HC Deb 17 November 2003 vol 413 cc485-92 3.30 pm
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (urgent question)

To ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the outbreak of potato ring rot at Bwlch and what discussions he has had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the National Assembly for Wales to prevent its spread to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. He has served on the Welsh Affairs Committee and on the Welsh Grand Committee. He does not represent a Welsh seat, but his constituency is a part of the country that has been contested by our two nations for some time.

Ministers and officials at the Wales Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the National Assembly have been in discussions since we first became aware of the ring rot outbreak at Bwlch last Wednesday, 12 November. The infected potatoes were discovered during a routine annual inspection conducted by the plant health and seeds inspectorate on behalf of the National Assembly. We believe that the potatoes were grown from seed imported from the Netherlands in 2002 and planted in Wales earlier this year. The Assembly and DEFRA acted swiftly. The first priority was to contain the disease at Middlewood farm and assess the risk that it might spread.

Assembly officials visited the farm immediately they were notified of the outbreak to assess the situation. Equipment and machinery on the site were disinfected and sterilised, and the farmer, Mr. John Morgan, who is a seed potato farmer of international reputation, fully co-operated with the public health authorities. To our knowledge, this is the first outbreak of potato ring rot in the UK, and it is a credit to the systems that we have in place that the disease was identified during a routine check.

We are following very strict guidelines agreed in the European Union, and further tests are being conducted on the potatoes at Bwlch. Those tests will take some time to complete.

Mr. Wiggin

Can the Minister explain how this bacterial infection, which is one of the world's most damaging potato diseases, was able to get into Wales? How was the disease able to get past the checks in the Netherlands and in the UK just two years after the devastating foot and mouth crisis? Despite the Government's assurances following foot and mouth, they have failed to provide adequate checks and safeguards to protect the UK farming industry. Why is it that not every batch of imported stock is tested? Should not the Government already have put in place extra surveillance of meat and agricultural imports to prevent our domestic agriculture from being affected by foreign diseases? Will they tighten security for imports on a disease basis?

What about Mr. Morgan? He has complied with the Government, as the Minister said, and done everything he can to ensure that the outbreak remains in his potato sheds. He has been let down by the security system. Can he expect some compensation for the loss of his business? He will be unable to grow potatoes again for at least four years. Like me, he is deeply concerned about the impact on tourism and the cost to the community. Can the Minister assure the House that Mr. Morgan is the victim, not the villain?

What extra resources are the Government putting in place towards plant security, or does the Minister think that enough is already being done? Is he aware that ring rot bacteria can survive for two years in dry conditions? However, is it right that, unbelievably, Mr. Morgan is allowed to sell his potatoes for consumption? It is only his resolve to protect the national industry, and the fact that he has to live with himself, that prevents him from using that route to recoup some of his losses. I hope that the Minister will consider that before ruling out helping this farmer.

What actions have been taken to prevent the disease from spreading? Is there an action plan? Does it take local knowledge into account? How much co-operation is required from potato farmers? How many potato farmers are there in Wales, and has the Minister estimated the size of losses to people throughout the United Kingdom if he fails to control the disease? Has he not learned the lesson of foot and mouth, for example? I hope he has sufficient stocks of everything he needs.

It is known that the infected farm may have supplied seed potatoes to other farms. What steps are being taken to ensure that the seeds are not sown, and that the bacteria are dealt with properly? What assessment have the Government made of the economic consequences of the outbreak for the potato sector? Have the Dutch authorities been contacted to establish where else in the UK seeds of the same origin have gone? Finally, will the Government confirm that they will do more to prevent the disease from reaching Britain?

Mr. Touhig

As far as we are aware, Mr. Morgan has acted perfectly properly throughout the whole business. As I have said, he is a farmer of international repute, and I have nothing but praise for his response to the problem that he discovered.

Our own response should be measured and determined. We were right to act immediately to isolate the bacterium, but—I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman did this—we must not imply that this problem is on the same scale as problems that have hit our farming industry before. Farming has gone through a pretty tough time. It is in all our interests to act responsibly, in order to protect the long-term interests of our farmers and rural communities.

