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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked

Turkey Meat

1.

What steps she is taking to restrict turkey meat imports from Brazil which (a) are mis-described and (b) fail to comply with EU vaccine rules. [113298]

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

Imports are not allowed unless controls on vaccination against major poultry diseases are the same as those in the EU. With the assistance of Customs and Excise and the European Commission, we are looking at the levels of certain turkey products imported from outside the EU during the run-up to Christmas 2002, and whether they comply with EU rules.

I welcome the brief answer that the Minister has given. My concern relates to the use of nitrofurans as antibiotics in turkey meat from Brazil, and the mis-description of imports into this country from Brazil, where products that appear to be marginally treated are dealt with in a different tariff fashion. This has had a major impact on Brandon's Poultry in Scropton, in my constituency. I hope that the Minister can take action to remove this unfair competition.

I know that my hon. Friend has been very active on behalf of his local company and his constituents in respect of this issue. I can reassure him that there are strict controls and regulations on imports from countries such as Brazil. They must come from a slaughterhouse that meets the EU standard, and they must go through border inspection posts, at which there is 100 per cent, inspection of documentation and 50 per cent, physical inspection of the product.

I understand my hon. Friend's point about the use of illegal vaccinations. Tests are being carried out on poultry meat to ensure that such products are not receiving vaccinations that are banned in the EU. We are taking seriously the concerns that have been expressed, and we are currently carrying out a full investigation with the support of Customs and Excise.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) about nitrofurans in meat, and the Minister is aware of my concern about illegal meat imports generally, including turkey meat. What does he have to say in response to the comment made by the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, Dr. Jon Bell, to the Public Accounts Committee yesterday? He said that a ministerial interdepartmental committee on illegal meat imports "is being set up". What does that say about the urgency with which the Government are addressing the question of illegal meat imports, despite all the pressure that we have put on the Minister in the past two years in the wake of foot and mouth and classical swine fever? Is this committee still going to be set up, and why has it not been set up already?

The House will know that a great deal of action has been taken in relation to illegal meat imports. On risk analysis, it is important to stress that there are a range of risks associated with importing disease and disease control, and we must address them all. Illegal imports is one of them and we take it seriously, which is why more finance has been provided, Customs and Excise has been given a stronger role, we have improved the range of publicity and information for people entering this country, and we have obtained agreement from the EU to end the derogations that allowed the importation of person al meat products.

Common Agricultural Policy

If she will make a statement on the mid-term common agricultural policy review and its implications for British farmers. [113299]

Although we would have preferred the Commission proposals to be more radical, they do represent a considerable improvement and we will be working hard to secure a positive outcome to the negotiations this summer. Our analysis of the proposals concludes that overall, they would have a positive impact on UK farmers and farm incomes.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that reply. Her Department is aware of the closure of Brandon's turkey factory in Dalton, near Thirsk, in the Vale of York, because of the impact of substandard imported turkeys from Brazil. Her Department is hiding behind the fact that currently, no EU action is being taken to prevent these sub-standard imports into this country. Can she give us an assurance today that in terms of sub-standard turkey imports and cheap sugar imports from Brazil, this House will be consulted before the final agreement is reached in the mid-term review, possibly before the end of June, in Greece?

Well entirely, but apart from the issue of the mid-term review and the decisions being taken, it is currently against the law for people to import material from elsewhere that does not meet EU standards. So although I understand and recognise the hon. Lady's concern, the position that she describes needs to be addressed by means of enforcement of the current rules.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear it in mind in the negotiations that many of us do not want the current system, through which farmers are subsidised for production, to be replaced by one which subsidises them simply because they own a piece of farmland or—even worse—because they once happened to be farmer. I know that she has been pushing hard for fundamental reform at European level, but I hope that she will bear in mind those concerns and press for as much funding as possible to be transferred to true rural development, rather than continuing with the current subsidy culture in another form.

I understand that entirely, and well recall the Select Committee expressing anxiety that we would be in danger of simply transferring money from one area in which we subsidise to another. I share my hon. Friend's view that it is very important that we make the best possible use of public funds, and that the purpose is to provide public benefit. It is desirable to support the wider rural economy as well as agri-environment measures.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is an urgent need to establish what happens to the right of entitlement to the single farm payment in cases where the land has changed hands or tenancy during the reference period? If the decision is to devolve the matter to member states, will she ensure that the Government's intentions are clarified as soon as possible, and that a detailed consultation is held?

