ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS
The Secretary of State was asked—
Food Production and Retail
The food industry has a major impact on the environment. The Government have implemented several measures to reduce negative impacts.
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Competition Commission recently announced an inquiry into supermarkets. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the commission suggesting that it look into the issues that she raises as part of its inquiry—a move that has been welcomed by the Liberal Democrats.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on this week’s national day of action against packaging? It is right to highlight the fact that we must get rid of excess packaging on food products and use recyclable or compostable materials where packaging is required. What actions are the Government taking to require food producers and retailers to minimise packaging?
I warmly welcome the campaign by the women’s institute, and I have written to congratulate it. As the hon. Lady is probably aware, the Government have set statutory targets to reduce and recycle a certain amount of packaging by 2008. We have also entered into an agreement with all the major supermarkets to reduce the growth in packaging and to achieve an absolute reduction in packaging within the same time frame.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Sustainable Communities Bill is the best way to signal the importance of local food chains and trying to restore local communities? It is currently a private Member’s Bill, but I hope that the Government will take it up. This issue is going round the country like wildfire, and people are attending meetings in their hundreds. I am addressing a meeting in Stroud tonight. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government support this wholeheartedly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the numbers of people he can attract to public meetings; I wish that we could all have the same success. I have listened carefully to his comments about the Sustainable Communities Bill, as have my colleagues, and I am sure that we will take them very seriously.
Surely more can be done to assist local suppliers, as happens with a lot of farm shops, of which we have a large number in my constituency. Should not the larger supermarkets follow the lead of supermarkets such as Booth’s, which got involved very early on with the Bowland milk initiative, whereby they sourced a lot of their milk from local farm producers? It has now been extended to cheeses. That is something that supermarkets could be doing to help the environment and to help local suppliers by sourcing locally.
I entirely agree. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that in the past few weeks the major supermarkets have been almost falling over themselves to compete with each other to introduce more and better sourcing of local food. It is gratifying that there is consensus across the House that seems finally to be sinking into the supermarket chain.
Does the Minister think that it is more environmentally friendly to buy English strawberries or foreign strawberries?
There can be no doubt that it is far better for the environment and for local economies to eat British strawberries, as it reduces food miles and boosts incomes in rural areas. Polytunnels have been vital to the success of our strawberry growers in extending the growing season. It is extraordinary that the Conservatives have called for a boycott of British strawberries.
The Department is already working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the environmental impacts of house building. I recently met the Minister for Housing and Planning, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to discuss water supply and plans for new housing.
Water companies’ 25-year water resources plans identify the need for five new and three extended reservoirs. The need for additional capacity in sewerage infrastructure is one of the main issues that is considered in the growth point bids.
I thank the Minister for his reply. When he next holds discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government on water supplies, will he support its view that 200,000 extra homes will lead to only a one in 1,000 increase in total water use, or that of Professor McDonald, as expressed in the eighth report of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, that the prediction of a minor increase in water demand is at odds with every other forecast?
The Government want to see new housing development and to give people the right to affordable housing in the south-east. However, that housing must be sustainable. That is why DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Natural England are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on its new growth point scheme. As part of that, we are closely considering water supplies, sewerage infrastructure, flood risk and biodiversity. It is right that any proposals must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. We will not accept proposals that we believe would damage the environment or that did not provide for adequate water supplies.
The Minister will recall that, during the statement in the House a couple of weeks ago, he bizarrely told me that my constituents and I were wrong and that the large number of houses being built in the south-east would have almost no impact on the current water crisis. He now knows that the Lords Science and Technology Committee—a Committee of experts—has reported and backed us up. Will he accept that he is wrong and they are right?
No, I do not accept that. We will respond to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report in due course. The key matter to stress is that work can be done to improve water efficiency. For example, Anglian Water has maintained water supplies of 1.2 billion litres a day—the same amount as in 1989—but it is supplying 20 per cent. more households today. That shows what can be done about water efficiency.
