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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 8 March 2007

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Publicly Procured Food

My Department does not hold that information, but I have commissioned work to determine the proportion of publicly procured food that is British. I am optimistic that it will be completed by the late autumn of this year, and I will place the information in the Library of the House.

How do the Government justify feeding hospital patients and service personnel so much food that does not meet British standards? In my area, the Bedfordshire food mark ensures that Bedfordshire schoolchildren eat the county’s food. Will the Government ensure that publicly procured food meets the red tractor assured food standard?

Order. I must repeat that I do not expect hon. Members to read a supplementary question into the record. I say that in the nicest possible way, but they should hear what Ministers have to say in answer to a question, and respond orally.

I am sure that, by his reference to standards, the hon. Gentleman would not want to suggest that unsafe food was somehow being fed to hospital patients. I am concerned that, inadvertently, some people listening might have got that impression, and it is certainly not the case. Obviously, I believe that it is important that we give British producers the maximum opportunity to ensure that their food is supplied to public services such as hospitals, schools and the Prison Service. That is what the public sector food procurement initiative is designed to do, and it is helping local producers around the country to get their produce into the public sector. That is good and is consistent with the trade rules that ensure that our producers are able to export overseas as well as supply domestically.

Given that we are in the middle of Fairtrade fortnight, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use our purchasing power to support subsistence food farmers abroad, as well as home-grown produce? To that end, will he join my campaign to make Burnley a fair trade town?

I cannot save the football team, but I have heard a rumour that Mr. Alastair Campbell is going to be its next manager, and perhaps that will be the source of its salvation. That will be in addition to his memoirs, rather than as an alternative to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) makes a good point. The best thing for fair trade around the world, and for a fair deal for British producers, is an open trading regime. I am sure that, like me, she will remember that there was a ban in the 1990s on British producers selling beef overseas. That was very dangerous. Now, 5,000 tonnes of beef are being exported every month, and that is a good thing. However, open trade is equally essential to people all around the world who have a right to develop in a way that means that they can support themselves. It is possible to achieve a balance. We are trying, rightly, to give every encouragement to British producers, but they will prosper best in an open and liberal trading environment.

I represent the constituency of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire, which is heavily agricultural. Does the Secretary of State agree that the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is relevant? The best boost that he could give today’s hard-pressed farmers is to ensure that the food used in the public services, the Army and schools meets the red tractor standard and is purchased from British producers. Surely we should back our farmers, just as so many other countries in Europe and elsewhere back theirs.

We certainly should do that, and I can give the hon. Gentleman some happy tidings. Fresh from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs canteen, I can report that more than 80 per cent. of our fish is domestically sourced, as is more than 90 per cent. of our pork, nearly 100 per cent. of our dairy products and fully 100 per cent. of our eggs.

However, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) makes a serious point about backing British producers. There are two approaches, one of which is to say that we should have a protectionist regime and that we should force our public sector suppliers to buy British only. However, that would be damaging, because Governments around the world would retaliate against British producers. It is far better to say, alternatively, that British farmers will prosper best when theirs is the best produce available in an open and fair market, and that is what we are trying to achieve.

I urge the hon. Member for Macclesfield to back the public sector food procurement initiative, which tries to ensure that our farmers get into the retail and public sector chains that are so important. They can win on quality, and do not need special favours.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we want good local food chains and that there is no better way to provide them than by using county farm estates—smallholdings still owned by county councils and other authorities? Using those farmers to supply our schools and hospitals would be the best of all solutions.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I went to the Oxford farming conference in January I specifically pointed out that all our experience shows that the urge to buy local is growing fast. The red tractor has an important place as a mark of British standards, but, equally, local produce often has the provenance, quality and attachment that people look for, which is important. My hon. Friend’s point is important and I shall look into it.

I assure the Secretary of State that nobody seeks protectionism for British producers. The public sector procurement initiative was launched four years ago, yet in response to my questions to Departments, seven do not know how much of their food is British and three others, including Health and Education and Skills—two of the big ones—will not answer the question. Even the Prime Minister, who had the brass neck to front up the Country Land and Business Association’s “just ask” campaign a few weeks ago, does not know how much food served at No. 10 is British, so what sort of example is that? Is not it now clear that there is no way to judge whether the initiative is actually working and whether there has been any change after four years? There is no way of knowing how much of the £2 billion of taxpayers’ money is delivering the goods. The Secretary of State—

I am sure you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is important that Opposition spokesmen actually listen to the answers given at the beginning. If the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) had bothered to listen he would know that in the course of this year we shall have the figures he seeks so zealously. I am sorry he seeks to run down projects that are helping British producers in every region of the country to supply the public sector. I am sorry he seeks to run down the English Farming and Food Partnership, which many people in the industry think has made an important contribution. I suggest that rather than bleating he should actually support some of those campaigns.