I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are very conscious of some of the serious and genuine practical problems that existing proposals raise. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the answer that he seeks at present, but we believe that the talks and negotiations remain on course for basic decisions by the end of June. Once we see the shape of those decisions, we will know what impact they will have. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have received many representations about the points that he makes, and that we take them very seriously.

The mid-term review proposals to decouple payments do not sit easily with the Curry commission's recommendations on modulation—10 per cent., and then 20 per cent. Is my right hon. Friend confident that, in the light of that, the broad and shallow entry scheme can be funded?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that the Curry commission proposals go further than the generality of the mid-term review reform proposals would suggest. That lends a particular importance and urgency to our efforts to have that position recognised and taken account of in the negotiations. I assure both my hon. Friend and the House that there is nothing that the Government want less than to abandon the steps that we have already taken or the plans that the Curry commission rightly put forward for further steps in the UK.

Although much of the language is impenetrable to members of the public, the Secretary of State is aware that momentous decisions need to be made very shortly. What will she do to secure a deal and face down the German and French pack to protect the viability of small family farms, ensure that the nation state is able to distribute the top-sliced modulated rural development funds and, above all, significantly reduce the overall common agricultural policy budget?

I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's final point first. He will know that there is already broad agreement about the nature of the financial framework for the future use and structure of the CAP. I share his view entirely that much of the language is impenetrable, but the numbers at least are not. In addition, we have been, and will continue to be, engaged in extensive talks, bilaterally and in small groups, with other member states and the Commission. The course of action that the Commission is pursuing is that the proposals put into the public domain by Commissioner Fischler remain on the table. It is engaged in extensive dialogue with individual member states about the concerns raised by the proposals. We anticipate that there will be further extensive discussions at the next Agriculture Council, which I think is to be held next week. However, the proposals that remain on the table are the proposals with which the House and the farming community are familiar.

What estimates has my right hon. Friend made of the effect of CAP reform on the sectors that are currently unsupported, such as fruit and vegetables? Is there not a danger that some farmers will take single-farm payments, move into those sectors with a competitive advantage, and distort markets that are currently very finely balanced?

My hon. Friend raises another serious and valid point, which has been raised with this Government, with the Governments of many other member states, and with the Commission. I can assure him that we are mindful of the danger. We do not believe that it is as serious as some of those engaged in the sector believe, but we accept that we have to examine the position and take it into account as the final proposals begin to emerge.

Does the right hon. Lady believe that a national scheme for modulation is necessary, in addition to the European modulation scheme proposed by the Commission?

As the hon. Gentleman will know from what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) a few moments ago, we are mindful indeed of the fact that our voluntary modulation—some other member states are also pursuing one—goes further than the Commission's initial proposals. We are discussing with the Commission how best to handle that in terms of the transitional scheme, which is particularly relevant to the United Kingdom.

But does the right hon. Lady not accept that the Commission's current proposals already discriminate harshly against British agriculture, which will be expected to shoulder a much greater share of the costs of common agricultural policy reform than would be borne by farmers in France or Italy, for example? Imposing a domestic scheme on top of a European scheme would weight the scales still further against the competitive interests of British farmers. What they want is a fair deal out of Europe. Can the right hon. Lady guarantee that she will be able to deliver that in June?

I can certainly guarantee to fight tooth and nail to secure a fair deal for British farmers. We have no wish to see British farmers placed at a competitive disadvantage. However, the hon. Gentleman will have observed that even the Commission's current proposals on the criteria of modulation funding—we are pressing to remedy some of the unfairness that has been Britain's lot in some of the negotiations in the past—would benefit the UK by 9 to 10 per cent. That compares with 3.5 per cent, now, but I accept that aspects of the proposals are unfair and we are making that plain to the Commission.

National Air Quality Targets

3.

What progress has been made on meeting the national air quality strategy targets. [113300]

We have met, or are on course to meet, air quality objectives for five of the nine pollutants in England—namely benzene, 1,3-butadiene, carbon monoxide, lead and sulphur dioxide. Significant progress has been made towards meeting air quality objectives for nitrogen dioxide, particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and ozone. That is a result of the measures that have been implemented to reduce emissions of these pollutants, and their precursors, particularly from road transport and industry.

I thank the Minister for his answer and I commend the Government for the work that they have done. However, conditions such as asthma are greatly exacerbated by pollution. Pollution may not cause it, but, as I know from my experience, it certainly makes it worse. The number of asthma sufferers now totals 5 million. Has the Minister examined the research on the effects of long-term air pollution carried out by the air pollution unit of the Department of Health? When will the measures that he has announced have a significant effect on air pollution, so that conditions such as asthma can be significantly ameliorated?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is now greater sensitivity towards pollutants and a greater understanding of their impact. We do not believe that the battle is yet won: pointing to indicators of progress does not mean that we are satisfied with the position that we have reached. Although the emissions of most pollutants are falling, concentration levels of some are not falling as fast as we would like. I can reassure my hon. Friend that we shall remain focused on the targets and work with our colleagues in the Department of Health to remain fully sensitive to the points that he makes.

Does the Minister accept that the good work done in tackling air pollution will be undermined if the airline industry is not brought under control? Is he aware that Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports alone emit more than 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 13,000 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide each year? The industry's CO2 emissions are set to double between 1990 and 2010. Will his Department support the impositicn of a European Union aviation fuel tax, and also tell the Department for Transport that it must resist the discredited predict-and-provide policy for more runways in the south-east?

The hon. Gentleman addresses transport policy and tax in his question, which confirms the important fact that many Departments make a contribution to these policy issues. We are conscious of the impact of air transport and the situation around airports, which is clear from our statement on the consultation documents on the future of air transport in the south-east.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that air pollution is not simply an urban problem? It has a worrying effect in rural areas, especially given the amount of ozone from motorways. Is it right to put special effort into monitoring that, and does he agree that that should be part of a properly constituted overall policy, instead of one that just concentrates on urban areas?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Ozone levels in rural areas are a problem, and we are not satisfied with the progress that has been made. It should be remembered that ozone is a highly trans-boundary pollutant and we are taking measures nationally to control ozone precursors, such as nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Internationally agreed measures are the most effective ways to tackle that pollutant, as ground-level ozone concentrations in southern England are influenced largely by trans-boundary pollution. The UK will play a key role in seeking agreements on those issues, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight them as an area for concern.

Surprisingly, many local air quality management areas exist in small market towns, and some of those are set to deteriorate further as a result of unsympathetic planning. What discussions has the Minister had with his local government colleagues to ensure that planning guidance is tightened up to prevent that from happening?

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that air pollution problems arise in areas such as market towns, where one would not expect them, and he has raised the issue in the House in the past. I can assure him that air quality issues are considered across government by this Department and our colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Transport.

Sustainable Development

4.

If she will make a statement on the outcomes of the 11th meeting of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development. [113301]

The 11th session of the Commission concluded last week, having agreed a reform package and a new work programme that focuses on results and actions rather than textual negotiations. The outcome holds some promise that the CSD will be able to effectively fulfil its task of following up implementation of the Johannesburg world summit on sustainable development.

Given the lack of binding targets on renewable energy set at Johannesburg and the fact that the follow-up on energy will not begin until 2006, what strategies are the Government developing on expanding the use of renewable energy globally, and will a British Minister attend the Bonn conference on that subject next month?

We are mindful of the importance of the Bonn conference and we shall certainly be represented at a senior level. Unfortunately, we have not had much notice of those dates and Ministers' diaries are under considerable pressure. We are trying to find out who might be able to attend, but I cannot tell my hon. Friend at this point. I can tell her that we are involved in the renewable energy and energy efficiency partnership. We are taking that forward with great vigour and there is great interest in it from many companies and organisations across the world. We hope that it will be a fruitful vehicle. We are also working with other states that are pursuing similar partnerships internationally. I can assure my hon. Friend that the coalition of people who wish to pursue the advance of renewable energy is alive and well.

On the issue of sustainable development and road fuels, the Secretary of State will be aware of the contribution that is being made by the development of biodiesel, especially from the use of oilseed rape as a feedstock. However, the 20p duty derogation is not considered sufficient to pump-prime the industry in the UK. What representations could her Department make, even at this late stage in the passage of the Finance Bill, to try to increase the derogation from 20p to 28p, thus triggering an important development in sustainability?

We have had many discussions with our Treasury colleagues and I can, in all honesty, tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no unwillingness in the Treasury team to look at those issues. There have already been, and there will continue to be, extensive discussions. The industry is very aware of the position: so far, it has not been able to make its case with sufficient force to convince the Treasury about the further steps that would make the dramatic difference that has been suggested. Treasury Ministers are open to those discussions—

We are talking about substantial sums of money. The Treasury has already made a substantial potential concession in revenue terms and is willing to consider discussions, but the case must be made.

My right hon. Friend will know that there is a growing network of eco-schools, where children of all ages learn about sustainable development in practical ways. That is a good way of embedding in future generations knowledge of, and responsibility for, sustainable development. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether the Department already disseminates information on sustainable development to the network of eco-schools? If not, does she not think that it is a really good idea and is a way of improving people's understanding of sustainable development?

I share my hon. Friend's view that it is a good way of improving the understanding of sustainable development. DEFRA and the Department for Education and Skills make substantial information available to schools. Offhand, I am not aware whether special information is devoted to the network of eco-schools, but I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the relevant staff.

Cormorants (Inland Fisheries)

5.

How much public money has been spent by her Department over the last seven years on research into predation of inland fisheries by cormorants; and what conclusions have been reached. [113303]

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

The Department has spent £1.4 million on research into predation of inland fisheries by piscivorous birds over the past eight years.The research programme significantly improved our understanding of the behaviour of fish-eating birds, their numbers and distribution and the extent of the problems they cause to fisheries, and helped towards the development of effective management strategies. The results of the early research have been published.

Does the Minister agree that it will come as no surprise to either anglers or the taxpayers who funded the research to learn that cormorants eat fish? The point is what will the Minister do to make it easier for fishery owners and angling clubs to protect their stocks and their livelihoods, especially in the light of the news this week that at Walthamstow reservoir, fish stocks worth £50,000 were predated in a single year?

I know of my hon. Friend's interest in this matter. Indeed, he took me to Walthamstow reservoir to see the problem. Unfortunately, on that particular morning there was a thick fog so I can only say that I could see no problem. However, I know that there is a problem and that my hon. Friend is serious about it. As he knows, we have spent a great deal of money on looking into ways of dealing with the matter; for example, research is currently under way on fish refuges, which may be helpful in dealing with the problem. My hon. Friend will also know that in the worst-case scenario we can issue licences for control, but people have to demonstrate an economic loss and that other ways of deterring cormorants have been tried and have failed. We are willing to work with the angling world to find out how we can deter cormorants from eating its fish.

May I declare an interest? I have a pond on my farm in County Antrim—[Interruption.]—I will invite the Minister there.

At this time of year, I go to Movanagher fish farm to buy brown trout to stock the pond. All year round, I never see a cormorant, but within 24 hours cormorants come in and eat every one of those trout—[Interruption.] This is a serious point. At Movanagher fish farm, at fish farms throughout the United Kingdom and in commercial and sporting fishing, it is a disaster. The only way to deal with the problem is not to waste money on civil servants but to designate a number of days when cormorant stocks throughout the UK can be culled.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Of course there is an issue regarding still-water fisheries and the trend towards inland cormorant breeding, but his suggested solution may not work, and non-lethal deterrents may be equally effective. We do take the problem seriously; we must identify the most effective way of deterring such predation, and to do so we must examine the whole range of options.

We have been talking about fish-eating birds; may we discuss the situation with regard to a fish-eating animal—the otter? Only this week there has been a report that the otters are coming back in great numbers.

Abattoirs

7.

How many small to medium sized abattoirs there are in England. [113305]

On 1 May, there were in England 116 licensed low throughput and 172 licensed full throughput red-meat abattoirs; and 43 licensed low throughput and 68 licensed full throughput white-meat abattoirs.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, which I think shows the dramatic reduction in the number of abattoirs in England and the United Kingdom as a whole. Will he share my concern that the last abattoir in my constituency, the family firm JJJ Heathcote & Son, which has been in operation for six generations, has closed because of the huge additional costs imposed upon abbatoirs by the animal by-products regulations—particularly those relating to biological testing and the disposal of blood, which will add costs to the company, which went out of active trading on 1 May, of £525 a week? The Minister can see that that is a huge additional sum. What is the Minister going to do to safeguard animal welfare and reduce the inconvenience and costs to farmers, by ensuring that in future small abattoirs remain in business?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern because he referred to the closure of an abattoir in his constituency. I understand that the decision to close that abattoir was a commercial one, not attributable directly to the introduction of the animal by-products regulations, although they may be a factor.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is precisely what I understand, and I do not think that it helps to try to nail commercial decisions on to the introduction of regulations. It should be remembered that there is over-production in the abattoir industry in this country. To try to help, in view of the importance of the local and regional economy, we have refocused our policy on the abattoir sector, which means that abattoirs are eligible to apply for processing and marketing grants and to make use of rural enterprise schemes, in order to gain assistance from those elements in the England rural development programme.