It is important that we ensure that water sustainability is built into the new growth point scheme. Any proposals must also go through the planning process. The Conservatives need to be clear about whether they want new homes to be built for young couples. Your leader says—
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are working on a new code for sustainable homes, and the Department for Communities and Local Government is leading that work. We believe that new homes should be built to the highest standards of water and energy efficiency. Grey water systems and sustainable housing are very much part of our thinking as a Government—we want to encourage that.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that Thames Water’s leakage levels are unacceptably high. It recently reported that it had failed again to meet its target. That is a matter for the regulator in the first instance. Ofwat has already said that it views the issue as serious and that it will scrutinise the company’s return before deciding on regulatory action. As my hon. Friend knows, Ofwat is responsible for setting leakage targets and has powers to deal with poor performance under the Water Act 2003, which Conservative Members voted against.
I am grateful to the Minister for identifying the failure of Thames Water, the scale of which is staggering. Ofwat’s latest figures show that it is leaking 200 million litres of water a day more than it was at the beginning of the last five-year period. Ofwat described this significant failure yesterday as very serious and unacceptable. As the Minister pointed out, Ofwat has not said what it is going to do about it. What is he going to do about it?
It is Ofwat’s responsibility as the economic regulator to take action, and it has powers under law to do so. Those powers are contained in the Water Act 2003, which the Conservatives inexplicably voted against. We will not pre-empt Ofwat’s response, but we expect it thoroughly to examine the company’s return and to take the appropriate action.
Will the Minister assist my constituency, which has to have thousands of extra houses and their attendant cars and pollution, and which already has air quality management areas? Will he send a message to councils about how to deal with these air quality management issues? Will any extra funding or help be given to councils to deal with the existing issues?
Air quality has certainly been better than it has been for decades. It is the responsibility of local authorities in the first instance to take these matters forward. Let us be clear that new houses are required in the south-east. If we are going to do the right thing by thousands upon thousands of young couples who want affordable homes in the south-east, we have to take action, and that is what the Government are doing. But we are taking action and taking care of the environment at the same time, which is why my Department, the Environment Agency and Natural England are all involved in the new proposals.
The Minister talked about increasing water capacity, but is he aware that Northumbria Water, which owns a water company in Essex, has been trying to increase capacity by raising the banks of an existing reservoir by 10 ft? The company reckons that if it finally gets planning permission for this, it will have taken 18 years from the moment the scheme was first put into play to the time when the water is actually in the reservoir. Surely it is time for the planning processes relating to such schemes to be simplified.
I am not responsible for the planning processes. Water companies’ 25-year water resources plans often include schemes for building new reservoirs and for extending existing ones, and it is right that such schemes should go through a robust planning process, because people have to be consulted on these matters. However, the whole House will agree that planning processes should be as efficient as possible. The Government have done quite a lot to speed up such processes, but they should not be speeded up at the expense of individual rights.
We all want affordable housing in the south-east—there is no question about that—but we also want the people who live in them to have access to water. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on achieving Royal Assent for his Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill? That will have a significant and positive impact on improving energy efficiency in new homes, and on promoting renewable energy. Is it not ironic, however, that the Bill fell under the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry? Is not this another example of how impotent DEFRA has become? The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has just made a very sensible suggestion. What plans does DEFRA have to introduce its own legislation to ensure that house building is compatible with the natural resources of the country and the planet, and, in particular, that there are adequate water supplies to ensure that the new homes are worth living in?
I certainly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on his Bill receiving Royal Assent. However, there is a difference between us and the Conservatives on these issues. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is on record as saying that the present level of house building is excessive, but the Government do not believe that to be the case. We believe that thousands of young couples should have the opportunity to have new houses, but that has to be achieved in a sustainable way. That is why we are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on its growth point plans, so that, when the schemes come forward, those growth point areas will have been subjected to a rigorous analysis of the environmental impacts and benefits. That is the right way to do it. The Conservatives say that they want to see house building, yet they support early-day motions that oppose new house building. That strikes me as the activity of a party that is neither responsible nor in control.
In March the Government announced a climate change programme setting out measures that will affect all major sectors and sources of UK emissions. The review predicts that the measures will reduce the UK's carbon dioxide emissions to 15 to18 per cent. below 1990 levels and the emission of greenhouse gases to 23 to 25 per cent. below 1990 levels, which is double the Kyoto target. Progress will be monitored and assessed regularly and frequently by an inter-departmental board, and there will be an annual report to Parliament every year, starting next year.
