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Mr. Gray: I have just thought of a point that I omitted to mention in my speech. The offending statutory instrument No. 1729, clearly outlaws anything other than approved medicines. Paragraph 6(1) says that if any person uses

Whatever the interpretation may be, the wording of the statutory instrument is plain and it makes it an offence to use anything other than medicines.

Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend is right. That is what is said, but the interpretation is equally important. This is an ideal opportunity for the Government to make a clear statement of declaration about how they interpret that statutory instrument.

My hon. Friends have referred to the fact that only Bayvarol is licensed to be used as a chemical treatment in this country. As has been said, there is ample evidence that in northern France and Belgium, just across the channel, the varroa mite is becoming immune to Bayvarol. It is also believed in some parts of Europe that it is becoming immune to Apistan as well because the two chemicals are similar. There is no doubt that it will be only a short time before that immunity reaches this country.

Some months ago, I asked the Government what they were doing about that and the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said:

It is not a question of being aware now, but of foreseeing that it will undoubtedly come to this country and that we will need to do something about it.

How can we continue to import honey into this country when other countries are using a product which is not permitted here and without mutual recognition? I asked the Government some months ago what they are doing to ensure that honey being imported into this country is safe. I was told quite clearly that inspections are carried out and that

In a test for flumethrin, which is the chemical involved in Apistan,

    "none of the samples was positive."

Those results were for 1996. The 1997 figures were not available.

We continue to have the problem of British producers not being able to use that chemical. The Government have a responsibility to answer the fundamental question about importing food products into this country which are produced using chemicals and techniques that are banned here. It does not make sense. If it is safe for producers abroad to use those chemicals or treatments, why is not it safe in this country? The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has shuffled off the responsibility to the pharmaceutical industry saying:

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    That is abdicating responsibility for an important industry in this country.

There are other aspects that need to be considered. My hon. Friends both referred to research. Long-term studies being carried out at Rothamsted show considerable variation in the harm being attributed to the disease. It is believed that it may be due to the difference in the incidence of the honey-bee virus in infested colonies. There is no doubt that there is an issue that needs further investigation.

In the United States, which has been mentioned, Michigan state university has been looking at bee resistance to varroa. It has found some strains of honey-bee that are much more resistant than others. Those are examples of a desperate need for urgent further research so that perhaps one day the industry need not be reliant on chemical treatments.

My hon. Friends have also referred to the directive on the improvements for marketing and the production of honey. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told me in July last year that he welcomed the regulation. He said that he was

Perhaps we should have taken more note of the phrase "expenditure reimbursement provisions". He went on to say that he

    "will consult the industry and others about it."--[Official Report,22 July 1997; Vol. 298, c. 552-53.]

That consultation was a sham and demonstrated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said, that the Government were seeking to get some money back for what they were already doing. It did not mean that there would be any more money to help a beleaguered industry.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will my hon. Friend confirm that under EC regulation 1221/97 the United Kingdom is set to receive more funds per hive than any other European Union member state for the improvement of the production and marketing of honey? Does my hon. Friend agree with me, with my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) and my bee farming constituent, Mr. Ged Marshall, that it is essential that those funds be ring fenced exclusively for the purpose for which they are intended and should not be confiscated by the Treasury or misused and misappropriated for other purposes by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I have no way of knowing for certain that the comparison with other countries is completely correct, but I believe it to be so. What is undoubtedly true is that not one penny of the extra money coming to the bee industry in Europe is coming to British beekeepers or the British bee industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells in his inimitable fashion referred to the fact that the Treasury has trousered it. That is not a novel event. The Treasury regularly sees the European Community as a milch cow for getting back some money.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has stated repeatedly in previous months on other agricultural issues that it has no money yet, when there is a little extra money coming from Europe, we see it rolling over to the Treasury, which takes the money back into its own hands.

