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House of Commons

Thursday 17 November 2005

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Exotic Birds

1. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): If she will make the temporary ban on imports of exotic birds permanent. [29228]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The European Union ban on the import of captive birds has been extended until 31 January 2006. The Government are considering the arguments for and against a permanent ban. That will be discussed with EU and trading partners in the months to come. Subject to certain conditions, restrictions placed on gatherings of pigeons will be lifted today.

Mr. Devine: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he is aware of the concern, not only in my constituency but throughout the country, about the damage that bird flu could do, especially following the deaths in China and other parts of Asia. What reassurance can he give the House about the action plan that he is developing to ensure that similar tragedies do not occur here?

Mr. Bradshaw: The threat of avian flu is being taken seriously across Government. For DEFRA's part, and as we hold the European presidency, we are taking a lead in Europe. We are constantly updating our contingency plan and we are ever vigilant in surveying the potential spread of avian flu. Just last week, we held a table-top contingency exercise to test our avian flu contingency plan.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I know that the Department is taking the matter seriously, but I must ask whether the Treasury is also doing so. I have pressed the Minister on this issue before, but I must do so again. Why will there be only six sniffer dogs at British ports to detect the illegal importation of birds and other animals? With only six sniffer dogs available, and each animal able to work for only five hours at a time, how can that stop the illegal importation of such birds?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is six more sniffer dogs than any other EU member state has, and it is six more than this
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country had when the hon. Gentleman's party was last in power. We are spending £20 million more than his party spent on border controls of illegal imports. As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) has just reminded the House, we have also imposed a ban on the import of birds.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, last year nearly 700,000 birds were imported into the EU, 19,000 of which came to the UK. However, according to the EU, only 67,000 came into Europe, of which a staggering 66,000 apparently came to the UK. Can the Minister explain the 10-fold discrepancy in the figures? As we now know that avian flu has been brought into the UK through the bird trade, is he worried that if he does not know how many birds are brought in, he cannot know how effective our border controls are and cannot therefore enforce the biosecurity that we all need?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, I do not accept that. As the hon. Gentleman points out, the UK is not among the largest importers of wild birds. The southern European countries—Spain, Italy and France—have a much higher level of imports. The hon. Gentleman omitted to say that CITES does not support a permanent ban on the import of wild birds, for conservation reasons.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): The Minister will know that one of the lessons learned from the foot and mouth tragedy was that action plans should be regularly tested and updated. I am interested to learn that a table-top test was held a few weeks ago. When was such a test held previously?

Mr. Bradshaw: As the hon. Gentleman should know, we published our latest avian flu contingency plan in July, as part of the Government's generic contingency plan for exotic diseases. Although it was made public at the time, few hon. Members noticed, because avian flu had not yet hit the headlines. The plan is constantly reviewed. Recently, we have increased the level of precaution that we intend to take in the event of an outbreak of avian flu in this country owing to the potential role played by wild birds. The plan is constantly being tested and updated, given the changing risk assessment provided by our veterinary advisers.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Does the Minister accept that many people, such as Mr. Gary Wall in my constituency, carry out legitimate bird import and breeding activities? When a ban is implemented, I hope that the interests of those people will be taken into account, because—as CITES accepts and the Minister has just suggested—they are carrying out important conservation activities.

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman should speak to his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), to whom I have just made the point that there are those—including CITES, the organisation responsible for the conservation of rare species—who support the legitimate and regulated trade in wild birds, not just because they fear that otherwise it
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would be pushed underground but because there are strong conservation arguments for allowing the trade to continue, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says.

Milk Imports

2. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): If she will ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise import duties on foreign milk coming into the UK. [29230]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): The UK is part of the single market in which goods are traded across the European Union. The percentage of raw milk imported into the UK amounted to 0.45 per cent. of domestic production in 2004. Import tariffs for agricultural goods entering the UK from outside the EU are EU wide and subject to World Trade Organisation rules.

Daniel Kawczynski: I thank the Minister for that reply, but he knows that milk imports to this country can also come in powder form. I sincerely believe that the Government are not doing enough to help dairy farmers such as my constituent, Mr. Stuart Jones, who face a crisis in the industry. I plead with the Minister on bended knee—I am not normally this emotional—to do more for my Shrewsbury dairy farmers before they go out of business.

Jim Knight: We are working hard for the likes of Mr. Jones and the dairy industry. We accept that these are difficult times, which is why we set up the dairy supply chain forum. That is working hard to add value, which the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) was talking about in Westminster Hall last week. Dairy farmers will make money by adding value and improving profitability.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that it is no good preaching free trade while not practising it at home? There are problems in the dairy sector, and is not the thing to do to focus on the supply chain and make sure that there is trust between producers, processors and, most importantly, retailers?

Jim Knight: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend, who is knowledgeable in these matters. We need to increase transparency and trust, and Lord Bach is heading up that work through the forum.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Are the Government fully aware of the desperate financial situation facing many milk-producing farmers in this country? The amount of milk imported from the continent will increase enormously if they are forced out of business. What will the Government do to help? The problem is that the retailers, in the form of the big supermarket chains, have forced the price of milk down so far that it is not economically possible for even the most hard-working and efficient farmer to earn a living. Have the Government considered bringing back the milk marketing board—or something of that kind—the abolition of which I strongly opposed at the time?

Jim Knight: As I have said, we are well aware of the problems faced by dairy farmers. I met representatives
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of the National Farmers Union yesterday, and we discussed at length the problems that they face. Like us, though, they want their businesses to be able to operate effectively; it is for the Government to try to facilitate that, and that is what we are doing.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My party is certainly not in favour of raising tariffs on imports to stimulate trade with third world countries, but will the Minister speak to the EU Commissioner responsible at the WTO negotiations and ensure that tariffs on food coming into this country are not reduced until other market-distorting subsidies in other countries have been put to bed, giving our farmers a fair chance to produce profitably?

Jim Knight: Yes, we need a balanced package. Our long-term goal is progressively to abolish all trade-distorting agricultural subsidies and all barriers to agricultural trade in the form of tariffs and quotas.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister is a very reasonable man. Does he not think it strange that in a country with absolutely the right environment for milk production, where the grassland is the best in the world for milk production, dairy farmers, including those in my constituency, are going out of business because they cannot compete, not least because of the activities of the superstores to which my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) referred? Is it not possible for the Government to do more to assist the dairy farmer, because at the end of the day only productive farming can maintain the countryside?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman is also a reasonable man, and I thank him for his question. A lot of the symptoms that he described in dairy farmers' operations are why there is a good long-term future for farming, because all the circumstances are right. Many people talk about the problems of supermarkets, which is why my noble Friend Lord Bach and I will next month meet Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry to discuss the operation of the market, and particularly the role of supermarkets.

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