House of Commons
Thursday 22 June 2006
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
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.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 26 June—Second Reading of the Charities Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 27 June—A debate on pensions reform on a Government motion.
Wednesday 28 June—A motion to approve the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Code of Practice C and Code of Practice H) Order 2006, which is the order relating to the extension of the detention period to 28 days, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the National Lottery Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Childcare Bill.
Thursday 29 June—Remaining stages of the Commons Bill [Lords].
Friday 30 June—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the following week will be:
Monday 3 July—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on the work of the Electoral Commission, followed by a debate on human reproductive technologies and the law. Details will be given in the Official Report.
At 10pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Tuesday 4 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 3) Bill, followed by the Ways and Means resolution on the Finance (No. 2) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.
Wednesday 5 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.
Thursday 6 July—A debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 7 July—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 and 13 July will be as follows:
Thursday 6 July—A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on the analogue switch-off.
Thursday 13 July—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on the efficiency savings programme in Jobcentre Plus.
Following is the information: In so far as they relate to human reproductive technologies and the law (Fifth report of the Science and Technology Committee, session 2004-05 (HC 7-1) and the Government response (CM 6641) and the Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, A Public Consultation, Department of Health, 2005)
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the coming two weeks. I am sure that he will have seen the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, which stated that the West Lothian question was now
“a time bomb that urgently needs to be defused”.
As he will also know, my right hon. Friend Lord Baker introduced a Bill in another place to resolve that problem. Will the Government bring forward proposals to address the issue and will there be a debate on the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee?
Did the Leader of the House see the report today of head teacher Peter Brackley, who has been praised by Ofsted for his outstanding educational vision, but is quitting teaching because of too much Government interference? Mr. Brackley is reported as saying:
“I have grown increasingly frustrated by the constant avalanche of central government policies many of which are ill-conceived and inadequately resourced. Sadly education suffers from too much interference and not enough trust”.
Can we have a statement from the Education Secretary on how he intends to reduce Government interference and restore trust in our teachers?
Yesterday, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) asked the Prime Minister:
“A year ago, my friend told us that a decision to replace Trident would have to be made in this Parliament. Would not it be an absolute outrage if billions were squandered on a new generation of nuclear weapons without a vote in the House?”
The Prime Minister’s response was:
“As I think I said before, there should be the fullest possible debate on the issue. I am sure that there will be and that, yes, the decision will have to be taken in this Parliament.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1315.]
He did not comment on whether there would be a vote in the House, so will the Leader of the House tell us whether the debate on Trident and the future of the nuclear deterrent will take place on a substantive motion, thus enabling hon. Members to vote on the issue? When will that debate be held?
Of course, that question of timing is more relevant given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Mansion House speech last night that he believed in retaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent in the long term. Of course, what the Chancellor said and what his aides briefed out were different. He talked about retaining the nuclear deterrent, yet the briefing referred to the replacement of Trident. The Financial Times reported:
“‘Gordon is in no doubt that if the military chiefs recommend a full replacement for Trident then that is what we must deliver,’ said a close ally of Mr Brown.”
I know that a defence debate is about to take place, but will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor to come to the House to make a statement on Trident so that he may answer questions from hon. Members about his speech and Government policy in the area?
Of course, it is not unusual for the Chancellor to deal with matters that are not in his direct remit. In the past six months, he has spoken about liberty and the role of the state, Britishness, security and anti-terrorism, and the environment. Given that the Chancellor now has such a wide-ranging role, will the Leader of the House arrange for time in the parliamentary programme for questions to the Prime Minister-designate?
Finally, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the influence of popular culture on political life? I am sure that many hon. Members will be saddened to hear about the demise of “Top of the Pops”, which has played such a role in the cultural life of the nation. Of course, pop songs can be very relevant to politics. For example, given the Home Secretary’s recent problems, I wonder whether he should listen to the U2 track “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Perhaps we could have a touch of Dire Straits for the Deputy Prime Minister with the track “Money for Nothing”. I suppose that the Chancellor might look to Diana Ross with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Perhaps the Prime Minister would like the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Talking of clashes, perhaps the Chancellor would describe his relationship with the Prime Minister with the White Stripes track “Every Day I Love You Less and Less”. Or, given the Chancellor’s commitment to new Labour, maybe his track for him and the Prime Minister should be Elton John’s “Friends Never Say Goodbye”:
“There isn’t much I haven’t shared
With you along the road…
Who’s to say who’s right or wrong
Whose course is braver run
Still we are, have always been
Will ever be as one”.
The first question that the right hon. Lady asked me was about the West Lothian question and the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, which I have indeed read with interest. We have no plans for an immediate debate on the issue. It has been debated at great length. What the Conservatives—who used to be called the Conservative and Unionist party and were concerned about the break-up of the Union—need to think about is that however superficially sedulous the West Lothian question may be, it is a very dangerous idea to argue that Members of this House should not be able to vote on issues that affect the whole of the United Kingdom. We determine in this House, with a vast majority of English MPs, total spending in the Scottish Parliament, because we decide the block grant. We decide many other issues for Scotland. It was we who decided to vote, again with a majority of English MPs, in favour of the Scotland Act 1998 and of the Government of Wales Act 1998. We are a unitary country and we remain so. I am proud to have been a member of an Administration which, with support from the Liberal Democrat party and others, ensured a good measure of devolution to Scotland and Wales, while preserving the Union.
The right hon. Lady’s second question was about the head teacher who is mentioned in one of the newspapers. Of course I am very sorry, as I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is, about that particular head teacher and his concerns about education. However, we should not generalise from the concerns of one individual. Anybody who goes into schools across the country can see the dramatic improvement that is shown by many indicators. It is shown in the salaries of head teachers and in the professional support now given to head teachers. Above all, it is shown in the fantastic increase in standards being delivered by those head teachers to our schoolchildren. It is reprehensible of the Opposition to seek to denigrate the fantastic performance of teachers across the country in raising standards for all our children.
The right hon. Lady then asked me about Trident. Our manifesto at the 2005 general election stated that we—the Labour Government—are
“committed to retaining the independent nuclear deterrent”.
In speaking about the longer term, as well as this Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was fully consistent with that manifesto commitment put before the British people at the last election. Decisions on Trident’s replacement have yet to be taken. When they have been taken, they will be put to Parliament in a White Paper. I cannot anticipate at this stage the most appropriate form of debate, but it will be in a form that shows proper respect for the House. I hope that by the time of our White Paper and the debate, the Conservative party will have determined not just what its policy is on Trident, but whether it has a policy.
