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24 May 2006 : Column 481WH—continued

There is no section in the ERDP that shows howthe measures will have more than one positive consequence. I fear that no imaginative thinking has gone into establishing how that could occur. Naturally, any policy suggestions must be carefully costed if they are to be proposed as effective measures. The RSPCA has provided costed figures for four measures that have been proposed as indices for inclusion in the ERDP. I will only list those indices, and not indicate the nature
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of the costings. They are as follows: first, the animal health plan; secondly, training for stockmanship; thirdly, conversion of slatted floors to solid; and fourthly, improved forage for pigs. So there are clear economic data on which to base policy.

Do the public care? EU citizens regard animal welfare as an important part of rural development responsibilities. A recent survey showed that 88 per cent. of the public regard animal welfare as a priority issue of funding for RDPs. In the UK, protecting animal welfare was seen as the most important issue for the public under the RDP. Farmers also want the measures. They are not being dragged into this unwillingly. The review of the Welsh RDP scheme, Tir Mynydd, found that schemes concerning two of the three animal welfare objectives—stocking density and assurance—had the highest numbers of uptake of the seven options available. That is a small example to show that farmers are seeking such measures, and will warmly sign up to them.

What will the Minister say in a moment or two? Of course, he might now be tempted to say, “Well sit down and let me say it.” He will probably argue that England already has excellent standards of animal welfare—I have not seen his civil service brief lying on a photocopier on an upper floor—and that further improvements will be delivered by the market. He may claim that English farmers already exceed EU baseline standards. In anticipation of those remarks, I ask him to address three key points. First, I ask the Minister, who has a highly urban seat—I know that he will get out a lot from now on—what is the evidence that farmers exceed baseline standards? Secondly, does he agree that there is a significant risk that the ERDP as drafted will disadvantage English farmers? Finally, does he agree that it is important that policy should continue to develop under his stewardship, with his talents, perception and energy, to demonstrate a commitment to higher welfare standards to join the pantheon of successes that we have proudly witnessed under this Government in the past nine years?

11.16 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing this debate, which is timely given the end of the consultation and the importance of animal welfare to the Government and all hon. Members present.

I am encouraged that our consultation on the priorities for the next rural development programme in England, which closed on Monday, has provoked a debate about the best way to use the funding available to tackle the challenges facing rural communities in England. In addition to the feedback that we have received from regional events during the consultation, I understand that at the last count we had received about 150 written submissions. Of course, we will carefully analyse those responses, and we will make our decision on the priorities for the next programme in the light of the comments received and my hon. Friend’s remarks today.

In the consultation, we set out a number of key principles for the use of rural development funding.
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What I want to get across today is that one of the most important of those principles is that programme funding should demonstrably add value. I am sure that the budget available for the next programme will be limited, as budgets always are, so we must be aware of the need to spend money where it will have maximum impact.

We are still not clear exactly how much will be allocated to the UK, and we have yet to take decisions on what use to make of voluntary modulation and associated match funding. My hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) both asked about the December budget. I have received the RSPCA briefing on that issue, which I know other hon. Members have also received, but it does not take into account the fact that the budget is to be supplemented by compulsory modulation and the EU budget for rural development in the EU15. Because of that supplement, which must be co-financed by member states, we expect that the amount of EU funding available for the next RDP in England will be slightly higher than for current programmes. I want to correct any misunderstanding on that situation, because the briefing was perhaps misleading in that respect, although not intentionally, I am sure.

The key point to stress is that we acknowledge that December was the occasion for cutting a deal and, as my hon. Friends suggested, whenever a deal is cut there are compromises to be made, but we must not lose sight of the great victory that we won then: the review of the common agricultural policy in 2008 and all that that will mean for the pattern of spending in rural communities that we have piloted. We are establishing the approach and we are at the forefront in Europe in trying to pull money away from pillar 1 and into pillar 2 precisely on the areas of spending that we have all said are so important.

As my hon. Friends have highlighted, the framework for the next programme—the rural development regulation—is broadly drawn, allowing for a wide range of activities. That flexibility recognises that rural development needs vary across the EU. New member states may need to focus the available funding on achieving basic community standards, including those on animal welfare, but that may not represent the best value for money in other member states.

I take up the challenge that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire laid down in his three final points. I am happy to write to him on the first point: what evidence there is that farmers exceed baseline compulsory legal minimum standards of animal welfare in England. In my discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department who have responsibility specifically for animal welfare, I was assured that they are confident that many farmers in England achieve higher—in some cases substantially higher—standards of animal welfare.

David Taylor: I do not want to condensethe Minister’s reply, but may I ask whether he acknowledges that in our fellow countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland those higher-than-baseline standards exist, but those countries have also found it possible within their own draft suggestions to incorporate animal welfare, which is incredibly difficult to value as a public good? I acknowledge that that is the case.

