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The Secretary of State must recognise that it is unusual for a Select Committee in which his own side has a preponderance—I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) is not in his
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place—actually to call for the resignation of the then Secretary of State when dealing with a report. By then she had become Foreign Secretary, but that recommendation was not lightly made. It was made after careful and due deliberation. The Committee said—I hope that the Secretary of State has read the report—that there had been a clear failure of political leadership, not only in the initial decision to introduce a complex hybrid scheme, but in the subsequent follow-through. Indeed, the Minister of State said in evidence to the Committee that the Department did not follow it through. The decision was criticised on all sides as the wrong decision—it was not only the fault of the civil servants, and Ministers should not hide behind the human shield of civil servants who cannot answer for themselves—and it was a failure of political leadership. It was a criminal act of neglect. What should the people of the countryside think when they hear the Secretary of State say to the House today that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with his Department, even though the Select Committee—with a preponderance of Labour Members—told the then Secretary of State that she should consider her position and that there had been a failure of political leadership?

Let us consider other decisions, such as the Department’s decision on bovine tuberculosis. In 2005, the strategic review of bovine TB called for a partnership between the farming community and DEFRA and everybody welcomed that. In 2005, I was told in the House by one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors that the time for a decision on bovine TB was very near, but nothing has been done. In 2006, the Minister of State told me that the time was nigh and that, after a three-month consultation, the decision would soon be taken. He said that it was necessary to see whether the statistics, which seemed to suggest a fall in numbers in 2006, were borne out. Since 2006-07, of course, the incidence of bovine TB has risen by 22 per cent. There have been some 2,617 herd incidents. Nothing has been done.

It is not right or credible to say to the farming community that the Government want a partnership with it while they continue to load the cost of the disease through the introduction of tabular valuations, and fail to take the brave decision that is plainly needed to use culling as an instrument of policy. It should not be the sole instrument of policy, or even the main instrument of policy, but it must be an instrument available in the hotspot areas of dense infection, where the balance of risk favours it. But no decision has been taken.

The Secretary of State asks for time. He said as much to the Committee recently. But every Secretary of State before him has asked for the same thing. They have all said that the time for a decision was near, come to the very brink of that decision, and then pulled back. How can the country people whom I represent have confidence that this Secretary of State will listen and take a decision when the two previous Secretaries of State have failed to take that decision although they, too, said that the time was nigh?

I shall give an example. Mr. David Grigg in my constituency has a pedigree herd of the most beautiful and valuable Holstein cows. It has recently been placed
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under bovine TB restrictions and several of his prize breeding animals have been condemned. They have already been slaughtered.

I ask the Secretary of State to look into this case. One animal, a prize-winning cow worth £20,000, is still alive. Her half sister sold for 16,000 guineas just the other day, and she is a most superb example of this country’s breeding stock. If DEFRA slaughters that animal, even though she is not even a conclusive reactor, Mr. Grigg will receive just £1,400 in compensation. Farmers have been told that they must be in partnership with the Government, but how would the Secretary of State feel if he owned an animal like that and then discovered that she was to be taken from him and slaughtered? That is neither fair nor equitable, and it is no wonder that people in the countryside consider DEFRA to be a sardonic joke.

The Pirbright saga is another example, and the Secretary of State and I have already had an exchange about it. To do him credit, he did not seriously deny that it was a clear failure in the system, although I believe that it was, in part at least, a failure of his Department. The drains at the Pirbright facility were known to be dilapidated and due for replacement, but even so the foot and mouth virus escaped. No one inquired whether the drains were able to cope with having live virus flushed down them, or whether the virus would leech into the outside environment.

That was an act of negligence, but the Secretary of State has come to the Dispatch Box to tell the country, and country people, that DEFRA has been acting well, even though at least part of the cost, stress and distress of the latest foot and mouth outbreak can be traced unerringly back to it. He should not feel surprised, therefore, by the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that farmers have a grim and sardonic view of the Department.

However, what happened was not a failure by civil servants, for whom he so warmly and creditably stood up. The failure was caused by the political leadership of two successive Secretaries of State and, unless the right hon. Gentleman listens to what is being said in this debate, there is a danger that he will be the third one to be held responsible. The financial management of the Department has led to £50 million already being overdue—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I almost feel sorry to be anticlimactic, but I call Mr. Richard Benyon.

9.32 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I feel entirely anticlimactic, Mr. Deputy Speaker, after the fantastic oratory of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox). However, before I say any more, I must refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Secretary of State recently wrote to every farmer in the country. I was very grateful to receive that letter and to hear of his commitment to British farming, but he will understand from what has been said in the debate by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, and by my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss)
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and for East Devon (Mr. Swire), that many farmers will be looking to him for action rather than warm words.

The reality of British agriculture is represented not by barley barons driving Range Rovers, but by the ashen-faced people we saw every night on our televisions during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. They work an 80-hour week and take home less than the minimum wage, but at the time they were watching their life’s work go up in flames. They have been beaten down by those who should have been helping them but who have too often placed the hand of regulation on their shoulders. That regulatory imposition has been backed up by incompetence and a lack of understanding.

