Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.46 am

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): First, I inform the House that I have the privilege of being honorary vice-president of the Cambridgeshire Beekeepers Association, in which capacity I have already raised with Ministers a number of the issues that we have been discussing this morning. Secondly, the Chivers Hartley factory is in my constituency. That company is the largest producer of jam in the United Kingdom and a major blender of honey. I have a range of personal and constituency interests, which make beekeeping an important subject to me from that perspective and also from a wider perspective.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) on securing a debate on the subject of beekeeping. I have not checked when the issue was last raised in the Chamber, but it is clearly it is an important subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend, too, on the way in which he dealt with it, explaining the

22 Apr 1998 : Column 764

importance of it not only to beekeepers and consumers of honey but to the wider population. My hon. Friend outlined the threats that the industry faces.

My hon. Friend rightly reminded us that the Government's general approach has been wholly inadequate. Perhaps that is no better exemplified than by asking the Minister who is responsible within the Government for bees, beekeeping and related issues. As my hon. Friend said, his correspondence has been with Lord Donoughue, who is believed to be the Minister responsible for horticulture. Most representatives of horticulture find that difficult to understand, given his apparent inability to keep appointments with them.

My correspondence, along with the parliamentary questions that I have tabled on this subject, have been answered by the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Today, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will reply to the debate. Three separate Ministers apparently have a finger in the hive in supposedly trying to deal with the problems of bees and beekeeping.

I was astonished to find that there are about 20,000 species belonging to the super family apoidea and the order hymenoptera, which are all classified as bees. About 500 of those separate species are social bees, including the one that is so familiar to the British countryside.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells rightly reminded us of the valuable role of bees in agricultural productivity. He did not mention the role of the integrated agricultural crops research establishment at Rothamsted. It has calculated that 80 per cent. of pollination in Britain is carried out by insects, and that 80 per cent. of that is carried out by the honey-bee. Its importance to all types of crop production, whether on the allotment, in the field or in the garden, is critical and cannot be overemphasised. Even in crops where wind pollination is common, such as oil seed rape, the yield improvement due to bees can be considerable and is estimated to be at least 14 per cent.

The output of bees is estimated at about £12 million worth of honey, but, in terms of the pollination value to crop production, it is about £6.9 billion at farm gate prices. That is about 10 per cent. of UK consumption. It is also estimated that some 80 per cent. of our hives are owned by amateurs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said, the Government's references to amateurs and to hobby beekeepers in the document that was released last week show their disdain for people who produce honey and keep bees as a leisure or hobby activity or to supplement other income.

The importance of bees to society cannot be overestimated. In my former life as a practical farmer, I recall beekeepers putting hives in the fields to assist in pollination, particularly of field beans. Hives are part of the English countryside and their location in orchards, especially in Kent, is part of the English country scene. A few years ago, agriculture posed a threat to bees. The early insecticides that were used to control aphids and other insect pests were indiscriminate and caused severe damage to the bee population. Farmers had to use avoidance measures, such as using products at different times of day, to minimise the impact on bees. Just this week, the Country Landowners Association reminded farmers of the importance of following the Government's

22 Apr 1998 : Column 765

code of spray safety to protect foraging bees. It reminded farmers that a breach of the code carries a maximum fine of £2,000.

Current agrochemicals are much more specific, and the honey-bee is largely protected from that threat. As we have heard, the current threat is varroa. In 1992, the first infections in Britain were found in Devon, and the previous Government delineated statutory infected areas which have expanded to include the whole of England and parts of Scotland. However, the march of the mite continues. It is clear that such controls are inadequate. Bayvarol, which is the only licensed product, is the only one that beekeepers can use to combat varroa. That stems from the European Court of Justice case of Bruyerev. Belgium which extended the scope of directive 81/851 to prohibit the import of veterinary medicinal products that were not authorised in a member state.

Until that time, although Apistan could not be purchased in this country, beekeepers could buy it abroad and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate took the view that, as it was imported, it did not contravene the legislation. The European Court case ruled that that view was wrong, and it is now impossible to obtain Apistan for use in this country. That leaves just Bayvarol. That has come about without consultation with the industry and it again demonstrates the Government's arrogance in taking decisions without thought and concern for the affected industry.

Mr. Morley: It was not a Government decision.

Mr. Paice: The Minister says that it was not a Government decision, but I am sure that they introduced a statutory instrument to which my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Tunbridge Wells referred. I shall return to that.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is speaking about European Union regulations, which the statutory instrument implements.

Mr. Paice: I appreciate the results of the European Court case to which I referred. As my hon. Friends have said, the regulations' impact on British beekeeping is catastrophic. Before introducing the regulation, the Government should have consulted the industry to try to minimise that impact. I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire because it is difficult to argue that a bee is not a food-producing animal. It could be argued that it is not an animal, but it definitely produces food. The important issue is not the definition itself but its impact on the industry. Until the consultation paper was published last week, the Government had made no attempt to consult beekeepers about addressing the impact of the European Court ruling.

Mr. Norman: Although it is right to say that the problem is partly a consequence of the EU ruling, as I said earlier there have been applications over the past five years to license Apistan. I am advised that every application has experienced some sort of bureaucratic delay. For example, it was said that the data were not in the right format. The fact that Apistan cannot be used in

22 Apr 1998 : Column 766

the context of food production is partly a consequence of Government action and is not due solely to the EU directive.

Mr. Paice: As one would expect my hon. Friend has carried out his research admirably, and he is right.

Mr. Morley: He is not.

Mr. Paice: The Minister will shortly have a chance to respond. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate is responsible for licensing the products that we are discussing. If my hon. Friend has been correctly informed, and I am sure he has, it seems that applications to license Apistan have constantly been sent back on the bureaucratic ground that information or data were inadequate. The Government and the VMD are under an obligation to go to the company that is seeking the licence to try to sort out the problems and get a product licence. That is not happening.

The Minister has said that the previous Government set the rules about the cost of licensing. He was right. The concept of full cost recovery was introduced by the previous Government to make sure that systems covered their costs. That is a sensible principle, but, like so many, if it is taken to an absurd extent it damages the concept and integrity of the principle.

Many small beekeepers do not have large resources. It is not a market from which pharmaceutical or chemical companies can expect huge returns, and, in the interests of bee health, the Government and the VMD should explore ways of minimising the impact of costs. We are debating a product for a small industry and not one that will be used on 20 million acres of cereals. The Minister would do well to heed that important fact. I shall be interested in his response.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire spoke about traditional remedies such as talc, which is also known as French chalk, and formic and lactic acid. Those products are not licensed because they are not patented and commercial organisations would not benefit from a licence. The VMD has said that under the pesticide regulations only non-medicinal curative substances would be banned if, when transmitted to honey, they would be harmful to human health. The VMD said:

It is understandable that that should be causing some concern, and I agree with the Minister on that.

The important point is that the VMD has clearly stated that it is not aware of any health hazards from the other traditional remedies. It is a helpful statement and it is right that it should be recorded, but it is still far too vague. Given the structure of the beekeeping industry, which has been rightly described by my hon. Friends, I hope that the Minister will undertake to press the VMD for clear and specific guidelines about the use of traditional remedies so that beekeepers can be absolutely clear whether they can go on using them. As my hon. Friend the Member for

22 Apr 1998 : Column 767

Tunbridge Wells rightly said, they are labour intensive, but, for many producers, they are a satisfactory alternative.

Next Section

IndexHome Page