[John Cummings in the Chair] — Agriculture (South-West)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State (Farming and the Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:45 am, 20th January 2009

I am interested in that invitation and shall ask my officials to get details about the show. I hope to visit the south-west soon. Given the distance, it would seem sensible to spend more than one day there, if parliamentary responsibilities allow it. We have discussed several issues this morning that affect the south-west in particular, so the visit would focus not only on the impact of bovine TB although that would be one of the focuses.

I realise that the decision taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not to allow the licensed culling of badgers is unpopular with many farmers. Hon. Members may disagree with it, but they will know that it was based on a wide range of factors, including scientific evidence, the practicalities of delivering a successful cull, discussions with farming, veterinary, wildlife and conservation groups, the conclusions of the independent scientific group on cattle TB, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report.

The Government do not deny the link between cattle and badgers. There is no denying that the badger species is susceptible to the disease and reacts to bovine TB. Measures in place that aim to reduce the spread and incidence of the disease include regular testing, zero tolerance of overdue tests and pre-movement testing.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said. I shall look again at the public service agreement targets to which he alluded. I understand the stark reality of the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cattle that are being slaughtered, and the fact which farmers have pointed out to me on numerous occasions that some cattle do not actually have the disease but react to the tests. There is added grief for owners if perfectly healthy cattle have to be destroyed.

I would like to reassure the House that we continue to invest in ways to eradicate the disease: £20 million will be spent over the next three years on vaccine development, and the bovine TB eradication group was established in November. I want the Government and the industry to work together on eradicating the disease, and I am pleased with the positive engagement there has been with that group. It has agreed that it needs to consider different approaches for different areas. It wants to look at the spread of the disease at the edges of high-incidence areas, and the various drivers and risks, and seek to define the overall aims for each of those areas in order to focus its work programme.

Although a licensed cull of badgers has been ruled out, I seek to reassure colleagues that I very much want to encourage the eradication group, and that my mind is open to all the suggestions that might be made for finding solutions to this appalling disease.

Changing the arrangements for sharing the responsibilities and costs of animal health have been under consideration for some time and would be of enormous benefit to the south-west of England. We hope to consult in the near future on specific proposals.

The economic downturn is of concern to all of us, and farmers are no exception. However, we can assume that the demand for food will not be as volatile as for some other products, but the impact of recent financial shocks on personal pension plans may be a problem for some farmers. The National Farmers Union conducted a useful survey of some 400 of its members to assess the impact of the credit crunch and the availability of credit to farmers. It produced some encouraging results that bear out the comments of Mr. Williams that, counter-cyclically, farming and farmers are not as badly hit by the availability of credit. They appear to receive better treatment than other UK businesses when they seek credit.

Some other factors will help farmers. The reduction in the base rate will help all businesses by reducing the cost of borrowing, and farming stands well placed to benefit from that. The current exchange rate is good for exporters and increases all farmers' income from EU payments. The Rural Payments Agency is making good progress on completing its single payment scheme targets. I gave information about that last week at oral questions so will not reiterate it today.

I shall not go into detail on electronic identification, as we had a separate debate not that long ago on the subject. As the time remaining allows me to deal with only one other matter, I shall reserve it to touch quickly on food labelling.

However, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome expressed his interest in and concern for bees. All that I will say now is that I hope that the Department will soon be in a position to make an announcement that will be of great encouragement to all those Members who have written to me expressing their concern about the decline in bee numbers. We need to be concerned about all pollinators, not just bees. Therefore, I hope that the imminent announcement will be welcomed by both sides of the House.

Labelling is one of the hottest topics to do with food at present. I am working hard with officials to see what we can do, given the constraints under which we have to work—constraints in respect of the free flow of imports across Europe with which we would all agree. However, there are things that we can do to improve labelling of country of origin. In particular, I hope that the pork industry will be encouraged by some announcements that I expect to be able to make very soon. They will bring forward benefits, perhaps not going quite as far as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire—