Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 456: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

The hon. Lady must wait until after questions, and then the business statement, and then the statement, so she has time for a cappuccino.

Local Authority Recycling

Recycling and composting of household waste has doubled in the past four years and more than tripled in the past eight years. Government support for, and engagement with, the poorest performing local authorities, as well as progressively lower landfill limits and the escalating landfill tax will all help to drive forward even higher recycling rates.

Impressive as the Secretary of State’s answer is, he will be aware of the considerable discrepancies between the policies of different authorities. Some recycle glass, but others do not; some recycle plastic, but others do not; some fine people if they put their rubbish in the wrong recycling bin, which is not helpful if we wish to encourage more recycling. As the Secretary of State prepares to publish his new waste strategy, what steps will he take to encourage a more uniform performance by local authorities further to increase recycling rates?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s recognition of the Government’s impressive record, which was largely achieved before I arrived in the Department. I accept his point that we need to drive up performance across the country, but there are different ways of doing so in different areas to reflect local needs. It is significant that over 90 per cent. of local authorities offer kerb-side collection, and over 80 per cent. collect plastics as well as the more traditional recyclates. In the waste strategy, we will indeed seek to find ways of helping all local authorities to raise their performance. May I point out to the right hon. Gentleman an example of interdepartmental co-operation that he will applaud? In the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which has been introduced in the House, the development of joint waste authorities across metropolitan borough lines will help to achieve the consistency that he rightly seeks.

Will the Minister consider, too, the slightly perverse effect of the weight requirement on local authorities, which discourages the recycling of plastic and results in recycled paper being of much poorer quality because of the co-mingling of waste?

My hon. Friend makes an important technical point. As she suggested, there is a tendency, if we are not careful, to discriminate against the collection of high-volume but low-weight plastics. As I suggested earlier, the fact that 80 per cent. of local authorities collect plastics is a step forward, but I assure my hon. Friend that the issue is being looked at. We are keen in the waste strategy to make sure that any disincentives to recycling and collection are minimised.

Is it not the case that recycling rates would improve if more packaging were made of recyclable materials? What steps has the Secretary of State taken to encourage food producers, particularly the large supermarket chains, to adopt a more responsible approach by reducing excess packaging and, importantly, making sure that any necessary packaging is made from materials that can be recycled?

I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that the first priority is to reduce the amount of packaging, rather than to tackle the recycling potential. As for packaging that is required, may I point out that voluntary agreements to achieve an 80 per cent. reduction in packaging have been negotiated in part by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare with some major supermarkets? All supermarkets have to meet the requirements of the packaging directive that we have implemented, but the hon. Lady made an important point about the recycling of packaging. As I recollect, 70 to 80 per cent. of packaging is recyclable, but it is important to drive that up as high as possible. The interest in her constituency knows no bounds, because one of my colleagues tells me that she conducts some of her surgeries in Tesco, and I am sure that she can take the recycling message to her next surgery.

Stockport’s Liberal Democrat council proposes to deliver 52 black bin bags—a year’s supply—to every household in one go, with no restrictions on the number of bags that people are allowed to put out each week. Will that help or hinder recycling efforts in Stockport?

When it comes to local matters in Stockport, I certainly take my hon. Friend’s views about the rights and wrongs of the situation into account, as he is a passionate campaigner for a more environmentally friendly and greener Stockport. From central Government’s point of view, it is important that local authorities pay suitable attention to the particular needs of their own areas, which is why we have not sought to impose a single Stalinist model for recycling and collection on the country. It is right that local authorities innovate, but they should do so in a sensible way, not a silly way.

Over the past year the Government have announced welcome plans to do more, at last, to promote recycling of school waste, but how will they judge the effectiveness of any of those initiatives if, according to the written answer given to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda),

“Central Government have not set any specific recycling targets for schools. There are targets for local authority recycling of household waste which does not include waste from schools. We do not know how much school waste has been recycled in the last 10 years”—[Official Report, 25 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 1461W.]?

New schemes are great, but where is the visible follow-through, where is the rigour of reporting progress, and where is the accountability?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s concern to boost recycling rates, and I am sure he will be as pleased as I am that local authorities have been reminded recently that they have a duty to collect recyclates from schools, which has not always happened. As my hon. Friend suggested, one person’s rigour in reporting, which I think was the phrase that the hon. Gentleman used, is another person’s bureaucracy and form-filling. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want me to announce that I was sending a form to every school in the country asking it to weigh the amount of waste recycled. We will know success when we achieve more recycling by local authority levels. The percentages that I gave in answer to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) are the sort of outcome that the hon. Gentleman should support, rather than denigrate.

Domestic Waste

The export of waste for recycling is not bad in itself because it reduces the amount of virgin materials used by the importing country and is often carried in ships that would otherwise sail empty. However, we are working to expand markets for recyclates in this country and to reduce our reliance on exports.

My hon. Friend will be aware of recent reports about the 200,000 tonnes of plastic that have been exported to China. Does he share my concern about the effect that that will have on local people there? What can he do to ensure that they are protected, and that we as a nation deal with our own waste and dispose of it ourselves?

It is a matter for the Chinese Government to ensure that proper consideration is given to the working conditions to which my hon. Friend refers. We ensure, as far as we can, compliance with international rules. It is not in the interests of China to import recyclable materials only to see them put into landfill. As I said in response to his initial question, it is better, particularly in overall climate change terms, that China, India and other emerging and growing economies make products from recyclable materials that we produce, rather than cutting down trees or using virgin oil to make those products.

But is it not a fact that we import an enormous amount of goods from China? I recall the container coming to the UK before Christmas laden with goods for us to buy as presents. Would it not be a good rule, therefore, for us to return all the packaging around those imported goods, so that the producers think twice about the amount of packaging that they use for goods exported to the United Kingdom?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House, a number of initiatives and measures have been introduced, not least by retailers, to address the problems of excess packaging. What the hon. Gentleman suggests does happen. A significant proportion of plastic, paper and card packaging which comes from overseas is re-exported as recyclable material, as I said earlier, obviating the need to make new products from virgin materials, which can only be a good thing.

Single Payment Scheme

3. If he will publish payments made under the common agricultural policy single payment scheme by constituency. (117812)

Detailed analysis of all the payments made under the 2005 single payment scheme is not yet available. Once the remaining 2005 scheme payments have been completed, a decision will be taken on the level of detail that will be published.

Some £16 billion is paid every year to farmers and growers under the single payment scheme—[Interruption.]—£16 billion. In the interests of accountability and transparency, is it not time to identify payments at least by constituency?

Many farmers would like £16 billion to be distributed under the single payment scheme, but the figure may be one tenth of that. My hon. Friend raises an important point. He asked a similar question a year ago. He has rightly been saying that information should be available about the amount paid under the single payment scheme. As he knows, for the period up to 2005, we published regularly the payments to individual farmers. That is entirely reasonable. Our first priority, obviously, is to make sure that the payments are correct. Once we are sure that they are correct—[Interruption.] I made the point myself. I ask hon. Members to humour me for a moment. It is our first responsibility to make the payments correctly, but once they have been made, it is important that the information is in the public domain, and I should like that level of openness to continue under the new system.

The Secretary of State would therefore agree that if any figures were to be meaningful, he would have to be certain that the money was paid to the farmers who were entitled to payments in respect of the land which so entitled them in the year for which they were eligible and in respect of a product that they grew. Since none of those conditions is yet in place, it would be entirely fatuous to attempt to publish anything, but when they are in place, we would welcome their publication.

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but he could not have been listening to my last answer, in which I said that our first duty was to ensure that the correct payments were made and that we should then publish the information.

It would be helpful to members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I sit, and to other Members to have information of the kind suggested in the question. Could we not go further in respect of the largest decile of payments and publish the individual payments made to the very rich agro-industrial complexes that receive so much agricultural support?

I am sorry if the situation is not clear; perhaps I should have made it clearer. Under the system that was introduced by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), individual payments are published. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) asked about payments by constituency. We have not done that so far, not least because several farms, large and small, cross constituency boundaries. We do not want to create additional bureaucracy. However, the degree of openness suggested in the original question is important, and I know that my hon. Friend and his Select Committee share that view.

The Government’s preferred method of agricultural support is through the rural development programme and pillar 2 payments, yet the Department has failed to publish the English rural development programme for this year. As a result, new agri-environment schemes and local food processing payments are not being made. Is the Secretary of State content with that situation, and how long will it continue?

The hon. Gentleman has a conspiracy theory too far if he believes that it is the Government’s fault that the European Parliament, at the behest of the Conservatives, should have blocked the development of the rural development programme; that the European Commission’s plans should be stuck in the European Parliament, with the support of the official Opposition; and that the European Parliament should now be saying that 20 per cent. of the funds due to farming communities and rural areas should be blocked, again with the support of the Conservatives. That is not the Government’s fault but something that we are trying to resolve, and we could do with a bit of help from Opposition Members.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the European rules are based on the percentage of the fund disbursed rather than the percentage of farmers who are paid. As I made clear in my statement in November, our aim is to meet the European Union requirement that 96.14 per cent. of UK funds are disbursed by 30 June. I am pleased to say that we are working hard with the Rural Payments Agency to deliver that. As I have said before, I will always keep the House informed on progress.