Carbon Emissions

2. What recent meetings he has had with representatives of UK commerce and industry to discuss the contribution of environmental management systems to reducing carbon emissions. (125904)

My ministerial colleagues and I have regular discussions with UK industry representatives about a wide range of environmental issues, including the role that environmental management systems can play in helping to reduce carbon emissions.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What conversations has he had with the construction industry and developers to promote a regulatory framework that in turn will promote geothermal and other energy-saving devices in the residential and commercial property sectors?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the potential for geothermal energy. If we are to move to zero carbon homes—as we must if we are to avoid dangerous climate change—we shall need a host of renewable technologies in our new housing stock. Geothermal energy, where appropriate, can work and provide a cost-effective solution. There are obviously other forms of renewable energy, such as ground source heat pumps, solar, voltaics, wind turbines and district heating systems, which also have a role to play. We are looking into how we can use regulation to encourage greater use of renewables through the planning system, as we think that is an important way forward.

I do not know how often the Minister goes shopping, but if he walked down the nation’s high streets he would notice that many shops leave their doors open to provide easy access for their customers, while keeping the heating at full blast to make customers comfortable inside the store. Does he agree that if we are to get the commercial sector to take climate change seriously, we urgently need a climate change Bill to provide a framework in which everyone has to make their contribution to dealing with the problem?

I certainly agree that we need a climate change Bill, which is why one was announced in the Queen’s Speech. The hon. Lady is probably aware that we are consulting on a proposal to introduce either a benchmarking system or an energy performance commitment, which would affect large energy-intensive users, including many supermarkets and other high street properties. This afternoon, I shall be visiting the Trade Association Forum, which covers 300 trade bodies and 500,000 companies that are signing a declaration on climate change, so I think our high streets are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint and want to do something about it.

When my hon. Friend talks to the private sector, will he take into account the fact that it has an enormous leadership role to play in meeting climate change? Does he agree that Government regulation and that sort of thing can go some way to putting ourselves in a position to meet the challenges, but that if we could harness and encourage some of the very innovative work going on in the private and the financial services sectors, we could do something serious about climate change?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the private sector has a vital role in avoiding dangerous climate change. Through the EU emissions trading scheme, some of our biggest companies are already actively involved in a cap and trade scheme. I have already mentioned the energy performance commitment and the proposal on benchmarking. There are other ways in which the UK Government can help support the private sector to avoid climate change. We have funded Envirowise, for example, which has helped business save about £1 billion through increasing resource efficiency and avoiding waste. We also fund the Carbon Trust, which works with companies that want to avoid climate change, and I think that business increasingly recognises that there is value and importance in reducing CO2.

Dairy Industry

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food, Lord Rooker, regularly discuss the dairy industry with industry representatives and other interested parties.

The Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State recently visited the NFU conference and he will know that farmers are determined to play a part in producing a sustainable food chain, particularly in dairy products. However, Farmers Guardian, Country Living and Waitrose are launching a campaign, “fair trade for British farmers” so that agriculture can regain profitability and deliver those public goods that are so highly prized. What role does the Minister believe his Department and the Government can play in the campaign?

We certainly welcome the initiative. He might have heard that Sainsbury’s has today announced an increased price for milk, and I believe that Tesco did so yesterday. Those are moves in the right direction, as we have always said that there should be a sustainable industry and a fair price. However, that is a matter to be determined between the industry and retailers—under the auspices, of course, of the competition rules and so on—and not a matter for the Government.

I was in agreement with what my hon. Friend said until the end of his answer, but he must surely realise that in a competitive market environment, supermarkets are going to force the price down, even though they are making gestures now. They have no responsibility to provide food for this country, whereas the Government do have responsibility to ensure a continuation of the supply of provisions. Surely we do have an interest and we must be a stakeholder at those talks.

We are regularly involved in talks, as I have already pointed out. My hon. Friend is wrong to imply that the supermarkets do not have an interest in maintaining a sustainable dairy sector. I think that they do, and they have recognised that in the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Lord Rooker and I have had with them. We are pretty much self-sufficient in raw milk, which shows that they do have an interest. I would not be churlish about the recent price increases. I also think it important to remember that there is a massive gap of about 12p a litre in the difference between some of the most and some of the least efficient milk producers. We want to ensure that some of the least efficient get up to the standards of the most efficient.

