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Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

Volume 402: debated on Thursday 3 April 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked



What percentage of local councils she expects will reach the 2004 targets for the percentage of household rubbish recycled. [106682]

I cannot predict now what percentage of local authorities will reach their 2003–04 targets. Evidence up to 2001–02 suggests that good progress has been made. That will be augmented by schemes that have been or are being introduced to improve performance.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the extra money received by Cambridgeshire waste partnership for the recycling strategy, particularly for the £3.5 million grant announced earlier this year. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the effectiveness of local councils' recycling strategies, particularly in view of some of the claims that are being made. The Liberal Democrats in my constituency sent out a leaflet claiming that 16 per cent. of household rubbish was being recycled, whereas Cambridgeshire waste partnership claimed that only 13 per cent. was recycled. Will my right hon. Friend look into that and—

I am pleased that Cambridge succeeded in the challenge fund and that, as a result, it can increase its recycling rate from about 15 per cent. to, I hope, about 26 per cent. in the current year. On my hon. Friend's particular point, local authorities are under a statutory duty to provide accurate information for each best value performance indicator. That information is subject to audit, so any issue about the accuracy of the performance claimed against any indicator should be brought to the attention of the district auditor.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) has had an answer to her question from my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), and the hon. Lady is incorrect in the assertion that she makes.

In respect of targets, if local authorities dramatically increase recycling, as both we and the Government want, is it not important to have a strong market for the goods collected, so that they are not sent to landfill? What are the Government doing to identify markets to deal with the large increase in recycled products that will occur?

:We are aware that a successful recycling strategy must have three elements. One is stretching targets, which will increase recycling beyond what would otherwise be the case. We believe that setting statutory recycling targets for local authorities will achieve that. Secondly, adequate funding is necessary. I have repeatedly pointed to the increase in the revenue support grant through the £140 billion challenge fund, and the 60 per cent. increase in private finance initiative money. The third element is, of course, markets. We set up the waste and resources action programme, which is a business at arm's length from Government, to find innovative methods of recovery and reuse of recycled products. It has a £40 million budget and I am aware of several innovative examples, which I want to see multiplied across the economy.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for all the good work that the Government have done in this sector, if we do not secure a faster rate of increase in the landfill tax in next week's Budget and if we do not set up a strategic waste authority to co-ordinate the different aspects, we will not make further progress and we will not hit the targets?

The Government are well aware of that. We have extremely tough landfill targets to reach. As I have said repeatedly, instead of doubling landfill under the "business as usual" scenario by 2020, we are seeking to reduce it by two thirds by that date, which is extremely demanding. There are two main measures to achieve that: one is the landfill tax escalator—my hon. Friend makes a fair point about the rate of increase, and Ministers have been paying considerable attention to that and will respond to the strategy report shortly—and the other is the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill, currently proceeding through the House. Indeed, I left its Committee proceedings five minutes ago. That Bill will set physical limits on the amounts that can be sent to landfill and progressively reduce them year by year.

As the Minister will know, last weekend certain journalists had been briefed to the effect that the Government propose to change the law to allow householders to be charged for the collection of rubbish from their homes. I understand that the Secretary of State persuaded the Deputy Prime Minister of the need for that. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have decided to adopt that policy?

That is certainly news to us, but one often learns much from the press about what the Government are alleged to be about to do. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman awaits the Government's response to the strategy unit report, which will be published around Budget time. Such a change in the law was just one of the recommendations in that report. The Government are giving careful consideration to it and we shall make our response shortly.

National Park Boundaries


What plans she has to extend the boundaries of national parks. [106683]

I have no plans at present to extend the boundaries of any of the existing national parks in England, and I am advised that the Countryside Agency has no plans to undertake any reviews.

I congratulate the Government on their wholly admirable handling of the national parks agenda thus far, but will my right hon. Friend examine the possibility that discrete areas just outside national park boundaries could be added to the national parks without going through a review of the entire parks boundaries? If that were possible, would not it be a good way to protect some of our most valuable landscapes, as it would give them the extra protection that national parks status guarantees? I am thinking particularly about the east and south of the lake district.

:I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the Government's record. He is right that, at present, the procedures that must be followed for even a relatively small-scale and discrete area review are substantial, and much the same as those for a new national park. That is the position, and I am not able to change that at present. However, I take my hon. Friend's point that we must take such issues into account, not least because national parks are of great value to the nation. I cannot offer my hon. Friend a remedy in the short term, but I can undertake to give careful thought to the point that he makes.