I hope that the Minister agrees that if any target is to be meaningful, it must include aviation, which, as he will know, presents a major threat. If that continues at the same rate, it will cancel out all the gains made in other sectors. Does the Minister accept that while emissions trading is a useful tool which represents a step forward, it is not enough in itself to halt the inexorable growth of aviation? Does he accept that when one of my constituents goes to Spain and back by air solely to buy fags and beer cheaply, the price of aviation must increase?
The hon. Gentleman may be confusing the question of whether we have an emissions trading scheme with the question of what the scheme includes. At present aviation is not included, but the Government are committed to ensuring that it is. If there are rising levels of air travel, they must be offset elsewhere. That strikes me as a more sensible way of putting a cap on emissions and tackling the problems. If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell his constituents that they are not allowed to fly he can do so, but I think it is better to say that if more people are flying, emissions must be offset and reduced elsewhere.
According to 2004 figures, 30 per cent. of total UK energy use comes from the domestic sector, as do 27 per cent. of total carbon emissions. What more can the Government do to convince people that individual action in aggregate accounts for a massive percentage of the overall problem?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Let me say two things to him. First, by 2050 30 per cent. of houses will have been built since the introduction of the new building regulations, which represents a 40 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency in new housing. Secondly, I believe that there should be cross-party support for the home information packs that will be introduced next year. They will include an energy rating of every household, which has never been available before. They will also tell householders how they can cut energy emissions, and how they can save themselves money. [Interruption.] If the Conservative party opposes a measure that is both green and economic, it needs to re-examine its policies.
Given that the Government have now admitted that they are missing their own targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, and given that transport is one of the largest sources—and an increasing source—of carbon dioxide, why are the incentives for motorists to drive low-emission cars so utterly feeble? Will the Secretary of State undertake, as one of his first acts, to press the Chancellor of the Exchequer to widen substantially the differentials relating to vehicle excise duty, so that those who choose to drive low-emission cars receive a proper financial reward for doing so?
The hon. Gentleman spent three productive hours debating these issues in Committee with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
I feel that, as a relatively new Secretary of State, I should congratulate the Chancellor on introducing different levels of car tax for different fuels. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, however, and I am sure that, along with other representations, it will be taken into account when the Chancellor considers how to implement his proposals.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the reduction in carbon emissions and control of the carbon footprint in Government offices, but will he now go further? Will he launch a campaign for every child in every school to know its carbon footprint on our planet, and for every institution in the country—every school and every business, small and large—to know its carbon footprint and have a target to reduce it?
That, too, is an important point. I think that I am right in saying that more or less every citizen is responsible for an average emission of about 3 tonnes of carbon a year. If we are to meet our 2050 targets, we will have to reduce that to 1 tonne, which means thinking about our own footprint. I have the impression, from my constituency and elsewhere, that the younger generation—those at school—are ahead of the game when it comes to thinking about their carbon footprint, but we must do as much as we can nevertheless, and I will certainly explore my hon. Friend’s ideas.
Six months ago, the Government launched a climate change communication fund with about £12 million of funding. Having heard what Al Gore said yesterday afternoon, does the Secretary of State think that that funding is adequate? How much of the money has been spent?
I am pleased to confirm to the House that that programme of £12 million is being allocated to organisations such as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which was mentioned earlier, and the Scout Association. We think that it is better for organisations such as that to spread the message about climate change than it is for the Government to spend money on Government advertising showing the Government wagging their fingers at people. What I took away from the vice-president’s speech and presentation—
In fact, he retains his title, but let us not get into that. Vice-President Gore’s argument is that there are major challenges, for all industrialised countries and for the developing world, in meeting the problems of climate change. As he said, this country should be proud of the progress that has been made and of the fact that we are one of only three countries meeting our Kyoto commitments. However, we must go further, and I am committed to doing so.
I praise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for attending yesterday’s presentation by Vice-President Gore. I am sure that he will recall that the vice-president made it clear that we must persuade his own Government to do much more on climate change. What is my right hon. Friend doing to answer that call? Achieving more American effort in this regard would reflect great credit on him as Secretary of State.
