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House of Commons

Thursday 20 October 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Recycling (Southwark)

1. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What support her Department has committed to the new waste recycling site in the London borough of Southwark; and if she will make a statement. [19597]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): In January, we awarded £34.5 million in private finance initiative credits to Southwark for an integrated waste management contract to help deliver national targets for recycling and diversion from landfill.

Simon Hughes: The Government's support for Southwark's waste policy is much appreciated, as the Minister will know. Can he now give an assurance that the announcement by the Mayor of London that there is to be a London-wide facility will not in any way jeopardise the proposals that the Government and Southwark's local authority have agreed, and that the local authority can continue making the financial arrangements that are not only in Southwark's interest but in the interests of London as a whole?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I can. No decision has yet been made on the future structure of waste management in London—the announcement was of the Mayor's desire rather than of any outcome. It is vital that the investment already in the pipeline continues to go in, and I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. In fact, I met representatives from Southwark council this week to discuss his concerns, and made that point to them strongly.

Common Agricultural Policy

2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): If she will make a statement on plans for further reform of the common agricultural policy. [19598]
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The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We played a leading role in securing major improvements to the CAP in 2003. We have made reform of the sugar regime a top priority during our EU presidency. We are working towards an ambitious outcome on liberalisation of agricultural trade in the World Trade Organisation. In addition to that, we have called for a fundamental review of the whole EU budget, including the CAP, within the next few years.

Mr. Amess: It is clear from Government evidence to the House of Lords European Union Committee on the future financing of the CAP that the Brussels ceiling of financing will be reached by 2008. How do the Government intend to address that?

Margaret Beckett: Of course, it will not just be the Government who must address that but the whole European Union. If that ceiling is breached in 2008, which I accept is a possibility, there will have to be a discussion as to how expenditure is brought back beneath the ceiling. That was agreed in 2003, but the exact mechanisms for doing so were not agreed and would no doubt have to be discussed.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Given that Commissioner Mandelson said on Tuesday,

Hong Kong negotiations,

is not it clear that despite the Prime Minister's tough words in the summer, nothing has happened under the UK presidency to deal with the problems of export subsidies or the other reforms that everybody requires? Can the Secretary of State at least confirm the rumours that we have heard that Downing street, at any rate, is now considering the Conservative party's proposals for co-financing of the CAP on an ascending basis, which we put forward in the summer?

Margaret Beckett: No, the Commissioner's statement does not mean any such thing. The handling of proposals on export subsidies is very much part of the negotiating package, but it is absolutely the Commission's view, and the view of every member state, that that must be approached in parallel with the issue of export support given by other partners in the WTO negotiations. It must therefore be considered alongside export credits, state trade enterprise work or food subsidies. It remains absolutely in play, however, and we await moves from others to show what they would do in parallel. As to the issue of co-financing, that is raised from time to time, and I am interested that it is still the view of the Conservative party that that should be pursued. The hon. Gentleman will know, I am sure, that that is not popular with everybody. The main thing that we must bear in mind is that whatever changes might be made, at any point in the future, there is a single market in farm produce and a level playing field across the European Union.
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Avian Influenza

3. Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): What preparations she is making for the possibility of an outbreak of avian influenza in the United Kingdom. [19599]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Preparations for dealing with an outbreak of avian flu are detailed in our contingency plan, which is available in the Library of the House and on DEFRA's website.

Ms Barlow: Will my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is liaising with the Department of Health to develop a joined-up strategy in the event of an incident of bird flu in the United Kingdom? Given Britain's presidency of the European Union, what leadership are the Government giving to our European colleagues?

Mr. Bradshaw: On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, yes, I can confirm that we have been working closely with the Department of Health, going back several years, long before the issue of avian flu, I suspect, came across many Members' radar screens. On the second part of her question, she is right that the UK has an important role in the presidency. She might or might not be aware that there is an intention to bring forward a new directive on avian flu under our presidency, and we are working hard on that, as well as on improving surveillance and the contingency plans of other countries that might not be so well developed as ours.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): The Minister will be aware, no doubt, that the World Health Organisation and other UN departments have said that any cull of wild birds is not feasible and not necessary. Will he get his Department to issue a statement to the effect that such a cull is not required?

Mr. Bradshaw: I can certainly confirm that such a cull would not be feasible. Indeed, the strain of the virus that is carried by wild birds is generally a very low one and most wild birds would die long before they get here.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Do the Government support the EU proposal to reimburse some developing countries the cost of vaccine purchase and other obvious costs that will come if a pandemic were to arise?