In his statement on the single payments scheme on 7 November, the Secretary of State told the House that a mere 1,700 farmers were still awaiting their final payments for 2005. Did he know at the time that in fact up to 20,000 cases remain unresolved? If he did know, why did not he tell the House, and if he did not know, why not? Why did it take an investigation by the Yorkshire Post to extract the truth about the scale of the continuing mess at the Rural Payments Agency? So much for his talk of openness. Is not this just the same old sleight of hand and spin? Is this the way to restore the confidence of the rural communities, and why should they believe a word he says any more?

It is very important that I answer this charge absolutely directly. The hon. Gentleman has rushed into print to accuse the Government of covering up information that he says was only exposed by the Yorkshire Post—a fine and wonderful newspaper, I should like to underline.

The hon. Gentleman’s allegation is that throughout the autumn the Government conspired to keep from the public and Members of the House the fact that the Rural Payments Agency, having made payments to farmers, was then open to farmers coming back and asking for corrections. I have with me a press release dated 6 September 2006—fully three to four months before the hon. Gentleman woke up to this story—the second sentence of which states:

“Around 19,000 SPS claims together with 7,700 claims with horticultural authorisations are being reviewed to verify whether adjustments are required.”

Some cover-up! That is a press release put on to the internet by the Rural Payments Agency. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman improves his research before he starts making allegations.

Fisheries

4. What percentage of the population of (a) cod, (b) sole and (c) plaice are expected to be removed from UK seas per year under new quotas. (117813)

It is not possible to provide a figure for UK seas because fish move around. Quotas are set for stocks in general and UK fishermen fish outside UK waters in the same way as fishermen from other member states fish inside UK waters. However, approximate estimates of the agreements reached on the stocks that the hon. Gentleman refers to would amount to removal of between 10 per cent. and 60 per cent., depending on the state of the stock. Of those stocks, the UK’s share of the total allowable catch ranges from 4 per cent. for North sea sole to 61 per cent. for west of Scotland plaice.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, particularly for his great perception that fish move around. I am also grateful for the advice that I have received from Mr. McDermott, who runs the excellent McDermott fish and chip shops, which have won many awards. Speaking as an urban Member, it is important for me to ask questions about fishing policy, though it is very often Members representing ports who ask such questions. Is not 60 per cent. a devastating take? Would we not do better to follow the example of the Norwegians, who manage their Arctic cod stock in the Barents sea in co-operation with the EU and Russia? By having that sense of possession over our own seas while being co-operative with the EU, we could secure more effective management of our fish stock.

I hate to inform the hon. Gentleman, but his Front Benchers have abandoned the policy of unilateral withdrawal from the common fisheries policy. I am told today by Dundee’s The Courier that the Conservative Scottish fisheries spokesman, Ted Brocklebank, is so outraged that he is planning his resignation. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a word with his Front Benchers.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the impact of the burning of fossil fuels on the state of the ocean, on commercial fisheries and on quotas, so would he recommend that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) visit the exhibition on oceans and climate change, which is displayed in the Upper Waiting Room? Other hon. Members should also pay a visit—if they have not already done so—while it is on this week to observe the scale of the problem and, indeed, to see some of the very exciting solutions ventured by the Plymouth marine science partnership, which is conducting the exhibition.

Yes, I certainly would recommend that all hon. Members visit the exhibition that is sponsored by my hon. Friend. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is going there at 11.30 this morning. My hon. Friend and the exhibition make very important points about the connection between the health of the marine environment and climate change. Our seas play a crucial role in absorbing CO2 and there is a danger that increasing acidification of the seas will help tip the balance even more severely towards global warming. Some fantastic technological solutions are being developed in my hon. Friend’s Plymouth constituency, which will not only help to mitigate that, but provide solutions to promote absorption of CO2 in the future.

Does the Minister believe that there is a future for a fishing fleet catching whitefish in the United Kingdom? I ask that because the Minister with responsibility for fishing in Northern Ireland refused to give the tie-up aid for the Northern Ireland whitefish fleet. That will mean the decimation, the destruction and disappearance of our whitefish fleet. Is that policy the same throughout the UK?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noted the comments of the representative of the Northern Ireland fishing industry after the December Council. He was full of praise for the agreement that was reached, not least because we managed to achieve a 17 per cent. increase in the quota for prawns for Northern Ireland fishermen. Prawns are their most important economic stock.