When the Secretary of State considers the national parks, will she bear it in mind that, however important the quiet enjoyment of national parks is for visitors, it is also important that people can earn a living inside the national parks? The foot and mouth disease outbreak showed, among other things, how dependent most people living in national parks are on the tourism industry, which is often not high value, and on agriculture, which is going through a crisis. Will the right hon. Lady bear it in mind that we should look to the parks having an economic purpose, as well as an enjoyment purpose, so that the parks can live in their own right, and not be exclusively playgrounds for people who come in from outside?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, with which the whole House will agree and sympathise. It is precisely to take account of such matters that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life presided over a joint conference with the regional development agencies about a year ago. Some further work is being undertaken on the back of that conference, and we anticipate a further report, probably in June. I entirely take the right hon. Gentleman's point, which is valid and important.

I, too, congratulate the Government on their attitude to the national parks. Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), will my right hon. Friend look at the system employed in places such the parc d'Armorique in Brittany? Small areas worthy of protection that are not within the park's boundaries can be brought into the park quickly and easily.

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an interesting point, and highlights an example of how others manage these things differently. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), I cannot undertake to make the changes that she suggests at the present time. However, I can certainly undertake to give consideration to the example that she gave, as we will to the proposals that may be put forward by others. I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be very happy to discuss the detail of these matters with my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State knows very well the peak district national park, which attracts more than 20 million visitors a year. Recently, the Government produced a report on the governance of national parks that proposed a reduction in the number of parish representatives involved in running a national park. The proposal may have been well meaning, but does the Secretary of State understand that it would be greatly resisted in the peak district? Will she give very careful consideration as to whether she should go forward with the proposal?

We always keep such matters under very careful consideration. I shall certainly agree to look again at the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. However, I assure him that the Government are trying, as everyone would wish, to get the right balance between the representation of the different interests, who all have the right to a voice.

Sewage Works


If she will make a statement on the consultation on proposals for the statutory control of odour and other nuisance from sewage works. [106684]

The consultation ended on 28 March and we have received more than 100 responses from local authorities, water companies, professional bodies, local groups and members of the public who have experienced odour problems from sewage treatment works. My officials are collating the responses and I hope to be able to make a further announcement to the House before the summer recess.

Constituents of mine in Bromborough, who have long suffered from the problems associated with a landfill site, are now plagued with foul smells emanating from a waste water treatment plant. As my right hon. Friend will know, the loss of a test case by Liverpool city council against United Utilities effectively rules out powers of enforcement against odour nuisance. Can he assure my long-suffering constituents, who are now also threatened with ammonium nitrate being dumped in the vicinity, that his Department will act with all possible speed to find a resolution to the problem?

Yes, indeed—we want to get a resolution as soon as possible. In many parts of the country, water companies and local authorities, together with local residents, can and do tackle such issues in a pragmatic and speedy way. They do not need to wait for the outcome of the consultation or, indeed, for new legislation in order to behave in a sensible and grown-up manner in trying to deal with a matter that is a nuisance to local constituents. I am not familiar with the case that my hon. Friend mentions, but I will he happy to discuss it with him if he would find that helpful.

Castle Point suffers from bad odours from sewage plants, but also from Pitsea landfill tip and from the Coryton oil refinery, where there have recently been terrible odours. Will the Government make available specific funds for the excellent Castle Point borough councillors to monitor those odours and to deal with them?

Those responsibilities lie with the Environment Agency as well as with the local authority, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at what is available to both those bodies at the present time. The consultation deals specifically with the smells that emanate from sewage treatment works, so that is the issue to which I should respond.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a serious problem? I must declare an interest, because I live quite close to our local sewage works. The reality is that again we have a problem with United Utilities, which will not spend the money to provide a good sewage facility without any odour. Is it not right that we need legislation, and when will we get it?

I can understand my hon. Friend s concern if he is in close contact with the problem. Many hon. Members understand it through the experience of their constituents, but he has direct experience. These matters should be capable of being dealt with by a common-sense approach. We undertook the consultation because it was discovered that in some parts of the country—not many, but a significant number—problems were not being solved at a local level, and we want to deal with that as quickly as possible. I would encourage water companies, local authorities and local residents to get together to see whether such matters can be dealt with speedily and sympathetically at a local level.

Bovine Tb


What steps she is taking to reduce the incidence of bovine TB. [106685]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

We are working hard to reduce the incidence of bovine TB and are spending £35 million to £40 million a year on a programme of public health protection measures, which include cattle testing, cattle controls and research.

Last autumn, in response to industry calls, we introduced a package of measures aimed at helping farmers under TB restriction and improving the diagnosis of the disease.

What assurance can the Minister give to the farmers of Hazel Grove, Mellor and Compstall that the insidious spread of bovine TB into Cheshire is being brought under control? Will he end the long delays in on-farm testing that seriously disrupt farmers, and will he intensify the testing of road kill so that the disease can be tracked properly on its spread through the country?

On the first point, road traffic accidents are a very important way of examining badger carcases, and we have extended that practice as far as possible to give us more information.

As regards Cheshire, we are keeping a close eye on the situation in relation to TB spread. I recently met a delegation of farmers from the National Farmers Union to discuss the matter, and they had some thoughtful ideas about controls on cattle movement, which are an important factor.

We have made good progress in reducing the backlog that built up as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic, and we are trying to ensure a speedy turnaround of testing wherever possible.

The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is about to produce a report. I will not predict what the report will say but, from the evidence that we heard, it is fair to say that we still have a scientific challenge to face up to. The different sides of the argument are hard to bring together. Is the Minister aware that the old Select Committee on Agriculture called for a plan B? That should in no way undermine the work of the independent scientific group, but we have to be aware that options may have to be kept open. Would the Minister care to comment on that?

We will certainly have to consider a range of options to deal with bovine TB. We have already done that, for example, in the measures that we have put in place for on-farm movements and controls, for the extension of the gamma interferon test, and for research into the epidemiology of the disease. As my hon. Friend suggests, there is a polarisation of opinion on the causes of bovine TB. That is why we have the Krebs study, and that is why we have to approach this issue on the basis of science, to examine all the possible pathways of the disease and to help us to understand how it spreads and is transmitted.

Is the Minister aware that, in south-west Wiltshire, the badger population has for a decade been out of control and out of balance, and that for five years bovine TB has been spreading rapidly? Only this week, my local branch of the National Farmers Union told me that farmers west of Salisbury are desperate about the slow progress of successive Governments in addressing the problem. Will the Minister treat this as a matter of urgency in a rural economy that is already in crisis?

The Department regards this as a priority issue, and that is why we have committed so many funds to it and instigated so much scientific research.

Badger populations have increased in some areas—although not all areas—and the link between badgers and bovine TB is an issue. However, it would be a mistake to focus entirely on that link. We understand and accept that the badger population is a reservoir for disease, but we do not understand the epidemiology or the way in which disease can spread between cattle and badgers. We are not sure that a programme of badger culling is the best use of resources or the most effective way of controlling the disease. The current study will look into that. I would not want to go back to a failed policy that did not stop the spread or increase of the disease.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that this year's figures show a worrying increase in positive bovine TB tests in Staffordshire? Will he take a personal interest in whether the resources available are adequate to deal with the increasing challenge—especially the human resources? Will he confirm that a vaccine is still some way away?

There has certainly been an increase in Staffordshire, which was the result of the halt in testing in 2001 and the backlog that came with it. Because of that loss of a year, I would caution people about evaluating the current figures until probably midsummer, when we will have a chance to see what the true spread and increase has been. At the moment, the figures are distorted by the backlog.

Vaccine development is part of our approach in our research into both badgers and cattle. We have committed just about all the resources that we possibly can to that development but, at the moment, there is no sign of even a near-breakthrough in the development of a suitable vaccine.

The Minister suggests that there is uncertainty, but one thing that is absolutely certain is that the disease is moving much faster than the Government. The profound concerns of farmers have, reportedly, been dismissed by the Minister as being based on folklore. I am sure that he will want to retract that or apologise for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) suggests, the problem is rapidly getting out of control. The disease is spreading and is having a devastating effect. Will the Minister give specific answers to these questions? What steps are being taken and what timetable does he envisage for the development of a vaccine for the eradication of bovine TB in the whole wildlife reservoir population—not just badgers—and also in susceptible farmed animals?

Independent scientific groups say that a vaccine is probably 10 years away—although even that is a difficult figure. However, I warn the hon. Gentleman against using phrases such as "out of control" to describe the spread of the disease, because of the current distortion of figures. We need to examine the figures carefully, in a proper analytical way, rather than throwing around such phrases.

