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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): The Government cannot get involved with price negotiations. However, through the dairy supply chain forum chaired by my noble Friend Lord Bach, we have brought the industry together to develop collective solutions to some of the challenges it faces as it adapts to the reformed common agricultural policy. I firmly believe that there is a bright future for a modern, profitable and efficient UK dairy sector.
Mr. Cox: Does the Minister agree that some of the acute problems affecting dairy pricing might be alleviated if the processing sector could have the confidence that any future consolidation will not be blocked by the Office of Fair Trading? Does he agree that it would be helpful if the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry sent a direct and clear message to the OFT that future consolidation in the sector should be looked at in a European context, not a purely national one?
Jim Knight: There is a lot of talk about consolidation and it is suggested that co-operatives can control only 25 per cent. of the market. That is only a trigger. The competition authorities will consider each case on its merits. I am in discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry about some of these issues and ensuring that it hears the concerns that are expressed to me by dairy farmers.
The pressures on remaining dairy farmers, such as a family farm in my constituency where individuals work up to 90 hours a week, include rising fuel costs and worries about potential competition from imports. Does the Minister therefore agree, despite his previous words, that the Government should play a stronger role in ensuring that an effective supermarket
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code of conduct is enforced so that we have a transparent and fair supply chain for milk? I emphasise fairness in all this.
Jim Knight: I repeat that markets should set prices. However, there are issues of cost that are being pursued by the dairy supply chain forum. As regards the supermarket code of practice, I am having discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), and I will continue those discussions. Like the hon. Lady, I hear constituents say that they cannot properly register their complaint, but if the OFT does not receive any complaint it is difficult for it to act.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We published our strategy for the control of bovine TB in March. Working in partnership with farmers and all interested parties, we aim to bring about a sustainable improvement in the control of bovine TB over the next 10 years, with emphasis on keeping clean areas clean and achieving a sustained and steady reduction of disease in hot spot areas. I expect to make an announcement detailing our plans later this autumn.
Robert Key: May I encourage the Secretary of State to realise that this is an animal welfare issue concerning the welfare of badgers as well as that of cattle, and that it is likely that this year some 40,000 cattle will be killed because they have bovine TB? It would be a very bad thing if the publication of the result of the trials was delayed for yet another year. The British Veterinary Association has said that that would lead to increasing animal welfare problems in badgers and cattle, as well as an increased risk to human health. This month the BVA wrote to the Secretary of Statewhat is she going to say to it?
Margaret Beckett: The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) met the president of the BVA earlier this week. The Government are keen to strike a balance between the proper maintenance of the full scientific trials and tests, consideration of the data, publication of the results and so on, and the need for effective action. We are taking account of the information that we have and I do not anticipate the long delay that the hon. Gentleman fears in making the announcement that he seeks.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): How many cases were there in 1998 and how many were there in the latest year for which figures are available? What is the total cost of the episode to the Department?
Somewhere in my heap of papers, I have figures that may include those for which the right hon. Gentleman asks. However, I can say that there has been an increase of 18 per cent. a yearI believe that
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that is the point that he seeks to make. The Government acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and are determined to work with the farming community to tackle it.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The balance that the Secretary of State mentioned is not being achieved in parts of my constituency, where cases of bovine TB are constantly coming to light and there is a huge badger population. Far from being an endangered species, it is common in my area. Let me reinforce the points that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) and the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) made. First, the problem means huge costs and, secondly, there is a genuine animal welfare issue for the badger population. It is inconceivable that we should allow the badger population to suffer from an endemic disease and do nothing about it.
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I do not dispute. As he and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) rightly said, there is an important animal welfare question, and we fully recognise that. I also acknowledge that there is considerable interest in and pressure about the matter. I have studied the BVA's recommendations. Although I recognise that there are serious problems in areas such as the hon. Gentleman's constituency, he knows that that is not the case in other parts of the country. We are anxious to tackle the problem in areas such as his, but we are just as anxious, if not more so, to keep clean areas clean.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The culling in the Krebs trial will be completed by the end of November, with some surveying work continuing into 2006. Any interim findings will help inform policy decisions taken on bovine TB, including badger controls, before then.
Richard Ottaway: I have to confess that the Krebs trials are not at the top of the political agenda in Croydon. However, if my constituents discovered that the Government were spending money but not getting results, they would expect something to be done about that. If they found that £2 billion had been spent in 10 years, they would expect something to be done about it very quickly. If they further discovered that approximately 10,000 cattle were slaughtered in the first three months of the year, they would expect the Under-Secretary to set out a plan of action that could command the confidence of not only the agricultural sector but animal lovers.
That might be difficult. However, I agree that the problem has meant a considerable cost to the taxpayer. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we expect to make an announcement about further measures later this autumn. The hon. Gentleman's point is important because whatever we do must be based on sound science
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and be cost-effective. That is why we have worked on a cost-benefit analysis, which is based on the available evidence, including that from the Krebs trials and the four-area trials in the Republic of Ireland. We do not want to do something that will not work, might make things worse and cost the taxpayer even more.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the Department on its handling of this sensitive issue. The badger is a wonderful animal that is part of our wildlife and we should cherish it. Any Government action must be based on sound science, as the Minister said. Will he assure hon. Members that no action will be taken to exacerbate the problem by forcing badgers into clean areas?
Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Most scientists now recognise that small-scale, targeted culling of badgers may not only fail to help to tackle TB in cattle but make it worse. That is why I have a slight problem with the BVA's recommendation for targeted culling, without a definition of what the culling means.
Let me point out to those hon. Members who said that the problem was a badger welfare issue that we do not have a live TB test for badgers, so any badger culling is bound to kill many healthy badgers as well as those with TB.
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