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My second example is Mr. Wiggington, who runs S&T Poultry near Wisbech. He breeds chicks for stock improvement for poultry farmers. He was trying to
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export more than 600 chicks to Jersey, which was happy to accept imports as long as the chicks had been reared outside avian flu designated areas. Mr. Wiggington applied for his licence at the Bury St. Edmunds DEFRA office. However, it took seven days for the information from the Jersey authorities to go from the DEFRA office in Page street to the Bury St. Edmunds office via, it seems, the Lincoln office. Despite repeated calls from both Mr. Wiggington and his potential customers, nothing seemed to be moving.

My office phoned and e-mailed DEFRA in Lincoln and within an hour that office had instructed the Bury St. Edmunds office that the licence would be signed. By this time, it was only a day before the chicks were scheduled to be shipped, so Mr. Wiggington had to take the morning off to drive to Bury St. Edmunds to collect the original licence in person, because DEFRA said that a photo or faxed copy was not acceptable for an export licence.

Had the paperwork not been cleared at the last minute, despite it being in the system for a week, Mr. Wiggington would have had to destroy a second batch of chicks in a month. He has also reported to me losses of more than £1,000 in value as a result of DEFRA mismanagement and poor administration in the past year. This includes an incident where DEFRA put a stamp on a letter that enclosed licences, instead of franking it. That meant that the letter did not arrive, and as the birds could not be shipped, they had to be destroyed. The next week Mr. Wiggington had to go and collect the documents himself from the post office and pay for the postage.

Because of poor instructions from DEFRA, Mr. Wiggington is still waiting for £2,500 worth of grant aid for going organic. He followed the instructions to the letter, only to be told subsequently that his application was unacceptable. Now he has been told that he will have to wait a minimum of six months for the payment as a result of an error that originated with DEFRA.

My final example involves Mr. Charles Horrell who farms at Pode Hole farm at Thorney near Peterborough. He runs a pedigree cattle and sheep farm. When he was placed in the bluetongue control zone around Peterborough, those pedigree cattle and sheep, which he would normally have sold for breeding for £50,000 in total, would have had to go to slaughter in a poor market situation and would have been worth only about £10,000. We phoned DEFRA on his behalf and asked what Mr. Horrell’s options were, now that he was in the control zone. However, nobody at the DEFRA office knew, so we wrote to Lord Rooker. Finally, we got a response from him simply saying:

So we followed that up and phoned farming organisations, including the National Farmers Union, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and the Meat and Livestock Commission. Not one had any advice for farmers on creating contingency plans or new business strategies to counter the onset of disease. It appears that not only has DEFRA offloaded on to unions, charities and advisory groups the problems of
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responding at farm business level to bluetongue and foot and mouth, but it has not had the decency to tell them that it has done so.

Another natural hazard that has tested DEFRA in the past year is flooding. As the effects of global warming take hold on the environment and flood risk from tidal surges, higher sea levels and greater storms grows, DEFRA has abrogated its responsibility for flood protection by offloading those problems on to the Environment Agency. The increase in the money going towards flood protection seems to be a positive step, but it coincides with the addition of the expensive burden of coastal flooding to the Environment Agency’s responsibilities. Those involved in flood protection in the fens have told me that they are concerned that the agency will be tempted to divert some of the extra funds to its own priorities—which, of course, include coastal flood prevention. If that is the case, the increase will not translate into extra security for people in Sheffield, Gloucester or Tewkesbury.

The culture of DEFRA has changed since the old MAFF days—certainly as far as agriculture is concerned. The Department’s job was to support the farming industry and the rural community, but it has become one that seems to care little about rural issues and the rural economy and just wants to control and regulate that economy out of existence. Food prices are already increasing at a frightening rate. Do not look to the supermarkets to come to our aid; they are already paring farm-gate prices to the bone. It is time that the Government returned to their age-old primary responsibility of ensuring the security of our food supplies.