No compensation schemes currently exist, although there may well be discussions between the farming unions and various Departments on whether compensation is possible. My colleague the Assembly Health Minister is due to make a statement tomorrow. We have been in touch with the Dutch authorities: indeed, my colleague at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), raised the matter with a Dutch Minister at a meeting in Brussels this morning.

There have been some movements of potatoes from the farm in question, but they have been traced, and action has been taken to ensure that they are not taken anywhere else. They are being examined and tested. As for the economic consequences of the outbreak, I am afraid that it is not possible to make a proper assessment at this stage; but there will clearly have to be one, especially in view of Mr. Morgan's specific difficulties. As for the implications for potato farmers throughout Wales, there are six seed potato growers in Wales, and many other farmers are involved in producing potatoes. All those factors will have to be taken into account when the Government decide on a longer-term response.

The hon. Gentleman asked about protecting our country from any import of the seeds. No imports from non-EU countries are allowed, and there is an arrangement for proper checks and inspections of those from EU countries. There is a problem with ring rot in a number of European countries: it has recently been discovered in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France, as well as parts of north America. As far as we know, this is the first outbreak in this country, although the bacterium was discovered in the late 1800s. I think that our response has been appropriate, but it will take six to eight weeks for us to assess the damage caused to the crop.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I join others in welcoming the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) to his position as Opposition spokesman on Wales. His appointment is in the Tory tradition of appointing alien governors-general for Wales. However, I regret his comparison with foot and mouth disease, which has also been made in the press. It is ludicrous to compare this disease, which can and probably will be contained, with a virulently infectious disease such as foot and mouth. The comparison is not only untrue and inaccurate but extremely damaging. Many people have suggested that there is already a reluctance to book holidays or arrange other tourism activities in the Brecon area, and there have even been some cancellations, because of exaggerated press reports. While we should of course take this matter seriously, should we not also ensure that our comments are restrained and measured?

Mr. Touhig

I agree with that final point. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Leominster, it is important that our response be proper, well thought out and careful. I fear that we are in danger of over-hyping this issue, although I do not think that anyone would want to diminish its importance and seriousness.

I saw press reports over the weekend suggesting that this is the arable form of foot and mouth. We do not accept that at all. My hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) spoke to me only today about discussions he had with the National Farmers Union in his area over the weekend. It too is concerned that, if our reaction to the disease gets out of hand, people will think it is a huge problem. That would have a huge detrimental effect on our farming industry and on the countryside. We do not want that to happen, so our response must be measured, proper and appropriate to the difficulty.

Sue Doughty (Guildford)

First, I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who normally deals with these issues.

The outbreak is a serious issue and it is important that we take it seriously, but I am concerned that we do not whip up the whole issue into a frenzy that will affect tourism in Wales and the farming industry not only in Wales but in other parts of Britain. I would like it confirmed that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will not allow the media to whip up the issue into the same problem that we had over foot and mouth.

I seek an assurance that the consignment is fully traceable. What advice can the Minister give about the liability of the original supplier, and what assurance can he give that the burden will not fall on the importers or growers, who, as we have heard, have acted perfectly correctly? We have concerns about the suppliers. What responsibility does DEFRA have for the quality of the inspections by plant health inspectors? How is the number of tests arrived at? Tests led to the discovery of the outbreak. Would more tests have led to the discovery sooner?

Britain had the advantage of having disease-free status. What resources does DEFRA have, once we have contained and sorted out this problem, to regain that status, which is so important for our agricultural export industry? In many other European countries—France, Holland, Spain and Denmark—compensation arrangements are in place. What assessment will the Secretary of State make of parallel schemes that could be adopted for use in this situation? We now understand that at least three farms in west Cornwall and in the Isles of Scilly received consignments of potatoes from the original farm in Wales. Can the Minister tell us how many farms received those consignments?

Mr. Touhig

On the last point, my advice is that four consignments left the farm. The recipients have been contacted and movement restrictions have been put in place in respect of those seed potatoes. I can only refer the hon. Lady to the point that I made earlier on compensation. There is no scheme at present, but I have no doubt that the farming unions and Mr. Morgan in particular will want to make representations at some stage. Ministers will obviously have to take account of that.