In fact, the vice-president painted quite an optimistic picture of the changes in American politics—or at least of the ones that may take place after 2008. My hon. Friend raises an important point. A year and a half ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched the drive for the presidencies of the G8 and the EU that the UK held. I think that the debate about the scientific evidence is now conclusively over. Vice-President Gore referred to 928 articles that showed absolute consensus about climate change and its causes. We need to move on to a debate about the level at which we should stabilise emissions, and how we can do so. I believe that the continuing G8 commitment and the UN process for after 2012 mean that we can get the Americans involved for the first time.
The latest environmental accounts from the Office for National Statistics show that there has been an increase in carbon emissions since the Government came to power in 1997, and a corresponding reduction in fossil fuel and other green taxes. Overall, green taxes fell again last year to 2.9 per cent. of GDP—the lowest level since 1990. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that green taxes are the only area in which the Labour Government should follow the Conservative policy of reducing taxation as a share of GDP. Does the Secretary of State agree?
There are two sides to the climate change equation—causes and effects. In today’s answers to questions, all sorts of positive statements have been made about the causes, and the Government have an excellent record in respect of emissions controls. Yet again, however, nothing has been said about the effects of climate change or about what the Government are doing, by means of sea defences or new building designs, for example, to deal with rising sea levels or to control river flooding. Will my right hon. Friend say what on earth the Government are doing to deal with the inevitable effects of climate change?
I should be very happy to do that, and could give my hon. Friend a voluminous list of Government actions in that regard. However, he mentioned flooding, and it is important that I pick up on that. The Environment Agency now has a budget of £500 million a year for flood defences. That is a significant improvement: I stand to be corrected, but I think that it represents a tripling of the investment in flood defences. I am happy to engage with him and the rest of the House at great length on many other things that the Government are doing, but I fear that I may trespass on Mr. Speaker’s patience if I go too far.
Does the Secretary of State consider it acceptable that bickering between his Department and the Department of Trade and Industry has left the Government unable to make up their mind about the amount of carbon that we need to cut under phase two of the EU emissions trading scheme? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that such dithering helps the UK to be a credible provider of leadership in the international fight against climate change, or that it helps responsible industry to make the necessary investment to ensure a clean, green future?
One thing that certainly would undermine our leadership is opposition to the climate change levy, which has cut 7 million tonnes of carbon every year. In respect of the emissions trading scheme, I look forward to debating the Government’s conclusions with the hon. Gentleman and I can assure him that there will be one Government conclusion about the level of the phase 2 cap under the scheme. I can also assure him that it will make a significant contribution to the progress that we, along with the rest of Europe, need to make. Our Government was one of only three in Europe that set the emissions trading cap below the level of emissions. I am working very hard with my European partners and also with the European Commission to ensure that every country in Europe sets a cap at the right level so that we drive down the level of emissions right across Europe.
In the foreword to the energy White Paper 2003, the Government set out the four pillars: the environment, energy security, affordable energy for the poorest and competitive markets for industry, business and households. In pursuing the nuclear energy route in such a pell-mell fashion, do we not risk abandoning all four pillars and having the whole structure crumbling in on us?
I can say that there is nothing pell-mell about the way in which the energy review has been conducted and that we are absolutely committed to the four pillars of our energy policy, which my hon. Friend has rightly mentioned. The test for any policies considered under the review—whether it be for nuclear, renewables, micro-generation or energy efficiency and energy reduction—will be how they contribute to the strengthening of those four policy pillars. I look forward to seeing what I believe will be a strong package that meets all four tests when the energy review is published.
Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
All of the centre’s six current areas of research activity will continue after the restructuring, and the centre will continue to deliver its contractual commitments to DEFRA and other Government Departments and agencies.
The Minister will be aware that four laboratories and 200 scientists will be lost in freshwater research and monitoring. The Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust, among others, has raised concerns about the lack of commitment to the conservation of the freshwater environment. How will the Minister ensure that we fund adequate research into the potential impact of global warming on vulnerable aquatic ecosystems, particularly on Atlantic salmon, which is an endangered species?