The Minister will understand that much of the future well-being of the dairy industry will depend on the resolution of problems connected with bovine TB and the EU dairy regime. May I raise with him the question I put to the Prime Minister yesterday? Will he have a word with the Secretary of State so that this House of Commons is given an opportunity to debate all these matters in a comprehensive discussion on agriculture, bearing in mind that we have not had such a debate since December 2002?

These are matters for those who organise the business of the House, not for us. The right hon. Gentleman can always apply for a debate in Westminster Hall, or his Front-Bench colleagues might like to hold such a debate on one of their Opposition days.

My hon. Friend is well aware that farm prices for farmers’ households have dropped to about £13,000. That figure has dropped by more than 60 per cent. in four years. That is a tragedy and it is not sustainable for dairy farmers to receive such low incomes. What will the Minister do to be an honest broker and to try to ensure that all supermarkets give a fair price to farmers, at the same time as ensuring better value for customers? Farm-gate prices are dropping, but at the same time prices are increasing for customers in the shops. We need to ensure that farming can survive and be sustainable.

I have already referred to some of the increases that have recently been announced. I do not think that my hon. Friend is right to say that farm incomes dropped again this year; I think that I am right in saying that average farm incomes increased this year, as they did last year. He is right about the dairy sector, which has been going through a particularly difficult time. As we are talking about farm incomes, it is worth pointing out that farm land prices rose again substantially last year and are now at record levels.

Last March, the Minister announced a consultation on the question of badger culling and dealing with the wildlife reservoir. In answer to a question in the House, he told me that the time for a decision was nigh. When will the decision be taken to do something about bovine TB, to relieve the plight of hundreds of farmers in my constituency?

I am aware of the problem faced by farmers in the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituency. I have met him and representatives of his local farming community and the area is not far from my constituency. We are well aware that TB is a difficult problem. However, we also want to be careful to ensure that any decision on badger culling is guided by the science. We do not want to initiate any sort of action that could be counter-productive. As he well knows, one of the things that all the science says is that a piecemeal, patchy culling regime for badgers could make matters worse. One of the other myths that a number of people still repeat and that it is worth exploding while we are on the subject is that it would be possible to have a cull of sick badgers. That is not possible. One cannot tell whether a live badger has TB. One can tell only through a blood test. Any badger cull would have to include healthy badgers, as well as sick badgers.

Going back to the dairy industry, may I urge the Minister to do more? Currently, an average of three dairy farmers a day leave the industry altogether. Dairy farmers obtain about 17 to 18½p per litre. In the big supermarkets, the price is 50p-plus. There is a huge gap there. Somebody is ripping somebody off. My Friend the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) mentioned fair trade. It is high time that the supermarkets traded fairly with the dairy farmers.

The Competition Commission is looking into that very issue, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. One of the problems that it highlighted when it published its interim findings a short time ago was that it had not had many complaints from farmers. It is important that farmers who share his concern, or their representatives in the farming unions—either at a UK-wide level or in Wales—provide examples to the Competition Commission, which has made it quite clear that it would accept anonymous examples so that people do not need to be worried about any penalty that they may suffer as a result of giving that evidence. I appeal to farmers to do that.

Why are dairy farmers in my Lincolnshire constituency finding it so desperately difficult to earn a living? They are not inefficient. If the fault does not lie with the supermarkets, where does it lie?

This is an extremely complex area, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates. As I indicated in my answer to a previous question, there is a huge variation in the costs for dairy farmers. I am afraid to have to tell him that, according to the information that I have, many dairy farmers do not even know their own costs of production. That is a problem. Yes, there is a role for Government and for the supermarkets, but there is also a role for the industry, and particularly for farmers whose production costs are much higher than those of a number of others, who manage to operate profitably because their costs are much less.

Climate Change

5. What progress he is making in involving (a) G8, (b) EU and (c) developing countries in talks on tackling climate change. (125909)

We are working closely with the German presidency of both the EU and the G8—the group of eight leading industrialised countries—to keep climate change high on the international agenda in the run-up to the next UN conference of the parties to the 1992 convention, which will be held in Indonesia this December. We regularly discuss the issues with developing countries, including India and China, to strengthen bilateral co-operation and help to frame future action.

