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18 Mar 2008 : Column 195WH—continued

My right hon. and hon. Friends made cogent points about the dangers at local level if people are not consulted adequately on the detail of the changes. I do not think that they expect me to enter into the detail of those local decisions, because the whole point of IRMPs and the RRO is to allow local communities, authorities and fire and rescue services to make the decisions. From
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what the hon. Member for Peterborough said, it struck me that the Conservative party is not in favour of IRMPs and the RRO—measures that have reduced the number of fire deaths, ensured that the fire service has had far more time to carry out preventive work in local communities and, with funding from my Department, enabled more than 1 million smoke alarms to be placed in people’s homes. I am therefore surprised by his apparent stance.

My right hon. and hon. Friends made points about local changes proposed by the local fire and rescue authority, which has a different opinion, as would be expected. As my right hon. Friend explained, the chief fire officer told him that he feels, based on independent reports, that the changes would result in better local provision. It is not my duty to make the case for the local fire and rescue authority; it must do that to convince local people. I appreciate that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole said, it has extended its consultation period to the end of this month. The fact that local Members of Parliament have been engaged with that process, and have had an opportunity to raise their concerns, is important. I hope that all factors are taken into consideration when those local decisions are made in the coming weeks.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned FSEC and the criteria used. It is important to get across the fact that FSEC is merely a tool created in 2004 and is not binding on local authorities, which can find their own methodologies, if they have their own views on how decisions should be made locally. I hope that I have made that clear. Furthermore, I can tell the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who made comments about the retained duty service with which I agree, that our retained firefighters provide a very valuable service to our country. However, the Government need to do more to support their recruitment and I am very keen to do more with their employers to ensure that they feel valued for allowing retained duty staff to serve their local communities.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Peterborough also mentioned—this was a slight distraction—the FiReControl project, which will deliver further savings for fire and rescue authorities on their control rooms to the tune of about 25 per cent. It will also provide the best technological solution that this country has ever had. Last week, I visited a similar version up and running in Sweden. Ours will provide an even better technological solution and service, ensuring that it protects and saves people’s lives and provides our firefighters with the best system that we have ever had. That is probably part of the reason why colleagues of the hon. Member for Peterborough, such as Conservative Councillors Jerry Wilmott and Pete Roffey, and the chair of the Local Government Association’s fire committee, Councillor Les Byron, are doing such sterling work in helping to support the project and to deliver it across the country. They are mature enough to accept that that will make a real difference and save people’s lives.

Mr. Jackson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall not. The hon. Gentleman has had his say.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned the fact that her constituency has a significant amount of coast line, which, along with poverty and the ability to raise council tax, is one of the measures used to calculate our formulas. That is one reason why Cleethorpes and the Humberside authority received a 5.8 per cent. increase this year as well as likely above-inflation increases for years 2 and 3 of the settlement. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole talked about the changes not being finance driven, which probably came as something of a disappointment to the hon. Member for Peterborough and, perhaps the hon. Member for North Cornwall, although I thought that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden—a local Member—was far more mature in his approach.

Mr. Jackson: I am delighted that the Minister is rising above party politics. If things are so wonderful in the FiReControl project, why has he failed to persuade virtually all the local councillors and authorities and other key stakeholders in his own constituency that it is right?

Mr. Dhanda: Obviously the hon. Gentleman has not been following events very closely. If he had, he would be aware that last week the Conservatives on Gloucestershire county council put out a press release saying that they would join the regional management board on the project. Actually, the local authority has been working very closely on the project for a significant period and the chief fire officer is a member of the test board. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman tried to turn this into a political debate, when it is in fact a very important local debate, which is a point that my right hon. and hon. Friends got across. The points they made in this valuable debate will be listened to in this House and back in their constituencies, and I hope that they will be considered very carefully when the fire authority makes its decisions.

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Bovine Tuberculosis

12.30 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Pope, for calling me in what I consider to be a very important debate about bovine tuberculosis. I am chairman of the all-party group on dairy farmers, one of the largest all-party groups with more than 170 members from all political parties. I am very encouraged by the widespread support for the group, not just from Conservative Members, but from many Labour Members as well.

We have focused until now on the price that farmers are paid for their herds’ milk, and I hope that the Office of Fair Trading takes on board our concerns and takes action against the supermarkets. However, our group’s second most important concern is bovine TB. In Shropshire, the bovine TB situation is absolutely dire. I have visited many farms in my constituency to see at first hand the terrible suffering and misery that the disease has caused. There is a farmer, Mr. Chris Balmer, in the village of Snailbeach, who throughout the year as well as repeatedly not receiving his Rural Payments Agency payments, has had bovine TB on his farm, which almost drove him to bankruptcy.