The hon. Lady will understand that the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is wholly owned by the Natural Environment Research Council and that it is its job to decide on the appropriate allocation of resources to ensure that the very best research programmes are carried out. Indeed, as part of the whole rationale driving the process forward, an additional £5 million a year will be made available for front-line quality scientific research—the result of savings made from the amalgamation.
It is hard to understand how £5 million a year will be saved when the total cost of the reorganisation is about £45 million and the centre’s total budget is £30 million a year. How on earth the Minister has come up with £5 million worth of savings, I do not know. To set our minds at rest, rather than simply saying, “It is not our problem”—the Government’s response on most things—will the Government give us an absolute assurance that all the scientific research currently undertaken in these vital biodiversity centres will continue after the reorganisation?
First, let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions about the mathematics. It is very simple. The restructuring will take £43 million—not £45 million—and over a period of six years, the £7 million a year saving from that restructuring will by year six achieve an additional £5 million going into front-line research. That deals with the mathematics. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting in the latter part of his question that, in deciding what are the best programmes of research, he and I should substitute our scientific expertise for that of the Natural Environment Research Council, which has far greater expertise in this area than we do. It is not a matter of shuffling off the problem, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but of making sure that we continue to have, as we do now, the best qualified people to judge the quality of research undertaken and to decide which research is most vital for British interests.
Climate Change Talks
The talks held in Bonn in May provided a successful start to the two-track process launched at the UN climate conference in Montreal on future international action to tackle climate change. Parties agreed that those discussions would continue at the November conference in Nairobi. Work also continued on developing a plan of action to further the understanding of how to adapt to the effects of climate change.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the answer. There is a climate change framework, which has widespread support on both sides of the House, which has been praised by the Prime Minister and which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has described as a beautiful model. It is supported by the Kenyan Government, who will be chairing the talks in Nairobi. It is called “Contraction and Convergence”. Will my hon. Friend ensure that our negotiating team gives that model all the support that it requires and what, I hope, the Kenyans will require in pushing it forward?
As a Government, we are certainly aware that a number of different models are being discussed—the Kenyans’ proposal on contraction and convergence is one and there are proposals from Brazil and others—and we need to have a full debate to explore the advantages and disadvantages of all the options. However, the contraction and convergence model is certainly favoured by a number of African countries, and we certainly want to look at it, as part of the process of building the international consensus on climate change that we need if we are to agree a stabilisation target and an effective package of measures to tackle climate change in the future.
When Ministers were in Bonn in May, did they take the opportunity to talk to their German counterparts about why efforts in Germany with the Renewable Energy Sources Act have been so much more successful than Labour’s efforts in the United Kingdom in promoting a range of renewable technologies? What do they learn from that? How do they plan to address the failure of our framework to give the lead in promoting renewables that we need if we are to meet our climate change targets?
As a new Minister, I have not yet had an opportunity to discuss issues with my German counterpart, but I reject the suggestion that we are not taking action on renewables. Under the renewables obligation—the targets that we have set for renewable energy—we want to generate 15 per cent. of energy from renewables by 2015, and with the renewable transport fuel obligation, we want 5 per cent. of our fuels to come from renewable sources by 2010. That clearly demonstrates that the Government are taking action on renewables, and we will continue to do so in the future. Indeed, that is a significant part of the work that has been undertaken by the energy review.
As a key element of the EU-China partnership, the UK is leading the first phase of a three-year feasibility study for a near-zero emissions coal with carbon capture and storage demonstration plant in China, and supporting it with £3.5 million of funding. We are also working closely under the EU climate change programme to establish a regulatory framework on carbon capture and storage within the EU, including a recognition of CCS projects in the EU emissions trading scheme.
I thank my hon. Friend for his extensive answer, and I am sure that he will agree that there is no better example of the UK Government’s efforts than the agreement on carbon capture that was signed by Sir David King with the Chinese in Beijing. However, will my hon. Friend look further afield and take a look at the American systems of dealing with carbon capture and come to an agreement with the Americans, so that we can start to reduce in greater volumes the carbon emissions that come particularly from that country? Will he also look at the benefits that that will create for the workers and business in the United Kingdom?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of carbon capture and storage technology. I am pleased that it is recognised as such by the European Commission, and he will be aware of what Commissioner Dimas said recently about carbon capture and storage. We are very interested in talking to the Americans about CCS technology. Along with a number of colleagues, I visited Canada recently and was very interested to hear about the Canadians’ plans and proposals for CCS technology. It is an important technology for the future, and it is right that the UK is involved at its leading edge.