During the latest outbreak, one of my constituents telephoned the DEFRA office to ask what he should do with the 1,400 lambs that he had to move that week. He was asked, “Well, haven’t you got any hay for them?” That shows how little understanding there is in the Department of the dynamics of stock farming. If I have time, I shall return to that later in my contribution.

I want to move the debate slightly away from farming and talk about another of DEFRA’s responsibilities—rural communities—to show the impact on them of the shambles in the Department’s finances. I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the work of rural community councils, which are organised by counties and funded in part by DEFRA. They lobby local authorities on behalf of rural communities and support community organisations in rural areas. In my area, for example, RCCs assist with parish planning—a wonderful concept that has done much for local governance and widening its base.

The councils target help for disadvantaged people in rural areas. They support and promote social enterprises. In a small way, they help village halls become sustainable organisations by encouraging more involvement from local people. They ensure that there is sensible working between Government agencies, primary care trusts, fire authorities and other bodies; they act as the rural conscience of those organisations and make them work for rural as well as urban people. RCCs help with education, learning and skills training for people in rural areas. They run projects for disaffected young people, and assist in drug prevention schemes and other worthy initiatives.

DEFRA’s funding for those organisations is being cut and, in many cases, axed. Today, I heard that a number of RCCs will not be able to continue in their entirety— [ Interruption. ] I shall be interested to hear what the Minister for the Environment says in the wind-ups. In Berkshire, the comparatively paltry sum of £117,000 will be axed next year. That money levers nearly £1 million into rural communities in constituencies such as mine.

Tomorrow, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), will attend a 21st century village conference in Westminster. He will have to tell the RCCs that will be represented there why DEFRA is cutting funding for rural communities when they desperately need the help that I have just described. It is yet another example of how the problems of DEFRA’s current financial status affect people in real life.

The Institute for Animal Health—the sister organisation to Pirbright—is in Compton in my constituency. We
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live in a world where we face avian influenza and foot and mouth disease. Bovine tuberculosis is a constant blight on the rural farming community and now we face the bluetongue virus. Those institutes are in the front line in the battle against those organisms.

I have talked to past and present scientists at Compton, and they express real anger because in some circles they are held up as the whipping boys for some of the problems—possibly the big problem—at Pirbright. For a long time, they have been telling the Government that their methodology for attacking those diseases is world renowned, yet the Government will not let them operate that methodology, which is to examine the entire biology of the pathogens. It is a complicated, expensive and lengthy process and too often the Government ask the scientists to narrow their field of investigation and look only at particular elements. The scientists say that the Government are asking them for a quick-fix solution, which it is impossible for them to provide.

At a time when diseases are affecting rural communities as never before, funding for those crucial organisations has been reduced from £7.5 million in 2001 to £3.9 million—by more than half in real terms. I hope that the Secretary of State can understand the real anger of some scientists.

I conclude by making an impassioned plea. I cannot speak with the vigour and eloquence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, but I shall speak up to the best of my ability for mixed farming and stock farming in Britain. I have the honour and privilege to represent one of the most beautiful parts of the south of England: the Berkshire downs. I have known the Berkshire downs for all of my 47 years and I still find them hauntingly beautiful.

We have heard excellent contributions from Members talking about biodiversity. My worry is that, although the Berkshire downs may still be beautiful, they are no longer a centre of mixed farming, as they were just a few years ago. I can count the number of pig farmers in the Berkshire downs on the fingers of one hand. When it comes to the number of stock and dairy farmers, I am one of the few that remain in that part of Berkshire. The effect of that is being felt when it comes to biodiversity and the whole rural community. That is not something that can be reversed. In the central south of England, and many other parts of the country, we are losing the infrastructure that supports stock farming. We are losing marts. I am running out of time, but I hope that the Minister will address those points when he winds up.

9.40 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): One thing that this debate has achieved is to remind us of the great breadth of DEFRA’s responsibilities: the environment, food and rural affairs. Unfortunately, farming is not mentioned in the title, and yet it is essential to so many of the Department’s activities. In that context, I remind the House of the interest I have declared in the register.

I want to start by referring to some of the Secretary of State’s remarks. There is no contradiction between
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recognising—rightly—the expertise, knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of individual members of his staff, and our overall concerns about the lack of co-ordination, direction and management that have given rise to the perception, which so many of my hon. Friends have referred to, that the Department is, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said, not fit for purpose.

I thought at one stage in the Secretary of State’s litany of what he claimed as successes that he was going to claim credit for the non-flooding of eastern England, following the surge that did not quite happen a few weeks ago. I can just remember the 1953 floods—I was a very small child living on the Suffolk coast—and they were horrendous. However, we should not do anything other than thank goodness that they were not repeated. The Department cannot take the credit—or criticism—because thankfully the defences and the plans were not properly tested.

I also want to refer briefly to foot and mouth. We have already had an Opposition day debate on that subject so I do not intend to spend a great deal of time on it. In response to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), in that debate I said that of course the Government had learned the lessons of 2001. God forbid that they had not, because, as he and others have said, it is almost impossible to imagine the situation being any worse than it was at that time.

