Gentleman has written to my Department and not received a reply, I offer him the most profound apology. He will know, because we have written to every hon. MemberI hope that that letter at least has arrivedthat there have been enormous problems with handling correspondence in my Department. Strenuous attempts have been made to overcome that. We are under the impression that a great deal has been done to tackle the backlog, but I shall look at once into his complaint.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): The Government are breaking new ground in engaging with the work of parish and town councils. I am very encouraged by the response to the quality local scheme on which we are consulting at present. The National
There is much to be done. I know that liaison with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is very good, but this first and important level of government often relies on the work of parish clerks in terms of capacity. In the past week, I received a letter from one of my best parish clerks, Jane Roberts of Kings Stanley parish council. The council is under a great deal of pressure. It is pleased to have been brought into this aspect of government, but we need to ensure that both clerks and councillors can handle that pressure. How could that be done?
Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right. I have met parish clerks who act as a powerhouse, enabling parish council members to do a great deal. That is why we have established support for training parish clerks, as we have for training town and parish councillors. We want to give these organisations the capacity not just to represent but to act as a driving force in their communities.
Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): When will I receive an answer to the parliamentary question that I tabled on 15 January, which in turn asked when I would receive an answer to my letter of 3 December asking for a meeting between Upton-on-Severn town council and the Government to discuss matters connected with rural development?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, she recently wrote to every Member explaining that we had discovered a basic systems failure in the correspondence arrangements. Ministers and officials at the Department are putting considerable effort into dealing with the enormous backlognot a surprising backlog, because of the tremendous problems resulting from foot and mouth disease, which had an impact on Members' postbags and hence on the number of letters to the Department. We will catch up as soon as possible, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the specific example that he gave will be dealt with quickly.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): My constituency contains three excellent councils, Askern, Stainforth, and Thorne and Moorends. Does my right hon. Friend agree that town councils are a fundamental part of our local democracy? Will he confirm that the Government's policy is to strengthen and enhance their role?
Alun Michael: We certainly want to strengthen and enhance their role. I was encouraged the other day in the Forest of Dean when my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) invited parish council members along to discuss the consultative document that I mentioned earlier. More than 100 parish and town council members turned up, and were enthusiastic, engaged,