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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight):
The over-30-month scheme is expected to continue after the over-30 month rule is lifted on 7 November until the beginning of January 2006 at the earliest. It will then be replaced by a voluntary three-year scheme: the older cattle disposal scheme.
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Mr. Blizzard: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which will be welcomed by beef processors such as the Birds Eye factory in my constituency. Will he now focus his efforts on trying to get exports of this beef resumed because that would help farmers as well as people who make their living producing burgers?
Jim Knight: Yes, the end of the over-30-month scheme will be good news for the Birds Eye factory that my hon. Friend represents so well in the House. We are working hard in Brussels to get the export ban lifted as soon as possible, but I must warn him that that is unlikely to happen before February 2006 at the earliest.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress that has been made on the matter and refer him to the editorial of the Western Morning News earlier this week, which said that the Ministers
In the interests of continuing in the right direction, will my hon. Friend say something more about how the sales of beef might be promoted and especially the idea from the Western Morning News that embassies should be used to promote British beef throughout the export market?
Jim Knight: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. The embassies are active in the way in which the Western Morning News would like them to be. The piece referred to the beef summit, which was chaired by my noble Friend Lord Bach last week and agreed £5.5 million funding for marketing beef domestically and overseas over three years, £1 million to increase efficiency by sharing best practice and a further £1.5 million for the red meat industry over two years to increase efficiency in the whole supply chain and groupings of producers.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): DEFRA is spending £1.2 million this year to protect the English honey bee population. This season, beekeepers have benefited from more than 20,000 colony inspections and an extensive programme of training, including 600 technical events, delivered by the national bee unit to help them improve disease control through good apiary management. I wish them all the best for the national honey show at Hendon this weekend.
The sting in the tail of any future DEFRA cuts in the bee health programme could be a halved inspectorate and the loss by disease of bee colonies throughout the land, which would decimate their pollination contribution to UK agricultural output. Will the Minister further explain his thinking to
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the House and to Britain's 30,000 beekeepers and tell us whether the Government are doing anything to protect and extend crucial bee habitats?
Jim Knight: Bees are vital for the pollination of crops and wild and garden plants, which is why we continue to spend over £1.5 million a year on bee health. No cut has been made. We are gathering evidence on the effectiveness of the shook swarm technique in dealing with European foul brood disease. If that suggests that changes in the service may be appropriate, we will then consult on those changes. In the meantime, measures such as the environmental stewardship schemes will, I am sure, help protect and improve bee habitats.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The fact is that there is a cut of £250,000, and the risk of infection is much greater than is warranted by that minuscule saving. What message is the Minister giving to beekeepers in north Yorkshire and elsewhere in Great Britain?
Jim Knight: The hon. Lady needs to listen carefully; the message that I give them is that no cut has been made.[Interruption.] No cut has been made. If it becomes appropriate, following the research that I described, to change the arrangements, there will be consultation.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recognise that the honey bees kept by the nation's 30,000 beekeepers contribute about £120 million a year to the agricultural economy through pollination? Does he recognise that European foul brood is, in effect, the avian flu of the bee world, and will he assure us that no cuts in inspection will be made while this and other diseases remain a threat?
Jim Knight: The total revenue of those who keep bees in the UK is estimated to be about £11.3 million, and the value of the role of bees in pollination in the UK has been estimated at between £120 million to £200 million, so we take these matters extremely seriously. That is why we continue to spend the money. We understand the threat posed by European foul brood disease, and the greater threat posed by American foul brood disease, which is why we are committed to sustaining bee health.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): The Minister is not being straight with us. This morning, I talked to Dr. Ivor Davis, chairman of the British Beekeepers Association. He is adamant that pollination, which as the Minister says, and ADAS confirms, is worth £120 million to British agriculture, is jeopardised by the proposed cut, which would reduce the number of inspectors. Will the Minister confirm now that the programme and the number of inspectors will be maintained in full?
If I may help the hon. Gentleman, I point out that he could find £250,000 by making a modest saving from DEFRA's astonishing annual travel budget of
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£2,224,000 or from the incredible £8,959,406.49 spent on only three outside law firms, as revealed in written answers in February.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The Rural Payments Agency continues to validate claims, to digitise new and amend existing land parcels, and to register new customers applying to the single payment scheme. As we announced earlier this month, the RPA remains on course to start payments next February.
On the subject of arm twisting, I want to ask the Secretary of State about a particular case in my constituency, that of Messrs Caley and Leake, farmers in Paull, near Hull. Due to the illness of their secretary and a holiday, they were 15 days late submitting their application for the scheme. Because they made a mistake they have been told that no payment will be made to them; there is no provision in the legislation for making one. That is clearly an injustice, and I raise it on behalf of farmers like them throughout the country. If the Rural Payments Agency were a paragon of efficiency, if DEFRA itself were run with peerless efficiency and if there were not endless delays in paymentswhich we are glad to hear will be made in Februarythe position might be justified. As it is, it cannot. Will the right hon. Lady please look into the matter and reverse that iniquitous decision?
Margaret Beckett: I am not in a position to comment on the individual constituency case to which the hon. Gentleman referred, because unfortunately I do not carry in my mind a comprehensive memory of every farm building in the country. If he raises the matter with my Department, we will look into it, but farmers the length and breadth of the country have had months, if not years, in which to consider their applications and submit them.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)
(Lab): Will the Secretary of State reinforce the message that she has given the House that despite the serious difficulties that the RPA faces we are on track to make payments in February? Will she reassure farmers who face difficulties that that will happen?
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Margaret Beckett: I assure my hon. Friend that we remain on track for February. My colleague in the House of Lords and I monitor closely the developing situation. He will know that one reason for the problems that have been experienced is the increase of over 1,000 per cent. in requests for land to be digitised and for land parcels that have already been digitised to be amended. Such an increase, I am afraid, impacts on the speed of delivery.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): A few weeks ago, I wrote to the right hon. Lady about the beef special premium scheme and extensification schemes, which were being cut back severely, thus causing considerable hardship throughout the UK, especially Wales. I received a response from her colleague Lord Bach on 4 October saying that the Government have plans to draw down £5.5 million from the European Union to alleviate the problems. That money will not be match funded, although other EU states regularly match fund and will do so to alleviate the problems. The right hon. Lady's colleague in Ireland, for example, will more than match fund the sum to be drawn dawn. Will she therefore reconsider her position urgently?
Margaret Beckett: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he will know that what happens in other parts of the UK is different because different decisions are made and there are devolved powers. I will, of course, take heed of his observations.
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman will know that other parts of the United Kingdom have made different decisions about the basis of payment, and it is for them to explain those decisions to their farmers and make their own arrangements. In England, however, we have put in place a system which, in the longer term, after what is bound to be a difficult first year, will make life much simpler and sustainable for English farmers.
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