Has the Secretary of State considered whether a policy of isolation and alienation from our European partners would be a good way to build global consensus on matters such as climate change? Does he think that a Tory-style dose of little Englandism is the way to build the consensus that will enable developing countries to break the link between economic growth and pollution growth, as this country has done, under Labour, for the first time since the industrial revolution?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have considered whether we are more likely to achieve change in the European Union by making an alliance with France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain, and we decided that on balance it is far better to have an alliance with those countries. We have great respect for the Czech Republic and our bilateral relations with it, but I have to tell hon. Members that an Anglo-Czech alliance on its own would more resemble the Brothers Grimm than an effective coalition for change.

As the Secretary of State will remember, on Tuesday he attended the Press Gallery writing competition and met one of my constituents, Andrew Mason, the Scottish regional finalist, whose work encapsulates the challenges and difficulties that China and India pose to the issue of climate change. Does my right hon. Friend think that the climate change Bill will be a tool that we can use not only domestically, but internationally, to work with developed and developing nations?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because when my colleagues and I meet our Indian and Chinese counterparts, the first question they ask is whether, as we are asking them to make changes, they can be sure that we will make changes to the way in which we live and work. They can see that over the past 10 years our economy has grown by 28 per cent., while our greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 8 per cent. They can see that that is possible, but they want to know whether we will go further. It should be a huge encouragement to Members right across the House to know that we will introduce a climate change Bill, with, I hope, cross-party support, that will make this country the first in the world to set itself on a clear path to becoming a low-carbon economy by 2050. That is an important point, which, as it happens, was raised by my hon. Friend and his constituent when we met on Tuesday, and I applaud him for the work that he is doing.

Will the Secretary of State tell us precisely when the Bill will be introduced? We know that there will be pre-legislative scrutiny, which I welcome, but when will we see the Bill?

I know that the voice of the House was loud and clear yesterday, but we will not wait for the conclusion of House of Lords reform before publishing the climate change Bill. It will be published on Tuesday for pre-legislative scrutiny, which we planned to provide from the beginning. I applaud Conservative Front Benchers for recognising the maturity of an approach that considers pre-legislative scrutiny to be an essential part of building a national consensus on the issue. I hope that there will be real engagement with the Bill, not just in the House but in businesses and schools across the country. Accompanying the Bill, there will be a series of documents, which will be available for all Members of the House to use, with their constituents, to explain the issue, the choices that we face, and the way in which we can all make a difference, whether in government, in business, or as citizens, in helping to tackle the global problem of climate change.

Given the record levels of imports from China, does the Secretary of State agree that perhaps the best way to help stop climate change is to buy British? That would not only reduce the food miles and manufacturing miles that result from products coming in from China on ships and aircraft, but would be good for Britain and its manufacturing industry.

I am always happy to encourage people to buy British, but if underlying the hon. Gentleman’s question is the suggestion that if all global trade ceased, the environment would be better off, I will have to differ with him. It is possible to combine development with respect for the environment. The old choice was between development and the environment; the new choice is between whether development is high carbon or low carbon. It is essential that we take the right measures to reduce carbon emissions in our country and in the industrialised world, but we must also fulfil our responsibilities to ensure that developing countries—not just China and India but developing countries in Africa—can make that low-carbon choice. The hon. Gentleman suggests that switching off our lights is a good thing; so is changing to a renewable energy supplier, because if our electricity comes from wind we can have as many lights on as we like without fear of doing damage to the environment.

The Secretary of State has mentioned talks that he has had with other countries about the important issue of climate change, but has he had any words with other Government Departments, because ways to reduce energy include the use of smart metering and LED lighting? Should not such measures be brought into building regulations, particularly for new commercial and residential properties?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The era when the electricity meter was under the stairs and was looked at only once a quarter or once a month was an era that did not care about energy efficiency. The era when the smart meter or the real-time display is next to people’s light switch in the corner of the room and allows us to see not only how much energy we are using but the cost that we are incurring and the saving that we make through energy efficiency is the era of the future. Such matters will be at the heart of the energy White Paper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will publish in the next few months.

The international dimension in tackling climate change is crucial. I have heard the Secretary of State tell us that it is crucial to have moral authority and standing in what we are doing at home. In the light of that, what does he make of yesterday’s Sustainable Development Commission report showing that his own Department increased carbon emissions by 10.2 per cent. between 1999-2000 and 2005-06, which according to my calculations is more than three times as much as the country as a whole? Does he not believe that it is time for his Department to start practising what it preaches?

First, let me say that I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not use this occasion to apologise to the House for his absurd denunciation of the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny in his press release of a couple of weeks ago. For someone who bleats on about respect for Parliament to then denounce pre-legislative scrutiny is an example of precisely the double standards that one expects from the Liberal party.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman’ perfectly legitimate question, the obvious answer to the Sustainable Development Commission is that the Government must do better, and that is what we are determined to do.

Will my right hon. Friend add the Commonwealth to the list of international organisations that he has talks with on climate change? He might be aware that of all African Commonwealth countries, only South Africa has benefited under Kyoto with about six projects being approved under the clean development mechanism. None of the other poor Commonwealth countries in Africa has benefited at all. If we are to address the issue of equity as defined in the United Nations framework convention on climate change, surely my right hon. Friend will support initiatives to develop talks on climate change in the Commonwealth.

I am delighted to be able to say to my hon. Friend that I have agreed to speak at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting on climate change in London in November precisely to pick up the point that he makes. He will know from his work with GLOBE—the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment—that it is important not only to have Government to Government contacts and business to business contacts, but that parliamentarians around the world have a crucial role to play on this issue. His reference to the Commonwealth is well placed, and when one is thinking about how the Commonwealth can make itself increasingly relevant in the 21st century, this is a key issue.

I know that I am referring to comments of a couple of weeks ago, but may I congratulate the Secretary of State on his remarkably astute remarks about the likely unpopularity of the Chancellor once he becomes Prime Minister? May I also say that the Secretary of State is right to be cagey about taking on that job himself, not least on the basis of the hash he is making of his current responsibilities at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

To have any credibility on climate change with the G8, the European Union or the developing world, it is vital that we lead by example. Setting aside the target for CO2 cuts under the Kyoto treaty, which we are likely to meet because of actions taken under the previous Conservative Government, can the Secretary of State name a single climate change-related target set by this Government in the last 10 years that we are going to meet?

As the representative of the party that opposed the climate change levy and its associated agreements, which have taken 28 million tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere, it might be fitting if the hon. Gentleman showed a bit of modesty.

The Secretary of State is keen to talk about one-planet living, but given that answer, people will start asking what planet he is living on. The international community can look, as we can, at the Government’s record on meeting their own targets: CO2 emissions—failed; switch to green taxation—failed; energy efficiency targets—failed; renewable energy targets—failed. This week we hear from the Sustainable Development Commission that his own Department has increased energy consumption and waste, and that a drastic change in approach is needed. What right has he, his Department or the Government to lecture anyone internationally or in the United Kingdom about climate change?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has been taking lessons in opposition from his colleague on the Liberal Front Bench, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). He knows a lot about the topic and he could make a constructive contribution. As we are the only country in the world that is on track to more than double its Kyoto commitments, as this country has been leading the way on the economics of climate change through the Stern review, and as Al Gore, who most people would accept is an authentic figure in the campaign against climate change, says that this country should be proud of the leadership that it has offered over the past 10 years both domestically and internationally, the hon. Gentleman would be far better off thinking how he will fill the void in his own policies before he starts denouncing ours.

My right hon. Friend is aware that the UK takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council in April this year. He will agree, I am sure, that global warming is a matter of international security. Will he therefore repeat the leadership role that we played when we held the presidency of the EU and G8 in 2005, and ensure that climate change becomes an agenda item for the UN Security Council for the first time in its history, which will demonstrate the urgency that the issue deserves?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The Foreign Secretary and I had dinner with the new Secretary-General of the UN in December, before he took up his post. It was extremely encouraging to hear the new UN Secretary-General pick up the mantle from Kofi Annan. One of the last things that Kofi Annan said as Secretary-General of the UN was that one of his biggest regrets was that in his 10 years in office, he had not put the main UN machinery at the heart of the battle against climate change. The suggestion that my hon. Friend makes is important. It is only through the UN and United Nations framework convention that we can have legally binding treaty obligations. All the work that is being done through the European Union, the Group of Eight and the Gleneagles dialogue is vital preparatory work, but in the end it must be in the UN forum that we make progress. My hon. Friend’s call is an important one.

Warm Home Zone Scheme

Warm zones is an initiative designed to reduce fuel poverty and promote energy efficiency on a local area basis. Warm zone schemes are a private enterprise managed by Warm Zones Ltd. Contractors are appointed by the warm zones in accordance with relevant procurement processes.

It is important that we tackle climate change though energy efficiency measures at home. I welcome the two schemes operating in Stoke-on-Trent, the warm zone front and the warm homes scheme. It is now possible for people to get grants of up to £2,700 for central heating through the Warm Front scheme, but because there are contractors outside the area, some people are having difficulty finding the extra matching cost. As part of the work that is being done in the warm zone in Stoke-on-Trent, will he consider how we can get more local contractors, in the light of the sustainable procurement policy introduced by the Government this week?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to tackling climate change through local area-based initiatives such as warm zones. We need more warm zones or even low or zero carbon zones for the future. Putting together the Government’s Warm Front programme with the energy efficiency commitment on a local basis, we can make real improvements on a house-to-house basis. On the level of financial assistance provided, the current maximum is £2,700, as my hon. Friend mentioned, or £4,000 where it is necessary to fit an oil-fired central heating system. We are reviewing the grant maximum because one in seven or one in eight people who require central heating systems are being asked to make a financial contribution. In many cases that can be found from elsewhere, but it is right that we consider carefully whether we need to raise the grant maximum, because we are dealing with vulnerable households that would find it difficult to pay the extra amount.

In support of the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley), the grant maxima is adequate in many cases. The problem is that approved contractors have charged £1,000 more than local contractors in some cases in Warwickshire. If the scheme were extended to those local contractors, the grant would not only go further for the individual client, but the scheme as a whole would help more people.

I assure the House that the process of selecting contractors for the Warm Front programme is open and transparent. The process is competitive, and it is the basis on which contractors are appointed. The programme is being independently evaluated by a firm of accountants called White Young Green, which I have met. I have also looked at the vendor-rating system, which is operated by the Eaga partnership, and the process of selecting contractors. I know that people have compared Warm Front installers with other contractors in the local area. Such comparisons are not always fair, because the Warm Front process includes the programme costs and the additional benefit of an annual service check, so some of the criticisms do not compare like with like. However, I am open to any evidence that hon. Members want to submit about pricing, and we are currently reviewing the issue.

Will my hon. Friend examine the competence of some of the contractors employed within those schemes throughout the country? I have been alarmed by recent reports of pure incompetence by some contractors employed on those schemes, which may be symptomatic of a fall in standards across the gas-fitting industry. For example, when an elderly lady had her boiler repaired by a contractor through the Warm Front scheme, the contractor made a basic mistake and left the flame at such a poor level that the boiler simply emitted carbon monoxide whenever it was operating. That is an example of the poor standards among some of the contractors employed by the Warm Front scheme, and I urge my hon. Friend to look into the matter.

Nobody should accept poor standards, and this Government do not. However, let me set that in the context of the Warm Front programme. From 2000 to 2008, the Government will have spent some £1.6 billion on the Warm Front programme. Some 230,000 jobs a year are undertaken through the Warm Front programme, so it is not surprising that performance is not satisfactory in some cases. However, less than 1 per cent. of jobs result in a complaint to the Warm Front programme, and 96 per cent. of those complaints are resolved satisfactorily. As I have said, the installers are rated by a vendor-rating system, and poor performance leads to reduced work or no work in the future. I am happy to examine specific cases, and if my hon. Friend wants to contact me, I will be happy to talk to him.

Despite the excellent work of warm home zones and the Warm Front scheme, why after 10 long years is energy efficiency per se still not being deployed with sufficient ambition and scale to drive down carbon emissions? One third of new homes fail to meet the Government’s unambitious existing targets, yet no one is ever prosecuted. A new British home uses 65 per cent. more energy than a Swedish one, and the Environmental Audit Committee reckons that housing emissions are set to double by 2050. What hope is there of a real step change in energy efficiency, when the great clunking fist, which has been such a brake on progress for a decade, is now a shoo-in for Prime Minister?

It is simply not true to say that we have not made progress in making our homes more energy efficient. We have consistently ratcheted up building standards, so that the new homes that are being built nowadays are far more energy efficient than those that were built just a few years ago. As for our existing housing stock, the Warm Front programme and the energy efficiency commitment—EEC—are making significant progress in terms of helping to improve the thermal efficiency of our existing houses. The EEC has been increased from EEC1 to EEC2. We are currently discussing how we move further with the EEC3 programme for 2008 to 2011, and I expect it to be double that of EEC2. That shows the great strides that we have made, and our ambition as a Government to make our homes far more energy efficient for the future.

Drought Orders

8. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent rainfall on the need for new drought orders in summer 2007. (125913)

The UK has had six months of above average rainfall. The outlook for water supply is much improved and the likelihood of drought orders this summer is therefore low. However, we will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Coming from the infamously rainy Greater Manchester, we often wonder about the need for drought orders at all.

