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Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): My hon. Friend is right to mention flooding and the Parret catchment area, which

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covers well over half of Somerset. I am sure he is aware of plans finally to do something about flooding in the catchment area, especially around the River Tone and the vale of Taunton Deane. Is he hopeful that the Government will put the money in to back those plans for the Parret catchment area?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank my hon. Friend for that complicated question. I agree that the money needs to come from central Government. It is interesting to note that the Parret catchment project proposes to create inland lakes. It is possible that we will have a 15,000 m storage lake that will cover parts of the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and will cost in the region of £75,000 to create.

I have two worries about that. The creation of deep flood-storage reservoirs off the flood plain by intercepting run-off, which is what the project will try to achieve, will affect all our constituencies in Somerset. The retention of shallow flood water in the flood plain through the construction of bunds will have the same effect. Although those are noble ideals, according to the document, the landowners have not agreed to those measures. They have said that they like the idea in principle, but who will fund the landowners? The £75,000 is for the work. At the moment the landowners get subsidies to farm the land in the levels. Who is going to tell them that we want to flood their land not just for a few weeks, but for months, especially in the case of last year, and that the barrage is not built and is unlikely to be completed in the next few years? Farmers in our constituencies will be unable to farm because of water. It is great for ducks—I know that the Minister is an ornithologist—but it is not so good for farmers who want to grow hay and put their cattle and sheep out to graze. That cannot happen if their land is covered in water.

We saw a prime example of that last year and the levels have still not dried out although we have had a good winter and spring. I am worried that although the catchment project is a marvellous ideal, in practice I cannot understand how it will take up the slack in the levels in the long term. The idea is to be eco-friendly. I am sure that the purpose of the project is not to destroy habitat. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is concerned that if the water level fluctuates too much, the project could damage wildlife rather than help it. I hope that the Minister will also take on board the fact that this has been a good year for foxes and badgers, which are not exactly kind to nesting birds, especially ones on the edges of lakes that recede. I want him to think about that carefully.

On imports, there has been an enormous restocking of cattle and sheep, for obvious reasons to do with events last year. This week, however, there have been problems. According to the NFU's "Farmer's Facts", which I believe all the farmers of Somerset receive, France has been helping with restocking, and we now have positive tests for tuberculosis. One animal was found to be positive in a routine test, and other results have been inconclusive. The problem is that animals being imported live to take up the slack have diseases that they are bringing into the UK. Surely after conquering and eradicating the frightful disease last year, with the enormous cost not only to the Treasury but to the industry and farmers themselves, we do not want any repeat of the outbreak as a result of people being able to bring animals into the country.

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Cannot animals be tested in European countries before they are brought into the UK? Would it be possible for those tests to be made available to farmers and to the Department, so that there is no repeat of what happened last year? The scare is that we are now importing 10,000 tonnes of beef from Argentina to Europe, and we all know precisely what has been going on in Argentina. It is all very well to help a country that is bankrupt, but we should not bring in meat that may well be contaminated.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is ranging wide, and is correct to do so. Does he agree that there are two essential factors that the Government should consider in the interests of Somerset farmers? The first is biosecurity at our borders for live animals and meat, which he is addressing at the moment, and the second is the need to ensure the sustainability of the dairy industry by achieving an increase in the farmgate price of milk, which is crucial to the future of dairy farmers.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely useful point as usual, and I agree that our borders are this country's last bastion. Countries in Europe cannot guard their borders; we can guard ours. His marvellous intervention illustrates that the future will be very difficult unless we can control what is coming into the country.

I was sent a Meat and Livestock Commission briefing, although I did not flick through it until I came down to the Chamber. The MLC is looking to increase the share of the domestic market, which is laudable, to ensure that the competitiveness of the industry improves and to develop the market at home and overseas because we still have problems exporting. It also wants to signal to the industry the possible developments and implications beyond the medium term and to work with the Government in lifting constraints on British beef being exported.

That sums up the feeling in Somerset. We need those markets back. We need the Government's help in securing markets for the future. Somerset has always been a net exporter and it always will be. If we cannot secure markets, we will not be in a position to help ourselves to get out of this mess. I am asking the Minister to consider how the Government can help specific areas such as Somerset.