8.41 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) defined DEFRA as a Department dealing with plant and animal diseases and climate change; I like to think that it is called the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because deep within it is the recognition, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) referred, that without the balance of biodiversity within the natural environment there is no food for the world to eat, and there will be devastation for rural communities.

I believe in the TANSTAAFL principle, which stands for, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” It was created in the 1970s to recognise the impact of failing to protect and value our natural habitats and their biodiversity, and to place them in the only framework that we seem to understand—that of money.

The world is losing biodiversity at an increasing rate as a result of human activity. In the United Kingdom, 44 per cent. of moths and 71 per cent. of butterflies are declining, mirroring parallel declines in common bird species such as the ptarmigan, the skylark, the grey partridge and, in some areas, the common sparrow.

Across the world, changes in biodiversity due to human activity have happened more rapidly in the past 50 years than at any other time in human history. The many species of plants, insects and animals that live in a diverse range of habitats give us the sense of the place where we live, and act as an incentive to visit other
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areas, communities and habitats. Environmental tourism is the fastest-growing sector of tourism. Environmental protection bodies form a rapidly growing sector to which people are giving their time, energy and commitment. There is a recognition that biodiversity brings benefits to local communities; it benefits health, improves local economies, maintains environmental quality and ecosystem services and provides recreation and education resources for people of all ages.

Securing a healthy, resilient, productive and natural environment is a key DEFRA priority. It is enshrined in the Government’s natural environment public service agreement to secure a healthy natural environment for today and the future. Biodiversity is an essential component of that.

There is a recognition among biodiversity and wildlife groups of the Labour Government’s commitment to biodiversity, through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, the Commons Act 2006, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005—matters that the parties opposite neglected. Those measures demonstrate the Government’s commitment to the natural environment.

There is concern that, in the bright heat of climate change recognition, the need to track and protect biodiversity is perhaps being put on the back burner and facing policy neglect and financial cuts, as the focus moves to energy conservation and generation rather than to monitoring adaptation and habitat loss. I urge DEFRA to give the latter greater protection and priority.

United Kingdom biodiversity action planning helps to co-ordinate work nationally and locally by identifying priorities for action and setting targets for the recovery of habitats and species. That critical planning measure is vital to ensure that species and habitat information is collected and collated. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 was introduced to protect, conserve and enhance the country’s landscapes and support rural communities. The Act established Natural England, which is responsible for championing and integrating management of the environment, nature conservation, biodiversity, landscape, access and recreation.

There are concerns that funding cuts to Natural England will affect many big and small non-governmental organisations, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to wildlife trusts and bat, badger, moth and butterfly conservation bodies, which rely on seedcorn funding for their survival. Those organisations feed in the raw data from their army of volunteers throughout the UK, who track habitat and biodiversity loss. Without that information, the UK biodiversity action plan—BAP, which targets the recovery of some of our most threatened species and habitats in the terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments, with 10 to 15 year goals—will fail. I would welcome a commitment to ensuring that those organisations are supported and to recognising their importance.

Each of the four countries of the UK has produced country strategies for biodiversity. The 24 biodiversity partnerships in Wales have done an enormous amount of work to prepare and implement local plans that support the UK BAP. Local biodiversity action plans in Wales comprise a range of successful projects that inspire new partners to enter that vital aspect of
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planning. Partners include the tourism and business sectors. The projects contribute to progress and acknowledge everyone’s responsibility for biodiversity and habitat protection, so that it is not perceived as a matter for only the farming community.

More than 72 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest are now in a favourable condition, which represents a tremendous improvement in the past few years. That improvement was targeted and brought about by the Labour Government. The Government are on track to meet the 95 per cent. target by 2010.

I have arranged a moth recording night in the Palace in each of the past two years—this year, it is supported by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock)—to show that there is wildlife even in this most sterile of places. Butterflies are recognised as indicators of a healthy environment and should be recognised as indicators of the effectiveness of the Government’s land-use policy. In October, DEFRA launched a new framework called “Conserving Biodiversity—The UK Approach”, which provides a more holistic approach recognising the interconnectedness between living things, their environment and the services they provide.