If that is the policy, why was it not mentioned in the Conservatives’ 2005 manifesto? The 2005 Conservative manifesto was completely silent on the issue of Trident’s replacement.
The right hon. Lady asked about the Prime Minister-designate. I am glad to know that she believes that the Prime Minister-designate is the Chancellor, not the Leader of the Opposition. Finally—I congratulate her researchers on their efforts—she came up with some laboured quotations from titles of various pop songs. I will not try and compete with her—I apologise for that—except to say that, like her, I deeply regret the passing of “Top of the Pops”, which connected me, and no doubt her, to our youth.
My right hon. Friend will aware of the Friends of the Earth’s Big Ask campaign, which is about trying to get a Bill on climate change into the Queen’s Speech. It is a big issue—I had a huge meeting at Lambeth Friends of the Earth last week—and we want to set targets year by year. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on climate change before the end of the Session so that Members who have been involved with the campaign might influence what goes into the Queen’s Speech?
I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the issue, as I know of her constituents’ great concern and of the work that she has done. She, in turn, will know that it has become a major priority not only for the Government but, through our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, for the G8, and it will be followed up at the forthcoming G8 summit in St. Petersburg. I cannot promise a debate before we rise for the summer recess, but I promise that I will do my very best to see whether we can have a debate this Session before the Queen’s Speech.
What are the right hon. Gentleman’s intentions regarding a welfare reform Bill? The consultation paper from the Department for Work and Pensions makes the process clear:
“The timescale is now pressing (given that we intend to have the new Employment and Support Allowance in place from 2008). We therefore hope to introduce a Welfare Reform Bill in this Parliamentary session and to seek Royal Assent by Easter 2007.”
Is it the intention to introduce a Bill before the summer recess, and is it the right hon. Gentleman’s intention that it should be carried over to the next parliamentary Session, which is the only conclusion that we can draw from the statement in the White Paper?
Once again, can I ask for a debate on post offices? I accept that this is a well-worn track, as the issue has been raised by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, but it remains a pressing need. I will receive two petitions this weekend from constituents who are concerned about the future of their local post offices. I did not organise those petitions—they were organised by my constituents, who are worried about the future of their local post office. There is a pressing need to hold a debate, because the termination of the Post Office card account has been announced, and sub-post offices have lost the right to issue the BBC television licence. I understand that, next year, the contract with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for the issuing of the road fund licence is to end. Before a decision is made to give that contract to someone else, can we have a debate in the House on the future of the Post Office?
Finally, as the nights are now drawing in, may I set the scene for our consideration late in the evening and ask for a debate on the conundrum of ministerial responsibility, which puzzles all of us? Yesterday, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) asked a question about the new post of liveability Minister. The Prime Minister did not deny that he was going to make such an appointment, but he did not confirm it, nor did he give any indication of who would be the liveability Minister. However, he said:
“Liveability is the ability of local communities to be free from crime and fear”.—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1315.]
I take the old-fashioned view that making sure that communities are free from crime and fear is the job of the Home Secretary, so is that a responsibility of which he has now officially divested himself?
On a welfare reform Bill, we hope to introduce such a measure. It is a candidate for carry-over, on which there will be consultations with the usual channels. The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on post offices, implying that there had not been any debates on the financing of rural post offices. However, there have been a great many, not least on the Adjournment and in Westminster Hall. He will know that because of changes to the way in which people communicate with one another and in banking practice, the Post Office operates in a more commercial environment. No, I cannot promise a debate before a decision is made by the Post Office—and not by Ministers—on whether it can win a contract with, for example, the DVLA, because that is a matter between the DVLA and the Post Office. Of course, issues of public service will be taken fully into account. Notwithstanding the closure of some post offices, 99 per cent. of people in urban areas—I accept that the figure is lower in rural areas—live within a mile of their local post office, and the network of post offices is still substantial. In addition, the level of subsidy from the public purse to support the network in rural areas is still very high.
On the interesting issue of ministerial responsibilities and liveability, we are all responsible for making sure that our communities are liveable, but I wish that a different word had been chosen—
The English language is always developing, but sometimes developments take place that we may not appreciate.
The Home Secretary remains fully responsible for our law and order policy. Government policies on health, housing, the built environment and education all contribute to whether an area is congenial, peaceful, quiet and enjoyable—in other words, liveable.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the present debate about Thames Water, which has decreased its capital spending while increasing prices enormously? May we have a debate on the whole saga since privatisation of the water companies by the Conservative party? The public not only in the Thames region, but across the country, feel that they are being ripped off by companies that shove up the salaries of their senior operatives—the chief executive and so on—and shove up prices for the consumer, but do not invest in order to provide the water supply that we need.
I will do my best. My hon. Friend is reflecting widespread concern, particularly on this side of the House, about the original water privatisation conducted by the Conservative party. Something has gone wrong with the balance between investment and profit. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has witnessed the huge waste of water that pours from an unending series of leaks which, after years and years of claiming to have put them right, Thames Water still allows to happen.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the United States Senate is this week considering American policy in Iraq and that the House of Representatives had a similar opportunity quite recently. Does it not remain a disgrace that, in more than a year since the previous general election, the Government have not provided any time in this House for British Government policy on Iraq to be fully debated? Will the Leader of the House give us a categorical assurance today that such an opportunity will be provided before the House rises for the summer recess?
There is an Adjournment debate today on defence, when those issues not only can be raised, but will be raised and have been raised in the past. Our policy on Iraq is of fundamental importance to our defence forces, because they are implementing it. Furthermore, there will be a debate on armed forces personnel, which is another opportunity to raise the issue. I do not accept the premise of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question.
Before I ask my question, I should point out to the House that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was incorrect, because “Every Day I Love You Less and Less” is sung by the Kaiser Chiefs, not the White Stripes, which demonstrates that in popular culture, as in other things, the Conservative party has got it completely wrong. With reference to the right hon. Lady, I am tempted to refer to the Artic Monkeys’ song, “Mardy bum”, but I shall be more gracious, and say, “I bet you look good on the dance floor”.
Following the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to this House last week, and given the hugely significant events in the middle east, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the Floor of the House in Government time on the peace process in the middle east? Recent Adjournment debates on that subject have been absolutely packed—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his corrections in respect of the poor research by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I say to her affectionately that that shows the danger for those of us of a certain age—[Interruption]—I am speaking for myself—in trying to pretend that we have knowledge of the younger generation.