There have been calls from some farming organisations to restart badger culling outside the trial areas, but there is no evidence to suggest that that would have a positive effect on controlling the disease. We need to evaluate all methods of control—testing, movement control, biosecurity and vaccine development—as well as wildlife receptors. It would be a mistake to focus on one particular aspect and to think that by dealing with that we could solve the problem.

Departmental Staff


If she will make a statement on her plans to reduce the number of senior staff in her Department. [106686]

There are no plans to reduce the number of senior staff in the Department.

In view of that slightly surprising reply, will the Minister explain public reports a few weeks ago that the Secretary of State's intention was to be the first member of the Cabinet to set an objective of reducing her Department's bureaucracy by 20 per cent? Why has she subsequently backtracked on that public commitment?

The hon. Gentleman should not always believe everything that he reads in the papers. He was clearly determined to ask the question that he had prepared. I have given an answer that dismisses that rather facile approach.

As the Minister said, the intention may be for there to be no such reduction, but the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, of which I am a member, was distinctly unimpressed by the Department's IT strategy, which envisages a selling-off of the information functions to the private sector. Will that not lead to a loss of experienced, committed and talented individuals that DEFRA, in its present position, cannot possibly afford? Surely, for a Department to sell off core resources, such as information, is like St. Thomas' hospital over the river selling off its surgery department to Sainsbury's butchers.

I could simply answer "no" and leave it at that. I am afraid that my hon. Friend gives a complete mischaracterisation of what is going on in DEFRA. The Office of Government Commerce review has just been completed, which demonstrated how DEFRA had lifted its game in improving IT. We try to use the best industry standards to provide high quality IT for the future, which is badly needed due to the desperate situation that we inherited. We have every intention of improving IT, as we intend to improve senior management. We have made great strides during the past 18 months and will continue to do so.

I am relieved to hear that the Minister has no intention of cutting senior staff in DEFRA by 20 per cent. In my experience, DEFRA civil servants are of the highest quality, so I am glad about that. In that case, however, what does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about the Select Committee's report? I remind him that it states that DEFRA

"must undergo … structural and cultural change. We have doubts about the abilities of management to oversee such a period of change."
Will the Minister answer some questions about staffing in that context? First, why are officials of the former Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions paid more than their equivalents in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Secondly, how much money does he plan to save for the Treasury as a result of the senior staff review? Will it be more than the £20 million set aside for early retirements? Thirdly, if, as reported in the Financial Times on 13 January, "mandarins" are to undergo psychometric testing to assess their leadership abilities, would it not he reasonable for Ministers to undergo the same tests?

We are proposing to use those tests on the Opposition, as they need testing more than we do. Again, the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the papers. We are seeking to narrow the gaps between the payment of staff and a lot of progress has been made, but he will appreciate that dealing with that issue is expensive. The purpose of the work that has come from the senior staff review is to lift the quality of staff, particularly senior staff, throughout the Department, and a great deal of progress is being made in that regard. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the high quality of the staff in DEFRA, and they are lifting their game throughout the Department as a result of the leadership that they are being offered.

Fallen Stock


If she will make a statement on the disposal of fallen stock on farms. [106687]


What assessment she has made of the financial impact of the new fallen stock regulations. [106688]


What recent representations she has received regarding the disposal of fallen stock. [106690]

I have received a number of representations expressing concerns about introducing the new rules on the disposal of fallen stock. That will clearly have a financial impact on farmers, and the Government continue our dialogue with the industry about introducing a national fallen stock collection and disposal scheme as the best way of addressing those concerns.

I should declare an interest as a farmer, although I own no stock. What has the Secretary of State got against farmers? This measure will mean that the disposal of a dead sheep may cost more the value of a live beast. It is unscientific and illogical. Will the Government now ban the burial of human corpses?

The hon. Gentleman says that the measure is unscientific, but the basic regulations were put in place precisely as a result of a report from the EU Scientific Committee. They have been extensively discussed across the EU, and there is general agreement that they are desirable. I reject utterly the suggestion that the Government are in some way attempting to penalise farmers. After all, we are not required to put Government resources behind the scheme that we propose to adopt to try to form the basis of a national scheme, but we have done so.

Will the Minister confirm that, last year, DEFRA was given a report by an independent scientist, showing that biodigestion is a very useful alternative technology in dealing with fallen stock, as it is biosecure and environmentally friendly? What discussions has she had with the European Commission in respect of including that method of disposal among the approved options?

I am aware that the hon. Lady and, indeed, some of her colleagues have raised that issue, and I accept that it does sound interesting. Unfortunately, it is illegal at present, but I am conscious of the interest in the proposals to which she refers, and she will like to know that we have referred them to the scientific authorities in the EU for consideration. However, we cannot pursue that option at present.

