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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I know that my hon. Friend has of late been energetic in taking up this issue with MAFF and other bodies responsible for beekeeping. Has he met with sympathetic concern about the problems which he describes, or has the response been less concerned than he would have liked?

Mr. Norman: My hon. Friend raises the central point, which is that beekeeping is a small cottage industry which, to some extent, relies for its survival in the face of crisis on Government support and co-ordinated action, but we have been faced with passivity and inertia. I shall cover that point and give specific examples later in my speech.

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In the United States, where there has been far more experience of and research into the varroa mite than here, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost to US agriculture in the form of lost crops as a result of the failure to halt the spread of the varroa mite is no less than $5.7 billion.

Richard Jones, director of the International Bee Research Association, says:


now


    "for beekeepers fighting the mite and so possibly saving the honey-bee in the UK".

In other words, unless we take action now, the honey-bee may well become partially extinct in the United Kingdom. It is, almost literally, a question of "to bee or not to be".

Against that background, under the present and previous Administrations, the Department, instead of taking a proactive, interested and understanding approach to the problems of the British countryside and the rural way of life, has displayed a pattern of inaction, inertia and lack of interest and given rise to a catalogue of failure and bureaucratic disregard for the industry's needs.

I draw attention to just three examples of rank failure by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. First, it has failed to help to find solutions and to license pesticides to treat the mite. Secondly, it has failed to provide proper funding for research and co-ordination to find solutions to the problem. Thirdly, it has completely failed to listen to the industry.

I shall cite specific examples, starting with the failure to find and license treatment. Treatment of the varroa mite depends on rotation of alternative chemicals or pesticides to tackle the problem. This is a classic example ofa situation where, with a small cottage industry, pharmaceutical companies will not devote large amounts of research money to finding a solution. To find a solution we need international co-ordination; we need to learn from what has happened abroad; and the Government must adopt a proactive and supportive attitude.

Instead, on 11 August 1997, the Government passed Statutory Instrument 1729, which redefined bees as food-producing animals. The consequence of that seemingly innocuous measure was to outlaw for use in beekeeping some of the crucial pesticides that could help to tackle the problem--notably, a pesticide called Apistan. Apistan is the most widely used chemical for dealing with the varroa mite in southern Europe, Germany and the United States. We now depend almost wholly on a single pesticide, Bayvarol. That decision was taken after hardly any consultation with the beekeeping industry. It was peremptory, arbitrary and, to all appearances, unknowing and ignorant.

It is widely acknowledged that, if we continue to depend on a single chemical, pesticide resistance will develop in the varroa mite. Dr. Cowan, an expert in the field, says:


to Bayvarol, the one chemical on which we depend--


    "will be found in the UK in two or three years. It is therefore essential that alternative aracides are registered."

To date, no action has been taken to do so.

Ironically, while we were outlawing Apistan and depending on Bayvarol, in Germany Bayvarol was outlawed as unsafe for use in food production--a classic example of complete failure to co-ordinate within the European Union on a crucial food production issue.

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I believe that, for five years, a company called Vita (Europe) has been attempting to obtain a licence to use Apistan in food production. It has been dogged at every turn by simple bureaucratic delay, and we still do not have a licence to use it. A very large proportion of the honey that we import and consume in the UK is produced in Europe or the United States using Apistan, so our measure to abolish the use of Apistan in the UK can have had no conceivable impact on the safety of honey for human consumption in the UK.

Two further products, Apiguard and Apitol, have been developed and are coming on to the market. Their use would help to tackle the problem and create a rotation in the treatment of the varroa mite. Must we wait for another five years of bureaucratic delay before those products can be licensed?

The second failure is the complete failure to fund research.

Mr. Gray: Is my hon. Friend aware that it costs about £10,000 to get a medicine approved by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, so, unsurprisingly, many producers are unwilling to do so?

Mr. Norman: I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. The problem is one of cost, and the fact that we have a widely dispersed, small cottage industry. It is not an attractive market for the major companies, yet, because of the economic and ecological benefits to the country of beekeeping, we need from the Government a proactive and supportive attitude to developing solutions and a willingness to work with, not fob off, the industry.

The Government's failure to fund any research contrasts starkly with the attitude of other EU Governments. In France, Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Germany--as in the United States--a much more proactive approach has been adopted to research, to helping beekeepers through the problem and to ensuring that good husbandry and good practice are adopted throughout the industry.

By contrast, in this country, we have not materially increased the funds available to the industry. Last year, we applied for an EU grant, which was available to help with the beekeeping industry and, much to our evident surprise, we received that grant--in fact, we received more than we had expected to receive. That money, instead of being used to fund research and action to support beekeepers, was trousered by the Treasury and used to reduce public expenditure--a clear example of abuse of the EU subsidy system.

To support that point, I quote from one of many letters that I have received. Ministers do not see fit to reply to letters from the Bee Farmers Association of the United Kingdom themselves, so the task is passed down to an official--incidentally, in the horticulture and potatoes division of MAFF--Mr. Ron Scrutton. Evidently, he is a very important official, because he does not see fit to sign his letters himself, but has them "pp'd" by his secretary. Not only do we not have a letter from a Minister, but we have a letter from Mr. Ron Scrutton's secretary, in which he says:


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    In other words, the money has gone to the Treasury.

We have had minimal extra support. No action has been taken. The position is redolent of what happened with BSE. We have watched this problem develop for years and we know that it will be damaging. We know that the cost to agriculture and in agriculture subsidies will be tremendous if nothing is done, yet there has been no attempt to address the problem.

The whole episode is redolent of unwillingness to understand what is going on in the rural community and failure to listen to the industry. Not only has expenditure not increased and no action been taken, but the tone of the correspondence--of which I have many examples--is that of fobbing off beekeepers and farmers and seeking any reason to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away.

That is true not only of the correspondence with the unfortunate Mr. Scrutton. The latest insult is the issue by MAFF of a consultation document--an interesting consultation document, which seems to have been hurried out very late, just in time for the debate.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Until my hon. Friend spoke today for the beekeepers, they had no big guns in their support, so MAFF did not take the issue seriously. MAFF has millions of pounds to spend every year on research, and it requires merely a gesture from the Minister--a flick of the finger--to divert research funds from other projects into research on the varroa mite. However, the Ministry does not do so because it does not regard the countryside, and the small people who take part in beekeeping, as important or as relevant to the affairs of the bigger agriculture industry with which they are obsessed.

Mr. Norman: My hon. Friend makes the vital point that the beekeepers have been ignored because it has been easy to ignore them. The amount that should be spent on research, and for which we are asking this morning, is small change compared to the enormous volume of research funds and subsidy that goes into other parts of agriculture.

The latest insult, to which I referred earlier, is the consultation document that has been produced in anticipation of applying again for EU funding. It has been rushed out, apparently in an effort to show that MAFF is consulting the industry after all, which has been given a grand total of nine working days to respond to the document. Interestingly, I note that the document is already dated May 1998, so the intention is clearly to issue it unamended regardless of the responses that are received. The document is also riddled with typographical errors--but we will not go into that now. It is a rehash of old work and old proposals and betrays MAFF's clear intention to make no changes and to take no action.


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