I understand the concerns about the need for a wide debate on middle east foreign policy. The programme until the summer recess is under considerable pressure, but we will do our best.
The House has a genuine problem. The Chancellor of the Exchequer regularly makes speeches on issues beyond his Department, such as Trident, Northern Ireland and sub-Saharan Africa. You, Mr. Speaker, would rule us out of order if we were to ask the Chancellor about those subjects at Treasury questions, so we need a mechanism for the Prime Minister-elect, as I think that he would like to be known, to come to the Dispatch Box. Will the Leader of the House relieve the Deputy Prime Minister of his Question Time—which the Deputy Prime Minister, who no longer has any responsibilities anyway, clearly dislikes—to allow the Chancellor to come to the Dispatch Box to answer questions beyond his Department, which we would find very interesting?
Will the Leader of the House bring forward the date for the next energy debate? Energy security should be at the core of the debate because it is the most important issue. Incidentally, “Keep on running” by Spencer Davis would have been a better response to the shadow Leader of the House.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead has started something. Perhaps we will keep it going next time.
Energy security is of fundamental importance, and it is one of the reasons why we are currently conducting a full review of energy policy. A White Paper will be presented to the House in due course, and once it is before the House, it will be debated.
The Leader of the House knows that yesterday Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor called for a review of abortion law in the light of the fact that most babies born at 24 weeks now survive and that last year there were more than 3,000 abortions at or after 20 weeks. Will the Leader of the House facilitate a Committee of both Houses to examine the matter in measured and considered terms and then make time for a debate on that Committee’s conclusions?
I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman, His Grace Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and many others have about this, but he will appreciate that equally strong views are held on the other side of the argument. The hon. Gentleman requests the establishment of a Joint Committee of both Houses. Joint Committees are sometimes established, but usually for specific purposes. I have not yet heard a good case made for establishing a Joint Committee for this purpose. We have a very adequate arrangement in this House called the Select Committee on Health, which, if it wishes, can establish its own inquiry into the matter. Then, depending on the weight of its recommendations, we would consider whether to provide time on the Floor of the House. I think that that is the appropriate way to proceed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and I have different perspectives on the middle east situation, but I fully endorse his request for a debate in Government time on the Israel-Palestine situation. His Westminster Hall debate was very well attended by hon. Members from both sides of the House with widely differing opinions, and it was exactly the same story a few months ago in a debate called by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), when more Members wanted to speak than there was time available. If my right hon. Friend looks at the Order Paper, he will see an early-day motion that already has 93 signatures, calling for both sides in that conflict—not one side, but both sides—to renounce violence, and for a return to a negotiated settlement, not unilateral actions. This is a matter of great concern to Members on both sides of the House, and I endorse the call for an early debate to give everyone a chance to express a view on this key matter for world security.
I note what my hon. Friend says. I understand his deep commitment to the issue, which is widely shared, from different perspectives, across the House. I will consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Chief Whip. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but in turn I ask him, and the House generally, to understand the pressures on the parliamentary programme.
Is the Leader of the House aware that on Tuesday the Northern Ireland Grand Committee had one of its shortest meetings, following a protest by several Members about the Government’s failure to resolve the issue of permitting the Grand Committee to meet in Northern Ireland, which left only three of Northern Ireland’s 18 Members of Parliament present in the Committee? On 8 June the Leader of the House wrote to me indicating that he would not be surprised that there remains an absence of consensus on this issue. The Conservatives have said that they would like the Committee to meet in Northern Ireland, and the Liberal Democrats have done the same. The Government have said that they are content that it should meet in Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists have said that they want it to meet in Northern Ireland. That leaves only the Social Democratic and Labour party. Why should three Members of this House be able to veto what more than 640 others might wish to happen? On the BBC website this week, the SDLP’s leader is quoted as saying that his party was not opposed to the Committee meeting in Northern Ireland. If there is now a consensus, will the Leader of the House give us a firm undertaking that the next meeting of that Committee will be in Northern Ireland?
The big question is whether there is a consensus. The hon. Gentleman spelled out why that is not the case at the moment. Of course I would like there to be a consensus—but what he describes is not a consensus but a disagreement. I will pursue the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see whether further steps, to which he is very committed, can be taken to reach the consensus that so far has proved elusive.
In 2007, it will be the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, led by the Hull MP, William Wilberforce. My hon. Friend the Minister for Culture is visiting Hull next week to see what celebrations we are planning. Will my right hon. Friend say what plans there are for the House to mark this important anniversary?
I accept that the anniversary is extremely important. During the visit by the United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, we went to the slavery museum in Liverpool, which was a poignant time for her, just as I had visited the civil rights museum in her birthplace of Birmingham, Alabama, which for me raised the issue of slavery very powerfully. I cannot make an announcement at this stage about plans by the Government or for this House, but I promise to talk to my hon. Friend. I accept the importance of ensuring that this 200th anniversary is appropriately marked.
The Leader of the House may be aware that I have served as chairman of the campaign for defence and multilateral disarmament, the object of which is to promote an informed dialogue about the nuclear deterrent. Does he agree that that subject is not only of profound importance to this country, and indeed to mankind, but complicated? May we have an early debate in Government time on the nuclear deterrent and its replacement? It is far too important a subject to leave to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to throw away in a reference—or career move—in a speech at Mansion house, which was subsequently denied by his staff.
I have already said that there will be a debate, and there will be a White Paper. Our manifesto was clear on this issue, while the hon. Gentleman’s party’s manifesto, despite having been drafted by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who is now Leader of the Opposition, was completely silent on whether the Conservatives would continue with the nuclear deterrent if they were to be returned. What my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in talking about the long term was entirely consistent with our manifesto commitment, which states:
“We are…committed to retaining the independent nuclear deterrent”.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s interest and expertise in this field. As he said, it is not only an issue that generates a lot of emotion but a complicated matter, and the more debate there is, the better.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2391, on the International Whaling Commission’s decision to lift the 20-year moratorium on the killing and slaughter of those beautiful mammals?
[That this House notes with concern the fact that for the first time the pro-whaling alliance won a majority of support at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voting to end the 20 year old whaling moratorium; recognises that to end the moratorium a majority of 75 per cent, is required and that the 51 per cent, majority secured is a major shift in the IWC stance; condemns the actions of Japan and other whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland who have campaigned to secure the votes of small African and Caribbean countries in exchange for multi-million dollar foreign aid packages; and calls on members of the IWC to put the interests of many and often rare species of whale ahead of narrow self-interest.]
