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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) for raising that matter, as tuberculosis is deeply frustrating for the farming community. The Minister and I have debated the matter on a number of occasions. The trials will take some time; can he tell us whether there is any progress at all on licences to move unaffected cattle from affected herds to collection areas or centres?
Mr. Morley: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am sympathetic to that problem. As I understand it, work is in hand to facilitate the provision of collection centres. I can certainly update him after tonight's debate.
The TB testing programme was knocked off course by the foot and mouth epidemic. It is now being restarted and priority is being given to hot-spot areas. We are confident that we will be able to eliminate the backlog in due course; that will take a bit of time, but we are putting our vets and staff back on to the task.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater spoke about flooding in the Somerset levels, an issue with which I am familiar and in which I take an interest. I have been closely involved in discussions, and welcome the production of the Parret catchment water management strategy action plan for 2002. I have recently received those plans and am reading them with great interest. Of course, the feasibility of the suggestions and their long-term implications have to be examined; that is a prerequisite for any action plan, and my Department will make such an examination. Our engineers will do so, as will the
The Somerset levels are a flood plain, and for generations people farmed there sustainably in recognition of the area's characteristics. In recent years, with the influence of the common agricultural policy and subsidies, some of that farming has become less sustainable. We must look at our agri-environment programmes and things such as the action plan; we must talk to the communities, people and farmers who are involved and look at how we can address the issue in a mutually beneficial way. We must consider the management of conservation and biodiversity and the needs of local farmers and communities to see if we can find a strategy and a way through. The report assists with that.
On animals being imported for restocking, I again reassure the hon. Gentleman that every single live animal currently imported is checked for disease by DEFRA staff. We recently identified brucellosis in one creature because every single animal is blood-tested. I recognise that biosecurity, both on our borders and our farms, is important; that issue was addressed at a recent meeting that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State held in the Department. To put the record straight, meat from countries like Argentina is not imported from regions with an active disease outbreak. It has to go through onerous procedures of deboning and hanging; if beef is hung for a certain time, the changes in pH will destroy any virus that it might contain. There is therefore no risk to this country from legal imports of beef from countries like Argentina which comply with the regulations. It is not complacent to say that; it makes it clear that there are procedures in place to ensure disease control.
I recognise the point about the need to re-establish markets. We shall help in promoting them. Taste of the West recently received £200,000 of FMD recovery money to help, through marketing support and promotion, speciality foods in Somerset and other areas of the south-west recover from the effects of the disease. I am sure that there are other ways that we can assist. We are happy to talk to organisations such as Taste of the Westwhich does an excellent job in promoting local foodsand we have constant and regular meetings with farming and rural organisations.
Certainly, there are problems in agriculture. The hon. Gentleman identified a number of them. I believe that we can overcome those problems. Some of the problems in the comprehensive list that he gave will be easier and quicker to resolve than others, but we are committed to doing so. We want a partnership approach to dealing with the problems, and we are making progress in the aftermath of foot and mouth on returning normality and stability to the agriculture sector.