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Animal Welfare

6. Mr. Canavan: What steps his Department is taking to improve animal welfare. [22306]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): We have taken a number of steps to improve animal welfare. Shortly after the general election we put in place new rules on transport and achieved European Union agreement to a legally binding protocol that recognises that animals are sentient beings. This last will provide an important basis from which to seek further improvements to EU welfare standards both during our presidency and beyond.

Mr. Canavan: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the protocol to the treaty of Rome. What progress is being made on delivering our pre-election commitment to ban fur farming? Will he confirm that there is no valid agricultural argument against a ban on hunting with hounds? Will he convey his support to his colleagues in

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the Home Office for the allocation of sufficient time to enable the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill to become law?

Mr. Morley: The Government remain committed to ending fur farming as soon as practicable. We have had a public consultation exercise and we are currently considering the best way forward. As a mark of our intention, we have recently reduced the period of application of Mink Keeping Orders from five years to three and introduced new charges for inspections. It is the view of the Ministry that hunting with hounds makes an insignificant contribution to fox control. As for Government time, that is not a matter on which I can answer.

Mr. Alan Clark: Does the Minister accept that very high hopes were raised in animal welfare bodies--and in a large body of people who care deeply about animal welfare--by his party's manifesto at the general election and that at meetings of the all-party animal welfare group that I attended immediately after the election he continued to nurture those hopes? In fact, nothing has happened save a few measures that were already put in the pipeline by the previous Government. When will he start to deliver on the undertakings that he gave in his manifesto?

Mr. Morley: I am surprised at the right hon. Gentleman's comments. The report that I gave to the all-party animal welfare group was not on intentions but on progress that the Labour Government had achieved. I recall that one of the members who offered their congratulations on that progress was the right hon. Gentleman himself.

Genetically Modified Food

7. Mr. Gordon Prentice: What estimates he has made of the likely future consumer demand for genetically modified food. [22308]

Mr. Rooker: My Ministry is responsible for ensuring that such foods are safe and clearly labelled. It is for food manufacturers and producers to assess likely consumer demand for their products.

Mr. Prentice: While I acknowledge that my hon. Friend's commitment to proper food labelling is unparalleled, does he share my anxiety about developments in the European Union? Proposals emerged from Brussels last month that would ensure that the "genetically modified" label will apply to only 20 per cent. of products derived from GM soya beans and maize and that some products such as flavourings and food additives will be excluded. What steps can the Government take to ensure that the EU takes a more robust line on this matter, which excites tremendous consumer concern?

Mr. Rooker: We are taking a robust line, but my hon. Friend must not jump to conclusions about the results of the negotiations in Brussels. No decision has been made even after last week's meeting. We are still progressing the negotiations on labelling. We want labelling that is informative, practical and meaningful. That means that where GM bits and pieces have been used in the

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manufacture, but refined out of the final product, the label will probably not include a reference to genetic modification. We are still negotiating on the issue in Brussels and we hope to come to a conclusion in the very near future.

Mrs. Browning: If labelling is to be meaningful, it must be enforceable. What investigation has the Minister made into the role of enforcement agencies in respect of labelling? Where the genetically modified gene exactly mimics, without any tracer or marker, the unmodified gene, enforcement is extremely difficult. It is my understanding that science has not yet provided the tests that enable enforcement officers to determine whether a product contains genetically modified genes. What progress has there been in that respect?

Mr. Rooker: The hon. Lady is perfectly right. There are going to be some products that it is impossible to test to establish whether genetically modified substances have been used in their manufacture and processing.

MAFF has a large research budget which was left by our predecessors. It is a strongly science-based Ministry, as the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who is sitting next to her, will know. In collaboration with our European partners, we are using all possible avenues to explore the use of that money and the research programme to come up with testing procedures that enable us to give comfort to manufacturers, in that we would be able to test and check positively the accuracy of labelling, and to give consumers what they demand, which is information and the comfort of safety and knowledge of how products were made.

Flooding (South-east)

9. Mr. Mackinlay: What measures he proposes to avoid flooding and the impact of rising sea levels in and around the Thames estuary and River Medway. [22310]

Mr. Morley: The Department is responsible for flood and coastal defence policy in England, provides guidance to operating authorities and contributes significantly to the funding of capital defence measures. Local operating authorities--the Environment Agency or local councils--identify the need for defence measures and promote, design, construct and maintain them.

Mr. Mackinlay: Will my hon. Friend consider, as a matter of some urgency, initiating studies into the impact of rising sea levels, which threaten the Thames estuary and the Medway estuary? Deep in the memory of the people of Tilbury and elsewhere on those estuaries are the floods of the early 1950s. Since then, the Thames barrier has been erected, which has caused anxiety. If there is a North sea surge and the Thames barrier is used, where will the water go? That is a question the Government should address with some urgency.

Mr. Morley: Rising sea levels is a serious issue, especially for those who live in low-lying constituencies such as those on the Thames and Medway estuaries. The Environment Agency is carrying out surveys relating to projected sea level rises. It makes recommendations to the Ministry and we issue guidance on priority scores for taking action to ensure that people, land and property are adequately protected.

