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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Bee Diseases and Pests Control (England) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Illsley
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Jones, Lynne (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Stringer, Graham (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)
Vara, Mr. Shailesh (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Mrs. Betty (Conwy) (Lab)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 11 May 2006

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Bee Diseases and Pests Control (England) Order 2006

8.55 am
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee has considered the Bee Diseases and Pests Control (England) Order 2006 (S.I. 2006, No. 342).—[Bill Wiggin.]
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Good morning,Mr. Illsley. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this beautiful day.
I congratulate the Minister on retaining his post, despite the clean-out of the foul brood. He has not come to a sticky end—I shall not make any more bee jokes—but is left as the queen bee of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. [Interruption.] Let us hope for some A jokes from the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), although that is unlikely.
I am grateful to be able to speak about bee diseases today. Despite contributing between £120 million and £200 million to the economy, beekeepers do not receive the time in Parliament that they deserve.
This order is about the control of bee diseases and pests and I think we can all appreciate the central role that inspectors play in maintaining the health of our hives. Can the Minister guarantee that there will be no cuts to the national bee unit and that the number of inspectors will not be reduced?
I bring this matter to the Committee’s attention because of the confusion that arose last year when the Chancellor's plans to cut civil service budgets would have led to a reduction of one fifth in the national bee unit's budget. Neither Lord Bach nor the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who are both former DEFRA Ministers, made a formal commitment to funding the inspection service, and until that is made the United Kingdom's 30,000 beekeepers will be left in limbo. Does the Minister recognise the importance to beekeepers of the inspection service and will he either make a funding commitment to that service or let us know when such a decision will be made? Lord Bach has previously promised continuing support for the national bee unit to help the British Beekeepers Association to ensure that disease recognition is taught more on its bee husbandry courses. Will that be a way for DEFRA to replace by stealth the invaluable work done by the national bee unit’s inspectors?
I note that under the order varroa is no longer a notifiable disease. The regulatory impact assessment attempts to justify that by stating:
“There is no longer a need to require the control of varroa because it is endemic.”
The disease may have become endemic, but that is not an excuse to stop fighting it. Can the Minister elaborate on whether that will affect the funding of measures to develop a treatment to combat varroa?
When the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) was a DEFRA Minister, he referred to varroa as the
“most significant threat to UK beekeeping”.—[Official Report,7 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 715W.]
I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether that is still the opinion of Her Majesty's Government or whether they consider that the threat posed by the small hive beetle and tropilaelaps is more serious? I do not know whether I pronounced that correctly, but I am sure that the Hansard experts will be able to spell it. I would also be interested to hear from the Minister how much money the UK is receiving from the EU under the measures outlined in Council regulation 797/2004 and how that amount has differed from the amount under Council regulation 1221/97.
8.59 am
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Obviously, this is an important subject and I agree with what has been said. The greatest worry is that the number of inspectors will be cut. There are many beekeepers in my constituency who produce some of the best honey in the country. They are worried, as are new people who are coming into the industry and starting off with new hives, as they know that at present inspectors not only deal with disease and issues around the husbandry of bees but offer specialist advice. Such advice is not easily come by, and once the system loses those people, who will beekeepers phone? Unless there are enough good inspectors to contact, people will start making their own decisions on beekeeping, which could be dangerous. The reality is that we must keep the number of inspectors at the high level that we would expect. Problems in the industry would affect 30,000 people.
People are more and more willing to export to this country. Honey comes in from all over the world, at the expense of the UK bee industry. There is a danger that disease could come in and wipe out our indigenous bee industry. It would disappear overnight if we do not have the back-up of inspectors who are able to deal with diseases. This is a big concern, which I believe the Minister takes seriously.
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. The knock-on effect of not having bees would be tremendously damaging in respect of pollination, particularly for people who grow fruit. The UK received £324,000 in support in 2002 to alleviate the burden of varroa under Council regulation 1221/97. As the regulation has been replaced, is he as concerned as I am about exactly how much support the bee industry will get this time?
Mr. Hoyle: It is not only about the money that has been received but about ensuring that money is available in the future. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to get at. However, the problem of disease and the effects on the eco-chain are of much greater concern. People might think that only the bee industry would be affected. Do bees really matter? Of course they matter. They are part of the food chain and pollination. That is being put at risk, and we ought not to allow it to happen. I am confident that the Minister will take this on board and give us the answers that we want to hear. We want the people who look after and keep bees to be reassured. That is the message that I want to get across, and I am sure that we can do that this morning.