Many farms in that part of Shropshire, between the Welsh border and the villages of Minsterley and Pontesbury, have seen a massive increase in bovine TB in the past few years. I have a list of questions from one farmer, Mr. Stuart Jones, of Asterley, which I sent today to the Minister and ask her to answer, if she would be so good enough. The situation in Shropshire is such that whereas in 1998 45 animals were slaughtered under bovine TB control measures, in 2006 the figure was 915. On a year-to-year basis there has been massive incremental growth. I say again to the Minister that Shropshire alone has seen the number of slaughtered animals increase from 45 to 915. I want almost to repeat that statistic over and over again, because it is absolutely breathtaking—from 45 cases to 915. It is an outrage that the situation is allowed to continue. In that period, there has been an increase of 500 per cent. in the confirmed reactors in Shropshire, from a total of seven in 1998 to 278 in 2006.

One of the most serious and damning critical assessments of the Prime Minister by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is his description of the Prime Minister as “dithering”. That is a serious allegation, because in politics one cannot afford to dither. People expect one to make decisions: no matter how controversial they are or how many people one is likely to upset, one has to show courage and make tough decisions. I perceive the lack of action that has allowed the massive increase in animal slaughter in Shropshire to be nothing short of dithering by the Government.

The cross-party Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a report on 26 February, which I want to raise with the Minister, because it is an important part of my speech. Lord Rooker referred to the report as “excellent”. It says:

It continues:

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It also asks for the consideration of a limited cull in hotspot areas. Interestingly, the report continues:

The report then makes its most important point:

The Committee’s Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), said:

I know some of the Committee’s members. They include Labour Members who represent cities and towns with very few farmers. Some of those Members are, as I perceive them, on the left wing of the Labour party, but even they are happy to put their names to the report, which is quite damning of the Government’s policy on tackling TB and calls for the important measures to which I have referred to be implemented.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling this vital debate. I serve on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and one of the most interesting things about the report is that it has been welcomed by the Badger Trust on the one hand, and by the National Farmers Union on the other, which is not bad going. Does he agree that one of the most important outcomes of today’s debate would be for the Minister to do what the Secretary of State suggested he might be ready to do when he spoke in Oxford earlier this year, which is accept the report’s recommendations, including those on badger culling?

Daniel Kawczynski: I totally agree, and I should like the Minister to respond to the Committee on which my hon. Friend sits. What is her response? When will the recommendations be implemented? And when will she be able to announce the necessary extra funding that those vital recommendations need to go ahead?

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. The farms in my Gloucestershire constituency are in one of the worst affected areas. Does he agree that not only should the Government stop dithering and announce a cull in hard boundary areas as the report recommends, but that owing to the figure that he gave of £1 billion in possible costs by 2013, it would be absolute folly for DEFRA to reduce in any way its
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research on a vaccine? As the report makes clear, a vaccine is likely to be the best long-term solution to the disease.

Daniel Kawczynski: I totally agree, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply to my hon. Friends’ comments.

I realise that, for the Minister, the situation is difficult. Interestingly, the largest group in Shropshire is the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, which has almost 8,000 members, and its symbol is a badger. I went to see the trust, whose representatives said to me, “Mr. Kawczynski, why do you want to kill badgers? Why do you want a cull of badgers?” I spoke last night to the trust’s development manager, Mr. John Hughes, who made very much the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) just made. Mr. Hughes said that even the trust looks to the Government for a rapid decision. The trust realises that the badgers are suffering terribly as a result of this appalling disease, and it also realises that the damage being done to our agricultural sector is of such a magnitude that ultimately it will affect wildlife groups such as the trust, wildlife itself, and the stability of our countryside, both in Shropshire and throughout the country. If the Minister spoke to Mr. Hughes, he would say that he feels as frustrated as I do at the lack of action by the Government on this matter.

I would like to make a point on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who is not able to be here because of the arrival of his baby girl, on which I congratulate him. He has asked me to say that he has been fighting hard for his constituents Daphne and Pat Saunders and their son, Miles. The Saunders own an organic farm near Faringdon, which was one of the first organic farms in the country. Last year, many of their pedigree cattle were culled after testing positive under the new test. Quite apart from the fact that many more cattle were culled than was necessary, the further huge injustice is that the compensation that they have received has been so low. They have lost top-grade pedigree cattle but they have been compensated for ordinary cattle. As my hon. Friend put it to me:

The Government have promised to look at the compensation scheme, but nothing has happened. I would not use quite the same phrase as my hon. Friend did, but he is far more extrovert and colourful than I am. None the less, he makes a very important point: certain cattle—high pedigree cattle—are being slaughtered, but farmers are receiving compensation for ordinary cattle. I would very much like the Minister to respond to that point as well.