Should not we be doing more not only to protect existing abattoirs but to encourage the re-establishment of local abattoirs? Will not that minimise stress to animals, reduce the risk and scale of any disease outbreaks and—as important as anything—encourage the availability of locally produced meat, which many consumers say that they are looking for and would support? Cannot we do much more than we are doing?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the need to ensure the availability of abattoir capacity in order to help local and regional products, and we are doing so in conjunction with the Government offices and the regional development agencies. However, one has to remember that we are talking about commercial activities, and the Meat and Livestock Commission has estimated that in 1999, comparing peak-week activity with average activity, the overcapacity amounted to 49 per cent, for cattle, 55 per cent, for sheep and 27 per cent, for pigs. I came across problems in the abattoir industry when I was first elected to a local authority in 1973, so many of these issues are not new. We should bear in mind, in trying to assist local and regional provision of facilities, that these are commercial activities and that there is still an element of over-provision.

Would the right hon. Gentleman keep in mind the fact that the closure of abattoirs has very serious implications for animal welfare, as of course animals have to be transported very considerable distances if local abattoirs close?

I entirely accept what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, and I can assure him that we keep that in mind, and the fact that, in no small measure, the way we try to assist the regional and local economies is associated with that issue.

I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the Countryside Agency report on local food, in which it says:

"the erosion of the infrastructure that used to support local food markets was identified as a key barrier. In particular, the closure of local abattoirs, due to increasing legislation".
Under the heading "Legislation", it says:
"Regulations were felt to have a disproportionately high impact on businesses in the local food sector, which tend to be small/micro businesses. Much legislation is felt to be impractical, inappropriate, and unduly expensive to implement, particularly in the meat sector."
What response has the Department made to that very important Countryside Agency report?

Our response has to be proportionate because, on the one hand, yes, testing places burdens on industry, but many of those tests are either national or international requirements and, on the other, people want food safety to be enhanced, and they will find that encouraging. Wherever possible, we have to ensure that the burdens that we impose are proportionate and reasonable, that they are not excessive and that we do not go in for gold plating, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept that food safety is of great importance. The Countryside Agency focused on the economics of the local food industry, which of course is another important aspect and something that we are very keen to develop and promote.

The Minister has tried to gloss over the very worrying closure of small abattoirs and, in some strange way, to attribute that to commercial reasons. Of course he is quite right: those commercial decisions are taken because of the huge increase in costs to small abattoirs and the huge increase in regulation. Those commercial decisions are directly attributable to the Government. Will he now tell the House how he perceives the additional costs that result from the animal by-products regulations, which are about to come into effect? How many small abattoirs need to have their incinerators upgraded? How much extra will that cost; and what approaches has he made to the European Commission about allowing small abattoirs grants for the capital costs that will be incurred because of the animal by-products regulations?

The hon. Gentleman should be more reasonable in his approach. I have not tried to gloss over anything—I have made it very clear that very difficult issues face those in this industry—but it is equally unreasonable and unhelpful to try to suggest that closures are always associated with a particular set of regulations.

Because they are losing money in advance of the introduction of the regulations. That would be and is a reason in specific cases. I thought that the hon. Gentleman and his party were in favour of competition and believed in the effectiveness of the market. As for seeking to use grant schemes, I have already indicated that we have made available processing and marketing grants and rural enterprise scheme opportunities, as well as working with the regional development agencies and Government offices in the regions to consider the need for such provision in the regions. The regional and local provision of food and local sourcing are extremely important and something that we seek to support.

Food Exports

8.

What the value was of food exported from the UK to member states of the European Union in the last year for which figures are available. [113306]

During 2002, the value of food, feed and drink exported from the UK to member states of the European Union was £5.6 billion.

I note that reply and I thank my right hon. Friend for it very much. It indicates the enormous value to this country of our many excellent producers, who produce a wide range of food commodities that sell well in EU countries. As the EU will very shortly have 10 new member states, many of which produce food, many of us feel that we are under very unfair conditions. Can she assure the House that British producers, who have worked so hard to establish those markets in the EU, will not be squeezed out by unfair competition from new member states?

I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that even at present the existing member states of the European Union export more to new members joining the European Union than vice versa. That is particularly the case with regard to high-value-added products and quality products. I certainly agree that this country has many excellent producers of food and drink of very high quality, which clearly gives us the market edge in the new member states. I anticipate that that will continue and I look forward to it doing so.

What proportion does meat on the hoof rather than on the hook represent of the food exported from this country? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that when that product is branded and sold overseas it is sold as British products, and that British lamb, for example, is not sold in France as French lamb?

I do not have with me figures for the proportion on the hoof rather than on the hook, although the hon. Gentleman will know that, in common with most Members, we would prefer all such exports to be on the hook. I am not aware of such exports being rebranded. If he has cause for concern in that respect, I would be grateful if he would let us know, as we will look into it.

Farm Regulation

9.

What measures she will take to relieve regulatory burdens on farmers. [113308]

My Department is firmly committed to ensuring that the regulatory burden on farmers is proportionate and that any regulation is applied in a way that causes as little inconvenience to farmers as possible. Our strategy for sustainable food and farming sets out proposals for a whole farm approach that will bring together regulatory requirements affecting farmers in a single coherent framework.

I am grateful for that answer. Does the Secretary of State agree that when there is a single regime, British farmers should have parity of treatment with others? If I may exemplify the point, my farmers are concerned that under the common agricultural policy review, agri-environment schemes may be enforced more rigidly in this country than in Europe. Secondly, my horticulturists are concerned that they must obtain licences for trickle irrigation while massive housing developments are allowed without regard to the need to extract more water to provide for those developments.

I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that agri-environment schemes are enforced more rigidly here than elsewhere in the European Union. Certainly, however, we believe that there should be parity, and that there should be proper enforcement, with the relevant requisite disciplines, right across the EU. Indeed, that is part of having a common agricultural policy. Equally, I am not conscious of a particular problem with regard to water whereby horticulturists are treated differently and worse than others. I will certainly look into the point that the hon. Gentleman raises, however, as I assure him that it is no part of our approach to want to see UK producers disadvantaged.

In discussion with farmers in my constituency last week, although they were not over-delighted by the number of regulations, they recognised that many of them are necessary. What they really felt needed to be addressed, however, was better co-ordination by the Department of the information provided, instead of having to fill in the same information on several different forms at a time. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, while recognising that regulations are necessary, she will look at improving the technology to ensure that farmers do not have to do as much paperwork?

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that this is a matter of some considerable importance. Indeed, we are investigating now, in consultation with stakeholders, what kind of information would be most helpful to them and in what way we can best make it available. We would, of course, have to make the business case for the requisite systems to provide such information. I wholeheartedly assure him, however, that we are very mindful of how infuriating it is to be asked repeatedly by different groups of people for precisely the same information. That is exactly the kind of practice that we are trying to reduce.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a regulation that is disadvantageous not only to British farmers but to European farmers is the temporary ban on the use of fish-meal in animal feed, which sets us against imports from outside the European Union. The reason for that ban was bovine spongiform encephalopathy and testing. Is she aware that there is now a proven test, using microscopic analysis, that has been submitted to the EU and which can distinguish between fish meal and mammalian protein, which means that the temporary ban should no longer exist? Will she make representations to the EU to get the ban lifted as soon as possible so that our producers may use that excellent protein?

The hon. Gentleman will know, I am sure, that the Government share his concern to an extent, and we did indeed make representations on that issue. I also agree that it is important to press the Commission to examine that potential further step speedily. However, the first step is to ensure that the test is evaluated as quickly as possible. If it is successfully evaluated and it works in the way that is suggested, we can press for it to be taken into account, and I assure him that we shall do that.

On the animal byproducts regulations, will the right hon. Lady confirm that we are now in the absurd situation in which the European ban on burying fallen stock came into force at the beginning at the month, but no implementing legislation has been introduced in the House to give effect to the ban or to provide for penalties for breaching it? Ministers are whispering behind their hands that everything will be enforced with a light touch for three months or so, but several local councils have already announced a strict enforcement policy. Farmers and councils alike deserve to know exactly where they stand, so surely the right policy would be for the right hon. Lady to announce a delay on enforcing the ban until the new national collection scheme is in place and operating.

