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17 Jun 2008 : Column 211WH—continued

12.1 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this important debate.

I pay tribute to the British Beekeepers Association, which has done much to raise the profile of beekeeping and to inform us about the importance of bees to our country. It has put a tremendous amount of effort into its campaign, and its commitment to bee health is keeping the issue high on the political agenda. I understand that its campaign has already succeeded in attracting the support of 30,000 people who have signed its petition.

This debate is timely, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us of his Department’s commitment to bee health. The British bee industry is far more than just the sweet taste of honey. Who could imagine an English summer without the humble honey bee? Bees are amazing creatures whose value is easily overlooked. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that there may be more than 270,000 managed bee colonies in the UK, there being 5 billion bees in the winter rising to 16 billion in the summer.

As hon. Members have already pointed out, the pollination service provided by those colonies and bees could be worth about £165 million, and estimates of their total contribution to our economy is somewhere in the region of £1 billion. They also add tremendous value to our countryside, especially in pollinating wild flowers, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose).

Most of Britain's 44,000 beekeepers are not professionals, who keep bees to make profits from honey sales and pollination services. They are small-scale hobbyists, whose numbers have been increasing. In greater London, for example, between 1999 and 2006 the number of beekeepers doubled to at least 2,000. However, because so many beekeepers are hobbyists, they are more vulnerable to the pressures now facing the nation’s bees. As their livelihoods do not depend on beekeeping, many may be discouraged from continuing if they lose their colonies. In the USA, beekeepers have significant commercial interests in re-stocking, but those incentives are simply not available for UK beekeepers. That is a very real problem for us at the moment.

British beekeeping may now be at its most vulnerable, as bee health is threatened on a number of fronts. We all know of the impact that varroa has had in recent years. The varroa mite has caused considerable damage to hives and bee colonies, to the point where it is now classed as endemic. Our bee population may now be facing the far more dangerous threat of colony collapse disorder. Having seen the destruction caused by CCD in the USA, some, including Lord Rooker in the other
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place, have suggested that if nothing is done there may be no more honey bees in the UK within 10 years. CCD may already be in the UK.

The BBKA has reported that its research has found that as many as 30 per cent. of our colonies could be lost during the winter months this year. That is twice last year’s rate and three times more than is usual since varroa arrived in the UK. Throughout the country, beekeepers are reporting significant losses. In Peterborough, for example, the secretary of the Peterborough and District Beekeepers Association, George Newton, lost 10 of his 18 hives this winter. In Scotland, John Troup, another beekeeper, reported significant losses—100 hives, each of which should have contained up to 80,000 bees.

Given the enormous value of bees to our country, that is a worrying proposition to put to those who depend on bees for pollination—which is invariably all of us. The future of our bee populations can be secured only if those dangers are properly managed and if action is taken in the near future to protect bee health. Hon. Members who take an interest in bee health will be aware that there has been considerable criticism of DEFRA in previous years over the way that it has treated bee health.

The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service’s economic evaluation of DEFRA’s bee health programme in 2001 recommended that:

Although DEFRA accepted that recommendation in principle, it is questionable whether the Department has followed that advice.

The budget for bee health and the National Bee Unit has been cut in real terms over the last few years, with spending remaining at around £1.5 million, half of which comes from the European Union. Bee health is in need of investment, and it would be helpful if the Minister let us know whether his Department will be making any extra resources available for bee health research.

The idea behind the draft bee health strategy is welcome. Indeed, the BBKA has been pressing for it for some time. It is important that a long-term strategy be put in place, that research needs be prioritised and that the responsibilities of beekeepers and the Government be clarified. However, all the effort and the time put into developing the strategy by DEFRA’s stakeholders will have little impact if the resources are not in place to fund the required research.

In a written answer last month, the Minister could not confirm how much would be allocated to bee health in this financial year, hinting only that the figure would remain static at about £190,000. However, as hon. Members will know, the BBKA has identified research projects costing somewhere in the region of £8 million. At the present rate of spending by DEFRA, it would take 40 years to cover all those research priorities.