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Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend leads me on to my next point. I recognise another point that was made clearly in the RSPCA briefing: in the programmes put forward in Scotland and Wales there are variations in emphasis. I stress that I believe that they are variations in emphasis and, in some cases, variations in decision. That is what I would seek to explain.

One should not be surprised—certainly not in this Chamber—that the outcome of devolution is that each part of the United Kingdom determines its own priorities and takes account of the evidence of need, farming practices and environmental circumstances that is specific to them. Our countries are different and our rural development programmes will be different. Exactly how we use the new programmes to support animal health and welfare objectives is, of course, one of the areas where there may be a divergence, not because we have a different view of the importance of the objective, but because we may have different ways of reaching it.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud in the House last week, we recognise the importance of good animal health and welfare standards in the farming industry, but we are confident that farmersin England achieve animal welfare standards thatmeet and sometimes exceed the minimum legal requirements. We therefore want to target the resources that we have not towards existing good practice, but on new ways of making agriculture more competitive and sustainable, through a focus on skills and innovation. In line with that approach, we proposed that we could use funding—

David Taylor: Will the Minister give way?

Barry Gardiner: I shall do so in a minute. If my hon. Friend allows me to finish the point, he may find that it pre-empts him.

We proposed that we could use funding available under the next programme to provide increased opportunities for training and knowledge transfer aimed specifically at improving animal health and welfare standards. This is one area where we are clear that we want to use the funding that we have under the programme to improve good practice.

Mr. Drew: After foot and mouth, specific moneys were put in to do the very things that the Minister is speaking about. Will he give a guarantee that there will be moneys in the new budgets that will do the sort of things that that foot and mouth money was supposedly there to do?

Barry Gardiner: It would be difficult to do that within the parameters of this debate, but I shall certainly write to my hon. Friend and elaborate on his point.

I think we all agree that we face major environmental challenges, such as protecting and enhancing biodiversity, protecting the quality of our waterways and mitigating the effects of climate change. The agri-environment schemes have a proven track record, but they must cover a greater proportion of farmland if we are to meet those future challenges. Aside from rural development programme funding, there are no
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alternative sources of funds available in sufficient quantity to meet those major challenges. Our focus for the next programme is therefore to sustain our commitment to environmental stewardship as a scheme that is open to all farmers.

My hon. Friends will recognise that the environmental stewardship programme and the funding that it will make available will have an impact on stocking levels—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said was specifically mentioned in other countries’ programmes. The fact that that may not be specifically mentioned here does not imply that it will not be achieved.

We decided to focus on those key environmental challenges. An independent report conducted for DEFRA in 2004 found that the cost of a national animal welfare scheme was likely to be high due to various factors, such as diversity among livestock farmers, variability of welfare incidents and the need for assessment and monitoring. We decided not to divert our rural development funding away from that core environmental priority. However, we recognise that there are potential links between particular agri-environment measures such as stocking densities and animal welfare outcomes. Indeed, colleagues referred to the proposal made by the Welsh Assembly in its consultation to consider animal welfare issues in its forthcoming review of agri-environment schemes.

In England in 2007-08, we will review progressunder environmental stewardship. The RSPCA has considered how incentives for animal welfare could be provided under the rural development programme. It has done so in its report, “Into the fold”, and that work will provide valuable input to our thinking, but to return to where I began, we must be able to demonstrate the added value of what we are spending. I am sure that colleagues will recognise that not only we, but the EU as a whole, have a significant amount of work to do on animal welfare and we must work together to take that forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire referred to the support provided under farm assurance schemes. Farmers who participate in food quality schemes generally do so either with a view to obtaining a price premium, when their participation is rewarded through the market, or because they need to do so to sell to a specific market, as is often the case with baseline assurance schemes and which is also
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rewarded through the market. The RSPCA’s freedom food scheme is an assurance scheme that promotes high animal welfare standards and is a good exampleof what can be achieved without Government intervention. Given that fact and the high proportion of farmers who already belong to assurance schemes, we believe that relatively little additional public benefit would be gained from supporting such schemes financially through the programme for England. That has been our thinking. It is not that we think the schemes are not valuable ways of achieving animal welfare outcomes, but that we think we should put our money where it will achieve added value and where there is a market failure. In this case, we do not believe that to be so.

Encouraging innovation aimed at developing new markets and new value-added products is one way of helping to make our farming industry more competitive. That could include support for marketing on the basis of higher animal welfare standards, either alone or in combination with other innovative ways of improving farm competitiveness. We have proposed that support for such innovation could be an area of focus for the next programme.

I have been speaking about animal welfare in the context of the rural development programme, but I want to remind colleagues of the wider picture in England on animal health and welfare issues, which we feel is important, and our approach to addressing those issues. We are working in partnership with industry to promote wider use of a proactive approach to health planning on farms, including management of livestock diseases that have welfare implications. We are doing that by supporting a culture change in the industry with consistent messages and better communication about the benefits of a risk management-based approach at farm level. Our approach supports greater use of the farm health and welfare plans, to which the codes of recommendations for the welfare of livestock refer.

