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EU Sugar Regime

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): If she will make a statement on proposed reforms to the EU sugar regime. [2602]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): Proposals for reform of the EU sugar regime are not due to be announced until 22 June.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Secretary of State for that perhaps less than full reply. She will join me in recognising the importance of sugar beet as a break crop and a rotation crop, particularly in constituencies such as Vale of York. What assessment has been made of the impact of these reforms on UK producers? Following the expected publication of the EU proposals on 22 June, what consultations will there be with UK producers and other interested parties on the further impact on them of those EU reforms?

Margaret Beckett: We are on slightly tenuous ground here because, as I said, the proposals have not yet been published, although—

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): They were leaked.
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Margaret Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that ideas have been leaked, but whether what has been leaked is wholly accurate remains to be seen. We did in fact carry out an assessment and looked at a range of options, precisely because no one could—and still cannot—be entirely sure exactly what package the Commission will come up with. The assessment was carried out by Cambridge university and the Royal Agricultural College, and it has been published on my Department's website. The range of possible options was considered, and the primary conclusion was that any scenario for reform is likely to lead to less production in the UK, but that the impact would be significantly lessened if growers restructured, reduced their costs and so on. Issues such as the potential for substitution were also examined, and we will keep that assessment up to date as we see what proposals the Commission produces. I can assure the hon. Lady that just as we consulted on the initial proposals, we will certainly consult on the final proposals.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State assure us that, in making her representations to the Commission before the publication of its proposals on 22 June, the right balance was struck between the interests of EU consumers and those of producers outside the EU, who have suffered because of the subsidies provided by some member states?

Margaret Beckett: I can assure my hon. Friend that the impact of proposals for sugar reform on the wider world is very much part of the context of the discussions that have taken place not just in the UK, but in the EU as a whole. For example, as he will probably knows, the European Council invited leaders and representatives of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries to address it last year. I intend to hold a further such meeting with those representatives in September, when the position concerning the negotiations will be clearer. We are very mindful of this issue and, of course, such countries receive the prevailing EU price. But part of the reason why this reform is complex is that it is combined with the end of the existing regime, with the introduction of the "Everything but Arms" agreement, and with a range of other impinging issues.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that probably more sugar beet is grown in west Norfolk than in any other part of the country, and that much of it is grown not just by large farmers but by many small farmers, including county council smallholders? Is she also aware that if these proposals go ahead, the average profit per hectare will come down to £4.30? All these farmers appreciate the need for change, but is there not a way in which we can protect the interests of very small farmers?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I am, of course, conscious of both the way in which such growing is concentrated in certain areas and the fact that many small producers are involved, as he rightly says. I can assure him that the overall impact will indeed be very much part of the assessment, and I am sure that the whole European Council will wish that to be the case. Of course, whatever changes are proposed, people will look at what
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adjustments can be made—compensatory measures and so on—and I feel confident that that will be an important part of those discussions.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments regarding sugar growers outside the EU. What advice can she give to me so that I can respond to my stepdaughter-in-law, who is from Nyeri in Kenya and tells me that many farmers in that part of Kenya have been put out of business owing to EU sugar subsidies? Not only are they put out of business, but whole communities are being destroyed and the sugar refinery has closed. They are not seeking aid; they simply want fair trade.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the possible impact. Of course, this issue is not confined to sugar. Sugar is just the worst example of the way in which the subsidies that have been paid in developed countries in the past—not only in the EU, but in the United States, for example—have distorted the patterns of world trade and done great harm. Indeed, some interesting figures show that there are costs to taxpayers and consumers in the EU and costs elsewhere in the world as a result of the level as well as the nature of those subsidies. I can assure my hon. Friend that that is one of the reasons that drive us to pursue reform.

Mr. Letwin: The Secretary of State has said that she will see the representatives of the ACP countries in the autumn. I welcome that, but she will be as aware as we are—some Labour Members appear not to be aware of this—that the reform of the sugar regime, while inevitable, will have a shock effect on the signatories to the sugar agreement that are ACP countries. What steps is she taking, together with the Secretary of State for International Development, the Chancellor and other EU countries, to try to ensure that the timing of the restructuring of EU aid is such that those countries can weather that shock?

Margaret Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, and I support it entirely. I can assure him that it is part of those discussions. What is perhaps not so much in the public domain is that, when the Commission publishes its proposals for reform on 22 June, I understand that it will also publish an action plan alongside them, so that we will be able to assess the timing and impact of the reform not only on producers from west Norfolk and elsewhere in the EU, but on other trading partners. That will be an important part of those discussions.

I neglected to say that, when we held the meeting with    the ACP representatives, the Commission was represented by the Trade Commissioner, the Agriculture Commissioner and the Development Commissioner. I certainly hope that they will also all be in attendance when we meet the ACP representatives again, and such matters are part of that collective discussion.

Mr. Letwin: That is good news, and we look forward to seeing that happen.

Turning back to the UK producers that my hon. Friends have mentioned, while we accept that they are among the most effective sugar producers in Europe and
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that— subject to successful negotiations with British Sugar, with which I hope that the Secretary of State will help—many of them will weather the storm, does she accept that their prospects, as well as those for reducing carbon emissions, would significantly improve if the Government were to take active steps to emulate the French and the US in encouraging bioethanol production, hence the growing of biofuel crops, in the UK?

Margaret Beckett: This reform has a whole range of possible impacts—not least, for example, on food manufacturers and confectioners, which provide many thousands of jobs in this country and elsewhere and the EU—although the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that Britain is fortunate in being among the more efficient producers. However, I certainly agree that it is essential that we take into account the whole range of those issues. That will be very much part of those discussions. Of course, when the Agriculture Council discusses those issues, the UK chair will be taken by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). He has heard all the observations and comments that have been made, and I am confident that he will follow them through.