It therefore comes as no surprise that, in its response to the publication of the draft strategy, the BBKA stated:

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It would help if the Minister let us know when research allocations for this year will be finalised, whether he will make extra resources available for bee health research and whether he accepts the BBKA’s proposals.

Rob Marris: I posited a figure of £4 million a year, and the BBKA posited a figure of £8 million over five years. What does the hon. Gentleman think the figure ought to be?

Bill Wiggin: I think that the BBKA figure of £8 million is correct, which is £1.6 million a year over five years. However, the difficulty facing the Minister and all who consider the figures is whether that is an absolute amount and it will guarantee a result. We know because we regularly meet scientists that budgets tend to grow over time and that it would be impossible for anyone to guarantee that a solution would be found within that time. We recognise the constraints that DEFRA has to work under, but today we seek a commitment from the Minister that more funding will be available for the necessary research. I shall say why.

This year, two bee-related research projects will come to an end: an assessment of the effectiveness of the shook swarm method for controlling European foul brood, at a cost of £185,393, and the development of a monitoring system for the small hive beetle, at a cost of £225,772. Those projects had a combined cost of more than £411,000. Will the Minister confirm whether an amount will be reinvested in bee health research similar to that spent on the projects that are coming to an end?

DEFRA is funding only two other research projects at the moment. The numerous threats that face our bee populations—varroa, viruses, hive beetles, foul brood and colony collapse disorder—make a compelling case for undertaking more research. Unfortunately, due to Government cuts, we are in a weakened position when it comes to supporting bee health. Bee research has not been given the priority and resources that it needs from the Government. As a result, we are losing crucial expertise in this area and we are now really feeling the effects.

In 2006, our leading research centre at Rothamsted lost some of the world’s top experts in bee health, including Dr. Brenda Ball, a world-renowned expert on bee viruses and pathology with more than 30 years’ experience, Caroline Birchall, a graduate scientist working on the biocontrol of varroa project, and Norman Carreck, a bee scientist and keeper with 20 years’ experience. Regrettably, that also means that the reference collection of bee virus samples has gone to Sweden. Because the Central Science Laboratory does not have the expertise or resources available, the progress that those scientists could have made has been lost, and there is a vacuum that needs to be filled.

By contrast, a greater commitment has been made to researching bee health in other countries. In the USA, $80 million from the Government and industry is being invested into researching bee health and colony collapse disorder. Although it might be helpful to see the outcomes of that research, we should remember that it is no substitute for research in this country because that can focus on the localised conditions, environment and climate of the British Isles.

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I welcome the efforts of the BBKA to press DEFRA to consider providing the resources necessary to give bee health the research priority it needs, and its efforts in finding funding from other sources, such as the Wellcome Trust, which was mentioned.

It is important that the Government do not try to hide from their responsibilities to beekeepers and the wider economy. We are looking for leadership, not spending commitments. This is one of the most serious issues facing British agriculture and, as such, the Minister needs to guarantee that the Government will listen to the responses of the BBKA and others to the bee health strategy, so that it can be implemented as soon as possible and so that it is a workable solution to the challenges faced by beekeepers and the nation’s bees.

12.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for introducing this timely debate and other hon. Members for their contributions. It gives me the opportunity to explain the Government’s position on bee health and especially our plans for working with beekeepers to secure a healthy and sustainable bee population, as was set out in the draft bee health strategy, which is currently out for public consultation. I want to get our view on some important issues on the record and then address the sheaf of questions that hon. Members raised. Perhaps I can answer those questions if hon. Members resist intervening unless they are compelled to do so—that is for you, Mr. Cummings, to determine.