How much confidence does the Minister have that the European Union can carry through this project, given that it could not even open up the gas market in continental Europe? That led to people in this country having to pay £186 extra last year, because of the failure of the Government and the EU.
Across Europe, there is a wide interest in carbon capture and storage technology, not least because of the coal reserves that exist in Europe and issues to do with security of energy supply. I am optimistic about progress over the coming months and years in respect of CCS technology, and about ensuring its inclusion in the EU emissions trading scheme. That will be an important benefit: it is the kind of advantage that we need to provide to incentivise CCS technologies to come on stream.
As well as pressing for carbon capture and storage in China, should we not be working to demonstrate it here, so that, with clean-coal technology, our indigenous British coal industry can have a future? Will the Minister press for that during the energy review?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and that matter is indeed being looked at as part of the energy review. Carbon capture and storage is an important technology, and it will be essential for our future internationally. CCS is part of a package of measures that we will need if we are to achieve our target of a 60 per cent. reduction in CO2 by 2050.
Energy Recovery (Waste Incineration)
Our recent consultation paper on waste policy envisaged that energy from waste would deal with up to 27 per cent. of municipal waste by 2020. The extent to which energy from waste can contribute to our renewable energy targets is being considered as part of the Government’s current energy review.
I am grateful for that reply. My constituents are concerned about the proposals for expansion in respect of incinerators—they are particularly conscious of the neighbouring Edmonton incinerator. Given the proposals for a threefold increase in their number over 15 years, what are the Government’s proposals in terms of harnessing and utilising energy from incineration plants?
They are not proposals yet; they are merely suggestions in a consultation document. If proposals come, they will do so when we publish the new strategy in the autumn.
I acknowledge that in the past there was public concern about incineration—although, to be frank, I think that some of it was based on outdated fears about potential dangers from incineration. We have climate change concerns, and there is no doubt that good waste-to-energy technology is better for the environment and our climate change targets than sending waste to landfill. The fact is that we will need a lot more waste-to-energy and recycling—those steps go together in every other European country, and there is no reason why they should not do so here, too.
Are there lessons to be learned from Scandinavian countries that are moving away from recycling towards combined heat and power, thereby providing domestic houses and local businesses with cheaper forms of heating from distance warming? Those countries care deeply about the environment, and they assure their public that there are minimum—perhaps zero—particles. Why can we not adopt the same system in this country?
The hon. Lady is right that there is huge potential for combined heat and power—and also for energy from waste, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) suggested. However, she is wrong to suggest that countries on the continent are moving away from recycling. In percentage terms, there may be a slight downward trend in their domestic recycling, but they are still far ahead of us in terms of how much they recycle. I can give the hon. Lady the figures: in Sweden, for example, the recycling rate is 38 per cent. and 45 per cent. for waste-to-energy. Although our recycling levels have trebled under this Labour Government, they are still down at only about 25 per cent.
Surely one way to overcome the difficulties associated with the public’s buying into incineration is for Government to insist that companies use more recycled material, so that we do not have to pursue a future involving incineration.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. A week ago, a report was published—he may have missed it, as a lot is going on in this House and in government in general—by the Sustainable Procurement Task Force, which is chaired by Sir Neville Simms. In its action plan, the taskforce will look at increasing significantly the proportion of recycled materials sourced by companies.
The Greater London Authority Act 1999 gave the Mayor responsibility for improving air quality in London. He published his air quality strategy in September 2002, setting out proposals for implementing policies in the air quality strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which is currently under review. Local action under the Mayor’s strategy is supported by a range of actions at national and international levels.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. It is all very well saying that this issue is the responsibility of the London Mayor, but the European Commission is threatening to impose huge fines on this country for the very poor air quality in London, and it is the Government, not the Mayor, who will pay the fines. One measure that the Secretary of State might consider is doing something about the traffic flow in London to get it moving again. The Government’s statistics show that in the past decade, traffic volumes have been static, whereas traffic speeds have actually gone down—from 13.7 mph to 12 mph. Why does he not do something about it?