May I ask my right hon. Friend to use his good offices to work with the appropriate Department and Minister to get that decision changed, or to explore ways in which we can ban the sale of products derived from the killing and slaughter of those poor mammals?
As the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), is the only female representative on the Conservative Benches, perhaps “Only the Lonely” would be an appropriate song for her—[Interruption.]
The question was about the International Whaling Commission and what was described as the disgraceful position taken by it. I have a helpful note here headed “Government position”, which is completely blank, and another headed “Lines to take”, which is also completely blank, so I will make it up myself—as I usually do.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). He will know that the British Government’s position has been consistent in trying to preserve and maintain those beautiful mammals.
May I support the call for an early debate on the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility, which seems to have taken some punishment recently? Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to take part in that debate and explain what he meant by what he is reported to have said in today’s edition of The Times, when asked what would happen if he failed to improve the Home Office:
“What happens when any Cabinet minister fails at the Home Office? I think we’ve lost four.”
Does the Leader of the House regard that as a comradely remark?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was not referring only to Cabinet Ministers when he mentioned losing four Home Office Ministers—it was four in aggregate. I am happy to say that that excludes me. I was at the Home Office as Home Secretary for four very happy and successful years—some say. There was the most intensive engagement in respect of Home Office issues—law and order, asylum and immigration, passports and much else. During the 2001 general election, I was pursued—almost literally—by the ever-vigorous right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who was then shadow Home Secretary. Despite the Opposition’s campaign, or perhaps because of it, and perhaps because of my record too, I am pleased to say that we won the election, not least on Home Office issues.
Last Friday, I received a welcome letter from the prisons Minister confirming that child sex offenders will not be placed in the bail hostel in my constituency, in response to a request that I made to the Home Office more than two years ago. This week there have been interviews with a chief constable who is not, and has never been, connected with my constituency, but is trying to put a different spin on the subject. May we have a debate on whether chief constables should stand for election if they are to be allowed to comment on things outwith their immediate purview?
Chief constables are entitled to their opinions, but they must accept that if they go into matters of great controversy, others will criticise them. It is the Conservative party that is currently considering whether to have elected police chiefs.
As a result of provisions in the Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act 2000 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003, police and probation services have the right to disclose information about sex offenders to the public or other bodies on a selective basis when they consider it appropriate. My hon. Friend’s experience of knowing about offenders and making representations, and the subsequent decision of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, all suggest that that policy is working. However, my right hon. Friend has announced that a Home Office Minister will go to America to consider the current application of what has been called Megan’s law. As I have said publicly, six years after the murder of Sarah Payne and the measures that we originally introduced, it is appropriate to consider whether we can draw on experience from overseas.
May we please have a debate in Government time on the loathsome scourge of human trafficking? Given that the Council of Europe convention on the subject was tabled in May 2005 and that so far no fewer than 24 of the 46 Council members have signed up to it, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a debate would allow the Home Secretary to explain why the Government still feel unable to sign it? After all, it would guarantee minimum standards of protection and treatment for all trafficked people.
The Government are not only committed to dealing with what the hon. Gentleman rightly describes as the scourge of human trafficking, but have taken many practical steps to tackle it. I am not immediately familiar with the reasons why we have not signed up to the convention so far. I promise to write to him as well as taking up the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. If there is a case for a debate, of course we will arrange one.
My right hon. Friend, more than anyone, knows about the continuing tragedy in Darfur. There was some optimism a few weeks ago, and I give due credit to the Secretary of State for International Development for managing to put together a peace agreement. However, since then there has been nothing but obstruction in Khartoum of the attempt to move from African Union to United Nations troops coming in to enforce the peace. Sadly, there is much evidence of small arms flooding into Darfur, especially from China, as the rebel groups splinter. Is not it time that hon. Members had a genuine opportunity to discuss in the Chamber what is happening in Darfur? It is a huge problem, and the eyes of the world are on it, but progress remains slow.
I accept my hon. Friend’s case. I am familiar with the continuing tragedy and outrage that is Darfur. I was more optimistic when, in January, I spoke firmly to all parties involved in the peace process in Abuja. Not least because of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, we have got the agreement, but as my hon. Friend says, too many in Khartoum still resist implementing it.
I accept that we should have a debate if we have time. On arms flooding into Sudan, one of the reasons for the Government’s commitment to obtaining and implementing an international arms trade treaty is that once it exists, we can take genuine measures against not only the ballistic and nuclear weapons that are there but small arms and light weapons, which are all too readily available and fuel all conflicts, especially in Africa.
I wonder whether time could be found for a debate on the so-called private finance initiative to fund public buildings, services and facilities, which often ends up with the public paying considerably more for less. The scheme for the expansion of Colchester general hospital through PFI collapsed last week, leaving the NHS with a bill of £3 million wasted and the private sector with a bill of £7 million wasted, which it is trying to claim back from the NHS. The result is £10 million lost, no new facility and the voluntary sector in the town, which provides so much support for the health service, being denied its revenue because the NHS says that it cannot afford it.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apply for an Adjournment debate on that issue; it is obviously a good subject for one. I do not know the details of what has happened in Colchester, but I stress that the PFI has generally been successful in ensuring much earlier investment in hospital services than would otherwise be the case. I waited 25 years for promises that the previous Government made to build a new hospital in my constituency to be fulfilled. It never happened, but as a result of a PFI decision in 1998, we now have a brand new district general hospital almost completed, up and running.
Rural Payments Agency
With permission Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Rural Payments Agency. In my written statement on 9 May, I promised to keep the House informed of progress made by the RPA on the single payments scheme. At oral questions today, no questions on the SPS were on the Order Paper. I therefore thought it right to give hon. Members the chance to raise the issue.
In summary, there has been some progress, but the situation is far from satisfactory. As of Tuesday 20 June, some £1.38 billion, representing more than 90 per cent. of the total fund, has now been paid to more than 100,000 applicants; 82,571 claims have been settled in full, and 18,785 applicants have received a partial payment and are awaiting their “top-up”.
On 9 May, I said that the priority for the RPA would be claims of more than €1,000 Euro where no payment had been made. The number of claimants in that category is now approximately 2,300. I recognise the hardship involved for them and deeply regret the distress caused. The RPA is taking further steps to pay those complex claims, including discussing issues direct with claimants and, when feasible, bringing parties together in cases of continuing disagreement—for example, when two or more parties have made a claim for the same piece of land. The RPA has written twice to all the individuals concerned.
I also recognise the importance of the unresolved hill farm allowance payments. Of the approximately 10,500 eligible HFA claims, 5,000 have been paid in full and a further 900 authorised for partial payments. Full and partial payments are continuing to be made.
The EU defined payment window for making 2005 SPS payments runs from 1 December 2005 until 30 June this year. Work is continuing to pay as many claims as possible by 30 June. However, farming leaders have made representations to me on behalf of the farmers who do not receive the full sum due to them during the legal payment window. I have therefore authorised the RPA to make interest payments at the London Interbank offered rate plus 1 per cent. calculated from 1 July, in respect of any payments where responsibility for the delay rests with the RPA. That will be subject to a minimum interest payment level of £50. Further details will be given on the timing of those payments once the RPA has assessed how they can be integrated most effectively into the existing payment schedule.
Work on delivery of the 2006 scheme to be paid between 1 December this year and 30 June next year is under way. As I said on 9 May and want to repeat today, the 2006 scheme year will be challenging. The RPA’s interim chief executive, Tony Cooper, has made an initial assessment of the task ahead. He has confirmed that, in respect of customer service and management information, there is no quick fix. Possible options for the 2007 scheme—for example, the use of a minimum payment level—are not available for 2006.
Against this background, farming leaders have understandably called for partial payments to be made in 2006, as they were in 2005. I have discussed the need for the necessary EU legislation to make partial payments with the Commissioner, Mrs. Fisher-Boel, and authorised the RPA to start work on the necessary systems. However, until the RPA chief executive has had an opportunity to make a realistic assessment of the prospects for full payments, I do not want to commit to a particular timetable or specify whether or when partial payments might be necessary. Initial validation of the 2006 claims is under way, and detailed validation should start next month. By the time the House returns after the summer recess, therefore, we should have a better understanding of the prospects for the 2006 scheme, and I will make a further statement then.
Given the position on the 2006 scheme, I have decided to simplify to the maximum extent possible the arrangements for the incorporation into the single payment scheme of additional support arising from last November’s landmark EU sugar reform. In practice, that means that the £52 million concerned will be added entirely to the entitlements held by sugar beet producers who meet the defined criteria, rather than some of the funds being used to increase the flat rate value of all entitlements. Further details, including on arrangements for 2007, will be announced in due course.
I can also report that an EU regulation has been adopted which provides for all 2006 claims to be accepted without penalty until 15 June. Under the original timetable, the limit would have been 15 May. This extra time above and beyond the extension to 31 May—to which I referred in my statement on 9 May—will mean that around 4,000 farmers will not now be penalised. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing my gratitude to the European Commission for its understanding on this issue.
The fundamental review of the RPA that the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary, set in train earlier this year will be important for the future of the RPA when it reports at the end of this year. In the meantime, I know that this year’s problems have caused real distress and I repeat the apology to farmers that I have made before, both in the House and elsewhere. I can assure the House that the new RPA chief executive, with the support of the Department, will be looking to take interim steps to aid the recovery process and to improve the experience of farmers dealing with the agency to the maximum possible extent. I will keep the House informed as matters progress.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for keeping the House informed of the modest progress that is being made to deal with this problem. It is unfortunate, Mr. Speaker, that the BBC’s “Farming Today” programme probably heard about this statement before you did—but that is life these days, under new Labour. As I said, it is good to hear that modest progress is being made to address this appalling fiasco, which has brought added hardship to many in the farming community and related industries at a time of profound change, uncertainty and stress.
Many questions remain to be answered, however. How did the problems arise in the first place? What happens next? The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into what went wrong. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the Committee will be given access to all the information that it needs to form a balanced, accurate and comprehensive view of the events that led to the failure to make payments on time? The Committee’s inquiry has already produced some interesting evidence, and we look forward to its findings with great interest. Meanwhile, the BBC’s “File on 4” programme has disclosed that the Office of Government Commerce gateway review was warning two years ago that there were severe problems with delivering the new system. Why were those warnings ignored?
I welcome the announcement that the Government will start paying interest on the money that they owe from 1 July. But what about the people who are entitled to payment but have received nothing for the six months before 30 June? Those people have been put at a huge competitive disadvantage by the Government’s incompetence, denial and mismanagement, and have been forced to take out commercial loans. The Secretary of State said that 90 per cent. of the total fund had now been paid, but he did not say—unless I missed something—how many claimants remained unpaid. I would be grateful if he could give us that information. Will he also tell us whether the hill livestock allowance claimants will benefit from the initiative on interest payments that he has announced today?
How many farmers will receive compensation equal to the salary of the sacked chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, who, as I understand it, is still on the payroll but doing nothing? What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the total bank interest paid to date by the farming sector in England as a result of his Department’s failure? What estimate has he made of the likely cost to British taxpayers of the Government’s failure to meet the 30 June deadline? Are we to assume that the Government’s humiliating plea to the European Union for an extension beyond that deadline has been refused? What discussions has he had with the EU Commission about the fines that Britain will have to pay for this failure? What discussions has he had with the Chancellor about which budget the fines will be paid out of? If they will be paid out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs budget, what will the Secretary of State cut in order to pay them? Or will they come from some other source?
Does the Secretary of State realise that the RPA is still getting its field data wrong and making wildly inaccurate party payments? Will he tell us how many overpayments and underpayments have been recorded, and give us the value in each case? Can he give us the date on which he expects the 2005 payments to have been completed? Is he really unable to give us a date by which farmers can expect to receive their cheques for 2006? Can he guarantee that the UK will not face fines a second time?
Much has been made by Ministers of the hard work of the staff at the Rural Payments Agency, and I am sure that the majority of them have worked very hard to sort out the mess that their political masters have created. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to comment, however, on press reports about RPA staff who, even as calls to the rural stress network reached record levels, were cavorting naked in the office and hiding cups full of vomit in office cupboards?
We detected a bad smell about the handling of the single farm payment last year, but the Government denied that there was a problem. We called last year for the Government to introduce a partial payment scheme. Their refusal to open up that option at the time cost the farming community millions of pounds. We called on Ministers to return to farmers the interest that they had paid because of the Government’s failure, but again the door was closed. It has taken months for them to accept any financial liability at all. Every time we prise open the door on this wretched affair a little further, the smell gets worse.
The hon. Gentleman has asked some intelligent questions, which I shall address. However, he has also made some allegations that are completely unworthy of him, and should be rejected utterly. There is no question of the Department speaking to “Farming Today” about the interest payments that have been speculated about. We have made a point of being scrupulous in our engagement with stakeholders, and about coming to the House and not making “Farming Today” the first step.