Of course there is a future for the whitefish fleet throughout the United Kingdom as long as we ensure that we do not overfish and exploit stocks unsustainably. The hon. Gentleman may have read in the Northern Ireland press this week, if the news was reproduced there, that the Government in the Irish Republic are planning a massive decommissioning scheme for their whitefish fleet in recognition of the problem that I outlined: in the past, our fishing fleet has not always been the right size for exploiting the stock.

Community Land Trusts

5. What plans he has to assess the use of community land trusts to underpin county council smallholdings. (117814)

The Government have always encouraged authorities to maintain county council smallholdings, and I am aware of the good work of organisations such as the community land trust at Fordhill farm and Stroud Community Agriculture in my hon. Friend’s constituency in supporting smaller agricultural holdings. The management of county council smallholdings is ultimately a matter for individual authorities to determine.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and for responding to the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago on the same topic. Like me, he perceives the value of county farm estates. However, will he continue to examine ways in which we can secure the future of those county farm estates? They are continually under review, which can sometimes lead to their sale. We must therefore consider solutions such as community land trusts. I hope that my hon. Friend and his officials will continue to investigate the matter.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the matter over many years. He may be interested to know about community finance solutions—an initiative by Salford university, which is undertaking a national demonstration programme that will partly support several community land trusts in their work and help local people establish them when necessary. I hope that that may form part of the solution that he seeks. I am aware that Gloucester county council is examining the matter on a case-by-case basis as the portfolio comes up for renewal to determine what it will do. That process has gone on for a long time and must be left to local decision makers. However, we should all be interested in the model of community land trusts for the future of farming.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary joins me in acknowledging the role that county council estates play. In the event of selling county council smallholdings, will he examine the rights of sitting tenants, especially those of their sons and daughters, so that their future in farming is not overlooked?

I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point. Sometimes tenancies are held in a family for generations but suddenly come to an end as the land is disposed of. She is right to highlight the matter as requiring closer attention. We believe that tenancies give farmers the flexibility that they need to adopt new practices. They also provide an effective way into farming for people who could not otherwise farm. Indeed, their origin is in encouraging people to farm who did not have the land and the means to do it. In one sense, when generations have continued on the same smallholding, it is the equivalent of bed blocking. However, we must acknowledge that the matter is a genuine concern for many families and we should enable the next generation to continue in farming.

Environmental Liability Directive

6. Whether he plans to make special provisions for sites of special scientific interest when implementing the environmental liability directive. (117815)

According to GeneWatch UK, 11 sites of special scientific interest in my constituency are at risk of genetic and toxic pollution, including one site near Eashing farm in Godalming, where there are plans for a quarry, despite the deep reservations of many of my constituents. Will the Under-Secretary ensure that the directive is implemented in a way that gives proper protection to wildlife? That is one of my constituents’ biggest concerns about the often unpopular quarries.

I understand the force not only of the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about sites of special scientific interest in his constituency but of the wider issue. The arguments in favour of a wider and of a narrower interpretation of the directive are finely balanced. In line with Hampton, Arculus and all our principles of better regulation, we should not over-implement EU directives in this country. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear support from the Conservative Front Bench on that. Equally, we wish to ensure that we meet our biodiversity target of restoring 95 per cent. of SSSIs to a favourable condition by the end of 2010. The consultation is a genuine opportunity for the hon. Gentleman and others in the Chamber to present evidence in support of the case for gold-plating, in this instance, if that is what they wish.

GeneWatch UK’s campaign to press the Government to extend the directive to all SSSIs and all biodiversity action plan species is supported by many Members of the House. Will my hon. Friend address that argument when he responds to the consultation taking place on the implementation of the directive?

Yes, the whole consultation is about that. Approximately 75 per cent. of SSSIs overlap—by area, not by number—with Natura 2000 sites and would therefore have some protection under the directive. I take my hon. Friend’s point that she wishes that to be applied to the protected species and habitats that we designate under SSSIs in this country. Strict liability, which the directive proposes, is a test that should be used sparingly. On the whole, the Government consider that when a person has sought and obtained a permit for some activity, or when the actions were clearly in compliance with the best scientific practice and information available, it is wrong to hold that person accountable should damage result. When damage was intentional or reckless, however, we already have powers under the SSSI regulations to take action to remediate and to prosecute the perpetrators.

