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5. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What assessment he has made of the efficacy of testing for evidence of BSE in cattle over 30 months old. [142340]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): There are three approved tests that can be used for testing cattle aged over 30 months. All were evaluated by the EU last year in trials in which known BSE samples and BSE-free samples from New Zealand cattle were tested blind. All three tests could

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identify the BSE samples with 100 per cent. accuracy. The BSE samples consisted of brain material from cattle at the clinical stage of disease. We used the prionics test in a survey last year of approximately 4,000 cattle entering the over-30-months scheme.

Mr. Heath: Is it not true that validation is possible only at the clinical stage, as the Minister said, and not when cattle are asymptomatic? Therefore, has not the European Union chosen a rather insufficient tool on which to establish its entire BSE strategy in the coming year? Does not processed meat derived from over-30-months-old cattle continue to be imported into this country? Do not serious questions now need to be asked about that policy and the future of the EU's strategy to deal with a BSE crisis developing in continental Europe?

Ms Quin: First, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point when he says that the tests are 100 per cent. accurate only at the clinical stage of BSE. However, he would not be right to say that the whole anti-BSE strategy is based on those tests, because the EU at recent meetings has also made important decisions regarding the elimination of meat and bonemeal from animal feed, which is important in terms of safety, consumer confidence and making a more even playing field in the EU for our producers, who have not been allowed to access such meat and bonemeal for a number of years.

It is important to examine BSE measures in total. I have explained what legislation on processed food provides. None the less, the Food Standards Agency is rightly considering the issue in terms of controls. As for processed products, the signs that we have from manufacturers and retailers are that they use meat that has been deemed safe for human consumption--in other words, not over-30-months beef.

Angela Smith (Basildon): Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is partly because of the Conservative party's actions over BSE that the Food Standards Agency has been warmly welcomed by many people throughout the country and by the House? Part of the reason for the crisis was that decision making came behind scientific evidence, and that that evidence was not taken into account when decisions were made. For that reason, all scientific information should be made available. The public have lost confidence because of the Conservative party's actions.

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend is right to raise these matters.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The Tories are laughing.

Ms Quin: I cannot understand why any amusement should be caused on the Opposition Front Bench in respect of such a serious point. We need to learn lessons from what happened in the past. Obviously hon. Members on both sides of the House are studying the Phillips report. We believe that by establishing a separate food safety authority we have already done a great deal to tackle some of the problems that have been identified. We believe that the distinction between food safety issues and food production issues is an important one to safeguard for the future.

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Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): The House will be aware of the rigours of the regime that has been imposed on the beef industry to ensure that British beef is perfectly safe. Will the Minister tell the House why it has been impossible to answer the question that I first tabled on 15 November? I asked what powers Ministers have

That question was not answered before Parliament prorogued last month, and I had to table it again on 13 December. Earlier this week I received a holding reply that reads:

That seems to indicate that the Government have no powers to regulate the importation of meat from France. If they do--I see the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food nodding--why has it taken two months to tell me what these powers are?

Ms Quin: I think that my right hon. Friend was shaking his head, not nodding. I am not familiar with the specific question that the hon. Gentleman has asked. He did not tell me in advance that he was going to raise the matter. It may be that he has tabled the question to the wrong Department and that it is basically a question for the Food Standards Agency. There is still a great deal of confusion--sometimes I believe that it is deliberate confusion--and Members try to get MAFF Ministers to pronounce on issues that are not within our remit. However, I undertake to look into the reply to the hon. Gentleman and to let him know the outcome as quickly as possible.

Floods (East Sussex)

6. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the recent floods on the farming community in East Sussex. [142341]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I know that East Sussex, like a number of areas, has experienced exceptional flooding over recent weeks. Those affected by these extreme circumstances have my full sympathy, as the hon. Gentleman knows, given the debates that we have had on the issue.

Following the autumn floods, the Government immediately made available a further £51 million to accelerate river flood defence works. This is on top of the extra £30 million announced in the summer spending review. Moreover, we are examining with the farming organisations the scope for changes in national and EU scheme rules which would help farmers affected by flooding. My colleague received a positive response at this week's Agriculture Council to just such a request.

Mr. Baker: Is the Minister aware that some farmland at Iford in my constituency has been continuously flooded since 12 October, and remains flooded to this day? What is worse, the farmers affected have to pay a drainage rate for the so-called services of a useless 40-year-old Environment Agency pump at Rodmell which is not doing its job. Is he aware that grassland is being killed off, with all the implications that that has for livestock units on those farms? Notwithstanding the steps that he is taking,

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which I welcome for the future, what practical steps can he offer my farmers now to help them out of the present situation?

Mr. Morley: These are extreme conditions--we have had the wettest autumn for 230 years. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that some farmland has been flooded for long periods, and in some cases has been repeatedly flooded because of changes in the rivers. We are examining the way in which the regulations laid down by the European Union work, particularly in relation to area payments for arable crops. We are trying to make sure that there is maximum flexibility in the application of those regulations, to assist farmers in the present circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been discussing these matters with the farmers organisations to see whether we can do anything else to provide support.

Energy Crops

7. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): What steps he is taking to encourage farmers to grow energy crops. [142342]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): We launched the energy crops scheme on 3 October with a £30 million budget to encourage planting of short-rotation coppice and miscanthus, and to encourage the formation of producer groups in this sector. The Prime Minister recently announced a further £50 million of support for renewable energy, including from biomass. In addition, we are pursuing a promotional strategy including industry events, codes of practice and a dedicated website.

Mr. Thomas: As someone who recently declared a visit to Denmark to study wind power--a very different industry from energy crops, but with some similar problems--may I urge my right hon. Friend to urge our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look kindly on energy crops, and to offer additional support, beyond what she announced in the rural development plan, with a more favourable tax regime for biofuels?

Ms Quin: I welcome the interest that my hon. Friend has taken and the visit that he mentioned. In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor issued his green challenge to industry to consider different ways of promoting renewable energies and the use of renewable materials. I welcome that and hope that it will lead to a great deal of worthwhile work in the alternative energy sector.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Let me put the question asked by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) a little more bluntly. As biofuels derive from energy crops, and as the Government have tried to excuse a huge hike of 34 per cent. in petrol duties by saying that it was for environmental reasons, is there not an inescapable duty on the Government significantly to reduce the tax on biofuels, not least because they produce fewer carbon emissions?

Ms Quin: I mentioned the initiative that the Chancellor announced in the pre-Budget report. I do not suppose that

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the hon. Gentleman expects me to make tax announcements in Agriculture Question Time. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] Even though Christmas is approaching, I cannot be tempted to that extent. Departments are working together closely. The Prime Minister's initiative, which I announced, involves a considerable sum of money. The Treasury, MAFF and the Department of Trade and Industry are working closely together in this sector. MAFF is doing an enormous amount in that regard, compared with when the previous Government were in office.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): In addition to supporting the biofuel system, does my right hon. Friend support the building of power plants where the crops are grown? We should bring jobs into rural areas. There is a proposal to build a massive plant on the outskirts of my constituency, which will bring the fuel from a 100-mile radius and bring hundreds of heavy goods vehicles into my constituency. Will not that defeat the object of environmental improvement? The power plants should be in the area where the crops are grown.

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Without doubt, it is important to look at the travel and transport implications of the strategy. I am glad that Project Arbre is being commissioned in Yorkshire and that a number of Yorkshire farmers are growing short-rotation coppice to supply that power station. There are good examples that we should follow, but we should certainly be aware of the transport and overall cost implications of what we are doing in that sector.

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