I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that there will be full co-operation with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I am not sure, however, whether he fully understands the purpose of the gateway reviews. Their role is to identify issues that need to be addressed, and at every stage the purpose of the different traffic lights is to show which those issues are. Officials and Ministers have tried to address those issues; they certainly have not ignored them.
I think that I made it clear in my statement that 2,300 claimants of more than €1,000 had not been—
If the hon. Gentleman will just contain himself, I can assure him that he will get the full picture. As I was saying, 2,300 claimants of more than €1,000 have not been paid, and about 12,000—it might be 12,200—claims of less than €1,000 have not been paid.
As for the taxpayers, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) will know that the European Commission requirement is not to pay 100 per cent. of the payments by the deadline. Obviously, some people die, and there are other reasons involved. The target is a 96.1 per cent. payment for the UK as a whole—this will be of interest to Members from outside England—and our commitment is to make as many payments as possible by 30 June. It would be wrong of me to make predictions, especially given the history of some previous predictions, but we have now reached over 90 per cent. for England, and we are trying to make as many payments as we can as soon as possible.
As for the completion of the 2005 scheme, which relates to the 30 June question, I have said that I want to meet as many claims as possible as fast as possible. The RPA is dealing with that, but I see no value in making predictions about when the process will be completed.
Finally, in respect of 2006, I think it right for me to say that our first commitment should be to seek every opportunity to make full payments, but if full payments are not possible, we have the backstop of partial payments. We shall ensure that the decision on partial payments is made at an early rather than a late stage.
As one of the co-rapporteurs on the EFRA Select Committee, whose members were selected as long ago as December last year to investigate the process, I welcome some of the progress that the Secretary of State has announced. However, 2,300 farmers have still received absolutely nothing.
The Secretary of State said that the Rural Payments Agency would be the subject of a root-and-branch review at some point during the next few months. Will he incorporate in that review an assessment of the success or otherwise of the specification, design, development, implementation and operation of the information and communications technology system? Will the review also consider the role of Accenture—a company whose performance has been patchy, to put it kindly—and that of the Office of Government Commerce, whose purpose is supposed to be to advise Government on these matters?
I cannot comment on “Farming Today”, but I note that the right hon. Gentleman’s statement was available on the Department’s website long before it was made available to the House. As a former journalist, I am delighted that at least one part of the Department is operating beyond its productivity quotas, namely the press and communications office. I hope that that does not reflect the Secretary of State’s priorities, because this continues to be a grave issue for a number of farmers. I was informed today that, in the last three days alone, five farmers who have received no payment have approached my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). We now know from the Secretary of State’s own figures that a substantial number of claimants—nearly 15,000—have received no payment. That is obviously devastating for some of the farmers involved.
We are pleased that further progress is being made on payments. We are also pleased that the Secretary of State has seen fit to authorise interest payments, which we have requested for some time, and party payments for the 2006 single payment scheme, which we have also requested. However, it is worth noting that it is reported that the parliamentary ombudsman has received several complaints about the maladministration of single farm payments. If that is indeed the case, is it not clear that the interest payments have been granted at a time when the Government have a gun to their head?
Moreover, the Department’s proposed interest rate of 1 percentage point above the London interbank offered rate strikes me as surprisingly niggardly. There may be a farmer or two in the country who can borrow at 1 per cent. above LIBOR, possibly including the Duke of Westminster, but a more typical rate for small farmers would be between 3 and 4 per cent. above LIBOR. Although DEFRA has made that commitment, I should be grateful if it took account of what farmers have had to pay to relieve the liquidity crisis caused by its incompetence and reflected that more adequately in the proposed interest payments.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, by giving firm assurances that 96 per cent. of payments would be made by March 2006—assurances given as late as 2005—his Department raised farmers’ expectations about the timing of their payments above the legal minimum, and that that has seriously disadvantaged many farmers? How will he compensate them? Will he also undertake to assess the impact of mapping disputes causing farmers to miss the deadline for entry to agri-environment scheme?
In response to a question from a Liberal Democrat, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), said:
“Feed merchants are, to varying effects, likely to be affected by the cash-flow issues faced by farming business waiting for receipt of payments under the 2005 Single Payment Scheme”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1209W.]
What plans has the Department to assess that impact accurately, and how will the Secretary of State ensure that feed merchants and other businesses that depend on farm revenues do not suffer?
As the Secretary of State knows—because he was asked about it by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth)—the late payments will have an impact not just on the finances of rural communities, but on Government finances. However, I did not hear him specify a figure that he has told the Treasury to expect for the overrun that will be caused by the fact that the European Union will not meet any payments made by DEFRA after 30 June. What is that figure, and will it be met from the departmental budget? If so, what other budget lines will be cut to defray the extra cost? If not, will the Secretary of State assure us that the amount will be met from the contingency reserve? That would obviously be preferable for all concerned.
The Secretary of State said that a minimum payment level was not available for 2006. Given that the RPA has made a payment of just 1p, and that the costs of the £54 million IT system, if divided equally among claimants, would be about £450 per head, will he give urgent consideration to imposing a minimum threshold on payments for 2007 to prevent a repetition of this costly bureaucratic nonsense? I should be grateful if he also gave us an update on the trading of entitlements.
At least two of the hon. Gentleman’s questions were answered in my statement. I explained about the minimum threshold, which we are exploring seriously. I cannot believe that he disagrees that complicating the 2006 payments further at this stage would be dangerous, but we are considering the 2007 payments carefully. I referred to the mapping disputes that occur between different farmers. The RPA has told me that it will examine that issue with due speed.
The hon. Gentleman’s allegation about the website was a serious point. I am assured that, under departmental procedure, no copy of my statement would appear on the website until its conclusion in the House, but I will check as soon as this is over and write to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) if a breach has occurred.
As for the European Union and possible implications for the United Kingdom’s finances, issues of disallowance or fines are serious, but they are subject to negotiation and dependent on final figures for payments. The hon. Gentleman asked about the 96 per cent.; it would be unwise to start bandying figures until we know whether we have reached that amount.
I have discussed the particular circumstances surrounding the single payment scheme this year with Mrs. Fisher-Boel. My officials will work with her officials, and I will keep the House informed. I hope that there will be a reasonable outcome.