It is easy to think that biodiversity is unimportant—that it has a low level of responsibility in improving the quality of life in this country—yet insect pollination of crops alone brings £172 million a year into this country. We neglect biodiversity and our habitat at our peril. If we want to eat and if we want to protect our rural communities, we have to tackle these issues. I am proud to be part of a Labour Government who are introducing a marine Bill; I am proud of the role that DEFRA has played in the International Whaling Commission.

Martin Horwood: I think that the hon. Lady may mean the draft marine Bill, as we did not have a Bill in the Queen’s Speech this year despite the fact that it has had all-party support for two years.

Mrs. Moon: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Let me just say that this Government have been committed to introducing a marine Bill, which no other Government have done, and I am particularly proud of that.

I recognise that there have been problems at DEFRA—no one would deny that. What disturbs me, however, is the total lack of recognition of how important a role it has played in protecting the natural habitats of this country and how important it has been in ensuring that the huge army of people involved in and committed to habitat and species protection receive the support that they need. Only this Labour Government have taken that on board and given their commitment to the founding of DEFRA, a Department with the word “Environment” first in its name.

8.51 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). She talked about free lunches. I seem to remember that on a recent Inter-Parliamentary Union trip to Albania she and I had a lot of very long free lunches, but I am not sure as yet what the payback has been. I share her
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concern about biodiversity, as surely we all do. The previous Conservative Government had an extremely good record in introducing legislation to help to protect this country’s environment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) played a leading part in that.

It is impossible to measure the effort that a Government make by the amount of legislation that they pass. This Government have passed a vast volume of legislation on the countryside that has placed considerable burdens on many in the farming community, as well as wasting a lot of time. Natural England, or English Nature as it was then, spent a great deal of time chasing the old socialist policy of right to roam and spent untold millions that could have been better invested in a proper footpath network than in covering the countryside with areas with the right to roam. That is certainly the case in my constituency, which has previously been roamed on quite happily by local people. All that we have had is a lot of gates put up with labels on them, and nobody much uses the facility anyway. That was a wasted opportunity.

Martin Horwood: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the right to roam has been supported by many more people than socialists.

Mr. Atkinson: I take that point.

One cannot measure a Government’s performance, or the performance of a Ministry such as DEFRA, simply on the volume of legislation—what is important is how effective it is. We must remember that 80 per cent. of our countryside is managed by British farmers.

I would like to lay to rest the impression given by the Secretary of State and by the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) that Conservative Members are somehow attacking the ordinary individual DEFRA official. [Hon. Members: “You are!”] We are not doing that. When my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) mentioned the matter, he was quoting a farmer. It must be understood that the interface between the Government—DEFRA—and the farming industry is the official on the ground, who unfortunately, as DEFRA’s representative pitching up at the farm gate, takes on the chin the farmer’s anger about over-regulation and disasters such as the Rural Payments Agency and the foot and mouth epidemic. They are only doing their master’s bidding. The actual fiasco of the Rural Payments Agency was nothing to do with DEFRA officials; it went straight to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, who decided, contrary to the advice of the European Union, most farming unions and others in this country, to opt for a system that mixed historic and land-based elements. In Wales and Scotland they opted for the historic one, which is why farmers in Wales and Scotland are receiving payments today.

Mr. Morley: I respect the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of agriculture, but he knows that a strong body of opinion in the farming community supported the system DEFRA put in place. How would he justify, for example, putting people who had always grown vegetables and crops that were unsupported, who never had subsidies,
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into a system that would lock them out of that for ever, while ensuring that people who always had such subsidies—in some cases, people who did not compete in the marketplace as other farmers did—had that advantage built in for ever? Would he have justified that?

Mr. Atkinson: I take the point, and I respect the right hon. Gentleman because he was in the Department for a very long time. Of course, for many farmers there was an advantage in going to the land-based system, but the advice made it quite clear that it would be an administrative nightmare, and it was.

