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Mr. Gray: Is the Minister aware that the Bee Farmers Association is plain that it was summoned to MAFF for the annual meeting in October last year--there is a meeting every year--and that, during the meeting, the BFA was informed that the use of Apistan had been banned on 11 August? Information of its banning had not been passed on to the BFA in any shape, size or form. It had not been consulted on its banning. MAFF did not

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inform the BFA that Apistan had been banned until that annual meeting, which took place, I believe, in October or November last year in MAFF offices.

Mr. Morley: That is the process of consultation: to invite the organisation to discuss these issues. If there are concerns and representations are made by organisations, of course, they will be examined sympathetically.

Mr. Norman: I think that it is clear that the purpose of consultation is to listen to the representations from the beekeeping industry. The point that has been made to my colleagues is that those representations were made at the annual meeting in October and that they were in no way reflected in the consultation document that was subsequently put out, so, effectively, consultation has not been a listening process, but has been treated simply as a formality. The Minister may be aware that it is also fairly clear--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I know that this is a serious subject, but the hon. Gentleman cannot make another speech during an intervention.

Mr. Morley: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall try to deal with the points on Apistan in a moment. I accept that beekeepers are concerned about three particular problems. The mite infestation, varroa, which was first discovered in 1992, is now endemic in England and Wales and there is only one authorised medical treatment to which, in time, the mites are likely to become resistant.

Secondly, the new EU-funded scheme to improve honey production and beekeeping should lead to the UK receiving much more assistance than previously expected--just under £0.5 million--but that is being used to replace existing Government funding work rather than to increase spending. That is the concern. Finally, beekeepers regularly wish to be reassured about the Government's commitment to them.

Those are serious points and they have been reflected in the speeches this morning. I shall try to respond to each of the three key issues.

Mr. Gray: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley: Forgive me. I have limited time and I want to try to get through those points, which may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gray: What about the point on replacing existing funding?

Mr. Morley: I shall deal with that in my speech.

In the wake of the discovery of varroa, our predecessors reorganised the MAFF bee health service. Laboratory and field staff were brought together under the same management for the first time. Regional inspectors were employed on a year-round basis and much more emphasis was given to training and advisory work.

One thing that all beekeepers appear to agree on is that that was a good move and that the quality of service has improved. In addition to free training and advice,

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beekeepers have a free field inspection service for varroa and the two other notifiable diseases--European foul brood and American foul brood. They also receive a free laboratory diagnosis service.

I stress that responsibility for approving medicines such as Apistan lies with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. It was able quickly to authorise one treatment--Bayvarol--for the mite infestation. It is true that Bayvarol remains the only authorised treatment, which is a matter of some concern to beekeepers. That is especially true as legislation that was enacted last year to meet Community obligations effectively outlawed the personal importation and use of medicinal substances that are permitted in other member states. It was not a decision by this Government, which is one of the allegations that have been made.

There is nothing I can do about that, but I should clarify one thing; the matter was raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). Provided that no residue that is harmful to human health is left in the honey, it is still possible to use what are termed non-medicinal curative substances. Those are substances for which no medical claims are made, but which beekeepers believe may serve a useful purpose. The example that was given was talcum powder, which may help to prevent the mites from attaching themselves to the bees.

The question was, who should decide that? Two main bodies oversee safety on additives--the VMD and the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment. Their advice is that the use of talc and other known substances is not considered to be harmful. If beekeepers want an absolutely definitive answer, there is nothing to stop them writing to the Ministry, a Minister or their Members of Parliament, asking them to put specific questions to the VMD about the substances that they are using. They will then receive specific answers. On the point about icing sugar, I am happy to give an assurance that there is no problem with using that treatment.

Mr. Paice: The Minister has just pushed the onus back on to beekeepers and asked them to put questions to the VMD on whether the substances that they are currently using are acceptable. Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to produce, through the VMD, some sort of guidance leaflet for the many thousands of small beekeepers, telling them whether the various traditional remedies are acceptable?

Mr. Morley: I have no objection to considering that suggestion. The problem is including in a leaflet everything that people may be using. That is why I said that if there were any doubt, it would be far better if people asked specific questions. However, I shall raise the hon. Gentleman's suggestion with my officials.

We are often asked why only one treatment is actually approved. The simple answer is that the VMD cannot approve anything unless and until an application has been made by a medicines manufacturer, with full supporting documentation. Although the process need not be expensive, depending on what information is already available and whether the medicine is already approved in another member state, we cannot force companies to make applications if they do not wish to do so.

It is surprising to hear Conservative advocates of free enterprise and the free market arguing for the Government to intervene and tell companies what they should or

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should not do. We do not have that role; it is not how the system works. We have agreed exceptionally that the costs of the veterinary drug residue surveillance programme for honey will be paid for by the Ministry rather than the industry, which is the case for other sectors. It is because we recognise the nature of the beekeeping sector.