I would like to say just one last thing, because I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to answer the questions that I have put to her. In my estimation, the long-term success of a Government stems from their ability and determination to help all sections of society, no matter how distant they are from their immediate priorities. We hear very little from the Labour Government about their priorities for farmers and the countryside. There is a great deal of talk about the inner cities, education and the national health service, which are all very important issues. However, I,
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for one, feel very passionately about agriculture, because I represent a very agricultural constituency. It frustrates me greatly that the Government spend so little time talking about the huge damage—the crisis—that farming communities such as those in the Shrewsbury area are facing.

I want to look the Minister in the eyes and say to her that I met Chris Balmer, the farmer from Snailbeach I mentioned earlier, when I had to intervene on his behalf to get his single farm payments on no less than seven occasions last year, and one of those occasions was the first time that I have seen a grown man cry, because of the situation that he has been put in with bovine TB. He is one of the most honourable people that I have ever come across. He works very hard to make a living and shows immense fortitude and courage, no matter what is thrown at him. I want the Minister to assure me that Mr. Balmer will receive his payments on time next year and, more importantly, that she is going to do something that shows that she really understands the terrible suffering of my community, which is so dependent on the vibrancy of the agricultural sector. Furthermore, I want her to assure me that she will take on board the recommendations of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and use her many talents and skills to convince the Treasury that the time has come for the extra investment that is needed to sort out bovine TB in this country once and for all, so that we can save the hundreds of millions of pounds that we will otherwise have to spend if the crisis is not dealt with.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): First of all, I want to apologise for the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who has the topic of bovine TB in his brief, is unable to be here today and that I am therefore addressing hon. Members instead of him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate on what is clearly a very important matter. I also congratulate his hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on their interventions.

Bovine TB is a very difficult issue. As the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham says, it is ever present in the minds of farmers and vets, but I must tell him that it is also ever present in the minds of Ministers. It is also never far from the headlines. The hon. Gentleman has today described the terrible suffering, as he put it, of some of his constituents. I say to him that we recognise the difficulties, stress and financial hardship that individual farmers have faced and still face as a result of bovine TB. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently held meetings with farmers, wildlife and conservation groups and vets to ensure that he understands the views of all those who are affected in one way or another by bovine TB.

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The hon. Gentleman said that we have spent too little time on bovine TB, but I must tell him that, sadly, because of the raft of animal diseases that have affected this country in the past year, a huge amount of time has been spent and many visits have been made by my colleagues to farms across the country. I may be an “inner-city” Member, as I represent the constituency of Lewisham, Deptford, but I was the first person to bring the Organic Food and Farming Targets Bill to this House, so I think that he should realise that I have some personal interest, if not a constituency interest, in agricultural issues.

The hon. Gentleman charged the Government with a lack of action on bovine TB. I am delighted to have the opportunity to rebut that charge absolutely. Not only do we recognise that the incidence of the disease is unacceptably high, but we recognise that it is particularly high in areas such as those represented by the hon. Members here today. As the hon. Gentleman said, Shropshire has seen a rise in the number of animals slaughtered because of bovine TB from 45 to 915 and is therefore a severe case in point. However, I remind the House that 91 per cent. of GB cattle herds are TB-free. We must remember that statistic when it is suggested that bovine TB is a scourge that is affecting the whole of the farming community. Bovine TB is definitively not affecting the whole of the farming community. That is why we have the strategic framework for the sustainable control of TB, why we emphasise that we should keep the clean areas clean and why we have introduced measures to help us to achieve that aim.

Let me describe some of those measures. We have spent more than £110 million on TB research in the past 10 years and about £8.5 million in the last financial year alone. We have spent about £17.8 million over the last 10 years on vaccine research. Since the 1950s, there has been in place an extensive system of TB testing and surveillance. Last year, the Government paid for 5.9 million tests on 51,000 cattle herds in Britain. We have also introduced new cattle controls, which are helping to prevent new cases of the disease. Between March 2006 and January 2008, there was pre-movement testing of cattle more than 42 days old moving out of high-risk herds, which detected 664 reactors in 363 herds in England. Those reactors might otherwise have spread disease within buyers’ herds.

We have also introduced the gamma interferon test, which is being used to improve the sensitivity of the testing regime that has been in place for many years. The gamma interferon test identifies animals that are missed by the skin test and it is part of our efforts to clean up disease in herds more quickly. It is also designed to prevent the disease becoming established in otherwise clean areas. 3,590 animals of 37,604 animals that were sampled between October 2006 and the end of January 2008 tested positive. Most of those animals were not being identified through the standard testing approach. Although the hon. Gentleman accuses the Government of taking little action, it is obvious that we are taking new actions and getting new results that are extremely important.

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