Farming and Rural Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 19th January 2005.

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Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater 6:32 pm, 19th January 2005

He is the big bee, as my hon. Friend points out. The second type is the seasonal bee inspector, whose job it is to go round all the hives. At the moment the bees are dormant and doing nothing other than hibernating, I hope, although it is warm enough for them to go out. He is responsible for checking the bees and their quality in that period. The noble Lord Haskins has not got this seriously wrong.

The Minister will probably not be aware that a 20 per cent. cut in the income of the bee unit means that half the inspectors will go. Their number cannot be sustained. What does that mean for the bees? The bee inspector's job is threefold—first, to check swarm purity; secondly, to ensure that the quality of the hives is what it should be; and, thirdly, to check for bugs in the hives.

It may not come as any great surprise to Conservative Members that most of the diseases that we try to combat come from Europe, which is where the inspectors spend most of their time. But the Minister should be aware that the crying shame, or the disgrace, is that the Government put in £125,000, with the rest of the funding coming from Europe. The importance of the bee in agriculture, horticulture and just about every other culture, cannot be underestimated. Surely the Government should be championing good quality, healthy bees. The problem is petty-minded, stupid bureaucracy. What is the point of cutting money from a unit that safeguards something that is so important to agriculture?

The Government probably do not know that bees bring £120 million a year into agricultural industries through not only honey and beeswax, which is used for all kinds of different things, but importing and exporting different swarms. I have received a letter from a constituent, Rev. Ivan Selman, about that matter. He makes the point that the private benefit to beekeepers is estimated to be only £11.3 million and that many hobby beekeepers make little or no profit. Surely this is the crux of the matter: the people who produce honey do so because they want to and because they enjoy doing it; they do not do it because they make a fortune. We cannot expect to have healthy animals in this country if we do not have inspectors, and the Government, who have banged on about inspectors, must address the matter urgently.

Given the short time that remains, I shall turn to Exmoor national park. The Minister knows the effect of the ban on hunting on Exmoor. The ban will make a difference, it has made a difference and it needs to be addressed. This Friday, my hon. Friend Mr. Flook, Nick Harvey and I will have our quarterly meeting with the national park, at which we will discuss the problems that the park will face due to the hunting ban.

The Minister knows Exmoor national park's concerns, and I hope that he will manage to address some of them. They have been raised by not only hon. Members but members of the national park, the county councils, the district councils and the parish councils. The ban will cost up to £9 million across the park, which is a lot for an area such as ours, and we cannot sustain that loss. The Government intimated that they would examine the introduction of some form of financial inducement, and I wonder whether the Minister is prepared to expand on that point.

Somerset gets very little objective 2 funding: Cornwall receives objective 1 funding; Devon receives objective 2 funding; and Somerset receives a little bit of objective 2 funding. One of the problems in rural areas is that we cannot match such funding. The Minister is aware of that point, which we have discussed before, but we have not resolved how rural areas can raise match funding. The Government have been asked the question time and again, but we are still waiting for answers. The Government have not listened, because we have the same problems as Cornwall—in most cases, incomes are lower in Somerset than in Cornwall because of the housing crisis in rural areas, which many hon. Members have already eloquently discussed.

British Telecom is removing phone boxes, which it claims are not being used, from rural areas. Mobile phones do not work in many parts of Exmoor because one cannot get a signal, which is partly due to planning restrictions, but mainly due to the type of ground. The Minister says that he is looking to put money and help into rural areas. What is the point of rolling out broadband if homeowners in such locations cannot make phone calls? We prevailed on BT to try to reverse that decision, and I know that the Government have been involved, but the removals are still occurring. We are losing phone boxes across Exmoor and the Somerset Levels as we speak. Will the Minister consider intervening to try to persuade BT, which I accept is a private company, to stop that practice so that we can get back communication in our local areas?

Finally, may I draw the Minister's attention to the piece in this week's Farmers Weekly on bovine TB, "Call Time on Brock", which reports on the experiment in Ireland? It makes good reading and seems eminently sensible. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has responsibility for TB, has examined the matter, and, given that the solution in the article seems sensible, perhaps he will mention it.