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Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the National Bee Unit is under threat? Does he realise that the bee unit is about to lose 20 per cent. of its income. Its funding comes from the Government and the loss of 20 per cent. will make a massive difference to it.

There are two types of bee inspectors—a regional bee inspector, whose job it is to look after the south-west, the north-east, or wherever—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The big bee.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: He is the big bee, as my hon. Friend points out. The second type is the seasonal bee inspector, whose job it is to go round all the hives. At the moment the bees are dormant and doing nothing other than hibernating, I hope, although it is warm
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enough for them to go out. He is responsible for checking the bees and their quality in that period. The noble Lord Haskins has not got this seriously wrong.

The Minister will probably not be aware that a 20 per cent. cut in the income of the bee unit means that half the inspectors will go. Their number cannot be sustained. What does that mean for the bees? The bee inspector's job is threefold—first, to check swarm purity; secondly, to ensure that the quality of the hives is what it should be; and, thirdly, to check for bugs in the hives.

It may not come as any great surprise to Conservative Members that most of the diseases that we try to combat come from Europe, which is where the inspectors spend most of their time. But the Minister should be aware that the crying shame, or the disgrace, is that the Government put in £125,000, with the rest of the funding coming from Europe. The importance of the bee in agriculture, horticulture and just about every other culture, cannot be underestimated. Surely the Government should be championing good quality, healthy bees. The problem is petty-minded, stupid bureaucracy. What is the point of cutting money from a unit that safeguards something that is so important to agriculture?

The Government probably do not know that bees bring £120 million a year into agricultural industries through not only honey and beeswax, which is used for all kinds of different things, but importing and exporting different swarms. I have received a letter from a constituent, Rev. Ivan Selman, about that matter. He makes the point that the private benefit to beekeepers is estimated to be only £11.3 million and that many hobby beekeepers make little or no profit. Surely this is the crux of the matter: the people who produce honey do so because they want to and because they enjoy doing it; they do not do it because they make a fortune. We cannot expect to have healthy animals in this country if we do not have inspectors, and the Government, who have banged on about inspectors, must address the matter urgently.

Given the short time that remains, I shall turn to Exmoor national park. The Minister knows the effect of the ban on hunting on Exmoor. The ban will make a difference, it has made a difference and it needs to be addressed. This Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and I will have our quarterly meeting with the national park, at which we will discuss the problems that the park will face due to the hunting ban.

The Minister knows Exmoor national park's concerns, and I hope that he will manage to address some of them. They have been raised by not only hon. Members but members of the national park, the county councils, the district councils and the parish councils. The ban will cost up to £9 million across the park, which is a lot for an area such as ours, and we cannot sustain that loss. The Government intimated that they would examine the introduction of some form of financial inducement, and I wonder whether the Minister is prepared to expand on that point.

Somerset gets very little objective 2 funding: Cornwall receives objective 1 funding; Devon receives objective 2 funding; and Somerset receives a little bit of objective
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2 funding. One of the problems in rural areas is that we cannot match such funding. The Minister is aware of that point, which we have discussed before, but we have not resolved how rural areas can raise match funding. The Government have been asked the question time and again, but we are still waiting for answers. The Government have not listened, because we have the same problems as Cornwall—in most cases, incomes are lower in Somerset than in Cornwall because of the housing crisis in rural areas, which many hon. Members have already eloquently discussed.

British Telecom is removing phone boxes, which it claims are not being used, from rural areas. Mobile phones do not work in many parts of Exmoor because one cannot get a signal, which is partly due to planning restrictions, but mainly due to the type of ground. The Minister says that he is looking to put money and help into rural areas. What is the point of rolling out broadband if homeowners in such locations cannot make phone calls? We prevailed on BT to try to reverse that decision, and I know that the Government have been involved, but the removals are still occurring. We are losing phone boxes across Exmoor and the Somerset Levels as we speak. Will the Minister consider intervening to try to persuade BT, which I accept is a private company, to stop that practice so that we can get back communication in our local areas?

Finally, may I draw the Minister's attention to the piece in this week's Farmers Weekly on bovine TB, "Call Time on Brock", which reports on the experiment in Ireland? It makes good reading and seems eminently sensible. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has responsibility for TB, has examined the matter, and, given that the solution in the article seems sensible, perhaps he will mention it.

6.39 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): As so often in agriculture debates in this House, we have had a sensible, useful and relatively well-balanced debate with a great deal of expertise on both sides of the House. Leaving aside the Minister's introductory speech, which was slightly sullied by party politics, Government and Opposition Members have contributed a great deal to the debate.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) pointed out that more farmers have left the industry under Labour than at any time since the last war. He then got rather muddled, however, about how he supports the area-based payments under the mid-term review in England and the historic payments in Scotland. He is a Liberal, and he is all things to all men.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), because in our index of the rurality of seats, Monmouth is the second most rural Labour seat, at 63rd. I shall return to that in a moment. He knows what he is talking about, especially with regard to the subdivision of farmland and the problems facing woodland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who knows farming inside out and back to front, highlighted a topic that has arisen throughout the debate—the threat to the beef and dairy industry from the complex introduction of the single
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farm payment. His comments were echoed by those of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and several other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said that he hopes that there is a great future for British farming, although he did not explain where it was to come from, and he seemed uncertain about whether Labour's promise to bring in the mid-term review might come back to haunt it in the fullness of time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) made some useful and interesting comments about bees—an extremely important, if comical, issue in the countryside.