I am concerned that the route being pursued by the Government may exclude three important SSSIs in my constituency, Mapledurwell fen, Pamber forest and Silchester common, all of which are highly valued by local residents. It has been useful to hear the Minister’s comments, but will he specifically consider cases put forward for protection? Mapledurwell fen in particular has been cited by botanists as the “richest half acre” of Hampshire, and I believe that it deserves more attention.

I am pleased to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks: we will be considering the issue in relation to SSSIs. I want to correct one misapprehension under which she may be labouring. The greatest threat to SSSIs comes not from the sort of damage that it is envisaged that the directive would counter and remediate, but from inappropriate management, over-grazing and heather-burning of moorland. When the proposal as to how the Government should treat the issue first came forward, the regulatory impact assessment showed that the cost to small farming businesses might be 5 per cent. of average turnover. Although the costs are small nationally, as a proportion of small farm holdings’ turnover they are high. The Government had to come to a resolution on that fine balance when we put forward our interim position in the consultation. We have a position on our preferred status, but it is subject to consultation. A cost of £30,000, however, is a lot to a small farmer.

I am pleased that the Minister is clearly thinking hard about the issue and I hope that he will continue to do so because he may avoid the Government scoring yet another environmental own goal.

There is a real danger that the Government will squander an opportunity to enhance ecological protection. By excluding a large number of SSSIs and species listed under the biodiversity action plan, they are in danger of sending out a message that those do not matter very much. More specifically, as the Minister should know, the science of genetically modified crops is still being debated and the commercial and environmental dangers posed by the risk of cross-contamination are a matter of serious public concern. Will he therefore follow the example of the Welsh Assembly and remove the permit defence against strict liability in the case of contamination by GM?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are consulting on that. I take positively his remarks about it being given serious consideration, which is what we wish to do. He will accept that devolved assemblies have the right to come to different conclusions. The different situations in England and Wales in terms of progress towards our biodiversity targets—in particular, towards their favourable and improving status in our SSSIs—mean that in Wales the traffic lights are showing red whereas in England they are showing amber-green, as he will know. There is a relevant difference, and it is appropriate that in different jurisdictions we consider the directive, the impact that it may make and the gold-plating that may result from it.

Fish Quotas

7. What discussions he has had with fishermen's organisations on quota levels for (a) larger boats and (b) smaller, inshore boats. (117817)

Ministers and officials meet fishermen’s representatives regularly to discuss quota levels. The Prime Minister recently met a delegation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) to discuss the quota allocation between the fleet sectors.

Is there any unused sole quota in the over-10 m sector? If so, could that quota be transferred to help the small boat inshore sector, which could use it without damaging the stocks? Do we need a little more flexibility in the way in which we manage our national fish quotas?

We do use that flexibility and my officials work hard to organise the swaps that the hon. Gentleman advocates. I shall certainly consider his suggestion. My understanding is that there is a possibility that this year the quota may be under-fished in the over-10 m sector, in which case that might allow for some swapping. However, in previous years the allocation has been over-fished in both the under-10 m and over-10 m sectors. It is difficult to devise a system that could be made permanent without upsetting either sector. However, we try to be as flexible and helpful as we can be in instances when quota is not fully fished to benefit those who want to fish a little more.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with representatives of the fishermen of Young’s prawns who this week chose to harvest their quota of prawns, ship them to Thailand to be peeled by cheap labour only for them to be shipped back again to be sold as Scottish prawns in the UK market? What pressure does he think could be brought to bear on companies that choose such environmentally unsustainable business models?

The pressure is being brought to bear on such companies not least by my hon. Friend in making that point in the Chamber. The case he refers to involves, I think, a Scottish company. If my recollection is correct, I am pretty sure that my Scottish colleague, Ross Finnie, expressed similar concerns about the sustainability of that activity when it first arose in the latter part of last year, as did the First Minister in Scotland, Jack McConnell.

The cod recovery plan can have an impact on fishermen’s quotas. What is the future of the plan and when will it next be reviewed?

Like the Minister, it is entertaining to observe, as it dawns on some political parties, that although fish may not be that bright, at least we know that they are just about intelligent enough not to have hang-ups about their nationality.

What are the Government doing to make a strong case for extending the work of the sea fisheries committees to 12 miles? We have discussed this before and I know that the Government are keen to achieve that. It would be useful to have an update.