The Secretary of State may wish to be aware that many Suffolk livestock farmers in my constituency believe that information from her Department on the change to the fallen stock regime has been both unhelpful and unclear. In the light of that, has she worked out a mode of enforcement for the new regime, and, if so, will she publish it?

I shall begin where the hon. Gentleman ended. Enforcement is, of course, a matter for local authorities, which enforce regulations of that kind, but I am sorry to hear that individual farmers find the existing guidance less clear than they would wish. We will be writing shortly to all farmers about the new rules and what they need to do to meet them, and we intend to include proposals for a national helpline, as well as arrangements for a voluntary subscription scheme.

On-farm incineration is a legal alternative for the disposal of fallen stock. When does my right hon. Friend intend to issue the information and guidance for farmers about the use of on-farm incineration?

I believe that some information and guidance is already on the DEFRA website. We are certainly mindful of the fact that, as my hon. Friend will know, there is substantial availability of such incineration capacity, but it has to meet the required standards, and we will work with the industry to ensure that that is the case during the next few months.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many hon. Members feel that on-farm disposal is the most environmentally sound option? Will she say a little more about encouraging biodigestion or on-farm incineration, so that we do not see lorries travelling up and down the country collecting fallen farm stock at huge cost to individual farmers and with environmental costs to the whole country? Will she take this opportunity to rule out any further Government move to end woodland burials or the burial of pets in gardens?

The hon. Gentleman's final point takes us down a slight sidetrack, so I shall return to the main point that he makes. It is valid to say that people will be concerned and that we should be concerned about the biosecurity implications of transport. Equally, as he raised the issue of costs, I say to him that the national collection and disposal Industry has come forward with proposals to the Government for what it believes will be a very sound operational scheme. It has identified the fact that it believes that there could be a substantial reduction in costs if such a scheme were fully utilised.

Will my right hon. Friend adopt a flexible and proportionate approach to this matter? It should be flexible in the sense that, if agreement cannot be reached but is in the offing, the deadline of 1 May should be extended. It should be proportionate when it comes to hill farmers, because there is a case for sheep carcases being allowed to remain on site for conservation and for wildlife purposes.

I certainly undertake to consider my hon. Friend's point. There has been extensive consultation on this issue for at least a year, and we are anxious to resolve the matter, not least because, if there is scope for agreement to some kind of national scheme, that will make an enormous difference to the way in which we can operate it.

In view of the fact that the regulations need to be implemented on 1 May, this is not just a fiasco that is waiting to happen but a fiasco that is bound to happen. What efforts did the Government make to ensure that the country has the ability to have a sensible derogation for remote rural areas, as is now the case in Scotland? In view of the Secretary of State's answers, will she ensure that farmers have ample opportunity to be consulted? As will inevitably be the case, the implementation and enforcement of the regulations will be delayed if the farming community is properly consulted on the Government's proposals to deal with this issue.

I am afraid that I reject the notion that this is a fiasco. We have been consulting the farming community for, as I said, at least a year. The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that there will be a problem with implementation and that it will be a fiasco because, in some way, the capacity will not be there to deal with the stock. That is not the case. We are told by the collection and disposal industry that there is ample capacity. It is absolutely possible for the regulations to be implemented on the due date.

Of course, we want a better, good national scheme that, as the industry advises us, could significantly reduce the costs that farmers are liable for now. That seems to be to everyone's benefit. That is what we shall write to individual farmers about in the very near future.

On 28 February, officials from the Secretary of State's Department told the National Farmers Union that they would issue detailed guidance on on-farm incineration within the following two weeks. When is this guidance going to appear?

Detailed guidance is certainly under preparation and it was my impression that it was going out—

The hon. Gentleman says within two weeks, but it was certainly my impression that it is going out in the next few days or week. Although there is detailed guidance about how on-farm incineration can be effected, I repeat the point that I made to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). The industry assures us that there is capacity and scope to deal with this problem now.

Does this not show yet again that the incompetence and confusion in the Secretary of State's Department is stopping effective and clear advice from getting to farmers and others who will have to cope with the regulations in about three weeks? We are told that the advice on incineration that was promised a fortnight from the end of February is still being drafted, and we are told that the Department is getting together its letter to send out to all farmers as soon as possible. Can she confirm that article 32 of the animal by-product regulations expressly allows for temporary derogations from those regulations and that the United Kingdom has, in fact, already sought and obtained delays on issues such as the use of used cooking oil in animal feed? Is not the sensible course of action now for the Secretary of State to apply urgently for a derogation from the fallen stock provisions of the regulations so that a proper, effective scheme can be put in place and so that farmers do not face the confusion that they face now and will face from the beginning of May?