Before I say anything else, I want to lay to ground a perfectly absurd spin that the Labour party is always coming out with—

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: I fear that I do not have time to do so.

Labour Members are always saying that Labour is the party of the countryside. Indeed, I have here a rather good quote from none other than the Prime Minister, who declared in 1996:

That sounds a bit like Monty Python's lumberjack sketch, although I have every confidence that the Prime Minister does not like to put on women's clothing or hang around in bars. It is all talk. Labour Members love the soundbite, but, as a farmer friend of mine said recently, "Soundbites don't butter no parsnips." There is a great deal of truth in that old Wiltshire saying.

The Minister claimed that Labour has 180 rural and semi-rural seats. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who, some time ago, did a huge amount of work to calculate which are the most rural seats in Britain, using population density, the number of people employed in agriculture, and a variety of other indexes. I have the list here. Of the top 200, two are represented by Labour—Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and, at No. 63, Monmouth; the rest are exclusively represented by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament. The notion that Labour is the party of the countryside works only if one includes places such as Reading, East, Reading, West and Swindon. No doubt Exeter claims to be a rural seat, but it ain't. It is absurd to suggest that the Labour party represents rural areas. Happily, the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has been published and is available in the Library for all to look at. The truth of the matter is that rural areas are overwhelmingly represented by the life-long friend of the farmer—the Conservative party.

Labour Ministers, in particular, know little about farming and seem to care less. That was amply demonstrated by the Minister's opening speech. He calls himself the Minister for rural affairs, but when he ventures into the countryside, which is rarely enough, he is about as popular as myxomatosis in a rabbit hutch. That, of course, was the expression used with regard to the arrival on the Labour Benches of the Minister's hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson).
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I hope that his strong support for the war in Iraq and top-up fees, his views on the European Union and the single currency and his strong support for hunting make him very welcome on the Labour Benches, but I suspect that the description, "about as popular as myxomatosis in a rabbit hutch", applies as much to him as it does to the Minister.

The contrast with my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) is stark. He knows about farming; he was a farmer for many years; he has looked after this portfolio, in different guises, for a very long time; and he speaks with care, knowledge and balance on the issues—something that I myself would not necessarily claim to do.

Today's debate has had to answer a fundamental question: do we want to produce our own food? Do we believe that the Government have a duty to maintain a reasonable supply for the British people? Or are we content to become increasingly dependent on overseas countries: beef from Argentina, milk from France and Poland and chicken from Thailand? That is the way we are going. Our self-sufficiency in food has declined by 4 per cent. since 1997. We now have more DEFRA civil servants—14,460—than dairy farmers, of whom there are only 14,300.

The world's strategic reserve of food is at a historic low of 63 days compared with 104 when we left power. We have 63 days worth of food in the world today. Britain could contribute to that, but are we? The fundamental questions that arise from our debate are: can we carry on as we are? Is farming in terminal decline? Are we content to become ever more reliant on overseas producers, whose standards of animal welfare and human hygiene would often not be allowed in the United Kingdom? Any focus group would reply with a resounding no. We want to eat British food and we want to know where it comes from and how it is produced. However, under the Labour Government, the questions about the source of food and the method of its production are becomingly increasingly difficult to answer.

The Government's botched implementation of the single farm payment risks making matters even worse and turning our green and pleasant land into an urban playground or letting it decline into untended scrub land. There is a genuine risk of that and I call on the Government and the Under-Secretary to tell us how they will avoid that unwelcome consequence of the single farm payment.

The Government have not only failed on farming. We must remember that 14.1 million people live in rural districts and that the debate is not all about farmers but about rural life in general. The Government have failed to preserve village and rural life. Homelessness in rural areas has soared by 13 per cent. since they came to power. Rural property prices are 15 per cent. above national averages so that people on low wages cannot possibly afford to live in rural areas. Fifty-eight per cent. of households in rural areas have no access to any form of public transport and rural crime costs farmers £100 million a year when 98 per cent. of rural parishes have no permanently staffed police presence. Three thousand rural post offices are closed and continue to close at the rate of three a week, assisted by the ghastly Government.
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The Deputy Prime Minister's changes to planning laws will, if anything, ensure that especially the south-east and the south-west will suck in businesses and houses from the north of England and ensure that the most environmentally sensitive and beautiful parts of at least the south half of the island will be concreted over as quickly as he can possibly achieve that.

The Government have failed to maintain villages. Funding from the national lottery for the village hall, so central to village life, has disappeared. They have done away with it and village halls will suffer. They have failed to preserve the rural way of life, abolishing hunting and now threatening shooting. Not only farming but the way of life is in crisis because of the Government. The entire way of life for 14.1 million people who live in villages and market towns is under threat. The villages, the churches, the halls and the whole approach to life will go. The Labour Government will turn the countryside into some sort of dormitory for their urban friends.

By contrast, our vision is of a living, vibrant countryside, with real people doing real jobs and living real lives. It is of a profitable farming industry, thriving rural businesses and a traditional way of life, which people in the countryside so badly need. All of that is fundamentally undermined by a quintessentially urban Labour Government.

6.49 pm

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