My hon. Friend said that the proposals for the next programme are a missed opportunity as they focus on limited traditional areas and do not look widely enough at Government objectives—

Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Community Hospitals

2.30 pm

John Bercow (in the Chair): I shall judge the debate by the Annunciator, the clock on which is accurate, unlike the one ahead of me.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Thank you,Mr. Bercow, for this opportunity to raise the issue of community hospitals. First, I would like to pay tribute to workers in the national health service, especially those who are involved in patient care. I am sure that anyone who has been directly involved personally or through a family member will wish to join in that tribute to NHS workers.

A local journalist asked me on the telephone, “Will this be your usual Haslar speech, Peter?” I said that it would not be my usual Haslar speech, but I would of course be referring to Haslar, specifically the Royal hospital Haslar, which I would claim has become one of the best known hospitals in Parliament.

The background is that the Royal Naval hospital Haslar, which had become the only hospital within the armed forces, became the Royal hospital Haslar. It was, in effect, operating as a second district general hospital in the Gosport area when in 1998, to everyone’s astonishment, it was announced that it would close not earlier than 2000. That caused serious problems in the armed forces. They studied various sites where they might locate a hospital and eventually settled, not with great enthusiasm, on the Selly Oak site in Birmingham. They were cheered by the fact that £200 million would be spent on an all new, all-singing and dancing centre that would provide them with messing, sports and other facilities in Birmingham. Unfortunately, however, that project was cancelled. Within the armed forces now, there are serious shortages in most of the important faculties. I shall return to the issue of armed services medicine later in my speech.

The reaction in the south Hampshire area to the closure was one of anger and disbelief. I shall not recount all the facts, as they are very much on the parliamentary record, but there was an unprecedented march of some 22,000 people demonstrating against the closure of the hospital. We demonstrated in every way we could think of to catch the public eye. Wehad “Save Haslar” in lights photographed from a helicopter, we had a relay taking a petition to Downing street, we had demonstrations outside Downing street, and we had many debates in Parliament. After much pressure was applied, a deal was cobbled together with the health authorities whereby Haslar would indeed be saved and would continue to be used for local medical facilities and for the armed forces as well.

Unfortunately, in what I regard as a shameful chapter in the history of health care in south Hampshire, the primary care trust went back on the agreement. It “consulted”. Whenever one uses that word in connection with the NHS, one has to put it in inverted commas, because the result of a consultation is usually well known before the consultation takes place. There was local discussion, aided by the consultation, of whether Haslar or Gosport War Memorial hospital should continue as the local community hospital. The votes for Haslar were
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overwhelming, but at a meeting in a church in Fareham, the PCT unanimously voted against popular wishes and decided to close Haslar and continue the Gosport War Memorial hospital, on the basis of what I have to say was some very unreliable information on matters such as costings, car parking and so on.

Later, I chaired a packed meeting in St. Mary’s church, Alverstoke, in Gosport. I believe that 800 people were present, with many standing at the back of the church. We took a vote on whether we wished Haslar or Gosport War Memorial hospital to continue. To my disbelief, every single hand went up in favour of Haslar. I remember asking, “Is there no one here who wishes to say anything in favour of the primary care trust’s proposals?” but not a single soul supportedthe PCT.

We went through the statutory procedure. Hampshire county council’s overview and scrutiny committee referred the matter to the Minister for reference to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. I went to see the Minister, who turned down reference to the IRP. The Minister’s veto means that Gosport is the only place in the whole of the United Kingdom that the IRP cannot investigate. It has widened its brief, but the only place in which it cannot take an interest is Gosport.

So there we stand. The Royal hospital Haslar is to have its Ministry of Defence support withdrawn with effect from 31 March 2007. Arrangements are in hand for the local hospitals trust to take over responsibility for the hospital until summer 2009, when the private finance initiative bid at Queen Alexandra hospital will be completed, and the plan is that Haslar will close thereafter. However, the plan was that Haslar would close in 2000; it is now 2006 and Haslar is still there.

I turn now to the general picture in the national health service as it relates to hospitals. Spending has increased—it has almost doubled—from £40 billion to £76 billion, but most of that increase has gone on salaries, drugs and compensation, and there has been a 66 per cent. increase in the number of managers. There have been various problems: we all know, for example, that it is much easier to admit someone to a district general hospital than to transfer them out of one, particularly because the Government, in their wisdom, have changed the standards for nursing homes and required them to widen their doors, raise their ceilings, put in en-suite bathrooms and so on. As a result many nursing homes have closed, and the loss of nursing home places has made it difficult to get people out of district general hospitals and into nursing homes. The Government have therefore resorted to the rather shabby process of fining councils that do not have enough nursing home places. Hampshire county council, to give one example, has had to build places in nursing homes.

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