That leads me to the new European Union scheme, introduced last year principally to alleviate the burden on beekeepers of the varroa infestation. The UK allocation from what we might call the EU honeypot is much more than we originally anticipated, at just under £0.5 million. The funding must go towards work conducted by national Governments, and we have chosen--entirely within the letter and the spirit of the rules--to offset the costs ofthe existing considerable varroa programme, which I described earlier. We are already contributing, as a member state, to the increased budget for the cost to the bee sector. That means that our overall contribution to the bee sector and varroa monitoring has increased. It is not a matter of the Treasury trousering the money. It is a bit much for Conservative Members to criticise the Labour Government, when the previous Conservative Administration used the procedure in exactly the same way.

The issue of European funds comes up regularly, including in debates on agriculture. I must emphasise that there is no pot of free money in the EU. We cannot take money from the EU without that having an effect on, for example, rebate calculations. It is a complicated measure, but we inherited it. It was implemented by the previous Government. It means that money that we take from Europe has implications for the rebate that we receive and the overall public expenditure round. We must take that into account when calling for European funding. Despite that, the overall spending on the beekeeping sector has increased.

Mr. Bercow: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have only seven minutes left.

Incidentally, the net gain to the UK is only a little over £150,000.

Of course, there are calls from beekeepers for the money saved to be used to increase expenditure on bee health work, but there are clear constraints on the public purse, which have to be taken into account. Moreover, beekeepers should also keep it in mind that Government expenditure on the bee sector is not always easy to justify, given that many other sectors want the same treatment that the bee sector has had, such as the Government paying for residue monitoring.

Although our bee health service cannot be exempt from the comprehensive spending review, that does not mean that we do not care about beekeepers or the issue generally. Bees--and, therefore, beekeepers--are important. They produce honey and they pollinate farmed crops and wild flowers and plants. However, it is fair to say that other insects pollinate, too. The impression was given that bees do everything. I do not want to underestimate the importance of bees, but they are not the only means of pollination.

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The benefits are hard to quantify in economic terms, but few would argue about bees playing an important and effective role in the countryside. That is why we have continued to fund the bee health programme that I described earlier. In the UK, it costs about £1.5 million each year. The organisation delivering our bee health policies in England and Wales is relatively new, dating only from 1994. At the outset, it was planned to review its performance after a settling-in period. It was therefore right to include it in the comprehensive spending review. I shall not announce any conclusions about that today, as that would be premature.

In addition to a bee health programme involving field and laboratory staff, we have a commitment to a substantial bee health research and development programme. That programme has already significantly increased our understanding of the relationship between varroa mites, their associated viruses and bee health. A mite population growth model has been developed and chemical control methods compared.

Another MAFF-funded project, which examined diagnostic and monitoring methods for varroa mites in honey-bee colonies, is about to come to fruition. I am happy to pay tribute to the British Bee-Keeping Association, which made a significant financial contribution to that work. As a result, we have been able to produce a varroa mite model calculator to assist beekeepers to assess the level of infestation in their colonies and therefore to plan treatment more effectively. A new advisory leaflet will accompany the calculator. That deals with some of the points made earlier. The leaflet will be launched formally in a few days' time, and the calculator will follow shortly afterwards.

In addition to all that, I can announce today that we have just approved the funding of a new research project to examine potential biological control agents for the varroa mite, which might offer an effective and sustainable alternative to chemical control. Selected strains of fungi and bacteria thought to be active against varroa mites are to be evaluated for their ability to control the mites and to persist and spread within the hive environment. Their effect on harmless insects will also be considered. Such an approach could have considerable economic and environmental benefits. The work is to be carried out as a joint project between the Institute for Arable Crops Research at Rothamsted and Horticulture Research International. It is a four-year project, at a total cost of more than £400,000. It is the latest example of this Government's commitment to beekeeping and is new expenditure.

I have noted the concern expressed by hon. Members. Beekeeping is an important part of the countryside. However, it needs to be stressed that it is important to all areas--gardening, horticulture, allotments and so on. Many people are involved in the sector, although the commercial side is relatively small--but no less important for that. Many people view it as a cottage industry, with much of the honey going to family and friends. Indeed, I visit and talk to many farmers who keep hives, and it is nice to leave with a pot of locally produced honey. I have a few pots, although not so many that I would have to declare them or even hand them over to the Ministry.

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I was a little disappointed by some of the comments made by Opposition Members. Beekeeping and its relation to biodiversity and the countryside is important, and many hon. Members have made representations about it. Today, I have stressed that the Government take the issue seriously. We are devoting considerable public funds to the new programme, which I hope will be warmly welcomed by the beekeeping sector.


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