The Secretary of State again rightly acknowledged the difficulties that farmers have faced because of late payments. I hope he will accept that what is essential now is for no false promises to be made about 2006 payments. What farm businesses want is certainty. Will he make that his policy aim, and, more particularly, will he acknowledge that the difficulties have arisen partly because of changes in the common agricultural policy? Despite the difficulties at the RPA, further reform of the CAP is inevitable and necessary. Will the Secretary of State make that a major objective?
Continuing reform of the CAP is essential. The decoupling of payments from production achieved by my predecessor was a landmark change and the increasing emphasis on the second, rural development, pillar of the CAP is critical. On my hon. Friend’s first point, I hope that he recognises that, far from seeking to hide the difficulties ahead, in my statements of 9 May and today I have tried to be as clear as possible about them. I have said repeatedly that my assessment is that 2006 will be a very challenging year, but I am determined that we will keep farmers’ representatives and the House informed as the RPA grapples with these difficult issues. As to whether partial or full payments will be made for the 2006 scheme, I shall come back to the House in the autumn with the recommendation from the chief executive of the RPA.
In thanking the Secretary of State for his personal candour and contrition, may I ask whether he is truly aware of the depth of depression and concern in rural areas? Will he spend a goodly portion of the forthcoming recess touring the rural areas, talking to farmers and those who depend on them for their living? Will he seek to give them a sense of hope and tell them how he is going to deliver on it?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it is part of my job to visit rural areas and farms in my working time as well as during holidays and at weekends. Certainly, that has been my practice for the past six weeks, and I intend to continue it—including this Saturday, when I shall visit a farm in Northumberland.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the depth of depression and despair in rural areas. I do not underestimate that at all, nor the damage that has been done to the Department’s reputation among farmers. We are pursuing an ambitious and shared programme with farmers and farming communities to develop British agriculture, with strong supplier networks and so on. I am as keen as he is—if not more so—to ensure that that relationship is strengthened rather than weakened. That can happen only when the difficulties at the RPA are overcome.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and further apology. I also welcome the flexibility that he is displaying in trying to clean up the mess. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) is right to say that we must not be derailed from securing further changes in the CAP. If the French and their allies see that the reforms are failing in this respect, it would play into their hands and we would return to the production subsidies regime. That would be unacceptable, as it is entirely the wrong way to help agriculture.
I do not want to prejudge the Select Committee’s approach to the matter, but no one has satisfactorily explained why there were so many more claimants. Is it not time to define much more carefully which people really are farmers and who needs the help? In the past, money seems to have gone to entirely the wrong people.
My hon. Friend makes some wide-ranging points. I can assure him that we will continue the drive to reform the CAP and it is important to make the link with the World Trade Organisation negotiations.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think that the usual practice is that the House should be informed as soon as possible when information comes to hand about issues that have been raised. I have just been passed a note about the statement’s appearance on the website, about which the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) was so concerned. The instructions were that the statement should appear on the website as I gave it, and I asked my officials to check that that happened. I gather that the statement was released to the House, to Government and Opposition Whips and to Mr. Speaker at 10 am, in accordance with the usual procedure. However, I shall certainly check that further.
Does the Secretary of State accept that this country’s food producers and farmers operate in a very competitive environment? Many make scarcely any profit on what they produce. I genuinely thank him for the modest gestures that he has announced today, with additional interest to be paid to farmers on money owed to them, but can he give a firmer assurance that farmers will receive their payments on time next year? Otherwise, we will be putting them at a serious disadvantage in the European context. Is it not a pity that we cannot decide these matters for ourselves, without reference to Europe?
The hon. Gentleman asks for certainty about next year’s payments and it is right that we prepare for all eventualities. We must make sure that the legal and other infrastructure is ready to make party payments, if necessary, but I hope that he will agree that it would be premature to commit to party payments now. Equally, it is right that I come back to the House in October with a written or oral statement to report on what the RPA chief executive has said about the prospects for full payments. If full payments for the 2006 scheme cannot be made at an appropriate time in 2007, it is clear that party payments will have to be the answer.
I genuinely welcome the spirit in which the Secretary of State made today’s statement, and I am especially grateful for the apology that he made. Does he accept that farm incomes have fallen dramatically in the past five years and that farmers make payment claims in good faith? Although they may not wish to receive the subsidies, they come to rely on them.
The Secretary of State did not respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said about the alleged appalling and deplorable behaviour of RPA staff in Newcastle. Although I gather that most farmers in Vale of York have now received their money, they were at their wits’ end because, even as late as March, they had received none at all. Does he agree that RPA staff showed an utter lack of respect for their clients in partying and calling farmers names in the way that has been alleged? I hope that disciplinary action will be taken and that, if necessary, staff will be dismissed.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind remarks and for reminding me about the question raised by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). I apologise for not responding earlier and am glad to have another opportunity to do so.
The allegations are very serious, but there is an important distinction to be drawn. The hon. Lady implied that the whole office in Newcastle was at fault, whereas the hon. Member for East Surrey made it clear that most of the staff are hard-working and that only a minority indulged in antics that bring the RPA and the whole of public service into disrepute. Of course the behaviour is appalling and must be taken in the most serious possible way. I can tell the House that one member of staff has been dismissed, and that a number of others face severe disciplinary action. The behaviour—some of it alleged, but much of it substantiated—is completely unacceptable and needs to be dealt with in the most serious way.
The hon. Lady is right that many farm incomes are under pressure and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) made the same point. However, I think that she will accept that the farming industry has different sectors, some of which are doing better than others. In addition, some sectors—such as the poultry sector, most obviously—are not involved in payments at all. It is important to recognise that we are not dealing with a single picture, but the message that I want to give is that British farming is important, for the countryside and for the whole country. We all benefit from a strong farming sector and it is incumbent on the Government to do all that we can in that respect. She is right that farmers want to be able to compete and win in world and domestic markets. If necessary, they should be paid for the public goods that they deliver, but their pride lies in producing products that people want to buy.
I apologise to the Secretary of State for my late arrival, but I was still chairing the Select Committee when he began his statement. Farm workers in my constituency are being paid off and farmers threatened with legal action for debt. I have referred many cases in which no payment has yet been made to Ministers in his Department, and to the Minister of State in particular. May I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to make it his business to ensure that the RPA makes payments to the people involved within days?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his clarification and give him an absolute assurance that the 2,300 larger payments of more than €1,000 are our priority. However, the picture that he has painted previously of the relationship between some of his constituents and the banks is not repeated all across the country. We have been in touch with the banks, as have farmers’ leaders, making the very strong case that viable businesses should not be penalised for their difficulties with the RPA.