Let me repeat that the industry is perfectly aware of the implications. The regulations are not something that has come out of the blue—we have been discussing them with the industry for a full year. There is capacity to deal now with the problem of disposal, and there is no practical need for a derogation. The hon. Gentleman may be losing sight of the key fact that the regulations were introduced in the first place on the basis of scientific advice that the present arrangement was undesirable and should be ended as soon as possible. That is what we are working towards. We very much regret that, unfortunately, it has not proved possible to persuade the representatives of farming organisations to agree to what the collection and disposal industry say is a perfectly practical and viable scheme.

I remind the House that the industry believes that a national scheme in which people voluntarily participate would operate at substantially lower costs than the present arrangements. It estimates that it would cost about 40 per cent. less for adult cattle and 60 per cent. less for adult sheep. It is on that basis that we shall write to farmers, urging them to tell us whether they would comply with and join a voluntary national scheme.

Endangered Species


What recent representations she has received from local and regional wildlife trusts concerning the future of native endangered species. [106689]

I regularly receive a number of representations from many sources including the wildlife trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Mammal Society and English Nature.

Many of my constituents are concerned about the survival of one of our best-loved species, the red squirrel. While I do not advocate the ruddy duck solution for grey squirrels, will my right hon. Friend te11 me what action the Government can take to create controlled zones for the greys so that their remorseless spread is halted? Will she look at ways of ensuring support for cross-regional co-operation in the areas most affected? In England, joint action is necessary in the north-east and Cumbria and, in Scotland, in the adjoining area of Dumfries and Galloway.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point—I entirely agree that that kind of co-operation is necessary. She will probably be aware that the Government's emphasis has been to seek to protect the red squirrel by protecting the habitat where it is most likely to survive rather than to interfere in the habitat of the grey squirrel. There is no doubt, sadly, that grey squirrels have a considerable advantage in, for example, broadleaf woodland.

The Government continue to discuss with the relevant partnership of organisations a range of protective measures to try to enhance the survival capacity of the red squirrel. I share my right hon. Friend's view that red squirrels should be protected—they are charming creatures that we would like to preserve.

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust for its work in a partnership that is seeking to reopen the old Droitwich canals? The trust's intelligent, pragmatic and sensible approach to possible threats to endangered and rare species along the banks of those waterways has led to a successful grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Advantage West Midlands to secure the reopening of those canals. Does she agree that that proves that it is possible to protect endangered and rare species while achieving beneficial change in the countryside?

I am happy to endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman said. It is both noticeable and welcome that local partnerships are springing up across the country. The hon. Gentleman is right that the important thing is that, where possible, we act at the point of endangerment, or preferably before, rather than try to retrieve a situation that we have let go beyond repair.

Dorset And East Devon World Heritage Site


What plans she has to visit the Dorset and east Devon world heritage site. [106691

I had an excellent visit to the Dorset and east Devon coast world heritage site last year, and discussed its management and development with the local steering committee and with my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to a further visit next month as part of the south-west coast path silver jubilee celebrations.

I look forward to welcoming my right hon. Friend again to that important natural world heritage site, the only one in England and Wales. Does he agree that it is important that we improve the interpretation of such sites? To that end, what recent discussions has he had directly or through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with the natural history museum to explore with the museum the possibility of investment in a major facility somewhere along the coast, ideally in south Dorset?

I am aware of those discussions, although I have not been involved directly with them. The Government office for the south-west, in which DEFRA is represented, is working closely with the jurassic coast steering group. I am impressed by the partnership working—the determination and teamwork—in my hon. Friend's constituency and in that part of the country.

Coastal Erosion


If she will make a statement on her policy on coastal erosion. [106692]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

The policy aim is to reduce the risks to people and the developed and natural environment from coastal erosion by encouraging the provision of technically, environmentally and economically sound and sustainable defence measures.