As I have told the hon. Gentleman during our discussions, we are keen to explore the issue in the context of the general review of the common fisheries policy, which I believe is due in 2012. That does not mean that we cannot in the meantime make applications to the Commission for the extension of certain competences in agreement with the sea fisheries committees, but the arrangement would obviously have to be agreed at Commission level. Where there is potential for interference in the activity of other member states’ vessels fishing legitimately between 6 and 12 miles offshore, difficulties could be caused, but, as I have said, we are keen to explore the issue.

Is it the case that the Department has miscalculated the under-10 m quota, and that the Minister does not have the flexibility that he mentioned owing to the Government’s implementation of fixed-quota allocations for the over-10 m vessels? While he is apologising for those mistakes, will he also apologise for failing to encourage more English, Irish and Welsh representation on the board of Seafish?

Energy Consumption

8. What incentives he plans for energy companies to encourage them to help their customers reduce energy consumption in their homes. (117818)

The Government launched the energy efficiency commitment in 2002. It obliges gas and electricity suppliers to promote household energy efficiency, and is a key driver of reduction in energy consumption in homes. We doubled suppliers' targets after the first phase of the commitment, and they will rise by another 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. from 2008. We will maintain a supplier obligation in some form until at least 2020.

When I look at my electricity bill I see that for the first 197 units I pay about 15p a unit, and for the remainder I pay about 9p a unit. The initial amount of electricity that I use is the most expensive, and the more I use the cheaper it becomes. The standing charge has the same effect. Is that not completely the wrong incentive? Low energy use is being penalised by the tariff structure, while high energy use is being encouraged. Will my hon. Friend take up the matter with the energy companies? If we can encourage low energy use through the billing structure, we can also help to reduce fuel poverty.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government are keen to encourage better billing and better information, and we need to look at tariffs as well.

My hon. Friend, who is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, will know that in the 2005 energy efficiency innovation review we mentioned the possibility of considering, after phase 3 of the energy efficiency commitment, setting a target for the reduction of absolute energy demand. We think that that is a model well worth exploring, and we shall be discussing it over the next few years to establish whether it would be feasible after 2011.

Does the Minister agree that the present cost of installing solar panels or wind turbines is prohibitive for many householders who are unlikely to see a payback on their investment? Has he made any representations recently to the Treasury, which today introduced a new air passenger duty without the authority of the House—a so-called green tax, but with no green benefits?

Will my hon. Friend consider encouraging commercial energy supplies to provide packages of energy measures, including both energy efficiency measures and the installation of local energy systems, as recommended in the excellent Trade and Industry report published last week? Will he take account of the barriers to the installation of such systems to which the report refers?

My hon. Friend is right to mention the Select Committee’s impressive report. We shall want to give full consideration to the views expressed in it.

I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said about energy packages. We need to see developments in that regard, and we also need to see more work involving energy service companies. In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor announced that there would be more work of that kind. I think that decentralised energy systems offer significant additional potential for a reduction in both energy bills and carbon dioxide emissions, and the Government are keen to achieve both.

The average January temperature in Sweden is 7° below ours in the UK, but carbon emissions from Swedish homes are just 5 per cent. of their total whereas they are 27 per cent. of ours. Given that three quarters of the homes that we will be living in in 2050 have already been built, does the Minister accept that we need to be far more ambitious in addressing the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock than we have been so far, and how does he intend to ensure that a holistic approach is taken where the entire home, including the boiler, the windows and underfloor insulation, is tackled, rather than one that simply cherry-picks cavity wall insulation or loft insulation, as appears to be the case under the energy efficiency commitment—

It is true that at present under the energy efficiency commitment priority has been given to cavity and loft insulation. Those are the least-cost solutions. However, it is also right to point out that cavity wall and loft insulation are among the best steps that can be taken to improve the thermal efficiency of people’s homes. As the energy efficiency commitment develops further, and as we consider some of the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), we will need to look at adopting additional energy packages and microgeneration measures in addition to standard energy efficiency commitment tools. All such measures are being actively considered as part of the EEC—energy efficiency commitment—consultation for phase 3.

Has the Minister seen the film on climate change produced by former Vice-President Al Gore? As he considers new proposals for the next phase of the energy efficiency commitment, would it not be a superb idea to send a DVD of the film to every household in the country, and could he discuss that with some of our energy suppliers?

I do not know whether it would be appropriate to send a DVD to every household, but that is an excellent and compelling film and it is available on DVD at a reasonable price. There might, however, be a case for sending a DVD of it to every secondary school; I think we should consider doing that. I want to point out the impact that the energy efficiency commitment is already having. About 10 million homes in Britain—6 million of them on low incomes—have already benefited from the energy efficiency commitment. As we are doubling the EEC and are looking to double it again, more homes will become more energy efficient. That is a good thing, and it will help us to achieve our carbon targets.