Dozens of farmers on Dartmoor in my constituency have yet to be paid their hill farm allowance. When will the payment of the HFA be complete?
Secondly, I was told recently by the chairman of the Devon county National Farmers Union that hundreds of forms for 2006 are being returned on the grounds that they are inaccurate or otherwise deficient. I am becoming increasingly concerned at the triviality of the grounds for returning these forms and particularly concerned about the fact that the condition placed on the grant of interest for payments made after 30 June is the weasel expression,
“where it is the fault of the Rural Payments Agency”.
Many hon. Members will know from their surgeries that delays in payment are often the result of inquiries that turn out, on examination, to be very trivial, easily resolvable and providing no proper basis for returning the form in the first place. Will the Secretary of State give a clear instruction to the RPA that it should take a robust view of the basis on which forms should be returned and of the whole question of fault when it comes to the payment of interest?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that some forms are returned for what may seem like a small matter—if a form is not signed, for example. At one level, that is incredibly annoying, but at another level, it is obvious that a form has to be signed. If a signature is missed out at the end of a form, it can cause problems, and a surprising amount of the traffic is about unsigned forms, though there may be other reasons.
In respect of interest, we have responsibilities to the Exchequer, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it from me that the spirit as well as the letter of my commitment today is acknowledgment that the payments should have been made in the 1 December to 30 June window. It would be wrong of me to give a blanket commitment and it is important to include the point that it must have been the RPA’s fault. We start from the position that the non-payments were the fault of the RPA for the system as a whole, and I will ensure that we adopt a judicious approach to the problem.
I am glad to hear the Secretary of State say that he will look carefully into cases where mistakes were made not by farmers, but because of the RPA. One farmer in my area had to take out a loan of £30,000. Will he receive the interest payments on the loan that he had to take out, as he has been paid 90 per cent. of his claim only recently? Can we imagine what the House would hear if the Secretary of State’s salary and expenses were not paid for several months? If that happened, he would know exactly how much an arrangement fee for loan costs or how much interest has to be paid on borrowings that were taken up. Can the Secretary of State understand the anger of farmers who missed out as a result of a shambles that was made by people other than themselves? Nor is it only a matter of farmers feeling frustrated; some of them have become ill because of the stress that they suffered because of the fault of the RPA. Will he give an assurance that, if farmers can prove how much they have paid in interest and arrangement fees as a result of this shambles, they will be reimbursed that money as well?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s passion and the even greater passion of his constituents over this matter. It is part of the deal for farmers that they should expect efficient service from a public service organisation that is working for them. I appreciate that, but it is right for me to stick to what I said earlier today—that the interest will be calculated on the basis of payments outside the payment window of 1 December to 30 June. We intend to ensure that that is done in the appropriate way.
I am grateful for the circulation of the statement, which has enabled me to catch up with the two paragraphs that I missed at the beginning. Many farmers in my area who have undergone intense stress as a result of these problems will be disappointed at the fact that the Foreign Secretary is not in her place alongside the Secretary of State, as they regard her as primarily culpable. The stress is compounded because, in addition to the welcome partial interest payments just announced, the Secretary of State has made a fair admission of liability on the part of the Government. I hope that he will now look seriously into examining claims for the full consequential losses that flow from the incompetence of the Government and their agency. Certainty is, as repeatedly mentioned, a key matter for farmers in an increasingly uncertain and harsh competitive world. Many farmers are finding that the uncertainty surrounding their 2005 payments has undermined any certainty about the basis of their next payments, so they cannot plan, they cannot have the right discussions with their bank managers and they cannot move forward with any confidence. That is what farmers need and I hope that the Secretary of State will now give us a decent assurance.
Does the Secretary of State accept that, in dealing with questions of fair compensation on normal principles, the redress should be for actual loss? As was made clear by several of my hon. Friends, that is not the basis on which the Secretary of State is proceeding. He is trying to mitigate the loss. I do not want to be churlish, but I am not impressed by his apology. The fact is that people who have suffered losses should be paid full compensation, not only for interest payments but for the dislocation to their business. I have to tell the Secretary of State that I do not think that his statement and answers today are at all adequate for the purpose.
The Government have legal commitments in respect of payments under the single payment scheme, which apply between 1 December and 30 June. Where we failed to meet those legal commitments, it is right for us to pay the interest. That is the right basis for proceeding in this matter and it has been the basis for doing so in the House for many years.
This is a most unfortunate episode, as the Secretary of State and all the farmers in my constituency know. I welcome his decision to pay interest on outstanding costs to farmers, but when he looks ahead to reforming the Rural Payments Agency, will he consider giving it a positive duty to ensure that farmers receive all that they are entitled to? We have already heard about some of the rather trivial reasons given for not paying, so placing a positive duty on the RPA to do more than simply administer the system would be very helpful.
As chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group, I would like to inform the Secretary of State that 72 Members have signed up to it, which shows the level of feeling on both sides of the House about protecting our dairy farmers. I want to ask him two questions. First, will he apologise to my Shrewsbury dairy farmers for the lateness of their payments and consequent stress caused? Secondly, will he give an assurance that similar delays will not occur next year?
Indeed, a cross-party group. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would be more than happy to meet his group. As to the apology and next year’s commitments, I think that he was in his place to hear my statement earlier, in which I openly and clearly dealt with both points.
Shrewsbury’s farmers certainly have my apology. I can feel a press release coming out already about how the hon. Gentleman has winkled or even dragged a specific apology to Shrewsbury farmers out of a recalcitrant Secretary of State. Shrewsbury farmers have my apology, but it would be wrong for me to say that they have a greater apology than farmers anywhere else. Nevertheless, they have my apology and my commitment to pay them as efficiently and quickly as possible next year and for subsequent years.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is with some regret that I have to make this point of order about what was said during questions this morning. It started when a journalist at The Times reported me as calling for a boycott of British strawberries, which is something that I never did, and that journalist was kind enough to write a note confirming that I never called for such a ban. That is not a matter for the Chair, but I should like to draw your attention to the fact that, when I was standing in the queue for the Table Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), whom I have told that I would make this point of order today, was standing in front of me. He tabled an early-day motion that suggested that those words were true, although I was able to show him the note from the journalist to prove that they were not true.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) was unhappy with the truth of the comments made by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and was rightly brought to order. What I should like you to do if possible, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is to insist that those very high standards of truthfulness and honesty on which we insist in the Chamber are also applied outside it, with particularly reference to early-day motions.