The Minister for Rural Affairs came to address the turning point conference in Minehead. I was interested to note that promotion for the conference and surrounding events to advertise food and other goods from the south-west cost £450,000. In Scotland and Wales such promotion is paid for centrally. Will the Minister consider making available finance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to help the south-west to publicise our goods, rather than the funding coming out of our pockets?

The Minister should remember that agriculture in the south-west is bigger than that in Wales and Scotland. Agriculture in Somerset has increased enormously. The presence of four of the county's MPs, and the apologies of the fifth, who could not attend because of other duties, shows the strength of feeling about the fact that Somerset farming is recovering, but without the Government's help, it will not do so fully. The Minister must remember that if we cannot sell our goods, we will not have an industry.

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10.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on the way in which he made his case. He has covered a wide range of issues, which I recognise are important to Somerset, its agricultural community, local people and the local economy. I shall try to deal with some of the points that he made.

I should say first that foot and mouth disease had a devastating effect in Somerset, as it did in many other parts of the country and in the country as a whole. The impact and consequences were far-reaching indeed.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's attention to "Working for the Essentials of Life". It sets out clearly in the prospectus, the aims and objectives of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in which I am proud to be a Minister, and it is an important vehicle in helping us to deliver improvements in rural life and the rural economy.

I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's comments about local brand awareness. There are some wonderful brands in Somerset, as there are in other parts of the country. We should celebrate and market those brands, and emphasise the quality of our regional foods. I hope to say more about that shortly.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned co-ops. In its report, the policy commission on the future of farming and food identified the need to encourage co-ops in this country. We lag behind Europe in co-ops in terms of their nature, sophistication and number, and how common they are in food marketing and agriculture. The commission also called for a food chain initiative—a call that the Government welcome. It provides an opportunity to give farmers more of the added value, bring them closer to the market, and give them a better share overall. More work is clearly needed on issues such as milk.

The hon. Gentleman specifically mentioned the vibration directive. I understand his arguments and I have followed the debate in the farming press. The directive is not yet law, but it is likely to be adopted by the Agriculture Council. However, it might reassure him to know that farmers will have a 12-year transition period before the full application of the directive.

Furthermore, although the current directive refers to seven hours a day continuous use of a tractor, my understanding is that that is not an absolute figure and that hours can be aggregated over the course of a week. More important, the seven hours a day restriction might apply to some tractors in use now, but will not apply to more modern tractors.

Tractor design has improved enormously—I have always been especially impressed by the JCB Fasttrac design. That might sound like an advertisement, but I know that it is a superb design that has produced a tremendous market leader in the form of a tractor that has suspension and a high-speed gearbox and offers tremendous in-cab comfort. Perhaps I should put on record the fact that I was driven around in one at the JCB factory not long ago.

I recognise the problems surrounding organic milk production. I recently held discussions with OMSCO, the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative Ltd., which does an excellent job and which the Government are keen to

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support. We appreciate that when there is overproduction of a commodity, a fall in price occurs. We should take note of the lessons that the example of organic milk offers about how far and how fast to expand production of an organic commodity.

We are discussing with OMSCO ways in which we might assist through the range of support available through DEFRA. I shall talk with my officials to see how we might provide further help, especially on the marketing side. It may well be that the market will stabilise itself in due course, but I certainly appreciate that the current situation is a problem for organic milk producers.

Badgers and TB constitute a difficult subject. It is difficult for the Government because we are lobbied on the one hand by people who believe that the case against badgers is indisputable, and on the other hand by people who argue equally vociferously that the case against badgers is totally unproved; and both groups ask us why are we wasting our time with the Krebs trial.

However, I believe that it is a proper, sound and scientific way of examining the epidemiology of bovine TB. We need that experiment, as it will answer many of the unresolved questions that have been debated for more than 20 years. We cannot go on like that, which is why the scheme has been restarted. The survey is under way—it is the closed season for the culling of badgers—and we recognise that we need to get the scheme back on track. Professor Bourne of the independent scientific group is confident that the disruption of the foot and mouth epidemic will not knock the trial off course.

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