It is important that we recognise that the system that we have in place is working and is appropriate—an annual routine inspection discovered the outbreak. It is important that we recognise that that annual inspection is operating throughout the European Union, and it has proved to be effective in this case. It is important, as the hon. Lady says, that we in no way harm our farming community more than it has been harmed in recent years, by giving the impression that this is of the scale of the problems that the industry has faced in most recent times.

It is important that we do a proper assessment, which will take some weeks, of the extent of the outbreak. It is right to state that it needs to be properly assessed. The bacteria can exist for perhaps four or five seasons, in sacking, in barns and so forth. That is why we need to disinfect and to sterilise the places where these particular potatoes were stored. We are taking appropriate measures. Possibly my Cardiff colleague the Assembly Minister will have some further information when he makes his statement tomorrow.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

My hon. Friend will recognise that, without being selfish, those in the agricultural community in the Lothians, who send their considerable condolences to Welsh colleagues, are greatly concerned about the outbreak in Wales, because theirs is one of the major seed-producing areas of Europe. What does he think of the suggestion, of which I have given him notice, made by James Withers on behalf of the Scottish NFU that the Scots should use only Scottish seed for the moment, that high health regions should be introduced, and that imports of seed from Holland, Germany and Denmark should be at least considered and possibly forbidden? Does he agree with the Scottish NFU that the European Union ought to consider disease-free areas?

Mr. Touhig

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me notice of that question earlier today. Of course, in Scotland, there already exists a voluntary ban on importing seeds from the Netherlands, although that is not because of any case of ring rot in Scotland. The EU has protected area status for some diseases, and it is up to individual member states to prove that they are disease-free. Such status does not exist for ring rot at this time. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be interested in my hon. Friend's remarks, and I will certainly ensure that his remarks are brought to her attention.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I want to take issue with the Minister's last remarks, because restrictions in regard to ring rot are in place. If he looks at the DEFRA website, he will see that there are restrictions on potato imports from Germany. That site also says that ring rot is prevalent in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and the Netherlands, but we have had no restrictions on potatoes coming from the Netherlands since 1997. Given that Germany is next door to the Netherlands and we have restrictions on German imports, why have the Government not seen fit to place restrictions on imports from the Netherlands?

Mr. Touhig

I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the points that I made earlier on how we have responded to this outbreak. I cannot, in fact, tell him that it would have been appropriate to place restrictions on imports from the Netherlands. It is for my colleagues at DEFRA to make a proper assessment. I have no doubt that they will take account of his remarks, and if appropriate action is needed, I am sure it will follow.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

May I tell my hon. Friend that, if any more compensation is to be handed out by the Government, there are greater priorities than this—for example, the Allied Steel and Wire workers? If more retrospective compensation is to be paid to the agricultural industry, which already receives massive public subsidy, does he agree that other priorities should be considered first?

Mr. Touhig

I am well aware that my hon. Friend and others campaign on behalf of the workers at Allied Steel and Wire, and I am sure that hon. Members of all parties have great sympathy with them, especially in light of the problems with their pensions. I can only tell my hon. Friend that no such compensation scheme exists at present. The Government are not suggesting that there should be such a scheme—I have simply indicated that I have no doubt that others will raise the issue in the coming weeks.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Minister said earlier that the annual inspection regime works. Well, self-evidently that is not the case, or there would not have been this outbreak. May I urge on him the need to look again at the imported material and to speak to members of the other Governments, because the problem is rife in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Greece? Should there not be a general moratorium until such time as we are confident that inspection procedures are equally good on the other side of the English channel? I do not say that as an anti-European person—I am not a Eurosceptic—but it is high time we took on the problem and dealt with it urgently. With respect to what the Minister said about containing the problem in Bwlch, the Government have got that part right, and I congratulate them on that.