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Farm Incomes

10. Mr. Bercow: If he will make a statement on recent trends in farm incomes. [22311]

Mr. Rooker: Farm incomes rose as a result of devaluations of the green pound and improved productivity in the mid-1990s. They peaked in 1995-96, when average net farm income in the United Kingdom was about £31,500. Since then, incomes have fallen, mainly as a result of the strength of sterling.

Mr. Bercow: Further to the response to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), how can the Minister justify taking away £129 million from farmers in cuts to the over-30-months scheme and extra charges resulting from the need to meet new meat hygiene regulations and the cattle passport scheme?

Mr. Rooker: There is no justification whatsoever for the taxpayer fully funding all the controls necessary to check specified risk materials. Those extra charges will not come into force until 1 April this year. As we made clear before the election, we are working within the overall public expenditure limits of the previous Government and we make no apology for that. It is simply not possible to pour more and more taxpayers' subsidies into the industry. We wish to support the industry, but it will not benefit from further subsidies.

Mr. Pike: Does my hon. Friend accept that the incomes of hill farmers, who farm land that is difficult in terms both of the weather and what they can do on it, have been eroded for many years? What does he think the future holds for them? Does he believe that farming in those areas will continue to be viable?

Mr. Rooker: I certainly hope so. That is one of the reasons why we are redirecting funds to ensure that the majority of the money announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22 December goes to hill farmers and those in less-favoured areas.

Mr. Swinney: Is the Minister aware of the Scottish agricultural survey conducted by the Trustee Savings bank, which came out this week? It revealed that 94 per cent. of the respondents from the farming sector of Scotland believed that they were less prosperous this year than they were last year. How much evidence must be produced before the Government truly respond to the crisis affecting the rural industries of Scotland?

Mr. Rooker: I am not aware of the survey that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Farmers in Scotland will benefit from their share of the money announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22 December. I freely admit that the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that net farm incomes in Scotland have dropped--in 1995-96, they were £22,000, and in 1996-97, a little over £19,000.

Mr. Skinner: Has my hon. Friend seen the latest figures out this week which showed that nine farmers had received £1 million in subsidies and that another one had received a £250,000 subsidy under the set-aside scheme?

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Does he agree that those sums distort the figures relating to the many thousands of farmers who have a job to make ends meet, while there are some people at the top who are making a small fortune out of the common agricultural policy?

When my hon. Friend decides to reform the CAP, will he remember to make sure that the ones at the top, who are raking in the money, are the ones who will have their incomes cut in order to ensure that hill farmers and others get a fair crack of the whip? He should bear it in mind that when he introduces that new policy, every single Tory Member and all the Liberal Democrats, with all their farming interests, will refuse to support any change to the CAP.

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is quite right. The figures that I have quoted in the two previous answers are averages, which can be extremely misleading. They are, of course, distorted by the state handouts given under the equivalent of a social security system for part of the farming industry. Some individuals get an absolute fortune and I would like nothing more than to be able to publish the detailed information, but under the terms of the law of confidentiality between the Government and the recipient of such state handouts, I am unable to do so.

Mr. Steen: Does the Minister agree that if the south Devon countryside were covered by a lot of dead sheep, lying on their backs with their legs in the air, it would not help the tourism industry? Farmers in my area are finding it more and more costly to remove dead sheep, while the income that they receive is falling. I am not asking for more state subsidies, but I know that those carcases are offending all the urban dwellers who come down to my area to enjoy the countryside. May I suggest that the Ministry conduct an inquiry into how we can reduce the costs of removing dead sheep carcases from the green and pleasant land of Devon?

Mr. Rooker: I admit that that sight is not a good advertisement for tourism in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Todd: On Tuesday, I spent two hours in talks with farmers from Derbyshire, having taken the precaution of booking a Committee Room for the meeting rather than leaving them in Westminster Hall. They are concerned more about the future of farm incomes than about analysing the past. They are most concerned about what progress can be made with the European Union to help to restructure their industries so that they have a healthy future. What progress can my hon. Friend report?

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is perfectly right to say that it is the future that counts, not the past. I openly admit that, this year, the prospects for farm incomes are not good. We must look to the future to give hope to the industry and the thousands who work in it, love it and depend on it. That means that decisions must be taken Europewide; we are not sole masters of our future. During our presidency of the EU, we will do everything that we can to take reform of the CAP forward. Without such reform, which is opposed by many of our European economic partners and competitors, there will not be much hope for a positive future. Nothing less than reform of the CAP is required.

Mr. Jack: The Minister and the Minister of State have both made much this afternoon of the aid package

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announced just before Christmas, but so far, farmers have not received a penny of it, so may I ask the Minister of State some straight questions?

Farmers facing £44 extra charges per livestock animal as a result of the Government's policy want to know when they will receive the money under the package. Has the Minister of State yet obtained Commission approval for the hill livestock compensatory allowance package? Is it possible for the Commission, in determining its agreement to that package, to change its contents, namely, the division of moneys between sheep and livestock, between the hills--[Interruption.] The Minister knows that there is a difference between the payments for cattle and for sheep and he would do well to listen to the questions that I am asking, because farmers want to know whether those in the highlands and lowlands will receive the same payments.

Will the Minister of State tell us when those matters will be resolved? Finally, will he tell us why the enhanced suckler cow payments have not been made, when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food already has enough information to do so?

Mr. Rooker: I will answer the question that the farmers really want to know of those on the list that the right hon. Gentleman asked--the answer is, before Easter.

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