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House of Commons

Thursday 20 April 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

MESSAGE FROM THE QUEEN

Queen's 80th Birthday

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported Her Majesty's Answer to a Loyal and Dutiful Address from this House, as follows: It gives me great pleasure to receive the cordial congratulations of your House on the occasion of my eightieth birthday, together with your expression of appreciation, and your warm good wishes for my long continuing health and happiness. I send my warmest thanks to you.

Oral Answers to Questions

ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS

The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Support

1. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): How many councils have received support under (a) Vital Villages, (b) the quality parish scheme and (c) the market towns initiative since 2001. [63727]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): Since      2001, Vital Villages has helped more than 5,000 communities gain access to more or higher standards of public services—an agenda further supported by more than 270 quality parish and town councils. More than 230 towns received funding through the market towns initiative to support community-led regeneration.

John Mann: The image of market towns is often that of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and, in particular, many solicitors doing business. However, there is another kind of market town: small towns that have been built up and surrounded by the coal industry over the past 100 years. Those market towns have particular problems in regenerating themselves. Will the Minister look at market towns such as Warsop to see whether beacon status could be conferred on them to assist with their regeneration?

Mr. Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could manage an Adjournment debate—he has so much to tell us.
 
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Jim Knight: As I ever, I listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) with care. I take note of his comments and will consider them in due course.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will the Minister explain to the House why his Department, rather than the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, is taking these initiatives forward? Will he also explain to the House how the initiatives are promulgated? How do parish councils, town councils and others know that the money is available to them? Rather than having all those various initiatives, which people have to know about, would it not be better if the Government simply increased the grant to local authorities in relation to council tax, rather than reducing the grant and obliging council tax to go up continually?

Jim Knight: It is clearly appropriate that the Minister with responsibility for rural affairs should have some input into what is going on in rural communities. That is why the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is involved, as well as the ODPM. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that we have simplified the arrangements for Vital Villages and the market towns initiative, for example, by contributing all that money to the regional development agencies—as a Department, we are now the third largest contributor to the regional development agencies—so that they can make more localised decisions in the interests of rural communities.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I welcome the market towns initiative, which has gone down extremely well in Neston in my constituency. It can provide a vehicle to improve the centre of a town radically. What efforts is my hon. Friend making to liaise with other key Departments to ensure that there is a holistic approach, particularly with transport and other such key factors?

Jim Knight: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and interested to hear about Neston; Swanage, in my constituency, is benefiting from market and coastal towns initiative funding. I regularly meet colleagues from other Departments, and in the next few weeks I am due to meet the Minister of State at the Department for Transport. I will have my hon. Friend's comments in mind.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one of the best bits of the Vital Villages funding was the regard given to local transport issues, and transport issues more widely? Does he further agree that one of the biggest problems in our villages today is the increasing clutter caused by traffic calming measures, street furniture of one sort or another, signs and signage? It is almost impossible to see where the village is because of the ghastly mess on the roads. How will the Minister seek to reduce that clutter now that he has cancelled the Vital Villages funding?

Jim Knight: We have not cancelled the Vital Villages funding. We have passed it on to the regional development agencies to spend as they see fit within their region—in the spirit of delegation that I know that the
 
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hon. Gentleman's party is now welcoming. As for the signs and the clutter, as he calls it, many villages are clamouring for traffic calming, and I am sure that there may be some such villages in North Wiltshire. However, the Department for Transport is concerned about the proliferation of signage and there is some work going on with highways authorities to consider how that can be simplified for the motorist, to make sure that there is not a confusion of signage causing a hazard on the roads.

Right to Roam

2. Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): If she will make a statement on progress in implementing the right to roam provisions in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. [63728]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): The target for implementing the Countryside and Rights of Way Act right of access in England by the end of 2005 has been met, enabling people to enjoy some of the finest landscape that the country has to offer.

Ms Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. We are all aware that ramblers everywhere welcome the right to roam provisions warmly, but the Minister will also be aware that many ramblers would like an extension of the right to roam to cover Britain's wonderful coastline. Are there any plans to extend the access provisions of the CROW Act? [Interruption.]

