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12 Dec 2002 : Column 494—continued

6.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): There has been a good standard of debate in today's opportunity to discuss the range of work that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does and the range of responsibilities that it has. There were thoughtful contributions from the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who expressed his traditional robust views, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), who expressed equally robust views in defence of his farmers and the rural community, the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson), and not least the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes).

One or two hon. Members referred to this as an agriculture debate, but it was not. It was intended to recognise the role of DEFRA and the Department's new responsibilities. The motion is so wide ranging as to enable hon. Members to speak about those issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South did when he took the opportunity to speak about genetically modified crops. The motion is in no way self-congratulatory. Our priority is to deliver and to seek to improve on the delivery of services and commitments that we have made. That is why, incidentally, DEFRA appointed Lord Haskins to carry out a review of our agencies and consider ways of improving the delivery of our services; and why DEFRA set up the food and farming commission and presented a detailed response to the commission today, which received a broad welcome from right hon. and hon. Members.

I acknowledge that most of the speeches were balanced. In general, the setting up of DEFRA was welcomed, particularly by the hon. Member for Lewes. There is a consensus on the need to reform the common agricultural policy, and recognition of the commitment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has demonstrated, and which my ministerial colleagues and I share, to promote sustainable development across the

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whole of Government, and not just within DEFRA. We are not complacent about such matters, and we recognise that there are issues on which we must concentrate to ensure the delivery of sustainability.

We recognise the need to ensure that all our delivery systems are efficient. I accept some of the criticism from hon. Members, especially in respect of the Rural Payments Agency. There has been a problem with computer compatibility. The Department is only 18 months old, and these are matters on which further work is necessary. In our spending programmes, we have committed substantial sums for IT upgrades and improvements, which will improve the service to farmers. However, we have made good progress in a short period.

The hon. Member for Lewes mentioned turnover in DEFRA. The latest figures, which might interest him, show that from 1 January 2002 to 31 May 2002 turnover was 2.8 per cent., which is not unreasonable in a Department the size of DEFRA. The figures relate to overall turnover. Turnover may be higher in some lower grades, but the employment of many temporary and agency staff partly accounts for that. The figures demonstrate that morale in the Department is good and is improving. It is a privilege to serve with the dedicated staff whom we have in all parts of DEFRA—especially those who joined us from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Sue Doughty: I thank the Minister for giving way. I am concerned about morale in the information technology department in Guildford, as proposals to outsource the department risk losing a tremendous amount of flexibility and expertise. They may mean that not all of DEFRA is quite as happy as he would want us to think.

Mr. Morley: I appreciate the hon. Lady's point, but she will also appreciate that, in order to ensure improvements in service and cost-effective delivery, we have to examine a range of options. Of course, we are consulting the trade unions and those involved will be kept informed of the progress of those talks.

I should like to repeat the comments that I made when the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire spoke about my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), now the Minister for Work. I do not think that his comments were justified. The foot and mouth epidemic was a time of great stress for all concerned, with farmers and others trying to deal with the epidemic. The efforts of my right hon. Friend were widely recognised and appreciated at the time, as many Opposition Members have pointed out.

We have backed up our response to the food and farming commission with the allocation of #500 million over three years. That is intended to allow the comprehensive proposals to be implemented. As hon. Members have pointed out, there have been changes in agricultural employment in recent years and a decline in the number of farms and farm workers. There is nothing new about that; it has been going on since the 1930s. However, every rural constituency has unemployment levels that are at a 25-year low. The right hon. Member for Fylde raised the issue of unemployment, but I notice

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that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by about 21 per cent. since 1997. That has happened throughout rural communities.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): I am pleased to say that my constituency has also benefited from that trend.

In this wide-ranging debate, nobody seems to have mentioned the pig sector, which is very significant in my constituency. Will the Minister take on board the imminent welfare directive, which France is apparently not going to implement until 2013, the problem of sow infertility in the herd, which needs urgent research, and also the question of pig identification? If pig identification is needed—many think that it is not—it must be implemented very sensitively.