Does the Secretary of State agree with me that one influence on air quality in London is air traffic and aviation pollution? Will he apply his mind to discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Transport, to ensure that efforts to deal with aviation pollution lead to an improvement in air quality not just within London but, for example, in the region of Nottingham East Midlands airport?
As we discussed earlier, it is the Government’s policy to ensure that airline emissions are included in the European emissions trading scheme. I can also reassure the hon. and learned Gentleman that we are working hard in Europe on the ambient air quality directive, which I will discuss in Luxembourg on Tuesday. I can further reassure him that I will discuss it with mainstream Christian democratic and socialist parties, not with the Latvian peasants’ party.
In England and Wales, the Environment Agency has a statutory duty to manage water resources, and it has a 25-year forward-looking strategy, entitled “Water Resources for the Future”. Water companies also produce 25-year water resources plans to reconcile supply and demand. In April 2007, the production and maintenance of these plans by companies will become a statutory requirement under the Water Act 2003.
I am grateful for that answer. The Minister will be aware that just yesterday, Thames Water admitted that, for the third year on the trot, it has missed its leakage reduction target. At the same time, it announced a 31 per cent. increase in its profits. Will the Minister tell the House today what is being done to make sure that the regulator is taking the necessary steps to ensure that increased water charges to consumers are not just put into increased dividends, but used to increase spending on dealing with leakages?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was not listening a moment ago when I clearly said that Thames Water’s leakage rates are unacceptably high. As I also said, that is, in the first instance, a matter for the regulator, and we expect the regulator to want to assess Thames’s returns and decide on appropriate action. The regulator has powers under the Water Act 2003 to fine a company up to 10 per cent. of turnover. I have to point out, again, that the Conservative party voted against that Act, which would have meant those powers not being available.
Given that we understand that water metering would reduce water consumption by 15 per cent., and given that the average consumption per household is between 140 and 170 litres per week, what can we do, aside from taking personal responsibility by reducing our own consumption, to ensure that the Government give a lead nationally to the water companies, businesses and households? What is the target? What is the objective? Where will we get to if Government policy is followed?
As a Government, we believe that water metering has the ability to reduce water demand. Research suggests that water savings of something like 10 per cent. can result from metering, which is why the water savings group that I chair and which includes representatives from the industry, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and consumer groups is looking closely at what more can be done on metering. We do not think that universal compulsory metering is the right way to go, but in areas of water stress there is a strong case for looking at metering, and that is what the Government are considering.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that Anglian Water has a good record on leakage rates. It is supplying the same amount of water as it supplied in 1989 to 20 per cent. more customers, so it has done a lot about water efficiency.
Of course, water companies need to be involved in the planning process. The Water Act 2003 enables them to be statutory consultees on regional spatial strategies and local planning applications. It is important that the voices of water companies and of the Environment Agency are heard in planning applications, and that is taken into account in the process at the moment.
The Krebs report concluded that badgers are a significant source of infection in cattle. That was nine years ago, since when all we have had is endless consultation by the Department, and no action. Is the Minister happy that hundreds of thousands of cattle have been slaughtered and countless badgers have suffered this form of TB? All we get is endless drift and inertia from a Department whose very hallmark is inaction. What we need is to grip this long-running, tragic situation.
Of course we are not happy about the situation, but the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say nothing has happened since the Krebs trials. He may have missed it, but we have been conducting the first—the only; no trials were conducted by previous Governments—scientific trials into badger culling. We are culling more badgers than were culled when the Conservative party was last in office. We are considering the results of our consultation on that and shall make an announcement in due course.
I may also say that, in the past six months, there has been a fairly significant reduction in bovine TB, and it is very important that we should understand the reasons for that before we reach any decisions.
The Conservatives, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said, have been calling for a very long time for action on bovine tuberculosis. Yesterday, on the news, we were informed that major trials were taking place on the immunisation of badgers. Why did we have to find out about the new trials from the BBC? Why did the Minister not inform the House first?