9.2 am
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, on a day when many bees are already pollinating top-fruit crops across England and, indeed, the UK. I also wish to express concern about the number of inspectors that DEFRA will employ this season and in seasons to come, as that seems to be the main concern of the beekeepers of this country.
Although there may be more than 30,000 beekeepers in England—perhaps as many as 33,000—commercial beekeeping is probably restricted to about 300. Nevertheless, it is a significant industry. Indeed, the honey that is produced in this country is all top quality. Some imported honey is of lesser quality, but our honey is sought after by honey aficionados who value quality.
I would like to ask the Minister several questions about the statutory instrument. First, will he be the bee Minister or even the bee tsar for England?
Bill Wiggin: The queen bee.
Mr. Williams: The queen bee.
Will he undertake to ensure that there is co-operation on bee health among the devolved nations? Bees travel around the country, and they and their owners know no borders. Who will take responsibility if there is an outbreak of disease in a devolved nation but the owner lives in England, and will the bee inspector report to the Minister in the devolved nation or to the DEFRA Minister?
There are also bee movements across the European Union. Can the Minister assure us about bee health across the European Union, particularly in the new accession countries? Do they have in place the same regulatory framework as we have in this country?
There are great concerns about the fact that varroa is no longer to be a notifiable disease. Those concerns are not only for domesticated bees; they are also for wild bees. As I understand it, wild bees have been almost eliminated across this country. The Minister shakes his head, but my information is that when colonies get re-established they survive for a short period but do not necessarily survive for more than one or two seasons. That creates a considerable concern in respect of biodiversity. One of the great pleasures of my life is to see the bees on the flowers late into autumn, particularly on ivy. That gives a feeling of autumn, which is a great pleasure. The fact that there are no longer wild bees about is a great loss to the countryside.
There is concern also that many of the chemicals that have been used for foul brood are losing their effectiveness, and the pest has become resistant to it. What information does the Minister have about that? I know that there has been a suggestion that we use biological control in respect of some of these diseases. Has there been any advance in that technology? The order mentions the species Bombus, which I take to be the bumble-bee. What is the purpose—commercial or otherwise—of the importation into this country of the species of bees mentioned? Can the Minister tell us how many of these species have been imported in recent years, and for what purpose they are imported? That would be of interest to us.
As I understand it, in a risk analysis DEFRA ruled out the importance of Kashmir bee virus, which was once thought to be a big problem, especially in conjunction with varroa. However, I have no doubt that in past times it ruled out varroa as a serious problem, so will the Minister keep an eye on Kashmir bee virus, particularly as it is endemic in New Zealand and a number of our beekeepers import queen bees from New Zealand to make up for their colonies and hives destroyed by varroa?
The Minister has a number of questions to be getting on with, and I am sure we will cover a lot more ground before the end of our consideration of this order.
9.8 am
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): My comments will be brief, as I am mindful that Members have other business to attend to. As somebody who had honey on his toast this morning, I can vouch for the fact—
Mr. Hoyle: Was it a roll with honey?
Mr. Vara: It was British honey. Therefore, I can vouch that I value the importance of honey and bees to the food chain.
May I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams)? I ask the Minister to address the issue of securing a proper framework within the European Union to ensure that the latest legislation will be implemented and adequately safeguarded in all EU countries. As we have heard, bees travel very fast and across borders, so it is important that Britain is not the only country that implements this legislation. It must be effectively put in place and monitored in other countries as well.
There are about 300 commercial beekeepers in Britain. Bearing in mind the difficulties that the farming industry generally is having, does the Minister propose to encourage more commercial beekeeping, with a view to allowing farmers to consider diversifying into this area?
9.9 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The debate has strayed far away from the specific proposals in the order, and has swarmed around the general state of the bee industry. However, with your indulgence, Mr. Illsley, I shall endeavour to respond to the points and questions raised on the general state of the industry. In doing so, I shall assume that there is general agreement in favour of the order, which reflects the flexibility that the legislative framework has to show in response to new threats and new diseases. The order gives that flexibility; as has been pointed out, it changes our approach to diseases such as varroa. It raises our level of vigilance in responding to new diseases that, yes, could be far more serious to our industry in future.
I am pleased that there is overall consensus on how we are adapting to that changing environment.