Mr. Bradshaw: That is not really a question for my Department, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we have been working very closely with the Department for International Development, which recognises, as all sensible people do, that avian flu is a global problem that requires a global solution.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): No one can envy Ministers as the danger of avian flu inexorably approaches this country. Can the hon. Gentleman assure us that, when this crisis reaches our shores and given the warning that has been given, the Government's response will be a little more effective, open-minded and efficient than the response to foot and mouth disease? That was a terrible burden for Ministers.
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They did not entirely measure up to it. We have had plenty of warning of this one. Is he confident that preparations are ready?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I am. As I say, we have been working on a contingency plan for years now, and doing so very closely with the industry, which is supportive of both the contingency plan and the measures that we have taken to date. The hon. Gentleman may or may not be aware that the contingency plan has been tested already in July, when we had an outbreak of another serious avian disease—Newcastle disease—in Surrey, where it was successfully contained and eradicated on one pheasant farm, which is a potentially more difficult situation than with chickens. I pay tribute to the excellent work done by DEFRA officials and vets there in doing that so well.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Minister may be aware that the Ribble estuary—one of the most important sites for migratory wading birds—is in my constituency. Notwithstanding his earlier comments about what may happen to migratory birds with avian flu, will he consider organising a localised information campaign to ensure that people in places such as the Ribble estuary, Morecambe bay and others with a high prevalence of migratory birds are informed of the facts about the disease, what to look for and, more importantly for members of the public who are not wildfowlers, what to do?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes. The Government have already increased the surveillance that we carry out, and we have also been working very closely with wildfowler organisations, shooters and ornithologists to get their help, and if they see unusual die-off in wild birds, to report it immediately. We will do more in the weeks to come to disseminate information on the surveillance of wild birds more generally to the public locally and regionally and to tell the keepers of birds what they should do if they are worried that they may have an infection on their farms.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I recognise that the Government are doing their best to strike the difficult balance between providing proper precautionary biosecurity measures and not damaging farming or alarming the public unnecessarily. On measures to protect the public, will the Minister consider further controls on the illegal importation of wild birds and perhaps the suspension of bird fairs? On protecting farming, will he recognise that we do not want to require, unless we absolutely must, all free-range poultry to be kept indoors because that would severely damage a part of farming that we all want to support?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point about free-range birds. We do not think that the time is yet right to ask farmers to bring their birds indoors, although we have recently issued new biosecurity advice, recommending that they feed and water their flocks inside because that can substantially reduce the contact that chickens have with wild birds. On his first point, illegal imports are just that, illegal, and he may have read in the newspapers that we
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are stepping up checks for such imports at airports and ports, but I do not think that it is necessary to ban pet fairs at this stage.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): While I am sure that the Minister will confirm that infected birds themselves, if they arrive in the UK, are unlikely to be the method of transmission of any mutated disease that could lead to a pandemic, will he nevertheless confirm that it is of the greatest importance that those who are in charge of poultry operations should be alerted to the issue, that there should be clear steps on monitoring and that protective devices should be provided for people handing poultry so that the avian form of the flu does not transmit itself in a virulent form to them?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I absolutely agree with that. It is also important for us to reflect on the fact that the disease has been quite widespread among poultry in south-east Asia for two or three years, but has infected relatively few people. We would have much better protection for poultry workers and anyone who was going to go on to a farm in this country to deal with an outbreak.

Mr. Letwin: I am delighted that the Minister and I agree about that. How, then, does he explain the fact that when my office rang 25 commercial poultry dealers over the past 48 hours, we discovered that 16 had not received any communication from his Department and could not give a positive answer to the question, "Has DEFRA offered any assistance in identifying possible signs of an outbreak?", or the question, "Has DEFRA offered any advice on protective clothing?"? Why is the Department not taking the action that it could now to diminish the chances of a problem later?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is difficult for me to comment without knowing the businesses to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. One of the challenges that we face is the fact that there is no requirement in Britain or the European Union to register a poultry business, so we will address that matter with the industry in the weeks to come. It is actually the responsibility of some of the businesses themselves to find out what they should be doing. Information is readily available on our website and is also being made available by their trade organisations and the British Poultry Council. The businesses should be asking their vets what to do. This is something that is really up to them, rather than it being for the Government to find out where they are and let them know.

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