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About £1.7 million is being spent by MAFF--£1.5 million on the bee health programme and about £200,000 on research. I believe that it has applied for an extra £475,000 which, as I have said, is being used to fund existing activities with no extension of research.

I want to challenge the Minister about where we are going from here. I hope that he will answer the questions asked by my hon. Friends. I hope that he will deal with the issue regarding the future of the National Bee Unit. I wrote to the Government in December last year and received a reply in January from the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He said:

So the Government are not only confiscating the money that is coming from Europe, but are considering cutting what is being spent anyway. That is totally unacceptable. Will the Minister today rule out any reduction in current expenditure on the National Bee Unit, the bee health programme and indeed research? Better still, will he agree to find a little extra money--we are not talking vast sums here--to fund urgent research into alternative ways in which to control varroa, which is essential? Will he also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has asked, withdraw the document that was hurried out last week?

Frankly, it is an embarrassment for any Government to hurry out a document that is riddled with inaccuracies and typographical errors and is clearly a result of the fact that this debate had appeared on the Order Paper. It is not acceptable for the Government to consult on an inadequate document that does not deal with the issues, and to give the industry just a few days to respond. Will the Minister today withdraw that document, redraft it, deal with all the issues and then set out on a real consultation, with the whole beekeeping industry and those who are affected by it?

The speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells and for North Wiltshire illustrated the serious disease that faces the UK bee population. It is of concern not just to beekeepers, but to everyone who is involved in agriculture and horticulture. There is an urgent need for more work--not less--so will the Minister fund more research? Will he show today that the Government actually understand the importance of this industry and undertake that they will not sit idly by, shuffling off responsibility to beekeepers and pharmaceutical industries, while the bee industry is destroyed by a mite that we know little about and which needs far more research? Will he show that, on this issue, if on nothing else to do with the countryside, the Government do actually care?

12.10 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) on securing the debate and on choosing such an important and interesting subject. I also thank hon. Members who have made a serious and thoughtful contribution to the issue of beekeeping and the problem of varroa, although I reject any allegation that the

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Government have failed to act on the issue. Some of the partisan points that were made related more to political campaigning than to dealing with a serious issue and, in particular, public health and consumer safety issues. I was disappointed with some of the comments, which bordered on the fatuous.

There is a need, of course, for research, and I intend to outline the steps that the Government are taking. I also intend to make an announcement that may be of interest to beekeepers and to hon. Members who have spoken, and hope to deal with all the points that have been raised.

Beekeeping is not often raised on the Floor of the House. That, perhaps, is a measure of the nature of the people who are involved in the craft. They prefer to get on with the business of keeping their bees rather than come to us to air their problems. This debate has presented an unusual opportunity for all of us to deal with some of those problems.

During examination of correspondence in preparation for the debate, I found no evidence whatever of hobbyist beekeepers being derided by the Government or Ministry officials--that has certainly not happened in this Administration. There are issues such as the use of pesticides and consumer safety. The point was raised about a national register of beekeepers. Some of the comments have been about bureaucracy. Setting up a national register would itself be a bureaucratic exercise and the cost of keeping it up to date would be considerable. There is the issue of the costs and benefits of such a scheme and, indeed, whether the beekeeping sector could run it.

There is no doubt whatever that beekeepers have many difficulties with which to contend. Bees are susceptible to a range of diseases and visitations. They can become affected by agricultural pesticides and they have to face the vagaries of this country's weather, which recently has seemed to be less and less predictable.

There has been full consultation with the beekeeping sector. I was surprised at some of the comments about consultation. In the first round of consultation on the European documents, there were meetings as well as consultation with representatives from beekeeping organisations. Because of the time scale in meeting the EU requirements, it is not really possible to withdraw the documents. I was also a bit surprised because that follows on from last year's consultation; it is within the timetable that has been laid down by the European Union. More to the point, as far as I am aware, there have been no complaints or representations from beekeeper organisations that the consultation has failed.

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