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Fruit Farming

3. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): If she will make a statement on Government assistance for fruit farming. [222441

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): DEFRA funds a substantial research and development programme of benefit to fruit farmers. Growers are also eligible for assistance under the England rural development programme.

Hugh Robertson: The two most important issues for fruit farmers in my constituency are labour costs and regulation. Given that the national minimum wage is now firmly established, what possible justification can there be for retaining the services of the Agricultural Wages Board? Agriculture is the only sector of the economy that is picked out in that fashion. Why not follow the lead of the Conservative Front Bench and abolish it?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman would be wise not to follow the lead of his Front Bench on almost anything. The Government are committed to the retention of the Agricultural Wages Board, which does more than simply deal with the minimum level of wages. The board plays an important part in protecting the interests of agricultural workers, including the migrant workers employed on farms. We accept, however, that there is a need to modernise the system, and we are addressing that.

Bird Control

4. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What plans she has for changing the guidelines in respect of controlling pigeons and corvids. [222442]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): We have no plans to change the latest guidelines. There is nothing to prevent the control of pigeons and other pest bird species under a general licence.

Mr. Bellingham: About a fortnight ago the Department issued new guidelines, effectively banning pigeon shooting as we know it and therefore criminalising thousands of farmers, pest controllers and gamekeepers. Although the Minister climbed down in the face of substantial pressure from countryside bodies, does not this ugly little episode reveal beyond doubt that when it comes to shooting, just as with hunting, the Government are totally ignorant and cannot be trusted?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, Mr. Speaker. There was no ban; I thought that some of the wording was unfortunate, which is why I changed it to make it absolutely clear that there is nothing to prevent gamekeepers, landowners and others from dealing with pest species effectively. As for the Labour party's commitment to shooting, it is this party that is reforming the game laws, which were left untouched for 18 years by the Conservative Government; it is this party that has made it easier for
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owners of fishery rights to deal with cormorant predation, on which, again, there was total inaction from the Conservatives for 18 years; and it is this party that, for the first time for any political party, will publish a shooters charter. The commitment in our last manifesto was that we would do nothing to affect shooting and angling. I am sure that that will be repeated if there is a general election in May.

Food Safety

5. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): What recent discussions her Department has had with the Food Standards Agency on food safety. [222443]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): The Department has regular and frequent discussions with the Food Standards Agency on a wide range of food safety issues, across the range of our departmental interests.

Mr. Borrow: In light of recent reports that a small amount of meat, possibly contaminated by BSE, may have entered the food chain, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the Food Standards Agency is doing everything possible to ensure that the health of the British public is being protected?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend raises an issue that has caused concern. A breach of the controls in relation to thymus was discovered in 2004 during a routine internal Meat Hygiene Services audit of Wick slaughterhouse in Scotland. It was found in 14 bovine sides obtained from seven carcases. The matter was dealt with entirely properly. No recall was instigated by the FSA because the meat concerned was already likely to have been eaten, difficult to identify and, more importantly, likely to be a very low risk. BSE is in steep decline, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary indicated earlier. Cases in Great Britain peaked at over 36,000 in 1992, and fell last year to 309. The meat would have been from an animal under 30 months, and there have been no cases of BSE in such animals since 1996.

It is also worth pointing out that all reported breaches of the specified risk material controls are routinely published on the Food Standards Agency website on a monthly basis. This information was provided on the website on 17 September.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): Does the Minister agree that Jamie Oliver has done more to improve food standards in this country than the Government and the Food Standards Agency put together? He has set a wonderful example and the Government should continue to raise the standard of food in schools for the good of our children. They should do that at a reasonable price, but if the budgets require a few pennies per child more than the present 37p, I hope that the additional money will be made available.

Alun Michael: Any activities by people with a high profile to improve how we regard food and how British food is used are extremely welcome. The Government's activities in the public domain may be lower key, but are nevertheless important—as, for example, in the
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promotion of fruit and vegetables and the attempt to re-engage children and young people with the sources of food and the benefits of healthy eating.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Minister may not be aware of the answer that the Under-Secretary gave on 2 March, in which he said that there had been only six successful prosecutions for illegal meat imports brought into this country. Has the Minister had discussions with the Food Standards Agency about that, as the Under-Secretary's answer suggests that there is much more illegal meat coming into this country than is being detected? I wonder whether the Department should beef up its detection of such illegal meat imports.

Alun Michael: I should point out that that there is something like £25 million of new spend involved, and that Customs and Excise takes the lead on this matter. I believe that the number of prosecutions is now seven, rather than six—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"]—and that more are pending.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is encouraging to hear that the number of prosecutions has now just surpassed the number of sniffer dogs, as there are apparently only six such dogs in the whole country for dealing with illegal meat imports.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Wrong.

Mr. Paice: I would be delighted if I were wrong about that, so perhaps someone will tell me exactly how many sniffer dogs there are now, as there were certainly only six a few weeks ago. The Sudan 1 episode showed that the biggest risk to food safety in this country is through imported food—whether legally or illegally imported—that does not meet our food standards. Will the Minister tell the House what discussions the Government have had with the Food Standards Agency about how it tests imported food, as opposed to checking only the paperwork? Has he explained to the FSA why the Government flatly refuse to carry out trials of cargo-imaging equipment, which could detect illegal imports in baggage in transit and stop it before it gets to our shores?

Alun Michael: New equipment is coming on line, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there are now nine sniffer dogs—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"]—soon to be 10. Conservative Members should know that we were the first EU country to introduce sniffer dogs, and that we did so because we take these issues seriously. The hon. Gentleman also asked about Sudan 1, but that is mainly a matter for the Food Standards Agency. DEFRA's principal role has to been to help ensure good communications with the food industry, working to the timetables set by the FSA. That is why we have an independent body to take decisions and offer advice to the Government on these matters. The FSA's advice is that Sudan 1 could contribute to an increased risk of cancer, but that it is not possible to identify a safe level
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or quantify the risk. However, at the levels present in these food products, the risk is likely to be very small indeed.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I have just thought of an idea. We do not have enough sniffer dogs, but there are literally thousands of dogs that previously hunted foxes. I am sure that the Tories would want to use them, so we could turn them all into sniffer dogs. As for food safety, I do not need any lectures on that. I am not allowed sugar, fat or salt, and I have to eat food that is completely bland. Jamie Oliver could not do anything for me, in my condition.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes his point in his inimitable way. On the issue of dogs previously used in hunting, the level of redundancy seems to have been remarkably low in recent weeks, and activities are being undertaken within the law, which is fine. However, I am sure that his advice about possible career opportunities will be noted.

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