Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gray: Is my hon. Friend aware that the consultation document does not cover the essential areas of pollination, honey production or the breeding of mite-resistant bees? It does not mention the restocking of collapsed colonies. The consultation paper does not begin to address the problems faced by the beekeeping industry.

Mr. Norman: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The consultation document is remarkably similar to

22 Apr 1998 : Column 757

documents that were released last year. One is tempted to think that it comes from the same MAFF word processor belonging to the unfortunate Mr. Ron Scrutton.

I am sure that the Minister has been briefed for the debate on the reasons why nothing has been done. Therefore, I hope that he will not patronise us today by giving a long recital of excuses. This problem affects hon. Members on both sides of the House and it is of general interest to the rural community and to towns across Britain. Town gardens will also be adversely affected by the disappearance of the honey-bee.

We are not here today to examine the entrails of past failures to act: we are here to get some action now to save the beekeeping industry in Britain. I ask the Minister to address some specific points. First, may we please have a meeting with Ministers at which my colleagues and I, together with leaders of the beekeeping industry, can discuss the problem and find joint and satisfactory solutions? Such a meeting has hitherto been denied by the noble Lord Donoughue. He has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) explaining that he considers such a meeting unnecessary. That betrays an uncaring and uninterested attitude, which is, to say the least, complacent. May we please have an early meeting to discuss joint solutions to the problem?

Secondly, will the Minister assure us that EU funds this year will be used to finance incremental spending on research and the spread of good housekeeping practices in the beekeeping industry? The funds must not be trousered by the Treasury, as has occurred in the past. Thirdly, will the Minister provide an assurance that an approach to facilitate the use of pesticides will be adopted as soon as possible--one that is constructive rather than bureaucratic and which helps to find suitable solutions, paying due regard to food safety?

Fourthly, will the Minister assure us that he will support and help to finance the British Bee-Keepers Association's proposal for a national beekeeping register so that we can at least monitor the extent of the problem and understand how much the bee population is declining? We are operating in the dark at present, with no reliable data. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be a change of attitude in his Ministry? Will he give a commitment that Ministers will answer letters personally and take the issue seriously?

Mr. Soames: Will my hon. Friend add one more point to his list? We must insist that MAFF withdraws this infantile and puerile consultation document. It should be redone in a manner that befits the gravity of the situation and returned to those who need to be consulted with the imperative that they do not have only nine days in which to consider it and respond to the Department. The consultation exercise must be genuine and not the farce that is contemplated.

Mr. Norman: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It might be necessary to submit an application to the EU to replenish our funding for the coming year. If we are late in responding to that deadline, that is the responsibility of MAFF officials. Any consultation must be conducted properly; it should not be a pretend exercise designed to make it look as though MAFF officials are taking an interest in this matter at a late date in anticipation of a debate in the House.

22 Apr 1998 : Column 758

We have raised a very serious issue affecting not only beekeeping but British agriculture, the rural way of life and British ecology. If no action is taken, the result will be the loss of agricultural income and the loss of flora and fauna across the countryside. It will be a tragedy if we look back at this debate in five years and realise that we had a chance to take action and address a problem that has grown progressively--the onslaught of which is entirely predictable and could result in the terminal decline of beekeeping and the honey-bee--but failed to take action and, as a consequence, the British countryside has been changed for ever.

11.25 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) on securing this extremely important debate. If I were the chairman of a supermarket chain, I would be concerned about what the diary columnists will make of this debate in the next two or three days--with references to shafts of light floating through the window, the bees buzzing and the chairman of Asda expatiating at length on the subject of honey. In such circumstances, diary journalists and others who might make fun of the debate would be demonstrating no understanding of the importance of beekeeping and the honey industry to the countryside and the nation as a whole.

My hon. Friend mentioned the essential nature of honey-bees and their pollinating activities. I think that I am correct in saying that 84 per cent. of all pollination in the United Kingdom is carried out by insects, of which honey-bees constitute a large proportion. Honey-bees are the only insects that stick with a particular plant or tree until they have finished pollination. They play a vital role from the point of view of British agriculture and of leisure. I am particularly keen to participate in this debate as there is a large leisure beekeeping industry in North Wiltshire and my constituents have asked me to raise some specific concerns. If the Minister listens carefully to the debate, takes note of our comments and responds in a similar tone, it is important that he should receive a jar of Wiltshire honey. I shall be happy to let him have one.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): Bribery.

Mr. Gray: He must naturally declare it in the Register of Members' Interests.

Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) spoke eloquently about the importance of beekeeping to agriculture and the life of the countryside. Does my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) agree that towns are equally important? Many people who live in towns keep bees and others love gardening--most of our fellow citizens rightly take great pleasure in that activity. Without bees, it would not be possible to have beautiful gardens.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is also true for those who are lucky enough to have allotments in the inner cities. I serve on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee, which is currently considering the great value of allotments to people in our inner cities, many of whom keep bees.

22 Apr 1998 : Column 759

The importance of the bee industry cannot be gainsaid. I suspect that the Minister will respond by telling us how important the bee industry is. However, it is regrettable that his officials have not gone to the same lengths to emphasise the importance of the industry in the correspondence to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells referred. The quiet and successful beekeeping industry is severely threatened by the varroa mite. My hon. Friend did not explain in as much detail as he might exactly what that blood-sucking mite is. I am told by my constituents who keep bees that the mites are spreading throughout the United Kingdom and that, if nothing is done to check their spread, it will signal the end of bee colonies in the United Kingdom. It is the most appalling parasite, which can be dealt with in various ways. Beekeepers throughout the United Kingdom seem to agree that it is important to deal with the varroa mite not by one means, but by applying several different means to different colonies or even to the same colony. Mechanical methods can be used--trapping the parasite in the brood comb is one perfectly good way of sorting out the varroa mite. There are the chemicals that my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells mentioned, Bayvarol being the primary one used in this country at present.

There are also home-made old fashioned recipes that work remarkably well. Talc is one, and caster sugar is another. A sprinkling of either in the hive clogs the feet of the parasite, which falls to the floor of the hive and can easily be swept away. Talc and icing sugar are the solutions most commonly used by British beekeepers.

Very sensible, one might think--a down-to-earth solution. Why not make use of a DIY solution to a difficult problem? One might well think that, and one would have been right until a sunny afternoon recently when a European Union official with not much else to do thought, "Let us redefine what honey-bees are. They are no longer insects. Let us redefine them as food-producing animals, thereby putting them in the same category as sheep, pigs, goats and so on." That is an extraordinary redefinition. EU officials are fixated on redefining everything and making everything harmonious and the same across Europe. Why they should have wasted their time redefining the status of the honey-bee, I cannot imagine, but that is their job and perhaps we should not attack them for it.

One unfortunate consequence of redefining bees as food-producing animals is that they become subject to EU statutory instrument 1729. That document may not have made the headlines in recent years, and, for all I am aware, it may not even have been discussed in the House, but it has had an extraordinary effect on the harmless, peaceful beekeeping industry in the United Kingdom.

EU statutory instrument 1729 directs that anything used to make bees better if they are ill must be approved by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate--the body set up to ensure that cows, sheep and pigs are not fed medical substances that they should not be fed. It costs at least £5,000 to £10,000 to have a substance approved by the VMD. Beekeepers are concerned that although they have used talc successfully for years in many colonies, it will now need to be approved by the VMD.

The Minister may say that that is wrong, and that the Veterinary Medicines Directorate needs to approve only medicines that may have some deleterious effect on human health if they are left in the honey. Who is to prove

22 Apr 1998 : Column 760

that talc or the other home-grown products that have historically been used by beekeepers do not have some deleterious effect on human health? Is it necessary for the beekeepers to go through some process to demonstrate that talc is harmless? Do the Government intend to go through the process to prove that it is harmless? Perhaps the drug producers would want to go through some process to prove that an alternative substance to the current monopolistic position that Bayer enjoys with Bayvarol is not harmful to human health. Perhaps we must wait until some human becomes ill as a result of the use of one of those products, before a study is undertaken by the Government.

Surely it is time that the Government said, "We know that talc, icing sugar and one or two other products"--folic acid, I think--"are harmless to health. We will demonstrate that. We will license them in the same way as we have licensed other medicines, thereby removing that worry from the mind of the beekeeper."

Another problem for the Veterinary Medicines Directorate is that the cost of licensing a medicine through it means that only one producer so far--Bayer--has got round to doing so. That medicine is Bayvarol which, as we have heard, is losing its effectiveness and, particularly in France and Belgium, it is said that bees are entirely immune to it. Even if that were not the case, it is wrong that the British Government through one of their agencies should allow Bayer to have a monopoly on the only medicine that may be sold in this country to deal with the varroa mite. Should not the VMD move forward and encourage other manufacturers to have their products licensed?

Next Section

IndexHome Page