The Secretary of State made no reference to the £50 million overspend on administration, which the permanent secretary described to the Select Committee a week or so ago. When it comes to cutting the number of staff, the Secretary of State referred to meeting the head-count targets, but said nothing to explain why those staff were taken on in the first place if they are supernumerary to requirements. If they are required, why are we getting rid of them? Most importantly, having to make in-year cuts demonstrates the incompetence of management. Invariably, those cuts can be met only by cutting expenditure at the front line, not letting contracts that have not yet been let, and not carrying out front-line functions, because we all know that cutting staff does not save money in the year that one does it, because of all the associated costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) made it absolutely clear that the perception of DEFRA on the ground in farming is very different from that which the Secretary of State described to the House. They both described cases in their constituencies where incompetence and bureaucracy got in the way of the farmers going about their business.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), for whom I have a lot of respect when it comes to environmental issues, rightly talked about the importance of biodiversity; I agree with a great deal of what she said. I thought that she had to scrape the barrel to find a criticism to make of the previous Conservative Government. It was that Government who introduced the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—a major trail-blazing piece of legislation on which much legislation has recently been based. That Government also introduced environmentally sensitive areas, and the pilot environmental stewardship schemes
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on which the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) built when he took up ministerial responsibilities.

Mr. Morley indicated assent.

Mr. Paice: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges that. I noticed that the hon. Member for Bridgend made some pretty subtle criticisms of funding cuts and their impact on biodiversity.

Hon. Members raised the issue of tuberculosis. We could spend a whole debate on that subject. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon said, we have had 10 years of virtually no progress. More than £500 million has been spent and some 160,000 cattle have been slaughtered, yet there was no strategy. There have been lots of reviews and discussions, and a series of piecemeal measures.

The right hon. Member for Scunthorpe and others said that we must be guided by science. Of course we must, but it is hard to be guided by science when the scientists cannot agree. He knows full well when he supports Professor Bourne that Professor King said something completely different. Sometimes Ministers have to grasp the nettle and make a tough decision. They have to decide what scientific evidence they accept and go with it. They need to have the courage of their convictions.

Mr. Morley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: No, I am sorry. I cannot give way because I do not have any overspill time, unless the Minister for the Environment plans to give it to me.

The issue of the single farm payment has been widely discussed. The Secretary of State apologised, but ignored the damning report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The problems largely arose because the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), completely ignored the warning, given by people across the industry and in the House, that the scheme was destined for disaster. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) reminded us, the problem was partly caused by extending subsidy to many people who had not previously received it, which seems a funny way of setting about weaning people off subsidy.

Members including the Secretary of State talked about cost-sharing. The Government propose saving £120 million in three years through cost-sharing. That starts next April, but the consultation on how that will work has not even taken place yet. Let us get a few things clear: Ministers have agreed with the National Farmers Union and others that the current foot and mouth outbreak and bluetongue have cost the industry more than £100 million—and the figure is rising. So far the industry has been given £12.5 million in a Government package. According to the permanent secretary, the problems have cost the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs £32 million. They have cost the industry more than twice what they have cost DEFRA, so there already is cost-sharing when it comes to disease control. Is that not true cost-sharing? How can the industry find another £40 million, as the Government require?

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More importantly, the Government need to put their house in order. We have heard about Pirbright and the causes of the outbreak of foot and mouth. What about illegal meat imports to this country, which are estimated at 12,000 tonnes a year? According to the latest figures, only one in every 7,400 seizures results in prosecution. That is an open door to smugglers, and it is another reason why the industry cannot be expected to share the costs until the Government get to grips with their responsibilities.

There is also the issue of the burden of regulation. Last year, DEFRA put forward more regulations than in any year since its inception. Tonight we are being asked to congratulate it. Should we congratulate it on the ever increasing number of regulations that it produces? In the past six months, it has consulted on 37 new regulations. On 25 October, the Secretary of State said in the House, on climate change, that he was entering a “genuine consultation”, which prompts the question: how many of the other 37 were not genuine?

In the countryside, as others have said, DEFRA has become a byword for incompetence. In 2005, the Government said that food security was not a policy objective. The Department has presided over an industry in collapse. It has done nothing but trot out warm words. Even the Minister of State, Lord Rooker, whose candour initially won the hearts of the farmers, has failed to achieve change. The whole Department seems to have lost sight of the need to help or encourage the industry, but instead wants to control and regulate it, as others have said.

The Government need to understand that regulation is the enemy of enterprise. When will they understand that if the industry continues to contract, it will not be there when it is needed? If shortages continue as a result of climate change, population growth and prosperity, we will need that food. This debate, and especially the Government amendment, have highlighted the utter indifference and complacency that DEFRA shows to rural areas. However many Secretaries of State, however many future Foreign Secretaries, the chaos under them is the same. None has ever run a business; nobody seems prepared to take responsibility; nobody cares. If DEFRA were a company, it would have long since folded. It is time for a change. I commend the motion to the House.

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