I think that there is a misunderstanding. The new national collection scheme is not a necessary prerequisite of the regulations' implementation. We urge farmers to sign up to the new national collection scheme because its purpose and effect is to lower the costs of implementation. We anticipate and hope—although we must always be cautious about making assumptions about how the House operates—that the regulations will be in place by the end of the month. Most farmers are clear about where they stand, although they may or may not like it.

Recycling

10.

If she will make a statement on her Department's strategy for promoting recycling. [113309]

The Government's "Waste Strategy 2000" set national targets for the recycling or composting of at least 25 per cent, of household waste by 2005 and 30 per cent, by 2010. To underpin these national targets we have set challenging statutory recycling and composting targets for all local authorities.

I welcome the Minister's support for recycling but I would like to test what it actually means in practice. The Government attempted to remove all meaningful targets from the Home Energy Conservation Bill during its passage, although they were defeated in Committee by Conservative and Labour Members. They consequently destroyed the Bill on the Floor of the House. The current Municipal Waste Recycling Bill proposes recycling targets to be achieved by 2010 that would require, in the Minister's words,

"an increase in the level of kerbside collection in the order of 45 to 50 per cent.".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 10 April 2003; c. 238.]
Do the Government intend to support those targets or will there be yet another example of when new Labour talks dirty—[Laughter.] Sorry. Will there be yet another example of when new Labour talks green but acts dirty?

At least we do not act dirty, which the previous Government sometimes did.

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands. I made it perfectly clear that the reason why we could not support the Home Energy Conservation Bill, although we certainly supported the overall targets, was that under the modernisation procedures through which we will finance the further burdens that we require of local authorities, which we have rightly instituted, the cost of the Bill would have been about £400 million. Following the spending review, such expenditure was not available. However, it is true that home energy conservation targets are increasing steadily and gradually.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point about kerbside recycling, I remind him that the current level is about 51 per cent, according to the latest information available to me. We believe that if we get to a national recycling rate of 25 per cent, by 2005–06, and we have every intention of ensuring that that happens, the level of kerbside recycling will have to be increased substantially by local authorities. If we were to require them to do it, we would again have to pay substantial sums of money—perhaps as much as £200 million—which is simply not available in the spending review.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the House authorities for doing their bit to promote recycling by providing Members with a separate bin for recycling waste paper? Does he agree that that promotion could be taken a step further, perhaps by having central collection points for used plastic bottles or tin cans? That might be a logical way forward.

I think that is a helpful suggestion. In terms of national targets and national performance, what happens in the House is infinitesimal by comparison, but it sends an important message. If we are asking other people in all households to increase recycling and recovery markedly—not just of paper, but also of plastics, aluminium steel cans, bottles and so on—it is important that we do it ourselves. I shall certainly take the matter up with the House authorities.

The Minister is proud of his targets, but he must be aware that the Environmental Audit Committee described them as "depressingly unambitious". Does he agree with most hon. Members that bottle banks and the like will never achieve reasonable recycling targets? That can only be done by kerbside recycling, something that the Prime Minister acknowledged when he memorably said:

"I want to see every local authority offering doorstep recycling".
Does the Minister agree with his right hon. Friend? Does he, too, want to see every local authority offering kerbside recycling? If so, can he prove that by supporting the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), which will shortly be in Committee?

It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Gentleman to make a case for recycling levels when we inherited a recycling level of 6 per cent, in 1997. That has been doubled to 13 per cent, and we intend to double it again to 25 per cent, within the next two years.

It is also unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman prepared his supplementary question without realising that I had answered it in my full response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), which he would have known had he been listening. Since he obviously did not catch it, I said that we are in favour of a big increase in kerbside recycling. It is already 51 per cent. We believe that achieving 25 per cent, overall national recycling by 2005 will increase that substantially. If we are to require local authorities to do that, however, we have to finance it from central sources, and we simply do not have the capacity in our budget to do that.

Sewerage Provision

11.

What plans she has to change the law to make it easier for water companies to provide mains sewerage to rural villages. [113310]

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

While there are costs and technical issues, we consider water companies already have sufficient powers under section 94 of the Water Industry Act 199l to provide, improve and extend the system of public sewers.