Mr. Touhig

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his final remarks. It is good to see that we are at one on this approach. I know of his keen interest in rural matters, given the constituency that he represents, and we do not want this to get out of hand in terms of the public being afraid to come into the countryside or its being suggested that this is a greater problem than it is. I can confirm that the disease is found in north America, Canada, parts of the former Soviet Union, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Spain and the Netherlands. To date, as far as I am aware, the Government have not considered banning the importation of seeds from those countries, but I have no doubt that, having read the Hansard report of today's urgent question, colleagues at DEFRA will consider the matter.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The Minister has told us that the source of this problem is imported seed potato from the Netherlands. To his knowledge, what steps are the Dutch authorities taking to address the problem on that farm of origin? What steps are the British Government taking to ensure that no disease is lurking in UK farms that may also have received imports from the affected farm in the Netherlands?

Mr. Touhig

We have been in touch with the Dutch authorities on this matter to trace the supplier of this particular seed. My DEFRA colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, raised the matter with his Dutch counterpart this morning, and ongoing discussions will take place on the matters that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises, to determine whether other steps are needed and are appropriate. I cannot give the right hon. and learned Gentleman any more up-to-date information at present, but I am sure that this matter will figure in DEFRA questions later this week, and that the Secretary of State and her Ministers will have more to say about it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I commend the Minister on the steps that have been taken to contain the present outbreak. Does he agree, however, that dealing effectively with potential epidemics of both animal and plant diseases require a robust and regularly reviewed contingency plan? Can he tell me when the contingency plan for potato diseases was last reviewed and whether he will place a copy in the Library?

Mr. Touhig

He's got me on that one, Mr. Speaker. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that, but I will certainly make inquiries, write to him and place a copy in the Library.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The potato crop is important not just for Wales but for the entire United Kingdom, with many millions of pounds' worth of potatoes being sold. We very much hope that the disease has been contained to this particular farm, but the Minister has mentioned a number of other countries in addition to Holland where this disease lurks. Indeed, I suspect that it is not only from Holland that we import potato seed. What extra action are the Government taking to ensure that any potato seeds coming from any other European Union countries, Russia, the Czech Republic, or other countries that he has mentioned, such as Canada, are not bringing the disease into the United Kingdom?

Mr. Touhig

I have no doubt that my colleagues at DEFRA have been reviewing the matter, and as I have said in answer to other questions, we will clearly be looking at imports of seeds from the countries where this disease is prevalent and where there have been recent outbreaks, in mainland Europe, north America and elsewhere. I have no doubt that at some stage that will lead to a review of whether we need to take action to prevent the importation of those seeds, and I am sure that the Government will then take the appropriate action.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

May I start by declaring my entry in the Register of Members' Interests as a potato grower? The DEFRA website on 29 April 2003 said: Potato ring rot is a highly contagious disease of potatoes, which is not present in the UK. If it were to be introduced, successful eradication would be very difficult, and losses would arise through lower yields, compliance with control measures, and reduced exports. Following interceptions of this disease on potatoes from Germany, the Potatoes Originating in Germany (Notification) (England) Order 2001 was introduced in October 2001, to enable the PHSI to monitor trade from this source and target inspections more effectively. Can the Minister have urgent discussions with his colleagues at DEFRA to ensure that that order is now extended to Holland and to any other source countries where the disease is likely to be present? Can he also comment on the 2,500 inspections of potato seed each year? Are those adequate, and will he again have discussions with his colleagues on that? Finally, we should not overstate the danger of this disease: it poses no danger whatever to the public, they may continue to eat potatoes perfectly safely—and my potatoes grown in Norfolk are some of the best.

Mr. Touhig

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman declared an interest in the matter. I will ensure that the Hansard report of today's question is brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because several issues have been raised to which it would be more appropriate for a Minister from her Department to respond.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I shall ensure that the matter is brought to the attention of my colleagues, and we shall take whatever steps are appropriate in view of the difficulties that we face. It is important that we do not overstate the difficulty at the present time. Let us do the assessment and take the appropriate action because, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said, it is important to note that the situation is isolated. We did the right thing at the beginning and we need to continue to do that.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being very serious, how serious is the outbreak?

Mr. Touhig

To answer that question would perhaps lend weight to those who are trying to suggest that the problem is greater for our country than it is, and I would not wish to take that course. The matter is serious, and it is appropriate that we respond seriously. In view of the huge problems that this country's farming community has faced in recent years, I do not think that any hon. Member wants to do anything more to harm or cause grief to farmers and their families.