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Agriculture (West Country)

5. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): If she will visit the Royal Bath and West show 2004 to discuss the state of agriculture in the west country. [160281]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): All members of the ministerial team attend numerous rural events, including agricultural shows. It is hoped that one member of DEFRA's ministerial team will be able to attend the Royal Bath and West show this year.

Mr. Heath : I should hope so. There was a time when the Minister for Agriculture would always be at the Royal Bath and West, engaging in a big conversation—probably a loud conversation—with the many dairy farmers I represent, who are facing extremely difficult trading conditions because the farm-gate price of milk is not sufficiently high to sustain their businesses. It is clear from the recent report produced by the Office of Fair Trading that the OFT does not understand that point. Is there any evidence that DEFRA understands that farmers need a fair price for milk? Is the Minister prepared to do something about the retailers who are not giving it to them?

Alun Michael: First, DEFRA is not the Ministry of Agriculture. It has a much wider range of responsibilities, and quite right too. Secondly, attendance at an agricultural show is not the only way to understand the problems of the dairy industry. My noble Friend Lord Whitty meets regularly with the forum that deals with dairy issues, and there is considerable engagement from the Department on those matters.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): When the Secretary of State stood before us and told us how the single farm payment would make Exmoor a winner, did she understand that there were problems involved, such as those raised in the earlier question? Why was Exmoor—which forms part of Somerset and Devon—put forward as a winner when it is actually going to be a loser under the current system as it evolves towards 2013?

Alun Michael: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has properly understood the impact of the proposals on his area. As the Secretary of State said, we certainly understand the problems facing various sectors of the industry, and we are looking very carefully at them as we consider the responses to the announcement that she made a short time ago.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I strongly urge Ministers to go to the Royal Bath and West show, where they will find, as I have on my recent visits to the west country, that livestock farmers have grave doubts about the Government's commitment to the long-term stability of the livestock industry. Those views are obviously driven by the Government's handling of the tuberculosis issue. Their latest document suggests that they are proposing to spend £2 billion over

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the next 10 years on not curing TB, while a 20 per cent. increase in the disease will surely be incompatible with a viable cattle industry.

Alun Michael: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to urge us to attend all agricultural shows; that would keep the ministerial team extremely busy. We try to strike a balance. Attending agricultural shows is one of the ways in which we interface with the agricultural and rural community, but it is not the only one.

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to have any alternative proposals on TB. He does not seem to have thought about what he would put in place of the sensible and coherent proposals that have been put forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.


6. Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the future of Nirex. [160282]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The Government have stated their intent to make Nirex independent of industry and under greater Government control to allow effective contribution to the work of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. We are working to ensure that Nirex continues to discharge its functions for the benefit of the public as well as its shareholders. When we are ready and able to do so, we shall make an announcement.

Mr. Watson : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We all appreciate the hard work that she and her Department are doing on this issue. Does she agree that the reasons for Nirex's independence—transparency, public acceptability and a focus on the long term—are as valid today as they were when the announcement on this issue was made last year? Does she also agree that there are workable models for that independence on the table, which do not involve the inclusion of Nirex in the nuclear decommissioning agency, and that, with persistence from her Department, we might be able to achieve independence for Nirex sooner rather than later?

Margaret Beckett: Certainly, I agree with my hon. Friend that the concerns that led us to suggest independence for Nirex remain valid. I share his view that they can continue to play a valuable role. We are examining all the options—which is why the process is taking a little longer than we might otherwise have wished—and I can assure him that we shall continue to seek the best option for the public good.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Given that the Secretary of State announced on 16 July last year that Nirex was to become independent, and notwithstanding the comments that she has just made, will she explain why so little has happened since then? Can she, in particular, confirm the story in The Observer of 29 February, which suggested that the reason for that was that the Department of Trade and Industry had, as usual, been lobbied by the nuclear industry and was

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resisting her sensible proposals? Will she give a guarantee that Nirex will indeed be made properly and fully independent? Will she give a time scale for that, and undertake that DEFRA will, for once, see off the DTI?

Margaret Beckett: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to our proposals as sensible—he is right—but I cannot give him a time scale at the moment. We are setting up a new nuclear decommissioning authority and a new committee on radioactive waste management. These are genuinely difficult and complex issues, but we continue to hold the view that it is important to handle them well and to get the right pattern for the long term. As for my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry, we have an extremely productive and co-operative relationship.

Peak District National Park Authority

7. Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): If she will make a statement on the composition of the Peak District National Park Authority. [160283]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): As the hon. Gentleman will know from last week's Adjournment debate, I have concluded that a membership of 30 is an appropriate size for the Peak District National Park Authority. I now intend to consult on that proposal.

Mr. McLoughlin : I thank the Minister for responding to the request that I and other Members representing the Peak park made by striking the right balance in terms of future membership of the authority. Is he aware, however, of the growing concern among Peak district farmers, in the light of the Secretary of State's announcement on 12 February, about the future viability of long-term farming in the Peak district, which is essential to that area? Bearing in mind what the Secretary of State has just said and her statement of 12 February, when can we expect the final announcements to be made, so that farmers can know whether they have a secure future?

Alun Michael: Given that the hon. Gentleman moved on very rapidly from the national park authority to other issues, it is clear that I have satisfied him on that front. Detailed regulations and other work needs to be done before these matters can be finalised. As he will know from earlier exchanges, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State fully understands the challenges that certain parts of the farming industry face, and it is clear that some of those fall within national park authority areas.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend make sure that in composing the national park board, outside users, particularly those in Sheffield and Manchester, are fairly represented on it, especially given that many of them use the park as walkers, rock-climbers and tourists?

Alun Michael: I am happy to underline the fact that national parks are a national asset. It is obviously right that there should be local representation, and engagement with local representatives and local

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authorities that are directly affected. That is why the final figure for the Peak district was rather higher than that for other authorities. Of course, some of those representatives represent urban areas as well as park areas. We will shortly renew and refresh the remit for national parks, as recommended in the recent review, and in doing so we will underline the existing range of interests, including those of the users to whom my hon. Friend refers.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): As the Minister knows, part of my constituency lies within the Peak park. Following up the highly relevant question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), are livestock farmers being properly represented within the Peak park authority, and will the Minister take seriously the issues raised by my farmers in the Peak park in the light of the recent Government announcement? In their view—a view shared by their representatives and by me—farming in the severely disadvantaged marginal and hill areas will come to an end. That would be a disaster for farming and for our economy.

Alun Michael: We have a template for considering, through the Secretary of State's appointees, representation on the national park authorities. That template takes into account farming and landowning interests, as well as those of users. In addition, all national park authorities provide representation—through parish councils, for example—for those with a direct farming interest. In every case, the interests of farmers within the landscape of the national parks are important. The Peak park involves a particularly complex set of relationships, and we do understand the connection between support for farmers and farming's impact on the landscape.

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