May I take issue with my hon. Friend, because they simply do not? The only way for water companies to provide mains sewerage to those rural villages in my constituency that need it is to use section 101 A of 1991 Act, which requires them to prove the case on environmental grounds, not regeneration and economic grounds. The Water Bill is just up the Corridor at the moment and it amends section 101A. Will my hon. Friend please look at it and consider the minor amendments needed to make the changes so that we can give a real boost to those rural communities that need mains drainage?

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He has been active on the matter and recently wrote to us on a number of suggestions. However, if properly maintained, cesspits and cesspit tanks are perfectly environmentally acceptable. I appreciate that there is a cost attached to that and that there is also an issue of rural development. We are happy to explore ways of dealing with the issue if there is a case to do so on cost benefit grounds as well as environmental grounds. One way to do that might be to consider the facility in the English rural development programme in relation to support for rural communities and infrastructure. I shall write to my hon. Friend in more detail on that and am happy to explore the options. We accept that he raises important points.

Packaging Waste Regulation

12.

If she will make a statement on the packaging waste regulation and wood products. [113311]

In view of allegations of inappropriate packaging waste recovery note issue by some reprocessors, I have asked my officials to conduct an investigation.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the price of packaging recovery notes for wood products slumped towards the end of last year and is quite low. There are another two issues facing wood recyclers: first, the subsidy offered by power generators for biofuels to use in power stations, where they can offer higher prices than board and wood products users. Secondly, there is the proposed removal of a packaging waste recovery target for wood products. We have heard today about the exploitation of forests in the far east. Is it not time that we did more to encourage wood products recycling, rather than allowing barriers to occur?

The latest figures show a very substantial increase in the recovery and recycling of wood packaging waste. It was reported at a rate of 57 per cent, in 2001. The latest figures for 2002 are 84 per cent. That shows a substantial uplift, so large that there have been suspicions of an inappropriate allocation and use of packaging waste recovery notes. That is what I have asked my Department to investigate. I accept my hon. Friend's point about the slump in PRN prices. I have told the industry that under the EU packaging waste regulations, there will be a considerable increase in those targets, probably of the order of 60 to 65 per cent, by 2006–08. In the light of that, further investment needs to be made now in readiness to meet those higher targets. On that basis, I hope that PRN prices will begin to recover.

Fisheries Council

13.

If she will make a statement on the Government's aims at the next Fisheries Council meeting. [113312]

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

Agendas vary. Our aim at the May Council will be to support the development of effective measures for the future management of fishing effort in western waters.

With regard to the cod recovery programme, which I presume would be an essential part of that, does the Minister agree that it will be meaningless as long as we allow the industrial fishing fleet to remove an important part of the food chain? Will he use the next Fisheries Council to instil some urgency in the EU Commission with regard to the setting up of regional advisory councils?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are strong supporters of regional advisory councils. There is a great deal of activity going on in fishermen's organisations in relation to existing structures. We believe that for those councils to be effective, they should be driven from the bottom, rather than being imposed from the top. They must genuinely engage and involve the fishing industry. On industrial fishing, the hon. Gentleman knows my views. We are speaking to the Danes and to the Commission about the potential impact of industrial fishing. We have made £1 million available for scientific involvement with the English fishing industry. One of the topics that we are discussing with the industry is how we can use some of that money to fund proper examination of the by-catch and the ecological impact of industrial fishing, to strengthen the argument about its impact and to consider taking action on it.

Accepting that my hon. Friend always puts up a good fight, and a very cunning fight, on behalf of the British fishing industry, and does his best to voice the demands of the industry in the Council, I hope that he will attempt at the next Council and succeeding Councils to put more muscle into the regional advisory councils. National management of the waters has been a longstanding demand of the industry, and the present framework is purely advisory and has no real influence and role. It needs to have a defined role in management of the waters that it covers, so that they can be removed from the general considerations of management from Brussels.

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He has been entirely consistent and made a powerful argument on these issues. We had to fight hard for the regional advisory councils to be part of the reformed common fisheries policy. There were people in this country who said that we would never succeed and never get that. We did get it, and as far as we concerned, we see it as a framework for development. It is inevitable that we will have to progress step by step in the beginning to build up confidence and establish the influence of the councils. In the UK, we want them to have real power and a proper decision-making process, and to give fishermen a voice and an involvement in the management of their own fisheries.