What did the Minister mean when he said “due course”? When will we find out what he is doing about the consultation? I believe there are 47,000 respondents—he must be reading each response individually. When did the Minister decide to abandon the concept of replacement value for cattle? I have a copy of the June compensation tables. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that there is a big difference between a four-year-old cow and one of 14 years old, yet the Government have made no attempt to allow proper compensation for the culling of those poor beasts.
That is rather a lot of questions. I have nothing further to add to what I said about timing. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged in his question that there had been 47,000 responses to the consultation, which may be a record for any Government consultation. Of course, it is important that the Government take those representations seriously, and that we study the science. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about compensation, he is aware that a number of independent reports have criticised the Government and the Welsh Assembly for seriously over-compensating farmers for TB reactors and that we have a new system based on table valuations, with 47 categories. That was consulted on twice. We are always looking at ways to improve the system, but it is already proving extremely effective in addressing the serious issue of over-compensation that occurred previously.
Viral Haemorrhagic Septicaemia
Due to the serious nature of viral haemorrhagic septicaemia, controls have to be placed on entire river catchments following confirmation of the disease. Sampling of fish in the River Ouse catchment has been undertaken, as have preparations to disinfect the single affected fish farm. We are working closely with fish farms in the area to ease restrictions as quickly as possible.
I thank the Minister for his helpful and sympathetic letter yesterday in response to the representations I have made on behalf of a number of my constituents. He acknowledges the adverse impact on businesses, especially those engaged in rearing fish for restocking farms and fisheries. There is a major welfare problem so we need an urgent decision from him about whether, following further testing, those fish can be moved. What time scale does he envisage for that? Secondly, he suggests that he has asked his officials to look at the assistance that may be available to alleviate the economic impact of the disease. Has he been in touch with the European Commission about the matter, as some of our MEPs are making representations, too? They could support and agree with the aid that he has in mind.
I sympathise greatly with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents; fish farms in his area and in the constituencies of a number of other colleagues are suffering real hardship. My officials are working flat-out to try to resolve the issue as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we are under legal rules—both UK and European—about how we deal with such diseases. It is very important that our priority remains to contain and eradicate the disease so that it does not spread and make the problem worse elsewhere. We are looking at ways of reducing the size of the area under restriction and that is under active consideration. I cannot give him an exact time scale, but I can assure him that we are doing everything that we possibly can. If he and other Members would like to bring a delegation from their constituencies to meet me, I would be happy to discuss the issue with them.
I associate myself with all the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). Does the Minister accept that VHS could destroy a number of commercial fisheries, such as Danebridge Fisheries Ltd in my constituency, which has been in business for 28 successful years? Will he give an assurance that if there is compulsory slaughter of fish, due to the disease, the Government will pay compensation; otherwise, such companies will disappear, to the disadvantage of the consumer?
I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. The policy under successive Governments has been not to compensate for fish diseases. If anything, the way in which we pay for the cost of animal diseases is moving more and more in the direction of cost-sharing between industry and the taxpayer. However, I will look into other ways in which we can help to support the industry; for example, it would be sensible for the industry to set up its own hardship fund, from which a business could seek help if it got into serious trouble. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to join the delegation of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and meet me to talk about the matter in greater length.
What economic assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the disease? It is all very well—and probably very helpful—to call for a hardship fund, but what will the cost be, looking at the big picture? We want to know, because the track record of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not that great when it comes to handling these diseases. We have heard all the right words, but we have not seen the right actions in the past. We would also like to know how the disease got here in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman should appreciate, if he does not already, that the UK has an extremely good record on fish health—probably among the best of any member of the European Union. We want to keep these diseases out. I am afraid that I cannot give him an answer to his last point about where the disease came from. We simply do not know at the moment, but there is an intensive epidemiological investigation under way. If we get a better idea, we will keep the House informed. The cost depends on how many businesses are ultimately affected. My understanding is that the businesses that are worst affected at the moment—as raised by the hon. Member for Ryedale and one or two others—are those that move fish out to other fish farms for breeding or catching. The majority of the fish farms in the area that are producing trout and other fish for consumption should not be affected, because once those fish have been killed and gutted, there is nothing to restrict them from being exported to shops and sold in the normal way.