Mr. Morley: I recognise that my hon. Friend is a great champion of pigs and I shall certainly take those points on board. The Department has committed considerable sums to investigation of the pig-wasting disease. Sow infertility is part of that. We are talking with the industry about how to use the money most efficiently and are reviewing the pig identification rules. On welfare directives, I assure him that we expect to do things at the same time as other European countries. We also expect European countries to apply the measures in the same way as we will, including measures in respect of pigs.

We recognise that bovine TB is a major issue, and we have already introduced a package of measures and are considering further ones. Mention was also made of the 20-day movement restriction, which is under review, but is very important in terms of disease control.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood recognised the need for change in agriculture and pointed out that change is not always comfortable for people, especially when it affects them directly.

Mr. Roger Williams: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have only seven minutes left and I should like to deal with some of the remaining points.

Change is not always comfortable, but the Department is providing leadership and support. As was pointed out, a great deal of change must come from the industry itself. We do not have a command-and-control economy. While we can provide support in helping farmers to get closer to the market—the main thrust of the Curry report—a great deal of what happens must come from them.

I also recognise that very good points were made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who spoke about the need for value for money in the proposed new broad and shallow schemes and in entry-level agri-environment schemes. He also spoke about a market for environmental goods, which is worth exploring, support for integrated crop management and the use of agri-environment schemes for other purposes, such as pollution control. These are all sensible suggestions that are worth considering in some detail.

There is an action plan for nutrition. It is a joint DEFRA and Department of Health proposal, which is not over-prescriptive. It addresses and deals with real

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issues in relation to diet, consumption of vegetables and other matters that I do not think Members would find controversial.

Many Members have said that the CAP is not delivering to farmers in respect of their incomes and that there is a need for change. I can tell the right hon. Member for Fylde that, in relation to the mid-term review, market change, decoupling and modulation will be discussed at the summit. I think that there is agreement on market change. There is also strong agreement on decoupling. Modulation is a much more complex issue. Some of the Commission's proposals are not exactly to the benefit of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, modulation is an important issue and one for which we shall continue to press.

As for Horticulture Research International, we are considering responses following public consultation. We shall announce our decision early in the new year. We recognise that it is important that people know the future of HRI. We want to support research and development in the horticultural sector. I recognise that it is unsupported and we want to play our role in supporting the sector.

I turn to some of the environmental issues. DEFRA champions sustainability across government. We have demonstrated that with our green Ministers' network and our links with other Departments. We recognise that we need to do more, but we can point to real achievements on the environmental front. Not least, we can take some pride in our leadership on climate change, which has been fully integrated throughout government right to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has played an active role. There has been success also at the Bonn and Marrakesh meetings. That was achieved by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Environment. That has laid the foundations for the implementation of the climate change agreement at Kyoto. It was a great success, and the UK had a leading role.

We have worked and co-operated with Departments such as the Department for International Development on sustainable forestry. I understand that sometimes there are problems in trying to source timber from sustainable sources. There are weaknesses and problems with certification. However, the UK was the first G8 country to embrace a policy for the procurement of timber from sustainable sources. I am glad to say that due to our success at the meeting of the convention on international trade in endangered species, where we managed to get mahogany uplifted to appendix 2, it will be a great deal easier to ensure that the timber that we procure has come from properly certified sources. That success was the result of working with the Foreign Office, the Home Office, Customs and Excise, DFID, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and, of course, non-governmental organisations.

We had success at Doha, especially on non-trade issues, which are important in terms of welfare and environmental issues that are connected with farming. There has been success in raising water quality standards in this country. DEFRA had success in

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working across government, including the involvement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the world summit on sustainable development. We led the way on the agreement on water and sanitation. That is valuable in terms of international development and an example of where the Department has been leading from the front.

We are the European leader in agri-environment schemes and the application of them. We have had great success in reducing fuel poverty, which has been acknowledged. We have introduced—[Interruption]

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