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Coastal Erosion

11. Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): If she will make a statement on the impact of dredging on the rate of coastal erosion. [146379]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): There is no evidence that licensed gravel extraction off the coast is having an effect on coastal erosion, but as a precaution each application must include a coastal impact assessment, which is carefully scrutinised.

Norman Lamb : Given that many experts—including the head of the erosion project—believe that dredging can have a significant effect on the rate of coastal erosion, given that the revenue from dredging off the Norfolk coast amounts to some 40 per cent. of national revenue from dredging in any one year, and given the extent of erosion off the Norfolk coast, is it not time for an urgent inquiry into the impact of dredging on the rate of coastal erosion?

Mr. Morley: Research has been and is being done on both the impact of dredging and the movement of

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sediments in the southern North sea. In the 1990s Southampton university conducted studies on the impact of offshore dredging and concluded that it had no real impact on sea bed patterns or erosion. More recently, in 2002, a study was undertaken of the movements of sea bed sediments in the southern North sea. Although it did not specifically examine the dredging itself, it too concluded that dredging was having no direct impact on coastal erosion.As far as I am aware, there is only one example of a proven impact on coastal erosion, and that dredging was immediately inshore.

We take these matters seriously; we do not dismiss them. We take them into account in our overall evaluation of licence applications. At present, however, there is no evidence that dredging is having an effect on coastal erosion.

Milk Prices

12. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If she will take steps to increase the farm-gate price of milk for UK dairy farmers. [146380]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The reasons for low farm-gate prices over the past few years are complex, and cannot be reduced to a single factor. Many of them are for the industry to address. However, the Government can and have taken action in line with their strategy for sustainable farming and food to facilitate such developments.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : The Secretary of State will know of my long interest in the UK dairy industry. Does she admit that it is extremely important to many parts of the countryside throughout the UK? While there has indeed been a strengthening of support prices in recent times, for obvious reasons, the price increase is not percolating down to farm-gate prices. What meaningful action are the Government taking to ensure that the dairy industry supply chain operates correctly, thereby addressing the frustration of dairy farmers—not least in my constituency, where the industry is very important? They are justifiably concerned about farm-gate prices, and feel that producers should receive a bigger and fairer return for what they produce.

Margaret Beckett: I do recognise both the hon. Gentleman's long-term interest in this issue and the importance of the industry to the country as a whole. I am grateful to him for recognising that there has been a recent strengthening in the price, and I understand his concern as to whether that is reflected at the farm gate. However, there have been recent signs that cheese prices have improved, which may lead to a further increase in prices, at least in the short term.

The important point that the hon. Gentleman highlights concerns the action that should and can be taken to improve the supply chain. My noble Friend Lord Whitty has chaired meetings of the Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which has looked at improving efficiency, collaborative solutions and other issues. The Milk Development Council has initiated an innovation workshop to look at the barriers in the sector, and we have given a grant to the Food Chain Centre so that it

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can look at precisely these issues. We have also established the English Food and Farming Partnerships in order to encourage collaboration. I fully recognise that great concern still exists in the dairy sector and that we would all like to see a lot more improvement, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, just as he has sought, the Government are taking steps to work on the supply chain.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op): How many of the dairy farmers for whom more money is being sought were among those farmers and rural businesses who made false and exaggerated claims to the Government for compensation and repayment after the recent foot and mouth outbreak? Can my right hon. Friend tell us what steps she is taking to reduce the welfare dependency that is prevalent among so many of our farmers?

Margaret Beckett: Although we of course deplore, as the whole House doubtless deplores, any steps that were taken to make false claims on taxpayers' resources during the foot and mouth outbreak, I do not believe that there is any indication that a particular sector is more responsible than another. However, my hon. Friend is right in that there is a widespread wish, including within farming itself, for a change in the way that we support British agriculture, making it more related to the actions of the market. Indeed, that process underpins the common agricultural policy reforms that we negotiated recently, and we are in continuing discussion about how we implement those reforms in the near future.

Fruit Farmers (Kent)

13. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): If she will make a statement on Government assistance to fruit farmers in Kent. [146381]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): Fruit farmers in Kent, like fruit farmers in the rest of the country, receive benefits from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' substantial research and development programme, of which about £2.5 million is being spent in this financial year on relevant research at East Malling, and on the national fruit collection at Brogdale. Producer organisations in the fruit sector receive about £3.5 million a year in assistance from the EU. In addition, growers are eligible for assistance under the England rural development programme and other Government schemes.

Hugh Robertson : Bearing that reply in mind, can the Minister therefore explain to the House why the national orchard—the country's supply of fruit trees—has declined by a staggering 25 per cent. since this Government came to power?

Alun Michael: The timing, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, may not be related to electoral decisions in the way that some matters are. It is the industry's role to produce and to market goods at a quality and price that are attractive to consumers. It operates in a very competitive market, and certain products are more

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difficult to produce in this country than in others; those factors have certainly had an impact. Because of our climate, the yield of some varieties is not as great as it can be elsewhere. It is worth pointing out that horticulture has never received the price support that has caused such economic distortion in other areas of agriculture.

Foot and Mouth Disease

14. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What steps she is taking to prevent a further outbreak of foot and mouth disease. [146382]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The many steps that have been taken to prevent foot and mouth disease, including improving the detection of illegal imports of meat, banning swill feeding, subjecting animal movements to licensing and a standstill period, are all detailed in the Government's response to the foot and mouth inquiries. Contingency plans have also been strengthened to deal with the disease, should an outbreak occur.

Michael Fabricant : I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning the illegal importation of meat, because he knows that the British Veterinary Association has identified that as one of the main causes of foot and mouth disease. If he visits the US, Australia, New Zealand—or indeed most other countries—he will find sniffer dogs waiting for him whose job is to detect the illegal importation of meat. The last time that I raised this matter with the Minister, he accidentally told me that the UK had more than two sniffer dogs available. I am grateful for the letter of apology that he sent to me, but will he say how many sniffer dogs we now have for the detection of the illegal importation of meat, and how many airline terminals and seaports have to be covered?

Mr. Bradshaw: That was a very long question and I shall try to answer as much of it as I can, if Opposition Members stay quiet for a moment. I have travelled to New Zealand, where I was snapped by a sniffer dog for carrying a piece of fruit. The hon. Gentleman is therefore not correct when he says that America, Australia and New Zealand have sniffer dogs only for meat. Those countries have them for the detection of other food products as well, but they have a very different tradition from us. The hon. Gentleman knows that New Zealand is especially concerned about its particular biodiversity.

In the UK, we have two sniffer dogs that are specifically allocated to the detection of illegal food imports into this country. We will soon have six such dogs, and in the next financial year we will double the amount of money made available to Customs and Excise for that purpose. I expect that the number of sniffer dogs will increase further. However, Opposition Members must realise that, in the current security climate, there has been a bit of a run on sniffer dogs and on their handlers. Their main priority has been to detect explosives, and I hope that Opposition Members will agree that that is absolutely right.

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