Bill Wiggin: The Minister mentioned varroa. In the UK, there are about 274,000 hives. What percentage became infected with varroa before the decision to declare the disease endemic was taken?
Mr. Bradshaw: My information is that varroa affects almost every hive in the country; that, in this context, is the definition of “endemic”. That is why we have taken the decision. For about the past 10 years, most beekeepers have not routinely reported varroa; that is why we are, as it were, denotifying it, as the EU as a whole has already done.
I am not the bee Minister; I was not before and am not now—more’s the pity, as the issues are interesting and important. I imagine that the responsibility will pass from my noble Friend Lord Bach, who did an excellent job as bee Minister, to his successor Lord Rooker. However, it falls to me to answer this debate in the House of Commons.
I shall answer some of the questions on the general state of our bee and honey industry. Members will be pleased to hear that beekeeping businesses in this country grow by about 10 per cent. a year; that is a good indication of the overall state of our bee and honey industry. The British Beekeepers Association, which represents the smaller-scale producers, is on record as saying that 2005 was one of its best years for some time. In spite of all its challenges and difficulties, the bee and honey industry in this country is in very good shape and, as hon. Members have acknowledged, it produces a very good product.
In response to the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), I should say that parallel orders are being laid in Scotland and Wales to change the framework that we are talking about. On funding and the level of personnel among bee inspectors, the number of inspectors has not changed for a number of years. There is no intention or plan to change that, nor has the funding changed. However, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the guarantees that he seeks—and I suspect that his party’s Treasury spokesman could not do so either.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): My hon. Friend says that no additional costs are associated with this order, and that is made explicit in the regulatory impact assessment. Does he agree that extra costs should be attributed to research, and that the Government are a tiny bit complacent in not increasing investment in research on this important issue?
Mr. Bradshaw: We are spending considerable sums on research but all such things are kept under review. We have just completed important research on a possible and very promising biological treatment for varroa. At the moment, we are discussing with the commercial sector whether we can commercialise that. Like all Government spending, our science budget is under review and subject to competing pressures all the time. However, £200,000 in this financial year is not a small sum for the Government to spend on such research. I reassure Members on funding and staffing.
Bill Wiggin: I am sorry to intervene at this point, but I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because he has not given us the reassurance on funding that he wanted to give. We know that the Government’s intention was to cut £250,000 from the bee budget, and the Minister has said that that is not likely to disappear as a Government consideration. The Government have taken varroa off the list of notifiable diseases, so they might argue in the near future that there is less for the national bee unit to do. That is not at all what we want to hear; we want to know that the defence of our beekeepers through the inspection regime is secure, and the Minister has not given us that assurance. Perhaps he will take the opportunity to do so now.
Mr. Bradshaw: No, what the hon. Gentleman asked me to do was to give a cast-iron guarantee, indefinitely, that there will be no change in funding. He knows that I cannot do that; he would not do it—certainly not if he spoke to his party’s Treasury spokesman. There are no plans to cut funding or staffing levels at the national bee unit, but of course our bee disease control policy is always under review. We need to move priority and resources to where they should be concentrated. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to give a guarantee that he himself would not give, particularly not if he had spoken to his Treasury spokesman.
Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to comment. The trend and the tendency of the Government is to cut back on spending on environmental matters generally. There was a huge debate on the closure of four Centre for Ecology and Hydrology centres across the country, with a view to saving £45 million. That gives a general indication of where the Government are coming from on ecological and environmental matters. With that in mind, I find it difficult to—
The Chairman: Order. I caution the hon. Gentleman that he is straying far from the order before us, but if he wants to bring his point to a conclusion, he may.
Mr. Vara: I will. I am grateful for that, Mr. Illsley. My point is simply that the trend is to move away from funding, and therefore I find it a little difficult to be convinced by the Minister’s arguments that there will not be cutbacks in the area that we are discussing, too.
Mr. Bradshaw: Well, the hon. Gentleman is wrong as usual. This Government have vastly increased the budget for our Department, I am pleased to say. We have increased, year on year, our spending on a whole range of environmental issues—spending that his party has voted against in every single Budget. We will not take lessons on spending from him. When he can come back from his shadow Treasury spokesman with a promise to match the DEFRA budget, I will be pleased to listen to what he has to say.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Bee Diseases and Pests Control (England) Order 2006 (S.I. 2006, No. 342).
Committee rose at eighteen minutes past Nine o’clock.

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