One of the main factors in these problems is that of water leaks. What pressure is my hon. Friend’s Department putting on the water companies to ensure that they tackle that issue by reaching their water leakage targets and improving the infrastructure so that in future years we do not have the same problems?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the issue of leakage, which is the system’s Achilles heel. Most water companies are meeting the leakage targets that have been set by Ofwat; some, however, are not, and that is simply unacceptable. We expect Ofwat, as the regulator, to take a robust approach with companies that successively fail to meet their leakage targets. I have also asked it to undertake a review of the system of setting leakage targets, which does not command the confidence or understanding of the general public. In future, issues of sustainable water use must be clearly built into that system. I expect Ofwat to report later this year about sustainable leakage levels.

I am even further north than the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), and we are more interested in building arks than in introducing drought orders.

The Minister will know that there has been a significant increase in population in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. Has he made any assessment of the extra pressure that that has put on demand for water?

I am also the Minister for floods, so I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

On new housing, I assure the hon. Gentleman that new housing development is taken into account by water companies as part of their planning process. Water companies produce 25-year water resource management plans. That process is being put on a statutory basis from the beginning of next month. The public will have an opportunity to comment on those plans, which will be available and transparent, as well as on new housing development. We must ensure not only that we move to zero-carbon homes within 10 years but that we have homes that are far more water efficient. That is one of the key Government objectives for the future.

Yet again, we have had a series of questions and answers on climate change dealing with only half the equation. We have talked about the causes of climate change but said almost nothing, until this question, about addressing its effects, such as wetter winters and drier summers. I salute my hon. Friend’s comments about water leakage and sustainable water supplies. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that more reservoirs are built in southern England to deal with the droughts that have already started and will get considerably worse as the effects of climate change, inevitable as they are, bite upon us?

My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of adaptation to climate change. Even if we succeed in our objective of avoiding dangerous climate change through gaining international agreement, a certain amount of it is already built into the system and needs to be taken into account for planning purposes. The 25-year water resources plans are designed to encourage water companies to take a long-term view and examine the balance of water supply and demand. We expect them to introduce proposals for new reservoirs when that is appropriate, but we also expect them to take action on leakage and consider other demand reduction options as well as to increase supply. Water companies’ current plans include constructing several reservoirs in the future. Those plans will be subject to consultation, and the Government will take a view on them.

Common Agricultural Policy Schemes

9. What discussions he has had with the European Commission on the disallowance of funds from common agricultural policy schemes. (125914)

During my regular meetings with the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, I have discussed the administration of the single payment scheme in England on several occasions. Should the Commission auditors make any proposals for financial corrections, the Government will continue to defend the UK’s interests vigorously.

The Secretary of State knows that we pay nearly £2 into the EU budget for every £1 we get back. Why should the general taxpayer face an estimated fine of more than £300 million—the figure comes from the Government—to pay for the Department’s inefficiencies in administering the single farm payments? Would not it be much better for the taxpayer, farmers and rural areas if incompetence on such a scale were met with ministerial resignations rather than foreign fines?

First, the Government and the preceding Government believed that it was important to ensure that proper accounting was put in place to administer the common agricultural policy. That has benefited this country enormously.

Secondly, we have rightly made provision in the figures that were published in the spring estimates, but that should not be taken as a sign that we are ready for that level of fine. As I said at the National Farmers Union conference last week, we shall vigorously fight proposals to fine the UK and we will try to minimise any fines. That should command consensus in the House.

In any discussions with the Commission, will the Secretary of State talk about not only penalties but the continued need to transfer payments to provide environmental benefits and create new jobs, new opportunities and new futures for rural communities?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The direction of change in the common agricultural policy is patent, moving away from direct payments so that they are no longer coupled with production. That British agenda is increasingly becoming a European agenda.

It is right that some of the money is transferred into the second element of the common agricultural policy to support rural development. To make that work, it is vital to remove the blockages that the European Parliament has created and which are absurdly supported by the Opposition. Farmers throughout the country are waiting for their rural payments. It is about time they got them. The Government are doing everything possible to remove the blockage, but Conservative Front Benchers are failing to support us.

That was an incredible statement. I have two constituents who are still waiting for payment on 2005. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on that monstrous incompetence, set an absolute deadline by which 2005 payments will be settled and tell us when 2006 payments will be settled?