The development of the Government’s strategy confirms our ongoing commitment to protecting and improving the health of honey bees and to sustaining and supporting beekeeping now and for future generations. The aim of the strategy is a sustainable and healthy population of bees for pollination and honey production in England and Wales via strengthened partnership between Government and other stakeholders. It seeks to address the challenges facing beekeepers. In particular, it sets out outcomes, activities and priorities for protecting and improving the health of honey bees in England and Wales, and the roles and responsibilities of Government and other stakeholders in achieving those objectives. The intention is to provide direction and focus for Government, beekeepers and other stakeholders to work together for the next decade on sustaining honey bees. Strengthened partnership working is crucial in achieving the strategy’s aim and outcomes, and it will ensure that both current and evolving threats to bee health are effectively identified, assessed and acted upon.

Before outlining the key outcomes on which we wish to focus, I should like to say something about the work that the Government have already undertaken to protect bee health. As was mentioned, the National Bee Unit and its inspectors receive annual funding of around £1.3 million from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and a further £300,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government. Additionally, DEFRA allocates about £200,000 to specific bee health research. I put it that way because bee health benefits from a number of additional generic research projects. For example, the Department is funding the development of a biosecurity microchip to detect a range of viruses,
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including bee viruses. The proportion of additional work attributed to bee health is estimated to be worth around £120,000.

The main activities of the National Bee Unit are: providing effective, risk-based inspection and enforcement through a field team of professional bee inspectors to control notifiable pests and diseases, and to implement regulations; undertaking research and development; communicating evidence-based specialist advice to all stakeholders; contributing to policy development, including horizon scanning and risk management of current and emerging threats; providing quality-assured diagnostic services on outbreaks of pests and diseases; contingency planning for the arrival of exotic pests and diseases and other emerging threats—I shall come to hon. Members’ points about that; and supporting the development of good husbandry through training and education programmes that are co-ordinated with national and local associations and that aim to help beekeepers to become more self-reliant in controlling pests and disease and to aspire to higher standards of beekeeping.

That is a pretty impressive list of activities but it does not tell the full story. The National Bee Unit is one of the leading centres of expertise in bee health in Europe and a major contributor to bee science, with an international reputation for excellence. That expertise is made readily available to our beekeepers. However, the Government cannot protect and sustain bee health by ourselves, nor should it be that way. The various challenges and threats can be properly addressed only through effective partnership working, with individual beekeepers at the heart of the relationship. As the draft strategy that was produced following extensive discussions with key stakeholders makes clear, local beekeeping associations have a key role in helping to support, encourage and educate beekeepers to adhere to best practice. That is important.

The debate is about the future of the bee industry. It needs to be recognised that in this country, the industry comprises both professional beekeepers and a much larger contingent of hobby beekeepers, as hon. Members have rightly emphasised. That presents particular challenges. The craft of beekeeping is not a hobby to be taken up lightly; it brings with it responsibilities to ensure that effective pest and disease control and associated good husbandry are adhered to. Thankfully, many good beekeepers and a range of active associations are ready to help, in addition to the wealth of information available from the National Bee Unit. However, not all those who keep bees choose to seek advice or to make themselves known, which is a concern and something that needs to change. I urge all those who keep bees to read the strategy and to get in touch either directly with the NBU or via their local association.

The importance of engaging has been given renewed emphasis by the many reports of colony collapse, which raises the question of how seriously our bees are under threat. Many of our beekeepers have experienced significant losses. Those are being investigated by the NBU as a matter of priority. Additional funding of £90,000 this financial year has been allocated for that work and to carry out the necessary checks on the resulting increase in imported replacement stocks. I am pleased to report that the more recent upturn in the weather is aiding recovery, including the expansion of existing colonies.

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Colony losses are not solely a UK phenomenon. There have been high losses in a number of other European states: Denmark, Spain, Germany and Italy have all reported losses, many at a higher level than those seen in the UK. The French agency for food safety has set up a working group, which includes the UK, to analyse the position. To aid the group, the European Food Safety Authority has been asked to collate information on losses throughout the Community. We will engage closely in any follow-up work. We are also in contact with the authorities in the US and have discussed their investigations into colony collapse, but there is more work to be done.