Mr. Morley indicated dissent.

Mr. Atkinson: Well, for a start, as well as the system bringing in sections such as horticulture that had not been covered previously, which could have been anticipated, no one realised that all of a sudden, nearly 50,000 other so-called farmers would come on the scene who had never even registered for the integrated administration and control scheme.

People who had bought farmhouses when farms were broken up had five, six or 10 acres of land, and they thought, “Hey, this’ll be rather good. We’ll claim some single farm payment for our pony paddock.” They then boasted in the local pub, “I received £54 in subsidy payment.” The system was overwhelmed, which is why serious, professional farmers suffered so much. In future negotiations, I hope that there will be a minimum size or standard to ensure that such people are not liable to receive the single farm payment.

The serious result of the chaos over the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment was that for over two years it distracted farmers from sitting down and doing what they should have been doing. Because of the delays, farmers reached a point of desperation. They were borrowing money left, right and centre from banks and owed money to their suppliers. For the past two years, they have essentially concentrated on simply keeping their heads above water. They should have been doing what they had been advised to do: using the single farm payment to make their farming enterprises profitable, instead of relying on subsidy.

The idea was that a farming enterprise should run profitably on its activities, and that the single farm payment would be money for investment and possibly profit. Farmers have not been able to do that, and as a consequence many farms and farmers in the livestock sector are running at a loss. If they properly quantified their labour, which a lot of them do not do, they would find that their losses were quite substantial.

I got some figures recently—I do not know whether the Secretary of State has seen them—from the English Beef and Lamb Executive, which has been doing research into the cost of production of livestock. For example, the loss on the average England lowland suckler herd in 2005-06 was £351 per beast. In 2006-07, that figure went down to just under £300. Right through the beef industry, the losses are about the same. The losses in the sheep sector were equivalent—a loss of nearly £50 per ewe in 2005, and a £34 loss per ewe in 2006-07. The Secretary of State can see that
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there is a tremendous amount to do if we are to ensure that such farming enterprises are properly profitable. That is why we should encourage schemes such as the EBLEX better return scheme so that livestock farmers get a better result.

The disasters of foot and mouth and bluetongue came at the worst possible time, which is sad because 2007 was shaping up to be not a bad year for the livestock industry. That went down the pan immediately, particularly when the export of sheep stopped and there was a huge overhang on the market. However, the underlying trend is good because the quantities of beef and lamb being eaten in this country are up. It is a pity that farmers could not cash in on that by getting the better prices that they were anticipating at the start of the season. There is some reason to be optimistic, certainly in parts of the livestock sector. Cereal farmers are also not unhappy, but pig farmers, poultry farmers and game rearers are desperately unhappy about what has happened.

What the industry needs from DEFRA are some positive decisions on a number of hugely important outstanding issues. The first, which has been mentioned, is the issue of TB, which needs to be resolved. That is a matter of considerable urgency that has been around for at least 10 years—

Mr. Morley: Longer.

Mr. Atkinson: Indeed, longer than 10 years. Unfortunately, the chief scientific adviser supported a cull. A decision must now be taken. I appreciate that the decision is difficult, but it needs to be taken quite soon.

Perhaps more controversially, a proper decision must be taken on genetically modified crops. Possibly alone on this side of the Chamber, I favour the planting of GM crops in this country, because I see them as an important new development in agriculture that will go a long way towards feeding people throughout the world with better and healthier food. We have to make that decision. The threat if we do not make that decision is that the livestock industry will gradually migrate abroad, because GM feed prices will be much lower than feed prices in the UK. That will pose a threat to the viability of our livestock industry. We will increasingly import meat more cheaply across the tariff boundaries from South America and countries in other areas.

Those are the big issues that DEFRA needs to address. The British farming industry wants not a Ministry dogged with endless disasters, but a Ministry that can support farmers and stick up for them in an ever-changing world.

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