Given the Secretary of State’s sorry admission yesterday that the Government will not meet their manifesto commitments on greenhouse gas reductions given in 1997, 2001 and 2005, is it not perverse that they have now set their face against empowering local authorities to do better by setting higher domestic energy efficiency standards both in the weak draft planning guidance on climate change and by killing the Local Planning Authorities (Energy and Energy Efficiency) Bill in this House last Friday? Was that destructive and unambitious approach—

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. We are on target in respect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions; in fact, we are on target to achieve a 23 per cent. to 25 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with 1990 levels. That is double the commitment that we had under Kyoto. We are one of the very few countries in the world—if not the only one—that is on track to achieve that. We will be able to achieve that because of the measures that have been taken, including the climate change levy, the climate change agreements and the whole climate change programme review, most of which were opposed by the Opposition.

Biodiversity

9. What discussions he has had with representatives of the Wildlife Trusts on the contribution of management of the landscape to promoting biodiversity. (117819)

On 31 October 2006, I met the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts together with the chief executive and volunteers of the London Wildlife Trust at Camley street natural park, where I saw at first hand the valuable contribution of the Wildlife Trusts and congratulated them on their work and their contribution to the delivery of the England biodiversity strategy and the UK biodiversity action plan.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he confident that his Department’s biodiversity targets will be met, and how is he monitoring them?

On the target to achieve 95 per cent. favourable status for SSSIs by 2010, if my hon. Friend looks at the figures, he will find that this year, 73.5 per cent. are in either a favourable or recovering condition. That compares with a figure of 56.9 per cent. in March 2003, so he can see that considerable progress is being made. We are roughly on target, and we believe that we should still meet the target to restore SSSIs to a favourable condition by 2010.

When the Minister was in Derbyshire on Tuesday, did he take the opportunity to meet the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust? Had he done so, it would have explained to him its concerns about the recent incident at Stony Middleton, which I know he visited, and the quarrying that is taking place at Wager’s Flat, on Longstone Edge. Can he reassure the trust that the Government will take action to prevent this destruction of the countryside?

The right hon. Gentleman expresses his concern about the occurrence at Stony Middleton, where the lagoon gave way. Thankfully, on that occasion there was no loss of life and no one was injured, but it could so easily have been very different. He is absolutely right to say that, when I was in the area the other day and what had happened was made clear to me, I took the opportunity to visit Stony Middleton and to speak to a number of local residents. Unfortunately, I did not have time, in what was an extremely packed schedule, to meet members of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. However, I did, as I say, meet many local residents—as well as the park authority—who expressed clearly to me their concerns about what is going on at Backdale quarry and on Longstone Edge as a whole. I gave them my absolute assurance that, although this is in the first instance a local planning matter, we appreciate that it has real national implications. I explained to them that we wish to see a long-term solution to the problems that they are going through, but one that can be applied nationally.

The Wildlife Trusts recently published the excellent “A Living Landscape” booklet, which highlights the need to help wildlife adapt to climate change. When my hon. Friend met the Wildlife Trusts, did he discuss the specific measures needed to help UK wildlife adapt to the climate change that is already occurring, and which will get worse in future?

Yes, and in fact, about three months ago—on 2 November, I think—we held a meeting of the England Biodiversity Group, of which the Wildlife Trusts is a member. It attended that meeting, and the group is looking at how we can improve and refresh the strategy. It is a considerable time since the biodiversity action plans were put in place, and we have committed ourselves to refreshing them. The strategy now rightly places considerable emphasis on large-scale habitat restoration at an eco-system and landscape level. The document that my hon. Friend mentions makes the approach clear:

“we have been slowing the decline in biodiversity by protecting small oases of wildlife…Now, in the face of climate change, it is essential that we link these oases and restore our ecosystems”.

That is certainly the approach that we must take.

Supermarkets

10. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for farmers of the latest report by the Competition Commission on the power of supermarkets; and if he will make a statement. (117820)

The commission has set out its emerging thinking on its inquiry into the groceries market, including an initial assessment of the impact of retailer buyer power on primary producers. No conclusions have been reached so far.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. Was he as disturbed as I was to read the letter that the commission sent to all Members of Parliament? It said that the commission recognised that some farmers are experiencing difficulties,

“but there are fewer of these than we had expected.”