I totally understand and share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration but I wish that he had followed the changes that have been made and the progress that the Rural Payments Agency has achieved in the past nine to 10 months under the new leadership of Mr. Tony Cooper.

The hon. Gentleman will know from my written statement on 22 February that 200 to 300 cases remain from 2005. Some of them—I do not say that it applies to those that he mentioned—remain because of probate issues. Those cases from 2005 are, of course, a priority.

On the 2006 payments, anyone who has not received a full payment for a claim of more than €1,000 is receiving a partial payment, as promised, of more or less 50 per cent. That has gone smoothly. The hon. Gentleman will also know from my statement on 22 February that we are trying to improve on that performance significantly. We are not in the least complacent.

I have referred twice to my statement on 22 February. For the most difficult cases, there has always been a system to give them priority in subsequent years, but to work through the details. If the hon. Gentleman has two specific cases that he says are not being tackled properly, I will look into them. I do not know whether he has contacted my office yet but he is more than capable of doing that. I shall ensure that the cases are examined. However, he knows from my statements that any outstanding claim is tackled on a one-to-one basis by a representative of the Rural Payments Agency.

Although we have confidence in the Secretary of State’s good intentions, the problem is that while he talks about progress achieved and things having gone smoothly for 2006, even my humble cheque for £73.10 is wrong—it has been made out to my address. The Rural Payments Agency must have known that I would raise that issue. If it cannot get my cheque right, what hope is there for the rest of England’s farmers? Will the Secretary of State put the matter right?

There we have the face of the modern Tory party: seeking favours for the Tory Front Bench. That is something that we will never do.

Environmental Taxation

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the level of environmental taxation. (125916)

My ministerial colleagues and I have discussed environmental taxation, and a range of other subjects, in various meetings with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Treasury colleagues.

The Treasury’s statement of intent on environmental taxation of 2 July said that it would

“shift the burden of tax from ‘goods’ to ‘bads’”.

According to the Office for National Statistics, however, environmental tax as a share of GDP has fallen under the Chancellor’s stewardship from 3.4 per cent. to 2.9 per cent. Does the Minister agree that Brown is not green?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that. I accept that there is a case for doing more on fiscal measures, but one should remember what the Government have done already, such as the climate change levy, the reform of vehicle excise duty to encourage the take-up of low-polluting cars, the introduction of air passenger duty, differentials in fuel duties and the landfill tax. We are a green Government, but one cannot measure environmental performance solely by the amount of money raised in green taxes. We are trying to change behaviour. We would therefore like to see less money coming from green taxes because we have changed behaviour.

In recognising that climate change is probably the major challenge faced by this generation, may I ask my hon. Friend whether there is consensus about environmental taxation on both sides of the House?

The difference between the Government and the Opposition on environmental taxation is that we have a clear and coherent policy framework. In relation to taxation, regulation, carbon trading and other policy instruments, we have a programme designed to ensure that we avoid dangerous climate change and that we show international leadership. As my hon. Friend knows, the climate change Bill will be an important part of that framework. I am delighted that we will get—I hope—cross-party support for the climate change Bill, which will be published, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, on Tuesday.

The Minister will be aware that Nordic countries raise a greater proportion of their taxation from green taxes than we do. From his answer, however, he is obviously not aware that those countries have managed to change behaviour through fiscal measures and increase revenue from green taxation at the same time. Will he try to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if more revenue were to be raised in that way in this country, it would be not a tax grab but offset by reductions in other taxes? That will help to ensure public support for green taxation and defend us against the opponents of green taxation on the Conservative Benches.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that environmental taxation can help to change behaviour, and it is doing exactly that in the United Kingdom. He is also right to identify the need to offset environmental taxation and to spend the revenue raised from it on environmental goods, and we are doing just that.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the climate change levy directly offsets taxation of goods with taxation of bads, recycling it through reduced national insurance contributions and enhanced capital allowances. That is a clear example of our use of environmental taxation in a neutral way to encourage and improve business performance.

Environmental taxation is obviously an important instrument, but, faced with these taxes, how can we ensure that it is not just poor people and ordinary working people who modify their behaviour while very rich people carry on polluting the planet regardless?

My hon. Friend is right to observe that there is a social justice argument when it comes to tackling climate change. It is important for us all to do our bit. Businesses must take action to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions—and a great deal of work is being done in that regard—while individuals at all income levels must take action to reduce their carbon footprints.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is a relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and household income, and it is true that some of the wealthiest households are responsible for the highest emissions. They too must take action, as must we all if we are to have energy-efficient homes that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and help the climate.