Jim Knight: I can hear someone saying that there is a wonderful coastline in my constituency, and I cannot argue with that. Improving coastal access was a manifesto commitment. We are committed to full public consultation in October, when we will set out our views on how we can best deliver action to improve access to the English coast.

Bovine TB

3. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): How many incidents of bovine tuberculosis were reported to her Department in the last 12 months. [63729]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Some 3,653 new herd incidents were recorded in Great Britain in 2005. That was a 9.1 per cent. increase on 2004.

Mr. Jones: As the current bovine TB skin test is a rather blunt diagnostic tool with only a 60 to 70 per cent. degree of accuracy, when does the Minister anticipate that the working group that he established in September 2005 will be able to report on the increased use of the gamma interferon test?

Mr. Bradshaw: The figures that the hon. Gentleman gives the House are not quite correct. The skin test's sensitivity, which is its identification of infected animals, is between 77 and 95 per cent. Its specificity, which is its identification of uninfected animals, is 99 per cent. The test is much better than he suggests, and it is recognised internationally, as it is in the EU. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we have set up a working group
 
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to look into rolling out the gamma interferon test, but that test could only ever be used as a supplementary test, although I agree that it has the potential to be helpful.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): With the number of cases of bovine TB continuing to rise, which is deeply worrying, will my hon. Friend assure me that no decision has been taken on how the Government intend to respond to their consultation, given that there is a clear need to examine alternatives, including vaccination and the idea of mineral deficiency? We must rely on science, not several of the ideas that are floating around.

Mr. Bradshaw: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he wants. The consultation was important. We received tens of thousands of responses, so I do not think that anyone would think it reasonable to expect us to reach a decision within five weeks of the end of the consultation period, given the scientific uncertainty to which he alludes.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Minister tell the House whether herds that have had, or are suspected to have had, a tuberculosis outbreak in the past three years will be restricted from exporting live animals when the beef export ban is lifted in early May?

Mr. Bradshaw: I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact answer to that question, but I think that I am right in saying that because our status is officially still TB-free, our export markets will not be affected.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): With regard to the consultation, is the Minister aware that there is growing opposition among major landowners, such as the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to the possibility of a major cull of badgers, because they believe that the science does not justify any sort of cull whatever? Will he need legislation to be able to go on to such property to cull badgers if that is the final, and unfortunate, decision?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am on record as saying that I do not think that it is practicable to have any sort of culling system that involves enforcement when landowners do not want badgers to be culled on their land. That would not be a feasible option—but my hon. Friend's point about landowners is absolutely right. One of the problems with getting widespread and intensive coverage for our badger culling trials is that a number of landowners do not want such culling to happen as a matter of principle, although that might not necessarily be the case in all areas. My hon. Friend is right to imply that if there is to be badger culling as part of our bovine TB policy, all the scientific evidence, which, as he rightly says, is uncertain, tends to suggest that it would need fairly widespread coverage over a very large area, which would be a challenge to achieve.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Minister half answered this question when he replied to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), but we want to know when the Government will announce their decision
 
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about what they will do following the consultation on badger culling. Does he think that we should accept a level of TB in wildlife?

Mr. Bradshaw: As I have said before, and as the consultation document said, the international experience suggests that if we leave the reservoir in wildlife untouched it will prevent us from containing and eradicating bovine TB. We have made that perfectly clear, but we face a challenge in finalising a practicable cost-effective system of culling that is scientifically sustainable in the long term. As for timing, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact answer, but we wish to proceed as quickly as possible, given the seriousness of the situation.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Minister convinced that the new compensation scheme for affected cattle is an adequate reflection of farmers' losses? A farming family in my constituency have put the alternative case to me very vigorously, as they say that there is a significant risk that beef and milk production—the engine room of English agriculture—will be seriously affected, and that some farmers will stop milk production altogether without adequate compensation.

Mr. Bradshaw: It is early days, as the new compensation system has been operating for only a short time. I remind my hon. Friend that reports by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, as well as a number of independent reports, have      repeatedly found that there was serious overcompensation in the system, and the Government have a responsibility to defend taxpayers' interests as well as to compensate farmers for the true value of the animals that are slaughtered.


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