Will the Secretary of State tell the commission that in fact, a lot of farmers, especially milk producers, are really struggling? Far be it from me to advocate a return to production subsidies—I certainly do not—but one problem is that, since the ending of that system, the supermarkets have got away with pressing down the price of milk at the farm gate, which has caused milk producers considerable hardship. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the commission about that?

I really am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question and I hope that through my answer I can make a point to all hon. Members, including Opposition Front Benchers. Many hon. Members are concerned about this issue. The purpose of the Competition Commission’s letter was to signal that it has had very few—only about six or seven—specific examples to investigate and consider. It is appealing—and I join in that appeal and I hope that we can spread it around the country—for farmers with experience to get in touch with it. The obvious riposte is whether there is any danger in being open about those experiences, but the Competition Commission has given absolute assurances to me and others that any request for confidentiality will be completely respected.

It is obvious that farmers may have inhibitions about engaging in this process, but I hope that hon. Members will join me in assuring them that we have had strong assurances from the Competition Commission. If it is to investigate the issue properly, it needs more than the six or seven cases that it has so far been given. If we can get the message out that substantive evidence needs to be given to the commission—

I wrote to my local branch of the National Farmers Union and spoke with it early in January. Single payments are being eroded in many cases because those farmers that are involved in milk production have seen all those losses being swallowed up. I appreciate that little evidence has been offered so far, but what more can the Government do to assist farmers in making their case about unfair competition?

I applaud my hon. Friend’s initiative in contacting the NFU and suggesting that it provides information. I have two points to make to him. First, he will know that under the agriculture development scheme DEFRA has spent £1.3 million on trying to spread good practice in the dairy sector to promote innovation and ensure that as many dairy farmers as possible were able to follow the example of the best in the sector, who are making a real go of it.

Secondly, I repeat the point that I made in answer to the original question: without substantive evidence, the Competition Commission cannot investigate the issue. That has to be the focus now if we are to obtain the benefits of the independent commission that we have at our service.

That is fine, but if the Secretary of State truly shares the concerns articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), will he invite in the heads of the supermarkets and tell them of the Government’s acute concern on that front?

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the dairy industry, knows that when I met him before Christmas I told him that I had already met the supermarkets and made these points to them. I have also met individual supermarkets, because it is important to point out—as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said when he asked the original question—that we do not wish to give the impression that we want to go back to the days of the Milk Marketing Board, with the Government, still less me, trying to set the price of milk. It is important not to give that message. It is also important that we recognise that responsible practice by the supermarkets offers huge advantages for consumers and producers. The emphasis must be on “responsible” and it is important that we look at the issue in detail, because different supermarkets have different practices. We must ensure that effective practices are developed on all sides, including the producer side and the retail side.

Renewable Energy

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry regarding support for the development in the UK of emerging technologies for offshore forms of renewable energy. (117821)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regularly meets the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to discuss policies, such as support for offshore wind, marine and tidal renewable energy, where DTI and DEFRA both have a key role to play in their successful delivery.

While it takes an especially strong sea breeze to blow in Shepherd’s Bush, many of my constituents are rightly concerned about maximising renewable energy sources and minimising their fuel bills. What plans does my hon. Friend have to reform the renewables obligation and what effect is that likely to have on energy prices?

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about energy bills. Reducing them through reduced consumption is a key element in achieving our target of cutting CO2 emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. Renewable energy is another option, and some of the new developments of the south-east coast are very important. Renewable energy is a key part of the Government’s long-term plans for reducing CO2 emissions. We believe that the renewable obligation can reduce emissions substantially: we are currently consulting on how it should be banded and hope to be able to say more in the energy White Paper to be published shortly.

Local/Speciality Food Promotion

12. What support his Department provides for promoting the wider availability of regional, local and speciality foods. (117822)

We are providing an additional £5 million between 2003 and 2008 to support this important sector that contributes to the viability of rural economies. Buying food and drink locally and in season is also likely to mean that less energy has been used in its production. Buying food that has travelled less can also be a positive choice in helping to reduce transport emissions. More than 4,000 producers have already benefited from this support, which is delivered by Food from Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that supporting locally grown, seasonal food is good for the local economy and environment, and that it tastes pretty darn good too? If he has had the opportunity to taste locally grown Yorkshire produce, does he agree that it ranks among the finest in the world? Will he do all he can to support fine Yorkshire produce and make sure that it gets due recognition?

As ever, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Locally grown produce has benefits for the environment, but the main thing is that it tastes darn good too. She makes a powerful case for the food produced in her area—and may she champion it for many years to come.