I thank the Minister for that reply, which raises a concern about another part of the north Norfolk coast, in addition to the one about which I have already written to him, Happisburgh. I refer to Cley and Salthouse, where over a period of five years the Environment Agency developed a multi-objective scheme along the lines that the Minister described to benefit people, property and conservation. A massive sum was spent on developing the scheme. Last year, it seems that DEFRA suddenly pulled the rug from under the Environment Agency and determined that instead of a multi-objective scheme, only conservation would be covered, and people and property would be dealt with separately. Now we are back to square one, after a massive investment—

Order. That is turning into a speech. The Minister has probably got the drift.

The Cley and Salthouse scheme is well known to me, although the hon. Gentleman's interpretation is not correct. The approach that we take in DEFRA is an integrated approach, whereby environmental factors are considered alongside issues of people and property, as they are in Cley and Salthouse. The delay there arose from the fact that there was one preferred option, which was a clay bank scheme. English Nature raised some reasonable objections to that, relating to the loss of fresh water, the balance between preserving freshwater lagoons and saline lagoons, and whether a scheme could involve the retreat of the shingle bank to a lower profile, which may overtop more but would nevertheless provide adequate levels of defence. It is that detail which is currently under discussion, and that is the reason for the delay.

My hon. Friend is only too aware of the tremendous investment that the Government have made in the stabilisation of the Yorkshire heritage coast. Many people in our community welcome that. Has the additional request for support for that scheme been considered? In the light of his earlier answer, will my hon. Friend reaffirm the Government's commitment to all members of local communities being able to have their say in such schemes, which may sometimes be controversial?

I confirm that. With any flood or coastal defence scheme, the Environment Agency or the local authority takes great steps to involve local people. We want to take their views into account. I am familiar with the details of the Scarborough scheme, which involves a major financial commitment on the part of the Government to protect the people of Scarborough. I know that there are issues of cost overrun. Cost overruns are not unique in any kind of major scheme, and we will of course examine the details of the overrun. I should make it clear that we do not automatically provide the additional cost, but if there is a valid reason for the additional expenditure, we will consider it carefully.

Utility Regulators (Price Reviews)


What steps (a) Ofgem, (b) Oftel and (c) Ofwat are taking following the 50th Report by the Committee of Public Accounts in Session 2001–02 on Pipes and Wires to simplify the information requirements they place on companies and to change the period over which price reviews are conducted. [106693]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

Neither energy nor telecommunications policy is the responsibility of my Department. The Office of Water Services advises me that it has taken account of the Committee's recommendations in its approach to the next periodic review of water price limits. Ofwat has streamlined the information required from companies into two main submissions and has shortened the length of the period over which the review is conducted from three to two years.

I am pleased to hear that reply. The Minister will he aware that regulated water companies complain that much of the information that they give Ofwat is not used. Is he keeping up the pressure on Ofwat to ensure that all the information that it requires from the companies is proper and valid, so that we avoid useless paper chases in Whitehall?

I accept that, while regulation is important, as we are dealing with monopoly companies that must be regulated, bureaucracy should be kept to a minimum. As a matter of coincidence, I met Philip Fletcher, the regulator, yesterday in one of our regular meetings to discuss water issues. I know that his work and the information that he collects, some of which we discussed yesterday, are essential in the very complex task of price fixing and taking into account the needs of consumer protection, the environment and companies themselves. I believe that he is taking steps to be as efficient as possible and that the information that is collected is put to good use.

Paragraph 4.4 of the report describes the often perverse effects that the regulator's pricing policies can have on water and sewerage companies. As a result, I believe that a problem has been created in my constituency, as Yorkshire Water tells me that an over-prescriptive policy regarding the capital programme is preventing it from replacing inadequate sewerage, which is causing sewage to spill into the houses of local residents. Can my hon. Friend offer me any help in this matter? Will he meet me and one or two others to discuss the problem?

I am very happy to meet to discuss individual constituency cases and problems, so I offer my hon. Friend that assurance. I am not all together convinced about the claim to which he refers. I do not know all the details involved, but I can say that price fixing has an element relating to capital investment that is essential to meet the environmental and quality standards that consumers and the public want, many of which are important commitments in legislation and directives. Within that, there is provision for the sort of maintenance that we would expect from any water or sewerage company. I know that sewage flooding is an issue and that it is under discussion in relation to the next price-fixing round, but without knowing all the details, I am a bit sceptical about the suggestion that the capital programme is preventing action on such flooding.

In the context of the next round of discussions on water charges, one of the factors in which the Minister's Department will be closely involved is helping to quantify the costs of implementing the water framework directive. Will he tell the House what progress he is making to assist water companies in coming to conclusions on the costs of implementing that very important directive?