Bovine Tuberculosis

4. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): If she will make a statement on action to tackle bovine tuberculosis. [2603]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): We published our 10-year strategy for the control of bovine TB in March, and a copy is available in the Library of the House. I have today approved the first field trial of a TB vaccine for badgers and a new study by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency to prepare for similar field trials in cattle.

Mr. Wallace: The Minister has no doubt seen the report today from the university in his constituency that shows the harmful effects that bovine TB has had on farming and, indeed, on farmers, given the stress and loss of income that they are now suffering. In light of the successful trials on culling in Ireland—the results were out at the beginning of the year—will he finally consider allowing culling to go ahead and do so with some urgency?

Mr. Bradshaw: We are studying the results of the Irish trials with great care and are already carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of their implications, but I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I am sure he is aware, the Irish Government have not changed their policy on culling as a result of the trials. They have not introduced proactive culling along the lines of those trials, because they do not believe that such a policy would be viable. For example, the trials involved the almost total extermination of badgers over quite large areas of the country.

The questions that we all need to ask ourselves are whether a badger-culling policy could be cost-effective, sustainable and viable. Those questions still have to be
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answered. I welcome the report from the university of Exeter. I have not yet had a chance to read it in full—it was published only yesterday—but I shall do so. From what I have heard of it, it sounds like an excellent report on a subject that we take very seriously.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): What progress has been made in the Krebs trials in hot spot areas such as Staffordshire, Moorlands? Have useful conclusions been reached in those trials and has my hon. Friend had time to consider the compensation regime for bovine TB in view of the substantial losses that some farmers face?

Mr. Bradshaw: The Krebs trials are progressing, although they are under the auspices of the Independent Scientific Group, which protects its independence very fiercely. It has assured Ministers that if there are any interim reports from the trials before they are due to end in the current culling season—that is this winter and early next year—it will let us know. It is important that we do not wait until the outcome of the Krebs trials. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) has already suggested, we have interesting results from Ireland and we are already working on a cost-benefit analysis of those results.

On compensation, my hon. Friend will be aware that the independent implementation group on bovine TB, which is chaired by a livestock farmer, is considering the issue, and the Government believe that we need to do something about compensation levels following the National Audit Office report that was highly critical of overpayments in Wales.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Tomorrow at the Royal Cornwall show, the number of vets signed up to the February letter expressing total dissatisfaction with the Government's TB policy will rise to 420. These vets have more experience of TB than the Government's advisers and, if the disease is to be eradicated, they believe strongly that the Government must bear down on the disease both in cattle and in wildlife. Above all, the vets believe that there are very serious animal welfare implications in allowing large numbers of badgers to die of bovine TB. Why do the Government disagree with them?

Mr. Bradshaw: There is nothing to disagree with, because the letter from the vets did not make any practical suggestions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have written back to the vets who signed the hon. Gentleman's letter asking them for their practical suggestions as to what a badger-culling policy would look like. Perhaps the next time he stands up in the House, he will say what the badger-culling policy that he advocates would look like. One of the ludicrous suggestions that was made by his party during the general election campaign was that it would kill infected badgers. He must know that there is no reliable live test for TB in badgers, so we cannot tell whether a badger is infected until it is dead. His party's other suggestion that its policy would operate only when the badger setts could be repopulated with healthy badgers is also ludicrous, because there is no way of telling whether a badger has got TB until it is dead.
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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Not for the first time, Conservative policy on rural affairs seems to be: if in doubt, kill something. Does my hon. Friend accept that the overwhelming majority of people who take an interest in the matter support a science and evidence-based approach that involves action only at the moment at which we feel that it will actually do some good?

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The debate has moved on from the Conservative party's position to one about whether badger culling works. We know from Ireland that that can work; the question is whether it can be made cost-effective, sustainable and practicable. As my hon. Friend rightly says, any policy must be based on sound science and evidence, and as long as this Labour Government are in power, it will be.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Can the Minister tell us whether there are any plans whatsoever for the introduction of pre-movement testing and, if so, how that will be paid for?

Mr. Bradshaw: There are indeed plans for the introduction of pre-movement testing. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue because all too often the problem of cattle-to-cattle transmission of bovine TB and the extra measures that farmers can take on biosecurity are ignored in the debate, which is dominated by badgers. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), who tabled the question, comes from a part of the country that is virtually TB-free, because I think that there have been two outbreaks in Lancashire in the past five years. It is absolutely vital to keep the parts of the country that do not experience the terrible problem that we have in Devon, and which the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) experiences in Cornwall, free from TB. Pre-movement testing is an important tool within that policy.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): May I talk about the human impact among farmers of bovine TB? Staffordshire's rural emotional stress team—REST—is held up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as an example of best practice in supporting people in rural locations who are isolated and suffer mental health problems or emotional difficulties. The team would confirm the same findings as the south-west study, and I can confirm from my personal experiences that farmers are positively suicidal when they see their whole herds destroyed because of bovine TB. I have watched bovine TB approach and take hold in my constituency, so I know how frustrating it is that the science is behind us. However, surely the March strategy is still too little to satisfy farmers under that sort of stress that enough is being done.

Mr. Bradshaw: I accept that some people are not satisfied that the Government have not already announced a mass extermination of badgers in areas such as that represented by my hon. Friend. However, I suggest to him that no Government could do that in the absence of scientific evidence to support it and serious work on cost-effectiveness, practicability and sustainability.

I absolutely understand my hon. Friend's point. I have spent a lot of time talking to farmers who have been affected by bovine TB. It is a terrible and
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distressing experience, although I should point out that the Exeter university study shows that the overall economic impact has not been major, even in an area such as Devon. I believe that the report says that only one farmer who has been affected by a TB breakdown has consequently left the livestock industry.

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