Dr. Gibson: The Minister is talking about other countries. I mentioned that $80 million is being spent in the United States, but how much do France, Italy and Greece spend on research similar to that for which we are asking in this country?

Jonathan Shaw: We do not have a record of what each EU member state does, but I shall come to the situation of England and Wales in that context in the time remaining.

There is still more work to be done. The emerging picture is that there seems to be no single cause of colony losses and that a multitude of factors could play a part, as hon. Members have said. Our investigations indicate that poor varroa control and lack of attention to good husbandry—particularly when combined with a poor summer last year and a poor early spring this year—have played a significant role in many losses in this country, and we will continue to investigate.

The strategy sets out five key outcomes, with detailed actions to be taken to achieve them, and I have covered most of the points involved. They include effective communications and good standards, but we must also ensure that a sound science and evidence base underpins bee health policy and its implementation. Much has been said about increased funding, and we will put in additional money, as I said.

On the points raised by hon. Members, the British Beekeepers Association launched an initiative last year to host research with DEFRA, and we supported that. The initiative was an important first step in bringing together a broad spectrum of key players to take stock of the range of work under way. DEFRA followed up by creating a research funders’ forum to bring together key parties to improve co-ordination and collaboration on bee health research and to draw on all potential sources of funding. The forum has met twice and is due to meet again this autumn to discuss priorities in the light of responses to the strategy. As the forum’s name suggests, the intention is to identify funding sources. It is important to recognise that tackling the issue is a matter not just for the Government and that others must play their part.

Bill Wiggin: The Minister said that more money was coming from the Government. The BBKA and all the beekeepers who read this debate will welcome that. He said the meeting will be held in the autumn, but could he tell us a little about how much money will come in and when?

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Jonathan Shaw: Let me repeat that we are allocating an additional £90,000 to the NBU this financial year as a matter of priority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North talked about colony collapse. We have looked at almost 10,000 colonies this year, and 19.7 per cent. had died, compared with 15.4 per cent. at the same time last year. Varroa is endemic. The NBU continues to provide advice to beekeepers; indeed, I have with me publications on managing varroa. On behalf of commercial companies, the unit is also looking at the development of veterinary medicines. Varroa is recognised as a key issue in the strategy.

Virtually every hon. Member said that they were not an expert on this issue, but the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) probably is the expert in our ranks—[Interruption.] Well, once someone raises themselves up in the eyes of politicians, they become an expert.

Dr. Gibson: He is the queen bee around here.

Jonathan Shaw: There we are. I am afraid that the jokes this morning have been appalling.

Importantly, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare talked about collaboration. A number of institutions are undertaking research, although I will not read out all their names, given the time that I have. However, a range of research projects are under way, and various Departments are joining up. It is right that collaboration is key.

The same is true of working with other European states. That has not been done before on this issue, but the UK has pushed for collaboration. The National Bee Unit has the science, the service, the research and the diagnostics under one roof. We do not know of any other unit that offers the same service, certainly in the European Union. On these issues, other countries look to us, not least for contingency arrangements, and they will take our arrangements as a blueprint when dealing with losses due to a variety of diseases. In a similar way, we have contingency arrangements for dealing with different animal disease outbreaks. We are putting research funding in. We are also seeking to have discussions on working with the Wellcome Foundation, as hon. Members have said.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) drew attention to the horticultural industry in his constituency, in Somerset. He talked about tightening the rules on imports, and we certainly want to look at that. Again, the UK has been pushing the issue at a European level. It is coming higher up the political spectrum in the UK, and we have been leading on it in the European Union.

We need to collaborate. Time and again, hon. Members have said that we need to find out what is going on. That requires beekeepers in England and Wales to co-operate with us, to provide us with the information that we need and to take part in the strategy. We are keen that people give us their thoughts on the strategy; otherwise, it will not be complete.

Mark Hunter: Will the Minister give way?

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