It is an important directive and the biggest ever to have come out of the EU. It provides some major benefits, and we should not forget that. It is true that there are potential costs. Part of the problem is that some of those costs will be met by work that is currently under way, including, for example, on the waste water directive and work that we are implementing in nitrate vulnerable zones relating to diffuse pollution. I think that our figures on cost implications will become more accurate as time progresses. The implementation date is 2015, but I think that we will have a clearer idea of the costs and commitments in about 2005.

Fluvial Strategy (River Trent)


If she will make a statement on the progress of the fluvial strategy for the River Trent. [106694]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I understand from the Environment Agency that its study leading to a flood management strategy for the fluvial Trent is proceeding well. The agency currently anticipates that it will be completed in March 2004.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The communities of Willington, Barrow upon Trent and Shardlow in my constituency are waiting with anxiety for the outcome of the report, which they hope will give guidance about both the true nature of flood risk in their villages and the appropriate defence measures that can be devised. Can he give me some assurance that they will receive some interim guidance on the progress of this very important study?

Yes, I can. I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in flood defence and I understand that the test options for flood management should be complete in July 2003. There should be an interim progress report in April 2003, which his constituents will be able to see. The Trent is a very complex river system in which I have to declare an interest, as it forms the western boundary of my constituency. Such a study offers a wide range of benefits for helping us to understand the whole management of water and the best options for protecting communities.

Presumably, the fluvial strategy that the Government are following for the River Trent will not be dissimilar to strategies for the rest of the country. Will the Minister confirm that the fluvial strategy encompasses dredging and that such rivers are dredged as frequently today as they were five or 10 years ago?

I can confirm that if the strategy identifies that dredging should be an aspect of river management, it will be done. I caution that dredging often has limited benefits for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it could have a role to play and if such a role is identified, dredging will form part of the strategy that we will implement.

Radioactive Waste


If she will make a statement on the arrangements for the disposal of low-level solid radioactive waste in the UK. [106695]

Solid radioactive low-level waste is safely disposed of at Drigg in Cumbria, apart from a small proportion, which is kept in store.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, but what is his response to the claims of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee that the United Kingdom's radioactive waste inventory does not take account of low-activity waste, facility decommissioning or clean-up costs, including those for contaminated land, and that any perception that low-activity waste can be dealt with at Drigg is misplaced?

We are aware of the issue. Drigg has sufficient capacity until 2050 with regard to current arisings, but my hon. Friend asks about low-activity waste. We are reviewing the best way to deal with waste that is only likely to be contaminated: soil or building rubble from the decommissioning and clean-up of nuclear sites. That will be a significant issue for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I am sure that it will give its view, as will the new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which will examine the delivery of our plans for the disposal of low-level waste.

Sheep Identification And Traceability


What discussions she has had with the European Commission about the EU proposal on sheep identification and traceability. [106697]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

Officials have held high-level discussions on these proposals with the European Commission and my noble Friend Lord Whitty contributed to a brief discussion on the proposals during the Agriculture Council on 27 and 28 January.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with the National Farmers Union Scotland that the European Union proposals would effectively close the Scottish sheep industry? Will he do everything possible to bring the highly regarded Scottish flock identification system, which is supported by farmers, vets and the Government, to the attention of the Commission?

We have raised our concerns with the Commission about its proposals several times and said that they are inappropriate given the size of our sheep flock and the fact that we have recording procedures, as the hon. Gentleman says. We must seriously address the traceability of sheep. We believe that electronic identification is ultimately the right way forward. Harmonisation rules on that are not yet in place, but the current proposals are not satisfactory. We shall continue to make representations to the Commission on the matter.

Silkstream Flood Defence Scheme


If she will make a statement on progress with the Silkstream flood defence scheme. [106701]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has approved the Environment Agency's proposed Silkstream flood defence scheme, subject to satisfactory resolution of negotiations with landowners. I understand that the agency is undertaking those negotiations and has commenced detailed design, with a view to starting construction in late summer 2004.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but can he do anything to speed up the scheme? It is already a year behind schedule, and summer 2004 is six months later than the date that was given in the previous answer at the beginning of the year. Will he ascertain whether anything can be done to make some progress on the scheme, which is long overdue and badly needed by my constituents?

My hon. Friend has raised the issue for some time and I sympathise with his frustration about the progress that has been made. I understand that negotiations with landowners constitute one of the problems because land needs to be acquired. However, I believe that they are concluding and I hope that progress will be made quickly.